Text: Haggai 1:15b-2:9
Do you ever long for the “good old days?” I do. I don’t know what your good old days look like but I think of mine often. My seminary days—those were the good old days. I couldn’t wait to get up each morning and go to class. Professors like Bob Poerschke, Elizabeth Barnes, Alan Neely, Dick Hester and Sam Ballentine opened my mind to new and exciting ideas about God and the Bible. I was learning things that seemed to transform my life moment by moment. Every day was like standing on the mountaintop watching the most beautiful sunrise ever. I would walk across campus and creation’s colors were so vivid and alive. Until then, I had never noticed how green the trees and grass were. How blue the sky was. How vast and exquisite the universe is. Those were the days when my mind and eyes and heart were opened to a new and different world. Some days now, I long for those good old days—to feel that alive and that present in the moment.
But those are not the only good old days I often think about. There were others. Like those days when, after hitting a softball, I could run the bases without gasping for air. Or that period in my life when I could remember everything without having to write it down or have a buzzer go off to remind me. Some days now, I long for those “good old days” when life seemed less complicated, when it felt like there were answers to the hard questions—and I actually felt like I knew some of the answers, when my worries were different. Yes, those good old days—my first church, my third church, Pullen in 1992. It is so easy to look back and long for what was.
The prophet Haggai knew well a people who longed for the good old days. It was to such people that God sent him to deliver a word. “Little is known about the man for whom the book of Haggai is named. No family name or other information is provided [in the book of Haggai] or in the only other place where Haggai is mentioned, Ezra 5:1; 6:14.” (W. Eugene March, The New Interpreter’s Bible) Some scholars have suggested that he was about 70 years old. And others have surmised that he was probably a Judean farmer who never left Palestine. Whoever he was, however old he was, and wherever he was from one thing is clear—he was remembered as a prophet with authority. Five times he is called “the prophet.” And it appears that, after returning from exile, his prophetic calling was to summon the “remnant of the people” to restore the temple.
Haggai’s task was not easy, for the people had become lethargic. “The early post-exilic community was poor and struggling. They had worked hard during the nearly twenty years since the exiles had been allowed to return to rebuild Jerusalem. While many had at least adequate housing, the drought of 520 BCE had made life all the more difficult.” (W. Eugene March, The New Interpreter’s Bible) Listen to how one scholar, Eugene March, describes the socioeconomic context in which Haggai is speaking. He writes, “…the economy was not particularly productive. Jerusalem, the major market and trading center of the region, was still recovering from the devastation of 587 BCE. Limited labor resources and relatively poor land combined to produce minimal economic return. Agricultural specialization in wine and olives became necessary in order to survive, but the end result of the specialization was the entrenchment of the more wealthy over against the poor.”
I wanted you to hear that quote because as I was studying this passage and read that description of Haggai’s context, that line “the entrenchment of the more wealthy over against the poor” sounded all too familiar; as did the words “was still recovering from the devastation of 587 BCE” or 2008. It made me realize that this two-chapter book of the Bible for whom most of us have to go to the table of contents to even find may have a relevant word for us today. Maybe, this little known prophet Haggai is still speaking.
Here’s the summary of what going on. The remnant of people who have returned from exile have spent the last twenty years or so trying to rebuild their lives. As I have already pointed out, it has not been an easy go. There’s been a severe drought. Economic growth is slow. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening. Having, at some point, begun the restoration of the temple they had become so disillusioned that they have stopped working on it. The older folks, perhaps well-meaning, kept comparing the memory of a glorious past with their experience of a mediocre-to-poor present. The good old days seemed so much better—so much better that there is deep resistance to living in the present. And so God sends Haggai to the people.
The role of a prophet is often to remind the people of their past and then to challenge them to the present moment for the sake of their future. And that is exactly what Haggai did. He didn’t sugar coat things. As a matter of fact he acknowledges that the restoration of the temple will not be as glorious as the former. And yet, he says to the people, take courage. God is with you. God’s promise to be present with you is steadfast. He speaks for God, “My spirit abides among you; do not fear.” How amazing is that? In the midst of struggle and disillusionment; of being tired and beaten down this word is spoken, “Take courage. God is with you. God’s spirit abides among you. You don’t have to be afraid.” What if we could hear that and believe it? How would our lives be different? What would it mean for us, the church today, as we rebuild? There is no question that the glorious temple of those good old days no longer exists. The church as we know it today is in a period of restoration and rebuilding. The glorious days, if there ever were such, are gone. Our world has changed. We have changed. Our time is one of rebuilding. And what an amazing opportunity we are being given—to create, to expand, to grow, to inspire, to live and be alive. Yes, Haggai is still speaking today.
And here is what I think the prophet is saying. The rebuilt temple will not look the same as the one you remember. You cannot live in the past. No matter how much you long for the good old days, they are immaterial. Even if they were as good as you remember, today is a different day. It wouldn’t be the same now even if you could make it so. Too much life has passed. You know more and in knowing more you realize just how little you do know. Haggai said then and is saying now, you have to build with what you have because your time is now. Not in some past nostalgia or in some made up future. The time is now for you to rebuild with the resources you have, with the questions you have, within the context in which you are living. Think beyond the walls. Step outside of where you feel comfortable. Be open to imagining something new and different. Take courage. God is with you and among you. Do not fear. Take a risk, for your time is NOW.
Timothy Simpson, editor emeritus of Political Theology writes this, “What Haggai told his people 2,500 year ago still bears repeating for us. It was never about our physical plant. It was never about our per capita giving. It was never about the number of people on the rolls. It was never about the size of the denomination. It was never about the influence of our religion on the culture… It was always about the presence of God in our midst…our strivings are producing little but anxiety…the harder we work, the less things seem to improve. The truth is that none of the conventional methods and means in which we have so long invested can help us.” If we are to be God’s people in the world bringing about peace and justice, it will be because of God’s presence with us and among us, NOW. If we are to be safe and secure, it will be because of God’s presence with us and among us, NOW. If we are to have a future, it will be because of God’s presence in us and with us and among us, NOW.
That is Haggai’s prophetic word—the time is now and God is with you. More than I long for the good old days, I long to be present to God in this time in which I am living. I long for us, Pullen Church, to be present to who we are being called to be today, now—and not simply to be Pullen past. Our connection to the past is for us to remember that the generations before us lived in their moment in time; and now we must do the same. The task of each generation is to take courage in their moment of time; to believe that God abides among them; and that there is, indeed, no need to fear. There are no good old days. There is only today, the present, the now.
Listen to the voice of the prophets. “Learn from the past, set vivid , detailed goals for the future, and live in the only moment of time over which you have any control: now.” (Denis Waitley) And God will dwell in you and among us.