The 2010 mid-term election campaign here in the USA is winding down as I write. Two things to note before I go any further: (1) chances are good you are reading this after November 2 and therefore know how things turned out; and (2) as a result, the 2012 presidential election campaign is already underway. A giant sigh, or perhaps some wailing and gnashing of teeth, may well be in order as I ponder both points.
Fear, anger, frustration, and even violence (stomping on heads and handcuffing reporters, for example) pervade our so-called civil discourse. Tea Partiers and assorted others cry out, “We want to take our country back!”
Generally speaking, the past always looks better, at least when you’re looking at it through rose-colored glasses. The same is true whether you’re talking about politics, about the Christian church, or as the Hebrew prophet Haggai points out, for returned Jewish exiles back home in Jerusalem after their seventy-year forced removal to Babylon.
Apparently more than a few of those returned exiles didn’t think much of Zerubbabel’s rebuilding effort on the temple. By no means was it as glorious as Solomon’s. How could it, considering the changed economic and political circumstances? But I suspect even if it had equaled that glorious earlier structure in actuality, it could never compare with the power of memory.
This is not about the past, though. It’s really about vision, so the question shouldn’t be “Who recalls the glory of Solomon’s temple?” but “Who sees the prophetic vision of what God is up to now and tomorrow and the day after that?” Sure, it’s good to remember (and learn from) the past, but we live in the present and we build with an eye for the future.
These days I hear some of my contemporaries as well as elders longing for the “good old days” of the church (presumably back in the fifties and sixties, when churches were full, twice on Sundays with a fair number coming back for Wednesday night prayer meeting, too–well, to be perfectly honest, there really wasn’t anything else going on in my small hometown anyway!). As much as we might long to live in a fantasized Mayberry, the world today is a far different place.
That leads some folks to give up hope for a secure, comfortable, peaceable present much less future. The philosophical approach known as existentialism has a certain appeal at such times, when you know you can “never go home again” so, therefore, perhaps there’s no such thing as “home” now or ever again. In this week’s Gospel lection from Luke, Pharisees who didn’t believe in the Resurrection tried to trip Jesus up with a convoluted question about marriage in heaven.
But the real issue is much deeper: How many people today feel God has abandoned this world (well, those of us on Planet Earth have kind of made a mess of things, after all). To which Haggai bellows over the centuries to us:
“My spirit abides among you; do not fear. For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts.”
That, by the way, happens to be one of my favorite moments in Handel’s Messiah, when the bass/baritone gives this “shaking” all he’s got, lingering on that word “shake” up and down the scale. Guaranteed to send chills along my spine every time I hear it.
As the psalmist puts it: “The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds. The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down” (Psalm 145:13-14).
That God promises to shake the nations indicates a God truly active in human history. Rebuilding the Jerusalem temple (also a metaphor for us of countless other “works,” I suppose) appears not so much as a precondition for God’s blessings as it is a response to catch up with what God is already doing. That divine promise, “My Spirit abides among you, do not fear,” invites God’s people to risk.
We 21st-century North American Christians aren’t going back to “Mayberry” any more than the Tea Party groups are going to return America to some supposed simpler (and they believe more glorious) time, perhaps when certain groups (blacks, women, and gays for starters) “knew their place.”
God is at work in the world, and that has little if anything to do with how many adults and children are in church and Sunday school every week (I hesitate to point out, of course, that such attendance is a good thing). The real issue here is whether we’ll be part of the “shaking times” or be content off in a corner somewhere whining about who knows what. We are to seek God’s peace where we are, now and in the future. God, of course, is already there.