Where God resides
|King Solomon's Temple|
Our memories and imaginations mix up some powerful cocktails. Reality pales next to an experience percolated in the flavorful bath of nostalgia, amnesia and hindsight. Kodak photo paper costs more than the generic brand, because it produces brighter, clearer pictures, “brilliant true color” they say. But in development Kodak tapped into research that indicated that people don’t remember things as they really were. The idea of rose-colored glasses is real - our memories store things brighter, more colorful than things really are. So a photograph on Kodak paper does not show the scene as your eyes see it, as they saw it when you snapped the photo, instead it saturates the paper with deeper color, makes the lines crisper and the colors brighter. Ahh, we think to ourselves, now that is what it was really like!
And once the memories simmer into the lore and sink into storyline of a people, once some prophesy is thrown into the pot and the people’s hunger is sprinkled with suffering and loss and stoked by injustice, we are in dangerous territory.
We’re at the place where disillusionment and apathy breed. We’re at the place where hope dies.
What is church? is our question of the season. What does it mean that we see ourselves connected somehow to God and each other? That we are part of this thing we are part of? What is this thing anyway? This is not a new question, it’s been asked many times before.
Our question comes up in the words today of a prophet named Haggai, who speaks up at a time when a small remnant of of exiles return to Jerusalem after being driven out nearly 70 years before by the Babylonians, who destroyed their temple, decimated their kingdom, and ended their way of life, scattering them to the winds. Twenty years earlier small groups had begun coming home to the place where their promises died, where their history collapsed, and began reconstructing life there. They trickle back not as a mighty nation, but as a crushed people still ruled by outside forces.
In this place Haggai speaks up, and his ministry lasts exactly four months, but his message was so important that it is included in the scriptures that ended up in our hands, as part of our story, so today with our own stories and questions we listen to his.
The exiles had settled, grown families, worked jobs and built lives in their new homes, and what compelled them to leave all of this to go back to Jerusalem was the words of other prophets and beliefs long held, that God would once again make of them a great nation, and that the Davidic line would continue, and that all the nations would again honor them.
And so, hope rekindled, they left their new lives and returned. Most of them had been young or not even born yet when they left, so they returned with expectation and filled to the brim with stories, images of the glory days, of God and grandeur, of Solomon’s temple in all its splendor and Israel as a strong nation, in hope that all that would be restored. They returned with brighter than real pictures in their minds, their hope shaped by images colorful and stirring.
But when the precious few who returned got back they found nothing left of the temple or the days gone before, and encountered hostility from surrounding people and those who’d never left. The money promised by the Persians to rebuild the temple didn’t materialize, and life back in Jerusalem was nothing at all like they’d been told it would be, let alone what they had hoped or expected.
So after a feeble start to rebuilding the temple with the first wave of returnees, they’d given up on it: it would never be – could never be – what it was, so why bother? They settled down, built homes for themselves, and began to eek out a “good enough” life in this new place, promises of the prophets be damned.
Then, twenty years later, with another wave of stragglers returning, Haggai comes along, and his primary message is: rebuild the temple.
Now, as exaggerated as their memories and lore of the first temple might have been, they were also right. The temple would NEVER again be what it had been. Built with “borrowed” labor, from wealth accumulated by exhaustively taxing others, Solomon’s temple was an unrivaled masterpiece. 180,000 artisans were said to have worked on it; the magnificence of it was legendary.
And as the house of God, Solomon’s temple in all its splendor, was filled with symbols of God’s might and power, God’s faithfulness: irreplaceable identity markers of God and the people who belonged to God:
- -The Ark of the Covenant with its mercy seat and the golden angels with outspread wings that had been carried through the wilderness and reminded them of God’s covenant with them
- - The Ten Commandments stone tablets
- - A pot of manna, probably petrified, reminding them of God’s provision for them in the wilderness
- - Aaron’s rod, used in so many of God’s miracles of deliverance
- - urim and thummin, symbols used to hear God’s voice
- - the eternal fire of God burning on the alter
But these are gone; it’s all gone. The symbols of God’s supremacy, rule and power, God’s enduring care for them - had long ago been taken away, destroyed or pillaged by an invading army… The symbols of who they were as God’s people – gone. How could the temple ever be the same? How could God, or their faith or world, ever be the same? Who are they, without these symbols, without this history, this fulfillment of promises?
And Haggai, dear little Haggai, pipes up. Rebuild the temple, he says. Keep going - Is this work you are doing on it nothing?
