Haggai 1:15b-2:9 and Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
I. Two Groups Dealing with Change and Uncertainty
Returned exiles … and lost disciples waiting.
Exiles Returned, Seeking Former Glory — Haggai
Haggai – prophet for a very short time (3 months), but his presence in the cannon means something important. The exiles have been returned to their homeland and have set to rebuilding the temple (and the city) and attempting to return it to its former glory.
There are two problems with this as the prophet sees it:
1) “We are not in this alone. We do not have to self-produce all the resources to build the house of God in the kingdom of heaven, for our God is a God of abundance. (vv. 6-7 “will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land and … all the nations. The promises of God are promises of abundance in the past, in the present, and in the future.” The exiles went about restoring the temple and individuals all went after their own personal projects. They were splintered and working towards little pieces of the church that are what they remember from stories as being glorious and important.
2) Moving into the future is not a repeating of the past …. Nor is even a faint echo of the past. The Lord declares that “the latest splendor of this house shall be greater than the first” (v.9).  Although God is eternal and exists outside of time, God is also the creator of time – which I have to believe means that God does not want us to live with regrets, or to live trying to keep everything the same as it was in the past. Haggai is trying to expand the people’s ideas about what the temple should look like.
He is calling the people to find a bigger vision of how the exiles may proclaim the glory of God in their current time. Perhaps the temple will look very similar, but maybe also it will reflect the time that the exiles were separated from their homeland and people and show their joy at being returned to their home. From a systems standpoint, they have gone through tremendous transition, and they now need to go about the process of rediscovering who they are as a people of God in their current circumstances.
Living in the Shadow of the Past?
The prophet Haggai assures us that we cannot (and should not?) return to the former glory … and in fact the future will be better than imaginable. Are there ways in which we, like the exiles, are seeking to restore our church to some former version of itself when we experienced it as glorious and wonderful? Are we living in the shadow of the past?
If so, I think we join countless other churches in that quest. According to Haggai, it is a quest doomed from the beginning. The reason we cannot return to that former glory is also twofold: 1) it is not what God has in store for us. 2) We have changed since that time – in good ways and bad ways, I am sure. Our task is to listen for God’s vision of glory for this place and to realistically look at who we are today. The best way to honor the past, for the exiles, is to be honest about how difficult their time in exile was and how separated it made them feel from God. They should look to their past as something that has led them to the present moment and this reunification with this special place. Good, bad and in between, the past is what has brought us here. For that, we rejoice!
Faithful congregation, waiting expectantly for Jesus’ return, trusting anyone’s leadership
In Thessalonians, Paul (or someone writing under Paul’s name) is writing to a congregation that is filled with anxiety about the future. They are being told by some that the Year of the Lord has arrived and that Christ is coming.
Neta Pringle shares two stories that, I think, put this passage into perspective for us. She says:
“My husband once asked a particular congregation to identify one of their hardest times. Since the church is located in a port city, he expected them to talk about the changes in the church as various immigrant groups arrived and changed the nature of the town. Perhaps they would go back to their early history and talk about their Revolutionary War experiences. The British had burned the church and shot and killed the minister’s wife. No, none of those topped the list. The congregation said that the hardest time came in 1843, when a Millerite pastor persuaded members of the congregation to give away their homes and farms, to put on their white robes, and to wait on the hilltop for Jesus. They waited, but then they had to come back home and shamefaced, ask for their property to be returned … We may laugh at their naiveté, there is something about the idea that God will step in to end the world that continues to draw us.”
This story reminds us, of course, of the Left Behind series and the many books that attempt to riddle out Revelations and when to expect Jesus and what to expect of those times – even though Jesus himself said he did not know the time. It also reminds me of a few years ago, at the turn of the century – when all sorts of people were concerned about Y2K and what would happen when all the numbers that we’ve watched tick away the time, rolled over to 2000. Here, we are ten years later, the world is very different and yet very much the same.
How do we prepare for Christ’s return, now after 2000 years have passed?
Living in the Shadow of the Future?
The church in Thessalonica was so ready for the future, that they stopped working towards it. “Folk were so sure that the big even was just around the corner that they quite working and moved to full-time waiting. Paul has to tell them it could be a long wait.” Jesus’ return may happen any time; it may not. Jesus himself will know only when that day comes.
Neta Pringle’s second says that it “told that one day back in early Puritan New England there was a major eclipse. The sun was blotted out, the day turned dark, and people were terrified. ‘The world is going to end. What shall we do?’ One insightful man replied, ‘Let us be found doing our duty.’”
Mainline churches don’t easily fall into that major concern for the end times, but I do think our fear of the future paralyzes us.
II. Bravely claiming the present
1I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.
2Every day I will bless you, and praise your name forever and ever.
3Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable.
4One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.
5On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
20The Lord watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.
21My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.
Let us neither cling to what was nor freeze at what may be. Rather, let us ‘be found doing our duty” – growing in Christ, sharing our faith with each other and the world.