Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Building the Church

Building the Church
Haggai 1:15-2:9[1]
  There are a lot of people wringing their hands about the church these days.  They are mostly concerned about the lack of participation on the part of younger generations in traditional churches.  So commentators of all stripes are weighing in about why younger people aren’t going to church and what we can do to reverse that trend.[2] While many are wringing their hands about the future of the church, I think there are just as many people actually in churches who are worried about the past.  Remembering “the good old days,” they are desperate to find the solution that will make it possible for us to re-create those days, when the pews were mostly filled instead of mostly empty.  Unfortunately, those days are gone for good.
  I imagine that our situation isn’t all that different from the way it was in the days of the prophet Haggai.  He was one of the exiles who returned to Judea from Babylonian captivity.  And when they returned, they found that Jerusalem, their cities and towns, and especially the Temple, were all in ruins.  There were those who looked at the ruins of their culture and their temple and who worried about the future: how would they survive?  And there were those who looked at those same ruins and grieved over past greatness that had been lost.  But for all their worrying and all their grieving, I’m not sure they knew what to do about it.  Ezra had restored the worship of God and the study of the Torah, God’s word.  Nehemiah had led the people to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem to protect them from their enemies.  But the temple itself lay in ruins. 
  And so the word of the Lord came to Haggai.  He rather pointedly reminded them that their efforts to restore their lives and to provide for their future had been in vain.  Apparently they struggled with crop failures, food shortages, inflation, and famine--not to mention the lingering threat of their enemies who would like nothing better than to see their restoration project fail.  And the word of the Lord came to them: “You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the Lord of hosts. Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses” (Hag. 1:9).[3]  Apparently, everyone was devoting their efforts to ensuring and securing their own fortunes--rebuilding houses, planting crops, trying to maintain their feeble hold on the land of their ancestors.  And apparently, their efforts met with more failure than success.  Haggai basically asks them this: “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” (Hag. 1:4).[4]  And Haggai’s words had their effect: “the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel ..., and the spirit of Joshua ..., and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God” (Hag. 1:16). 
  But even though the people set about the work of rebuilding the temple, there were those who remembered the former temple, Solomon’s temple.  And in comparison, this new temple looked pretty shabby.  It was a poor reflection of the original. Once again, Haggai came with the word of the Lord: he recognized that this new temple was “as nothing” in comparison with Solomon’s temple.  But his message was this: “take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts” (Hag. 2:4).[5]  Even though the results of their work may have been disappointing to those who had seen the original temple, the word of assurance that Haggai spoke to the people was that the “Lord of hosts” was with them.  That was the whole point of the temple: it was to be a place where the people could come to encounter the presence of God in a unique way.[6]  And so he told them to go on with the work despite their misgivings.
  I would imagine that there are many in our day who are saying similar things about the church--or about their church in particular.  Some would even say that the church as a whole is obsolete and it’s a waste of time to try to renew the church.  It seems that more and more people agree with that view, preferring to be “spiritual but not religious” because they don’t believe in any form of institutional religion.  And yet, I would ask them what specific form of “spirituality” they actually practice.  It’s one thing to say you’re “spiritual, but not religious.”  But the fact of the matter is that every form of spirituality takes place in buildings that house a community with specific rituals--whether it’s a Christian church or a Jewish synagogue or a Buddhist Sangha or an Islamic Masjid.  Human spirituality thrives only when we practice it together, and it thrives on specific practices, like praying the Lord’s prayer, or observing the sacrament of communion, or listening to the Scriptures read and preached.[7] 
  Regardless of the nay-sayers who pronounce the doom of the church, the promise Haggai made to the exiles in Judea applies to us today as well: we can do the work because God is with us.  The situation in which the church finds itself in the present may very well be disappointing in comparison with a former time.  Just as the people of Haggai’s day needed foundation stones and timbers to build the temple, so we have specific things we can do promote new life in the church today.  They aren’t secret: the means we use to build this or any other church are the same as they have always been: prayer, worship, studying Scripture, sharing our story, helping those in need, working for peace, promoting community, inviting others to join the community.[8] I think we can do this work to see the church thrive in our day because we know that we are not doing the work on our own.  The most important factor in renewing this or any other church is not that we are building the church, but that as we do our work, it is the Lord who is building the church.  And he has promised that it will not fail (cf. Matt. 16:18)!

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/10/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf., for example, recently Addie Zierman, “5 Churchy Phrases That Are Scaring Off Millennials,” 7 Nov 2013 blog on The Washington Post, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/wp/2013/11/07/5-churchy-phrases-that-are-scaring-off-millennials/; and Rachel Held Evans, “Why Millenials Are Leaving the Church,” 27 July 2013 blog on CNN, at http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/07/27/why-millennials-are-leaving-the-church/.
[3] Cf. Hans-Walter Wolff, Haggai, 54, where he says, “The people say: ‘Because the times are hard there is no time for the temple’ (2b*, 9a*). Haggai counters: ‘It is because you have no time for the temple that the times are hard’ (9b*). The prophet reverses cause and effect, and thereby strips bare the truth.”
[4] Cf. Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi, 99, where she says Haggai insists “that not foreigner nor fate nor workings of nature control the Judeans’ lives, but God.  Human life in its context in history and nature is in the hand of the Lord of Hosts.  Therefore, beyond all other concerns, God’s people should be concerned about the relation with him.”
[5] Cf. Robert L. Smith, Micah–Malachi, 156–157, where he points out that this would have discouraged the work in general, and Haggai was effective at encouraging them to take up the work nevertheless.  Cf. also Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi, 101: “The old ones forget that it was not Solomon but God who filled the temple with glory, and so they mourn the past that can never return.  Worse still, they obstruct the new glory that is arriving, for as long as God is on the scene his people may confidently expect things which eye has not seen nor ear heard.  The Lord who has done so much in the past an establish new symbols of his presence in the future.  The God who rules past, present, future can manifest himself in ways yet undreamed and unknown.  The future that Haggai holds out before his discouraged and sorrowing countrymen is nothing less than a universal reordering of all things and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth.”
[6] Cf. Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi, 97: “When God is present with his people, that presence is symbolized by concrete reminders of his actions among them: for Israel, by a temple with an Ark containing tablets of law, even by a pot of manna (cf. Exod. 16:32-34) and Aaron’s rod (Num. 17:10); for us, by a cross, a Bible, and a table set with bread and wine.” Cf. also W. Eugene March, “The Book of Haggai,” New Interpreters Bible VII:717 : “The Temple was a place chosen by God where human beings could expect to encounter God, to be challenged and renewed by the divine presence.”  Cf. similarly, Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, II:281-82.
[7] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 95: “We cannot live a spiritual life alone.  The life of the Spirit is like a seed that needs fertile ground to grow.  This fertile ground includes not only a good inner disposition, but also a supportive milieu.”
[8] Cf. Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, 45; cf. also The Book of Order 2011-2013, p. 5, F-1.304, which summarizes the calling of the church in “The Great Ends of the Church,” which was adopted by the United Presbyterian Church of North America in 1910

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