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What is your favorite Bible story? 
One story that we don’t hear much about is the one about the people coming back to Israel after their exile in Babylon and starting to rebuild the temple, but then stopping and leaving it half-finished for at least ten years. Do you know this story?
Most of the story is told in the book of Ezra, with some help from the writings of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. It’s not a very pretty story.
They were in this situation because back in the year 586 BC, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the city, and carried many of the people off to Babylon as captives. It didn’t happen quickly. The city was under siege for more than a year. During that time, some died of starvation.
Eventually, the Babylonians wore the Israelites down and broke through the city walls. Once that happened, it didn’t take long to finish the job. They set fire to the city, and killed or captured almost everyone. They stripped the temple of all its gold and silver ornamentation and fixtures. Then they set fire to the temple and within 24 hours it had burned to the ground.
Today’s reading is 70 years later, when some of the people have come back from Babylon and are working on rebuilding Jerusalem. Some of these people had never seen the temple because they had been born in exile in Babylon, but they had heard about it from their parents and grandparents. It may have sounded even grander in their stories than it was in reality. And some of the people who returned were old enough to remember, and their sadness would have affected the others as well.
When Haggai came to speak to the people, they had given up on rebuilding the temple. Some of their discouragement and frustration came from the difficulty of rebuilding. Some came from the harassment they were getting from those who had settled there over the past 70 years. Fear got in the way of rebuilding. (Ezra 3:1-3)
Jewish tradition says that the date that the temple was destroyed was the 9th of the month of Av, the fifth month in the Jewish calendar. In Hebrew it’s called Tisha B’av. Tradition says that the second temple, the one that Ezra and Haggai helped get built when the exiles returned, was also destroyed, this time by the Romans in 70 AD, and on that same date. Tisha B’av. Now, each year, the Jewish people celebrate Tisha B’av as a day of mourning and fasting. The prophet Jeremiah wrote Lamentations, his book of laments, as he watched Jerusalem and the temple be destroyed. It is common to use readings from the book of Lamentations at Jewish worship services on this day.
In the midst of her sadness and wandering,
Jerusalem remembers her ancient splendor.
But now she has fallen to her enemy,
and there is no one to help her.
Her enemy struck her down
and laughed as she fell. Lamentations 1:7
The fact that this day of mourning continues today, 2500 years after the first temple was destroyed, gives us a bit of a window into the minds of the people to whom Haggai was speaking in our reading today. The temple had been the heart of their religion and culture. It was grand because it was said to be the dwelling place of God. It was symbolic of God’s presence and providence. How sad and discouraged they must have been to see that it had been burned to the ground.
It was easier to keep to themselves and focus on their own houses. So the first message Haggai brings is this: “Why are you living in luxurious houses while my house lies in ruins? (Hag. 1:4) One commentator describes Haggai’s words as a “kick in the pants.” I suppose we all need a kick in the pants once in awhile.
Haggai challenged the people to get back to work on rebuilding the temple, and also encouraged them with this message from the Lord: “I am with you.” (Hag. 1:13) And so they got to work.
But the people still needed encouragement, because they could see that new temple wasn’t going to be nearly as grand and glorious as the first one, the one Solomon built. Haggai acknowledges their grief.
‘Does anyone remember this house—this Temple—in its former splendor? How, in comparison, does it look to you now? It must seem like nothing at all!… Be strong, all you people still left in the land. And now get to work, for I am with you, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. 5 My Spirit remains among you, just as I promised when you came out of Egypt. So do not be afraid.’
Be strong. Don’t be afraid. God’s Spirit remains among you.
Notice that Haggai doesn’t tell them that things will be easier in the future. He actually tells them that there will continue to be times of struggle. “In just a little while I will again shake the heavens and the earth, the oceans and the dry land.” (v6) But regardless how things seem, God’s presence and God’s glory continues.
“The future glory of this Temple will be greater than its past glory, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. And in this place I will bring peace. I, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, have spoken!” (9)
Rebuilding is hard. It was hard then and it’s hard now.
I discovered this with the church in Galveston that I was at before I came to Kansas. They have that very verse written in the cement in front of their sanctuary. Verse 9 was an encouragement to them and me as we were rebuilding after an arson fire damaged the sanctuary. Like the Israelites to whom Haggai spoke, the Galveston church had begun to rebuild, but then gotten stalled by fears and concerns. Like most churches, they had experienced decline over the years, and they were concerned that the new building would cost more in insurance and maintenance. Would they be able to afford it? Some thought the wiser course would be to save the money instead.
The reality is that all churches go through struggles and hard seasons. All churches have times of expansion and times of reduction. Each individual congregation has these waves, and each individual denomination has these waves. One of the most challenging aspects of this is that we aren’t always having these ups and downs at the same time. So we look at another church that’s on the rise and think they must be better than us. Not necessarily. They’re just in a different season.
