Scripture: Haggai 2:1-9
It has been said that the restaurant business is one of the hardest ones to succeed in. In fact, about 60% of new restaurants fail within the first year. To succeed eateries often try to find ways to set themselves apart and offer something that cannot be found anywhere else. The restaurant Wattana Panich located in Bangkok might have one of the most unusual claims to uniqueness. They serve what might just be the oldest soup in the world. The broth of their soup has been in perpetual use since 1974. The ingredients that make up the soup change and more is added when needed, but the pot has not been emptied for 48 years. This might sound absolutely disgusting, but historically this might be a lot more common than we realize. A French version, called pot-au-feu, also has a few notable examples. One batch of the broth from Normandy was purportedly in constant use from the middle of the 1400s clear up until the German occupation in WWII. Perpetual stew sometimes called Hunter’s pot is thought to have been a staple of medieval cuisine. This is a soup that is constantly kept on simmer, new ingredients are consistently added so that the pot is never emptied. Again, this might sound highly unsanitary to us, but it turns out as the long as the pot’s temperature stays above 140 degrees, then bacteria can never grow, and the stew stays sanitary. In theory as long as the conditions are met then perpetual stew can become forever soup and never run out. Of course, it is just a theory because currently the oldest pot of soup in the world might just be the 48 year old one found in Bangkok. Who knows how much longer it will last but there will be a day when it comes to an end. We have been cynically conditioned to know and accept that nothing last forever and all good things come to an end. We can point to all kind of traditions and ways things used to be done that have fallen to the wayside as proof of this and many of us probably have a broken something taking up space in our house or garage as evidence that stuff today is not just built like it used to be.
Likely a strong case could be made to justify pessimism towards the idea of longevity and things lasting for a long time. Yet the bible is full of hopeful scriptures like this mornings. Whenever we might want to give in to a more cynical outlook, the scripture is there to remind us of why we can have hope. This morning’s scripture was written for a people who could come up with a lot of reasons to be pessimistic and cynical, but it was written to be a call to a hopeful future. It was a reminder that while much of what people create and build may not last forever, God and God’s handiworks are eternal.
Haggai is one of the handful of prophets that God used to speak to the Israelites after the exile ended. When the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem they destroyed the temple and took the majority of the people into exile. More than six decades passed. By that point the Babylonian Empire found itself under the new management of the Persian Empire, and the Persians led by King Darius allowed the Jewish exile to end, granting them permission to return to Judah and Jerusalem. This is the context that Haggai was active during. God’s promise of restoration had come true, the exile had ended and the people had returned home. It was a time of hope but it was also a time of uncertainty. It was a time to figure out again what it meant to be God’s people. There are two other prophetic books that were written during this time, Zechariah and Malachi. Both of those prophets are best known for how they point to the coming Messiah. Haggai does not do that. Instead this small prophetic book is wholly concerned with a single matter: The rebuilding of the temple.
In the book of Ezra the temple is rebuilt, but it ran into some snags along the way. There were people who opposed the Jewish temple being rebuilt and they successfully managed to get the whole process tripped up and bogged down in bureaucratic red tape. After the rebuilding started, it was stopped by force. It was during this time that God called Haggai. The book of Haggai has some of the most exact and detailed dates found in the bible, so we know throughout a period of a few months Haggai prophesied and preached the importance of rebuilding the temple. The book of Ezra records it this way, “Now Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the prophet . . .prophesied to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel who was over them. Then Zerubbabel son of Shelatiel and Joshua son of Jozadak set to work to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem. And the prophets of God were with them, supporting them. “
This morning’s scripture reading contains part of the message the spurred Zerubbabel and Joshua son of Jozadak into action. Based on what is recorded in Ezra, we know that Haggai’s message that we read this morning was received and it was put into action. As I consider this morning’s scripture the questions that I am led to ponder are why did the leaders need extra encouragement from a prophet of God? And what about Haggai’s words influenced them to take action?
We know from Haggai’s writings that the Jewish leaders needed extra nudging for a few months to push forward for building the temple, but the scripture does not mention explicitly why they needed this extra encouragement. However, based on the context clues in the scripture and the fact that human nature is human nature we can attempt to read between the lines. Verse 3 of this morning’s scripture reading states “Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory?” God is referring to the temple, and it had been 66 years since the temple had been destroyed. The oldest of the Israelites were children when they last saw the temple. The vast majority of them had no memory of the temple. The temple had been destroyed for their lifetime, they were unmoored from their tradition. Perhaps there was some cynicism and pessimism about longevity. After all, the temple had been destroyed once, why bother rebuilding if it can just be destroyed again?
