Church in Context
There are more than a hundred churches in Govan Mbeki Ave in Port Elizabeth. I could have taken a picture of any of them! The above photo is of a church between the Big Bucks Pawn Shop and what was a bakery.
In Russel Road there is a church called the Grace Bible Church. Right next to them used to be The Red Door Gentlemen’s Club. Two or three businesses down, on the other side, is Adult World.
Between the Red Door Gentlemen’s Club and Adult World: Grace Bible Church. Grace and truth. Someone might be on their way to watch a strip show, walk through the wrong door… and find that is was the right door. Grace and truth.
Mainline churches tend to be more comfortable in suburbs. We expect churches between big trees and beautiful houses, where the only sounds are children playing, birds singing and perhaps a dog barking happily.
But between the Red Door Gentlemen’s Club and Adult World? Or a bakery and the Big Bucks Pawn Shop?
Haggai is one of the two shortest books in the Old Testament. One that we can date precisely. Years before, God’s people were taken into exile. When they were taken, the temple was destroyed – the very symbol of God’s presence, God’s care and their election as God’s people.
Seventy years after they were taken, the king of Persia died. Darius became king of Babylon and allowed the people to return to Judah.
Only a hand full of people return, but they immediately start working on repairing the temple. Full of energy, they lay the foundation.
But then, life happens. They start building houses, start building their own lives. Yes, they must still build the temple. They will get to that, one day. Of course. But my house, my family, my life is more important.
They become so focused on themselves, their own needs, that they completely neglect God’s command to build the temple.
Then, twenty years later, God’s says: your priorities are wrong. I told you to build the temple. Now, build the temple! (Haggai 1)
Amazingly, they obey! The immediately start building.
Except… when Solomon built his temple, 30 000 people chopped and carried wood; 80 000 people cut stones; there were 70 000 workers, 3 300 supervisors; artists and sculptors from all over the world. It took 7 years to build the temple, another 13 to finish the temple complex.
Now, they are a group of probably around 20 000 people, total. With no resources. They have to chop their own wood. At best they can stack some second-hand stones atop one another.
After a short while, someone asks: can you remember the previous temple? How beautiful it was? How does this one look? In Ezra we read that those who could remember the previous temple, wept. What a disappointment! Enough to break anyone’s spirit.
While this sad little group looks at their pathetic attempt, God speaks through Haggai:
4 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, 5 according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.
Haggai… and us
Of course, we hear these words under different circumstances. Each of us in our own specific situation.
Perhaps it reminds you of your own spiritual life. When you gave your life over to God, you started serving him with passion, spending an hour every day in worship, reading the Bible, praying. Then the passion started to wane. An hour became a very long time, Sundays became boring and you just don’t feel like praying as much.
Or perhaps it reminds you of your personal circumstances. You worked your whole life, building your life. Then, one day, you take a step back, look at your finances, your relationships, your marriage, your children… and you think: is this really it?
We often hear people feeling like this about the church. The beautiful buildings. The time when everyone went to church. When there was enough money for the church to do whatever was needed, to maintain the gorgeous buildings.
Even when we speak about our country, it is often marred with disappointment. The crime, xenophobia, violence. Women are not even safe in their own homes. The poor are even poorer. Inequalities did not disappear.
There are so many things that leave us disappointed, despondent. That make is feel like taking a step back and weeping.
For us, in our circumstances, the message is the same: take courage. The Spirit is with you. Do not fear.
The Spirit helps us take courage.
Be busy with the right things
One of the ways that the Spirit helps us to take courage, is to help us to be busy with the right things. (We see it more in Haggai 1.)
When we are busy with the wrong things, we will get despondent. We will feel overwhelmed, hopeless. In our personal lives, and in our church-lives.
We need to be busy with the right things: the will of God. God’s calling and God’s command.
In Haggai, God’s command is: build the temple. That command is still the same. Although, now it is not to build a church, but to be a church. Every moment of every day. In everything we do. In every contact we have with another person. We are the Church.
Of course, it is easy to become distracted, to focus on ensuring a comfortable life for yourself. But each and every one of us has a calling from God. God wants you to be his temple, his representative on earth. It doesn’t matter what job you do, whether you are rich or poor, old or young. God can use you where you are.
Jesus often spoke about “the kingdom of God”. We tend to think of this reign as heaven. But it is so much more than that. Jesus came to establish a new reality, where we live according to God’s values – where the last are first, where we regard others as better than ourselves, care for the poor, love, service… By living these values, at home, work, as a citizen, we are living our calling to be temples, signs of God’s presence.
Step one, therefore, is to discern whether you are busy with the right things.
Don’t by blinded by circumstances
The second way the Spirit helps us to take courage, is by helping us see the right things.
The Israelites had this image of the great beauty of Solomon’s temple, thinking THIS is where God was, THIS is wat it looks like when God is present.
But in this pile of stones?
The point is, God is present, even in the pile of stones.
I often hear people say, after something bad happened, that God as deserted them. Sometimes people even struggle to believe, or stop believing, because x or y or z happened. Every time I hear something like this, my heart breaks. Because, you see even when things look different from what we expected, God is still there.
Even when we are disappointed, because the picture we had in our minds were so much grander than what reality turned out to be… God is there. When things are much more difficult than we expected. When we have to cut stones, carry second-hand stones in a wheelbarrow by ourselves… God is there. When we thought we would’ve seen something magnificent by last week already, but we only have a heap of stones… God is there.
God meets us where we are, not where we want to be. God does not stand at the end point, waiting for us. God is with us, every single moment. Even when things don’t work, or don’t turn out as expected. Or when we don’t feel God’s presence. Even in the dust and rubble… God is there.
Remember the past
The third way the Spirit helps is to take courage, is more subtle in the text – although the Israelites would have heard it clearly:
according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt.
God reminds them of their past, of who they are. God was with them, all the way.
When God asks us to live as temples, it is not a command that just hangs in the air. It is rooted in the past, in God’s election. For the Israelites, that meant the covenant, the liberation from slavery.
For us it means that we are chosen children of God, saved by the blood of Christ, baptised as part of the community of believers,
We can take courage, because we belong to God.
God said so, already at our baptism. There we received the promise of God’s Spirit. This is who we are – redeemed children of God.
The Spirit helps us to remember it. Remember our identity.
A promise for the future
But the Spirit also helps us to take courage, by reminding us of God’s promises.
Again, Haggai reminds his listeners of the promise God made as they were brought out of Egypt. It is the same promise we receive, that God’s Spirit abides with us. That we are God’s children, and nothing can change that.
One of a prophet’s tasks, is to keep people’s eyes focused on the future. To remind them of God’s promise. This focus, this hope, enables us to look past our circumstances, to what can be.
What can be, because God reigns. Because God is a God of promise.
This helps us to look past our failures and conflicts, past our disappointments with the present, toward the future that God meant for us.
And then we can bend and pick up our spades, cut more stones, place stone upon stone… not because the temple looks glorious, but because we have hope. Because we have God’s promise before us.
Between stone and dust
It is God’s Spirit that enables us to build modest churches between bakeries and pawn shops; between the Red Door and Adult World; between homeless people and high rise office buildings; between townhouse complexes and beautiful suburbs.
It is God’s Spirit that enables us to be modest temples, wherever we are: between hate and disunity; between violence and revenge; between poverty and migration; between intolerance, lovelessness and disappointment.
take courage, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts.