Interior of the nave at Salisbury Cathedral, UK
Ten years ago this summer I had the privilege of going on a trip to England to visit some of the key sites in Methodist history. It was a great trip, but besides the obvious excitement of doing things like standing in Wesley’s pulpit in the New Room at Bristol there were some other things that stood out. One of the recurring things we did in nearly every town we visited was to go to the local cathedral. England is full of them and they are some of the grandest buildings you can imagine. There is the 440 ft. spire at Salisbury Cathedral, the soaring ceilings in Bristol, the towers of Lincoln Cathedral, and the great dome of St. Paul’s in London. I took lots of pictures and my neck hurt from spending so much time looking up.
As impressive as these buildings were, however, there was one feature that was common to all of them that had nothing to do with architecture—they were mostly museums. Despite the grand scale and beauty, few people actually attend worship in these places anymore. They make a lot of their money from gawking tourists and the gift shop in the vestibule.
It’s interesting to imagine how vibrant these places were when they were first built in the Middle Ages. The Cathedral was the center of life in the city, the place packed with worshippers on a Sunday. But the culture of Christendom is no more—not in England, and increasingly so in the U.S. It’s a bit depressing, actually. According to some recent research, 4-7,000 churches close in the US each year. We just closed four at our most recent annual conference.
It’s clear that the church has lost its cultural influence, which it enjoyed for quite some time. Oh, church bodies still like to draft resolutions, send letters to the President, etc. on some social issues, but nobody in power is listening anymore. Politicians seek to exploit the “evangelical” voters but then will drop them like a hot rock when the election is over. Like those cathedrals in England, the edifice of the church is still there, but it’s getting emptier and emptier as people find other ways to spend their time and other gods to whom they give their worship. Eventually, those edifices will crumble with no one to care for them. It may seem as if God has left the building.
This was the situation into which the prophet Haggai came in the late 6th century BC. Remember that Judah, the southern kingdom, was invaded by the Babylonians in 586. Jerusalem was destroyed, and the grand temple that Solomon built for God was razed as well, with all of its lavish gold and silver looted by the invaders. The elites of Judah were taken into exile in Babylon for 70 years, which the poor and the landless were left behind to scramble for a living among the smoking ruins.
As happens with empires, however, Babylon’s star faded rather quickly as it was taken over by the great Achaemenid Persian Empire. The Persians, unlike the Babylonians and Assyrians, believed in keeping people happy where they were, and when the conquered a territory they tended to leave its rulers and religion in place so long as they continued to be obedient to Persia. It was the Persians, then, under King Darius, who allowed the Jews to return home from their exile in Babylon to rebuild their city and temple, even giving them money to finance the rebuilding.
The Jerusalem to which the exiles returned must have been a heartbreaking sight. The city walls were down, rubble lay heaped where homes had once stood, and the temple, the heart of Judah’s religion, was destroyed.
Within the first year of coming back, the returnees made a halfhearted attempt to clear the temple foundations, but they soon lost interest and instead went to work on their own homes.
Who could blame them? Things really weren’t going very well. The people had to struggle daily just to get enough to eat. Their economy was in shambles, and the nearby Samaritans were hassling them. Dealing with harsh realities of daily existence occupied most of their time and energy. When Haggai comes onto the scene in 520, 18 years after the return, he observes: “Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes” (Haggai 1:5-6).
The people live in frustration because they have their priorities out of whack. They are more focused on themselves, their comforts, and their activities than they are on making space for God’s glory to dwell among them.
It’s hard not to see the parallels with our own culture. When God is pushed to the margins, people begin to pursue all sorts of things that they believe will make them secure and comfortable. They use their time in self-serving ways and might give God a little time if they don’t have something “better” going on. The result is a culture that pursues wealth, security, entertainment, and comfort but never finds any of it. People are frustrated, never having enough and never feeling fulfilled.
Haggai brings a word from the Lord—it’s about making God a priority! “Go up to the highlands and bring back wood,” says God. “Rebuild the temple so that I may enjoy it and that I may be honored.” But God’s command is about more than a building—it’s about honoring God’s presence—that’s what the temple was designed to do in the first place. God’s repeated phrase in Haggai is, “I am with you.” It doesn’t matter how great or how grand the building, or even if there is a building at all — the key is recognizing the presence of God and making God the first priority.
The people and their leaders listen to Haggai and then start rebuilding. When the temple is finished, however, it’s a bit disappointing. There were still those who remembered the gold and silver that made Solomon’s original temple one of the wonders of the ancient world. In those days, the more gold and silver you had in a temple, the more worthy it was for the deity’s presence. The people looked at the modest and meager temple they had constructed and thought, “No way God will dwell in this place.” If Solomon’s temple was a cathedral, this looked more like an abandoned truck stop (just wanted to see if you were listening!).
