Little is known about the man for whom the book of Haggai is named. There is no family name or other information provided. The only other place that he is mentioned is in Ezra. There is a suggestion that possibly his family connections would have been problematic if they were announced or the lack of information may simply be meant to focus more on the divine authority by which the prophet spoke. One thing that can be said for certain is that he was remembered as a prophet with authority. The name, in Hebrew, means “make a pilgrimage” or, possibly, “observe a pilgrimage feast”.
The work of the prophet Haggai is concentrated between August, 520 BCE, and December of that same year, the second year of the reign of Persian King Darius. Most scholars agree on these dates and believe that the book was at least compiled before 515 BCE, when the work on the Temple initiated at Haggai’s urging was completed. (If it was truly compiled this soon after the original words of the prophet, this would indeed add even more integrity and authenticity to the writings.) Jerusalem, the major market and trading center of the region was still recovering from the devastation that had occurred nearly 70 years before at the beginning of the time of exile. There were limited resources and more and more the wealthy seemed to usurp those resources from the poor.
When families had been exiled in 587 BCE, their land had been taken by the people who remained. When they returned, conflicts over the land arose. So a system was instituted whereby people were identified by their genealogical line from tribal times, which then linked the returning deportees with their distant relatives who had stayed behind. This was the institution by which land was redistributed and some measure of stability returned. But this also meant that there was no longer a society defined by national borders. The community was instead organized into landholding collectives with the Temple of the Lord as its administrative, economic, and religious center.
Since life was essentially organized around the Temple, there was a great need for the center to be rebuilt. Haggai’s brief articles contain a very straightforward message: a summons to Judean Jews in the sixth-century BCE to rebuild the temple of Jerusalem, so that YHWH could be honored and the people blessed. Haggai gives two reasons for rebuilding the temple: the people were building their own houses and had put off the building of the Lord’s house and the increased wealth and better fortune that they were experiencing was, in Haggai’s eyes, apparently a sign of YHWH’s sovereignty. Other reasons for rebuilding this glorious temple of God was that it would insure the faith community by giving it a foundation and a focus as well as the fact that it was an out and out question of stewardship. It insured that the people’s priorities were as they should be.
You might be familiar, in particular, with verses 6 and 7. It’s the basis for the movement “Thus Saith the Lord” in Handel’s Messiah. These verses suggest dramatic action initiated by God. “Shake”, here does not imply a term of destruction, but, rather a term of transformation. God’s intervention may be understood as being brought by human beings. The text emphasizes that God will bring about the return of the items in the temple and rearrange them, indeed, “shake them up” in order to create a new and more splendid temple. It’s like God is saying…OK, I brought you back, I delivered you, now you need to grow up and take notice. You need to realize from where you came and to whom you belong. I’m about to do a new thing, but you need to pay attention. I’m going to shake the heavens and the earth, renewing life and restoring everything to the way it should be.
Dr. John Holbert points out that Haggai did not just want a new temple for his own sake. As he says, “the bricks and mortar of any building have no meaning apart from the conviction that God has brought us out of the bondage of Egypt and remains with us still. No matter what this building looks like, God is here, and God is working… The next time we gaze at our own temples, our churches, our houses of worship, we ought not judge them on the size of their steeples, the splendor of their pipe organs, or the grandeur and number of their classrooms. Do they speak to the world that God is there? Do they shout the truth of the freedom-making God? Only on those bases can any such places be judged.” (“Giving Old Haggai a New Look”, John C. Holbert, available at http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Giving-Old-Haggai-a-New-Look-Reflections-on-Haggai.html, accessed 1 November, 2013.)
1) This issue of stewardship is a big one. What actually belongs to us?
2) In what ways should we perhaps redefine the word “ours”? What gets in the way of our redefinition of that word?
3) So, in the context of Haggai’s writings, what does the term “shake” mean for you here?
4) What is your notion of the view of the temple (or even our temple) here?
NEW TESTAMENT: 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
The Second Letter to the Thessalonians reflects a general concern for the church’s stability in the face of mounting hostility from its neighbors. It also has a concern about the end times, so the writer crafts a letter to encourage the believers not to veer from truth or tradition. The focus is on both the present and the future. There is general agreement that this letter was not written by Paul but, interestingly enough, most think that 1 Thessalonians was. There is a difference in form and style from Paul’s writings.
In the passage that we read today, it begins with the writer refuting the unfounded claim that the day of the Lord had already “appeared”, that indeed Christ had already returned. Now you’ve got to remember that this was during a time of rampant “apocalyptic fever”. They were still convinced that Jesus’ words that he would “return” meant imminently if not immediately and they were desperate to not miss it. Now, just for some background, Paul had founded this church in Thessalonica, a wealthy and prosperous port city. After only three weeks of a sort of whirlwind preaching tour, Paul had moved so many people to embrace the Christian movement, that the Jews sort of became alarmed. They had this new hope and if, as they were now convinced, Jesus had already returned, the hope was unfounded.
