Title: Former Glory
Date: November 6, 2010
Texts: Haggai 1:15b-2:9; Ps 145:1-5, 17-21
Author: Isaac Villegas
Ah, the glory days. I’m sure you can remember them. We look back to some era of our lives, and think: Yes, those were the days. For me, I think back to the soccer field. Playing hard at weekend tournaments in Phoenix, and celebrating after winning a big game. Those were my glory days.
It’s good to remember, and to be grateful. But there’s a problem when we use our memory of the glory days to disengage from our lives in the present. If we are not careful, nostalgia can lead to withdrawal from our current world, a retreat from our present lives.
The prophet Haggai speaks to a people who want to retreat from the present, and instead live in the past. Israel was conquered and sent into exile. But, there’s a new emperor of the Persia, Darius, and he allows the people of Israel to return to their land and rebuild their lives. Darius even provides gold and silver from the imperial treasury for the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple. Nevertheless, during the time f Haggai, Israel is not what it used to be. Although the people can live in their homeland again, they are not free like they used to be. They are not a sovereign people. They live under the authority of the Persian Empire. And even though Darius seems to be a benevolent leader, he is still a foreign leader who has power over Israel’s governors and priests.
The people can’t help but remember the glory days of Israel, when the Temple in Jerusalem was the center of power. In this context, Haggai speaks: “the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Speak now…to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” (Hag 2:1-3).
Haggai and God can hear the people grumble about the rebuilding projects in Jerusalem. While the new Temple is nice, it doesn’t compare to the old one. As Haggai asks, “Is it not in your sight as nothing?”
The issue isn’t simply the physical appearance of the Temple. The issue has just as much to do with the diminished status of the Temple: “instead of signifying the seat of [power] of an Israelite empire… [it now] could represent only the smallest component of a foreign empire” (Carol L. Meyers and Eric M. Meyers, Haggai, Zechariah 1-8, pp. 72-73). Before the exile, the Temple represented God’s sovereign power. Now, as Israel returns from exile, the Temple is under the power of Persia. How could the God of Israel be sovereign when the house of the Lord is under the dominion of a foreign king? That’s the problem that Haggai has to deal with.
And what does he prophecy? What does Haggai say to a people who are consumed by the “former glory” of the Temple? What does God say to a people who are immobilized by their memories of the days of glory, back when they knew their priests and kings and God were in control?
“Take courage,” it says in verse 4, “Take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts… My spirit abides among you.”
…work, for I am with you. God’s promise here is important: “I am with you,” God says, “My spirit abides among you.” God has to reassure the people of his presence because it’s not obvious. God isn’t present in the same way as before, in the glory days. God’s power is no longer obvious. God’s presence isn’t undeniable as it was before the exile.
Nevertheless, God says, “My spirit abides among you.” This is a reassuring word, a word of comfort and a pledge of God’s ever-present help. But God’s presence also spurs the people to live in the present, to get going on the work that needs to be done now: “Work,” God says, “work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts.”
Is God’s presence obvious to you? Do you know what God’s power in your life feels like? Those are the questions that Haggai’s people wrestled with, and I think we wrestle with the same kind of questions—or, I should say, at least I do. For the Israelites, God’s presence and power were not evident in the new Temple. And for me, God’s power isn’t undeniably active in the world I experience every day.
Sickness still claims the lives of our loved ones. Depression still has a hold on the lives of our friends. Alcoholism still holds captive the minds and bodies of people I am learning to care about at the Wednesday lunches for the homeless that we help out with.
I must admit that I have a hard time seeing what God’s presence look like in these situations. I have a hard time believing that God’s power can do anything to save my friends from these cycles of destruction. And so I find myself among Haggai’s audience, the people of Israel who cannot believe that God’s presence has returned to the Temple in Jerusalem. The former glory of the Temple makes the current one seem so powerless.
Like Israel, we need new eyes; we need a new way of seeing, of experiencing the reality of God’s Spirit, of God’s glory, in our midst. Their eyes are clouded by memories of what used to be, of the Temple’s former glory. That’s why God sends Haggai: to invite Israel into a new way of seeing God. And this way of seeing has everything to do with the work of their hands. To see God’s presence, to feel God’s power, Israel has to put their bodies to work in the building project: As Haggai prophesies, “Work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts.”
God’s presence not only empowers the people to work on the Temple, their labor is also how they feel their way into the power of God: “My spirit abides among you,” God says through Haggai.
We are also invited to see God anew through our work for the kingdom, as we use our hands to rebuild the house of God’s presence in the rubble of this world. We are invited to see God in a new way, to feel our way into God’s gentle presence through the work of our hands. As we care for the wounded among us, we come to know God’s presence. Through our works of love, we become part of God’s love for the world. We know God with our hands, with our love, as we work on building houses for God’s presence in the world, where people can know that they are loved by God, places where we can rest into God’s gentle presence, where we can dwell with the God who loves all of us.
But this isn’t to say that we can heal the world if we just work hard enough, if we simply love people with all the goodness we can muster from within ourselves. While Haggai tells the people of God to get to work, he also offers a prophecy of hope that reaches beyond what anyone can do with their hands: Haggai says in verse 6, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations…and I will fill this house with splendor” (vv. 6-7).
So, yes, God’s power is among us through our works of love; God’s grace is here, as a gentle presence, inviting us to see the world anew, as full of God’s goodness. But we also wait and hope for God’s power to shake the heavens and the earth, to shake away the evil we have created, and to fill the world with the splendor of God’s glory.
In the meantime, we offer our lives as a prayer for God to heal the wounded, to strengthen the weak, and to restore the joy of all creation. We offer our works of love as a prayer for God to fulfill his promises of redemption and salvation.
Let me close with the words of our Psalmist, who reminds us of the promises of God:
The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings. The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desire of all who fear him; he also hears their cry, and saves them. (Ps 145:17-19)