“Who among you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Doesn’t it appear as nothing to you?” says the prophet. But though it looks like nothing, though it looks weak and unassuming, Haggai tells the people that God will be there anyway. The phrase, “Take courage” (or “be strong” as the CEB renders it) is repeated three times to the governor, Zerubbabel, the high priest, and the people. “Work, for I am with you” says the Lord. Look, God says, I’ve been with you ever since I brought you out of Egypt and “my spirit stands in your midst. Don’t fear.”
In other words, God says to his people, you are building more than you see. It’s not about the size of the building or even the number of people in it, but about the fact that God is present. Even if there are only a few, the “remnant” as we spoke of last week, God says, “Work, for I am with you.” Keep building up my kingdom and I will bless the work.
This is good news for the 21st century church. Like those exiles, we can look at the ruins of Christendom, our empty cathedrals, our dwindling attendance numbers, and feel like failure. It would be easier, we think, to simply abandon the work altogether and join the rest of the crowd who seem to be having so much more fun on Sunday mornings going about their own business. But we must remember, as Zephaniah told us last week, God is the one who ultimately wins. Don’t let the current state of affairs fool you. God is still here and will be here all the way through. God is able to take that which seems small and insignificant in the present and make it a central part of his glorious future.
“In just a little while,” says the Lord through Haggai, “I will make the heavens, the earth, the sea, and the dry land quake. I will make all the nations quake. The wealth of all the nations will come. I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of heavenly forces. The silver and gold belong to me…This house will be more glorious than its predecessor, says the Lord of heavenly forces. I will provide prosperity in this place.”
The promise of God for the temple came true, sort of. Some 500 years later, Herod the Great would rebuild the temple on a grand scale that even outdid Solomon. But almost as soon as it was finished, it was destroyed by the Romans during the Jewish revolt of 70AD. It hasn’t been rebuilt. Indeed, the Muslim Dome of the Rock now stands on the site in Jerusalem.
But here’s where we learn that God’s promise goes beyond buildings. The temple of Herod the Great was in its glory when Jesus came to Jerusalem, but remember what he told his disciples—all of this will be destroyed, every stone thrown down, but I will rebuild it in three days. What? How can that be?
Of course, Jesus was talking about himself—he was, after all, God in the flesh, dwelling with his people. Isaiah said that he would be called, “Emmanuel,” God with us. Jesus told his disciples in the Great Commission, “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Paul calls him the “chief cornerstone.” In him, all the functions of the temple are found—God’s forgiveness, God’s presence, God’s dwelling place.
Indeed, the Bible reminds us that, in the end, there is no need for a temple to be rebuilt. As Revelation 22 tells us, when God’s new Jerusalem comes from heaven to earth, there will be no temple in it, for the temple is God Almighty and the Lamb, Jesus Christ. It is, as God promised, a house more glorious than its predecessors!
I think Haggai’s message to the people of Judah is the message for the church in our own time. Looking around at our culture, it’s easy to think that things are falling apart. It can all look like its in shambles, it can feel empty, but the promise of God is, “I am with you.” If you focus on the right priorities, if you are focused on God’s glory and not your own, then you are building more than you see at present. God will shake things up and bring his resources to bear at the right time. God is at work in you.
And what God says to Judah and to the church is also a message for his people. God is at work in the small things of life and inhabits them with his glory, if we are open to see it. You might be a parent who is struggling with raising small children. Take courage! You are building more than you can see right now. You might be struggling with a job right now, or looking for work. Take courage! God can shake things up and bring his prosperity in ways of you might not now conceive. Continue to work, for God is with you!
You might be working in a particular ministry and not seeing a lot of fruit at the moment—but you are building more than you can see. Don’t give into the temptation to quit and settle for building for your own comfort and security—but take courage and work, for God is with you!
Success in God’s kingdom is not about size and scale—it’s about faithfulness. It’s not about our glory, but always about God’s glory. It’s about doing our part and giving the glory to God.
Those huge cathedrals in England took generations to build. Imagine the number of stone masons who worked on them over the years. You have to wonder what they were thinking as they carved out a particular stone. The more pragmatic of the lot might think to himself, “I’m just cutting this stone,” while the more visionary might have thought, “I’m building a cathedral.” The latter may have never seen the end product, but he could imagine it.
NT Wright says this is a lot like how the kingdom of God works. We are tempted to look at our lives like that first stone mason—as an individual project. We work in order to feed the family, get things done, maybe even squeeze in a vacation if we’re lucky. It’s all about maintaining a certain lifestyle for ourselves, but never seeing the big picture.
The second mason, on the other hand, has nothing but the big picture in mind. He is building for something beyond himself. He realizes his work is part of a larger project that he might never see completed in his lifetime. He trusts the master builder to take his work and put it in the right place, even if it seems small and insignificant at the time.
Imagine the day, then, says Wright, when the cathedral is finally complete and the master builder takes his stone masons through it before it opens to the public. He points out every stone—you did that, that’s your piece. See how it holds things together? The mason didn’t know it when he was doing the work. He was building more than he could see.
When our lives are lived for God’s glory, we are building more than we can see. Even small things take on great significance when they are done for him. “Take courage! Work, for I am with you,” says the Lord.