February 14, 2016 (You can watch a video of this sermon here.)
Going home as an adult is quite an experience. Everything looks smaller than when you were a kid. Visiting my parents after I had been away for several years, the house seemed smaller, my bedroom was smaller, everything was familiar, but different. Visiting my old elementary school – everything looked smaller. It was exactly the same as I remembered it from childhood, but it was different, too.
Imagine what it would be like to leave your home as a small child, and then return to that same place when you retired. Other people would be living in your house. Businesses would have moved in and out of town. Buildings that stood tall when you were a child would be gone. Trees that had been saplings when you left would be tall and full. Everything would be the same, but it would be different. That’s what happened to the Israelites. Only now, for the first time in the Old Testament, they were called “the Jews.” (Ezra 4:23)
It had been more than 60 years since the exile into Babylon. That kingdom had been taken over by Cyrus of Persia, and Cyrus had issued a decree to allow the people of Israel to return to Jerusalem. More than 42,000 had accepted the invitation to return to their homeland. Some of those who made the trip had never seen Jerusalem, so they didn’t know what to expect. But others had been young enough to remember the glory of Solomon’s temple. They had carried that memory with them in hope of this very day.
The prophet Ezra writes that the returning exiles immediately set up the altar “because they were in dread of the neighboring peoples” (Ezra 3:3). Even though they were returning to the land that God had given them as an inheritance, they were afraid. They turned to God for protection and shelter.
We have to remember that the ‘neighboring peoples’ included that remnant of the poorest Jews, who had been left behind in the exile. They had been scratching out an existence among the rubble for more than sixty years. It isn’t hard to imagine that tensions arose between the returning exiles and those who had been left behind. There would have been questions of land ownership, who was to govern, who could be priests, and how they would share the limited resources that were available. Rebuilding the altar was not just a religious act, it had legal, political, and social implications for this newly integrated nation.
Even so, the ones who returned set about the work of worshiping God, and as soon as the altar was in place and sacrifices were being offered, work began on the foundation of the Temple itself.
Nothing is left of Solomon’s temple, or even the second temple that the returning exiles built in its place. Dressed stones from Herod’s temple, the temple that Jesus knew, give you some idea of the immensity of the project. These massive blocks are about three feet high and six feet across. When we visited the Temple mount last year, the guide told us we could tell which ones had come from Herod’s temple because of the dressed edge around each stone facing.
These were the same stones that the disciples pointed out to Jesus. But Jesus refused to be impressed. “You think these are something?” he asked them. I have news for you. “Not one stone will be left upon another. All will be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:2; Mark 13:2; Luke 21:6)
This wasn’t neat and tidy work, as it had been in Solomon’s day, when the stones were carefully dressed at the quarry and set together without tools. This was slap-dash, “fill in the chinks with mortar, don’t take time to make it pretty” work. Solomon had built out of strength and glory. This foundation was laid out of weakness and fear.
Ezra describes for us the noisy business of laying this foundation:
“10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; 11 and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. 12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.” (Ezra 3:10-13)
“For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” This was the same song sung at the dedication of Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 5:13) but this song of praise was “mingled with weeping from those who had seen the temple in its former glory.” Those who could remember Solomon’s great temple found it impossible to celebrate this new foundation. Instead, they wept at this puny substitute. Yes, it was time to celebrate the fulfillment of prophecy, but what a disappointment that fulfillment was to them! Instead of joy, the ones who could remember the good old days felt only loss.
When we are discouraged and we harbor disappointment, we are most vulnerable to opposition. There isn’t much room for courage and determination in the middle of a pity party. This is when attacks can do the most damage, and that’s exactly what happens next in the story of the returned exiles. Their neighbors began to challenge their right to build, even their ability to build. Their neighbors made it as difficult as possible for the work to continue, and under this pressure, the work stopped. Ezra writes,
“4 Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build, 5 and they bribed officials to frustrate their plan throughout the reign of King Cyrus of Persia and until the reign of King Darius of Persia.” (Ezra 4:4-5)
The work halted when opposition came along, as opposition always will. For many years, the stones lay stacked and ready to build, but no one did the building. Instead, they focused their attention on building their own homes. Life in Israel was a struggle. Building the temple got moved to the back burner, as the people turned their attention to their own needs and desires.
