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)

Advertisements