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November 29, 2020

Passage: Haggai 2:1–9

Advent is a time of hope.

Advent could not come at a better time. As we hear about the promise of vaccines coming and the “light and the end of the tunnel” of this pandemic – even in the midst of spiking cases – we are reminded somewhat starkly of what it means to live by faith.

Faith, the Bible tells us in Hebrews 11, is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Hope, the Bible tells us in Romans 5, comes from suffering, which produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope – and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

So, if Advent is a time of hope, it also is a time in which we think about suffering. It is a time we think about endurance. It is a time we think about character. It is a time we think about the hope that does not disappoint us, remembering how God is faithful to the promises he has made as we look forward to the things we have not yet seen.

To be sure, we know about suffering. We know the pain of separation. We know the pain of isolation. We know the pain of disruption and loss and frustration. We know about suffering.

We are working on our endurance. These are not easy days. There are things outside our control that are impacting our freedom, our ability to do the things we used to do – the things we want to do. A family Zoom video conference call was no substitute for being in the same room together. It was something, but it was not what we know it could be. Endurance, by the way, is not a consistent thing – it is an overall movement through something. There are times when we feel like we are doing okay; then there are those other times. It is our faith and the support of others that helps us through those “other” times. Endurance has a “hang on” feel to it because we do not know how long we have to persevere before our trial is over.  

Having to endure is revealing our character. And, how we endure is refining our character. Who we are and what we really believe is being tested. Internally as a congregation, we have realized how important is our fellowship. On the one, I have heard many, many stories of how people in this congregation have connected with others. I have experienced this myself over these now nine months as I have received encouraging phone calls, e-mails, texts, cards, and handwritten notes. On the other, we have struggled in the same regard. I have experienced this, too; adapting to this new environment has made it difficult to check in with people like prior to the pandemic. Silence is painful and I have heard the hurt and disappointment from some of you.

Externally, we have been able to adapt to this new context in a couple of ways. We have been reaching new people through the development of our electronic media ministry. We are still on quite a learning curve, but by producing a worship experience here in the sanctuary each week we have allowed many people to worship, hear the gospel, and connect in a new way. Sherri’s Praises and Paperfolding (which we will be celebrating in a few weeks) offered a fun weekly connection and activity for families. As I mentioned last week, we continue to fund missions fully and have been intentional about being in communication with those we support. We are involved here locally in expressing the love of Christ through service “to the least of these.” We are not publicity seeking; but our faithfulness to the gospel has caught the attention of many people in this area.

The combination things – suffering, endurance, and character – lead us to hope. They lead us to the hope we have in Christ. We can do all things – we can live in hope in all circumstances – through Christ who strengthens us. That is how we concluded our study of Philippians, remembering the awesome wonder of being “in Christ.”

During Advent, we remember and look forward in hope. Throughout Scripture, God’s people have been in this position: remembering God’s faithfulness while waiting in hope to see God’s hand at work in their midst. Last year, I posed it this way:

What are the tough times you face? Unlike the Israelites, we cannot point to foreign oppressors who are keeping us from experiencing joy. What are the things that would cloud your experiencing and dampen your hope? For some, it is the press of monthly bills that are piling up, the fear of trying to figure out how they are going to make ends meet. For others, it is the question of health and whether they will be strong enough or able enough to continue to be independent. For others still it is the loss of something or someone important to them – either through death or brokenness.

This year, the pandemic is the shared answer to all the questions I asked. 2020 will be remembered as a year in which we all shared in the suffering. Last year, I went on:

What makes you ask, 

  • “Why me?” Why us?
  • “What is wrong with me?” What is wrong with us?
  • “What did I do to deserve this?” What did we do to deserve this?
  • “Isn’t there anything I can do to absolve myself? Isn’t there anything I can do to make things right?” Why can’t we fix this? 

Whatever it is, the darkness can seem overwhelming; it can seem so heavy and oppressive that there is no way out. In these circumstances, hope is not a Pollyanna plastic smile pasted over the difficulties. Rather, hope is the attitude of determined persistence in the midst of the present suffering – holding fast to the vision of a savior, of redemption, of restoration, of rescue.

