A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, November 6, 2016
Texts: Haggai 1:15b-2:9
Those of us born in Kansas take pride in our state song, which speaks of a home where “seldom is heard a discouraging word and the sky is not cloudy all day.” Sounds like a rather ideal place. I wonder if modern day Kansas – or any other place for that matter – measures up. How about you? Do you know of a place where “seldom is heard a discouraging word”? Do you find this to be true in your own lives – time and space with little or no discouragement? I will confess that, when looking at the world in which we live, even from the beauty and security of Palo Alto, I get pretty discouraged. All you have to do is turn on the radio or television, smart phone or computer, even pick up a newspaper or magazine, which I understand a few old timers still do. There they are in black and white, living color, or buzzing sound waves – discouraging words everywhere!
Discourage – “to deprive of courage, hope, or confidence; dishearten; dispirit.” I can’t imagine folk being much more discouraged than the people to whom the prophet Haggai brought the word of God. Wait a minute! Haggai? Who is Haggai? Don’t you remember, when we learned the names of the books of the Bible in Sunday School? The last four in the Old Testament – Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi? OK, truth be told, as with Habakkuk, I’m quite sure I’ve never preached on Haggai before. It is the second shortest book in the Hebrew scriptures after Obadiah. Its three chapters take up about two pages. It is truly minor among the so-called Minor Prophets. It reads as a kind to pep talk to a discouraged and resistant people.
By the end of the Hebrew scriptures, the Judeans had been allowed to return from their exile in Babylon. After almost 70 years in exile, Cyrus of Persia had conquered Babylon. His philosophy for keeping the peace in his empire was to allow vassal states to exercise a certain autonomy in governing their own affairs. John Holbert writes that “Cyrus’ ruling practices were far different from those of the Babylonians. Instead of dragging defeated rulers and their courts off to the capital city, Cyrus rather allowed all former captives to return home and even paid for their journeys, apparently providing extra cash for any plans they might have upon their return. Little wonder,” he notes, “that the exilic prophet, II-Isaiah, refers to Cyrus as YHWH’s Messiah” (John C. Holbert, “The Importance of YWH’s House: Reflections on Haggai 1:15b-2:9,” November 10, 2013, patheos.com). Haggai holds great hope that, under Persian rule, Judah might flourish again.
After so many years, it’s not surprising that only a few Judeans were eager to leave the comforts of Babylon for a strange place they had only heard about in story and song. Those that did return likely believed those songs and stories were sacred and found them life-giving. Through three generations, they held hope that God would restore them to favor and bless their promised land. Imagine their discouragement when they arrived in the rubble of their former capital, its wealth plundered and its great temple in ruins. I think of the news reports of people standing in the ashes of burned-out homes or the destruction of an earthquake or flood. Life time memories, hopes, dreams, burned up, washed away, buried amid the debris. If they speak at all it is through tears and the cries of broken hearts. Here, without doubt, you find discouraging words and loss of hope.
If you think the returnees are discouraged, you should hear those who were left behind to scrounge a meager existence from a scorched and devastated land. Talk about the audacity of hope. In the middle of all this discouragement comes this prophet Haggai, scolding them for not putting their effort into rebuilding the temple. Don’t they have enough on their hands? Doesn’t survival come before building fancy religious shrines? “Go away, prophet. Don’t bother us. Can’t you see we’re struggling just to make ends meet.”
And, you know, they may just be right about that. There is a sense in which the well-being of the people is more important than a new church building. In this season of political propaganda, Haggai may sound a little like one more ad for proposition XYZ. Only there’s more than just big money behind Haggai’s agenda. He’s working for the “Lord of Hosts”! Build the latest, snazziest house for God and God will take care of your every need, keep you safe from every threat, real or imagined. Oh, and don’t forget to put YHWH’s name in gold letters and neon lights on top of the tower. Maybe this is why Haggai is seldom used as a text, except, maybe, by “kingdom builders” and proponents for the “prosperity gospel.”
But for a moment, let’s give Haggai the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the prophet really does mean to offer people a word of hope. In the middle of their discouragement, he reminds them that there is a God who loves them and cares for them. There is an ancient, sacred relationship with the Holy One to be renewed and cultivated. Rebuilding the temple, then, becomes an important symbol of that relationship and all the possibilities it carries for enriching their lives, individually and as a people. “Take courage,” he says, looking deep into their despair, seeing with God’s eyes of compassion.
It is ironic that, sometimes, turning to something beautiful, something of no practical value, something extravagant, can draw us out of despair, move us from discouragement to hope to abundant living. There is pride in accomplishment, claiming a work of art or an act of courage as means of acknowledging that there is more to life than just survival. Haggai is reminding his people that their ancient covenant with YHWH has been a source of identity and esteem for them. It is no small thing to say we are God’s people and we want the whole world to know.
As I said earlier, there is much to discourage us in the current scene – campaigns full of bombast and misrepresentation, the obscenities perpetrated in the name of wealth and the accumulation of goods by the few at the expense of the many. Sacred lands are indiscriminately violated as are sacred lives. Racial profiling, xenophobia, the evils of militarism funded over health, education, and welfare – the list goes on. I’m sure you can find your own discouraging words to add.
And here I am, like that minor Minor Prophet, Haggai, saying to us all, “Take courage.” God is not dead, nor does God sleep. The future is in God’s hands. The audacity of hope! The question is, will we remember this sacred relationship and sustain it? Will we renew it and cultivate it day by day? Will you join me, standing amid the rubble and all these discouraging words, to proclaim that, in this time and place, in our commitment to ministry, we believe God’s shalom. God desired peace, prosperity, well-being for all creation. This is a living word. Will we make it the order of our days, not only in symbol, but in word and deed? God of grace and God of glory…grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days. Amen.