In 587 BCE, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. The temple was destroyed and most of the residents were taken into exile. In 538, the Persian ruler, Cyrus, defeated the Babylonians and encouraged people to return to their homes. While many Jews remained in diaspora, preferring to keep the lives they had built in exile, some returned to Jerusalem. Both the passage from Isaiah and the passage from Haggai come from this post-exilic period and represent competing views of how to move on in their new old lives.
For Haggai, things were pretty simple. People came back and planted crops and built houses and got on with their lives, but things aren’t going well. They don’t have enough food, water is scarce and no one is making any money.Haggai’s solution is equally simple: make things as they were before. Build a temple for YHWH and reestablish the Davidic kingdom. The reason nothing is working is that God is not happy because God is not getting the love and adoration that God deserves. If we build God a house to live in, God will bless us and things will improve. We’ll have a king and resist our oppressors.
Isaiah sees things differently. God doesn’t want a stupid house. And God never wanted a king. Everything belongs to God. What could we possibly build for God? Instead, God wants humility. Temples mean nothing, sacrifices mean nothing, because the people do not do what God asks them to do. They have abandoned the law and follow other gods, which results in injustice. The law was given for life; failing to follow it brings death. If they simply listen to God and do the right thing, prosperity will flow like a river and Jerusalem will be comforted.
Obviously, these are not exactly our issues. We’re not really coming back from exile and we’re certainly not concerned with building a temple. However, they are competing visions of life in God. So my question this morning is simple. Big, but simple. Where do we go from here? How do we see life in God as we move forward together? What kind of church do you want to be a part of?
There are a couple of interesting things about these passages. The first is that they preserve a genuine debate in the life of the Israelites. And both claimed to speak directly for God. It is common among Christians to see the story of God as monolithic and linear: God made everything perfect; we screwed it up; Jesus came to fix it. If we just read the text, we will know how we fit in that story. But if we read it carefully, we see that Scripture provides conflicting ways of understanding the world. Why do bad things happen? Why is there injustice? What do we do about it? Depends on which part you read. Perhaps, as we move forward, we should bear that in mind. For as long as I have been here, conversation and dialogue have been foundational values of Church in the Cliff. You never really know who speaks for God. So the role of the person standing up here is to create a space where God can speak. I hope to do that and apologize for those times when I fail.
The second interesting thing is what actually happened. Haggai won. The new temple was completed in 515 BCE. Things did not improve. Part two of Haggai’s plan was never completed. The guy he backed for kingship simply disappears from history. He may have faded into obscurity; he may have been killed by agents of the Persian king. But the bottom line is that Haggai was wrong, so wrong that people wonder why his words were preserved at all. One suggestion is that he did get the temple built and the temple, while never solidifying the nation of Israel as a free state, did become central to Jewish cultural understanding. So maybe by implication, Isaiah was right. Maybe following the law, practicing justice, being faithful to God, is what is important. Maybe our understanding of ourselves should be rooted in how we treat each other.
The funny thing about Haggai’s vision is that the exile lasted a long time. Few people who returned would have even remembered the temple. Those who did were probably children when they left. So I’ll speak as one of those old-timers remembering the good old days. I remember a lot of things from being here before. In some sense, this is where my ministry started. I remember two things that made that possible, two things that I cherish. The first is a kind of luxurious grace where I could try without fear of failure. Not that I didn’t fail, but that people were willing to go along for the ride, to see what happens. That doesn’t happen without the second thing I remember: the people. There was a trust and intimacy, a willingness to take risks and hold onto each other through it all.
Because I did find so much in that time of my life, so much that I needed to get where I am now, it is tempting to try to go back, to rebuild what was here before. I miss so many people from that time and I often wish I could bring them back. But if I try to rebuild the old things, I’ll miss out on the new things. The people that have remained and the new people who have joined us deserve to find that trust and intimacy, that willingness to hold onto each other through our trying and failing. I intend to make a lot of mistakes. I hope you’ll join me.
Christian memory is long. For 2000 years, Christians have gathered at the communion table to remember the story of new life given in death. When Jesus saw the end coming, he gathered his friends together for a meal. While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out to release many from sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in the kindom of God.”
That time is coming and is in fact already here. God is always returning to us as we are always returning to God. Today, we eat and drink in the kindom of God.