Sermon November 7 — “How can we be sure?”

Reverend Stacy Swain

Haggai 1:15, 2:1-9;   Psalm 98

 Prophets are a strange bunch.  They are known for their poor sense of timing for they seem to always say inappropriate things at inopportune times.  There is just something about being around them that makes us rather uncomfortable.    

 Take Mr. James Knight for example.  Mr. Knight was a 95ish, African American gentleman who I met years ago while working at the Pine Street Inn.  Mr. Knight really did not fit in.  He was the sharpest dresser I have ever seen.  He spoke with the softest southern accent and despite the chaos of the shelter around him, he never rushed preferring instead a slow stroll as if he had all of the time in the world. 

                Now the routine of the shelter was that the men would line up in the yard at 3:30 every afternoon and file into through the front door one by one to receive food and a bed ticket.  Often I was the one working the door and would greet those coming in.  And so day after day I would say, “good afternoon Mr. Knight.” And every single afternoon he reacted to my words, as if I had spoken the most profound truth.  He would suddenly stop in his tracks, spread his feet a bit as if to steady himself, cock his head a little to the side and say quite knowingly “Well, my, my, my.  It is a GOOOOOD afternoon isn’t it.  A GOOOOOOD afternoon indeed.”

  He would then make his way into the lobby adjusting his wide brimmed hat,  and I would stare after him, completely baffled, thinking “what does he see that is good in this afternoon.  Here he is spending the days on the streets and the nights on a cot, in a room with a couple of hundred other hopeless men.  He is 95 years old and has very little control over his life and except for the clothes on his back has nothing.  How can this day be good for him?   

  I imagine that Haggai struck people a bit like Mr. Knight struck me.  Perhaps a little out of touch. For the prophet Haggai speaks his words in a chaotic and hopeless time.  He is speaking to the people of Jerusalem, to the newly returned remnant whose lives were upended by exile.  And he is speaking to those who remained in Jerusalem, those who tried to scrape by living under Babylonian occupation.  Haggai is speaking to those in Jerusalem but gone are the days of self rule.  It is true the Babylonians are gone but now the Syrians have taken their place.  And the temple, that wonder to the ancient world is in ruins.  Haggai’s question to the people gives us a window into the hopelessness that they must have been feeling  as they look upon their ruined lives and their ruined temple.  “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?  How does it look to you now?  Is it not in your sight as nothing?” 

Daniel Migliore, a theologian at Princeton Theological Seminary claims that experiences of power and powerlessness are woven into the fabric of human life.  Every human being, he says, searches for some degree of power in order to experience the dignity of human living.[1]  We need to feel that we have some control over what is happening to us, some ability to direct our own destinies.  But our need to have some control over our lives is enmeshed with other forces that are often far more powerful than we are.    Primary among these is what the Bible calls the powers and principalities – these are nations, institutions, systems of law and order, forms of culture.  And there is also the power of the natural world.  While human kind has done much to try to reign in and control the natural world it takes no more than a volcano or a hurricane to remind us how vulnerable and powerless we are in the face of their might. 

                In this mix of needing some sense of control over our own lives, and the reality of powerful forces beyond our control, Migliore argues that we have a very important choice to make.  We need to decide “what are we going to look to as the ultimate power that can give our life meaning and purpose.”  Or, to use the words of theologian Paul Tillich, what is going to be our “ultimate concern.”  For what we choose, what we look to as the ultimate power will be the referent, or reference point that we will use to navigate our way among the forces that act on us every day.  It will be the referent that we will look to to help us interpret and understand what is happening and to help frame how we are to respond. [2]  

This question —  “what will you decide is the ultimate power that gives meaning and purpose to your life,” is what Haggai is asking the people that day.  Will you give the rulers of the day ultimate power, because if you do then the nothingness that you see in the ruin of your lives and the temple is in fact true.  Is this the choice you are making?         

No wonder the people squirmed.  No one wants their noses rubbed in their own despair.  This kind of thing is best left unsaid.   But Haggai blazes on and will not let the people choose despair.  No, his voice rings out “Take Courage!” He says “Take courage!”, not once but three times,  Take courage all you people of the land.  All is not as nothing.  The empire that rules is not your ultimate power.    The choice has already been made, the Lord of Hosts according to the promise that was made with you when you came out of Egypt, abides with you.  Take courage, work and do not fear. Haggai’s prophetic utterance functions as an interpretive lens for the people helping them see what is happening not in terms of empire’s dominion but in terms of what God has done and will do for God’s people.

Haggai begins his prophetic utterance by locating his words in the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day – because on that day, the Hebrew people were to be celebrating the festival of Sukkot.  Instead of standing dejected in their ruin, the people were to be remembering on this day not only how God brought them up out of the land of Egypt but how they followed God in the desert for forty years, learning from God all they would need to learn in order to live as free people.  Rabbi Greenberg, in The Jewish Way, writes “Sukkot commemorates the maturation of the Israelites, achieved not just in crossing the Red Sea, but also in walking the long way to freedom.”[3]

             This is what Haggai is awakening in the minds and hearts of the people that day.  This is the memory of liberation and deliverance that he insists they remember when they look for meaning and purpose in what currently lies before them.   Haggai lifts the people up out of their powerlessness and sets them back down in God’s story of liberation and deliverance, and in doing so, reminds them that this is “GOOOOOD, GOOOOOOD indeed.”    Standing not in nothingness but instead in God’s story of deliverance, the people are able to see the future that God has for them, a future when the temple will be filled with splendor and their lives filled with shalom. 

             And what is the people’s response to this assurance of Goodness?  Well they get busy doing what it is God would have them do.  They set out rebuilding their temple and their lives, doing their part so that the house will again be filled with splendor and so that peace and prosperity will again reign.

             The teaching of Haggai for our lives today is that when we are facing ruin and despair, we need to remember.  We must not let illness, financial struggles, indifference, our busyness or anything else strip us of any feelings of control or power in our lives, we must not feel as nothing. Instead, like Haggai let us remember that God is our ultimate power; that God has chosen us, and abides with us.  With that assurance and conviction, we too can take courage, and without fear set out living into whatever reality we face. 

            So I invite you when you face something this week that feels discouraging, or that frightens you, something that makes you feel as if nothing is possible, I invite you to take a moment to widen your stance, regain your balance and remember that God is with you.  And then I invite you to ask God to show you what it is the particular situation you face requires.  Ask God to show you what is the work you are to do.

            Though we never spoke of it, I am quite convinced that this is how Mr. Knight moved through his days.  I am quite convinced that God was Mr. Knight’s ultimate power and it was through God’s care for him that he interpreted his days.  For how he experienced his life in that shelter seemed to be defined not by the grimness of the place but through and inner assurance of Goodness that he carried within him.  And the remarkable thing is that this inner assurance of goodness that he carried within himself began to have an effect on me.  It began to affect the way that I too experienced the shelter.  I found myself looking for Mr. Knight as the men lined up in the yard, and I found myself smiling when I saw him slowly making his way to the door and I found myself speaking my greeting to Mr. Knight with new conviction because it really was good to see him.  It was good to hear how he spoke his greeting to me.  It was good to see him grin and then straighten his hat.  Now I don’t know if I ever got to the point of widening my stance and cocking my head in amazement like he did, but I did come to see that there was goodness at work in that dire place and it had been greeting me every day.  Amen.

[1] Daniel L.  Migliore.  The Power of God and the gods of Power. ( Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 2008) p. 3

[2] Migliore. p. 10-11.

[3] Rabbi Irving Greenberg. The Jewish Way (Touchstone: New York: 1988)p 97.