The Babylonian Exile was over and Judah had returned to find its former homeland and city in ruins. When they returned, one of their first tasks was to begin rebuilding the Temple but in the eighteen years later only the foundations had been rebuilt. The people had decided that the Temple could wait; building a beautiful city to live in was more important. Things weren’t going well for Judah; it seemed that God wasn’t happy with them and as a result, the crops failed and the people suffered. They didn’t seem to get the hint. Along came Haggi, a prophet with a message. It was a simple message but an important one to people who had become so self-absorbed that they forgot faith — and God.
The Temple was the house of God, the place where God was present and, as such, was an important symbol for the people. If they looked at a temple every day, it was a lot easier to remember God and the way God wanted them to act. Haggi had the mission of getting the people to get a move on building-wise. Unlike most prophets who prophesied about justice or mercy, Haggi’s one message was “Build it, now.” God had promised to be with the people and the Temple was the place and the way for it to happen.
There might have been a few Judeans who remembered the Temple as it was before they were dragged off to Babylon, and Haggi was to remind them of what it had been: a great house, with cedar panels and silver and gold in abundance. But who listens to old people when there’s a new city to build? Haggi had a very hard job ahead of him.
The Babylonian exile had been punishment for forgetting about God and here, eighteen years after being released from that exile and sent home to rebuild the Temple of God, they were right back where they started. They definitely had their priorities in the wrong place.
It seems like that is a failing that hasn’t changed much. We may not have a mandate from God to build a Temple, we do have one to build a world where peace and justice flow down like rivers in a barren land. We aren’t told to build beautiful cities, just functional ones where people are not stratified as to income or position but where each one is honored as a child of God. We aren’t told to see how much we can accumulate, whether money or goods, but to share that with people who have little of either, if any at all.
During Advent we have more and more visible ways of doing some kingdom-building than at almost any other time of year. The angel tree at the mall (or in the narthex), the bell ringers outside the mercantile emporiums, food and clothing drives to resupply quickly depleting food and clothing banks, alternative giving that donates an animal or an anti-malarial mosquito net or even a part of a water purification program in someone else’s name, all are ways of building that kingdom, brick by brick, beam by beam. And that is the thing God has enjoined us to do and has sent modern-day prophets who look about them, see what is wrong and report back to us what needs fixing.
The heirs of Haggi are people we don’t usually want to listen to. They tell us things that make us uncomfortable or that seem to threaten our self-satisfaction in some way. But that is precisely how God uses them; to afflict our comfortableness enough to get us out of our self-centered ruts and accumulative ways and into a more righteous and beneficial way of doing things. We keep talking louder and louder, trying to drown them out, but they will not be silenced. Endangered animals, global warming and its results, people’s inhumanity to fellow humans, all are part of the prophetic message. Our selfishness and sense of privilege has gotten us to this point and the prophets warn us that we’ve gone about as far as we can go. We need to see the foundation of the Temple and get busy rebuilding.
I can’t build a whole temple by myself, but I can add a brick or two to the construction. To build a world where God dwells among us — that is the temple. Every kindness, every gift to someone who can’t hope to reciprocate, every word of encouragement to someone who has lost hope or even lost faith adds to that world where God is not some guy in a white dress and with a long white beard sitting on a throne somewhere a gazillion miles away. God will be present among us as God was during the exodus, during the return from exile, and during all the ages since Creation. It’s time for that up-close-and-personal presence again. It’s all about priorities and where we place them.
Brick by brick. Build it, now.