A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., onNovember 7, 2010.
Haggai 1:15b-2:9; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17
Every church that has any history at all has experienced its glory days when the pews were full and the programs were operating on full cycle and all cylinders. All you have to do is look at a church’s buildings. Congregations build according to size, not to mention growth expectations. It’s a common axiom that if a church has grown beyond the ability of its facilities to accommodate the people, some people will leave and the church will cease growing.
If you see a church that has empty places in the pews, you can safely guess that there once had been a day when those pews were fully occupied. And then, years later, when the earlier enthusiasms have diminished and the weariness has set in, when the buildings once so resplendent and new are now leaking and drab, there is the tendency to look back and remember just how perfect it used to be. A church that is built on nostalgia is not a church. Like many of the sacred structures of Europe, it is a museum.
This realization started for me at an early age. When I was ten, the church in which I was baptized experienced a split. Imagine that… the first and only time in Baptist history, of course J. Those of us who left the church eventually started a new congregation, meeting in an old laundramat a few blocks south of the church we had left. There was an excitement in those days unmatched by anything any of us had ever experienced. The church began to grow and the fellowship ran deep. Relationships were inter-generational; i.e., the children knew the old folks and the adults spent time with the young ones. Church was fun.
Eventually, we moved to another side of town and built what served as both an education and worship building. It was designed in an L shape, so we smart-aleck kids referred to it as the Westview Motel. Still, church was good. But after awhile, it became the same old same old. We didn’t grow much, as I recall, and by the time I graduated from high school and left for college the church was still worshiping in what was built originally as a temporary sanctuary.
It is the nature of things, like any relationship, that after awhile, when the newness wears off and reality sets in, that which used to be was far better than what is. In describing this reality, one commentator has said, “Many congregations have a Camelot memory.”1 Are you familiar with Camelot? In Camelot, everything was perfect. As the song goes…
I know it sounds a bit bizarre,
But in Camelot, Camelot
That’s how conditions are.
The rain may never fall till after sundown.
By eight, the morning fog must disappear.
In short, there’s simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever aftering than here
Those who pine for Camelot, for the good old days, are those who remember it as being better than it really ever was, who glorify those days as having been the best, and who think it can never happen again. The best has already been and we’ll never see those good old days ever again.
There are still a few of you here today who remember the way it used to be in this place. I know, because you’ve told me how it was. Many of the folks who inhabited these pews lived in the houses within walking distance of the church on these streets named for trees and presidents. Dr. and Mrs. Hicks, I am told, used to patrol Hillcrest in the afternoons, walking from house to house, visiting with their parishioners, many of whom were young families raising their children in what was considered, even then, to be one of the more quaint but lively neighborhoods in town. There was an energy here that since that time seems to have gone unmatched, a way of life that exists now only in the memories of a few of you.
Well, don’t feel like you’re the only ones who have ever felt this way. The prophet Haggai lived in the days when the people of Judah returned from their exile in Babylon. He watched closely and carefully as the people began to rebuild their lives and their homes. Imagine how difficult it must have been, to return to houses that had been uninhabited for so many years, or taken over by people who didn’t know how to care for them or simply didn’t care.
You see, when the Babylonians carried the Hebrews away, they didn’t take all the people… just the professionals, the artists, the skilled laborers. The poor, the ones considered useless… they were allowed to stay, and for the most part they became squatters in the deserted city.
What a mess. What a mess. Now that the Hebrews have returned, the city’s infrastructure is in shambles and the job of reordering their lives is foremost on their minds. The challenge is a big one, but they are willing to tackle it because this is their home. This is their Camelot.
Haggai wasn’t the only one observing the activity in Jerusalem. When the time seemed right – and Haggai tells us exactly when it was: in the second year of reign of the Babylonian king Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day – Haggai received a word from the Lord. The God of the Hebrews, evidently, has been watching too. Haggai is told by the Lord to speak to Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel. Zerubbabel is the governor of Judah. Bring Joshua the son of Jehozadak into the conversation as well, Haggai is told. After all, he’s the high priest. It’s time for a powwow. A redirection of effort is called for. Camelot’s temple needs to be rebuilt.
“Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?” the prophet asks them. What house? I do believe Haggai is talking about the temple, isn’t he? “Let’s go for a walk,” he says to the two leaders. As they do so, they come to the front steps of the temple. He directs their gaze to the crumbling facade, the leaky roof, the broken windows, the dilapidated doors. “How does it look to you now?” the prophet asks the two major leaders of the city. “Is it in your sight as nothing?”
Zerubbabel and Joshua had to admit that the temple had seen better days. That was true of all of Jerusalem, however. City Hall was in bad shape, the governor’s mansion was undergoing a renovation even as they spoke together. Just listen: there’s the sound of hammers resonating all over town. The temple is no different from any other structure when it comes to the need for repair.
But that’s exactly the point, Haggai tells them. The temple is different from any other structure, even the governor’s abode. It is where God’s people come for worship. It is the symbol of their God and of their faith. If they had their priorities where they ought to be, the people would have rebuilt the temple first, even before they set hammer and nail to their own homes.
In the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, George and Mary – she in a bathrobe and he in a much too big football uniform, because they’ve taken an unexpected dip in the high school’s new indoor swimming pool… you remember the scene, don’t you? – stop across the street from the old Granville house. It’s been vacated for years and is falling down. George wants to throw a rock through one of the windows. “Oh no, don’t!” Mary protests. “I – I love that old house.” “No, you see,” George says, “You make a wish and then try to break some glass…” “Oh no, George, don’t. It’s full of romance, that old place. I’d like to live in it.” “In that place?” “Uh huh.”
Well, that’s the way the Lord of hosts feels about his place too. He’d like to live there, but right now it’s uninhabitable. Or, at least, because of its terrible condition, it is unworthy of such a God.
“You’ve all been busy rebuilding your houses and replanting your gardens,” Haggai tells Zerubbabel and Joshua. “That’s understandable, I suppose. But remember that you were taken into exile in the first place because you had neglected the Lord. Don’t make that same mistake again. Take a look at God’s house and see if it is being restored as you are remodeling your own homes. If not, what are you going to do about it?”
The way this story is told, God, through his prophet Haggai, does all the talking. If there was a response by Zerubbabel or Joshua, we aren’t told what it was. Before they can respond, Haggai gives them a promise. “Take courage,” he tells them. “Work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts… my spirit abides among you; do not fear. For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts.”
And then he says… and I want you to hear this, please… “The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.”
Shaken, not stirred. That’s what God plans to do. The heavens and the earth, the sea and dry land, not to mention all the nations, will resonate to the power of God. And God’s house will be filled with splendor. Shaken, not stirred.
I suppose it comes down then to this: do we think scripture – and when I say scripture I mean specifically this story from what is called a minor prophet – still speaks directly to who we are and what we are doing as a people of God? Do we have faith that we are here today to worship a living God who still has something to say to us?
I’m not talking about the renovation of a building, as much as we could use one. We’ll manage that somehow. We always do, so I’m confident these buildings will not go unwanted. I’m talking about the renewal of God’s people inside these structures. Will we allow God to shake us to the point that we become what God has in store for us?
Over the years, there’s been a lot of stirring in this place. Good things happen when people are stirred. Better things occur, however, when they are shaken. Have we come to the moment when God has chosen to shake his people? And if we have, how does it come about?
Well, let’s go back to Camelot. Not the Camelot of our good old days, but the Camelot of the church’s good old days… the first-ever church, inhabited by Peter and Paul, Timothy and Thomas, and all the sisters named Mary. What did they hold in common? Buildings? Of course not. The buildings and the budgets came later, the church government, the priests and pastors, the Catholics and Baptists, the Sunday services when people dressed their best, the Bible study classes and the choirs. That all came later. Let’s go back to the way it was before when the people of God really and truly depended on the Spirit of God to supply their needs and fulfill their wants.
Frederick Buechner says, “Maybe the best thing that could happen to the church would be for some great tidal wave of history to wash all that away – the church buildings tumbling, the church money all lost, the church bulletins blowing through the air like dead leaves, the differences between preachers and congregations all lost too. Then all we would have left would be each other and Christ, which was all there was in the first place.”2
Okay, I know that won’t happen. Will it? Perhaps until it does, what we need to do is allow God to shake us until the only thing that remains is what really and truly matters. If I read this book correctly, it tells me that we do not worship a God who stands still, nor is willing to let well enough alone. How does it happen? Listen again to the counsel of Haggai…
“Work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts… my spirit abides among you; do not fear. For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts.”
Shaken, not stirred. It is the only way to be the people of God.
Lord, shake us and put us to work. Help us not to sit back and wait for someone else to do it. Implant it in the hearts of each one of us to do your will through this fellowship we call our church. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
1Martha Sterne, Feasting on the Word (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), p. 267.
2Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), p. 152-153.