Thine be the glory - Haggai 2:1-9
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
If you were to visit Oxford today and go to what is called ‘Broad Street’, there opposite Balliol College right smack bang in the middle of the road where you might expect to find a manhole cover, you will instead discover a brass cross embedded horizontally in the tarmac. It is so inconspicuous that you would easily walk past it without even noticing it. And yet this is one of the most significant historical markers in Oxford for it marks the site where two bishops and one Archbishop were burnt at the stake under the reign of Queen Mary for their biblical beliefs. The two bishops were burnt together- the Bishop of Worcester, Hugh Latimer and the Bishop of London, Nicholas Ridley. Latimer, aged 80 was the first to die, shouting through the flames, ‘Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man, we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.’ Unfortunately for Ridley, the wood had been badly laid around him so that he suffered terribly with his legs burning to smouldering stumps while the rest of him remained untouched. The horrible sight moved hundreds to tears. Those men died believing what they lived preaching-that people are saved by God through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and nothing else. When Latimer encouraged Ridley to ‘be of good comfort’ or as we might say, ‘be strong’ was that mere bravado, a kind of 16th century equivalent to keeping a ‘stiff upper lip’? It would have been had the words not had any substance to back them up. But Latimer was convinced that God was as good as his Word, that since he promised ‘I will be with you always even to the end of the age’ he was with them and would, at the moment of their death, immediately usher them into his glorious presence in heaven.
And so it was at the time of Haggai as God’s words come to a frightened, intimidated people. Three times God calls his people to be strong in v 4, ‘But now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. ‘Be strong, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty.’ We are told in verse 5 that they were ‘afraid’, and with good cause. There were only 50,000 of them in the whole of the country; that is just over double the population of this parish. They would not be able to put up much of a fight if an opposing army decided to invade. And with such a meagre population came meagre resources- so much to do and so little to do it with. Both of these things made them feel very vulnerable and -afraid. How on earth were they ever going to see God’s promised fulfilled that this people would be ‘a light to the nations’ and that from this people God’s ruler would eventually come? And if the truth be known, you may look on the church in this country, which is not very impressive, facing increased hostility from an increasing secularised society and you too feel that your existence is somewhat precarious, hanging by a slender thread. In such a situation what you need are not simply words of encouragement- ‘be strong’ but reasons to believe those words. And you know what? That is exactly what God gives. In fact he gives three reasons to be strong.
First, there is a promise to grasp which we find at the end of verse 4 and in verse 5, ‘For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 5 ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you.’ Now to appreciate how welcome these words would have been we need to understand what was going on in Judah at this time. We are told in verse 1 that this is the ‘seventh month’- that is around October. This is when three major Jewish festivals took place: the feast of trumpets which heralded the final phase of the Jewish year, pointing to the time when God would complete his work of salvation; the feast of the Day of Atonement- the great occasion when the sins of the people would be done away with through the sacrifice of an animal; and then the feast of tabernacles, when the people would build and live in lean-to shelters to commemorate God’s great rescue from Egypt. And naturally these would centre on the temple, the building of which had just restarted under God’s command through Haggai. So here, if you like, we have the equivalent of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost coming after each other in quick succession- high point after high point. Well, at least that is what it should have been. But there were some people around, now well into their late seventies and early eighties, who could hardly raise a smile, let alone a hallelujah because as we read in verse 3 they had lived during the great glory days of Solomon’s temple whose walls were covered with gold, whose architecture made it one of the great wonders of the ancient world, while what was being built amounted in their eyes to be an ugly ‘nothing’ in comparison. And so to be celebrating these great festivals with such a piddly looking building being constructed which as far as they were concerned didn’t deserve the title ‘temple’, simply adds to the heartache. It reminded them that they had lost so much and gained so little. That is what they felt anyhow. And so folk are demotivated. ‘What is the point of going on?’ they say, ‘It is never going to be like it was in the good old days. Call this a temple? Ah. Now, Solomon’s that was a temple!’ And here through the prophet God addresses that attitude up front. He says, ‘stop it- be strong- don’t give in to your fears and the naysayers.’
