As I wrote previously, Haggai 1 is about “afflicting the comfortable” and Haggai 2:1-9 is about “comforting the afflicted.” Haggai 1 called out the peoples’ lack of faithful obedience to God, telling them to “consider your ways” and get back on track building the Temple in Jerusalem. Haggai 2 follows up a couple months later with words of comfort and encouragement as the people have begun to respond faithfully. This is not just an interesting literary feature of Haggai’s writings, but a very important model for Christian teaching and preaching.
Preaching the Law & the Gospel
Every tradition within Christianity has its own stereotypical features; one of those features of Lutheranism is the “Law-Gospel dynamic.” It permeates Martin Luther’s teaching style, and continues to be an archetypical preaching tactic in Lutheran sermons. Certainly, this is not unique to Lutheranism, but they have a tendency to make it stand out more clearly and simply.
The idea, here, is first to hit people with the Law: you are a sinner, you are destined for eternal punishment for falling short of the glory of God by your own most grievous fault, there is no good work that you can do to appease the rightful wrath of the Almighty Judge. Then you follow it up with the Gospel: Christ has come as God-in-the-flesh as your representative, he paid the price of the sins of the world, his righteousness will be accredited to you if you turn to him in faith. This basic dynamic between Law and Gospel is found throughout the Scriptures, and Haggai makes use of it in the course of his first two sermons.
Haggai preaches the Law
In chapter 1 he doles out the bad news and the rebukes. “Consider your ways,” he says in verses 5 and 7. Speaking on God’s behalf, he explains that the people’s poverty is 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” (1:9-11). God’s hand of punishment is on them, and they must change their ways.
Haggai preaches the Gospel
The good news of comfort begins in chapter 1 when God assures them that “I am with you” (1:13), but doesn’t really set in until the sermon of chapter 2. There, a couple months after the first message, God through Haggai promises “Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the Lord. Work, for I am with you, declares the Lord of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not” (2:4-5). He goes on to give two specific promises of encouragement – first that the enemies of God’s people will be judged and removed, and secondly that the new Temple will be more glorious than the first.
Lessons for Preaching Today
The dynamic of preaching Law & Gospel does not have to be formulaic. I gave it a try in my own preaching for a while last year, using a “good news / bad news” approach. It made for a clear sermon message, but got a little repetitive and uninteresting. I don’t mean the Law of God and the Gospel of God became dull, but my presentation of them grew tired. What we learn from biblical characters like Haggai is that one can be creative in how to use the Law-Gospel dynamic. Chapter 1’s sermon was very Law-heavy, with only a brief word of relief at the end. Whereas Haggai’s sermon in 2:1-9 was almost all comfort with only a hinted reminder of the word of Law. In a way you could consider his second sermon to be a sequel to the first.
This is not unlike how a preacher might take up a sermon series – it is a useful method by which the preacher is freed from having to try to say everything all at once. Of course, there are a lot of people who don’t attend church as regularly as they ought, and so there’s a danger through their absence that they might miss something crucial if the preacher spreads out a message too thinly across the weeks. So some link must be maintained in each individual sermon to Law and Gospel, even if sometimes it’s just implicit.
In Haggai’s second sermon, as I explained previously, the reminder of the Law – the homelessness of God in the ruin of his Temple – was not preached with words, but liturgically, in the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles that had been going on that week. So that’s another consideration for preaching – how does the liturgy, the contents & actions of the worship service itself, get taken into account when it’s time for the sermon? Or, to take this a step further, how does the Law & Gospel dynamic show forth through the liturgy itself, regardless of the sermon? This is an area where the traditional liturgical churches have much to offer the non-denominational and “contemporary worship” traditions.