An Even More Glorious Future
Welcome to the book of the prophet Haggai!! Poor, underestimated Haggai is known as a “minor prophet” of the Old Testament, and his book is only two chapters long, so don’t feel bad if you know nothing about Haggai or his book! It was written during that time in biblical history known as the post-exilic period. I’m sure that Pastor Jim has talked about it as part of his study of the Prophets, but as a recap: in the 6th century BC, long after the death of the famous King David, and after his son Solomon built the first temple, their descendants had turned their backs on God. They still honoured God with their lips, but not with their hearts or their lives; so God allowed David’s descendants to get a real taste of what life without God would be like. They were overtaken by the army of Nebuchadnezzar, the city of Jerusalem was destroyed along with the Temple, and the people were taken to live in captivity in Babylon.
In this morning’s scripture reading, Haggai asks the people who had returned to Jerusalem after the time of exile over, “Is there anyone here who saw the temple the way it used to be, all glorious? And what do you see now?” The truth is, many of the people he was speaking to hadn’t seen the glory of the former Temple; they had only heard their parents talk about it. Many of the deported Jews died over the course of the 70 years the Jewish people were held in Babylon, and it was their children and grandchildren who were little by little allowed to return to Jerusalem to start rebuilding the city.
And now, in the time that Haggai lived, a newly returned group of Jews back in the holy land had begun the momentous task of rebuilding the temple. They started out to rebuild it according to exact specifications as laid out in the Holy writings, and they began their work with great enthusiasm. However, sixteen years after the project got started, God’s people had still not finished it, for as we find out through the prophets, they had come to allow their personal issues to distract them from God’s business. Over time, they were so busy building houses for themselves they had neglected the house of God.
Because of this, the prophet Haggai preached a fiery series of sermons designed to stir up the nation to finish their work on the temple, and this morning’s passage is part of that. His sermons exhort them to renewed holiness in life, and renewed faith in God, and a renewed commitment to complete the task God had given to them.
It’s interesting to read the two-chapter book of Haggai; and at the same time, one only needs to flip through the pages of the UC Observer magazine, or look across our country at the many near-empty mainline Protestant churches to see the parallels between this passage from Haggai and what’s happening within Christianity in Canada. One of the realities of life in the church now is that – unlike the Jews that Haggai was speaking to - many sitting in United Church pews today DO remember the glory days of our temples, when all a church had to do was open the doors on Sunday morning, and it was quickly filled. The Sunday Schools were overflowing. Nobody was talking about church development or growth strategies; and talking about evangelism was uncouth because it was tantamount to stealing someone away from another church!
Some of you probably remember times like that, in this church or another church you grew up in. And, as Haggai asked, “What do you see now?” In many United Churches, what you will often see is discouragement, because so many people do remember those glory days and it’s painfully obvious that the church isn’t what it once was in our society, and we’re faced with the reality that – for better or for worse – it probably never will be again, at least not in our lifetime.
So what does that mean? Does it mean that we throw in the towel? Does it mean we sit back and resign ourselves to “come what may”? Or let somebody else do it, because it all feels too hopeless to me. Or…does it mean that we open our eyes and look around to see what new thing God might be up to? Because God is always up to something, and He’s always up to something good! He’s up to something good right now in this congregation, just as He was up to something good when He first called together the people of your founding congregations in the 1800s.
It’s easy to get discouraged. It can be tempting to give up hope of the church ever being as vibrant as it once was, and to lose the enthusiasm we may have once had for the church, especially when we see how little enthusiasm others may feel about it. It’s true, the church will never be just like it used to be… but it can be equally vibrant, in new and exciting ways.
If you go into many United Churches across the country that were around at the time of the 1925 union just like this one, that were Methodist or Presbyterian Churches since the 19th century, you’ll almost always see lots of really old pictures on the walls, like pictures of church building from many years ago. Or sometimes the pictures have been collected together into a history book. In some churches, you’ll see pictures of the Sunday School classes from 1925 to 1932; the choirs and organists from 1917 through to the 50s; old pictures of all the ministers, sometimes dating back as far as the 1850s. And you get a sense of the rich history, of the legacy that has been handed down from one generation to another; and there is a palpable sense that what they have in that church is a treasure that has been entrusted to them in their time; and there is a strong sense of the responsibility to keep building that legacy to hand on to the next generation.
Our challenge to pass the church down to the next generation may be greater now than it was for any previous generation, because the cultural shift that has happened from one generation to the next over the past 40-50 years is unprecedented in all of Christian history. Not only that, but because of increased mobility many people move away for work or school, and so – unlike the past 2000 years – the “next generation” of believers in this church will not necessarily be your own children!
Because of that challenge, there is a danger. The danger is in losing sight of God’s commission, of losing sight of WHY God built a church in this place. The danger is in losing that sense of having been entrusted with a treasure, with a legacy that is to be passed on to people who may respond to the gospel if they hear it in a way that resonates for them, and then they’ll pass it on to the next generation.
If we were to continue reading through the book of Haggai we would learn that his stern call to duty proved to be just what the people of Judah needed to motivate them to finish what they had started. Because even though they couldn’t see the future, they trusted that God could, and God was in the process of using them to create something even more spectacular than what had gone before, even more spectacular than anything they could imagine! They knew that future generations would see what God had done through them, and would call them blessed.
In response to the prophet’s challenge, the people got busy and set to work restoring the temple. They just kept putting one stone on top of the other. But here is the most important part to remember: in verses 4-5, the Lord says, “Get to work you that I appointed; get to work all you people! Yes...For I Am With You!” If their hearts were not totally set on God then it wouldn’t matter what they did; but if they were busy doing the task that God had given them, then He would surely bless their work.
He says, “Before you know it... I will fill this Temple with splendour...The glory of the latter temple will be so much greater than the former; a glorious past... but an even more glorious future!”
It must have been so hard for them to imagine how the temple just half-standing like a pile of rocks before them - battle scars still visible - could ever return to the glory of its past. But God doesn’t say that it will be just like it was before...He says it will be different...it will be even more glorious. His call to them to work is a call for them to commit themselves to continue working with faith and hope that God will bless their efforts like only God can. If everything is His...all the gold, all the silver...and He has given it to them, then will He not use their efforts to show His power?
What would it mean to you if God were speaking to us this morning, saying, “I’ve given you the job of being a Christian presence in this community!” It may not look like it did in the 50s; it may not look like it did in the 90s...but it will be glorious, even if it’s different! Are you willing to take risks for Christ, who sacrificed everything for us? Are you willing to commit yourself, so that the next generation of Christians in Unionville can come and worship God in this place?