Friends this is something we really do have to watch out for- making comparisons, for nothing can be so harmful to faith and corrosive of motivation than false comparisons. Those who are older amongst us especially need to watch their tongue with young people on this. When folk go on about the ‘good old days’ when you had real missionary zeal, when churches were packed to the rafters, when you had Sunday schools of over 200 children, and people reading Christian books which were real Christian books- Louis Berkoff or whatever, when for some folk even nostalgia isn’t what it used to be; do you know how demotivating that is to young people as well as simply being untrue. The good old days were probably never that good. And if things were so wonderful in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s Christian-wise then as we look out on our country today what do we have to show for it? Where is the legacy? No, God did good things in pretty crummy situations then as he is doing good things in crummy situations now. We simply wound ourselves- and others- by making such comparisons. We may look at the big churches with massive children’s work, sending off at least two or three missionaries a year, and shake our head and say, ‘We will never be like that.’ They have a gift day and raise half a million, so we think; we can never do that so there is no point in trying. We look at others we think are high profile Christians and feel sorry for ourselves thinking, we are simply not in that league and keep our heads down not trying to achieve anything for Christ because we have made ourselves think we are under-achievers. And do you know what God says to us through his prophetic word? ‘Be strong’- be strong! Don’t fall for the lie, instead embrace my promises.’ What are they? They are in verses 4 and 5, ‘I am with you’, declares the LORD Almighty. This is what I covenanted to you when I called you out of Egypt.’
God is taking these people (and us) by the shoulders in order to take us back to the place he has made a pledge that is such a wonderful- ‘I will be with you’, that it almost beggars belief which is why God has to do something to reinforce it or we would never believe it.
When God sent Moses to rescue his people from slavery, he gave them a kind of code, a word which they could cling on to which would encapsulate everything he was for them and was going to do in them. And it was a name- a personal name- Yahweh or the LORD. He told Moses ‘I will be with you’ and then gave him a name which means pretty well that, ‘I will be whatever I need to be-for you.’ That is Yahweh.
Can a personal name capture a deep and profound meaning? Well, yes it can. A friend of mine was at college where there was a girl a couple of years behind him who had been adopted as a baby and her name was a sort of Red Indian sounding name, ‘Weneedja’ and the name was actually linked to her being adopted. You see, sometimes adopted children can feel undervalued and insecure and so her parents wanted to head that off right at the beginning so they gave her this special name, which in its full form would be ‘we- need -you’ which would be cumbersome so they just made it ‘W-e-n-e-e-d-j-a’ -Weneedja. What were they trying to say through that name? Well, something like this: ‘You are our adopted daughter whom we dearly love, you are everything to us. Can we some it up in a word? A name? Yes- Weneedja.’ How do you some up the character of God, his love, his power, his presence,- you say YHWH- ‘I will be with you and everything for you.’
Think about it. When you are having a rough time at work or college because you want to do the right thing because you are a Christian and others want to cut corners, what will make a difference to your attitude and state of mind? What will give you strength? Will it simply be to know that God exists or that God is with you? When you have just been told that you have a serious illness and you have to run a debilitating course of treatment, what will help you not only come to terms with the situation but give you strength to go through the situation; is it to know that God exists somewhere in heaven or that he is here with you on earth? And God says that is what my name means for you. Hold it, cherish it, speak it, sing it- for it is my personal relationship name and no one will take it away from you. So, ‘do not fear’.
Secondly, we can be strong because there is a purpose to perceive vv 6-9a. “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. 7 I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. 8 ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 9 ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty.’’ God is saying that he is about to do something new, something which is literally ‘earth shattering’. God is going to have a big shake up and everything and everyone is going to be thrown up into the air such that things will never be the same again. It is almost apocalyptic language the prophet is using. The nations which are so powerful at the moment and which take security and pride in their treasures are all going to be tipped in to this new temple that is being built. The writer to the Hebrews actually quotes verse 6 in Hebrews 12 and adds that those of us who are members of his kingdom won’t be shaken. So Haggai is talking about a judgement which is to come and an establishing of God’s kingdom which will never end. And while all that may very much be in the future, God’s great purposes in saving people and judging a rebellious world in one sense is starting with this little building which doesn’t look all that much. It seems so small, so unimpressive and so trivial, however, in God’s great scheme of things it is anything but.
