In the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest: Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house. Then the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honoured, says the Lord. You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the Lord of hosts. Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the soil produces, on human beings and animals, and on all their labours.
The context and audience to which the prophet was sent are made explicit from the outset. It is 520 BCE and the Jerusalem temple still lies in ruins, years after the return from exile began. Zerubbabel, the Governor appointed by Persia, Joshua, the High Priest; and the people – returned exiles and on-going occupants of the land – are focusing on social needs. Recent harvests have been poor, there’s a cost of living crisis and the people want better housing.
We might want to commend the community, (including Church and State, in today’s language), for pulling together to try and resolve their problems; but Haggai proclaims that failing to make God’s house their priority is the cause of their troubles. All their energy is going on their own needs and they are acting as though human wisdom can provide the solutions; that they have responsibility and power to sort things out.
Nowadays, when many churches are struggling to maintain property and concerned that all our resources (both financial and human) are being expended on buildings rather than mission, this isn’t a welcome message. But if we understand Haggai’s message to be one calling us to put God centre stage, to make the worship of God our foremost priority, then his words are timely.
Where and how we gather together as God’s people to worship God, isn’t important; but it is vital that we do this. It is essential that we bring society’s hopes, dreams and needs to God in worship and prayer before we start debating any programmes of action. Discerning a situation from God’s perspective helps us see what really needs to be done and where the necessary resources might lie.
In our world, civic society and other faith groups may not join with us in worship; but that should not preclude us from beginning there, nor from working with others as we pursue God’s mission of love for the world.
Holy God, you transcend space and time and hold all things in being. Forgive us when our worship of you is faltering; and renew our trust in you. Remind us that in you, all things are possible. Help us to consider our needs and the needs of the world from your eternal perspective that we might discern your priorities in this age. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister living in Cambridgeshire; she is a member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge.