Is It Not As Nothing? (Dr. Trey Benfield)

Scripture Readings:

Ezra 3:10-13
1 Peter 2:4-10
Haggai 2: 1-9

For the last few weeks we have been studying the book of Haggai. To recap Haggai was a prophet to the post exilic community in Jerusalem.  This community consisted of those Jews who had returned from captivity in Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem.  I have made the point that this group were the true believers who had made an arduous journey away from the place that many had known as their home and left to return to a devastated and ruined city.  The only reason for this community of Jews to make this decision to rebuild is because they believed their traditions and the land those were connected to were important.  They were the true believers, people we might think of as patriots.  This community made their decision to return to Jerusalem fueled by their belief that the end of the exile would lead to the glorious restoration of Israel the prophets had spoken.  However, as we have seen the view on the ground is very different and as such the community is suffering a spiritual depression.  

Partly to renew their focus and to break the people out of their spiritual depression, Haggai has urged the community to begin rebuilding the temple.  As we look at our passage today we learn that almost one month has passed since the people began to rebuild the temple and it is at last complete.  Already we learn something key from this information.  You see if you go back to 1 Kings 6 you learn that it took seven years to build the first temple, the one that Babylonians had destroyed about 80 years earlier.  Not only did that temple take seven years to build, but it involved material and craftsmen from as far away as Lebanon.  A huge number of people worked on the temple included 70,000 burden bearers, 80,000 stone masons all under the supervision of 3,300 of Solomon’s officers.  According to the Bible, maybe 50,000 total may have returned and in just a month they have finished the temple using far inferior materials.

So it is no surprise that when we come to verse three we find Haggai acknowledging the disappointment the Jews must have felt when they took into account their completed temple.  “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory?  How do you see it now?  Is it not as nothing in your eyes.”  Notice Haggai does not say its quaint, rustic, has potential like an ancient realtor.  Nor does Haggai say it is shabby or inadequate.  Haggai says it is nothing.  I find it interesting that even though Haggai urged the people to build the temple, once it is completed he does not try to sugar coat its appearance or pull any punches.  

We actually have another account that is contained in our first scripture reading, taken from the book of Ezra.  What this account tells us is that the old men who had seen Solomon’s temple cried when they saw this temple.  These men would have had to have been at least 80 years old to remember the old temple and even though they were very young they still retained an awe of the grandeur and majesty of the old temple.   When they saw this temple experienced nothing but disappointment and their only reaction is to weep.   

Once gain the hope and expectation of the people for the restoration has come crashing into the cold, hard facts of reality.  The people lack prosperity, they are still under the domination of Persia, and now the Temple though completed is a disappointment.  Though the people are obedient to Haggai’s message, it seems they still remain a spiritually depressed people.  So here, Haggai’s challenge is a bit different from most prophets.  Most prophets have difficulty getting the people to listen to their messages, Haggai does not have this problem.  Haggai’s problem is that the people listen to his message and follow his prescription but find no improvement and as a result are a beaten down and a discouraged people.

We can relate, we are an optimistic people as a whole but we are not blind to the world that surround us.  Despite our attempts to help feed people or provide them with goats or all the ways we try to make the world a better place, we know the task is an overwhelming one.  We also know that even our attempts to make things better sometimes make things worse.  What advantage does following the teachings of Christ and being part of the church gain?  Sometimes it can be difficult to answer this question.  When we look at the church, we too can look at its impact on the world and ask the question along with Haggai does it not appear as nothing?

So how does Haggai address this challenging issue that both the Jerusalem community as well as we in the church must wrestle with?  If you notice in verse 3 Haggai presents the problem after asking if anyone remembers the temple in its former glory asks how now do you see it?  To set the question in a more general context Haggai is asking in the present what  is your perception, your interpretation of God’s work before you?   In verse 4 Haggai also uses the word now - yet now be strong.  The repetition of the word now connects the two thoughts.  Verse 4 then is Haggai’s answer to this problem.  

The answer then to the disappointment and spiritual depression that the community experience is to be strong.  The civil leadership represented by Zerubbabel, the religious leadership as represented by Joshua and the entire community are all told to be strong.  They are also instructed to continue their work.  However, mere activity and a positive attitude is not the answer to the challenge.  Positive feelings and frenetic activity can alleviate disappointment temporarily but we all know this a weak and transient solution.  

If this is all Haggai had to offer the people he would be no better than the numerous self help books and management guides that pervade our culture.  Haggai though does not stop with mere platitudes.  Haggai goes further - the answer is Haggai’s assurance that God is with them.  In most translations verse 4 reads “work, for I am with you, declares the Lord of Host.”  Here the word “for” is better translate to the word because.   Work because I am with you.  In other words the answer to the people’s disappointment and spiritual depression is to be strong and work not as an end to itself but BECAUSE God is present.  Again we return to the theme of the presence of God which is the main idea the temple represents.  

