The Time Between: Expectation and Reality (Dr. Trey Benfield)

Scripture Readings:

Acts 1:6-8
Ephesians 2:18-22
Haggai 1:1-6

I want to begin a series studying Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, sometimes known as the post-exilic prophets.  These three prophets occupy a unique place in Biblical history because Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi were the last three prophets who spoke to Israel before we come to John the Baptist over four hundred years later.  

In order to understand the message of these three prophets and to see the relevance for us today, we are going to have learn a little about the historical background. If the term post-exilic does not mean anything to you, don’t worry I will explain and pretty soon you will be dropping “post-exilic” in casual conversation.   

So let us look at the big picture of Israel so we can understand exactly what context we are dealing with because it is very important and we will be referring back to it a lot.  If we go back to Abraham, you will recall that God made a covenant with Abraham promising Abraham lots of descendants who would one become a great nation.  We find that God fulfills this promise, but the descendants of Abraham find themselves slaves in Egypt.  God raises up Moses to free His people from the Egyptians and leads them to Mount Sinai where God gives the people the law.  The people are to obey the law and if they do not God tells them their land will be conquered.   After wandering in the desert for forty years, they conquer the land of Canaan.  The Israelites as they are now called will establish a kingdom ruled by great kings like David and Solomon.  After Solomon their is sort of a civil war that divides the nation of Israel into a Southern and Northern kingdom.  The kings and the people do not obey the law and the northern portion of Israel is conquered by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. and the southern portion by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.  The Babylonians completely destroyed Jerusalem including the great temple built by King Solomon.   

After the Babylonians conquered Israel, many of the people were forcefully moved to Babylon in what was known as the Babylonian exile.  The resettlement of conquered people was a common practice in the ancient world.  Breaking the ties of the people to their land made them less likely to rebel.  Most of the time kingdoms conquered in this manner ceased to become nations and disappeared from the pages of history.  However, the prophets had prophesied that God would preserve a remnant of His people and would restore Israel.  The prophets paint a picture of the restoration of Israel as an event similar to the Exodus but even better.  Israel would return from exile, a new descendant of David would return to the throne, the temple would be rebuilt, the land would be made prosperous, Israel would become not just a nation but the greatest of nations, and God Himself would come to His people establishing an everlasting kingdom that would institute a new age of peace and justice throughout the whole Earth.  Jeremiah prophesied an end to the exile after 70 years and after the Persians led by King Cyrus conquered the Babylonians, Cyrus issued a decree in 539 B.C. calling for the return of the Jews to Israel and authorizing them to rebuild the temple.  The time period after the Jews return from Babylon is known as the post-exilic period.  

I tell you this not just to impress your friends at parties with your knowledge of ancient Israelite history - trust me no one will be.  However if we look at our text you will notice that Haggai begins by given us a very specific date.  I think this is probably the most specific date we are given from any of the prophets.  Some prophets, for instance Joel, give us no indication at all as to the time period.  Yet here in Haggai we are told right at the start that it is the second year of Darius the king, the sixth month and first day.  The author tells us this because he wants us to know that the time of the events of Haggai is important.  

Now in the ancient world it was common to refer to years by the reign of the king since they did use B.C./A.D. dating system we use.  Darius was the Persian king who followed Cyrus’ son Cambyses.  We have pretty good records from the Persian period so we know that this date corresponds to 520 B.C. eighteen years after Cyrus conquered the Babylon and issued the decree allowing for the return of the Jews to their homeland and authorizing them to rebuild the temple.  So we know that we are firmly in the post-exilic period.

So if you were a Jew living during this time period, you would have had certain expectations.  The seventy years of captivity that Jeremiah spoke of was over and now was the time for foreign domination to end, prosperity to return, the Davidic monarchy to be restored, and God to come again to set everything that was wrong in the world right.  However, as the exiles attempted to rebuild, the facts on the ground tell a different story.  We learn in this passage  that prosperity has not returned to Israel - the people have sown much but harvested little, they have drunk but never have their fill, they have clothes, but are not warm.  The earn wages but put them into a bag with holes.  Persia still rules and it appears to the people as though God is not with them.  There is a gap between the people’s expectations and their reality in this sad state of affairs.  

