Who in the world is Haggai? Most everyone has heard of prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel; Haggai not so much. His book is one of the shortest in the Bible. But surprisingly, although very brief and mostly unknown, the prophet Haggai’s message speaks with surprising relevance to us today.
Haggai lived at the time of the return of the Jewish exiles from their years of captivity in Babylon. The kingdom of Judea had been destroyed. The Jewish temple--always the center piece of Jewish life—had been leveled to the ground. Many Jews were taken to Babylon as prisoners. The lament of Psalm 137 tells of the sorrows and longings of the Jews in exile. You know the lines: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Jerusalem.”
But as Haggai writes, the exiles are now returning to their homeland. They were not only allowed to go home but even given permission to rebuild their temple. However, as the exiles returned, they faced heartbreaking conditions in their homeland. The ruins of war were everywhere. Hungry and poorly clothed, most of their time was spent simply building houses to live in.
In this miserable situation, the prophet Haggai comes with a message from the Lord. It goes somewhat like this: “My people, you are spending all your time building your own houses. But you leave the house of the Lord in ruins. You say, ‘It’s not yet time to rebuild the house of the Lord.” In response to this excuse, the Lord says through the prophet Haggai, “I want a place to dwell among you. My house will remind you that I am here, that I am with you. Do not fear. Have courage. Rebuild my house.”
Superficially viewed, the message of the Lord delivered by Haggai sounds almost peevish. Here we have a defeated people struggling just to survive, and God is complaining that the house of the Lord is left in ruins. But the Lord’s message through Haggai is far from peevish. The real point of the message to rebuild the house of the Lord is not that it will please the overgrown ego of an offended deity. What really matters is what “the house of the Lord” represents. And what it represents is far more than a special building. It represents the abiding presence of God with God’s people. God wants to dwell with his beloved people, does not want to remain aloof and indifferent to the conflicts and struggles of their lives. The presence of a house of the Lord--whether it be a modest tent or a magnificent temple--will remind the people that God is with them. And it will further remind them what is to take place in the house of the Lord: giving praise to God rather than giving in to self-pity and self-preoccupation. A rebuilt house of the Lord will focus the lives of the people on God’s kingdom of justice and truth and compassion, and will help them resist the temptation to limit the scope of their lives simply to building their own houses and satisfying the never ending human quest for wealth and power.
Friends, the house of the Lord must be rebuilt in every age because it makes visible the promise of God to be with us, in both good and bad times. It reminds us that God cares about us and all of God’s creatures. In Haggai’s time and in our time, God desires and promises to be in the midst of human life for healing and renewal. God’s promise and presence gives to us and to all people with ears to hear an unconquerable hope, gives real meaning to human life, gives people dignity as children of God that counteracts the dark times of despair and self-hatred. All this is wrapped up in Haggai’s word of the Lord to the returning exiles: Rebuild the house of the Lord! When you see it and when you gather in it, you will remember God’s promise to be with you. So do not fear. Have courage. Rebuild the house of the Lord.
Haggai’s message to us today is surely that it is time for us to rebuild. Rebuilding is especially necessary when the foundations of our lives are shaking. Just as the biblical writers often spoke of a terrible shaking of their world’s foundations, so people today, here in West Orange and in many parts of our world, are experiencing a frightening shaking of life’s foundations. Do not many of our basic social institutions seem to be unraveling? Have not many of the fundamental assumptions by which we have lived undergone a terrible shaking?
We assumed that modern science would solve all our problems, and in truth it does provide many benefits. But modern science can also be used to destructive ends, as the anxiety producing reality of nuclear weapons and the misuse of modern pain re-leaving drugs like opioids bear evidence. Yes, modern science can be a great good. But unquestioning faith in the perfection of life through modern science alone has been shaken.
Then, too, we have assumed that our earth was inexhaustibly rich with clean water, pure air, fertile fields, limitless energy sources; that no matter what we did to exploit the resources of the earth, it would give us all that we wanted, make us all happy and wealthy. But with melting polar regions, rising sea waters, and ever more destructive hurricanes; with water systems in some of our cities so polluted the water they provide is lethal; with the air in many of the world’s large cities so dirty, residents must wear masks to try to protect themselves and especially their vulnerable children; with the prediction that many heavily populated coastal areas in the world, including the coasts of North America, may by 2050 be under water—with all this in plain view, our assumption that the earth can take anything we please to do to it has been shaken to the core.
And as for churches, we assumed that the Christian churches in the United States would always be the bulwark of the common moral fiber of our country and that we were and would always remain the great religious and moral beacon of light to the rest of the world. But the so-called main line churches in the United States have since the middle of the last century, steadily lost membership and their influence in the public domain has diminished to a trickle. Young people in droves are refusing to affiliate themselves with religious institutions, in part because they see hypocritical things going on in them, as when ostensibly pious Christians find no contradiction between separating migrant children from their parents at the nation’s borders and the ministry of the Jesus who wanted the little children to come to him and receive his blessing. Our long held assumption that the moral fiber of the country is safe in the hands of the churches is being shaken.
Now what do you do when the world around you is being shaken to the foundations? When so many of the assumptions by which you have lived are tumbling down? One reaction is to despair, simply give up, and say, what’s the use? But the word of the Lord delivered by Haggai doesn’t go there. His message from the Lord is: Do not despair. Instead, rebuild, starting with the rebuilding of the house of the Lord.