In verse 2, the NRSV warns against being “quickly shaken in mind or alarmed.” A better translation is probably more like “shock the church suddenly” or “repeatedly agitate”. Essentially, the writer is trying to ease what was essentially a needless panic driving some to despair that the Lord had come. Those who were standing on the corner screaming “repent the end is near” where, in the writer’s mind, just causing a ruckus.
The passage ends with verses 13-17 as a reminder of what God has done and a thankful response. It seems to quell all the questions, all the tricks, all the attempts to catch Jesus and insure the power of those who were so worried about him. So, the writer asks the church to do what he initially asked—stand fast and hold fast to the traditions that they know. In other words, just be who you are, just be children of God, the children that God called you to be. Stop the arguing; stop the power-plays; just be.
a. So what meaning does this passage hold for us?
b What does the tern “shake” mean for you in this context?
c. What would it mean for you to experience this so-called “apocalyptic fever”, thinking that Jesus’ return was imminent? What have we lost of that notion?
d. What message does this Scripture hold for our time and for the church of today?
GOSPEL: Luke 20: 27-38
This is the only place in the Gospel According to Luke where the Saduccees appear. They were a Jewish group that was closely aligned with the priestly classes and aristocracy. They rejected the oral tradition (including the writings of the prophets and the Wisdom writings), denied the belief in Resurrection or angels, and emphasized free will. Because of these somewhat unique beliefs as compared to the society in which they lived, there was always an ongoing debate between the Pharisees and the Saducees over many issues (resurrection, in particular).
So in an effort to prove their own beliefs, their question assumes the practice of levirate marriage, which required that if a man died without children, his brother was obligated to take his wife and have children with her in the first brother’s honor. This insured the perpetuation of property within the immediate family and security for the brother’s widow. The term is derived from the Latin, levir, which means “brother-in-law”.
Keep in mind the time. This is late in the Gospel; the time is drawing to a close. Jesus is, for all practical purposes, on the way to the cross. This is their moment to encounter this man; this is their time to be right. But in the passage, it is said that Jesus explains that life in the resurrection will not simply be a continuation of life as we know it. (By grounding it in the Law of Moses, he is using the Saduccees own teachings to support what he is saying, to support the notion that even at this very moment, the world is beginning to shake.)
Jesus really said very little on the subject of life after death or Resurrection. (In fact, recent scholars agree that there is no real basis for Jesus saying this at all, but that it probably was in line with his way of thinking.) There is definitely a mystery of the unknown and the limitations of our own understanding. Essentially, life beyond death is God’s gift, just as life now is. As “children of God”, we are also “children of the Resurrection”. All are alive to God. There is no room in God’s Kingdom for possession. (It’s also saying, then, that no person is “owned” or “claimed” by another—all are children of God).
It is interesting that Jesus doesn’t really directly answer them. Instead, he takes that protective circle of belief that they had so carefully formed around them and splits it apart. Their question was a not a search for the truth. They don’t want an answer; they want to prove they’re right. Rainer Marie Rilke said, Love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Richard Rohr, in Everything Belongs, says it like this: If you understand it, things are just as they are. If you don’t understand it, things are just as they are. The mystery is to be ready to receive things just as they are and be ready to let them teach us. That’s the mystery.
This is one of those weeks that all the Scriptures really do sort of fit together. If I were to write a sermon, the title would probably be something like “A Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On”. All three Scriptures deal with looking at the world differently, with letting God show you what it’s meant to be. As we said, the name Haggai means “to make a pilgrimage”. What does that mean? Think about it a pilgrim is not a visitor—a pilgrim is one who has traversed to another place and is trying his or her best to carve a being and a life out of it. A pilgrim is one who is ready to see things anew, to actually see what is already there, and then make it a part of his or her life. As Richard Rohr said, “God is always bigger than the boxes we build for God, so do not waste too much time protecting the boxes.”
a. So what meaning does this passage hold for us?
b. This notion of the levirate marriage is odd for us. And, yet, how does I play into our own faith interpretation?
c. What does it mean, then, to love the questions or love the mystery?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
The whole future of the Earth, as of religion, seems to me to depend on the awakening of our faith in the future. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)
Prayer is hope’s breathing. When we stop praying, we stop hoping. (Dom Pedro Casaldaliga)
Unless one says good-bye to what one loves, and unless one travels to completely new territories, one can expect merely a long wearing away of oneself and eventual distinction. (Jean Dubuffet)
We are strange conundrums of faithfulness and fickleness. We cleave to you in all the ways that we are able. We count on you and intend our lives to be lived for you, and then we find ourselves among your people who are always seeking elsewhere and otherwise.
So we give thanks that you are the God who yearns and waits for us, and that our connection to you is always from your side, and that it is because of your goodness that neither life nor death nor angels nor principalities nor heights nor depths nor anything in creation can separate us from you. We give you thanks for your faithfulness, so much more durable than ours. Amen.
“The God who yearns and waits for us”, from Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, p. 135.