Sermon by Revd David Walsh at Candlemas Evensong, Sunday January 29th 2017
These words may be familiar to us. And the name Haggai may also be vaguely familiar. But it may be little more than a name: one of a long list of minor prophets. I’m going to spend a few minutes exploring a few details about Haggai, with the hope that for all of us, the prophet and the book become a little more than just a name.
One way of understanding any of the Old Testament prophets and how they relate to one another is to place them in relation to the huge defining event in the history of the Jewish nation: the exile to Babylon.
Some of the prophets lived just before the Exile and warned about it. Some lived during the Exile, others around the time of the return.
Our reading tonight provides its historical context with its opening words: ‘In the second year of Darius’. But to work out why that is significant and how to place it in relation to the Exile, we need to turn to some of the ‘historical’ books of the Old Testament: The Second Book of Chronicles and the Book of Ezra.
At the end of the Second Book of Chronicles, we read how Jerusalem was attacked by the King of the Chaldeans, who ruled Babylon, modern day Iraq.
It tells how he killed the youth of Jerusalem, showed no compassion to the rest of the population, ransacked the treasures of the king, his officials and the temple, taking them to Babylon, then burnt the temple down and broke down the city wall.
It continues ‘He took into exile in Babylon all those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia.’
Jerusalem lay desolate for seventy years.
Seventy years later, Babylon had been taken over by the Persians – modern day Iran – under King Cyrus and we read, again in the Second Book of Chronicles: ‘the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he declared: ‘The Lord, the God of heaven … has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up.’’
This was an extraordinary turnaround and it’s understandable how this foreign King, Cyrus, is seen as a hero in the Old Testament writings. In the book of the prophet Isaiah we read ‘Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who made all things, who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose’; and who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be rebuilt” and of the Temple “Your foundations shall be laid”
The story is continued in the historical book of Ezra which depicts exiles returning from Babylon to Jerusalem and laying the foundations of a new temple. We read ‘many of the old people who had seen the first house on its foundations wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping.’
But as we read on, we discover that: ‘The people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build, and they bribed officials to frustrate their plan throughout the reign of King Cyrus of Persia and until the reign of King Darius of Persia.’
And suddenly we come across a familiar name, because Darius is the name right at the beginning of our reading this evening from the prophet Haggai which started ‘in the second year of King Darius’.
So we need to continue reading the historical book of Ezra to discovered what was so important about the second year of King Darius. And we read: ‘the work on the house of God in Jerusalem stopped and was discontinued until the second year of the reign of King Darius of Persia. Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel. So the elders of the Jews built and prospered, through the prophesying of the prophet Haggai and Zechariah. They finished their building by command of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus and Darius of Persia; and this house was finished in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius.’
So now we understand something of the context. Exiles have returned to Jerusalem from Babylon. They’ve laid the foundations of the Temple, but their work has been frustrated by opposition.
It’s in this context that two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, prophesy. Their writings appear together at the very end of the Old Testament: only the very last book in the Old Testament follows them. Haggai is one of the shortest books in the Bible – just two chapters – and it records three words, or sayings, from God all given in the second year of King Darius: the first in the sixth month, the next in the seventh month, the final one in the ninth month, overlapping with the rather longer book of Zechariah, whose first prophecy starts in the eighth month.
They don’t know what we know from reading other books of the Bible: that within four years, the temple will be rebuilt.
The book of Haggai starts with a reprimand: ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house. Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins?”
Why all this concern for a building?
Perhaps we can get some clue from a Christian perspective when we turn to our Gospel reading. ‘Destroy this temple’ says Jesus ‘and in three days I will raise it up.’ He was speaking of the temple of his body.
Is Jesus simply speaking in riddles just to be difficult and obscure? Or is he hinting at something fundamental here?
In the Old Testament, the temple is the dwelling place of God. In the Christian vision, God makes himself present in his creation by embodying or enfleshing Himself in the person of Jesus. So is it possible that in the Christian understanding for God to be present and to be known as present in this world, a building, or a body – some physical or ordered structure – is needed?