We human beings are people of symbols. We are meaning-makers; we need concrete and tangible things with which to capture and keep meaning. If it isn’t scrapbooks, photographs and keepsakes, it’s rituals and traditions, it’s thanksgiving dinner and Christmas stockings and baptismal vows and advent candles and wedding rings.
We use symbols to make sense of our experiences, and even to allow us to truly experience life, God and meaning.
So it is no small thing that their symbols are gone. It is not insignificant that the temple itself - where God’s spirit had filled the space in a dramatic cloud when the doors opened for the first time – it’s not irrelevant that this is no more. They were the people of this God, brought to this place, made into a nation, a people ruled by God who was worshiped in this place.
They had the answer to the question, and any one of them back then could have told you without skipping a beat. They could stand in the temple and point to the symbols and say right then and there who they were and how they were connected to God, what their place was in the world and why they lived like they did. They knew what it meant to worship and what their faith was all about.
Now it is all gone, long gone. So who are they?
When Haggai speaks up, he uses language of old, promises of old, words about the God who delivered them out of Egypt, the God who claimed them as God’s very own beloved people. He uses the old language of covenant and promises. His words place even the confusing unfolding events of the present into a new light – suggesting that despite all evidence to the contrary, God is doing a new thing in the world, renewing the covenant relationship with Israel, helping them remember and reclaim God’s promises. That even this pathetic little temple you’re building out of leftover rubble is part of God’s bigger picture.
Rebuild. Haggai says. Put the symbol of God’s presence with you back in your midst. Because God has chosen to be with you, you are God’s people. Whatever the external circumstances may say to the contrary, the truth is, you are God’s people. You have a responsibility to act like it.
And so, to a people teetering on the brink of extinction, held together by the tenacious zeal of a handful of priests and the fading faith in the promises of the past, nearly devoid of hope, a task is given: Put before you once again a visible symbol of what God has done, is doing, among you. God’s grace has allowed you to survive, and God is still making God’s presence known, even here and now. Something new and living.
The temple was not important in and of itself; the symbols were nothing more than symbols. What was real all along was the presence of God; God who has never left them and will always be with them. The rebuilt temple is not the point. It is the building, the moving and living in faith and trust in the God who exists beyond nations and kings, outside time and space – who has claimed this people and promised to be with them no matter what. That is the point.
I will give prosperity, better translated, I will give shalom, peace, abundance. I am God beyond this moment and cannot be contained within the walls of your temple, or expelled when the walls fall down. I am God of all the nations, of the whole world. I am the God of the past and of the future.
Hope is not about the present circumstances, it’s about the future and past telling a story to the present, mingling their flavors so that the present tastes like what is coming with a reminder of what has been.
Their hope is not in what they can see before them, their hope can only be in the One who has claimed them through everything and continues to. Who are we anyway? We are God’s people. Same as we’ve always been and always will be. So let’s act like it.
In a world that is always changing – the old is always passing away and the new is always coming, and life is never ever stagnant, even when we pause for a brief moment in a phase it doesn’t last, In a world where things are being built up and torn down constantly, where we feel uprooted half the time and dig our heels in the other half – nothing seems constant, nothing is sure. But God remains. God remains God. Even in the dust of broken dreams God’s promise sustains.
We are not people who merely recount, in larger than life images, the stories of the past. Comparing what is to the rosy picture of what was. We don’t just eek out a good enough life or hope for the best in the future. As the Church, we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, the Body of Christ, we are the living, breathing place God resides – the people in which God’s Spirit dwells. Our actions and words, our worship and praise, our fears and doubts, our love for one another and our care for creation, our connection to strangers and community, and to the world beyond our daily life – we are the place God resides.
And we have our symbols and signs too. In this broken bread and poured wine before us today we share the symbols of God’s love – of God’s unrelenting and tenacious love, clinging to us, claiming us, even sharing our humanity itself, even unto death and beyond. In the symbols, and and words, and songs of this place and time, in the rhythm and ritual of this gathering we are describing the past and what God has done, meeting God in the here and now, and remembering the future to which God is calling us, and to which all this is headed.
We are noticing and recounting God’s faithfulness and reclaiming our identity as God’s own, as people who join God’s hope in the world.
Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable. says the Psalmist.
One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
so here I go…
The LORD is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings. The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desire of all who fear him; he also hears their cry, and saves them.
Thanks be to God. Amen.