If your calendar hasn’t alerted you already, the retail stores certainly have: the holidays are fast approaching. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s are right around the corner. It’s common on these holidays to gather around a table with friends and family, sharing food and laughter and, often, memories.
In my family, we retell the story of how a cousin and her husband unexpectedly showed up one year with a newborn—the first child they would adopt. Every year we laugh about how my mother became convinced that my husband didn’t like turkey, because he always puts Open Pit BBQ sauce on it. From then on, she would make a ham “for Marc,” and then get annoyed if he ate turkey instead. We remember the time one of my brothers published an article in the 6th grade newspaper that nearly got my parents sued. The memories fly, fast and furious.
Like most families, we remember weddings and special birthdays. We remember the joy of each new baby’s arrival, and we grow quiet as we remember the people who are no longer with us. Some memories produce smiles. Some produce tears. And, some may evoke a sense of longing—longing for the way things used to be.
In reality, the years we remember as “golden” may not have been quite as golden as we think. But, in our memories, life seemed simpler in the past. We long for the days when we ignored things like racism and sexism and a rainbow of identities. We long for the days when schoolchildren didn’t do active shooter drills and we could be part of a crowd without worrying about getting mowed down by a car or a gun. The days when political rivals didn’t question the legitimacy of our elections, and we were ignorant of the effects of climate change. We long for the days when we were hopeful that we would have security in old age and that our children would have even greater opportunities than we did.
We feel this longing for the church of the past, too. So often, when we gather, the conversation turns to memories of how the church used to be. How athletic events didn’t compete for Sunday mornings. How every corner of the church was packed with Sunday School students, young and old. How the choir filled the chancel and cash filled the offering plates.
When this sense of longing takes root, we can find ourselves in the same position as the ancient Jewish people in Jerusalem. Like them, we compare what we remember of the past to what we have in the present, and the present suffers in the comparison. Our longing for the days of our memories can cause us to look at the present with disappointment, or even discouragement. It would be understandable if God posed the same question to us as was asked of the Jews: “How does the present situation look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?”
When we left the people of Judah last week, they were hard at work on rebuilding the temple. They had been moved by God’s word, spoken through Haggai, to re-order their priorities so that their devotion to God came first in their lives. Rebuilding the temple was tangible evidence of their renewed commitment.
But there was a problem. Among the people, there were those who were old enough to remember the splendor of Solomon’s temple, before it had been destroyed by the Babylonians. Three stories of finished stone, with paneling and doors of olivewood and cedar, engraved with carvings of cherubim and palm trees and open flowers. There were bronze pillars, topped with latticework and lilies and two hundred carved pomegranates. All the utensils for use in the temple were made of bronze and gold, intricately engraved and set upon stands framed by lions and oxen. Then, as a final touch, the entire thing—the whole house of the Lord—was overlaid with gold. It was splendid nearly beyond imagining.
But it was not beyond remembering. When the people who remembered looked at the reconstruction in front of them, they didn’t celebrate the progress that had been made. They mourned what they had lost. They looked at the new version of the temple and, in their sight, it was as nothing. They had hoped for a reproduction of what had been, but what they got was, in their view, an enormous disappointment. The feeling was contagious. Their discouragement spread to their political leaders and their religious leaders and, indeed, to all the people of the land.
Maybe this feeling had spread throughout the community in the same way our longing can spread around our holiday tables. The story in our passage takes place during a holiday gathering—the seventh day of the eight-day festival called the Feast of Booths. This feast celebrated several significant events in Israel’s life and history. It was an annual celebration of the harvest. But, its primary purpose was as a reminder of God’s sustaining care for God’s people. For the duration of the festival, the people were to live in “booths”—temporary structures made of tree branches. These booths served as reminders of God’s care for the people in the wilderness, after God had led them out of Egypt to freedom. Coincidentally, the festival also brought back memories of the beautiful temple that once was, since it was during this festival more than four hundred years earlier that Solomon had dedicated that first temple.
Just three weeks into the rebuilding project, the people were losing heart. The festival must have intensified their feelings. But God had a word to speak to them, and it isn’t the word we might have expected. We might have expected the Divine Cheerleader to say, “Keep trying; you can do it!” We might even have expected the exasperated Heavenly Parent to say, “Quit your whining and get back to work.” But what God says is, “Take courage.” To the governor Zerubbabel, God says, “Take courage.” To the high priest Joshua, God says, “Take courage.” To all the people of the land, God says, “Take courage. Be strong. Be firm. Be resolute. Be bold. Take courage.”
This festival was a time to honor what God had done in the past and to celebrate what God was doing in the present. But, the people had allowed their memories of the past to devalue the reality of the present. From the highest echelon to the lowest grass roots, the people were so busy looking backwards that they couldn’t see the worth of what they were doing in the present and they couldn’t look forward to the future.
But looking in the rear-view mirror is not the God’s-eye view. God’s gaze is always directed towards what lies ahead. And what lies ahead is something glorious. “Once again, in a little while,” God says through Haggai, “I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, and in this place I will give prosperity,” says the Lord of hosts.
While the people were transfixed by their memories of the past, God is fixed on the future—a future temple that would outshine everything that came before. A temple that would draw all nations unto itself. A temple that would hold all that is most precious to God. A temple from which God will give prosperity.
The ancient peoples probably understood these words literally, hoping that silver and gold would once again adorn the temple walls. They probably expected that the superior splendor of the new temple would draw the wealth of other nations, and the nation of Israel would enjoy economic and political success. There are present-day preachers of the sham “prosperity gospel” who might say the same thing. But the temple God was speaking of was not one made of wood and stone. It was a temple made of flesh and blood. The temple that would shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land and all the nations, is Jesus. Silver and gold are of no consequence; they are all God’s anyway. But the temple that we know to be Jesus is one of true riches that draws true treasure: people from all nations and all backgrounds.
From the temple that we know to be Jesus, God gives prosperity. But this isn’t just the prosperity that puts money in the bank or a new car in the garage or the latest iPhone in your pocket. The Hebrew word that God speaks through Haggai is shalom, and shalom is prosperity on a whole other level. It’s health and safety for the body. It’s contentment and tranquility for the spirit. It’s friendship with other people and with God. Shalom is the peace that passes all understanding. The prosperity that God offers through the temple that is Jesus is, in a word, wholeness.
This is the prosperity that God promised the Jewish people through Haggai. This is the promise whose fulfillment began when Jesus shook the world by bringing the kingdom near. It is the promise that will be completed when he comes again.
Today is All Saints Sunday, when we honor the saints who have gone on to glory. In the United Methodist Church, we believe that saints are Christians of every time and place who lived faithfully and shared their faith. “Saints” exemplify the Christian life. The saints we remember and honor today built the foundations on which the church now stands—its spiritual foundations as well as its physical foundations. It is appropriate to celebrate what they built.
But in this remembering, we cannot become discouraged by the difference between what we remember and what is now. However small or insignificant our efforts may seem to us, especially in comparison with a remembered past, they are not “as nothing.” What we do—in the church, in our families, and in our world—is as vital today as the Jewish people’s rebuilding work so long ago. We have work to do in the present which is part of God’s plan for the future—a plan for gathering the people of all nations unto God and building a kingdom of love and compassion, mercy and justice.
As we consider the present and look towards the future, we are assured by the words God spoke to the people of Jerusalem. We take courage from the assurance that God is with us. We take courage from the assurance that God’s spirit abides among us and in us. We take courage from the fact that, in Jesus, God kept God’s promise of a temple that would exceed any earthly building and that, in him, we find true prosperity. Take courage, beloved, for God will use what we do in the present to move the world toward God’s glorious future. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young