2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
They spent 40 years, exiled in a foreign land. The people of Judah were away from their homes so long that by the time they got a chance to return, they hardly knew the place. Most of those who had actually lived in Judah were now dead. It was their children and grand-children who returned to the land to begin a new life. Those first exiles to go back to the great city of Jerusalem would have been disappointed and discouraged when they found the city in ruins and as they contemplated the work of rebuilding that lay ahead of them. They began with their own homes. Shelter, food, and the daily concerns of life were their first priorities. And it was a struggle because of drought and poor harvests.
But suddenly, in the midst of their daily struggle, a prophet was shouting at them! “Is it a time,” the prophet Haggai demanded of them, “for you yourselves to live in your panelled houses while this house lies in ruins?” Haggai was talking about the Jerusalem temple. He was telling them that instead of just taking care of their daily concerns, the people should be rebuilding the temple.
They were barely getting by as it was. Food was scarce. Harvests were poor. There was hardly enough to drink, and not enough clothes to keep properly warm. How could this possibly be the time to start building a temple? But God was telling them to build, so they started to build. They had been working for almost a month, when they began to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.
I imagine that most of you know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of a task. For some, it’s the struggle of working full-time and looking after your family and home too. For others, it’s the challenges that come with demanding school or university programs, or managing at work when you are short-staffed. Some of you have felt overwhelmed by the physical and emotional demands of looking after a loved one who is sick or dying. Others have felt ready to give up because your own illness or disability makes daily living a stressful and sometimes overwhelming experience. Whatever your age or stage of life, you have probably felt something like the people of Judah did when they realized the huge task they had ahead of them in rebuilding the temple, and how little they seemed to have accomplished in the first month.
That’s the point at which God spoke to the people of Judah again. “Who is left among you,” the prophet asked, “that saw this house (this temple) in its former glory? How does is look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” Haggai was putting into words the despair and frustration that the people must have been experiencing. Most of them had never seen the original temple, but they’d heard about it — about the great and glorious temple built by King Solomon to glorify the God of Israel. It’s vastness and magnificence was awesome! This was what they were supposed to be recreating, but after a month of work, all they saw before them was a pile of rubble. “How does it look to you now?” “It looks like NOTHING!”
Sometimes, when we take a pause from the busyness of our hectic lives, when we pause and consider our lives, our ministry, and our world, we can feel that kind of frustration and despair. On Remembrance Day each year, we take such a pause. Not only do we stop to remember the 1st and 2nd World Wars and the soldiers and civilians who were killed in those and other past conflicts, but we also think about the current conflicts in our world. Much of the time, it’s easy for us to live in Saskatoon without much awareness of the struggles being fought in other parts of the world. Granted, the news of wars and riots and genocides comes to us in images and headlines in the media. But unless we know someone who is directly affected, we can live most of our daily lives without thinking about it much.
I believe that Remembrance Day is about more than just remembering the past. I think it has to be about remembering the present and the future. It has to be about calling to mind and reflecting on the conflict, violence, racism and hatred that continues to affect our world and its people today. Can we pause and realize that even though our daily lives are relatively peaceful, in Afghanistan our country is at war? Canadian soldiers and others are being killed every day. Though most of us live in safety, there are Aboriginal children and teens in our city that live with the threat of gang violence every day. Though most of us don’t worry when we go to work in the morning, there are young RCMP officers losing their lives in Canada as they try to maintain peace and order. Can we pause for a moment and remember these things, these people?
It seems to me that when we do pause to remember — when we pause to look at our world, to evaluate and ponder the things that are taking place — we might just feel like the people of Judah did…tired, frustrated, hopeless, wondering if anything can be done to make things right again. As Christians, we have a high calling and an amazing responsibility to be the presence of Christ in the world, to share the good news in words and actions, and to work for justice and peace for all people. And that means that we cannot ignore the conflict, violence, racism, and hatred around us. We have a responsibility to do something about it, to respond to it, to transform it.
In the seventh year of the second millenium, in the eleventh month, on the eleventh day of the month, the word of the Lord came by a Presbyterian minister, saying: Speak now to Stephen Harper, prime minister of Canada, and to Brad Wall, premier of Saskatchewan. Speak now to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and to the people of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Saskatoon, and say, “Who is left among you that remembers the way things used to be? How does it look to you now? Our country is at war. People are living on our streets without food or shelter. Our society and our families are full of violence and greed. Crime is everywhere. Our churches are struggling and emptying. How does God’s world look to you now? Doesn’t it look like nothing? like devastation? like rubble?
But wait! — Be courageous Stephen and Brad, be courageous PCC, be courageous St. Andrew’s PC,” says the Lord. “Work — for I am with you,” says God, “just like I promised you in Scripture. My spirit is always hanging around you, so don’t be afraid.” And even more than that, this is what God says: “One more time, in a little while, I will make things right again. I won’t just sit back and watch the world I’ve created. I will shake things up. Keep at your work, because I’m going to finish the job for you. Everything in the world really belongs to me,” says the Lord, “after all, I made it, and I’m telling you now that everyone will recognize that and acknowledge that I am God. Once that happens, the world will be so much better than it ever has been before, much better than you remember it, and in it I will give good things to the people,” says the Lord.
