Monday, July 29, 2013

"Haggai: Starting Over" by Richard R. Crocker

Starting Over
Richard R. Crocker
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
July 28, 2013
Haggai 2:1-9

            When I first thought of doing this sermon series on the minor prophets, it was partly because I had never heard such a series. Now I know why. I have been able to muddle through Amos and Hosea, Zephaniah  and Micah, but now I have come to Haggai. I bet none of you have ever heard a sermon on Haggai. Me either. It’s a short book – only two chapters long, practically invisible as you thumb through the Bible. “What,” I thought, “can I make out of this?” But I quickly discovered that this short book was preserved in our scriptures for a reason. Despite its brevity, or perhaps because of its brevity, it has an important message, both for its time and for ours.

            This is a sermon for people who have experienced devastation. It is a sermon for people who have had to start over. There are many kinds of devastation, of course. Let me list only a few:

losing a loved one;
the ending of a friendship or marriage, particularly on bad terms;
a life-altering illness or injury, for you or a member  of your family;
unexpected unemployment;
facing up to an addiction;
the loss of your life savings in the stock market;
a house fire;
a tornado or hurricane that levels your home;
a flood that invades your home;
a war – particularly a war where you, or your loved ones, are combatants, or where your home land is invaded;
the theft or loss of something you have prized your whole life;
or, if you are in college –
the ending of a romantic relationship;
getting a D in organic chemistry;
not getting a fraternity or sorority bid that you wanted.

This is only a start – certainly not a complete list. I expect many of you have, at some time in your life, experienced devastation; perhaps some of you are in the midst of it now.

If so, Haggai is for you.

We left off last week with Micah, who prophesied in the southern kingdom of Judah around 700 BC. Micah predicted the fall of Jerusalem, and, sure enough, in 586 BC, it happened. The Babylonians, the kingdom to the southeast of Judah, across the Jordan – modern Iraq, finally conquered the resistant Judeans, killing some its citizens, maiming others, and carrying the most prominent citizens into captivity in Babylon. The beloved temple, the center of worship, which many thought guaranteed the perpetual safety of Jerusalem, was totally destroyed – leveled. A remnant of Jews was left in Jerusalem, but they were poor, distraught, and bereft. Those taken into captivity were devastated as well. You remember, perhaps, that plaintiff psalm, recounting the grief and anger of exile: it’s psalm 137 – one of the most beautiful, haunting and troubling psalms in our bible

By the rivers of Babylon—
   there we sat down and there we wept
   when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
   we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
   asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
   ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song
   in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
   let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
   if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
   above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
   the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
   Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
   Happy shall they be who pay you back
   what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
   and dash them against the rock!

The first part is haunting; the second part is troubling – troubling, but very human. The desire for revenge against those who have hurt us is very deep, and it is not easily appeased by the thought that two wrongs do not make a right.  Our rationality is sometimes overwhelmed by devastation and we only want revenge – and this psalm reflects that reality. Is such a desire right? No. Is it natural? Yes. We are struck by stories we hear of people who have undergone enormous  loss and who have been able to forgive the offenders. I think especially of the Amish community in Pennsylvania here, several years ago, a group of school children were killed by a deranged person. The community gathered to express its grief, but also its forgiveness toward the offender. As Christians, we see in them the example of Christ and the forgiveness of God. But such stories are striking because they are exceptional. The more common ones are stories of revenge. There is nothing more natural in the world than to say to someone who has caused us great loss: “may you suffer as you have made me to suffer.” 

            I think, for example – and it is only an example -  of that battle in Gettysburg which occurred 150 years ago this month, the hot July of 1863  – the greatest battle of our civil war, where 8000 soldiers were killed and almost 50,000 were wounded, maimed, or missing. It is, of course, only one of many battles in many wars, but it is one that somehow captures our imaginations and our sympathy. But I also recall the occasion 100 years ago, in 1913, fifty years after the battle, when veterans of both sides gathered at the battlefield, wearing their blue and gray uniforms, if they had them, standing at the line of Pickett’s charge, grasping hands, and weeping. It took them fifty years.

            The exiles from Judah spent about fifty years in Babylon – fifty years of servitude, and then the comforting prophecies of return were fulfilled. Cyrus, king of Persia, conquered Babylon, and one of his first acts was to allow the Jewish captives to return to their homeland. This was, to the captive Jews, both a miracle and a fulfillment of prophecy. So when they returned, finding some of their relatives still there in a devastated land, they faced the challenge of starting over. Their temple had been reduced to rubble. They thought their way of life had been reduced to rubble. Into this breach stepped the prophet Haggai.