Verse 5 goes on to assure the people that despite the lack of evidence God’s spirit is indeed in their midst.  This phrase “in your midst” should sound familiar with last weeks sermon, because this was exactly what Moses knew was so important for the purpose of Israel - that God would be in their midst.  This is the whole turning point of Haggai’s message.  On one hand the temple they had just built sucks compared to the old one and the people are struggling and depressed.  However, what Haggai wants them to know is that despite appearances, God is present. 

 There is even a little pun here in the Hebrew.  The temple appears as nothing or ayin but God says ani I, as in I am with you.  As a result the people are exhorted to be strong, to work, and to not fear all driven by a firm belief in the presence of God.  So Haggai does recommend stiffening their resolve, Haggai does recommend that they get on with their job, but Haggai does so not as an end to itself but because God is with them.  God in their midst is what will make the difference lifting them from their depression and allowing them to be strong and to work.  

As a result of God’s presence, Haggai instructs the people to “fear not.”   If you remember back to my series on Ruth, I preached a whole sermon on the phrase “fear not.”  One of the points I made was that command to “fear not” or some variation is found in almost every book of the Bible.  It is the single most frequent command given in the Bible.  What I find interesting about this concept of not fearing is that despite this persistent repeated command throughout the Bible, the Church is full of fear.  We fear cultural relativism, shifting cultural values, future economic collapse, the marginalization of faith in public life, atheists, militant Islam, politicians that do not conform to our views and we sit and worry and fear that one or more of these groups will crush the church.  However, John tells us the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.  As Paul tells Timothy God has not given us the spirt of fear but of power and love and self control.  If God is for us, who can be against us?  

Haggai does not stop there though again he continues to help the people in their battle against their spiritual depression as they look upon their laughable temple wondering what is the point of it all.  Haggai tells the people not only will they be able to be strong and work because they are freed from fear because of God’s presence.  Haggai goes further and helps them be free from fear by reminding them that God has made promises to His people through the solemn oaths He has sworn to us and His covenants.  Haggai then asks the people to remember that God has been true to His promises in the past and asks them to remember how He freed them from the slavery of the Egyptians.  God used the full power of His might absolutely and completely defeating the Pharaoh and his armies and leading the people to freedom.  The lesson for the people and the lesson to us is that the way we are able to be sure of God’s presence and the way we are able to live without fear is to remind ourselves over and over of what God has done in the past.   What we as the church need to do more than anything, the message we need to hear more than any other is that of God’s greatest act of freedom and covenant fidelity, whereby not only an army and a king was defeat but Christ and Christ crucified.  There not only was the greatest empire the world has ever known shown to be powerless and impotent but sin and death was defeated and Paul can ask the question O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?  Thanks be to God who give us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  God is in our midst and so we can be strong and we can be without fear and we can go about kingdom work in this present evil age and the way we will do this is by reminding ourselves over and over of the gospel.  

Before finishing up the sermon, I do want to pause and make a very practical point from Haggai’s message.  Notice that Haggai addresses his command to be strong to three different audiences.  Zerubabbel, Joshua, and the people of the land.  Zerubabbel was the grandson of King Jehoiachin and the current governor of Jerusalem.  Joshua was the high priest.  So we have three office represented: the civic leadership, the spiritual leadership, and the people as a community of believers.  Notice that all three are subordinate to Haggai the prophet.  However, the purpose of the office of the prophet was to deliver the word of God.  So my point is that all three groups are ultimately under the authority of the word of God.

The New Testament sees the church as the true Israel and so we as the church and specifically Resurrection Church need to understand that whether we are the spiritual leaders like Chris or myself, or administrative leaders like Mason, or worship leaders like Lucia, or as members of the congregation all of us must understand that we are ultimately under the authority of the word of God.  The author of the book of Hebrews tells us that long ago God to spoke to His people in many times and many ways and spoke to His people by the prophets, but in the last says He has spoken to us by His Son.  John tells us Jesus is the word of God.  This means ultimately every action and decision we in the church make is to be guided and subject to the authority not just of the Bible but the Bible as taught to us by Christ.  

Now let us return back to our passage because I want to make one final point to tie all of this together.  There is a shift that occurs in the language of Haggai.  You have to look closely but in Haggai’s first address to the people in chapter 1, Haggai refers to them as these people.  Yet after they build the temple, Haggai begins to refer to the people as the remnant and here in verse 2 of our passage Haggai again calls them the remnant.  To us that seems like no big deal, after all they are part of a small group of Jews who survived the Babylonian conquest and an even small group of Jews that decided to return to Jerusalem.  However, referring to these people by the term remnant is highly significant.  Let me explain why.  

