The former glory and hope–Haggai sermon, part 2

Haggai is in the delicate place of needing to refocus the people on the future while affirming the goodness of the past. He does this in a couple of ways, ways that can help us when we are in that place of navigating our own relationship to the past.

First, he tells the people to “take courage” or more literally “be strong.” By doing this he acknowledges that there is fear—fear of the future, fear of loss, fear of disappointment—and that moving forward is going to take courage, it will require people to draw on their inner strength. Whether on a group or individual level, naming and facing the fear and disappointment is essential to moving into the future with hope.

So, what reason do the people have to move from fear and disappointment toward hope? It is God’s presence with them. This is not a vague platitude. This combined with the previous exhortation to “be strong” are words that echo through stories from Israel’s past, particularly moments in their past when they were facing the challenges of an unclear future, establishing themselves in a land full of difficulty—As they stood on the edge of the Promised land at the end of Moses’ life, he said to them “It is the LORD who goes before you; he will be with you, he will not fail you or forsake you; do not fear or be dismayed.” As they were entering the land, now with Joshua as their leader, God told Joshua “Be strong and very courageous” and promised “I will be with you just as I was with Moses.” The promise of God’s presence is the promise that grounds their strength and courage in the face of change and ensures the future for God’s people.

Lately, there has been a lot of talk amongst people who pay attention to societal trends, especially trends that affect the church, noting a distinct rise in people who claim their religious affiliation to be “none.” These are people who do not see themselves connected to any identifiable religious tradition. The overall percentage of such people in the US has risen 5 percentage points in the just the last 5 years to 20%. That means 1 in 5 people you meet has no connection to religion. If the person is between 18 and 30, the percentage is higher—1/3 of people in that group say they have no religious tradition.

All of this sounds like bad news. And it has resulted in a lot of hand-wringing and dire predictions that this is THE END OF THE CHURCH, that the church as an institution faces a changed culture and that it is not—and never will be again—the vibrant place that it was. In this situation, many are looking back to the past and wondering where the glory has gone.

What is the word of the Lord that Haggai brings to such a time? “The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give, prosperity says the LORD of hosts.” The word there that is translated prosperity is the Hebrew word “shalom.” Shalom, as many of you probably know, is a word with an abundance of meanings. It is often translated as peace, but it also means, as it is translated here, prosperity. It means abundance, right relationships, flourishing—in short, it means all things in the world being as God intended. The future that God intends and indeed promises is a future of flourishing life.

This is just what Jesus is getting at at the end of the Gospel lesson for today. Jesus is in a controversy with people who do not believe that there is a resurrection. Jesus’ answer is that the Lord—unlike the Egyptian god Osiris or the Greek god Hades—is not a god of the dead, but a God of the living, and if that is the case, those whose God he is, though they have experienced death, will experience God’s life anew. They are promised life not just as an optimistic hope, but as a conclusion about the character of God—that God as the most living thing there is does not allow death to have the last word.
When we recognize this—the power of God’s life and promise of a future of shalom—it changes how we live. In last week’s Gospel lesson we heard Luke’s version of the beatitudes, and the command to give to anyone who asks from you and that if someone wants your coat, you should give your shirt as well. Why do we find that so hard to live out? Because the world has trained us to think in terms of scarcity. In an economy of scarcity, the only sensible thing is to become a hoarder, to protect yourself against loss, to cling to what you have. But the economy of the kingdom is not based on fear that causes us to grasp, it is grounded in the promised flourishing that flows from the source of life and abundance—an abundance so great that we can let go of what is in our hands. God is at work to bring forth a future in which the glory of the past will be eclipsed by that which is yet to be. The economy of God’s kingdom is an economy of abundance and resurrection life springing from death.

In a few minutes we will come to the Lord’s table. There we will take bread that is broken, just as Christ’s body experienced the brokenness and pain of our lives. But, we believe, because of the promise of God, even in brokenness, we experience communion with God in taking that bead—we experience the resurrection life of Christ because we are joined to him and share in his life and blood. We become participants in that future of abundance and shalom as we take hold of that promise, that promise that is made tangible in the elements.

Change is hard. The future can be scary—it is unknown and out of our control. But God says, “I am with you. I bring life from death. You have a future. A future not dependent on your ability to anticipate it, but on my presence and my promise which are already there waiting for you. My spirit abides among you; The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD; and in this place I will give shalom.”


A new translation of Romans–awkward, clunky, and (hopefully) very helpful

As some of you know, I have started on a project of translating Romans.

“For God’s sake, why do we need another translation of any of the books of the Bible, much less Romans, a book that has been studied almost to death?” I hear the universe call out.

My reasons have to do with trying to teach NT to undergrads who have no Greek. There are certain goals that I have with this translation, goals that will likely result in a translation that is awkward and clunky but, I hope, also helpful.

