The Return Home: A Sermon on the Return of the Remnant to Judah

James Tissot, The Prophet Haggai

James Tissot, The Prophet Haggai

We have been on a journey with God’s people, it is a story where God has continued to be faithful, but the people often have not. We went through a series of times where the kings and the people “did evil in the eyes of the Lord” and finally the Lord used first Assyria and then Babylon to take the people into exile. While in exile we heard the stories of Daniel and Mesach, Shadrach and Abendigo and how they were faithful in serving God while in Babylon, even though it put them at extremely high personal risk: being thrown into the fiery furnace for Mesach, Shadrach and Abendigo and into the lions den for Daniel but in the midst of these episodes God was faithful, and just like in the story of Joseph their faithfulness both gave witness to God as well as continuing to allow them to be placed in positions of greater authority. The Babylonian exile is a difficult time in the people’s story, but it is also the time when the really begin to intentionally gather together there stories, the law and the prophets so they can preserve who they are as strangers in a foreign land, but God has not abandoned them, and the time has come to return home.

Ezra begins the report of the return home like this:

In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, the Lord fulfilled the prophecy he had given through Jeremiah. He stirred the heart of Cyrus to put this proclamation in writing and to send it throughout his kingdom:“This is what King Cyrus of Persia says: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has appointed me to build him a temple at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Any of you who are his people may go to Jerusalem in Judah to rebuild this temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, who lives in Jerusalem. And may your God be with you! Ezra 1: 1-3

So the journey  begins, and everything seems great, but of all the people who went into exile, only 42,360 people decide to go back. Now in the midst of a massive empire that spreads from North Africa, through the Middle East and into Greece, roughly 2/3 the size of the United States, we are talking about an area the size of Rhode Island with a population density roughly that of Cass County. What is left, the remnant of Israel and Judah are no longer major players on the world stage, and yet what they do is important to the God who is not just behind them but also in charge of the whole world. And so we have this tiny remnant of the people returning home, farms and households are destroyed, Jerusalem is in shambles, the temple is gone and they have come home to begin to rebuild. There is a lot of work ahead for this faithful remnant who decides to make the journey home. Everything starts out great, they set up an alter, they begin to reconstruct the temple and lay the foundation and then they run into challenges. They start to receive resistance from the people around them, they encounter sabotage and political pressure to stop construction and they do. The foundation is laid, an altar is out but there is no temple and this is not a short delay, it is 18 years that the people go off and they take care of their own farms and houses and so the Lord sends the prophets Haggai and Zechariah who both minister at the same time and call the people and leaders back to the task of completing the temple. This is from the prophet Haggai:

On August 29 of the second year of King Darius’s reign, the LORD gave a message through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Jeshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest.2 “This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies says: The people are saying, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD.'” 3 Then the LORD sent this message through the prophet Haggai: 4 “Why are you living in luxurious houses while my house lies in ruins? 5 This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies says: Look at what’s happening to you! 6 You have planted much but harvest little. You eat but are not satisfied. You drink but are still thirsty. You put on clothes but cannot keep warm. Your wages disappear as though you were putting them in pockets filled with holes! Haggai 1: 1-6

                 The people have focused on their own concerns, but God through the prophets is calling them again to be God’s people, to trust God and to recommit to the building of the temple. Now earlier in the story the prophets would speak and the people would ignore them, but not so this time. Haggai and Zechariah speak and the people and the leaders respond. On August 29th the prophet speaks and on September 21st the construction begins in earnest, and the voice of the God coming through the prophets becomes one of encouraging the people for the task they have ahead of them. You see, rebuilding the temple is not an easy process, they couldn’t go to Lowe’s or Home Depot and pick up pretreated lumber, buy pre-fabricated doors and curtains, they had to go and bring the materials and craft them to be used for the building of God’s temple. Yet the people did, they heard, they listened and the Lord was with them in the midst of the process.