If we continue reading through the New Testament and reflect on the ongoing life of the Christian Church, God’s presence has above all been discerned in two ways: first, in the ritual of bread and wine he passed on to us, when he said ‘This is my body’. And second, in and among his followers. ‘You are the body of Christ’ writes Paul to the Church at Corinth, ‘and each of you is a member of it’. And the writer to the Ephesians says ‘’you are members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.’
Bodies and temples. What do they have in common?
What I think they have in common is a mystery close to the heart of the Christian story. Which is that our physicality is not something accidental or temporary, but a fundamental part of what it means to be human. And that for us, there is simply no other way of experiencing God. We know God in and through our bodies, this physical world, rather than by escaping them.
The Christian understanding of what it means to be human sees our limitations, our boundedness, as an essential part of who we are. This becomes clear if we reflect on one of the most difficult of all Christian doctrines to understand: that of the ‘resurrection of the body’. What can it possibly mean for our bodies to be resurrected? Surely it’s our spirits that matter?
It’s not at all easy to cash out what the doctrine of the resurrection of the body really means. But one thing it clearly suggests is that our experience of having edges, of standing out from our environment, is part not only of our physical, but also of our spiritual identity, an essential part of who we are. There is no concept in the Christian picture of our one day attaining infinite freedom and capability, or of merging indissolubly with others or with the universe.
And this is why it is the Christian tradition which feeds and nurtures me: why, after around 15 years of wandering and searching, it was the Christian tradition to which I returned.
Because I am at heart a dreamer. It would be very easy for me to float off into the ether in my spiritual life, to become completely ungrounded, lacking in any focus or definition. But the doctrine of the Incarnation, of God enfleshed, which is at the very heart of the Christian story, and which we have been celebrating for the past few weeks, imagines the spirit enfleshed and the body ensouled. And this is what drew me back to Christianity and what is at the heart of the Christian vision which inspires my faith and motivates my ministry. Many of my fellow Christians possibly think that I’m far too relaxed about exactly what beliefs Christians should and should not have. And it’s true: I don’t think what ideas we subscribe to, is, in the end, what counts. And yet it does make me sad when Christians fail to take seriously, fail to begin to understand, this remarkable vision at the heart of Christianity. That God encamped among us, made atoms and molecules his home, shared our life, became one of us. It makes me sad because I think they are missing out on the precious jewel at the heart of our faith. Sometimes Christians miss this even as they celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation, the celebrations which come to an end this evening.
The Welsh poet R S Thomas uses the phrase ‘the scaffolding of spirit’ to describe the words and sentences with which he wrestles, which he shapes and is then in turn shaped by.
Thomas is talking primarily about language, about the grammar and contours of words and sentences which structure thought and emotion and so spirit.
But Thomas is a poet and it’s hard to imagine he is talking about just one thing. He has touched on a fundamental principle of the spiritual life – at least one seen from a Christian perspective. Which is that our spiritual life needs scaffolding, needs structure, if it is to act as a container, as a holder for the presence and working of God. Whether that is language, or music, or a building, or bodies, or a group of people coming together to follow Jesus and in doing so, however informal they are, necessarily shaping themselves into some greater whole, with relationships and so inevitably some kind of structure.
But does all this mean that because it won’t work for me to float off into some unbounded fantasy world, that I can no longer dream?
Far from it.
‘The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts’.
The prophet Haggai’s aspirations are centred on a building in Jerusalem. And yet his dreams and ambitions for this house and what it means, are huge. ‘The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former.’
In the words of Jesus, who describes his body as a temple, this latter splendour is given a whole new dimension. No longer is it just about the Temple in Jerusalem.
‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The temple of his body. And yet once it is raised, it is still a body, with contours and edges and traces of a life lived in the flesh.
‘Put your finger here and see my hands’ Jesus says to Thomas. ‘Reach out your hand and put it in my side.’
It is a body. But it is a raised body. It is, for a while, the only example we have, of the new heaven and new earth which is the final destination point for the whole of creation. The new heaven and new earth are not a replacement or a substitute for the present heaven and earth. Not their replacement but their transformation.
And we can see glimpses of this transformation here and now.
‘The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former’ says the Lord of hosts.
That could be true for any house of God. It could be true for this house of God.
Do you believe that?
I do. That’s why I’m here.