Sunday, November 7, 2010

Keep Building

“You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the LORD Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house.” (Haggai 1.9)

12 Angry Men

Our obsession with organization cheats us sometimes. This is certainly the case with the Minor Prophets—12 short books at the back of the Old Testament. The grouping and placement of these books are unfortunate; brevity and discontinuity make them feel more like appendices than vital components of the canon. All told, these prophets span centuries in Israel’s history. And because each of them speaks to his time, lack of context cripples our interest. How can we relate to what God says through them if the text doesn’t amply identify whom He’s speaking to, what He’s talking about, and why it needs to be said? As a rule, the Minor Prophets require homework.

But our second challenge with them is tougher, as a surface reading of the Minor Prophets depicts 12 angry men. To a one, their messages confront sinful societies—usually Israel, but also other nations and cities—and predict harsh judgment if they don’t repent. Without background research into what they address, their prophecies easily sound like harangues: you’ve messed up and if you don’t straighten up, you’ll be sorry. Although seven of 12 end with pledges of restoration, not knowing the urgency behind their messages plays up the gloom and doom. Haggai is a great example of how a little investigation goes a long way with the Minor Prophets. A handful of context, found in the book of Ezra, harvests a bounty of beauty.

Tough and Tentative Times

Ezra informs us Haggai is given the unenviable task of shepherding the Jews through tough and tentative times. He (and his colleague, Zechariah) shows up after the Babylonian captivity ends. Over 40,000 Jewish hostages—many of them born in exile—stream into a country decimated and shell-shocked from seven decades of foreign occupation. Actually, the land is still occupied, taken over by the Persians, who recently conquered Babylonia and acquired Judah (Israel’s southern counterpart) in the process. The Persians prove far more benevolent, appointing a Jewish governor to oversee Judah’s reconstruction. Rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple the Babylonians destroyed becomes the recovery’s centerpiece. But the endeavor is politically fraught. A faction of leaders dismisses the idea as unfeasible and impractical. Local Samaritans—who consider themselves “the lost Hebrew tribe”—offer to help. When they’re declined, they fuel suspicions the Jews’ solidarity around the Temple project may escalate into an uprising against Persia. New Temple construction is suspended.

This grieves many, particularly the returned hostages who’ve assumed the lion’s share of the work. But fear of a Persian backlash as bad or worse than the Babylonian siege convinces the majority to wait. Meanwhile, there’s more than enough work to get the country up and running. Attending to that makes political and common sense. The problem is it’s not what God wants. Judah enters a period of wheel spinning. It replants its farms; they don’t yield profitable harvests. It rebuilds its cities; they don’t prosper. It restores its homes; their residents don’t flourish. Submitting to fear wrought by attempts to frustrate their unified purpose—building a new house where God can reside among them—leads to frustrations on every front. They don’t see this, though, until God raises Haggai to explain it. “'You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?' declares the LORD Almighty. 'Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house.'” (Haggai 1.9) Judah heeds the prophet and throws its energy into completing the Temple. Once the foundation is laid, Haggai returns with a new word from God: “From this day on I will bless you.” (Haggai 2.19)

Honoring Our Pledge

We pray a prayer—many of us, daily: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Each time we say it, whether or not we consciously realize it, we tell God, “What You desire matters most. What You want done is what I want to do.” As long as there are no conflicts and interferences to make us afraid, we have no problem honoring our pledge. But too often, when opposition arises, we fall into the same trap that snared Judah. Past losses cause us to fear future ones. We stop building God’s place in our lives to wait for the controversy to settle. In the meantime, we find plenty to do in other areas of our lives—ground to cultivate, enterprises to pursue, and personal matters to address. When our efforts yield dismal results, we’re even more frustrated and disillusioned.

The work God calls us to do must be done without delay. No matter what or who tries to impede our progress, we keep building. And as we build God’s residence in us, we remember that Jesus tells us to anticipate costs associated with what we’re building. In Luke 14.28-30—after stressing true discipleship requires willingness to lose everything, including our loved ones and our lives—He says: “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’”

Abandoned, unfinished construction holds no value for anyone. It’s a sad monument to wasted investment and space. When we honor our pledge and build God’s home in us at all costs, we have no cause to fear. What we’re afraid of losing or not achieving will be taken care of. “Seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Jesus promises in Matthew 6.33. Once the foundation is laid, God says, “From this day on I will bless you.” Put God’s will first. Don’t delay. Don’t quit. Keep building.

Abandoned, unfinished construction holds no value for anyone. That’s why we keep building God’s residence in us at all costs.


TomCat said...

Sorry for long absence, my friend. I've been totally swamped. There is a version of the Bible that presents it in chronological order, books and even chapters split to keep context. I found it most valuable in meeting that challenge.

Off topic, the petition I promised to replace Harry Reid is now online.

Tim said...

Tom, I completely understand--the elections were a bear to stay on top of, and you did a marvelous job at it!

I've seen that version of the Bible before. It's a superb way to lay it out. A lot of what's lost by the standard organization becomes readily apparent when it's organized chronologically.

I'll get over to your place to see what you're up to these days, my friend!


genevieve said...

I took a course on the minor prophets in collge. I enjoyed it very much. It speaks to us today.


Tim said...

Gennee, I couldn't agree more. As I've gone through the readings these past few weeks [following the Revised Common Lectionary (Year C) mapped out nearly two decades ago] I'm stunned by how timely the Minor Prophets are! Or perhaps the better word is timeless, because the ills they addressed remain with us today.

As my New Testament professor put it, "God's Word doesn't change because we refuse to!"

It's always a treat to hear from you, my sister, and I pray God's goodness and joy in greater abundance to you day-by-day.

Blessings always,