If we want examples of those who held fast, we look to the Old Testament. Our Scripture lesson today comes from the Old Testament prophet Haggai. If you have never read or spent time in Haggai, I will understand: it is difficult to find in the midst of the Old Testament. It is located between Zephaniah and Zechariah, and – depending on the size of the print in your Bible – only takes up about one page.

Haggai was a prophet in Jerusalem in 520 B.C., roughly 60 years after Daniel and many other Jews had been taken into exile. We do not know much about Haggai. He either was part of the population left behind when the best and brightest were taken into captivity, or he had come back early when the decree allowing return had been given.  We do not know his age or his ancestry; all we know is from the saved writings and two mentions of his name in the book of Ezra. From information within this short book, we learn that he preached in Jerusalem for about four months in 520 B.C. This book contains brief synopses of four sermons he delivered.

The situation for people left in Jerusalem was not good. The temple had been destroyed, the elite of the community had been carted off into exile almost three generations ago. In the book of Nehemiah, we get this report from Jerusalem, “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”

In other words, things were tough. Food was scarce, enemies were plentiful, and hope was tough to hold. It almost sounds like life in a pandemic.

Into this environment Haggai comes with this message, “Take courage,” says the LORD, “for I am with you.”  The people must have thought Haggai was crazy. “Look around,” they would have said. “What makes you think the LORD hangs out around here? He’s gone, long ago.”

I. Hope is most important when things look bleakest.

Our verses were part of the second sermon Haggai delivered. The people had responded to his first sermon in faithfulness but things were not going great. They were discouraged by what they saw. Haggai urged them to have eyes to see what God was doing – to not get stuck where they were, but to take hope for where God was leading. “Take courage,” he repeated to each of their leaders and to the people. It harkened back to the “be strong and courageous,” that God repeated to Joshua as he was assuming leadership after Moses’ death and preparing to lead the people into the Promised land.

As the people of God, we are to live having confidence that God will be faithful to his promises. Do we live trusting God’s promises or is our hope shaken by what we see all around? When we look for the presence of God, we often look first at our own circumstances; we evaluate based on what we can see of our own situation. Then, we look to those immediately around us. When things are not the way we wish, we blame God or declare that he is not present.

Living in hope does not mean wishing away present realities; rather, it means not being bound by them. Haggai was not unaware of the situation in Jerusalem. He was abundantly aware; yet his sermons urged the people to faithfulness through the rebuilding of the Temple. Rebuilding the Temple required endurance as things looked bleak. “Once again, in a little while…” said the LORD. God did not put a date on the calendar that he gave to Haggai, God simply declared things would change. Haggai urged the people to act in the confidence that God would be faithful to his promises. In the midst of darkness, act in hope of light.

The darkest time in my life was in law school. Socially, I was hours away from anyone I had known. The workload was heavy and overwhelming. Weekends were for more intensive studying.

Law was the last thing I – or any law student, for the matter – wanted to talk about when I took a break from studying, and yet those were the only people I knew and the only common ground we had. Financially, well, there was no money; so it would not be accurate to say that I had finances. I remember the sensation of thinking, “There is nothing else. This is it. This is what life is going to be like. If I live a normal life expectancy, I will spend my next five decades trying not to spend money that I don’t have, wrapped up in a blanket to conserve heat, and never knowing joy. Those other people have a secret I do not have, how do they do it?”

Yes, I felt sorry for myself. Big time, I felt sorry for myself. I could not see past my current situation, could not see anything other than the things that were making me miserable. The more I focused on those things, the more isolated, lonely and miserable I got. It was no comfort to me at the time that most everyone else was going through the same thing.

It was in the midst of feeling sorry for myself that I realized that something had to change. I knew I was out of sorts, knew things were out of balance, and that I needed to start back at square one as a person. It was then that I remembered that I had not been going to worship.

I know that sounds strange to say it that way, but having gotten out of the habit of going to worship, I forgot that worship was something I had done. So, I went and found the closest Presbyterian Church and began going. Slowly, Sunday-by-Sunday, the walls of my horizons began to expand.