So if God can use this small remnant  of a conquered people to be his people, and to be a part of God’s story, if God can take their gifts and use them –what gifts might God be calling us to bring? Ultimately what I bring might seem so small, and yet what I do matters to God. You see God’s desire is to dwell among us, God wants to come down to be there with God’s people, God wants to bring God’s upper story down to merge with the lower story that we see every day. God wants God’s love and will for the world to take on flesh and be enacted and lived and that involves moving beyond what seems to be in our own best interest. Sometimes it seems impossible, but God works through both the ordinary and the amazing. Hear some of the words of the prophet Zechariah who ministered at the same time as Haggai:

6 “This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies says: All this may seem impossible to you now, a small remnant of God’s people. But is it impossible for me? says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies. 7 “This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies says: You can be sure that I will rescue my people from the east and from the west. 8 I will bring them home again to live safely in Jerusalem. They will be my people, and I will be faithful and just toward them as their God.  9 “This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies says: Be strong and finish the task! Ever since the laying of the foundation of the Temple of the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, you have heard what the prophets have been saying about completing the building. 10 Before the work on the Temple began, there were no jobs and no money to hire people or animals. No traveler was safe from the enemy, for there were enemies on all sides. I had turned everyone against each other.  11 “But now I will not treat the remnant of my people as I treated them before, says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies. 12 For I am planting seeds of peace and prosperity among you. The grapevines will be heavy with fruit. The earth will produce its crops, and the heavens will release the dew. Once more I will cause the remnant in Judah and Israel to inherit these blessings. 13 Among the other nations, Judah and Israel became symbols of a cursed nation. But no longer! Now I will rescue you and make you both a symbol and a source of blessing. So don’t be afraid. Be strong, and get on with rebuilding the Temple!

Zechariah 8: 6-13

It may be God’s work, it may be God’s story, but our lives, our work, our gifts, our hands have a part in that story. For the last several years the Nebraska synod has used the motto “God’s work, our hands” to talk about our work together in God’s mission to the world. Like the people of Judah returning home, bringing together their gifts to build the temple ultimately to give glory to God in their lives and among the nations, as baptized children of God we remember that Jesus told us to, “let our lives shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” God wants our lives to be a part of God’s work in the world. We may think we aren’t good enough, or don’t have enough to bring, but remember this story from Jesus life:

3 Meanwhile, Jesus was in Bethany at the home of Simon, a man who had previously had leprosy. While he was eating, a woman came in with a beautiful alabaster jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard. She broke open the jar and poured the perfume over his head. 4 Some of those at the table were indignant. “Why waste such expensive perfume?” they asked. 5 “It could have been sold for a year’s wages and the money given to the poor!” So they scolded her harshly.  6 But Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. Why criticize her for doing such a good thing to me? 7 You will always have the poor among you, and you can help them whenever you want to. But you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could and has anointed my body for burial ahead of time. 9 I tell you the truth, wherever the Good News is preached throughout the world, this woman’s deed will be remembered and discussed.” Mark 14: 3-9

I’ll speak for myself here, I know there are many times I am conflicted because there are so many things that could and should be done, so many needs of the world, and I can be quick to criticize my own actions and occasionally the actions of others, but the reality is that here is a woman who out of love for Jesus comes and makes this extraordinary waste of perfume and resources from the world’s perspective…think of what I could have done with the money from that…it could better have been spent on…I could have done this for me if I didn’t give to church, etc. But one of the things I am coming to believe more and more is that I am trying to lead the life that I think I am called to lead, and sometimes that means fighting against my own instincts for self-preservation. It is so easy to get trapped into putting all my efforts into building my own paneled house, or making sure that I have enough set aside to deal with emergencies, to invest in my retirement, to buy a nice car, or to have new clothes, to go out to eat whenever I want, or even to be completely debt free—but if I wait to give to God until everything I want is paid for and all the stars line up and I have the perfect job and I make more than enough and I can give out of my abundance, then I’ll never give. It’s like the conversation I had several years ago with a friend of mine from the army about having kids, if you wait to have kids until you feel like you are ready financially, career wise, etc… to have kids then you will never have kids. Sometimes in life to be the people we want to be and the people God calls us to be we have to do things that to others may not make sense, we have to turn away from our own self interest and give back to God, and make the effort to put God’s desires and activities as a part of our lives.

Martin Luther talked frequently about sin as ‘being turned inward on oneself’ and ultimately all commandments come from the first commandment of placing God in God’s proper place and in Luther’s words “to fear, love and trust God above all things.” And I’ve had several of those conversations with God, the type of conversations where the thought comes up “are you sure God” and the sense I get back is “will you trust me” Will you trust that if you work with me, that I will give you the things you need? Will you trust me to bring you beyond this moment to where things may be difficult to the time to a time where you can look back and see the way I sustained you and used your gifts and your hands as a part of my story? Will you trust me?

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