The Book of the Twelve for Lent 2016
“Give Careful Thought to Your Ways” – Haggai (1)
Haggai lived and prophesied during the time of the Persian empire after Cyrus decreed the return of all Jews who wanted to return to their homeland. A chief issue for the returnees was rebuilding the temple that the Babylonians had destroyed at the beginning of the Exile. The rebuilding started well enough. But the difficulties and the prospects of the rebuilt temple’s lesser grandeur than Solomon’s temple dimmed enthusiasm and the project lagged. A major burden of Haggai’s preaching was the people’s renewal of the temple’s rebuilding.
Haggai sets the temple’s rebuilding in the context of God’s covenant with David (that a son of David would always rule in Israel) and God’s promises for a great future of the nation and its temple. Post-exilic Israel lives between this covenant and those promises, to wit,
-that God promises to be with this people as covenant partner the way he was with Israel in the exodus (2:4-5);
-that God’s Spirit will be among them, thus they need not fear (2: 5); and
-that God will fill the temple with the treasures of the other nations (2: 6– 8).
All this lies right at the heart of Israel’s existence. These promises would both comfort and encouraged beleaguered nation as it returns to the ruins of its former glory to take up their life as God’s chosen people again. And since they have lagged in their temple building such comfort and encouragement is badly needed.
It’s no stretch to imagine the church in North America in that same beleaguered condition as the returning exiles. And we are heirs to the same promises as God’s people today as they were then. What are some of big issues the church faces today in embracing these promises?
They are basically two and are related – the identity of Christ and scripture.
1. That ministry is incarnational and unique.
It is as “radically restorative and radically risky” (Goroncy, “Priesthood and Mission”) as it was for Jesus. It means, in Daniel Berrigan’s apt phrase, the church has to “look good on wood.”
And it means as well that the church bears a message and a presence that no other community on earth does. This message and presence only bear the church, if it “gives careful thought for its ways” (1:5; 2:15,18). Goroncy puts it well and it is worth hearing him at some length,
“one of the church’s most profound claims is that “the first place to look for Christ is Jesus’s peculiar and priestly community that is called to be that community in the world which is constituted by and for a love so radically other-person-centered that it refuses to imagine life apart from blessing those who are opposed to it. It is a community that lives “in the midst of the traffic and turmoil and conflict of the world” (Stringfellow) and that does so in such a way that it is entirely uninterested and uninvested in its own self-preservation. It is a community that throws itself entirely into the embarrassing service of Jesus and that does so not for God’s sake but simply and solely for the sake of the world. It is a community that risks the refusal to engage in the politics of violence and in the economies of human indignity, that manifests God’s orientation for every part of creation, and that ventures out “beyond the security of objective certainties, [and] worldly possessions, [and] finite aspirations and society’s approval”. It is a community that risks even its life with God so that it might “become contemporary with Christ” . . . Christians, in other words, are distinguished by their association with one who keeps odd company, who calls us to peculiarity, and who continually corrects our range of view regarding the world’s true nature . . . Only when the church has the freedom itself to be poor among the poor will it know how to use the riches it has. Only as it journeys the infrequently trodden path away from the centres of imperial power and toward the embarrassing outskirts of Jerusalem and its public scorn will the church be given the kind of freedom to be truly missional and priestly. The priestly community created around Jesus is called to lose faith in present arrangements, to be entirely undaunted by “what the world calls possible” and to trust instead in the completely irresponsible impossibilities that “exist first on God’s lips” and in God’s imagination.”
2. That God’s Word exercises a sovereign rule over his people.
John Webster puts this bluntly and in a way the church is seldom are faced with scripture’s role and rule in its life. Scripture, he writes,
“. . . builds the church up by breaking the church open, and therefore in large measure by breaking the church down . . . Scripture is as much a de-stabilising feature of the life of the church as it is a factor in its cohesion and continuity . . . Through Scripture the church is constantly exposed to interruption. Being the hearing church is . . . the church’s readiness ‘that its whole life should be assailed, convulsed, revolutionised and reshaped’.”
“You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” So Flannery O’Connor captures both elements of our need in a striking paraphrase from John’s Gospel. The truth which makes us odd! We’d better “give careful thought” to this this Lent, I believe, sisters and brothers.