a sermon on Haggai 1 for Grace Anglican Church on 19 June 2016
Introduction to the Book of the Prophet Haggai
Haggai is one of the last prophets in Judah. He ministered alongside Zechariah, and Malachi soon followed. These three are also the last three books in our Old Testament. After them there were no certifiable prophets for about 400 years when the John the Baptist started preaching by the River Jordan.
Both Haggai and Zechariah preached in the early days of Judah’s rebuilding after their exile in Babylon. You may recall that during the book of Ezra the prophets Haggai and Zechariah were mentioned as having preached about continuing the Temple-rebuilding project. For, although the first wave of returning exiles did build the sacrificial altar and the Temple’s foundation, they were scared into stopping by their hostile neighbors. For sixteen years it sat in shambles – useable but not pretty. Imagine holding our worship services in a parking lot with a cheap altar setup. It’d be valid, we could do it, but it would lack much of its usual appeal and the seriousness of worship would be difficult to communicate.
Besides, in the Old Covenant, God had prescribed how worship was to be conducted down to the minute details. Failure to rebuild the Temple was therefore not just a problem of aesthetics, but a problem of obedience to God’s Law. If the people were to be faithful, they would have to rebuild it.
Haggai’s book has four parts to it which we will deal with in four different sermons. The first, and longest, episode is chapter 1. Basically, it is a call to covenant renewal: the community of God’s faithful people needs to re-prioritize how they’re living. As we go through Haggai’s sermon, we’ll find a people caught up in their own self-interests who are moved toward repentance and restoring the God-centered interests proper to their identity as God’s people.
Explaining Haggai 1
The first verse begins with giving us three things. First there’s the date: “the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month,” which if we understand the ancient calendars correctly translates to August 29th, 520 BC. Second, there’s a technical phrase “the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the Prophet.” Versions of this statement are peppered throughout this book and the other later prophets; it emphasizes that these words really are from God himself, and that the prophet in question really is a divine messenger repeating what he saw in his God-given visions. Thirdly, we’re given an intended audience: “to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest.” We’ve already met these two characters briefly in the book of Ezra. While not well-remembered among Christians today, Zerubbabel and Joshua were extremely important leaders in Jewish history. They worked together to oversee the early stages of the rebuilding of Jerusalem, including the Second Temple. It was under their leadership that Israel was reborn, no longer as an independent kingdom, but as a distinct religious community – a theocratic state, almost like a church.
Haggai’s preaching cuts to the chase. “These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord,” he reports. But God’s retort is direct and uncompromising: “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” The picture here is not one of wealth – the “paneled houses” aren’t luxurious estates with beautiful interiors; rather, the paneling refers more to the fact that their houses have roofs. The people’s houses are inhabitable, but God’s house is uninhabitable – it’s just an altar on a foundation, like our imaginary church in the parking lot. If you think about it, building houses could be done anywhere, even in exile; the point of returning to Jerusalem was to be able to worship God again according to the Law, which means rebuilding the Temple.
The poverty of the people is also pointed out – they have sown much to harvest little, they eat but are still hungry, drink but still thirst, have clothes but still aren’t warm, earn wages that never seem to stay in the purse. Perhaps that last one is the easiest for us to relate to – a “bag with holes” sounds a lot like those bank accounts we often find difficult to keep as filled as we want. At first this might make us sympathize with the people. They’re poor, times are tough, of course they can’t afford to give much toward rebuilding the Temple yet; they need to get back on their feet first, don’t they? Haggai’s contemporary, Zechariah, offers some insight that the people had selfish motives when he asks the rhetorical question, “were you not eating and drinking for your own sake?” (Zechariah 7:6). Also, when God says “these people” instead of “my people” in verse 2, and addresses them as “you yourselves” in verse 4, more hints of calling out their self-interest arise.
But claiming poverty as an excusable reason for not rebuilding the Temple really gets swept away in verses 7-11. Through Haggai, God informs the people that their poverty is not an excuse from serving Him, but actually the punishment for not serving him. Verses 9 through 11 make this very clear:
You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the Lord of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors.
In short, their poverty and “bad luck” is actually God’s doing. If they were to change their ways and serve Him, things would be different. It’s reminiscent of something Malachi said: “You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need” (3:9-10). The connection between the condition of God’s house and God’s people is also highlighted with some wordplay. When Haggai wrote that the Temple “lies in ruins,” and that God “called for a drought,” the words “ruin” and “drought” are almost identical in Hebrew: horeb and hareb. So by using similar words he makes a memorable connection between the people’s lack of blessing God, and God’s lack of blessing the people.
And so, as both verse 5 and verse 7 say, the people must “consider your ways.” God wants his people to stop going through the motions of ordinary life and actually think about what they’re doing, and what they’re not doing.
Thankfully, the people get the message. Verse 12 lists not only the leaders Zerubbabel and Joshua, but also “all the remnant of the people” responded in obedience. This positive movement of repentance is immediately encouraged both by God’s words, “I am with you,” and by God’s works of stirring up the spirits of the leaders to rebuild the Temple. The book of Ezra began this way too, when God stirred up the heart of King Cyrus of Persia to allow the Jewish people to return home. In fact all good things begin this way – God stirs up hearts. As the prayer of confession in the Daily Office puts it, “apart from [God’s] grace there is no health in us.” Another collect in the prayer book asks God to “go before us in all our doings.” No good work, no change of heart, no act of repentance, no commitment of faith ever comes from a human heart unaided by God the Holy Spirit.
This chapter ends with the date in reverse order as verse 1, as if to give a neat set of bookends to the whole thing. You’ll notice that it only took about three weeks for this message to get through to the people, which is pretty good, all things considered. Though, also considering it was harvest season, this might’ve come together even more quickly if they weren’t so busy in the fields at the time!
On the face of it, this is a very encouraging story. We see people living in a manner characterized by self-interest, God’s Word breaking into their midst and piercing their hearts and minds, such that they are moved to repentance. And as you may recall from the book of Ezra, the Temple was completed in just a few years after that – the people really pulled together to get things done!
But, of course, the Bible exists for purposes beyond relating the history of God’s people. As we consider this story, what do we learn about God, His Church, and ourselves? Three thoughts come to mind.
First is just a quick note about who God is. He is described a few times here as “the Lord of hosts,” which also gets translated as Lord Almighty, Lord God Sabbaoth, or Lord God of Power & Might. This you’ll recognize from the Sanctus which we sing or say at every celebration of Holy Communion: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of power and might. This “power and might” or these “hosts” which in Hebrew is sabbaoth, refers to a heavenly army. The grammar of the phrase, also, suggests that God not only has this army, but creates this army. And it’s an army of angels. For a people now living under the rule of foreign kings, the emphasis that God is an even more powerful King with an even more formidable army must have been great comfort. Perhaps we should give that more thought when we recite the Sanctus week by week.
Second, Haggai’s audience initially thought that their poverty was an excuse for not obeying all God’s commands, when in fact it was the other way around: their poverty was a result of their disobedience. Some Christians today have flipped this misunderstanding around completely, making an equally false claim that if we have the obedience of faith, we will invoke God’s blessings upon us! Against this so-called Prosperity Gospel, we must remember that rebuilding the Temple was not a magical solution to all their problems; rather, it helped rectify the damaged relationship between God and His people. Similarly, simply our “going to church” and “having faith” won’t make our life problems go away, but such faithful obedience is helpful for keeping our relationship with God healthy.
Third, and finally, a pattern of response to God’s Word is modeled in this story which mirrors other major events in the history of God’s people, and serves as a useful instruction for us today. In the last few verses of the chapter we see three distinct steps reported in a deliberate order. First, in verse 12, is the response of obedience. God’s Word is heard and heeded. Second, at the end of verse 12, God is feared. This doesn’t just mean that people were afraid of God, but also connotes their respect for God’s power and authority. And, considering that the Proverbs and Psalms teach us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” it could also be said that this response is one of worship: God’s worth has been noted and publically recognized. Finally, in verse 14, the people worked. This can be a challenge for us because our American culture teaches us to favor “taking action,” but this sequence pushes action back to follow the resolve to obey God and the act of worshiping God.
A similar pattern of response to God’s Word took place at Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus, though it was more drawn out and riddled with unfaithful distractions along the way. In 19:14, the people washed their garments in obedient preparation. Then in 24:1 they worship God. And then in 25:2-3 they begin collecting contributions for the Ark and the sanctuary, which was the precursor to the Temple. Again, the priorities had to be straightened out and the hearts oriented aright before the people were to serve God. “The point” as St. Paul (2 Cor. 9:6-7) once put it, “is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Generous giving and service is expected from all God’s people, but it needs to follow obedience and worship, for “the one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies” God (Psalm 50:23).
All things considered, Haggai’s first sermon is a tough call to faithful obedience, worship, and service to God which calls us out of our sinful self-centered tendencies. We’re challenged to examine our lifestyles and decision-making, especially to consider the possibility that our “lack of harvest” may be due to God’s chastening rather than simple bad luck.
The people in Haggai’s day needed to re-prioritize both their individual lives and their community life. Their neglect of the Temple and focus on themselves hindered both their spiritual growth in relationship with God as well as their earthly growth in prosperity and security. While neither they nor we should treat this like some sort of magical thinking, it is worth considering the condition of our obedience, worship, and service to God when reflecting on any shortcomings we see in our individual or community lives.
So, if you have any concerns about your well-being, or the well-being of our little church community, then I invite you, as Haggai said twice in this chapter, to “consider your ways.”