It is the last Sunday of the fair.
The final Sunday of the Olympics.
The last Sunday before the school year starts for our children.
And the final Sunday of our Summer of the Prophets.
It might be hard to believe it, but this summer we’ve covered about 400 years of biblical history. We’ve talked about, in one way or another, fifteen different prophets and their messages from God. We have journeyed through Judah and Israel, Edom, Assyria, and Babylon. We have watched the aftermath of a kingdom divided, watched their downfall and destruction. We have wept with the exiles in Babylon and as they tried to make themselves at home in a foreign land.
Today, we get to celebrate that they finally returned home.
The Babylonians, you see, that great and mighty kingdom that conquered the world… well, if we remember from our time in the book of Daniel, they aren’t the be all and end all of the story. They, too, are conquered… by the Persians. And the Persians dramatically re-write the story of the people of God.
Unlike many other kingdoms which forced their religion and perspectives on the peoples they defeated, Cyrus the Great of Persia greatly respected the diversity of all of the peoples of the kingdom. Including their religions. And so when the Babylonians were conquered, all of the kingdoms they had brought into their fold had the opportunity to return home, and rebuild their own cultures.
Cyrus, king of Persia, is the Messiah in Isaiah’s song of praise.
Cyrus is the one in 2 Chronicles… a history of the people… that decrees “God, the God of the heavens, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has also assigned me to build him a Temple of worship at Jerusalem in Judah. All who belong to God’s people are urged to return—and may your God be with you! Move forward!” (36:23)
And so the people return home. If you are curious about their journey and what they experienced as they finally arrived… the process and details of the rebuilding of the temple, I encourage you to check out the books of Ezra and Nehemiah in our scriptures. Rather than being prophecies, these books are included with the books of Chronicles as a history and testimony of that time.
Haggai, for his part, was called to speak God’s word in Jerusalem after the exiles all returned home. Darius was the third king of the Persian empire… coming to power after Cyrus’s son failed in a complicated game of thrones. What is important for our story, is that Darius continued the policies of the previous rules and allowed the people he ruled to practice their own religions and cultures – even giving grants from the royal treasury for this work.
In fact, the temple in Jerusalem was funded by the Persian kingdom. Cyrus sent the Judeans back home to begin building it, but the work didn’t begin quickly.
The people were preoccupied by their own households. They were worried about a drought. They focused on themselves instead of on God.
And so, once again, God’s word comes to the people through a prophet… Haggai. In this short, two chapter book, Haggai helps the people understand the urgency of the need to rebuild the temple.
Then the Lord’s word came, “Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses while this house lies in ruins? … rebuild the temple so that I may enjoy it and that I may be honored.” (1: 4, 8b)
The people heard…. and in September of 521 BCE the rebuilding of the temple began.
In the passage that we are focusing on today, God provides words of encouragement to the people in this process.
Generations had come and gone in exile. Not many… if any… were alive during the time of the Judean kingdom or who had seen the previous temple. They were in uncharted waters, unsure of what came next.
And these words were a reminder that God was in control.
Work, for I am with you!
My spirit stands in your midst!
I make the heavens and the earth quake and I will fill this house with glory.
When I think about church today and the rebuilding of the temple, I for one am incredibly grateful to all of those who have maintained and planned and cared for this church building that we worship in. Just yesterday, people gave their time to help renovated and rejuvenate this space in preparation for fall.
This house is not lying in ruins. We have been faithful stewards of this physical space and honor God through our care of this space.
But, as we have heard in so many of the prophets recently, the temple, the church, is about far more than the building.
Giving honor and glory to God far more about about creating room for God to dwell in your heart and your life than about bricks and mortar.
And it is a lot more difficult as well.
It is far easier to focus on our professional development than our faith development.
We are often preoccupied with our recreational life and don’t take time for our spiritual life.
We experience droughts in the form of finances or stress or illness and they become excuses that keep us from doing the hard work of building a relationship with God.
And so Haggai speaks to us, too.
Only we don’t need to build a structure for God to live in… we need to build on our commitment to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
And just as God spoke to the Judeans, God speaks to us:
Work, for I am with you!
My spirit stands in your midst!
I make the heavens and the earth quake and I will fill this house… I will fill your life… with glory.
Just as we are coming to the close of the summer and so many exciting things we have done and seen and shared, so, too, are we coming to the start of something new.
A new school year.
A new Sunday morning schedule.
A new focus on discipleship in our church and what it means to live out our faith and follow Jesus.
And we are going to challenge you to step up and step out in faith.
We are going to wrestle with what it means to put God first in our lives.
We are going to ask one another if we are really living lives of love, service, and prayer.
You see, God is doing a new thing in our midst.
God wants to build this church again. Build our faith again. Build our hearts again.
Maybe your relationship with God is like a house that has been neglected for too long.
Maybe your faith life is in shambles.
Maybe the windows have been boarded over or the roof is caving in.
Maybe structurally you don’t know where to start picking up the pieces and starting over.
Maybe you are like the Judeans who are heading to a home that was never really theirs to begin with and you have no idea what this is supposed to look like.
You are not alone.
We all have to start somewhere and as a church, this fall, we are going to explore our faith life one piece at a time.
We are going to celebrate where we are, and then lay out a plan and help each other grow.
One step at a time.
One choice at a time.
One day at a time.
The God who can shake the heavens and the earth can shake up our church and our hearts, too. God will do this work in our lives, if we just give the spirit room to move…
Because as God reminds us at the end of the book of Haggai…. I have chosen you.
We didn’t chose God. God chose us.
God chose you. And God wants to build this church with you and you and you. Thanks be to God. Amen.