Scripture: Haggai 1:5-2:9; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Haggai's "description of the Hebrew people may have been written 2500 years ago, but it reads a lot like 21st century America. Our consuming ways do not satisfy, but
rather extend our material gluttony. The unsated appetite we feel is as much spiritual as anything else. Feeding our consumptive impulse will never provide what we truly crave, which is something far deeper and more valuable."
A SHAKEDOWN GOD
Scripture: Haggai 1:5-2:9; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Pastor: Timothy Hart-Andersen
Last summer as I was doing my annual sermon preparation, I
could not believe my good fortune when I encountered the little book of Haggai, from which our reading is taken this morning.
I knew that on this first Sunday in November our 2005 stewardship program would be in full swing, so I hoped the scripture
lesson assigned for today might offer some good fodder for reflection on money and generosity. With a little luck we might be reading the story of the widow's mite, or listening to Jesus say, "It is more blessed to give than to receive," or, my favorite,
from the Apostle Paul, "The Lord loves a cheerful giver."
Instead, I found myself confronted with the rather obscure, diminutive book of Haggai. In twenty years of pulpit pounding, I have never preached on either of its two chapters.
my delight when I actually read the prophet's words, and discovered that he offers us an image of God conducting an ancient stewardship campaign of sorts, and doing so in a most straightforward and assertive way. We might even call it aggressive fundraising:
God simply claims all the gold and all the silver, and when it is not forthcoming from the people, God threatens to lift them up and shake it out of them.
A shakedown God, a God not afraid to get aggressive on deadbeats and compel them to give of their
resources, a God willing to go to extremes to fund the mission of God's people. I immediately saw the homiletic possibilities for stewardship in the text.
This fall we have been reading our way through the prophetic literature of the older testament.
Through the eyes of Jeremiah and others, we witnessed the exile of the Hebrew people to Babylon, in the sixth century before our era. In that time, the Babylonians also looted and destroyed the city of David. They demolished the ancient Temple,
which had come to symbolize -- more than anything else -- the relationship of the people and God.
Last week in our worship the book of Habakkuk spoke again of the exile, and left us with the enduring image of the prophet ascending the stairs
to the top of a watchtower to look out for the coming of the Lord. The prophet was convinced that God would come and return the Hebrew people to their city.
Indeed, God does come, in the person of Cyrus the Persian, who overruns Babylon some 50
years after the fall of Jerusalem. He liberates the Hebrew people. Isaiah would call Cyrus "the Messiah" for saving the Israelites. The Persian king issues an edict that allows them to go home to Jerusalem.
Haggai the prophet lived
in Jerusalem in the time of the return from exile. We learn in his little book that upon their homecoming, the Hebrew people turn inward and focus their time and resources on themselves. The Temple still lies in ruins, symbolizing the failure of
the Hebrew people before God, but their attention is focused elsewhere. Things are not well for the Israelites, even though at first glance it might appear that way.
God is not pleased that the returned captives have done nothing to restore the
Temple. They now all have nice houses, Haggai points out, but God's house is nothing but a rock heap. The Israelites have thrown themselves into a self-indulgent frenzy, reestablishing their lives and shifting their priorities at the expense of
their faithfulness to God. They have chosen an essentially unsatisfying existence, life without meaning beyond the self.
Here are Haggai's own words: "Consider how you have fared," he writes,
"You have sown much, and harvested
you eat, but you never have enough;
you drink, but you never have your fill;
you clothe yourselves, but no one is ever warm;
and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes." (Haggai 1:5b-6)
That description of the Hebrew people may have been written 2500 years ago, but it reads a lot like 21st century America. Our consuming ways do not satisfy, but rather extend our material gluttony. The unsated appetite we feel is as much spiritual
as anything else. Feeding our consumptive impulse will never provide what we truly crave, which is something far deeper and more valuable.
The presidential election is being called a national referendum on what Americans find valuable. Some
22% of voters polled, responded that concern for values, moral values, was a key factor for them in casting their vote. It seems as if religion itself were on the ballot this year. Both major political parties worked hard to inject their candidate's
faith into the campaign.
Religion mattered more in this race than in any presidential campaign in a long time -- probably since 1960, when Kennedy's Roman Catholicism provoked so much controversy. Ironically, in that election Kennedy worked
hard to assure people that his Catholic faith would not influence his decisions; the 2004 campaign, in vivid contrast, asked the opposite of candidates and their personal religious beliefs. Much of the public wanted to know that the president would,
in fact, bring his faith and its values to decision-making.
The danger in mixing private religious convictions with public service is that the two can become indistinguishable, and an office holder and his supporters can be left thinking that God foreordains
his position or election. I saw a particularly disturbing illustration of this liaison of faith and politics last August at the State Fair. At a political campaign booth, I saw a man wearing a shirt that said, in big, bold letters: 1. Jesus; 2.
Freedom; and, 3. the candidate's name. Equating Jesus and a particular candidate was too much for me; I went up and told the man wearing the shirt that I thought it was blasphemous, an observation with which he strongly disagreed.
Among the questions we are left with after this election are: whose values? Which morality? The political vote did not settle those theological questions; but it certainly did raise them for us. People of faith and goodwill can help
the nation ponder these matters constructively, remembering that morality has both personal and public dimensions.
All this buzz about moral values may point not so much toward specific political and partisan issues with a clearly moral cast to them
-- abortion, poverty, the nature of marriage, just war -- but instead, the talk about moral values may point in the direction of a general malaise and confusion in the American spirit. There is a spiritual hunger among us not being met by the culture
or political life or the Church or other kinds of relationships among us. We, the people, are not spiritually satisfied with the kind of self-indulgent, isolated, frenetic, unbalanced lives we live. I suspect it does not make glad the heart of God, either.
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 ever warm;
And you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag
The prophet Haggai finds himself called upon to convey the annoyance -- even anger -- of God at this sort of hollow living. At the same time, Haggai communicates God's willingness to stay with the Israelites and help them change. Like
the Apostle Paul, who wrote centuries later, "God chose you as the first fruits for salvation," the prophet understands the unique place the Hebrew people have in their relationship with God. (II Thessalonians 2:13)
Like all prophets, Haggai asserts
a vision of life that runs against the conventional wisdom of his time. Haggai assumes the posture of the people of God in all times and places. Our role is distinctly counter-cultural, whether we live in the 6th century before our era or in the
We in the Christian community are not in the business of affirming or blessing the culture. Our job is to assert God's intentions for humankind -- unconditional love, whole relationships, justice in community, faithful personal
disciplines -- all of which tend to push against the ways of the world.
H. Richard Niebuhr's helpful insights of last century in his book Christ and Culture (1956) still apply -- in fact, maybe now more than ever. Niebuhr argues that the
church is not above or outside of or beyond culture, but in the midst of it. Our business is to live in the culture and transform it. What we learn from Haggai is that we can expect God to take the lead in such efforts.
"I will shake the
heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land," God says. I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of Hosts.
The issues confronting the Hebrew people back then and confronting us today are the willingness to live as full partners in community, the willingness to sacrifice for a larger good, the willingness to give generously to the work
of God on this earth.
God calls our bluff by threatening a divine shakedown of all of us. If that does not make us want to increase our pledge to Westminster, nothing will!
But it turns out that this text from the prophet Haggai
is about much more than financial stewardship. It asks us to examine our relationship with God, to see where it might be lacking and to address those
places of spiritual hunger that are not satisfied, where we eat but never have enough.
The old prophet from long ago invites us to live sacrificially, giving up that which gets in the way of the fullness of life for us and for those around us.
In a moment, we will come to this table, which is a table of sacrifice, where we remember
what Christ did for us in going to the cross.
Here, at this table, we remember, we rejoice, and then we renew our commitment to following in the way of Jesus. In so doing, we begin the transformation of the world.
Thanks be to God.
Timothy Hart-Andersen is head of staff at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Minneapolis, MN since 1999.