Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Lord is With Us

The Lord is With Us
Haggai 2:1-9[1]
What is your formula for “success” in life? It depends on whom you ask, and I would say a survey would yield a wide variety of answers. There was a time when the formula for success was to work hard, do what is right, love your family, and trust in God. Unfortunately, the changes in our society and our economy over the last several decades have made us painfully aware that we can do all that and not wind up with the “success” we were hoping for. The “millennial” generation is learning that to be successful in life, they have to be flexible, able to innovate, thinking creatively about ways to carve out a niche for themselves in the world. It’s a very different approach to life, but then they face challenges many of us could not have imagined at their age.
One of the side effects of the changes in our society and economy is that church is changing. And while many are wringing their hands about the future of the church, I think there are just as many people in churches who are actually 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.  Unfortunately, no one can turn back the hands of time, and those days are gone for good. In order for churches to thrive, we have to take a cue from our children about what that takes to thrive in this day and time.
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 everything had changed. 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.   
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.  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).
Apparently, everyone was devoting their efforts to ensuring and securing their own future—rebuilding houses, planting crops, trying to maintain their feeble hold on the land of their ancestors.  And their efforts met with more failure than success.  Haggai asks them, “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” (Hag. 1:4).  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. Once again, Haggai came with the word of the Lord: “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).  Even though the results of their work may have seemed disappointing to those who had seen the original temple, the word of assurance was that the “Lord of hosts” was with them.  That was the purpose of the temple: it was to be a place where the people could come to encounter the presence of God in a unique way.  And so Haggai 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. They remember the “good old days,” and look for a way to somehow re-create that storied past. They may believe there are certain qualities that are supposed to define a thriving church. But we live in a very different world, and the strategies that worked 25 years ago will not necessarily work today. Rather than trying to go back to the way it was, we have to learn to be flexible, able to innovate, and think creatively now.
Regardless of challenges we face in the church, the promise Haggai made to the exiles in Judea applies to us today as well. We can rise to the occasion and do the work it takes for this church to thrive.  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 our church.  They aren’t secret; they’re the same as they have always been: prayer, worship, studying Scripture, helping those in need, working for peace, promoting community, and inviting others to join us. And the reason why I believe we can do the work it takes to see the church thrive in our day is because we have the promise that we are not doing the work on our own.  We can do our part because we have the same promise the people of all ages have had: it is not our efforts alone that will cause this church to thrive, but the presence of the Lord who is with us.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/6/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

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