When Haggai continued to speak the words of God to the people of Judah, he told them to be courageous and to do what God had called them to do — Build the Temple. Build God’s house. His encouragement was that even though they felt discouraged, God was with them. “My spirit abides among you,” God said, “Do not fear.” God had made a promise to the people (back when they were coming out of Egypt) not to leave them, and God was faithful. God had not left them.
“Work!” God said, “For I am with you.” “Work!” God says to us. But what is our work? To build our church building? Not likely. To build a ministry? Perhaps. For the people of Judah, the temple was not just a big, elaborate building. It was not just a place to worship, when they could just as easily gather in small groups to read the Scriptures and give praise to God. The temple, for them, represented God’s presence among the people. It symbolized the reign of God on earth.
Their frustration and despair as they tried to rebuild the temple was not a matter of laziness. It was not a matter of needing a pep talk to accomplish a difficult task. With the temple in ruins, it was for them as if God was absent. The Babylonians who had destroyed their temple and sent them into exile had somehow taken away their God also. God said to them, “Rebuild the temple.” God says to us, “Rebuild the temple.” Even when it seems as if the world has been turned upside down, and we want to cry out “God, where are you?” Even then, God abides among us. And we also, are called by God to rebuild the temple — to rebuild the place and the circumstance in which God’s presence on earth is felt and known and experienced.
The first time I preached on this text from the prophet Haggai was six years ago on Remembrance Day at a church in Toronto. That was the first Remembrance Day after the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York City. It was a different Remembrance Day than I had experienced in the past… perhaps because 911 forced those of us in Western society to personally feel the effects of the continuing conflicts in our world. Those first months following 911 were marked by fear and disillusionment and a new awareness of the personal pain and suffering caused by our international conflicts.
During that time, there were lots of email messages being passed around with jokes about Osama bin Laden, with information about Afghanistan, with stories of the events of that day and how they affected all kinds of people. Many of them were junk mail that I glanced at and immediately deleted. But there was one forwarded message I received that I didn’t delete. It was the story of Delta flight #15, a plane flying over the North Atlantic on the morning of September 11th. The plane, like many others was diverted to the closest airport which happened to be a small airport in Gander, Newfoundland. Once landed safely, the passengers and crew spent a very long 24 hours on the runway before they were allowed to deplane.
The town of Gander has a population of 10, 400 people, and for two full days, they accommodated and took care of the needs of 10, 500 passengers and crew from the 52 planes that landed at their airport. Gander and the surrounding small communities closed all the high schools, meeting halls, lodges, and any other large gathering places. They converted all these facilities into a mass lodging area. They set up cots, mats, sleeping bags, and pillows, and all the high school students volunteered taking care of the guests.
The passengers from flight #15 were taken care of in a town called Lewisporte, about 45 km from Gander. Most of them were put up in a high school. Families were kept together. Elderly passengers were taken to private homes. A young pregnant woman on the flight was put up in a private home right across the street from a 24 hour Urgent Care facility. Medical needs were taken care of. Phone calls and emails to the US and Europe were available for everyone once a day.
During the days, the passengers were given a choice of “Excursion” trips. Some went on boat cruises of the lakes and harbours. Some went to see the local forests. Local bakeries stayed open to make fresh bread for the guests. Food was prepared by all the residents and brought to the school for those who elected to stay put. Others were driven to the eatery of their choice and fed. They were given tokens to go to the local laundromat to wash their clothes, since their luggage was still on the aircraft. Every single need was met for those unfortunate travellers.
Two days later, when flight #15 finally got on its way, the passengers had been completely changed by the hospitality of the people in Lewisporte. During the flight home, one of the passengers said that he would like to do something in return for the good people of Lewisporte. He said he was going to set up a Trust Fund under the name of DELTA 15. The purpose of the trust fund would be to provide a scholarship for high school students of Lewisporte to help them go to college. When he asked for donations from the other passengers, it totalled about $20,000 Canadian.
God is calling us to rebuild the temple — to rebuild the place and the circumstance in which God’s presence on earth is felt and known and experienced. But we are not alone in this task. “One more time, in a little while,” says God, “I will make things right again. I won’t just sit back and watch the world I’ve created. I will shake things up. Keep at your work, because I’m going to finish the job for you. Everything in the world really belongs to me,” says the Lord, “after all, I made it, and I’m telling you now that everyone will recognize that and acknowledge that I am God. Once that happens, the world will be so much better than it ever has been before, much better than you remember it, and in it I will give good things to the people,” says the Lord.
Through Jesus, the Christ, God began to shake up the world. Through Jesus, God continues to shake up our world — to turn everything upside down, and call all people to come to the temple — to come to the place and the circumstance in which God’s presence on earth is felt and known and experienced. Through Jesus, all people have the opportunity to come and to bring their gifts to the God of the whole universe. Through Jesus, we are all able to experience the reign of God on earth right now.
“Be courageous, all you people of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church,” says the Lord. Work, for I am with you. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.” Amen.