You see the purpose of God rescuing the people from Egypt and creating them as the nation of Israel was to form a relationship with Israel so that He would be there God and they would be His people.  This phrase is repeated over and over again throughout the Old Testament.  However, as a result of Israel continual disobedience where the people abandoned the worship of the God who brought them out of Egypt, God says in Hosea that they are no longer my people but not my people.  In Hebrew they are not ami or my people but lo ami, not my people.   However, God promises that He will call those who are not my people, “my people” again and will restore the relationship and prosperity to the people.  The faithlessness of the people will be the final word.  

So by the use of “those people” and not “my people” in verse 1 the text is communicating to us a broken relationship exists between this community and God.  There is a distance between the people and God.  The people are not in proper relationship.  The people are other.  Here is where the significance of now referring to the people as the remnant comes into play. 

Remnant did not just mean to them a small group that remains out of a larger group.  Remnant had a more specific, technical meaning in the Old Testament.  We find the term used first in Isaiah 10 & 11, where Isaiah promises that the Assyrians, the empire that had taken the northern Kingdom into exile, will be punished and a remnant of Israelite that had been captured will return.   Jeremiah continues this theme in chapter 23 where God promises that He will gather the remnant of His flock out all the countries that they had been driven, promising to bring them back to their fold where they would be fruitful and multiply.  
The concept of the return of the remnant is used in conjunction with language about the day of the Lord.  The day of the Lord refers to the time when the Lord would at last return, righting all the wrongs, establishing perfect justice and peace, and returning Israel to its place of prominence and prosperity.  It is what we might call end times language or if you are a theology nerd - eschatological language.  In Old Testament prophecy, the remnant along with the messiah function in conjunction with the Lord to bring about the day of the Lord.  

Here in our passage we have end times, eschatological language.  You see this language that Haggai that uses in this passage that once again God will shake the heavens and the earth, and the sea and the dry land is not something Haggai is telling the people out of the blue.  This language along with the treasures from that nations coming in and the temple filled with God’s glory are reference to what other prophets had already told Israel about the end time restoration.  We find similar language in Isaiah and Ezekiel.  This is all part of the day of the Lord.

So what Haggai is promising to the people is nothing less than the restoration that the people had been awaiting ever since they had returned to Jerusalem.  So lets put all these concepts   together, God promises the people that they are to be strong and to work not as an end to itself but towards a purpose.   God is reassuring the people that He will fulfill His promises just as He did in the past specifically when God freed the Israelites in the Exodus.  This once again links back to the events of the Exodus further connecting this to the new Exodus that Isaiah had talked about.  

What is significant then by God addressing the people as the remnant, is that they are now part of this end time restoration.  The people have been given a new identity by God just as Abram, whose name means “my father is great” had been en a new identity by having his name changed to Abraham meaning “father of many.”  Just as Jacob whose name means “supplanter” referring to his character as a deceiver, was changed to Israel which means “God fights. “ Here the people had been given a new identity and now have a new role and new purpose involving nothing less than the completion of God’s plan of redemption for the cosmos.  

In our second reading we see Peter exhorting us to grow in salvation by understanding the new identity and role we have been given as Christians.  Peter addresses this letter to those in exile and describes his location as Babylon.  Since Babylon is often code for Rome, it is likely that 1 Peter is written during the persecution of Christians under Nero.  These were dark days for the early Christian church.  Again we have a situation where God’s community is living a precarious existence not at all characterized by the glorious future they had hoped would come after the resurrection.  Yet Peter reminds them that they are building something and just as Christ was the stone rejected by the builders, their rejection in the form persecution and suffering means something because of who they are - their new identity in Christ.

Like the Israelites, like the Christians addressed by Peter, we too may look around at dismay at the tragedy and suffering we see all around us.  Shouldn’t the resurrection have changed this?  Sometimes as we face the overwhelming evil and oppression arounds us where it seems as though the forces of power and oppression and violence are the winners, against whom the church has at best demonstrated only mild effectiveness and at worst has colluded with.  Often we can join with Haggai in concluding that it is nothing.  Haggai does not pull punches and sugarcoat reality, nor will I.   

However, here is the conclusion and the point  -  what Peter tells us and what Haggai tells us is to be strong, to work, and to not be afraid because God is at work.  What is more, we have a very real role in this drama that God is directing.  Peter tells us to remember our identity - we in the church are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession.  We are building something and the violent forces of oppression and and violence and power will not win because God is in control and He is in our midst.  As Haggai promises in verse 9 the latter glory of the house will be greater than the former.  God declares that in this place He will at last bring peace.  If we are to be strong, if we are to work, if we are to be without fear, then we must believe these promises that God is present and is at work and look to the cross where all the promises of God find their yes in Him and that is why through Him we utter AMEN to God for His glory.