NRSV HAGGAI 2:1-9
2 In the second year of King Darius, 1 in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 2 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, 3 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? 4 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, 5 according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. 6 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; 7 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.
8 The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the LORD of hosts. 9 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.
They looked up at the building, the works of their hands. Some of them had been working on it for a long time, several years. But even with all that work, there was something extremely unsettling about it all. Something was missing. Something physical, and yet also something that the eyes could not see. Not everything was there that should have been.
It was the Temple of God in the city of Jerusalem in the year 520 BCE. Those who had been in exile in Babylon had been allowed to return when the new empire, led by an enlightened ruler named Cyrus, took over. The only thing they had to do was to make their payments of tribute – taxes –and to pray to their God on behalf of the Emperor, which they were glad to do.
You would have thought they would have been thrilled to be back home. But for many of them, this was not home. So several of them stayed behind in Babylon, the only home they had ever known.
Others came back, expecting – what? A Nirvana? A heaven on earth? A paradise? From all they had been told about the great holy city, they might have expected that. But when they returned all they found was a cultural backwater, a ruined city, just starting to get back on its feet after so many years of violence and neglect.
They started to get their homes back in order, but still something was missing. And even if they didn’t know what it was, there was a prophet named Haggai who was only too glad to remind them: A Temple. A place to worship God. A place to remember what they had forgotten, or twisted, in those lean years when they thought the temple was just a building to inoculate themselves against whoever the mightiest empire in the area was at the time. A place to remember that they were not just any people, but a people set apart. A holy people. A people called to be a blessing to the world.
The older of them could remember back when the Temple of Solomon dominated the skyline. So they set about the work of rebuilding the Temple, the place that was the centerpiece of their religious life. But it was slow going. They had returned to Jerusalem in about 539, and after a decade they still were not far along. Finally the rebuilding of the temple gained some momentum, and it started to take shape. But as they looked at it – especially as the older ones’ eyes beheld it – something was off. Something was missing. There were no special silver and gold ornaments. Gone were the planks from the cedars of Lebanon which had distinguished the old place. It just didn’t measure up. The people’s hopes were diminished, if not crumbled in the dust of a city struggling to rebuild.
To the tears and broken hopes of the people the prophet Haggai comes again with a word from the Lord of hosts: “Who among you remembers the old temple? How does the new one look? It must seem like nothing at all.” To a more contemporary audience he might have been greeted with a response like, “Thanks a lot, Captain Obvious.”
But the prophet and the word of the Lord are not done yet. Haggai says that God tells the people to “take courage.” Interesting way of putting it. Not ‘have courage,’ like it is something passive. But ‘take courage.’ Claim it. Possess it. Intentionally embrace it. Want it so much that you are willing to risk and reach out your hands and take hold of it, that it might in turn take hold of you.
‘Take courage, religious and political leaders. Take courage, all the people. Get to work, for I am with you, and I will fulfill the promises I made when I brought you all out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you.’ And then in one of the 365 times in all of Scripture where these words are used, God tells the people: Do not fear.
It’s a part of one of those minor prophets, those writings that we relegate to the sidelines. Maybe the more musically inclined among us might recognize part of this Scripture as also being words of a section of the Messiah – the part where God will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. But it’s not a favorite. It’s not a text that jumps into our consciousness on a regular basis.
And yet for many years these words of Haggai have had an impact on me. I think it started in a Lectionary Group I participated in during my very first pastorate, in Pittsburgh. One of the ministers opened this up to me as being a tale of where the church was. That was back in the late 1980’s.
I would say it is even more the case now, but I might still get that cry, “Thanks Captain Obvious.” Who among you remembers the temple – the church – as it once was? What does it look to you now? It must seem as nothing at all.
All those days of rapid growth; of burgeoning Sunday School classes; of large and energetic youth groups; of influence in the community; of a churched culture. That was then, even into the 80’s. But not now. We are in a new day.
But still the word of the Lord comes to us: Do not fear. Take courage. Don’t let it just come to you; but take it, embrace it, be willing to take courage and be about the work God has called you to do. The work maybe not of constructing a building, though we have had quite a bit of work around here lately, work that we are thankful for. But also the work of building a community. Of building a fellowship. Of building a spiritual neighborhood, one that seeks actively the movement of God in our midst. Of seeking to rediscover who we are and what God is calling us to be and do. But not only that – to rediscover who is our neighbor; who are the people God is calling us to minister to and with. Who are the ones we are to reach out to so that this fellowship will truly be one of Jesus Christ, the one who came and ministered and touched and healed all people.
We can see how this text would fit our context as a church community. But as I looked at these words and at the calendar a few things popped up. Tomorrow is Veteran’s Day. It’s a day to remember all those who sacrificed their time, their abilities and in some precious cases their very lives in defense of our country. Whether we agreed with the reasons for the conflict at the time or not these people are precious to us for doing the tough work, work that many of them could never talk about. They did it for us. It is imperative that we have at least one day that we remember them and say, “Thank you.”
It’s also fitting that this day has another title, one I just discovered. This is Caregiver Sunday. Maybe it earned that title because so many of our veterans are in need of caregivers, people who will take care of them in their homes, at VA clinics and hospitals, and other places. Just as it is appropriate to designate a day to remember our veterans, it is important to set aside a day to recognize and celebrate our caregivers. Because being a caregiver is a universal. Or as former first lady Rosalynn Carter once said, “There are only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.”
Most of us have been there. Some of us are still very much there – taking care of someone, maybe someone we love, sacrificing ourselves to make sure they are okay, that their needs are attended to, doing our best so that their days are not full of hopeless desperation but with love. All of us in this place know of people who have gone above and beyond to take care of those they love. We may know of others who have not done as good a job but we also recognize the need to withhold judgment. We don’t know the issues going on in some families. Our call as a church is not to judge but to love and to support, to lift up those who are giving care because we recognize the immense weight that lies on their very being, the weight of taking care of someone they love. But also because we see in the life and the ministry of Jesus Christ the example beyond all examples of giving one’s self totally and completely for another.
Maybe we hear in Haggai’s words some reflections of our own caregiving, or in those we have seen in others. Who among you remembers this building like it used to be? Who among you remembers this towering man, this grace-filled woman, as they used to be? How are they now – now that they have Alzheimers, or they have Parkinson’s, or cancer, or Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, or one of those strangely worded pathologies and terribly devastating illnesses that rob a person of their strength, of their minds, of their sheer abilities to be who they are.
And yet, in some wonderful, beautiful, spiritual way, they are still there. They are still who they are, regardless of how they may appear to us. In a wonderful book entitled “Dementia: Living in the Memories of God,” Scottish chaplain John Swinton writes of how folks with all kinds of dementia are not objects of our pity. They did not lose their minds. Through the forces of aging their minds now function differently. They are still who they are. And who they are is a child of God. Their memories may be impaired, sometimes severely so. But they are still in the memory, in the thought of God. God has them in mind as an object of divine love, made in God’s image. So we do not give up on anyone with any kind of impairment, and celebrate those who take on the valued role of caregiver.
In a resource for this day I came across “Beatitudes for Caregivers”:
“Blessed are those who care and who are not afraid to show it –
they will let people know they are loved.
Blessed are those who are gentle and patient –
they will help people to grow as the sun helps the buds to open and blossom.
Blessed are those who have the ability to listen –
they will lighten many a burden.
Blessed are those who know how and when to let go –
they will have the joy of seeing people find themselves.
Blessed are those who, when nothing can be done or said,
do not walk away,
but remain to provide a comforting and supportive presence –
they will help the sufferer to bear the unbearable.
Blessed are those who recognize their own need to receive,
and who receive with graciousness –
they will be able to give all the better.
Blessed are those who give without hope of return –
they will give people an experience of God.”
But get to work, God says. The best may not be yet to come. But God will be with us whatever the future holds. Therefore, do not be afraid. Amen.