I went to Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. It was a large congregation with multiple services. For months, I slipped into the early service, which was held in a small chapel off the main sanctuary. I was the youngest person by forty years. I sat in the second to last pew, trying to be anonymous while at the same time seeking to re-connect with God. I can see now it was the seeds of a new time of my life – an adventure that has been so much more than I could imagine for myself. Then, it was a point of hope in an otherwise oppressive week. But it all started by remembering God, the hope I have in God, and coming back to worship.

On a much larger scale, Haggai was preaching about the same phenomena. The people saw the mess. They were out of sorts. They were afraid that things would never change. They felt sorry for themselves. They could not see anything more than the things that were making them miserable. The more they focused on those things, the more miserable they got. It was no comfort that everyone else was going through the same thing.

Haggai drew on themes developed in Jeremiah – that is, the great prophet at the time of the exile – and he reminded the people to prepare for the renewing of the covenant and the coming of the messiah. The exhortation to re-build the Temple was a testimony to hope. It was an act of obedience that made no sense in human terms; it made ultimate sense in light of the hope they had in God. Their faithfulness became the seeds of something so much more than they could imagine themselves. Then, it was just a step of hope in an otherwise oppressive situation. But something greater started by remembering God, the hope they had in God, and worship.

Haggai was preaching to us as we are in the midst of this pandemic, too. We can see the mess. We are out of sorts. We feel sorry for ourselves. We are afraid things are not going to change; at least, it is going to be a long time before we see anything that looks like normal. It is depressing. We are miserable in this pandemic; and the more we focus on our misery, the more miserable we get. Into this moment Haggai steps up to remind us who is God and to exhort us to prepare for what is yet to come.

We are going through a world-wide re-set right now. We are going through a time when everything has been stopped and it is going to look a lot different when we get re-going. So, what do we do now? This is the time for us to faithfully plant the seeds of a new time – an adventure that will be so much more than we can imagine for ourselves. It all starts by remembering God, the hope we have in God, and renewing our commitment to worshiping God.

And work. Through Haggai God told the people to work. They were to work because God was with them. We are to work because God is with us.  

But what work are we to do? Because our patterns and our comfortable traditions have all been disrupted this year, we have no choice but to return to God to seek his leading regarding what we are to do next. We need to get on our knees and spend time praying – not just for what we want, but for eyes to see what God will reveal. Now is the time to be laying the groundwork for the mission and ministry that God will set before us in 2021 and beyond. We dream of seeing new congregations sufficient to start a new presbytery – the Presbytery of Northern Nevada – filled with new believers. We can pray now that God will use us to plant the seeds that bear that fruit then. We can be investing the time, study, commitment, and hope now so that we are bearing witness to what God will be doing then.

Now is a good time to do this because things seem to be bleakest: cases surging as we approach the shortest sunlight days of the year.  

II. Hope is assured when we hope in God.

In a world that denies God’s goodness and the reality of Jesus Christ, the marvel and the mystery of Advent is that God is sovereign. God is faithful to the promises he has made. We have good news to share. Our hope is founded on the good news of what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ: the promise of his coming, the incarnation, his life, his death, and his resurrection. Our hope is the confidence that God will continue to be faithful to his promises for Christ’s return and the ultimate manifestation of the glorious Kingdom of Heaven.

Hope is assured when we hope in God. “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness,” begins the hymn, “I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ Name.” And the chorus, “On Christ the solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking sand.”

Advent reminds us of how God has been faithful; it is the assurance that God will be faithful. That is hope. There are no circumstances over which God is not sovereign; he is victorious even over death.

As one commentator noted, Haggai, “could not see that the temple would eventually be replaced with a cross, and the ring with a crown of thorns.”[1] Haggai could not see it then, but we can see it now.  

Friends, as we enter this Advent season, “Take courage,” says the LORD, “my Spirit abides among you; do not fear.” That is the reason for our hope.



[1] Ralph Smith, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 32, Haggai, p. 150.