We live in tough times for the church and for the world. True, life is not as obviously tough as it must have been for people during the Great War, whose end is remembered today. But we live with constant wars around the globe; and with being told that we must be alert lest we become subject to terrorism. We are experiencing strange weather patterns unusually severe drought and fire and flood, and the probability that these patterns are caused by global warming to which we all contribute. And so we live with questions about the future of our very existence. We worry about what life will be like for our children and grandchildren, in a world whose values seem to be so different from those we were brought up with. And we look at a church whose glory is a thing of the past.
How do we live in the face of this? Do we switch off; live in a state of denial? Or do we live with a constant underlying anxiety? Or do we face the reality with a sense of fatalism we can do nothing about impending doom, so lets just eat, drink and be merry?
Or are we, as Gods people, challenged to live differently: not burying our heads in the sand, but neither giving way to despair?
Haggai also lived in challenging times. The people of Judah Gods people had been in exile in Babylon for years. Some had been allowed to return a while back, and had even started rebuilding the Temple. But they hadnt got far with their work. Now a much larger group had returned. But the work hadnt progressed much further. There were set-backs. There had been bad seasons and the crops had failed. There was conflict in Jerusalem, where some people just didnt want the Temple to be rebuilt.
During their exile, Isaiah had given them a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, where everything would be good again: people would be healthy, they would reap the rewards of their labours; there would be harmony, peace. But it was very hard to hold on to the vision, to maintain their hope. They had looked forward to new possibilities in their society and in their religion. But things were happening so slowly. So Haggai was called to speak to these dispirited people: people feeling as we might well feel right now.
Haggai was actually writing just after the Feast of Tabernacles: a joyful celebration, where hopes would have been lifted. But then again nothing changed. Now they were approaching the Day of Atonement, a time for confession. And Haggai invited the people to reflect on whether they might be part of the problem. Had they been governed by self-interest, more concerned with getting their own houses built than with focussing on the needs of the wider community and the rebuilding of the Temple. Maybe if we are feeling discouraged about the state of things around us, we might ask the same question: are we contributing to these woes? How prepared are we to limit our use of the worlds resources to save the environment? its hard to leave the car at home! Its hard not to be tempted by all the new technology that makes life interesting. How prepared are we to trust the people around us who are different different in race, or beliefs, or culture rather than fall prey to the climate of fear?
So Haggai asked the people for some self-examination, at time of confession.
But that was not his main point. He wanted to restore their spirits, to give them heart to get on with the job, to refocus and build the sort of community for which Isaiah had given them the vision.
He addressed the whole community: the political leader; the religious leaders; and the ordinary people. Take heart! Have courage! You might feel despondent because the Temple as it is now is so different from the glory you remember from the past. But stop and think about what the Temple stands for. It is not the building that matters, but what it signifies: that God is with us. Gods presence is around us here and now, even in these tough times.
Faithful people are constantly challenged to ask what is at the heart of our faith and what is peripheral. Haggai points Gods people back to the Exodus, where in this most difficult time, where they had so little, their experience of God was most profound. The long history of Gods people is not a history of quick fixes. But God is faithful. The present, with all its worries, can be seen as part of a long, ongoing journey with God. So the people were to take courage. For the source of their courage was not to lie in the completion of the Temple, but in the sure knowledge that God was with them.
Yes, we need to recognise that we can never be worthy of God and to confess that. But at the same time we can take courage that God does not leave us.
That strange conversation between the Sadducees and Jesus, where they talk about who will be married to whom in the resurrection really makes the same point. The Sadducees did not believe in resurrection. Their question was simply meant as a trap for Jesus. And he makes this clear: if there is no resurrection, their question is irrelevant. But, Jesus says, God is the God of the living. God holds us in Gods care both now and after the end of this earthly life. We can tie ourselves up in knots asking difficult questions. We can lead ourselves to despair wondering why bad things happen to good people. But finally, we are in Gods loving hands. That is the source of our hope in these troubled times. That is what gives us courage to face up to ourselves and to face up to the realities in our world. And then to focus on what needs to be done to help fulfil the vision for a new earth.
Take heart. God is here with us! Thanks be to God!