Monday, January 28, 2013

Hearing in the Present

As I mentioned last week, the people of Israel have returned from their exile in Babylon (which has in turn been conquered by Persia). They have had time to begin rebuilding their own homes and livelihood and now, through the prophet Haggai, God has called upon the people to begin rebuilding God's house, the temple. The people have been stirred by God's call and have begun to carry out that task.

The second chapter of Haggai begins by noting that it is only about a month after this rebuilding project began and the naysayers are hard at work. God commands Haggai to say:
"Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?"
Apparently, nostalgia was as prevalent in 520 B.C. as it is today. These people who have been returned from exile, at least the few who are old enough to remember the former temple, are longing for the "glory days". They see this puny temple that is being rebuilt and they know that it will never compare to the temple Solomon had built. And they are right. That house was built by one of Israel's greatest kings at the height of Israel's power. It was constructed with stone and overlaid with fine cedar and cypress imported from foreign lands much of which was itself overlaid with gold. It was a house filled with luxury and ornate craftsmanship; a symbol of the wealth and strength of Solomon's empire. The temple described in Haggai is built with nothing more than the timber that the people can collect from nearby forests. It is as nothing in the eyes of those who beheld the glory of the former temple.

But God tells the people through Haggai that it is not the appearance of the house that matters but the One who dwells in it. This is the God who brought the people up out of their slavery in Egypt. This is the God who reigns sovereign over the nations. This God says:
"Work, for I am with you... My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not."
The current temple may not be much to look at. It may not resemble the glory of that former temple. But the same God who enabled Solomon to build that former temple is the God who continues to dwell with this people even now. And that, Haggai says, should be their ultimate source of strength and hope. The temple was never supposed to be about the temple. It was always supposed to be God's presence with the people. It was only God's presence that made this temple or this people what they were.

There is a question, or a variety of questions with the same underlying theme,  I am asked frequently by folks in my church.
"Pastor, what do you think will happen to our church?"
Its a question that I sense is filled with pain, anxiety, and a longing for days gone by. It is a question that remembers the "glory days" of our church; a time when the building was so full there was felt a need for a new one, a time when church was a regular part of people's lives, and perhaps a time when it seemed just a little easier to be a Christian and to invite others to be as well. It is a question for which I do not have an answer. Like the days of Haggai, like all times really, these are uncertain times.

But in these uncertain these times most of all... God still speaks. God reminds us that it was never about the temple. It was never about the attendance numbers or the building or the pastor or all the things good things we could do as a church. It has always been and will always be about the presence of God among us. The God who delivered us from our slavery resides among us. The God who will one day shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land and all the nations resides among us. And this God who resides among us promises us that "the latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former."

Our task in these uncertain times is not to get back to the days of old. It is to hear God's voice in the present, to be stirred, and to begin the work of rebuilding, however, un-glamorous that work may seem. For our focus, our hope, our foundation as the Church is and must always be responding to the presence and the voice of God among us.

No comments: