This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)
The Future Glory of the Temple
2 In the second year of King Darius, 1 in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 2 Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, 3 Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? 4 Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, 5 according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. 6 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; 7 and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendour, says the Lord of hosts. 8 The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. 9 The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.
A small group of former exiles returned to Israel to find a mixed race population that had new religious and social customs. Provoked by the prophet Haggai, under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Joshua they began a programme of retrenchment with the rebuilding of the ruined temple. Doubtless many non-exiles looked on these returnees as flat-earthers, fundamentalists, who had not learned the lessons of history. I think might have agreed with them. Yet there’s a stubborn faith at the heart of the rebuilding programme: that God cannot simply have given up on the history of his involvement with this people. To admit that the experiment could fail would be to admit that there had never been such a God. Of course we can say, the story about this God was always a human story, biased like all human stories by the perspective of the teller, and not to be taken literally, that is historically, in any case. All true, but these stories are the way we give meaning to our lives. Even the best science is a story like that of evolution or the big bang. The death of a societal story is a profound occurrence. Think of the death of the UK’s imperial story. Some citizens are still not reconciled to this death and look for its resurrection.
The faith that God is involved in our history is on the one hand an ancient ideology of great empires like Egypt, Babylon, Assyria. The idea that God might be involved in the history of a tiny vulnerable people like Israel/Judah would have seemed laughable to the priests of these nations. In Israel/ Judah it had two dimensions: one which imitated the imperial ambitions of great nations, based on the brief empire of King David; the other which remembered the struggles of a small people who originally had no kings except God and were always at risk of extinction.
Is Haggai’s prophecy merely a rebirth of the imperial dream with God favouring Israel and glorifying his temple in Jerusalem or is there something deeper here? I think Haggai is conscious of the desperate frailty of his people. He therefore does not prophesy the restoration of empire but rather that the God of history will shake up all existing power blocks, so that their ill-gotten gains can be used to beautify the one place on earth that stands for the worship of the one God. “God alone will be exalted in that day,” as another prophet proclaimed. We may find this faith absurd or even dangerous, knowing how easily it could become superstitious or nationalistic. Yet the question that Judaism asks us through Haggai is this: if there is no visible sign of God’s goodness on earth, how can anyone believe in it? Christianity finds an answer in a crucifixion but that would have seemed a ridiculous answer to Haggai.
REVELATION 3: 1-16
The Message to Sardis
3 ‘And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars:
‘I know your works; you have a name for being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is at the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. 3 Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. 4 Yet you have still a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels. 6 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
Indeed here’s a good example of that kind of Christian nonsense. The Christian believers in Sardis are suffering some kind of persecution. Probably they are under pressure as an illegal religion in the Roman province of Asia. Their leader, himself exiled for his faith, writes in Christ’s name offering no sympathy but criticising those who have caved in to official bullying, perhaps by burning incense at the Imperial shrine. This mild gesture of self-preservation is called “soiling their clothes.” Those who at t risk of their lives have stood firm are promised “white robes” as worn by Christ himself. Like Him they will conquer evil by their deaths. Paradoxically, although they will die, their names are written in the “book of life”. The only earthly sign of God’s goodness is the suffering and apparent defeat of his servants, who refuse to bend the knee to power. This is not quite what most modern believers mean by Christian faith, but here it speaks from the Bible, to challenge us.