Hilda heard the strains of the familiar hymn and was transported to another time. She closed her eyes and remembered the very first time she had heard that song. She was a little girl, in this very same sanctuary. In those days, the organ terrified her. It was so loud that it shook the old wooden rafters and the old wooden pews of the church. In her mind’s eye, she remembered the sound filling the space so palpably that she could almost reach out and touch the whole notes. She thought she had never heard anything so loud. But then, the congregation of hundreds began to sing, and the sound became even louder! “A Mighty Fortress is Our God!” The power and the majesty behind that hymn made her think as a little girl that the song must have been written about her church! The energy and the passion that filled the air flooded from her memory. For indeed, in her mind’s eye, that church, that congregation, that sanctuary, that organ, were all indeed a mighty fortress. And not even “The Prince of Darkness” from the song could hurt her there.
She opened her eyes, and remembered that she was in a very different time, even if she was in the exact same place. And in that same sanctuary, she now reached down for her walker to steady herself as she looked around at the congregation today. Instead of the hundreds, there were now a few dozen. The organ had not been played in a decade, as the congregation could not afford the repairs that were needed. Now, a student from the nearby community college haltingly played a piano that was lost in the space of the huge sanctuary. As she looked around the room, it looked as though the rafters themselves might come down in the next strong wind. Even the pastor was part time, a religion major at the college, because the fiscal situation of the congregation had become so dire. Hilda yearned for the old days, her heart broken that her world – that the world – had changed so much since she was a child. A tear rolled down her eye, as she wondered, “what has happened to my fortress?”
Haggai rolled his hand cart to the crest of the hill, and paused to mop his brow in the heat. He had crested that hill a thousand times before, and now he closed his eyes to remember the first time he had paused there. He was a little boy, and his father was taking him to the market in the city. As they crested the hill, they could see the city before them, majestic and glorious. There stood Jerusalem, the mighty city of God. It made him catch his breath when he caught sight of it. The bustling streets, the majestic homes, the road filled with pilgrims heading toward the Temple to worship. He was named after those pilgrims – his name Haggai meant “to make a pilgrimage.” He remembered his father laughing with him as he made his pilgrimage to the Temple himself. The Temple. That glorious, gleaming structure was impressive from a distance, but up close, it took his breath away. The priests with their colorful and pristine robes. The sound of the animals brought to be sacrificed. It was overwhelming but fascinating to him. To see it made him know that the God that these pilgrims came to worship was a God of majesty and glory.
But when he opened his eyes, he saw something very different. Jerusalem was now barely a small village. When he was still young, the Babylonian hoards destroyed it and drug out of those majestic homes the men and women that he had envied. He had seen them crying in the streets as the soldiers sacked and looted and killed indiscriminately. So many of those homes were still burned out now these decades later.
And the Temple. Once such a glorious structure, now broke his heart to see it. Burned to the ground in his childhood, his soul sank to see the ruins where such glory once stood. Much more recently in his memory, within the last 20 years or so, he had seen many of these leaders return to Jerusalem. The Babylonians had been replaced by a new empire and new soldiers and the citizens of Jerusalem and their children born in captivity had been released to their former city. Haggai had such hope that in their return, they would rebuild the city and the Temple and the glory would return. But after barely beginning the project, the construction had stopped. Those who had returned had spent their time and money on their own homes. Afraid of what army would come next, they chose to put their energy into building their own fortresses, paneled and painted testaments to their own failure and fear. They were driven by scarcity! Now the Temple barely had a replaced foundation, and the few stones that were piled on each other for the new wall had been looted and hauled away to repair their own homes.
And Haggai’s anger burned against these failures. They had failed their community, their nation, their God. As he rolled his cart into the city past the houses, he got angrier and angrier. He saw the governor and the high priest with their entourage, and their selfishness and fear made Haggai apoplectic. As he neared the Temple, he veered toward it; he would not make it to the market this day. He shook with anger as he rolled his cart to the edge of the foundation of the old Temple. Using the stones to steady himself, knees shaking from age and anger, he pulled himself up to stand on top of his cart. He upset the contents of his cart, sending olives rolling to the ground and down the street. And with a voice that was beyond his own, he began to preach….
2Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house. 3Then the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 4Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins? 5Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. 6You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.
7 Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. 8Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honoured, says the Lord. 9You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the Lord of hosts. Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses. 10Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. 11And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the soil produces, on human beings and animals, and on all their labours.
12 Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, and Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the Lord their God, and the words of the prophet Haggai, as the Lord their God had sent him; and the people feared the Lord. 13Then Haggai, the messenger of the Lord, spoke to the people with the Lord’s message, saying, I am with you, says the Lord. 14And the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God, 15on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month.
In the second year of King Darius,1in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 2Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, 3Who 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? 4Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, 5according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. 6For 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; 7and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendour, says the Lord of hosts. 8The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. 9The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.