Now typically when Haggai is taught or preached, if it ever is, there is basically one sermon you will hear.  The focus is on verse 4 when the people are told that they live in paneled houses while the house of God lies in ruin.  Paneled houses are read as a sign of luxury because they were usually cedar and that made the house smell good and look nice so the lesson drawn is that the audience Haggai is addressing have their priorities out of alignment.  They have focused on themselves rather than God.  The sermon will then make the point that we should realign our priorities and put God first and our material desires second.  I think there is some truth to this reading. However, as usual it is more complex than this. In fact, I think there is a bigger issue to which the misalignment of priorities is merely a symptom.

Here is where an understanding of history will help us.  After Cyrus’ decree many Jews, actually most Jews, remained in Babylon.  They had grown up Babylon, were comfortable in cosmopolitan Babylon, and preferred to stay put rather than to undergo a long, arduous journey to a ruined land they had little memory of.  In fact, only a small minority returned to Israel.  According to Ezra-Nehemiah only about 50,000 of them took advantage of the decree of Cyrus.  The people who did return were the patriots who took pride in the land, religion, and above all the temple.  These were people that believed it God’s promises so much they would leave the comforts of their established home in Babylon to go on a 900 mile journey.

For Jews in general the temple was super important.  In fact it is hard to underestimate the importance of the temple as a symbol of what it meant to be Jewish.  Not too long before the events of Haggai, Jeremiah had been tried and almost executed for prophesying that the people had placed too much trust that God would protect them from destruction because God would not destroy His temple and Jeremiah was telling them that God would destroy His temple.

My point is that the people who returned to Israel were the true believers and the temple would have been majorly important to them.  The people who remained in Babylon were the ones who cared about material, worldly comforts.  So why would this small, dedicated band of Jewish patriots not rebuild the temple and instead build paneled houses?  We are told the answer to this question in verse 2, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.”  I am going to argue that the word time here is a little different than how we normally think of it.  

In Hebrew thought, time was understood as a joining of favorable circumstances with a particular end or purpose.  It was not something a person unilaterally decided on - the circumstances had to be in place.  So if we think back to Ecclesiastes 3, or the Byrd’s song “Turn, Turn, Turn”, there is a time be born and a time to die, a time to plant, and time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal…  You don’t just go outside and plant something anytime you want.  It has to be the right season. 

So the people are not saying, we are not rebuilding the temple because we have better things to do like build paneled houses.  The people are saying that their circumstances were not favorable to building the temple because they are awaiting the signs of the restoration that the prophets promised and they do not seem them.  What is going on here is not a misalignment of priorities, rather the people’s expectations have met the cold facts of reality and have led the people to a spiritual depression.

Now here is where Haggai has something to teach us, a deeper lesson than simply needing to order our priorities.  The misaligned priorities are a symptom of a bigger problem.   Like the Israelites Haggai is speaking to, all of us have experienced times in our faith when the expectations and promises have not lined up with the cold, hard facts of reality.  When we are true believers and yet experience suffering in ourselves or in others.  When we are faithful witnesses to a friend or family member and see no change in heart.  When we look around in the world knowing that God is working to redeem and restore His creation and yet see only evidence of brokenness.  

You see we also live in the gap between expectations and hope just as did the post-exilic community.  We are told that because of the resurrection of Christ we live in a new age where death is defeated.  According to Luke, Jesus begins his ministry by reading from the book of Isaiah which prophesies the restoration of Israel, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Then Jesus rolls up the scroll and says, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Yet we still have the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed and I would not describe the last 2000 years of history as the year of the Lord’s favor.

We are told at the end of Matthew that all authority in heaven and earth is given to Christ.  We are told that Christ watched Satan fall and that Christ has bound the strong man.  Yet for 2000 years we have seen tyrants exploit and oppress and it seems as though Satan is still at work.  If Christ’s victory on the cross is the turning point of history and if everything changed as result of the resurrection why does everything look so much the same?

You are not alone if you have experienced this gap between promise and expectation and present reality.  No less than the disciples right after the resurrection felt this as well.  Our first reading from Acts takes place on the Mount of Olives just before Jesus ascends to heaven to take His place on the throne as Lord of heaven and earth.  

Before Jesus ascends, His disciples ask Jesus a very logical question, “Lord will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”  You see for the disciples, the role of the messiah who they identified with Jesus, was to bring the restoration of Israel that the prophets had spoken of.  The disciples wanted to see Israel freed from foreign domination, prosperity restored, their enemies judged, and God return to the temple.  Their hopes had been dashed when Jesus had been crucified, but now that he rose from the dead it seemed the right moment for this new world order that they longed for to be instituted. 

Jesus’ reply to their question seems a bit of a dodge.  The typical reading is that Jesus is answering the disciple’s question by saying that God is going to do all these thing but later and that it is none of your business when, so until that time you need to be witnesses and wait until the restoration finally happens and then ascends to heaven leaving them to wait.  I think this reading misses the point of Jesus’ answer. 

However, Jesus ascension is not an escape to heaven where he then rules the spiritual realm detached from us.  This is not how the disciples would have viewed this event.  For them there was no sharp separation between heaven and earth.  Instead the ascension was proof that Jesus is taking up the throne and His rule is extending to the whole cosmos.  What Jesus is telling the disciples is that the restoration is beginning now, but the restoration is not happening in the way you might expect.  Instead the restoration is happening because you are going to be spirit filled witnesses to me and the extent of this will be Jesus rule not in Jerusalem or even Israel but encompassing the whole world.  The new age is breaking in and the Holy Spirit present at creation and in the temple is now going to march, as the church and the believers that make up the church, as the agent of the new creation.  The church constructed of believers filled with the holy spirit is the way the restoration of the kingdom will come.  

Like the disciples and like post-exillic Jews that Hagaii is prophesying too we are caught between two ages.  The resurrection means the victory is won and the promise of restoration is sure.  Paul tells us that Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruits, meaning the resurrection of the whole cosmos will follow in kind.  Understanding that the presence of God which was manifest by the Holy Spirit in the temple now sees the Holy Spirit believers of the church as the new temple.  

If we look at our second reading from Ephesians, we see Paul flesh this out.  In verse 16 Paul starts with the premise that because we share the Holy Spirit we have access to the father.  Remember it was the temple in the Old Testament where the presence of God dwelled where the people met with and interacted with God.  Paul is explaining that because of Christ and the defeat of sin on the cross, we have direct access to God.  God’s kingdom has broken in and is being built in this world through those that make up the church.   Paul ends the passage by stating that we as the church are being built into a dwelling place for God.  Remember a dwelling place for God is the purpose of a temple. 

This is exactly what Jesus was talking about when the disciples asked him the question as to when he would restore the kingdom to Israel.   The kingdom would be partially a supernatural act involving the holy spirit, but it would also involve the disciples of God building the church as witnesses to the resurrection of Christ.  From the very beginning God has established His kingdom and for some reason God has desired that it would be built by the means of humanity.  Therefore, the kingdom of God grows by fits and starts, hidden and revealed, supernaturally powered by the Holy Spirit yet actualized in the material world.  The dichotomy we so often see between the secular and the holy is broken by the revolution Christ began at His resurrection.

Jesus taught the disciples as much when he compared the kingdom of God to the mustard seed It starts as a tiny insignificant seed.  It grows to the greatest of all herbs to the point where birds can lodge in its branches.  

So how do we live between expectation and reality?  The answer is the same for the people Hagaai prophesied to.  We are not to wait until God until the promises of God have been fully realized.  To do would be an abdication of the duties God has entrusted us to.  We are to build the temple.  To make manifest the presence of God in the church by being faithful witnesses to Christ and His work with faith and hope that God will fulfill His promises.  If we want to know what that looks like then we can turn to the ministry of Jesus who announced that God’s kingdom was here and then went about showing what the world looks like when God is in charge.  To proclaim good news to the poor. To proclaim liberty to the captives and recover sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.  Knowing that in the Lord our labor is not in vain.  Living our lives in assurance of things hope and the conviction of things not seen.