The book of Haggai is conventionally known as ‘lesser prophecy’ with good reason. Like other post-exilic books, such as Ezra and Nehemiah, it can seem more pedestrian in language and import. What is this concern, for example, with rebuilding the temple? After the vibrancy and creativity of such prophets as Isaiah and Ezekiel, we can seem to be going backward. Instead of the great prophetic messages which draw us beyond tribalism into a Christ-shaping love and hope for all, we can appear to be being drawn into a reducing attention to walls. Does this point us therefore towards the world of Jesus, in which temple and pharisaism will become dominant? Or is there something else here: about how we are to live in different times, conscious of the golden core themes of our tradition but needing to work out our own salvation, in Christ, in a new world? What lessons are we to read from the scripture and history of Haggai?
Let me offer three suggestions of Haggai’s teaching with which we can all engage, irrespective of our particular outlooks and life situations. Firstly, and above all, Haggai calls us to put God at the centre of our lives. This is the heart of the matter, whatever the age or context in which we live. It does not matter whether we live under Roman tyranny, as in the early Church; or in the age of Christendom, when outward allegiance to Christ hides other dynamics at play; or in the age of the Reformations, when assertion of our own truth is all, irrespective of its impact on others; or in the age of Enlightenment, when we have to come to terms with science and reason; or in the age of postmodern diversity and its ambiguous promise and pitfalls. Post-exilic Israel could not be the supposed ’golden age’ of David, or those who had gone before. Indeed, politically, it had to deal with being under foreign influence if not control. Yet the centrality of placing God first remains.
Secondly, Haggai, as a prophet, does not I think encourage his hearers to rebuild the temple because he is seeking to restore a narrow tribal religion, although that is a danger which arguably then results. He is, I think, not interested in law and ritual per se, never mind mere bricks and mortar. He calls on the people to do so as a means of gathering and working together around their deepest identity as a people of the living God. Where each has been drawn towards their own interests, Haggai offers a means to a fuller common life and a stronger sense of the common good.
Place God first, at the centre of our lives, Haggai says to each of us and in every generation. Live and work together, he says, for it is your common life and purpose you will truly flourish. And, thirdly, he says, make this real. Incarnate it. Embody it in actual forms of life. Does this mean we must therefore literally build, or rebuild, our own temples, or architectural structures? Perhaps. New, or renewed, material expressions of faith and spirituality can be potent symbols and parthways for us, and others, into the love of God. That is the point I think: not that we replicate what we think others may have done fruitfully in the past, -in the way they did it – but that we too make real and visible our placing of God at the centre and our commitment to lives of mutual support and the common good. So what re-construction project, literal or metaphorical, will we therefore take up today and in the days to come?
by Jo Inkpin, for Thursday 28 September 2017 (St Francis College Brisbane eucharist), Haggai 1.1-8, Luke 9.7-9