When it comes to how we worship God, I think we face a similar pessimism today. People do not come to church like they used to. Many of us remember a time when Sundays were a protected day. Businesses were closed, activities did not happen, and it was reserved for church. Actually, some of you may even remember that it was not just Sundays that were protected but Wednesday nights as well. Now, Sunday is just another day crammed with activities. Less than 20 years ago regular church attendance was considered coming three to four Sundays a month. Today, culture watchers are saying that those who consider themselves regular church attenders might only come one to twice a month. It can be easy to be cynical and pessimistic around this thing we call church. It can be easy to believe the writings on the wall, and all good things come to an end. It would be easy to give into that way of thinking, but it would be wrong.
Perhaps there was a “why bother” attitude about rebuilding the temple, and if that is the case then the words from this morning’s scripture broke through that. Verses 4 and 5 of this morning’s scripture declare “For I am with you declares the LORD almighty. This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt and my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.” The promises of God are much older than any of our contemporary problems or fears and the promises of God are eternal. The temple needed to be rebuilt so that those returning from exile could continue to renew the covenant and worship God. In the same way the body of Christ, the church, will continue because Jesus commissioned us to make disciples and promised us to be with us until the very end of the age. I have full confidence that until Jesus comes back the body of Christ will be present on earth. Our buildings, built by human hands will someday fall, but the community of faith endures because the church has never been the building it has always been the people.
Being reminded of God’s eternal promises might have been part of the needed catalyst to rebuild the temple, which they did. It is worth noting that Jewish worship in the second temple period did look different than it did in the first temple period. It was deeply rooted in tradition yet the practices grew and evolved in different ways. The same is true today. As followers of Christ we should gather as a community of faith for worship, but the way we worship, the way we gather, and the way the community looks can all change. The reasons “why” we come together, the reasons why we worship do not change, but the “how” we go about it can and inevitably does. Change can be scary, but when the alternative is to say “who bother” and give it up, then change is the best option.
The second reason why the leaders of Haggai’s time is because they met resistance. Again, the book of Ezra records they met a lot of resistance. Those who were opposed to the rebuilding of the Jewish temple, were well versed in the politics of the era, and they used that to get the rebuilding shut down. We have to remember that the position of the Jewish people returning from exile was not that strong. They got to return home, but they were subjects of the Persian Empire. If they rocked the boat too much, they could find themselves in a worse situations than where they started. So when faced with opposition, it can make sense why they were quick to tap the breaks and not push too hard. That is why Haggai is called to encourage them onward. Multiple times in this morning’s scripture we find the phrase “be strong”. This is the same phrase in Chronicles that David used to encourage Solomon to build the first temple. The encouragement to “be strong” was an encouragement to continue doing something significant that glorified God.
Whenever we do something significant that will make a real difference and will build God’s kingdom, it will always lead to opposition. Now this does not mean that just because something is opposed means, God is with it. There is still a place for discernment. However, if we are seeking to make disciples, if we are seeking to share God’s love, if we are seeking to serve the least of these, and included the unincluded then inevitably there will be opposition. There will be attempts to tap the breaks, and bring everything to a standstill, and during those times we should heed the encouragement of this scripture: Be strong. If we are confident that are actions have the potential to make new disciples, then we should be strong. If we are confident that our dreams have the potential to transform communities into more loving places then we should be strong. If we are confident that our congregation’s actions can build the kingdom of God here, then we should be strong. When it comes to following Jesus will run into slow ups, road bumps, and opposition. Jesus himself told us this more than once in the gospels. This morning’s scripture is a powerful reminder that in those moments the best course of action is to trust in God, do not fear, and be strong.
We have all been taught in one way or another that nothing last forever, that all good things come to an end but this morning’s scripture reminds us that is not true. God is eternal. His promises are forever, and his love does not end. In an age where everything seems temporary and built not to last, we can hold onto these sacred truths. Not only should we hold on to them, but like the leaders Haggai encouraged we should embrace them. We should embrace them and carry on in important traditions like being a community of faith even if we seek new way to live those traditions out. We should embrace the truths that God’s sprit remains with us even when we face resistance or opposition to living out our faith. In doing so, we will stand strong in the God who lasts and build a faithful legacy that continues to glorify our God and our savior.