Sermon from July 7th, 2013, titled “Do The Work, for I am With You.” The text for the sermon was Haggai 2:1-9. May God Bless you and keep you this week and always.
Do The Work, for I Am With You
The people of Jerusalem were tired. They had been struggling for too long. They planted much grain, but they harvested little. They had food to eat, but never enough to be full, wine to drink but never enough to be drunk, clothes to wear but never enough to be warm. They’d been working to rebuild the city of Jerusalem for more than twenty years, and it felt like they were just barely staying on top of a landslide. It was always just one thing after another.
They had come to Jerusalem with high hopes. When Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon he released them from their captivity with a decree to rebuild their home and their temple, and a promise of all the supplies they would need to do the work. None of them had actually been to Jerusalem, most of them were born in Babylon. But they were raised on stories of God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from Egypt and the promised land of milk and honey, where David and Solomon had reigned in glory. Cyrus the Great had even given them the gold and silver sacred vessels that the Temple once held and a decree that they should return and rebuild. But twenty years had passed, and the optimism that had characterized those returning had long since faded away.
When they began to rebuild, one thing after another stood in their way. Every task was bigger than it seemed when they started. They were asked to do far more than they had ever signed up for. The great city of Jerusalem that once stood impenetrable in the hills of Judah was now a pile of rubble, looted and picked over so many times that not even a pillar remained standing. The first thing to do was to rebuild the walls, but even the hewn stones which once made up the great city were taken by people of the neighboring lands, to build their own cities.
Nehemiah tells us that the people of Judah had a song that they sang as they rebuilt the walls:
We grow weak carrying burdens;
There’s so much rubble to take away.
How can we build the wall today?
Can you hear the weariness of these people?
As if that weren’t enough, their neighbors to the North, the Samaritans, sowed trouble any way they could. They didn’t want a new power to contend with in the area. While the people were building the walls of Jerusalem, the Samaritans plotted to attack. It seemed that each time they made a little bit of progress, something else would come to derail the process. The people of Jerusalem had to build the walls and defend the city at the same time. They worked with one hand and kept a weapon in the other, Nehemiah tells us, keeping guard at night over the unfinished sections of the wall.
Then Cyrus died, and the new emperor sided with the Samaritans, ordering them to stop rebuilding the city. Up until that point they had enjoyed the support of the emperor, and he gave them what they needed to rebuild. It wasn’t until 20 years later, after another emperor died that they could finally obtain the supplies and approval they needed to rebuild. Can you feel how tired they were, when every time they found a little success another stumbling block stood in their way?
For a people who had come to Jerusalem with such high hopes, nothing had come easy. And there was still work to be done. Tasks were bigger than they thought, their enemies were stronger, and their spirits were weary.
But once again they found themselves at the beginning of a new task. Can you see how overwhelmed they felt, standing in the face of all that was left to do? They had rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, they had rebuilt their homes, planted vineyards and orchards. But their harvests were thin, and it took all the energy they had just to scrape by.
It’s these people, worn down by exile, wearied by travel, with barely enough to feed themselves, that Haggai spoke to. The words we have from Haggai were written to be spoken at the foundation laying ceremony for the new Temple. All the people of Jerusalem had been gathered together. Notices had been published at least two weeks in advance so that everyone would know to come. And once again, the people came. They left fields that needed plowing, looms that needed tending, and sheep that needed watching. They came tired, for they had spent too much time here, and not enough time tending the fires at home. They came annoyed, that there was still more work to do, after all that they had struggled to build. They came, but even Haggai knew that there was little they had left to give, to be asked once more to build and to sacrifice.
So here they are, standing in the scorching heat, as Haggai climbs up a pile of rubble where Solomon’s Temple had once stood. Haggai stands before the people, licks his lips, and says what the Lord has told him to say: “My people, why should you be living in well-built houses while my Temple lies in ruins?…. Now go up into the hills, get lumber, and rebuild the Temple; then I will be pleased and worshipped as I should be.”
If Haggai had stopped there, I imagine they’d all have packed up and gone back to Babylon. I probably would have. It was just too much. I’d be thinking, what more can you ask of us, God? We left our lives in Babylon to live in a city of rubble surrounded by our enemies, and we’ve built the community you ask. Our herds are shriveled, but we make sacrifices to please you. We built the walls while fighting off attackers from all sides. Then we were banned from building and sat in limbo for years before we could do more. And now, after 20 years of clearing rubble and laying bricks, barely able to plant a harvest for all of the work we had to do, God calls us together and says go rebuild my Temple? When is it ever going to stop? When will we ever be able to rest?
But Haggai doesn’t stop there, because that’s only part of the truth. Haggai continues God’s message. “Is there anyone among you who can still remember how splendid the Temple used to be? How does it look to you now? It must look like nothing at all. But now don’t be discouraged, any of you. Do the work, for I am with you. When you came out of the land of Egypt, I promised that I would always be with you… the new Temple will be more splendid than the old one, and there I will give my people prosperity and peace.”
See, God doesn’t call us without a promise. To hear God’s call without God’s promise is to hear only part of the truth. Every time God calls us to respond to God’s love for us, God also promises to be with us. When God said to Abram, leave your native land and your relatives, and go to a country that I am going to show you, God also says Abram, I will make of you a great nation, and your descendents shall outnumber the stars.
When God spoke to Moses in the burning bush, and said “Go tell Pharaoh to let my people go,” God also says I will be with you, and “I will bring them out of Egypt, where they are being treated cruelly, to a rich and fertile land”
When Jesus sees Simon Peter, James, and John out on a boat, he says, “Come, follow me.” but he also says, “I will make you fishers of men”
And so to the people standing over an empty foundation, lost in the rubble that once was God’s house, God proclaims through Haggai, “Do the work, for I am with you. The new Temple will be more splendid than the old one, and there I will give my people prosperity and peace.”
I think we all know, at least a little bit, the weariness and exhaustion of the people who were asked to rebuild the temple. Every task is bigger than we think, every steps brings another obstacle to face. But the word of God to the people of Jerusalem and the word of God to us proclaims that God will be with us, and that the time and effort that we have spent to build up this community will pay off. Because God proclaims to us now and always that God’s call comes with a promise. Do the work, for I am with you. The Temple that the exiles built did become bigger and more glorious than the old one. By Jesus’s time, it had been expanded so much that it would later be proclaimed one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The courts had become so big that the entire NFC East could play in them without bumping into one another.
Like the people of Jerusalem, we too are called to do the work. Like the seventy that Jesus sent out ahead of him, we are sent out into the world to bear Christ’s message to the poor and broken hearted, to declare to all that the Kingdom of God is near at hand. We are called to do the work of church building and caring for each other, gathering in praise and bearing witness in And we too build it knowing that this call does not come without a promise, that God’s presence is ever with us, and that God’s work will be done through us, even when we are weary, and the task seems impossible. Even as God challenges us to do more than we thought possible, God’s call does not come without a promise. God will be with us in our work, today and every day, as we seek to proclaim the kingdom of God, and will guide us and keep us, that our work will not be in vain, but will stand up taller and longer than we ever imagined it could.