Christianity as a whole also has these waves. Christian sociologist and writer Phyllis Tickle says that Christianity goes through a reformation cycle about every 500 years. 500 years ago we had the Great Reformation. 500 years before that there was the Great Schism. 500 years before that was the fall of the Roman empire and the rise of Gregory the Great. You might be seeing a great pattern here. We should note that Gregory the Great did not cause the fall of the Roman Empire; he came in and brilliantly cleaned up the mess. And 500 years before that, Christianity was born. Jesus Christ was born.
2000 years of 500 year cycles means that we’re in the midst of one right now. Phyllis Tickle calls it the Great Emergence, but another scholar says it’s like a giant rummage sale in which we get rid of what’s no longer working, new expressions emerge, and Christianity grows and spreads in new ways.
She was writing about this before the pandemic, which has just compounded what was already happening. And as a result, many of us are discouraged. Many have given up on the church as an institution, and even on gathering with other people. It’s not surprising – this is what happens when we are fearful and anxious. We draw inward to protect ourselves.
The writer of the book of Hebrews encourages us:
23 Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. 24 Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. 25 And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near. (Hebrews 10:23-25)
We gather together to encourage one another. To help each other to continue to hold on to the hope we have in Jesus Christ. To help each other to do acts of love and good works. To continue to trust in God’s providence and presence.
We need to keep on encouraging one another because so often it seems like God has left us. But often God’s work is subtle and small and easy to miss. And sometimes we aren’t sure whether we’re actually making any difference. But even small gestures matter.
There’s a TV series on the Disney Channel right now called The Mysterious Benedict Society. It’s about four kids who are on a mission to save the world. They’re searching for the source of subliminal messaging that’s filling everyone’s minds with anxious thoughts and fear. If it continues, society will self-destruct. While the children are searching, one of the adults that’s helping guide them, Rhonda, gets frustrated waiting to hear from the children and decides to take some action of her own. She climbs up onto a billboard that encourages people to be afraid and paints over some of the letters so that instead it encourages people to feel. One of the other adults sees her and chastises her for wasting her time and energy on something that won’t make much difference. But Rhonda says these small acts are what keep her sane.
Small acts that seem inconsequential can make a difference, especially if they help to remind us who we are. Jesus ways in Luke 20 that we are: “…children of God and children of the resurrection.” (Luke 20:35-36)
We are children of God and children of the resurrection. We’re also children of the reformation. We’re witnesses of a long history of God’s work of revival and renewal. We’ve got no reason to expect anything less from God in the present and future.
So we’ve got to keep on trusting God and encouraging one another. And this is one of the reasons that during this season many churches are asking their people to pledge their financial support for the coming year. It’s a way that we literally put our money where our mouth is. We profess our faith, and then we demonstrate that faith by pledging our support for the coming year. We don’t know what will happen in the year ahead, but we’re trusting God for whatever happens. And we commit to working together to do God’s work.
This year our church isn’t sending out letters or asking you to turn in pledge cards. The reality is those were always just between you and God, and maybe your family, if you decide together what to give. So this year, go ahead and pray about it, have your family conversations, and write your commitment to God somewhere that you’ll have it to remember. If you use the online giving and set up a recurring payment, the online system will remember for you.
Haggai tells the people in Jerusalem that God says, “I will fill this place with glory…and in this place I will bring peace.” (Hag. 2:7,9)
That’s God promising his presence and providence. In all the big and small ways that we keep on trusting God for whatever happens in the days and years ahead, and keep on taking action based on that trust, we become a part of filling this place, this world, with God’s glory, and bringing God’s peace.
 2 Kings 25:1–7; 2 Chronicles 36:12; Jeremiah 32:4–5; 34:2–3; 39:1–7; 52:4–11, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Jerusalem_(587_BC)#:~:text=Jerusalem%20fell%20after%20a%2030,city%20and%20the%20First%20Temple.
 Image by Jeremy Park, creator of 3D models at Bible-Scenes.com and used with permission through Creative Commons. Accessed at https://www.freebibleimages.org/illustrations/bs-solomon-temple-outer/
 Harper Bibles. The NRSV Daily Bible: Read, Meditate, and Pray Through the Entire Bible in 365 Days (p. 1091). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
 Tickle, Phyllis. The Great Emergence (p. 10). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 The Mysterious Benedict Society, Season 1, Episode 4, “A Whisper, Not A Shout” https://www.laughingplace.com/w/articles/2021/07/09/recap-the-mysterious-benedict-society-episode-4-a-whisper-not-a-shout-disney/