November 10, 2019
Haggai is not a very famous prophet. The span of time he preached was just a few months in the year 520 BC. Haggai is only two chapters long, 1½ pages in my bible. He wrote in a time of transition., the Jewish people moving back to Israel. The prophets in the Old Testament are commonly classified as major and minor prophets. Haggai is definitely a minor prophet, but only because of the briefness of his ministry. He spoke to the Israelites who returned to Jerusalem after being in exile in Babylon for some 70 years. A new King, Darius, had announced that they could return to their homeland with a fair amount of self-government.
The rush was not because God needed a place to dwell. The reason God was pushing was because what the people spent their time and money on showed what their true priorities were. If God's house didn't come first, it indicated that God didn't come first. It has been said, if you want to see what someone's true priorities are, look in their checkbook... or today, at their credit card receipts. For Haggai, it was look at what you are spending your time on.
Haggai's message was that the priorities were wrong. God's work should come first. And then he promised, they would know that God was with them. Verse 5, “ 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; do not fear.” It is the presence of God that brings us blessing. Professor Walter Bouzard of the Wartburg college religion and philosophy department wrote this, “The assurance of divine presence is the gospel promise of this passage. Haggai assured his contemporaries that the LORD was present in their labor, blessing it with God’s own spirit. The positive results of their labor were assured even if, in the middle of their tasks, the building looked a little cockeyed and less than splendid. Might we not make that bold claim for own labors? I believe so, yes. Whatever it is to which God has called us, whatever our projects and tasks, and no matter how less than splendid our efforts may look to our critical eye today, work done by the people of God is always done with the promise of glory.” Professor Bouzard found the gospel message of “God with us” in this Old Testament passage.
In confirmation class, we have begun the study of the message of the Old Testament. Our one sentence summary is that it is about God's promise to send a Savior, the Messiah who shows us God's presence. The New Testament is the story of Jesus, the Savior. And so Paul to wrote this prayer for Christ's presence with us all, “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.” Our strength comes from Christ present with us. And then we do the good work; for Haggai that work was rebuilding the temple. For us, that good work is to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.
The object of Haggai's message was the temple. That was the place the Jewish people met God. We Christians don't have a temple. We gather in buildings we call a church, but God is not confined to these buildings. There was some dissension among the builders of the new temple because it wasn't going to be as glorious as the one Solomon built. But those complainers were missing the point. God's presence was the point. Buildings are not the church; we all remember the old song, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is the people.” The Israelites were intent on making God's house glorious, but if we look back further in their history, God was just as much present with the people when God's dwelling was a tent in the desert.
We are a proud congregation when we show off our beautiful building, built to glorify God. In fact, while doing research for our 150th celebration, Julie found a 1905 issue of “The Litchfield News Ledger”. The front page story was on the remodeling of this sanctuary. “Last Sabbath was a day long to be remembered by the Presbyterians of Litchfield. (little did they know how long, here we are remembering 114 years later) The occasion was the dedication of the beautiful building... modernized in every respect. The sermon emphasized the attractive feature(s) needed in the Christian life... as the pillars in Solomon's temple.” This building is a big part of our presence here in Litchfield. We do well doing the work of maintenance and improvements that need to be done. It is part of our exercise of faith. Eugene Peterson, in his introduction to Haggai wrote, “Compared with the great prophets who preached repentance and salvation, Haggai's message doesn't sound very “spiritual”. But in God's economy it is perhaps unwise to rank our assigned work as either more or less spiritual.... Material-bricks and mortar, boards and nails-keep us grounded and connected with the ordinary world in which we necessarily live out our extraordinary beliefs. Haggai keeps us in touch with those time in our lives when repairing the building where we worship is an act of obedience every bit as important as praying in that place of worship”.
As important as brick and mortar are, we need to remember that we are much more than this building. We do well to manage the upkeep and to update when and where we can. We can look back to the years where we were a prosperous, young, growing congregation. Sometimes wistfully. And Haggai looked back too. “Is there anyone here who saw the Temple the way it used to be, all glorious?” He looked back, not for nostalgia or regret, but with the understanding that God, who was faithful in the past, can be trusted to be faithful into the future. God is faithful, and while our congregation might not look to be thriving, we are working hard to be faithful to our calling. In that dedication service 114 years ago, the closing prayer asked God for the “setting apart of the church to the service of almighty God.”
We are set apart. The past is the past and we have been in a long and slow transition. What we are transitioning to is yet to be seen. I like to say that if a young Presbyterian couple with 5 or 6 kids moved to town, we'd see a big change in how we look. But right now the fact is we are an aging congregation. We are losing members to death at an alarming rate. We are thrilled with new members... but... no offense, none of them are spring chickens either. It is becoming ever more difficult to fill the offices of the church. Serving meals like yesterday's funeral or tomorrow's Chili supper has responsibilities falling on fewer and fewer people. Can we continue like this? Not indefinitely. What happens in a situation like this is we begin to draw inward,to close the circle. More and more resources go to simply maintaining what we have in terms of property and people.
And so we will transition, willingly or not. At some point in a church's shrinking, the temptation will be to make our outreach to the community take a back seat to maintaining the status quo. And that will probably be a part of our future. More effort will go into care for our aging members. Our projects will get smaller, our boards and committees must be streamlined. But do we continue to be the church, the ones sent out to make disciples, if we turn inward? In our committees, in our discussions, in our planning we need to keep outreach part of our focus. When we serve, like the funerals we've had or the chili supper, we put our best foot forward and “we open our doors wide with the heart of Jesus, welcoming all as children of God.”
We are in a time of transition. But we can trust that we worship a God of resurrection. If this particular congregation passes away, God does not fail. And if we can continue to serve faithfully, continue to add a few members willing to join us in the journey of faith, we may just continue to be set apart to share God's glory and grace and love. We are faithful when we acknowledge Jesus as Lord, the foundation upon which our faith rests.
Haggai's message for us is that the work we do is our calling. Committees work, ushering, serving chili, pulling weeds, counting money, making coffee... we are doing God's work. Let us remain faithful to the legacy we have here. May we touch our neighbors with hospitality and grace. God is with us in Christ, that is the foundation upon which our faith is built. And so we gather to work and worship in this sacred place, children of God. Amen.
.Hymn: The Church's One Foundation 442 PH