Sermon Audio and Text
Our sermons are now available on this page as audio files and also printable text format.
“How does it look to you now?”
Sermon on Haggai 1:15b-2:9
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
We live in an age in which we expect to see quick solutions to old problems. Political historians have noted a trend toward what they call “wave elections,” in which power dramatically shifts from one party to another as people express their discontent with the party currently in power. Our country’s problems are more stubborn than most politicians or voters are willing to admit, so waves of buoyant hope following a changeover of power are followed all too quickly by crushing disappointment. Neither party remains in power for long, as voters express their dissatisfaction that change – often seen as a restoration to some kind of former glory -- has not come quickly enough.
Change wasn’t coming quickly enough to the people that the prophet Haggai spoke to in the sixth century BCE. They were filled with disappointment that had turned to apathy. After more than fifty years of exile in Babylon, they had returned to the land of Israel following a changeover of power. They should have been happy, they realized, but things were not working out the way they had hoped. They had expected to see Jerusalem restored to its former glory, with all the surrounding nations streaming into the city, bringing their wealth with them. But that wasn’t happening. There was a drought, so crops were failing; the promised funds from Persia for the rebuilding of the Temple had not materialized; and nineteen years after the return from Babylon, only the foundation of the Temple had been laid. In a recessionary economy, people had lost the will and energy to continue, so the work was at a standstill.
Some of the people could actually remember the original Temple from their youth, and they already knew that the new structure, when it was finally built, would be a poor copy of the original. There was no way they could rebuild it to its former splendor – there weren’t enough of them and they didn’t have enough money. The most they could do would be to rebuild on a smaller scale, so the finished building would be a visible symbol of their reduced circumstances and disappointed hopes.
In this situation, there was a real danger that the Israelite religious community would simply disappear, like a Rust Belt town where the last factory has closed.
The prophet Haggai refuses to be discouraged. In the verses leading up to our passage, he has taken the people to task for their lethargy, procrastination and self-centeredness. Some of them have built luxury homes for themselves while the Temple lay in ruins. The prophet has even suggested that their current economic woes are directly related to their failure to move forward on the Temple rebuilding. Haggai saw that more was going on – and more was at stake -- than the simple rebuilding of a religious structure. The rebuilt Temple would be a sign of the vitality of the community of God’s people, and the sign of a new age. For the prophet, God was every bit as present in the reduced conditions of the returned exiles as God was in the Great First Temple built by King Solomon. That’s why the work couldn’t stop. However unpromising the people’s efforts may have looked to them, Haggai knew that God had a larger vision, and that they were part of it. They just needed a reminder that it was not Solomon who had filled the First Temple with glory, but God.[i]
So Haggai reminded the people that God was at work in their work, and would enable them to bring their plans to fruition. That didn’t mean that God was going to restore things to the way they used to be – the old days really were gone for good – but God was going to do something new: God was going to re-create the people of God for a new era.
The prophet’s word to the demoralized Israelites is a word of both hope and challenge. He is calling them to trust in God’s purposes enough to make a commitment to the future, to a long-range vision that lies beyond what they can see at the moment. He doesn’t promise them a quick fix to their present maladies – he’s a prophet, not a politician – but he does promise that God will not abandon them. If they can trust that far, they will be able to put their worry and disappointment aside to invest in “a future based on God’s action in the world.”[ii]
Last year, this congregation went through a process of small-group conversations about the future of MPC; most of you also participated in the Congregation Assessment Tool, or CAT, survey, which was designed to help you see where your energy and resources might be used most consistently with the interests and values of the congregation. As you may recall, the survey results showed the following top three top priorities for MPC:
- Develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to reach new people and incorporate them in the life of the church;
- Make necessary changes to attract families with children and youth to our church.
- Work to revitalize the community around the church by building coalitions with partners that share this vision and commitment.
It may be that working on #3 could help you to achieve the first two priorities. We also learned that MPC needs to develop a more flexible style in its overall ministry, a willingness to adapt to the “needs and circumstances of the people we want to reach in our local community.” Many of you are already working on this, and you will have an opportunity to explore further these possibilities and challenges with your new pastoral leadership when that person arrives.
Dedication Sunday, which we’ll observe on November 17, is about making an investment in the future of this church. When we make pledges for the continued work of the church, we are expressing our confidence that God will not abandon this faith community, that God will be with Manassas Presbyterian Church, and that God has a vision for MPC that lies beyond what any of us can see right now. A pledge is always an expression of confidence in the future: with our pledges, we express our confidence in God’s faithfulness to us, in the constancy of God’s commitment to the church of Jesus Christ. Our pledges reflect our willingness to dream, to try to catch a divine vision, as the prophet Haggai did, for the future of the church.
What might that vision look like? You have already articulated elements of it. The vision includes
- a church that is reaching out to the neediest people in the community, offering food, clothing, shelter, medical help, a listening ear, and most of all, hope;
- a church that is welcoming to the whole community – where newcomers find acceptance, friendship, and expressions of God’s love;
- a church that plans for future generations of men and women formed in the Christian faith through a thoughtful, imaginative, and forward-looking education program;
- a church in which men, women, and children feel the Spirit of God moving in their midst as they sing, pray, hear God’s word, and gather around the Lord’s Table;
- a church that is a community of healing, in which wounded spirits find both solace and strength;
- a church that sends people out to show the love of Christ in concrete ways in their homes, workplaces, schools, civic associations, and social gatherings;
- a church that celebrates its past, makes the most of its present, and commits to the future with the time, energy, talent, and financial resources of its members and friends.
This is a church that knows it exists for the hope of the world.
Manassas Presbyterian Church can be all these things. God speaks to us today through the prophet’s voice: “Take courage, and work, for I am with you. My Spirit abides among you; do not fear….The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former.”
Do you believe that God’s Spirit is in your midst, seeking to re-create you for a new era? Do you believe in God’s commitment to this church, can you see God’s vision for this church? How does it look to you now? …Does it not look glorious?
Manassas Presbyterian Church
November 3, 2019
[i] Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1986), 101.
[ii] Dennis Bratcher, Commentary on Haggai 1:15b-2:9, November 11, 2001, at http://www.cresourcei.org/lectionary/YearC/Cproper27ot.html.