Haggai’s sermon that began from a place of anger and resentment changed in tone, didn’t it? He began by berating the people of Jerusalem for the ways that they cared about their own houses more than the house of God. But that wasn’t the final word from Haggai. Haggai’s urging to rebuild the Temple was not just about foundations and walls and rooms and décor. It was about his understanding of the very nature of God.
For the Hebrews, at the heart of their faith was a concept called Shalom. Translators have a hard time with this word because in Hebrew, it is a complex and rich concept. It is often translated “peace,” but it is more than the absence of war. It is sometimes translated “wholeness,” but it is more than individual health. It is about a larger idea of a world set in right relationship. Right relationship between God the creator and all of God’s creation. It is about restored community and peace and safety and wholeness and worship. It is about a people understanding who God is and putting God first.
So when Haggai preaches about the Temple, he is not just talking about a building project. He is not just talking about the what. He is talking about the why. He is talking about Shalom. He speaks for God using terms of relationship:
“I am with you.”
“My spirit abides among you.”
“Do not fear.”
And, in case they didn’t get it, in 2.9, God says, “in this place I will give prosperity.” Which is a translation, of course, of the Hebrew word Shalom.
Haggai delivers a promise from God not just about buildings and riches and things to consume. But a promise about salvation and peace and wholeness and eternity and fulfillment and right relationship between God and God’s creation.
“In this place, I will give Shalom.”
Every week, I stand here, hoping to have a word about how these Scriptures, how these stories, these ancient sermons, these teachings from the Bible are in some way relevant to us. In our context. Sometimes, it is a bit of a challenge to determine what that world has to do with our world. But sometimes, I randomly pick a minor prophet from a list of rarely-read books. And that book is about a preacher speaking to a congregation, somewhere around the end of August or the beginning of September (Haggai is strangely specific). Not only that, but said preacher in said book is speaking to said congregation about the importance of giving their time and energy and money to completing a building project – a worship space so that God might be honored and glorified.
Sometimes, God sets these things up on a tee.
If this is your first week with us, you need to know that we are in the middle of ending our former capital campaign and beginning what we are calling our Project One62. And I don’t think we could have found a more obvious parallel than the book of Haggai. To put it bluntly, Haggai was history’s first capital campaign chair!
So, let Haggai be our guide as a congregation as well. Because, just like Haggai reminded the people that this building campaign that he was urging was not just about the what, but about the why. The same is true for us! We have to remember, as we finish up our five year Building Hospitality emphasis and as we begin the One62 emphasis, that the goal all of this – the lunch, the letters, the construction, the building – is Shalom. Right relationship. Right priority. Right community. Right worship of our Creator.
In our church, the way that we have talked about this right relationship is what we call the “Four W’s”. We welcome. We worship. We work. We wonder. These are the things that we need to be about. The things that we must focus on. I believe that paying off the mortgage in a rather aggressive way is a good thing. But not because of fear. Or scarcity. Or even fiscal responsibility. But because it will help us do these things better. It will help us be a more welcoming people. It will give us a home to worship God and reprioritize our hearts. It will give us a ministry center, from where we can do Kingdom work. It will create space to wonder, to learn, to be curious together about the majesty and mystery of God. That is our version of Shalom. True fulfillment. Peace. Prosperity.
But don’t take my word for it. A few weeks ago, Sarah Peters, co-chair of the Project One62 emphasis with Bill Stauffer, shared in worship. With the passion of Haggai, she talked about her vision for the future, along with two of our newest members – Andrew Lord and my son Ethan. Her vision is that they would not be saddled with the debt of this project, but will be able to sweep this away and focus on other ministry priorities. Focus on Shalom. Haggai watched as the construction project stalled for 20 years, while people spent more money on their own houses and their own lives than the Temple. So 20 years from now, when Andrew Lord becomes the moderator of First Baptist Church of Lawrence, let us give him and his generation what they need to speak Shalom to that generation. To welcome, and worship, and work, and wonder in ways that God calls them to at that time.
Haggai woke the people up. After his sermon series – beginning in August in finishing in December – the people got to work. And it took them only five years before the Temple was done. What if we matched the passion and energy of the Israelites and retired this debt in five years? Then, in five years, we could ask together what God would have us do next. Like the Israelites, our focus is not on a desire for a new building, but our desire for Shalom. Not because of the what, but the why.
Five hundred and fifty years after Haggai delivered that first sermon, the Temple still stood. When a man named Jesus walked by with his disciples. They, too, looked up at the Temple and marveled at the size of the stones, and at the glory of the Temple. But that’s when Jesus picked up an olive and popped it in his mouth, and casually told them that the Temple would be destroyed! They looked at each other in horror, wondering what would happen to their faith if it was. Jesus smiled, and told them that God would still be worshipped, that God would still be glorified, that the Kingdom would still be preached. He told them it wasn’t about the what, but the why. Not about the building, but the Shalom.
And his words came true, too, just like Haggai’s. And as he left their presence, he stood on a crest of the hill outside the city and gave them a similar message:
“Do not be afraid.
I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
May that promise be our Shalom. Today and always.