February 15, 2004

Refocusing: From Memories to Vision
Haggai 2:1-9
One of my dear friends in graduate school was born and raised in Georgia. Jesse spoke with a relatively heavy accent, and he loved pork rinds and grits and fried pies from the Varsity in Atlanta. What marked him as a true southerner, however, was his ongoing obsession with the civil war. Jesse returned to Gettysburg regularly to participate in the reenactment of the battle there, and he continued to hold out hope that the south would eventually win.

One Monday night, the Atlanta Falcons were scheduled to play the Philadelphia Eagles, so I invited Jesse over to our apartment to watch the game. He was, as you might imagine, a die-hard Falcons fan, and I at least followed the Eagles. A few minutes before the game started, Jesse knocked on our door. When I opened it, I stared in amazement. There was Jesse, smiling from ear to ear, dressed in a confederate uniform and holding a musket. “Jesse,” I asked, “will you ever put the past into perspective?”

In this, the second of Haggai’s four prophecies, certain people in the Jewish community are asked to put the past into perspective. You will recall that, in chapter one, the people of Judah lost focus and began doing their own work rather than God’s. They invested all of their time and resources in building their own houses, leaving the shell of the Temple—the foundation, frame, and trusses—standing abandoned.

The situation here in chapter two is entirely different. Once the rebuilding resumes, as it does in 1:14, a psychological or theological—or perhaps a theologically psychological!—dilemma surfaces. Haggai hints at it in 2:3, when he asks a series of questions: “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?” Additional details appear in Ezra’s account (3:12), where we learn that a certain group of people within this late 6th century B.C. Jewish community actually remembered the original temple in Jerusalem, destroyed nearly 70 years before. They had been there and gazed up at its imposing walls and rich ornamentation. These same people now watched as the new temple began to take shape, and it apparently paled in comparison to their memories of the former one. As a result, while their friends and neighbors grew increasingly excited about this new project, these memory-laden folks grieved out loud.

It is, I suppose, not all that difficult to imagine what these mourners might have felt. For one thing, the earlier temple of Solomon was far grander than its replacement. Once you have ridden on the Great Bear at Hershey Park, Williams Grove Amusement Park has relatively little to offer. And further, our minds tend with some frequency to glorify the past, at times to almost outrageous proportions. We often construct selective images of the past when we are confronted with new challenges, images that conveniently remove earlier difficulties and struggles. In short, we often make the past seem better than it was. If I get tired of certain responsibilities that I now face and say to myself, “I’d like to go back to teaching fulltime,” I force myself to at least reflect on two words: “grading papers!” And recall for just a moment the most bizarre example of such selective recall ever to appear in the Bible. When left to navigate their way through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land, the Israelites longed to go back to Egypt, where they had cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic to eat (Numb. 11:5)! Anyway, these people, paralyzed by their memories of days-gone-by and fearful of what they see developing in front of them, inevitably brought a sense of discouragement upon everyone.

The pressure brought on by a sense of memory can be difficult for us, too, sometimes as we consider working together for change in the church. For some of us, those memories revolve around other congregations where we once worshiped. I, for example, attended a marvelous United Methodist Church near Allentown when I was still in high school. Pastor Carlson served as a profound role model for me, and the church had a vital ministry in the area. Our youth group experienced genuine revival during my senior year, and within several months the number of junior and senior high kids on our group tripled to over 100. I could, of course, cling to those memories and try to recreate that church here if I wanted to. But I don’t. I want to remember and celebrate those experiences, and I very much want to learn from them, but this is a new day and a new context altogether. “What does God want to do here and now?” I continue to wonder.

For others of us, those powerful memories center on our experiences right here in the Grantham Church. We think often of what the Grantham Church once was and even what it now is, and we want very much to guard it. We fear that the new won’t quite measure up to the old, and through the process of change we might end up spoiling what we already have. And we do, quite frankly, have a history here that is well worth celebrating. Our people began worshiping in private homes already in 1835, and the Grantham Sunday School opened in the S.R. Smith noodle factory in 1909. A noodle factory, of all places! Those who preceded us here at the Grantham Church established a Young People’s Christian Society in 1912, Summer Bible School in 1929, and the Grantham Youth Conference in 1933. The Grantham congregation has planted—this is exciting—at least seven other churches over the years, including the current Redland Valley Church, Morning Hour Chapel, and the Dillsburg and Cumberland Valley churches. When New Hope Ministries was about to fizzle and fade, our congregation stepped in with others to help revitalize this now crucial ministry. We have sent out many missionaries and supported countless others. We’ve participated with neighboring congregations, including the Bowmansdale Church of God, in initiating community visitation programs, and we’ve adopted a host of refugee families over the years. We’ve trained several young people who are now pastoring other congregations, and we have assisted individuals and families of all sorts with untold needs. Our worship style has changed and developed over the years—we once used no instruments at all, and now we’ve grown accustomed to the rich and diverse forms of music that most of us enjoy. We have had one service, two services, and—this is true—even three for a period of time, one of which was designed specifically for young adults. We have a rich and blessed history—lots of exciting memories of God working in and through our congregation.