And now we come to the heart of the matter: How to understand the message of the prophet Haggai to us today. Some 2500 years after Haggai and some 2000 years after the dwelling of God among us in the person and work of Jesus, just how are we to understand the call to rebuild “the house of the Lord?” In one sense, of course, the house of the Lord is a visible structure: a tent, a tabernacle, a temple, a synagogue, a church. But surely, “the house of the Lord” is, in the deepest sense, far more than a physical building. It is far more than a place with stained glass windows and rows of stately pews. “The house of the Lord” is wherever the Lord chooses to dwell. It is wherever the Spirit of God’s justice and peace and compassion and truth are present and at work.
Recall the word of Jesus to the Samaritan woman at the well that we heard in our New Testament reading this morning. The woman says to Jesus, we Samaritans worship on this mountain (Mount Gerizim), but you Jews worship on the Temple mount in Jerusalem. And Jesus replies to the woman, “The time is coming when God will be truly worshiped not in this mountain in Samaria or in the Temple in Jerusalem, but wherever God is worshiped in spirit and in truth.” What Jesus tells the Samaritan woman points to the deepest meaning of “the house of the Lord.” Not just a particular kind of building, the house of the Lord--the dwelling place of God--is wherever the Spirit and truth of God revealed in Jesus is present, renewing and transforming the lives of persons and communities. In this sense, the house of the Lord is wherever God is at work in ever new and surprising ways to bring justice and reconciliation and peace and the flourishing of life for all of God’s creatures.
If we think of Haggai’s message in this way, then God’s word through Haggai to rebuild the house of the Lord is not primarily a call to build more church buildings. It is a call to build up the people of God in faithful service. If the foundations of the church are being shaken today, it is because so often it is not Jesus Christ and his ministry among the poor and the forgotten who is looked to as the cornerstone of the “house of the Lord.” Instead, the church, like other institutions, is tempted to give in to petty prejudices and a spirit of self-righteousness that has forgotten how to welcome the stranger, offer food to the hungry, and visit the sick and the imprisoned. And if one asks what might a rebuilt church look like, the answer just might be: Maybe somewhat like this West Orange Christian community where the gospel is faithfully preached, the Lord’s table is open to all, the bread and the cup of the Lord are freely shared; where people of all races, gender, and all other God given differences are welcome at the Lord’s table, where all joyfully support and many engage in hunger ministries, gathering of blankets for the needy, visiting the sick, providing school supplies for children. In all these and other forms of practical Christian service, Jesus assures us (Matthew 25), he will be in our midst, by our side, dwelling with us and among us.
We may not have called such activities by the name, but they are truly ways of building the “house of the Lord” in its deepest sense.
We can also hear in the word of the Lord through Haggai the prophet a further message for us today: it’s time to rebuild our country, which is in real danger of breaking apart because of fierce divisions, mutual hostilities, a breakdown of mutual trust, and a loss of concern for the common good. If we remember that the Lord truly dwells among a people not primarily because they have buildings called churches or temples but because the spirit of God’s truth and kindness and justice and compassion is at work in them and are the marks of their life together, we would be on the way to making our common life a witness to the promised presence of God among us. A nation of diverse people living together in peace—that would indeed be an exceptional people, exceptional not because of its wealth or power but because it lives by the conviction that God loves all people and wills to dwell among them. When the highest aspirations of a nation are not power and wealth but justice and kindness and compassion and the flourishing of life for all, it is making room for a dwelling place of God.
And again, the Lord says to us today through Haggai the prophet: It’s time to rebuild our relationship to our natural environment that has been spoiled by human greed and brought to exhaustion by human efforts to subject everything to the unbridled human will to power. Begin, the Lord says, with rebuilding the house of the Lord, the place where I dwell with you, which is the earth you inhabit. Look around you, look at the golds and reds of the leaves of autumn, look at the countless wonders of our planet earth, and let yourselves be reminded that the whole earth is the Lord’s creation, be reminded that the whole earth is a “house of the Lord,” that God mysteriously dwells in it and has invited us also to dwell in it in peace, to enjoy it, and to take care of it.
And not least the Lord speaks to each of us personally through Haggai the prophet: You may be experiencing a shaking of the foundations of your own personal life. Maybe you have lost a loved one. Maybe you are struggling with an illness.
Maybe you feel all alone, or feel marginalized and unappreciated by the people around you. If so, do not despair. There is hope for new life. Begin by offering to help to rebuild the house of the Lord, remembering what “rebuilding the house of the Lord” really means: not primarily erecting or renovating a church building, but instead, joining in the ministry of helping to create communities that make room for God to dwell among us, that make room for the presence and service of God in all of life, not with empty words, or Crystal Cathedrals, but in lives of common service, in communities that in the power of God’s spirit and truth bear witness to Jesus’ way of compassion, forgiveness, justice, and peace.
In our troubled times, my friends, when the foundations of the world are shaking around us, the word of God to us today is Do no fear, do not despair, have courage. It’s time to rebuild the “house of the Lord,” to rebuild all the places that God wills to dwell among us: in our church communities, in our common life together as a nation, in our relationships to our natural environment, and in our personal lives. In all these places where God wills to dwell with us: Rebuild the house of the Lord! Amen.
Daniel L Migliore
United Presbyterian Church of West Orange, NJ