November 10 - Our journey continues this second week with an obscure prophet from the back of the Hebrew Scriptures. Haggai is even less known than Habakkuk, and his book is even shorter! There are only two chapters in this drama, as Haggai seeks to encourage the populace of Judea to rebuild the temple and hold fast to the glory of God.
Not much is known about Haggai. Some assume he is old because he remembers the temple that was destroyed. Some assume he was a farmer who stayed behind when the Persians overran the nation. Others believe he was an exile who wanted to reclaim something of the former glory of the people of God by focusing on the physical rebuilding of the temple. The truth is, we don’t know. We don’t know his history; we don’t know his family; we don’t know much at all about Haggai. But his voice is persistent and urgent. We begin this reading by cleaning up a numbering problem and pulling out the end of chapter 1 as the heading for chapter 2. We begin with a date signature, but this framing of time is around a Persian king not an Israeli one. Darius the First became the ruler of Persia in 522 BCE, so Haggai has very specifically confirmed his place in history. Darius was the person who sent Zerubbabel to be governor of Judah. Some think Haggai was released from exile with Zerubbabel; others believe he was already there. Either way, God sends the prophet to Zerubbabel with a word. And that word was, “How are we doing?”
Zerubbabel was supposed to finish the building of the temple that his predecessor began. There was only a foundation at this point, and it was not much to look at. Haggai says, “Does anyone remember what it used to look like? And how does it look now? Not so great, am I right?” At this point, the prophet sounds like those folks in the church who think things used to always be better than they are now. If only we could go back; if only we could make the church great again. But Haggai seems to be taking a different tack. When he promises that the future glory of the temple will be better than what it was in the past, was he talking about a building or a people? The words from God speak about God more than about the temple. The glory of any building said to represent God and house the people of God is really more about God than about buildings. “My Spirit abides,” God says through Haggai; that’s the glory you need to focus on, not the building and not who’s here and who’s not here.
True, we want the place to be a place that speaks of God; and we need to take care of what we’ve been handed down. But God says, “I’ve got all the gold in the world; I’ve got all the silver; it’s already mine.” You can’t honor God by giving something that God already owns! Stuff happens out there in the world; God is moving; pay attention to that. Seek the glory of God in the Spirit that abides.
The Psalm also speaks of the glory of God abiding before us. Psalm 145 calls us to see and to meditate on that glory. It calls us to set aside what we might be doing to honor God and what monuments or structures we might build to point people to God; it asks us simply to celebrate God’s presence among us. When we pay attention to what God is doing around us, we see both glory and intimacy; we see both grandeur and presence that lead us to praise, individually and corporately, “My mouth will speak the praise of the LORD, and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.”
The epistle seems to change direction rather abruptly, but a careful reading will reveal the threads of connection. As mentioned in the previous week’s notes, the Thessalonian letters are concerned with the community living in the in-between time, in between the already and the not yet aspect of the reign of God. Here in the second chapter, we find an odd discussion about the return of Christ. The conversation begins quickly in verses 1 and 2 with a call to hold fast—“do not be shaken,” a common apocalyptic call. But what the author (Paul or otherwise – see last week’s notes on the epistle) is warning them against is the idea that the day has already come, that Christ has already returned. In other words, the warning is about too much “already” and not enough “not yet”!
And from where does this lopsided (in the author’s view) understanding come? From a “man of lawlessness.” One could have a field day with this character and set up a straw man upon which all the ills of our church today can be blamed. This is “the devil made me do it” fodder. Be cautioned about this route, however. It is possible that the so-named figure is not a supernatural being or a demon of hell, but a contemporary preacher who tells the story differently. We are well versed in our current political climate of the tactic of name calling our opponents to make them seem worse than they really are. Perhaps it is the writer’s love and concern for the people of the church in Thessalonica that causes this reaction. The warning is remembering what was taught. Hold fast to the truth that you already know; don’t be swayed by inflammatory ideas. These ideas just might cause you to lose your confidence in the gospel. Ultimately, that is what we return to in the second part of the epistle text. After the heat of the discussion dissipates throughout the intervening verses, we return to the idea of the week: the Spirit abides.
The weight of a sermon on this text ought not be on the warning at the beginning, but on the thanksgiving at the end. That is where the power is, the power of transformation at work in the congregation. The Spirit is working sanctification in you and through you, so cling to this truth, to this hope. And then the glory of the reign of Christ will be revealed in your good works and in your words. This process of sanctification, too, is an “already” and “not yet”; that is what the author is pointing toward—giving thanks for the “already” and encouraging the “not yet.” The preacher could adopt the same strategy, celebrating all the Spirit has brought to life in the midst of the community of faith, even while exhorting to continue growing in faith, not as a way of piling on or adding to the burdens of already burdened people, but as a way of offering hope and of keeping people’s eyes on the prize. Remind everyone that this is not simply us working harder, but allowing the Spirit to abide within and transforming our hearts in love. It is a word of encouragement that we offer. Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Version of Paul’s Epistles (New Century Publishers, 1968, p.137) paraphrases the final verse of our text as “May he charge your hearts and pep you up in every good deed and word!”
This encouragement continues in our Gospel text this week, but from a startling conversation. The twentieth chapter of the Gospel of Luke is a battle worthy of UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship)-level attention. The chapter begins with a challenge to Jesus’ authority. The chief priests and scribes and elders were wandering around en masse, wearing matching bowling shirts and looking to pick a fight with this upstart rabbi from the sticks. “By whose authority,” they ask Jesus, who replies, as he often does, with a question. And it’s a question they don’t want to answer because it seems like a no-win situation for them, so they toss it back. Jesus then says there’s no point in going on then and doesn’t answer their original question. He then turns to the crowd gathered and slaps the authorities across the face with a scathing parable that is so obvious even they recognize that they’re the bad guys in this story. So, they turn to a political trap and ask Jesus to weigh in on the tax issue, which Jesus also refuses to answer in a way that satisfies them. Next, they fall back on a last-ditch ploy—call in the Sadducees.
The Sadducees were the social and economic and intellectual one-percenters of their day. Normally, the priests and scribes and Pharisees had little to do with them. But desperate moments call for desperate strategies. One thing is clear in this text, and that is that the theology of the people of God in the time of Jesus was not monolithic; there were variations on all sorts of themes through the different strata of thinkers and teachers of the day. Luke tells us that on the issue of Resurrection, the Sadducees were of the opinion that it was a fairy tale, not supported by scripture. And to be clear, scripture for the Sadducees was the Torah, full stop. The rest was merely commentary in their thinking. Moses was the author of all they needed to know. (See Vernon K. Robbins’s and Patrick J. Willson’s helpful articles in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, pp.285-289, for more on the role of the Sadducees in first-century Hebrew culture and faith.)
Having chosen the battleground, Jesus enters the fray perfectly willing to play by their rules. The Sadducees say, “Moses says”; so Jesus replies with “Moses says” to meet them in their arena. He uses their rules and fights on their ground to show them another way to look at the scriptures they love. Jesus is like you, the preacher, helping the people see new light in familiar words. But what new insight does Jesus bring?
This is one of the most radical statements in the whole gospel account. And we skim over it so easily. The Sadducees try to trip Jesus with an outrageous story about the Mosaic law on levirate marriage. They concoct this ridiculous scenario to show that Resurrection as a concept is ludicrous. To the Sadducee, eternity was in the offspring, not in some other world. Jesus responds by saying, “You’re comparing apples to oranges and missing the point of eternity.” Then Jesus stuns them by saying that even Moses knew about life after death, because God’s calling card says, “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” and not “used to be God of those former folk.” Jesus says God is the God of the living, not the dead, not the no longer existing. This is such a radical thought that even one of the scribes sidles up and mutters, “Good point!”
But once we’ve depicted this wrestling match, where do we go in the sermon? What’s the payoff for our hearers today? The Spirit abides. That’s the message that Jesus offers us in this exchange. When we stumble over questions of how this world folds into the next one, our answer is “God’s got this.” Even when we don’t understand death or life, God’s got this. Even when our hearts break and our vision is cloudy, God’s got this. Even when it seems like everything is broken and violence rules the day and division is the mode of this life, God’s got this. The Spirit abides, and we are invited to live differently, to value differently, to hope unreservedly, and to praise constantly. Because God’s got this.