URC Daily Devotion Thursday, 18 May 2023 Ascension Day
Thursday, 18 May 2023 Ascension Day
On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Thus says the Lord of hosts: Ask the priests for a ruling: If one carries consecrated meat in the fold of one’s garment, and with the fold touches bread, or stew, or wine, or oil, or any kind of food, does it become holy? The priests answered, ‘No.’ Then Haggai said, ‘If one who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?’ The priests answered, ‘Yes, it becomes unclean.’ Haggai then said, So is it with this people, and with this nation before me, says the Lord; and so with every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean. But now, consider what will come to pass from this day on. Before a stone was placed upon a stone in the Lord’s temple, how did you fare? When one came to a heap of twenty measures, there were but ten; when one came to the wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were but twenty. I struck you and all the products of your toil with blight and mildew and hail; yet you did not return to me, says the Lord. Consider from this day on, from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month. Since the day that the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid, consider: Is there any seed left in the barn? Do the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree still yield nothing? From this day on I will bless you.
This passage is particularly interesting because it reveals two fundamental things that occurred during the Exile. A body of religious material (law, doctrine, tradition – however we name it) is becoming accepted as an authoritative record of God’s word. It probably now exists as written text; but it needs to be interpreted for a particular time and context. Secondly, the role of the priests has evolved whereby they become interpreters of God’s word, rather than those who only perform sacrifices and conduct the rituals of worship. Without a functioning temple and away from Jerusalem new ways of relating to God have developed and the concept of ‘scripture’ begins to emerge in the Persian era.
In Haggai’s context, the priests rule that holiness cannot be transmitted from one thing or one person to another by direct contact, whereas unholiness (sin) is contagious, like one rotten apple in a barrel. The holiness of the ruined temple won’t automatically be transferred to whatever is rebuilt on the site. Nor will a new temple become a holy place unless those building it recognize God in their midst and restore their relationship by refraining from sinful ways.
God wants to bless them and their work, on the building and the land; but the people need to let God transform them first. Unless they change, their hopes will come to nothing.
On this Ascension Day we do well to reflect on what impact the events of Easter have had on us. Have we encountered the risen Christ afresh over the last 40 days and been re-invigorated in our faith and commitment to serve God? As we recall Christ’s departure from this earthly realm, are we ready to step up, transformed into the body of Christ, to be interpreters of God’s timeless word in today’s world, working to build a renewed, holy, kingdom on earth?
Sovereign God, we give thanks for the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, through whom you revealed your nature and purposes to us. We thank you for the scriptures that record your words and work from the beginning of time. Inspire us to make sense of your story of love in the messiness of our earthly context and to interpret its message into good news that offers hope for all creation. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister living in Cambridgeshire; she is a member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge.