Sunday, 8 January 2012

Faith in public life - Haggai's story

We made Tuesday our Bank Holiday day this week and after a fun morning indoors because of the rain and the winds with Lake we went off to visit Gloucester museum in the afternoon.

It’s ahead of Cheltenham, in having recently been refurbished.  Not having been for quite a while it was good to visit.

It was great to see the way they tell the geological story of  Gloucester’s countryside and the archaeological story of Gloucester’s ancient history.  That part of the exhibition focused on Roman Gloucester at the north western extremity of the Roman empire – there were wonderful artefacts illustrating everyday life, and not a few showcasing the intensely religious nature of Roman life.  What a pity the coin with a Chi Rho on it was not identified as a Christian coin!  Among tombstones and medical instruments is in pride of place a stretch of the actual Roman wall.

The Roman wall, of course, was built towards the end of the first century AD that makes it for all intents and purposes contemporary with the great Roman building work that was going on at the opposite extremity of the Roman empire in Judea on the Easter Frontier.  What struck me as fascinating was the description of the wall itself.  The large blocks were shaped and constructed in a way that was very rare outside of Rome itself and unique in this country.  I looked down at the base of the wall and thought I have seen a wall not unlike that not that long ago and right on the other side of the Roman Empire.

It was the base of the wall of the Roman temple built by Herod.  Same kind of limestone rock.  Same kind of distinctive feel to it.  Much of Herod’s architecture was unique outside of Rome itself.  The wall of his temple was even more special in that many of the rocks were carved with a pattern around the edge.

Looking down at that Roman wall in Gloucester there were the same gaps between the rocks as in the temple wall – now of course at that spot on the Western wall those crevices between the building blocks are stuffed with the prayers of devout Jews.

The Romans were very religious.  The first thing they would build as they made a start on a settlement would be a shrine where the standards of the emperor could be lodged, a focus for their religious worship.  The walls of the city followed afterwards.

Herod was a good Roman.   And in his own way very religious.  The best way to win over the hearts and minds of the Jewish people, he decided, was to set about rebuilding their temple in the middle of Jerusalem.  He made it his priority.   Work started on the temple 16 years and more before the birth of Christ.  It was taking real shape by the time Jesus was born, one of the finest splendours of the whole ancient world by the time Jesus’ ministry began and completed 30 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

In one sense Herod knew his bible.

When the exile was over and the people returned to Jerusalem they had had a different priority.  Their priority was to rebuild the walls of the city.  How they did that is described in a couple of books that appear in the third section of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Writings, and we will come to in due course, Ezra and Nehemiah.  The priestly Ezra recognised the need once the town walls were built to read the words of the Law – and a public reading was arranged.

But something was neglected.

No attempt was made to re-build the temple.

What incensed Haggai was not just that the temple had been neglected, but that once the walls of the city had been rebuilt the next priority was a lavish life-style lived in the finest of houses that were in the process of arising out of the rubble of the destroyed city.

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? 

To make matters worse the people’s sole concern on returning from exile was to line their own pockets.  No sooner have they returned from exile than catastrophe falls – the rains fail, the drought comes, and the harvests simply don’t come.

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.

What’s gone wrong is the neglect of the temple and all it stands for.  The people must put the temple and that focus on God back at the centre of their lives.

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 leaders of the people and the people themselves heed the word of the Lord.

So it is the work on the house of the Lord starts.

Haggai’s words are a challenge to every society that turns its back on God and neglects the things of faith that are so important.

Haggai like so many others of the prophets has something to say to our society and to our world.

Much is wrong in our society.

One of the things that is missing is a focus on God at the heart of our society.  That is something we need to seek again.

It’s good to reflect on the large scale needs of society.  But change starts with each one of us, wherever we are.  What is in our  hearts counts.  What is deep within us makes a difference.

That’s a call to faith in our society.

I can hear a big amen to that all around.

But it is at that point that I want to notice something rather different emerging.  It is very tempting to say that what is needed is a revival of the accoutrements of religion.  We need to make sure that church as an institution is at the heart of things.  Woe betide us if we lose bishops from the established church in the House of Lords.  Woe betide us if the County  Council stops saying prayers before its meetings.  Let’s work hard to get the trappings of religion back at the centre of things.

I am not sure that’s the way we should be going.

It’s easy to be religious.  And it is very easy for worldly powers to summon religion to their aid.

Herod the Great had learned a lesson from Haggai.  He rebuilt the temple – and he was going to have an official religion right at the heart of his regime.

The problem was it was a brutal regime.  He aimed to use religion to bolster up his power.

Taking seriously all that John the Baptist had stood for, Jesus was well aware of the Herodion abuse of power and abuse of religioin.  When Jesus saw the temple Herod had rebuilt he was incensed.

This was not the kind of religion that the prophets, Haggai, included, had in mind.

It was not the faith of the prophets, the  God of the Law.

Stop making my father’s house a market place, was his cry as he drove out people selling cattle, sheep, doves in the temple precincts and moneychangers extorting hard-earned cash from the poorest of people.

Many people among the Jews were also incensed.  They were looking for something different.  They wanted some kind of sign.

Jesus offered them a sign.

Listen carefully to what John tells us.

Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

This goes to the heart of what Jesus was about.

Yes, Jesus too wanted God, faith to be at the heart of everyone’s life.  It had to be at the heart of the nation’s life.

But not the God of Herod, not the faith of the Herodions, not the God of this kind of temple.

No, Jesus would embody all that the temple stood for.  It was his presence that was all important.  What was important was not the outward trappings of religion as a means of power, but an inner faith rooted in him, in his words, and in his way of life, an inner faith that would be a means of grace.

So much of Jesus teaching hinges on this fundamental idea that he embodies all the temple stands for.

Haggai goes on to remonstrate with the people for leaving the temple in dishonour.  He urges on them a temple worthy of God’s glory. 

In the second year of King Darius,in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, 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? Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendour, says the Lord of hosts.The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, says theLord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.

That is exactly what Jesus has on offer.  Listen in those words to the echoes in the teaching of Jesus.  Take courage, take courage, take courage.  My spirit is with you.  Do not fear.  The shaking of the heavens and the earth, the desire of all the nations coming, a house filled with splendour – greater glory.  This is the glory of the presence of Christ with us.

What is needed is not the trappings of religion.  But people in whose hearts the love of God in Christ is alive in word and action, in thought and prayer.  It is not a set of bishops in an established church that will ensure Christ’s presence at the heart of our nation’s life but men and women who serve as MP’s and in the House of Lord’s who live out their faith in Christ in word and action, in thought and prayer.

What is needed in our County Council is not the formality of a set of religious words uttered at the beginning of the meeting.  Let the meeting start with a quiet, a focus on shared responsibilities – what we need is Councillors for whom a living faith in Christ is in their every word and action, in their every thought and prayer who will be thinking their prayers throughout the time of their business meetings.

Let’s put faith at the heart of the nation’s life not by some specious allegiance to the trappings of religion, but by seeking so to share our faith in Christ that people put Christ at the heart of all they do and live out their faith on the streets around us and in the corridors of power.

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