a homily on Haggai 2:1-9 for Grace Anglican Church upon 26 June 2016
There is a common saying that good Christian preaching does two things: it comforts the afflicted, and it afflicts the comfortable. Last time, in Haggai 1, we afflicted the comfortable. Haggai’s words “consider your ways” echoed through the Scriptures all the way to our own day, challenging us to examine our lives and our decision-making, calling out our tendencies toward self-interest, and exposing how quickly we can abandon God, turn our backs on his Temple, the Church, the community of faith, and fall away from his spiritual blessings. Today’s sermon from Haggai moves the emphasis across to “comforting the afflicted.” God knew that his people were facing great challenges, and as they responded to his call to repentance and the obedience of faith, he sought to strengthen them with hope. That is what we see in today’s reading from Haggai 2.
Part One: Good Timing (v1)
The passage opens, as before, with the date of Haggai’s prophecy: the 21st day of the 7th month, which translates roughly to late October. There are two important observations to make here.
First, the timing is prompt. This word from the Lord came less than two months after the previous sermon; affirming the newfound obedience of the people. When people repent and turn to the Lord, one of the first things he does is give them His Peace. Peace is one of the “fruits of the Spirit” listed in Galatians 5 and is named in many New Testament blessings. True peace comes upon those who truly turn to the Lord. This doesn’t mean that every problem goes away, but a newfound stability is found on the Rock that is Christ, and the storms of life lose their power to rock our worlds quite as badly. More on that later.
Second, the timing is dramatic. This was the 7th or last day of the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev. 23:33-35,39), celebrating the Exodus event and the fall harvest. The people were living in tents (tabernacles) in remembrance of the exodus generation who lived in tents for 40 years, and now they were hearing sermons about God’s homelessness. Remember last week, that was one of the major arguments: you people have decent homes with roofs while God’s house, the Temple, lay in ruins. Go fix it! So now, just as the people are celebrating the big holiday that links them back to the exodus generation, God provides Haggai with the perfect sermon for the occasion.
Part Two: Problem & Encouragement (v2-5)
The sermon itself comes in two parts. The first part is verses 2-5, which focus on identifying a problem that was weighing on the people’s hearts and offering encouragement. The second part is verses 6-9, which direct the people to look ahead to the future. Once again, this is a good model of preaching in action here which we should imitate today. When we have troubles, our solace must come from God’s Word. But we don’t just look for present comfort as if God were our fairy godmother; rather, God’s promises point us to the future, to the return of Christ, to the resurrection of the dead, to the future glory of God’s people fully sanctified, fully glorified, fully vindicated before God and the world. That is how the Gospel is preached in the New Testament, and that is how the Old Covenant Prophets tended to preach as well.
Verse 3 starts us off with the questions that are bothering the people: they’ve started rebuilding the Temple, and they’re realizing that this isn’t going to turn out anywhere near as beautiful as the previous Temple. Those of you who used to attend large churches with beautiful architecture perhaps can relate – our little mission church is probably not going to be meeting in an ornate stone chapel with stained-glass windows and hand-woven altar cloths any time soon. There is a sense of loss, a sense of unworthiness, and a sense of inadequacy as they work and rebuild.
To this burden of the heart, God speaks to them in much the same language as he spoke to Joshua when the time of the Exodus was over: “be strong” (Deuteronomy 31:6-7, Joshua 1:6,9). Three times verse 4 says “be strong,” first to Zerubbabel the governor, then to Joshua the high priest, and then to all the people. But this is actually a double throwback. Not only is the message “be strong” reminiscent of the end of the exodus period which the people were just celebrating in the Feast of Tabernacles, but it’s also a message that came up when King Solomon began building the first Temple: “David said to Solomon his son, “Be strong and courageous and do it. Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed, for the Lord God, even my God, is with you. He will not leave you or forsake you, until all the work for the service of the house of the Lord is finished.” (1 Chronicles 28:20).
But of course, the message is never simply “be strong.” There’s a famous quote “God helps those who help themselves,” and it is not in the Bible. It’s almost perfectly false, actually – God helps people who are entirely unable to help themselves. The Bible describes the human condition of sinfulness as a form of death; we cannot help ourselves get out of death. Likewise, when God tells his people to be strong, he also promises his own presence and involvement. In verse 5 he declares “my Spirit remains in your midst.” This is crucial. You cannot be strong, you cannot be victorious, you cannot be successful or even comforted unless God is with you. When you try to go it alone is precisely when you begin to crash and burn. The day you say to yourselves “I’ve got this…” is the day you return to your old sin. It is only in the abiding presence of God that his strength is displayed in us.
God adds that this presence among his people is nothing new, but a promise he made in the Old Covenant. Ever since the days of Moses, God has pledged to be among his people. At that time it was especially signified and realized at the Ark of the Covenant and the Temple building. Today it’s even better – it’s God the Holy Spirit Himself dwelling within each of us, making us the Temple of Christ. And so he finishes this paragraph with the words “Do not be afraid,” which we may also translate as “Stop being afraid.” If our God is with us, what can man do to me?
Part Three: Look Ahead (v6-9)
With those words of comfort in place, based on promises God had already made, he now directs his people to lift up their heads and look ahead to the future. “I have done all this for you in the past, and I am with you still now, and I will do yet more for you in the times to come,” He seems to say. Specifically, his promises here revolve around the vindication of God’s people in the eyes of the nations around them, and the increase of the glory of the Temple. They were worried that what they were building wasn’t going to amount to much, so God is giving them a glimpse of what was yet to come. But, as prophecies go, it’s not always exactly what the people expect.
Verse 6 speaks of God shaking the heavens and the earth. Some people have tried to explain this to be an earthquake, but that’s missing the point of the expression. Rather, Haggai speaks of an “earth-shattering event.” This could be a major historical event, such as the great Persian/Greek wars during the reigns of Darius I and Xerxes (including the battle of Thermopylae, which was retold in the movie 300). Or this shaking could be some sort of amazing theophany – a public revealing of God. The arrival of God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord, certainly fits the bill, especially considering what comes next in this passage.
Verse 7 speaks of “the treasures of all nations” coming in to Jerusalem. The Hebrew word for treasure also means “desired,” so it may have a double meaning: 1) Gentiles bring their riches to the Temple to worship God (an image also beautifully taken up in Isaiah 60); and 2) The Desire, Jesus Christ, will come and glorify the Temple. That’s why we followed this reading with singing O Come, Desire of Nations.
Either way you take it, the message is that the Temple’s glory will outshine the first. Personally, I would assert that this points more to the Temples of Jesus’ physical and mystical bodies than to the Second Temple building in Jerusalem. Whether the people understood this at the time (which I’m sure they didn’t) is immaterial; this is an encouraging promise either way.
Then, in verse 8, he talks about the contents of the Temple: the silver and gold all belong to God. The original Tabernacle, in the desert during the time of the Exodus, was made from plunder from Egypt. The first Temple was made from Solomon’s foreign purchases, especially cedar trees from Lebanon. The second Temple also was being funded by the Persians. The Temple of Jesus’ human body also had foreign contributions – when you look through his genealogy you find Gentiles like Rahab and Ruth. And, lastly, the Temple of the mystical Body of Christ, the Church, is also made of Gentiles like you and me.
Despite these riches and contributions from the wealth of the nations, the true glory of the Temple is God Himself. What makes a Temple a Temple is not the silver and gold and other decorations, just as our congregation is not dependent on how nice the chalice and paten look on the altar. Rather, it is the presence of God that makes a Temple a Temple. The writings of Isaiah (61), Jeremiah (23:36-44), Ezekiel (37), and St. John’s Revelation (21:3, 22) are especially great teachers of this truth.
And finally Haggai’s sermon concludes with a promise of peace. Once again that peace is centered on the Temple; for he says in verse 9, “in this place I will give peace.” As I began to say at the beginning, peace is a gift from the Spirit, something that is found in God’s presence. Since the Temple is the place where God’s presence can best be found, that is where peace can best be found. For Haggai and his generation, that meant investing in rebuilding the Temple so they could commune with God more perfectly. For us, that means investing in the Church so we can have Communion with God more perfectly. Jesus said “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you,” (John 14:27) and “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). So again, the peace of God is the presence of God the Holy Spirit, given to us – a gift that nothing in the world can give.
I’d like to conclude with an echo of Haggai’s words found in the New Testament. Hebrews 12:25-27 says, “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking… [In the past] his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.” This highlights a lesson that we’ve been drawing out of Haggai’s message all along: the world is “shake-able” but Christ is a rock-solid foundation. In fact, he’s the rock on which to build; there is no other certainty in the world… except death and taxes, I suppose. J So it is to Christ that we must turn for our hope, our encouragement, our consolation, our strength, our solutions to life’s problems, and above all our salvation and cleansing from sin – the means of grace, the hope of glory.
“Therefore,” as Hebrews 12:28-29 concludes, “let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Let us pray.
Grant, O Lord, we beseech you, that the course of this world may be so peaceably ordered by your governance, that your Church may joyfully serve you in all godly quietness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.