Message for The Day of Remembrance Service 2016
Based on Haggai 1: 15b-2:9
Remembrance Day, for many, it is a day is of memories, thinking back to the events that happened, people who have served and are now gone, remembering how people’s lives changed because of war, both individuals and whole nations of peoples. I heard stories of the Second World War through the eyes of people from Holland, my parents, my aunts and uncles, who as children, grew up in a poverty stricken war torn country. So when I think of remembrance day, I reflect on how the second world war effected my family, my relatives who were in Holland. Their stories are of hardship and survival, the indomitable human spirit and the desire to keep going, to get through it all, how lives and people had to change to respond to the incredible challenges they faced, just to stay alive. And wars continue still around the world today, graphically coming right into our living rooms via our televisions. A question many ask during times of turmoil and extreme hardship is? “Where is God in all of this?” While reading today’s Old Testament reading, it occurred to me that this is what the prophet Haggai was doing, he was telling the people just where God was in the middle of the mess that was their lives. The reading from Haggai is an ancient story about people after a very long war. Can we, in a time of peace in our country, still learn from this ancient story? I do think so. That is the miracle of the Bible, and why it is called God’s Living Word. Haggai was prophet to the Hebrew people of the kingdom of Judah. Haggai’s audience was made up of 2 groups of people really, those who had recently returned to their homeland after a half century or so, having been forcibly deported–exiled–as a result of war; and those who had never left their country. Much of the latter part of the Old Testament is the story of God’s chosen people-the Hebrews- and how they re-learn how to be the people of God during and after this Babylonian exile.
Let me provide you with a thumbnail sketch of the history of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the land that once was a united monarchy under Kings David and Solomon. After Solomon’s death in 928 BCE the monarchy splits into 2 kingdoms, the kingdom of the north becomes Israel, with Samaria as its capital territory so to speak, and the kingdom of the south, Judah, Jerusalem is kind of like its capital city. This entire region of the middle-east was almost constantly under siege during the ensuing 4 centuries or so, often caught in the midst of strong rulers looking to fortify their empires. In 586 BCE the city of Jerusalem and the glorious temple of Solomon–the house of the Lord God Almighty– is destroyed by the Babylonians, their king and descendant of the great King David is deposed. The Babylonians were very oppressive captors, and a good deal of the population was deported to Babylon, known as the Babylonian exile. The exiled Hebrew people, understandably, were a defeated and demoralized bunch. And those who were left behind struggled to live as captives in their own land, the faithful remnant they’ve been called! Both groups mourned the loss of their homeland, the promised land that came to them through Moses. Their homes, their promised land, their God’s holy temple and their King—all the direct linkages to their Hebrew identity — destroyed! All these losses amounted to the loss of much of their cultural and religious identity. For those who were exiled and for those who stayed–nothing was the same. Who were they as a people now? And did it even matter anymore? Fifty years or so later, King Cyrus of Persia defeats the Babylonians, and Judah is now under Persian rule. Cyrus has a less oppressive style of leadership and encourages the exiled Hebrews and the families that had developed in those 50 years to return to their homeland, to re-join the faithful remnant that had never left. And yes, they can rebuild their Temple, and worship as they wished, in fact Cyrus provided them with building supplies. Well, this was the dawn of a new age! Cyrus was hailed by some a hero. The new temple was started, but haphazardly and after many years is only partially constructed—people were putting their resources into their personal possessions instead, they were neglecting God’s house. They started it, but didn’t get very far. What was the point, it would never be as grand as the one King Solomon built! God says to them through God’s prophet Haggai “Why are you living in luxurious houses while my temple lies in ruins?” (vs 4 NLT) Now we need to understand what the implications of that meant. For this society, the Temple was the centre of the community, and it was God’s house — the dwelling place of the Lord. No temple, then God could not live among them—and without a God-focused community, well, it would pretty hard to be the people of God! Neglecting the Temple, was equivalent to neglecting God, and all that it meant to live as God’s people. So, God sends prophets, one of whom was Haggai to bring the word of God to the people, to remind them that they were God’s people, that God wanted them, and wanted them to come back to God, and live again as the people of God. God wanted to be among them, God needed a dwelling place—didn’t matter if it was as glorious as the one King Solomon had built—don’t let that stop you from building a new one Haggai tells them. “My Spirit remains among you so don’t be afraid.” God will shake the nations, and the treasure to build it will come. God was among them, working through them. Within 5 years the temple is completed. The Lord speaks through Haggai: “The future glory of this temple will be greater than its past glory… and in this place I will bring peace.” (Chapter 2.9 NLT) The time of a new age was coming. The past way of doing things was gone, a new and different age, with a new and different way, a different space, but one where God was still at the centre of this small and faithful remnant of believers was to come. That’s what the building of the temple represented. Did the people really want God with them—was it worth the effort, the emotional and physical cost? Yes, said Haggai – with God, all things are possible!
Can we learn anything from this ancient story? Do you see any parallels? I have read and heard it said by minds more brilliant than mine, that we can look at the story of these people, the Hebrews of this second exodus as a metaphor for our own times, that we too are in a dawning of a new age. Our society has changed in the last 50 years, not because of war this time, but we could certainly say that the Christian Church, especially the main line denominations have been battered. The church isn’t like it used to be in the days of its post-World War 2 boom. There are many here who remember those days, you are today’s faithful remnant, and God bless you for your tenacity! And like the people of Haggai’s time, our reality has changed. The church will never again be like it was 50-60 years ago. We can’t live in the past. We do need to respect and understand our history, as did the Hebrews, but we also need to look to the future, and be forward thinking. That was Haggai’s message. So, where is the future taking us? If it was only as simple as a building! But, like in our story, the building is really just a place where we come to worship our Lord—it is not the main focus. The church simply houses the community of faith that is building the kingdom of God. And that, my friends, is much harder to build. The church isn’t the building, the church is the people who are building God’s kingdom. But, do you know what never changes? God, God is the constant throughout history. Haggai told the people, even in the middle of their turmoil, their distress, their uncertainty of the future, that God’s ‘spirit abides among you, do not fear.’ (vs5) God provides when you build God’s kingdom, like he provided for the faithful remnant of Haggai’s time. The question for us today is the same question the people of that time faced: Are we up for it, do we want to do the work it will take?
“Take courage, all you people, work, for I am with you, you have nothing to fear”, God said through Haggai, “I am here, I am with you.”
Yes, these ARE the words of the Lord. And yes, thanks be to God!
Rev. JoAnn Todd
Parish of Hanover – Durham