Not Quickly Shaken
Not Quickly Shaken
Robert P. Hoch
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
November 10, 2019
In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the LORD; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, 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, says the LORD of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the LORD of hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the LORD of hosts.
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose, he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.
It’s not difficult to detect the felt anxiety of Haggai’s audience. Biblical scholars date the prophet Haggai to around 520 BCE, about sixty-six years, plus or minus, following the Babylonian Deportation of 586 BCE. That event had left the temple in Jerusalem in ruins. The people scattered. Some remained, but they weren’t anything like a coherent community. Too many people were lost, too many people disappeared. But history isn’t static. Things had changed dramatically. Babylon was no longer the ruling empire. King Darius, a Persian ruler, had rolled into Babylon, decapitated the capital of the empire, overthrown their system of rule, and had started to bring back the people who had been forcibly removed. These are the people that Haggai speaks to in 520 BCE. 1
The deportees had returned to the temple, but the temple isn’t anything like it used to be. It’s in ruins. And maybe the people aren’t much better. They’re in ruins, too. Haggai addresses his question to what seems like the Boomers in the crowd, what we might call the Bible Boomers, the people who were old enough to have seen better days. At least, that’s what biblical scholars suggest; they’d have to be in their seventies to have any reference point to compare the present with the past. And so he asks, “What do you see? How does it compare with what you knew, back before the Babylonian deportation? Is it as nothing to you?”
They said compared to what it was back in the day, it’s ruined. It’s depressing. It’s poor. It’s a wreck. And, most painful of all, it’s the temple, where God’s glory is supposed to dwell. Read today’s text and you get a whiff of the cognitive dissonance in the congregation that day. On the one hand, this is the temple. It soars and yet it’s in ruins. And maybe there’s also a sense of nostalgia. Back in the day, it wasn’t like this. You should have seen it, back in the day, when
A Boomer, an actual boomer from our century, then in his mid-seventies, said to me that back in the day, people lined up to join the church. Lined up! He said people were so eager to join the church, he couldn’t keep up. I can’t even imagine that. I’m too young to remember those days! I don’t get to say that so much anymore, but I’m not too young to miss the obvious, that is, the cognitive dissonance is really high. Especially for those of us, maybe boomers, who might say that we remember better days.
Better days doesn’t necessarily mean more just days, more diverse days, or even more faithful days. It may mean that we remember a church like this one being full. Or at least comfortably full rather than uncomfortably empty. We certainly remember a church like this one being comfortably endowed. People knew what a church meant, back then. And maybe we imagine we knew church and we did church.
A former minister of the Riverside Church in New York, a church that might not be terribly different from ours in terms of historical legacy, spirit, and physical complex, says that she feels like maybe people aren’t leaving the faith, but they are leaving the church. Which would be okay, I suppose, except for those of us who still believe the church is more than a cultural artifact. We still believe that God set this place apart. Yes, God is everywhere and God is pleased to be here in particular. And we’re in this space, which tells us that God’s glory visited us here once upon a time. Maybe we ask, nervously, “Why is this happening? Why have so many left? Why am I here?”
It’s not all nostalgia for the past. It may start there. But my guess is that those thoughts migrate to a more tender place of the soul. We begin to wonder, we think, we zero in ourselves, as we almost always do: “I knew it. I just didn’t add up. My faith, my generation wasn’t strong enough. In the end, when the roll call went out, my name never came up, maybe because I didn’t show- up, or I didn’t show-up enough to count, to really matter.”
Nostalgia for the past may be the symptom but not the disease. What was Haggai’s diagnosis of the disease? True, the building was in ruins; and it is true that Haggai was committed to building a real, physical temple. Haggai reminds us that “God wanted dedication to the task, not nostalgia for the past.” 2 This real temple will require real strength. But before he could build a real temple, Haggai had to form a real people. And the way Haggai does that is not by sugar-coating the situation. But he goes deeper than the surface of the situation, the ruins. He goes to our reaction to that situation and even more to the God who stands in the midst of that situation and gives strength, resolve, and yes imagination for facing that situation.
My spirit abides among you.
Do not fear.
Remember my promises.
Once again, in a little while, I’m going to shake the universe and when I do the glory of yesterday will pale in comparison to the glory of tomorrow.
God asks us to be strong. Haggai repeats this phrase three times as if in answer to the three questions he poses to his congregation. Be strong. And in just a little while, God will shake the heavens and the earth, and God will fill the city with shalom, peace, which includes physical wholeness and economic justice and inner peace throughout. Haggai also reminds us our part in this narrative may seem like the whole story, but if God is a part of this story, and Haggai is utterly convinced of this, then we too are part of a much bigger narrative.
The people in Jerusalem needed to rebuild the temple. That was their task. It was real. It requires, as God always does, human hands as the agency of God’s restoration. Haggai was convinced of that. But he also knew they needed to know they were a people, a people called by God, loved by God, entrusted by God, encouraged by God, claimed by God, sent by God, strengthened by God.
The congregation at Thessalonica was, like Haggai’s congregation, sitting in a place of cognitive dissonance. They had believed, incorrectly it turns out, that Jesus was coming back within their lifetime. Instead, when Jesus didn’t, it felt as if God had left them standing at the altar. Maybe they felt as if God had had second thoughts about them.
The people steeple wasn’t in such great shape. In that place, Paul’s letter reminds us to give thanks for each other. Really give thanks for one another. To be here today, physically, emotionally, and intellectually present to one another and God, takes courage. Strength. Paul
builds people before he builds steeples. Paul’s words shine God’s tenderness for those in the ruins: beloved, chosen and purposed to be the delight of God.
When I come down Howard, I see our steeple. A mile away, it’s visible. People tell me they first came to this church because they saw our steeple through their jail cell or through a hospital window. I like those stories. But if I’m truthful when I see that steeple, I also feel a burden — we’ve had to put up fencing because it’s scaling. And still no progress on restoration. A little voice in me says, What’s the matter with us? Can’t we do anything? What’s the matter with me? But Paul speaks to us, particularly that tender part of us, reminding that we were called here, for this time and place.
That call includes our steeple. We have a task ahead of us. It’s real. But it’s not a mindless build, baby, build. If God is shaking the world, maybe our mental image of the church needs to be shaken as well. We’re not simply restoring the past but reimagining the future. I shared with Session that I would like us to begin celebrating communion with our homeless friends, with people struggling with addiction. Almost immediately, one of our officers, who happens to work for the Maryland State Health Department suggested that we also talk about being trained to use Narcan, the antidote to overdose.
The body of Christ,
the cup of salvation,
The former pastor of the Riverside Church might agree with this seemingly odd picture. She asks, “What if Christianity looked more like a farmers market attached to a [health] clinic? What if our Communion tables were built as restaurants that employed the recently incarcerated for a living wage? What if, instead of practicing out of our ornate buildings, the church went anywhere people gathered to tell a narrative of hope, engage in ritual that heals us and build communities that reflect our deepest values?” 3
What if? Can I leave this sermon right here, with a holy unrest, with a what if?
- Carol E. Meyers and Eric M. Meyers, Haggai and Zechariah 1-8: Introduction, Translation, and Notes in the Anchor Bible Series (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1987), 49.
- W. Eugene March, “Haggai” in New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 7 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 725.
- Amy Butler, “Christianity is Dying” accessed on 20 November 2019 at
https://religionnews.com/2019/10/30/christianity-as-we-know-it-is-dying-lets-welcome-the-new- life- ahead/?fbclid=IwAR3O_2mAD5cW3rcTIPqncmjplOCQU3hHn18iybKVivJzazVc2kj6h4_yDN E.