February 22, 2004
Refocusing: From Barrenness to Blessing
Deb and I used to garden when I was in seminary. It was actually a rather large gardennothing even close to the size of Homer and Mildred Kraybillsand we would carefully till the soil and plant our seeds. We did not want just one type of crop, so we planted all sorts of seeds. Beans, tomatoes, carrots, beets, even cucumbers (for some reason). And then wed wait, hoping that it would rain enough to help our garden along. Wed weed, trying to keep out unwelcome and destructive visitors. And wed pray, knowing that the actual growth of our garden, modern technology notwithstanding, still lay outside of our control. Try as we mightwe always picked good seed and watched over our plot carefullythere was still an inevitable sense of uncertainty and mystery about planting seeds and reaping the harvest. Would our seeds grow? we wondered. Here in these concluding paragraphs of the book of Haggai, the prophet addresses a similar question.
The prophet Haggai, you will recall, served a significant role in helping the late 6th century B.C. Jewish community to complete the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. This same temple had been destroyed several decades before and many of the Judahs inhabitants taken off to captivity in Babylon. The rebuilding, however, was not without its difficultiesits weedsdifficulties that Haggai specifically addresses in this series of short but profound speeches. The people, first of all, abandoned work on the temple in order to build their own houses. Haggai, in 1:1-15, instructs them to refocus their priorities and commit their time and energy to doing Gods work. Just over 1_ months later, progress again grinds to a temporary halt when some members of the community who had seen the former temple years before grieve when they realize that the new temple will be far smaller and less grandiose. Once again, Haggai provides the necessary encouragement, assuring them that the new temple, though less majestic structurally, would nevertheless witness greater demonstrations of Gods glory than any ever seen before.
Here in this final section of Haggai, the prophet addresses what is perhaps an even more severe obstacle than the first two: a developing sense of self-righteousness among the builders. Even a quick glance at our text gives evidence of the same religious problem that has plagued the church as well over the centuries: people believing that by simply associating with religious practices and rituals, they can become holy and upright. By working on the temple, by carrying stones and placing beams in place, people earn Gods favor. Individuals, as you well know, sometimes think this with respect to their own spiritual lives. The mere act of participating in religious activitiesserving on a committee, quoting the correct translation of the Bible, teaching a Sunday School class, attending a service, participating in communion, or dropping a few coins in the offering platebestows upon them some degree of morality and divine power. But communities, as here in Haggai, think such things at times as well. Simply by preserving their rituals, observing their traditions and maintaining their facilities, some groups assume that they are godlier than others. They are the godly people of the world doing godly deeds. They have a monopoly on the truth. How many communities have been split, Elizabeth Achtemaier asks, by those claiming such rightness? How many smug presuppositions of such superiority have prevented the communication or the receipt of the gospel?
Haggai, of course, seizes the moment and quickly nips such corrosive thinking in the bud. Using imagery familiar to everyone of his day, he asks the priests for a ruling. If something clean comes in contact with something unclean, does the clean item become unclean, or does the unclean item become clean? Haggai, to be sure, is speaking in religious terms, but the same analogy holds true in the physical world. When I come home from running, for example, sweaty and smelly, would a hug from my recently bathed and very unwilling daughter make me clean or her unclean? Would I no longer need a shower, or might she need another one?!?
Haggai asks much the same question, and his implication is clear. Rebuild the temple, but dont do it for the purpose of almost magically gaining Gods favor. Dont assume that you are holy simply because you engage in such activities. If you work on the temple with an unclean heart, you only spread your filth around. Instead, come to the task with a pure heart and clean hands. Come to the task with a desire to give, not just to gain. Come to the task with a spirit of gratitude, humility and love, not with an air of self-righteousness. Few things that I am aware of can hinder the genuine working of God more than an attitude of self-righteousness.
But Haggai senses no particular need to dwell on this subject. He says just enough about weeds to help his people see their need for a genuine and lasting commitment to God, and then he shifts to this wonderful image of seeds in vv. 18-19. In those years before they began their present work, the peoples lives were empty and barren (2:15-17). Haggai said much the same thing before, didnt he, when he told his listeners that their tendency to follow their own self-serving desires had left them hungry, thirsty and poor (1:6). But a new day has come, and the prophet seeks ultimately in this address to refocus the peoples attention on this dramatic reversal:
Consider from this day on, from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month. Since the day that the foundation of the Lords temple was laid, consider: Is there any seed left in the barn? Do the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree still yield nothing? From this day on I will bless you.
Haggai, powerfully, sets all of the obstaclesall of the weedsaside and promises the people that Gods blessings will prevail.
Note carefully the nature of the promise. The prophet asks his audience whether or not there is any seed left in their barns. He also inquires as to the productivity of their vines and trees. Interestingly enough, Haggais words here can be confidently datedIm not kidding!to December 18, 520 B.C. Given the sequence of seasons in Palestine and the agricultural cycle there, there is no chance that there is seed in the barnnot in December! All of the seed would have already been planted during the early rains of mid-October and early November, and the trees and vines have not yet been harvested. The people have scattered their seeds, but they simply have no way of knowing whether or not they will produce anything. They are in a season of transitionplanted seeds, empty barns, and the kind of uncertainty that comes with farming in such an unpredictable land. They will produce, Haggai boldly announces well in advance! The seeds youve place in the ground will bear much fruit.