Haggai rose up as a prophetic voice to call the people back to the work they had been given to do.
Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house. Then the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You 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.
Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored, says the Lord. You 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. (Haggai 1:2-9)
Here’s the good news: the people listened to Haggai, and they repented. They got to work building the house of the Lord. It didn’t look like much, especially when compared to the fond memory of Solomon’s temple, but it was the Lord’s. And the people prospered.
In the second chapter of Haggai, the Lord asks the people, “Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? 4 But now be strong, … Be strong, all you people of the land, and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. … And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’” (Haggai 2:2-5)
Today is the first Sunday of the season of Lent. During these forty days, God calls us to repentance. Since the very beginning, God has been working out his great purpose in us, to redeem us to himself if we will only turn to him.
In a devotional written for Ash Wednesday, J. D. Walt urges us to “realize that Jesus was not plan B or plan C. Jesus was always plan A. For God to create human beings in his own image meant they would be made in the image of perfect love. To be made in the image of perfect love meant they would be endowed with perfect freedom. And to be endowed with perfect freedom necessarily required the possibility of choosing something other than the will of God, which is the way of love. … God is not love because he loves. God loves because he is love. In similar fashion, a person is not a sinner because he sins. Rather, a person sins because he is a sinner.”
But we don’t have to stay stuck in that identity, anymore than the returned exiles had to stay stuck in their self-pity over the loss of the great temple they remembered from long ago. They repented of living in fear instead of courage. They repented of putting themselves before God. They repented of leaving the work for someone else to do. They repented, and started building.
Here we stand at the beginning of Lent, but also at the beginning of a process called Healthy Church initiative. It’s a process that gives us the opportunity to use the stones of our past that are still good and sound, to build a foundation for the future into which God is calling us.
Now is our time to return to the call God made on this congregation 158 years ago when a German Methodist missionary named Henry Singenstreu came to New Ulm to reach people who didn’t even know they needed Jesus.
Now is our time to repent of living in fear instead of courage.
Now is our time to repent of putting our own comfort and interests ahead of God’s call on our lives.
Now is our time to repent of leaving the work for others to do.
Now is our time to repent of the grudges we’ve held and the hurts we’ve nursed, to let go of our skepticism and our pride.
It’s time to admit to Jesus what he already knows — “that [we] are tired of living from the stuck identity of sinners, which is death, and that [we] are ready to live from the unleashed identity of [beloved children of God], which is life.” As J. D. Walt puts it, “It’s time to repent and believe the Gospel, which isn’t so much trying harder to stop sinning and start loving as it is to stop seeing oneself as a sinner and start seeing oneself as a lover…. And what is the Gospel? It is this: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
The Jews who returned to Israel had to figure out what it meant to live into a future that they could not see, but they knew God was creating right in their midst. What was past was past. But God was kindling a new hope in them, and he promised that his Spirit would remain with them. They had no reason to fear or be discouraged. God didn’t need a fancy new temple of stone. God wanted to establish his temple in the hearts of his people.
God speaks through the prophet Haggai to us, more than 2500 years later.
“My Spirit remains among you. Do not fear. … The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant shalom,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”
The work that lies ahead may discourage us. We may long for the glory days of this congregation’s past. But we don’t have to stay stuck there. God calls us to repent, and to start building. What God calls us to build probably won’t look anything like what some of us remember. But God promises to be with us, and God asks us to have courage and not fear. “The glory of this present house will be greater that the glory of the former house,” says the Lord Almighty.
May it be so.
Next week – Kindling Hope: For Such a Time as This (Esther’s Story)