“An Even More Glorious Future”
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, July 2, 2023
Reading: Haggai 2:1-9
So, have you heard of the prophet Haggai? Of course, you have! (maybe?) Poor, overlooked, underestimated Haggai is known as a “minor prophet” of the Old Testament. I was even going to tell you that one of my very favourite verses in the Bible is from Haggai, Chapter 3 but then I remembered that, no, it’s Habakkuk; Haggai’s book is only two chapters long – so he’s even less important that Habakkuk, and you haven’t heard of him either – so don’t feel bad if you know nothing about the prophet Haggai or his book!
It was written during that time in biblical history known as the post-exilic period, and don’t worry, I’m going to give you the Coles notes refresher on what I mean by the “post-exilic period” for those who haven’t studied the history of Israel: in the 6th century BC, long after the death of King David, and after his son Solomon built the first temple, their descendants had turned their backs on God. They still honoured God with their lips, but not with their hearts or their lives; so, God allowed David’s descendants to get a real taste of what life without God would be like. They were overtaken by the army of Nebuchadnezzar, the city of Jerusalem was destroyed along with the temple, and the people were taken to live in captivity in Babylon.
In this morning’s scripture reading, Haggai asks the people who had returned to Jerusalem after this time of exile was over, “Is there anyone here who saw the temple the way it used to be, all glorious? And what do you see now?” The truth is, many of the people he was speaking to hadn’t seen the glory of the former temple; they had only heard their parents and grandparents talk about it. Many of the deported Jews died over the course of the 70 years the people were held in Babylon, and it was their children and grandchildren who were little by little allowed to return to Jerusalem and start rebuilding the city.
And now, in the time that Haggai lived, a newly returned group of Jews back in the holy land had begun the momentous task of rebuilding the temple. They started out to rebuild it according to exact specifications, and they began their work with great enthusiasm. But sixteen years had gone by and they still had not finished it; for as you can read throughout the books of the prophets, the people had come to allow their personal issues to distract them from God’s calling. Over time, they were so busy building houses for themselves they had neglected the house of God.
Because of this, the prophet Haggai preached a fiery series of sermons – unlike anything you’ve ever heard from this pulpit! – designed to stir up the nation to finish their work on the temple; and this morning’s passage is part of that. Haggai’s sermons exhort them to renewed holiness in life, and renewed faith in God, and a renewed commitment to complete the task that God had given to them.
It’s interesting to read the two-chapter book of Haggai; and at the same time, one only needs to flip through the pages of any Christian magazine, do a quick Google search on “the state of the church in Canada” or look across our country at the many nearly-empty mainline Protestant churches to see the parallels between this passage from Haggai and what’s happening within Christianity in Canada. One of the realities of life in the church now is that – unlike the Jews that Haggai was speaking to – many sitting in United Church pews today DO remember the glory days of our temples, when all a church had to do was open the doors on Sunday morning or evening, and it was quickly filled. The Sunday Schools were overflowing, and the choir stalls too! Nobody was talking about church development or growth strategies; and talking about evangelism was uncouth because it was tantamount to stealing someone away from another church!
Some of you probably remember times like that, in this church or another church you grew up in. And, as Haggai asked, “What do you see now?” In many United Churches, what you will often see is discouragement, because so many people do remember those glory days and it’s painfully obvious that the Christian church doesn’t hold the same position of influence that it once did in Canadian society, and we’re faced with the reality that – for better or for worse – it probably never will again, at least not in our lifetime.
So, what does that mean? Does it mean that we throw in the towel? Does it mean we sit back and resign ourselves to “come what may”? Or let somebody else do it because it all feels too hopeless? Or…does it mean that we open our eyes and look around to see what new things God might be calling us to? Because God is always up to something, and He’s always up to something good! He’s up to something good right now in this congregation, just as He was up to something good when He first called together the people in the growing neighbourhood of Forest Hill in 1910.
It’s easy to get discouraged. Oh, I know, probably better than most of you! It can be tempting to give up hope of the church ever being as vibrant and faithful as it once was; and it’s easy to lose the enthusiasm we may have once had for the church, especially when we see how little enthusiasm others outside the church may feel about it. It’s true, the church will never be just like it used to be… but it can be vibrant again in new and exciting ways.
If you go into many United Churches across the country that were around at the time of the 1925 union (as this one was) – churches that were formerly Methodist or Presbyterian Churches, some since the 19th century – you’ll almost always see lots of really old pictures on the walls, like pictures of the church building from many years ago, when the trees were still small. Or sometimes the pictures have been collected together into a history book.
In some churches, you’ll see pictures of the Sunday School classes from 1925 to 1932; the choirs and organists from 1917 through to the 50s; old pictures of former ministers, sometimes dating back as far as the 1850s. And you get a sense of the rich history, of the legacy of faith that has been handed down from one generation to another; and there is a palpable sense that what they had in that church was a treasure that had been entrusted to them in their time; and there is a strong sense of the responsibility they had to keep building that legacy and to hand it on to our generation.
Our challenge to pass this church down to the next generation may be greater now than it was for any previous generation, because the cultural shift that has happened from one generation to the next over the past 40-50 years is unprecedented in all of Christian history. Not only that, but because of increased mobility many young people move away for work or school, and so – unlike the past 2000 years – the “next generation” of believers in this church will not likely be your own children or grandchildren!
Because of that challenge, there is a danger. The danger is in losing sight of God’s commission, of losing sight of WHY God built a church in this place. The danger is in losing that sense of having been entrusted with a treasure, with a legacy that is to be passed on to people who may respond to the gospel if they hear it in a way that resonates for them, and then they’ll pass it on to the next generation too.
If we were to continue reading through the book of Haggai, we would learn that his stern call to duty proved to be just what the people of Judah needed to motivate them to finish what they had started. Because even though they couldn’t see the future, they trusted that God could, and God was in the process of using them to create something even more spectacular than what had gone before, even more spectacular than anything they could imagine!
In response to the prophet’s challenge, the people got busy and set to work restoring the temple. They just kept putting one stone on top of the other. But here is the most important part to remember: in verses 4-5, the Lord says, “Get to work you that I appointed; get to work all you people! For I Am With You!” If their hearts were not totally set on God then it wouldn’t matter what they did; but if they were busy doing the task that God had given them, then He would surely bless their work.
He says, “I will fill this temple with splendour... The glory of the latter temple will be greater than the former; a glorious past but an even more glorious future!”
It must have been so hard for them to imagine how the temple just half-standing like a pile of rocks before them – battle scars still visible – could ever return to the glory of its past. But God doesn’t say that it will be just like it was before. He says it will be different. It will be even more glorious. His call for them to get to work is a call for them to commit themselves to continue working with faith and hope that God will bless their efforts like only God can. If everything is His...all the gold, all the silver and He has given it to them, then will He not use their efforts to demonstrate His glory?
What would it mean to you if God were speaking to us this morning, saying, “I’ve given you the job of being a Christian presence in this community!” It may not look like it did in the 50s; it may not look like it did in the 90s, but it will be glorious, even if it’s different! Are you willing to take risks for Christ, who sacrificed everything for us? Are you willing to commit yourself, so that the next generation of Christians in Toronto can come and worship God in this place? Do you believe that God can do this? Thanks be to God.