I believe that God wants us to embrace much the same promise here this morning. This is clearly a season in which we as a congregation are tilling the soil and planting new seeds. As we do, we inevitably wonder what will become of those seeds and whether or not they will produce healthy fruit. We might worry about losing deep-rooted plants that we already have, or grow concerned about weeds or a lack of rainfall cutting off the new seeds before they even have a chance to sprout. God, I believe, is calling us to plant a variety of new seeds, and I am no less convinced that he will bless those seeds if we do what he asks.
And what are some of those seeds? There are many specific types of seeds, but let me briefly mention these three broader categories: seeds of hospitality, discipleship, and generosity. Seeds of hospitality, first of all, help to further create a place here where an increasingly wide variety of people feel welcomed and embraced. People who have little or no religious background and are unfamiliar with the language and symbols. People who have been shaped more by the post-modern world than have many of us, a world of pictures and technology and stories. People from varying socio-economic situations. The poor. The marginalized. The outcasts.
There are, of course, any number of hospitality seeds that we might plant, and I sense some of them percolating in your own hearts. Ive been told about a new small group that a few of you are forming, and you intend to specifically invite people who are on the fringes of our congregation to join! That is a seed of hospitality. I believe that the new service that we will be starting in the fall is another seed of hospitality, and I commend you for supporting this effort as you have. This new service is just one piece of a bigger puzzle, but I believe that it has the potential to create a home here at the Grantham Church for a wider variety of people who desperately need Jesus and a profound Christian community.
As we plant these seeds of hospitality, there will be, of course, various uncertainties. We want to be careful not to throw away the trees and vines from earlier seasons that have produced fruit, and that is why we not abandoning our current service in favor of the new (as many churches have done). Many of you have supported this congregation over the years and remain instrumental parts of our community. You are important here, and I never want to leave you behind. And there are also uncertainties of the second service itself. We are not simply installing a standard contemporary service like those seen elsewhere. In fact, we are trying to avoid using such terminology altogether. We are not importing models from Willow Creek or West Shore E-Free, although some similarities might appear. Instead, we believe that God wants life to spring out of our own congregation itself. That is what we are trying now to discern as many people work hard on implementing the vision. There is uncertainty, but I believe that in the midst of that uncertainty, God is promising blessing and fruit.
We are also going to plant seeds in the areas of discipleship. During much of the last several decades, when the Church played a central role in American society, emphasis typically was placed on membership. The call of the church was to recruit members and get them to promise to attend services and give their money in the offering plate. Such a call is no longer enough, if it ever was. Our God-given call as a church is not to recruit members, but to make disciples.
A few years ago I was invited to speak to a group of church leaders for a weekend. The subject had to do with the role of the local church in spiritual formation. My wheels have been spinning ever since. While it is clear to most of us what promotes good physical healthproper diet, exercise, adequate restit is often far less clear what promotes genuine and lasting spiritual growth. What does it mean and what is involved in making true disciples of Jesus? Id like to see us wrestle intensely with this question in the next year or so. In addition to many of the wonderful Sunday School classes and the Clubs program that we already have, what must we do in order to encourage sustained spiritual growth through all of the seasons of life? We could offer introductory Bible classes for new believers. Retreats focusing on the spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation, and fasting. One-on-one mentoring in which more mature Christians nurture those younger in the faith. Service projects to help integrate our inner lives with the tangible needs of those around us. The world in which we live is complex, and we need to train people here to be what Richard Foster refers to as profound Christians. We need to keep planting seeds of discipleship.
And finally, we must keep planting seeds of generosity. We must pool our resourcestime, talent, moneyin our corporate efforts to extend Gods kingdom in our community and beyond. In planting seeds of hospitality, we welcome people among us. In planting seeds of discipleship, we nurture each other in the faith. And in planting seeds of generosity, we increasingly share the goods with others around the world. We send out missionaries, of course, but we also focus careful attention on the needs within our own area. What tangible needs exist right around us that could serve as open doors for connecting with people? What are the vulnerable points in our communities that our church can address?
I think our partnership with the Harrisburg Church is a seed of generosity that we are actively planting. Deb and I were in Atlanta some years ago participating in a conference on evangelizing Black America. As part of that conference, she and I visited Bob Luptons ministry in downtown Atlanta. Bob and his workers have literally transformed blocks of inner-city Atlanta. They refurbished dilapidated buildings and converted them into fine housing units for the poor. They have helped the local residents establish new businesses, and theyve started day care centers, schools, and medical clinics. These and other ministries, including Bible Studies and other activities in local churches, have all been started in the name of Jesus. And do you know who has been instrumental in helping Bob bring all of this about? Empowered and passionate middle- and upper-class, suburban churches like ours. There are any number of exciting and life-changing ways that our congregation can continue to reach out to those in need.
We are planting seedsall sorts of seeds. We dont want to just plant one type of seed, and we dont want to tear down existing trees that are bearing much fruit. And as we plant, we can be hopeful that God in his grace and mercy will nurture those seeds and bring out of them much fruit. From this day on I will bless you, God announced to his people through his prophet, Haggai, centuries ago. Why does it have to be any different today?