Now is this not a common theme in Scripture- God taking what appears to be weak and pathetic in order to confound those who think they are Oh so strong and clever? You see it there in 1 Corinthians 1: 28, ‘God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things…to nullify the things that are so that no one may boast before God.’ If you were to be looking for a world ruler, the greatest wise man the world has ever know, the all conquering hero, it would not be to a cattle trough containing a drooling baby that you would naturally think of looking would it? If you were to consider the place where all of God’s wisdom, all of God’s power, and all of God’s beauty and love were to be found- it wouldn’t be to blood drenched gallows on a hill outside Jerusalem that you would consider going. And so it is here. The temple may not look like much, but what these people are building and bellyaching about is absolutely key to God’s great purpose of saving the world. It will be filled with a glory that even Solomon could not envisage, as we shall see in a moment.
Friends, what we are doing here at St John’s in that crèche which is meeting in that little room, or with those children running around in the hall, or with that lonely widow who is still broken hearted over the death of her husband all those years ago, or those students who think God is for wimps- in the light of eternity may be some of the most significant things we will ever do in our lives. Let me be personal for just a moment. When I turned up to a middle aged couple’s house in the summer of 1971 totally clueless as far as the Christian faith was concerned, as well as being arrogantly antagonistic, as only a sixteen year old having completed his ‘O’ levels could be, and they invited me to stay for supper, opening their house to me, knowingly risking me turning their son against the Christian faith, which was my intention; could they ever have imagined even in their wildest dreams what would happen with me under God? That not only would I become converted, but marry a Christian woman and raise a Christian family, and be used to bring umpteen people throughout the world to know Christ and be built up in Christ over a thirty year period of ordained ministry? Of course not! From this small insignificant act of Christian kindness and witness, you see, God was lovingly extending his kingdom in a way that no one would have thought of or planned. And who is not to say that in that Pathfinder group meeting this morning, or the student group which will be meeting this evening, God is not preparing a new Billy Graham or a Hudson Taylor? ‘Oh, it doesn’t look much.’ You say. ‘You don’t know how hard it is to keep on with unruly kids week after week’. Well, I do actually, but that is not the point. That is what these people were saying about building the temple and it was demotivating them. So God re-motivates them. We have to lay hold of God’s eternal purposes, the big picture, if we are going to keep on keeping on with joy and strength. And his purpose is to populate a brand new universe with little replicas of his Son, each one reflecting back to the Father the dazzling glory of his grace. And it begins right here- with this unimpressive looking building in Jerusalem in 520 BC and it continues here in this unimpressive building in Hull in 2013 AD.
But God gives his people another reason to be strong in v 9, namely, because of a peace to be had, ‘‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.” Notice that peace comes after judgement. ‘World peace’ or ‘ peace in our time’ is not a prospect for fallen human beings to achieve. This doesn’t mean we don’t pray for peace and work for peace through political agencies and the like, but it does mean that we look to the one who alone can provide it and that is God. But the peace comes after the shake up and not before. But here we are told that in this place there will be peace. The implication is that it is possible to have the peace of the last days in the present day. All that the word ‘peace’ entails in terms of security, stability, serenity can be had. How is that possible? Because of the one who 500 or so years later was brought to this very temple. You read all about it in Luke chapter 2. There was an old man called Simeon, whom we are told was looking for the ‘consolation of Israel’ when in came a newly married couple with their first born. And in seeing him he took him in his arms and said, ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation (this baby is God’s salvation) which you have prepared in the sight of all people.’ Yes, and he began that preparation here in Haggai with this jerry built temple. And then as this baby grew up into a man and as he was crucified just a few hundred yards from here and breathed his last, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom as a sign for everyone that peace and security with God had been bought by blood spilt. What began on this very worksite was eventually to lead to that time when God’s glory in the person of Jesus Christ came in all its fulness. So do you get the message? ‘Be strong’.
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