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Sunday, January 3, 2021
What time is it?
It’s the first Sunday of the year, so it time for resolutions? I’m going to lose weight. This year, I’ll read the Bible more. I’m going to be kinder. I am going to watch less tv and read more books. I’ll exercise five times a week. I’ll learn a new hobby. I’ll discover creativity. Happy new year!
Resolutions indicate that we think change is needed in our lives. We need to start over. Why? We’ve gotten off track. The problem is if you’ve failed at New Year’s resolutions enough times, maybe you’ve given up on the idea of starting over. Maybe you don’t think things can change. Maybe you’ve settled upon just grinding through whatever miseries come. That’s not a resurrection mindset, but it is one many churchgoers have.
We worship and we talk about the great love of God. Our sins are nailed to Jesus’ cross. He rose, conquering death, and he invites us to join him in resurrection. It’s the ultimate do-over. We earnestly declare that we believe this.
Do we really? Do we live like forgiveness and second chances actually happen? Or, are we resigned to the notion that things will always be how they are now and any hope for change is just a recipe for disappointment? Can there be anything actually new in the New Year?
What time is it?
Don’t we at least believe that as we put the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020 in the rearview mirror 2021 will be a little better? A little easier? We harbor no big ambitions, just a possibility that we’ll see slight gains with the myriad frustrations of 2020 behind us. Here’s a small ‘hurray’ for tempered expectations.
January 3, 2021: what time is it?
In Haggai, a small book of prophecy near the back of the Old Testament, we find debate what time it is. Haggai quotes God who quotes the people who say, “The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house” (Haggai 1:2).
The most influential people of Jerusalem society – priests, wealthy families, and the royal household - were exiled to Babylon in 586 BC. Haggai, one of the most precisely dated books in either testament comes along almost 70 years later. The first of the four messages is dated the first day of the 6th month, Elul, or August 29, 520 B.C.
A lot happened in 70 years. The Persians defeated the Babylonians, and the Persians had a different policy regarding the people they conquered. They wanted the Jews to return to Israel and re-establish worship of Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Originally the centerpiece of Israelite religious practice had been the law, Torah, and the land. Then Solomon built a house for God. Solomon’s temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Israelite faith found a home in the temple. There were Psalms written specifically for the time of year when they go up to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. God is all-powerful. God could be worshiped anywhere, and was. But there was something special about the temple. Then Babylon burned Jerusalem and destroyed that temple.
Haggai along with 2nd Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, Isaiah chapters 56-66, and the prophet Zechariah, as well as some of the Psalms and Ecclesiastes, give us the story and the perspective of Israel, after exile. The exile is over. Now what do the people of God do? What time is it? The Pandemic is about to be over? Now what do we do?
Haggai quoted God who quoted the people who said, “It’s not yet time to rebuild the temple.” What time is it? Was it just too exhausting for those who returned from exile, tired and haggard, to think about rebuilding? They would get re-established in life and then get to the temple, eventually.
It’s not time to build the temple just yet. Really, God asked. Then what time is it? God asked, “Is it time for you yourselves to live in paneled houses while the Lord’s house lies in ruins” (1:4)? I don’t want to hear Haggai ask me these questions. I don’t want to squirm under God’s scrutinizing gaze.
God is love. God is compassion. God takes us as we are. That doesn’t mean we tell God how things are. God tells us how things are and God tells us who we are. God told those returning exiles, “You have [planted a lot] but harvested very little; you have clothes but are not warm enough; you earn wages, but then put your coins in bags with holes. … The heavens have withheld rain and the earth has withheld produce” (v.6, 10-11).
Rebuilding is long, hard work, and sometimes it seems impossibly big. We’ll never get there. That’s how it looks. But God’s point to his people in Haggai is their struggles are directly tied to their neglect of living out their faith in God. That neglect is seen in their failure to rebuild the temple. “Why is there no rain?” God asks. “Why won’t crops grow? Because my house lies in ruins while all of you hurry off to your own houses” (1:9). Things won’t be right until that pile of ash and stone is replaced with a rebuilt temple. Rebuilding shows that the people trust God.
Standing at the threshold of a new year and a new time, Haggai interrogates us. What do we see? Are we focused on the pain and loss of the past year, or the potential of the new? Are we occupied with the mess the world is in or with the creative power of God who brings order out of chaos? Are we paralyzed by depressing piles of rubble, or energized to do the rebuilding work God has given us?
Haggai interrogates us. One of Israel’s points of devastating failure came when the nation entrusted herself to alliances with more powerful neighboring nations instead of putting her in trust in the all-powerful God. Who do we trust? Of course, we wear masks and socially distance and will get the vaccine and do all the necessary things to live safely. However, the question stands. In whom do we put our ultimate trust? The governor of North Carolina, or the North Carolina secretary of health, Mandy Cohen? Ourselves? In whom do we trust?
What time is it? What do we see? Who do we trust?
Haggai, speaking on August 29, 520 B.C. wanted the people of God to give their full allegiance to God and find their sense life in God by rebuilding the temple. At the dawn of the 2021, the people of God are to give full allegiance to Him, and we are to find our life in Him.
We know from Romans and other New Testament writings that in Christ we, the church, are included among the people of God. We know from the Gospels that all the purposes of the temple find fulfillment in Christ. We know from 1 Corinthians that we, the church, are the body of Christ, submitted to the Holy Spirit Empowered by that Spirit, we do the work of sharing Jesus with the world.
It’s time for us to be the church. Of course, we sit with people in their messes, but we don’t leave them there. Of course, we hold the hands of those who mourn and weep with them, but we know joy, not tears, are the end of the story when we are in Christ. This week I talked with a friend, another pastor here in Chapel Hill. He’s had several members die of COVID-19. It has been a hard, hard year for him and his church. But he holds on to the resurrection because he’s in Christ. In Christ, it is always time for new life and new creation.
What time is it? It is time for us to be the church. It is time for Hillside Church to discover God’s vision for us. It’s time for us to lean into the vision. We are a community of witnesses who testify to all the ways we are blessed by Jesus. It is time for us to love others and share Gospel hope with Chapel Hill.
The name Haggai means ‘feast.’ Those beaten-down Jews straggling back to Israel from their Babylonian captivity saw their homeland devasted. Filled with grief, celebration was the furthest thing from their minds. They didn’t feel like they were in any condition to begin something new.
God thought otherwise. God sent a man named ‘feast’ to tell them a new day had dawned, a day that belonged to the Lord of the feast. I am here to announce that in Chapel Hill, at Hillside Church, a new day is dawning. We won’t have a potluck supper next month, but it is coming. In our hearts, in our minds, and in our mental orientation, we, right now, are to begin preparing to embrace God’s purpose for us as His people.
Following the prophet named ‘Feast,’ we end up at the feet of the Savior, Jesus, the giver of abundant life. The prophet insisted the temple be rebuilt. Jesus our Lord is the fulfillment of the temple’s purpose and we meet God in Him.
We are His people. So, we must ready ourselves. What time is it? It is time, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to proclaim salvation in Jesus, to gather in His name, to uplift the hurting and downcast, and to joyfully build his community, his church. This is His time and we are His people. We have His work to do. Let’s do it with joy.