But we don’t want to freeze these memories in time, do we? That is essentially what this segment of the Jewish community did back in Haggai’s day. They didn’t simply celebrate the past. They idolized it. They didn’t just thank God for what he did in previous days. They assumed that he wanted to do precisely the same thing again, unchanged. They didn’t simply try to learn from their memories and bring their rich experiences into the present. They were imprisoned by those memories. Those memories stifled their imaginations and prevented the emergence of fresh vision. We never want to do that, do we?

Hans Küng, the renowned Swiss theologian, has written a great deal about the church over the years. In his book entitled The Church, Küng reflects on this very issue of memories and vision. “If the Church,” he writes,
really sees itself as the people of God, it is obvious that it can never be static…. The Church is always and everywhere a living people, gathered together from the peoples of this world and journeying through the midst of time. The Church is essentially en route, on a journey, a pilgrimage. A Church which pitches its tents without looking out constantly for new horizons, which does not continually strike camp, is being untrue to its calling…. It (the Church) is essentially an interim Church, a Church in transition, and therefore not a Church of fear but of expectation and hope: a Church which is directed towards the consummation of the world by God.
The Church, then, must be firmly rooted in the past, but it must at the same time move wide-eyed into the future.
The prophet Haggai says as much to the people of his day, and he brings these troubled builders words from God that are both reassuring and hopeful. Listen in on the conversation for just a moment. God announces, first of all, that he will be with his people through thick and thin (v. 4). Three times he instructs them to take courage, three times. “But how?” they surely wondered. The challenges are too great. The uncertainty overwhelming. The world ever-changing. “… I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt.” What more do they need to know?!? God said much the same thing to Moses when he called him to go to Egypt, and he repeated himself again to Joshua as Israel stood poised to enter the promised land. “Take courage. Don’t be afraid, for I will be with you.” And Jesus himself made a similar promise to all of his followers. “I’ll never leave you nor forsake you,” he said with what must have been a profound sense of compassion. So let me ask you, at the risk of sounding trite. What more do we need to know? As we continue moving into the future, working together to be God’s hands and feet in the world. As we explore new paradigms for training and equipping each other as well as for extending the Kingdom to people beyond ourselves. As we ponder over logistics and wrestle with actually implementing new ideas. If we are faithful to God. If we seek together his direction. What more do we need than to know, deep within our souls, that God is with us?

God, in addition to affirming his presence, assures his people that he will act again (v. 6):
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.
God, the people are encouraged to realize, is not simply a God of the past. He is not a God whose ideas have run out, like a scorned comedian who can no longer recall even a lousy joke. God has not spoken once, only to withdraw for the remainder of time. God, though always the same, continues to fill his world with new wonders and fresh demonstrations of his glory. They are all around us! God will act again, Haggai announces. And, I can assure you, God will act yet again in our lives and in our day. “Keep your eyes wide open,” Ted Loder likes to say. “God is sneaky.”

Finally, Haggai makes an announcement on God’s behalf that must have been particularly stretching for these people, as much as they probably wanted to believe it. You can find it here in v. 9: “The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts.” What a remarkable shift. God is attempting here to begin bringing about nothing less that a complete transformation of the paradigm with which these people have been operating. It is as though he is weaning them from their dependence on a physical building, much like a young mother eventually frees her nursing child from his dependency on her breast. Solomon’s building was more magnificent than this one. But so what?!? The glory of the Lord will be more overwhelming here.

Jesus, as you well know, takes this act of weaning to its logical conclusion when he informs the woman of Samaria that one day people will worship God, not so much in this place or that, but in Spirit and in truth. God’s presence is not to be easily associated with structures nor confined to walls built by human hands. The glory of God is not in buildings, but in people. Transformed people. Forgiven people. Hopeful people. “The glory of God,” as Irenaeus phrased it over 1800 years ago, “is a human being fully alive.”

I can still see Jesse standing outside my door in Wendell Hall. Fortunately, his fascination with the civil war is more humorous than debilitating. For some people, however, the past serves as a permanent camping ground. “I will be with you as you move ahead,” God assures all of us who follow him. “I want to do something fresh in your day and among your people.” And my suspicion this morning is that he wants to say one thing more to all of us. As we continue on the journey from memories to vision, what God longs to do today just might supercede anything that we have seen him do before.