The goals are:

1. Translate similarly-rooted Greek words with similarly-rooted English words so that students can see the connections Paul is making.
The place this really is important is with the translation of words with the δικ- root. For a term of this importance in Paul’s argument to be alternately translated with right– and just– roots (as is the common practice of English translations) is obscuring the connections that one ought to make. There are many other such verbal connections, too, however, and hopefully this translation will make it possible for English readers to trace those.

2. Translate words that have become freighted with the baggage of religious-ese in ways that make more clear their secular connotations.
Words like gospel, savior, and grace have become so spiritualized that it is very hard for students to hear them as anything other than “churchy” words. This cuts off many meanings and connotations that need to be intact.

3. Translate words indicating logical connections with appropriate force.
Much of Paul’s argument depends on the logical connections and conclusions he draws. Eliminating the connector words altogether (poor γαρ ends up in the bin a lot) or translating them with a weak, throw-away word like “So,” doesn’t help students see how Paul’s ideas hang together.

So, what does this look like? Here’s 1:1-7 for your amusement, consternation, and/or comments.

1:1 Paul, a slave of God, called to be one-sent-out/a messenger, separated out into God’s great-announcement 2 (which he announced ahead of time through his prophets in the holy writings) 3 concerning his son who was generated from the seed of David according to the flesh, 4 separated as “son of God” in power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus the Messiah, our master, 5 through whom we have received favor and sent-out-ness for the sake of his name unto the hearkening of faith in all the non-Jews, 6 in which you are, and you are the called of Jesus Christ;

7 To: all those in Rome beloved of God, holy called-ones—Favor to you, and peace from God your father and from the master, Jesus the Messiah.

The former glory and our ambivalent relationship to the past–a sermon on Haggai 2

Lord, Open our hearts to hear your word of hope and promise for us today and give us the strength to order our thoughts and lives in accord with it, now and in the days to come.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I come from a family of savers. The women in my family, especially, are notorious savers, not only of things potentially useful or important (a category including lightly used tinfoil and 15 year old credit card statements) but especially of anything that might have sentimental value. My father jokes that my mother has saved every piece of paper I ever set a crayon to. This is an exaggeration, certainly, but he has a point: there is a tendency in my family to wax nostalgic and cling to things that remind us of our family’s past. These things seem to provide a connection back to the events and people that are now gone.

I myself—and I perhaps some of you also—find myself ambivalent in navigating how I hold onto the past, both through the material things I hold onto—souvenirs, pictures, family antiques of widely varying quality and usefulness—and through the ideas and memories I hold onto. I think most of us are pretty happy to forget about big chunks of our personal past (I know I would not be worse off if I was never again reminded of junior high!), but what about the good things or even just neutral things?
If we as individuals are ambivalent about this, I think we see this also reflected in our culture—an attitude that manifests itself, on the one hand, in an almost overwhelming push to “leave the past behind,” have the newest of everything from cars to phones, and actively reject old modes of acting and thinking, while on the other hand there is simultaneously a fascination with the past (witness everything from historical re-enactors of battles and historical events to the renewed popularity of Jane Austen novels to a market for “antiques” and vintage items that are barely 20 years old); for some, this fascination borders on obsession. The people featured on the TV show “Hoarders” are simply the far end of the spectrum of a fear that nags at the back of most of our minds—the fear of loss and fear of the future. Fear that there won’t be enough. Fear that we will lose the things we love—whether they are people or memories or physical things and places that are meaningful and familiar to us.

The people of Israel faced similar fears in Haggai’s time. In case you’re a little sketchy on the place of the minor prophets in the timeline of the history of Israel (and who isn’t!), let me fill you in: The year is 520 b.c. Approximately 80 years earlier, generals of the Babylonian empire had come from the north, besieged and conquered Jerusalem, destroying the temple there that King Solomon had built, and carrying away into exile many if not most of the Jews. After 70 years in exile in Babylon, a new ruler, Cyrus, allowed the Jews to return to their land begin rebuilding their city and their temple. The work is slow however. And the new temple that is being constructed is, apparently, a pretty significant disappointment to some who either remember the previous temple or have heard of its beauty and grandeur. God through Haggai, names the grumbling undercurrent among the people: “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?”

Compounding the problem, undoubtedly, is not just the memory of the past but the prophecies of Haggai’s predecessors. Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah prophesied that, although God’s people would go into exile for their unfaithfulness to God, after their punishment was over, God would bring them back to the land, and the reestablished nation of Israel would be more glorious than the previous—it would be prosperous, it would be ruled by ideal kings reigning over faithful people, and the glory of Mount Zion where the Temple sits would be such that the non-Jewish nations, the Gentiles, would marvel at it and stream to it to worship the Lord.

The reality was, to say the least, a let down.

The people are disappointed. They are tempted to compare the present to the past—a past that was, of course, glorious in some respects, but was far from perfect—the earlier prophets pointed out the injustices toward the poor in the land, corruption in the government, that worship that had become mere formality to buy off God’s favor, and the idolatry or power and wealth among the people. For these, the judgement of God came on God’s people, but now the returned exiles remember only the good things of the past. The “glory days” of Jerusalem and the temple…..

(To be continued)