            We know nothing about this man, except his few, very specific words. His writings are comprised of four very specific oracles, which he dates precisely. The first of them he received “in the second year of king Darius, on the sixth day.” The second one, which we read, came precisely one month and fifteen days later. The oracles instructed Haggai to speak to Zerubbabel, the Persian-appointed governor of Judah, and Joshua son of Jehozadak, the Persian-appointed high priest.  These two messages, and the remaining two that followed, all concern the state of depression, confusion, and destruction that the returning exiles faced, along with the Jews who had not been in exile. The message is simple: Get busy and rebuild the temple. The temple that was destroyed, do you remember it? How can you pay attention to building your own houses but neglect rebuilding the temple? And we know that, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, whose books we also have in the Old Testament, that the returning exiles did exactly that. They went through the several years-long process of rebuilding the temple, and, by some accounts, it was a grander temple that the first. Only when the temple was built were the Jews able to regain their sense of cohesiveness and the religion that bound them together.

            Now we are dealing here with historical facts. The original temple, build during the reign of Solomon around 1000 BC, was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. It had lasted around 400 years. It lay in waste for at least fifty years – maybe 100 years. It was rebuilt after the exile and was the center of Jewish religion and worship for another 500 years, until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70- AD. And, as we know, it has not been rebuilt. What is referred to as the “wailing wall” in Jerusalem today is the remaining wall of the second temple built by these returning exiles and destroyed again by the Romans. The temple wall, or wailing wall, is a source of contention because holy Muslim sites, including the Dome of the Rock, were later constructed on the temple mound. This of course makes the rebuilding of a Jewish temple extremely problematic.

            There are a couple of lessons for us in this story of rebuilding, which Haggai in some ways spear-headed and promoted. The first is simply the scale of time, and what it means for us. The first temple lasted almost five hundred years; the second also lasted five hundred years. It has now been almost 2000 years since it was destroyed. Empires rise and fall: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. None of them endures forever. We Americans pay little attention to the past; we are obsessed with the present and future. But we need to know and remember things that have happened – such as the Civil War. Our country is only 237 years old. The first European settlers arrived less than 400 years ago. We are now an empire. We do not like to think we are, but we are. And like all empires, we will have our day, and then, usually because of over-reach, the empire fades. We live in the heyday of the American Empire. If it continues to behave as an Empire, it will eventually fall – perhaps not into ruin, or insignificance, but like the British empire, as a shadow of itself. Such has been life on this earth, and such it will continue to be. Our life-times are short. We face devastation both as individuals and as nations, and, no matter what, we must start over. Sometimes we simply do not have the strength, as individuals, to do it, but we find strength in reaffirming our community. 
Second, destruction is never final. When we face devastation and loss, we may become angry, depressed, sad, hurt, despairing. This can and does certainly happen. When the loss is a material one – of money or possessions, we can at least think of rebuilding. So, for example, the homes lost in Hurricane Irene, despite the sadness, have been and are being restored. People are adjusting and starting over, with help from their neighbors and our government. But when the loss is immaterial, it is hard to know how to start over. When a loved one has died, or when a reputation has been lost, or when a symbol of our being has been destroyed, no material restoration can give us new strength. Such losses are spiritual losses, and they can only be borne by spiritual strength and comfort. Thus, when we face the death of a loved one, as we surely have and surely will, we instinctively reach out for the assurance  of eternal life – or life beyond the dimensions of time. For Christians, this is an explicit part of our faith. But even people who claim to have no religion, even those who call themselves atheists, seek some sort of ultimate meaning that allows them to face this loss and move on – start over. If there is nothing that allows us to do this, we are stuck in the saddest kind of paralysis. By no means does this mean discounting or overlooking the loss. By no means. Grief is essential to human life, but so is hope. And hope was, for the Jewish people, centered in the temple. In some ways it still is.

            Another way of saying this is that, after devastation – whether it is a failed marriage, an addiction, a death - no matter what it is, we must rebuild our spiritual center. Just as the Jews rebuilt the temple after their exile, we also must reconstruct the center of our being after it has been destroyed. Nothing else really matters until we reconnect and reconstruct the spiritual center of our lives, where lives the faith that sustains us in all of life. Haggai’s word to the returning exiles is also a word to us – a word to remember:
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; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts …. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. (Haggai 2:4-5)

            It is appropriate that we also remember the words of another prophet who spoke fifty years ago, next month, about a dream that he had for America and its people. That speech was born out of faith, coming after hundreds of years of injustice. Dr. King would not live long, but his words and his faith endure – reminding us, as Haggai did, that we must work to rebuild the spiritual center of our lives.  Amen.