Going Deeper 11-11-19

Our reading from the Old Testament prophet Haggai will serve as the basis of this message. 
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
As a nation, they were coming out of some really hard times.  It had been a long time ago, but their nation had enjoyed a time in its history which later generations would call “the good old days.”  They had one king in particular who had brought unparalleled levels of prosperity and power to their nation.  Enemies were defeated… or at least too weak to cause trouble.  Interior strife was either quieted or forced underground.  The future seemed bright.
People remembered those times as being a high point religiously as well.  Their leader was a religious man, a “man after God’s own heart,” some said.  He put in motions plans to centralize the religion, and to build a worship edifice which would be as impressive as any had ever seen… all to the glory of God, of course.  Sure, he was far from perfect.  Scandals and rumors were talked about in some circles, but as long as there was peace and prosperity (at least for most) people didn’t pay much attention.  They questioned the truthfulness of those stories anyway.
Those glory days did not last.  Within a generation, things started to fall apart.  Divisions within the nation reared their ugly heads and a land once united was divided and splintered, seemingly never to come together again.  Very few prospered, and while a few among the rich got richer, many fell into great debt and poverty, and the powerful increasingly exploited the week.  And not only were things crumbling from within, national security deteriorated and eventually their enemy nations around them had their way.
Most who rose to positions of leadership and power during those times of deterioration proved to be weak and/or corrupted.  Wise and inspired men prophesied of what would happen if things didn’t change, but they were ignored… if not persecuted and even executed.   First, the northern fragment of the nation was annihilated.  Then a few generations later, the southern part fell into enemy hands as well, and their capital city was laid to waste, including the temple and walls.
But now, some seventy years later, a remnant had returned, set free—and partially financed—by a new benevolent dictator.  Many people returned to their lands to rebuild.  But they did so under duress from some who had been spared from being taken captive, and others from neighboring lands who had seized the opportunity and settled on the abandoned properties, people who weren’t happy to have the original owner return, and who raised quite a resistance.
Yet homes were rebuilt, as were most of the city walls.  Even the temple was rebuilt… well, sort of.  At first the people neglected that project.  The religious stuff could be dealt with later, they thought.  When a temple did get rebuilt and people gathered for its dedication, some who remembered or heard of the glory of the great temple which had been destroyed wept when they saw this smaller and much less lavish replacement.  Oh, how they longed for the good old days!
Enter Haggai, minor prophet with a message of major significance.  His job was to help the people understand what it would take to make their nation great again.  But this was a very big challenge, especially since the people seemed to equate greatness with those good old days, the glory days, the golden age.  Yes, it is often necessary to look to the past in order to prepare for the future, but Haggai will point the people further back in their history than they were inclined to look in order to help them understand what it will mean to be great again. 
Before strategies for healing their nation could be developed, Haggai needed to help them understand what “great” looks like for a nation which understood itself as being the people of God.  The prophet reminded his listeners that they needed to go much further back than the brief dynasty of their beloved king if they wanted to rediscover the true high point of their history.  They needed to go back to the most pivotal event of all: the exodus.
Haggai’s words: take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt.  Spiritually speaking, the healthiest part of Israel’s history was not when they were at their pinnacle of political and military power, nor when they were the most prosperous.  The high point came following the powerful and dramatic release from Egypt, marked by truly miraculous events, culminating with their rescue through the Red Sea and destruction of Pharaoh’s mighty army.
Israel was healthiest when they were humbly overwhelmed by the undeserved favor of the God of their forefathers and responded with both worship and service.  In that context God made a covenant with them and showed them how to live in such a way as to become a light unto all of the nations.  God gave them a mission and promised to empower them in every way necessary for that mission to be accomplished.  All they needed to do was remember and respond.
Haggai understood and proclaimed that what God’s people needed to understand in his time, and in every time, is that for a nation to experience healing and restoration to true greatness, they need a spiritual reawakening, a time of heart-felt repentance, followed by a gracious healing, in turn followed by a commitment to participating in ongoing transformation.  And they needed to understand that this did not—and does not—equate to political power or prosperity.
For a nation to be great, the children of God within its borders must look to God and to His word for guidance.  We must seek wisdom and strength from the Holy Spirit.  And we must look to Jesus in order to understand what true greatness looks like in His Kingdom, where the first shall be last, where the greatest is the one who serves, where His humble children love and pray for their enemies and persecutors, turning the other cheek and going the extra mile.
In this nation, the Gospels are seen as much more helpful than all of the guidance of the entire “Self-Help” section of the local bookstore put together.  In this great nation responsibility for taking care of the poor and needy is not delegated to the government, nor is teaching morality, but is one of the highest priorities for God’s Church.  Here God’s people, understanding that unity does not mean uniformity, come together to serve and to impact their culture, and when necessary standing together against the evils that threaten God’s children, unborn, new born and children of all ages, both far and near.
Here it is understood that to be great is to be humble, gentle, kind, honest, compassionate, and generous.  Blessings are both appreciated and shared.  Working for peace and justice are core values.  The golden rule is understood as being what love looks like.
Like Israel many times during its history, our nation must now reassess what we mean by great.  This must take place first among God’s children, then modeled in how we live.  We desperately need a spiritual revival.  And as with all positive revival in any land, it starts with individuals seeking their own restoration, then inviting others into the healing, and then working together in the power of God to spread the revival as far and wide as possible.  Let’s get to work.  Amen.