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.”