Doubt and fear creep in as trouble happens around us, we see decline, we wonder what’s next, we lose our way, our health, our hope, we struggle with things we don’t want to tell anyone and we really wonder: are you there God. Imagine being in the trenches, imagine being a refugee, fleeing from danger, violence, oppression, perhaps punishment, even death … it’s enough to make anyone say, ‘enough,’ I cannot go on. Enough, I will do whatever is necessary to survive and that is all. Enough, I will stop believing, stop hoping, stop loving, stop giving, even stop living.
All of our readings today touch on just these issues. Because these are not issues unique to us or to our time. They’re actually extremely universal throughout history. Into these very issues God speaks to us through his prophets, through his priests, his wise men and women, through his people, and yes, even through his enemies.
We hear over and over stories of people’s lives, real lives, filled with doubt, confusion, fear, anger, loss, and questioning, And we see how God enters their lives in so many different ways – ways fitting to the particular circumstances – and draws them out of hopelessness and despair and into his own life where hope is to be found. But of course, as we probably all know, in the middle of our ‘stuff’ it can feel as if God has abandoned us, or God is not there, or that God simply doesn’t exist; that he’s the construction of human ideas
Let’s look at our alternative reading from the Prophet Haggai: In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 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, 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?
Here we’re hearing about a small faithful remnant of the divided people of Israel. If there are any left who knew of the greatness of what Israel had been, of the promises God had made to save and protect them, that splendor, that hope, would seem very far off for these people. Their numbers had declined, they lived so often in fear from enemies and in exile even. Many, under those circumstances, had turned to idols, to false gods, to other customs and practices, leaving their people and most particularly, their God, behind.
Does this sound familiar? This past week I was asked by an editor of the Anglican Journal to write an article our Church’s statistical decline over the past 20 years, roughly 40% down from 2001—and the implication (made by some) that the church may “vanish” by 2040.” This is a subject about which I’ve written fairly extensively over the last decade and so I’m preparing to condense my 300 page dissertation into 800 words … but I’ll give you an even briefer summary of what will lead my reflection, and I will borrow these words from our Prophet Haggai:
“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, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. 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 … The ... splendor 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.
You see I’m firmly of the belief that our response to any loss, whether it is the loss of our church membership, or whether, like Job, it is the loss of our money, possessions, or like so many characters through Scripture our health, our sanity, our homes, our way of life, our past, our memories, our safety, or like the Thessalonians, the loss of friends, of family, of those they deeply loved, I am firmly of the belief that our responses to all matters are to be understood, celebrated, or endured, or even suffered, knowing one central thing: that God is with us, that we are in him and he is in us, even if we cannot grasp this reality with certainty.
How can we know this? Because we encounter this reality as we hear God’s life with his people over and over recorded in our Scriptures. Not just people from the past. That is not what Scripture is. It is not a history book. It is not a book of events that only occurred in the past. It is a book that pulls us, shows us, and directs us in living relationship with God. That’s what Scripture is: it is our lives – each of us, you me, Tyler, Theo, Erika, Willa, Gib, Irene, Mavis – it is our lives being fitted into the very body, the ark, the cross, the house, the kingdom of God himself.
Christian life isn’t foremost bound to a particular denomination we belong to, like Anglican, or Catholic. It is fundamentally and most basically about having BEEN bound to Jesus Christ, by him, through his Holy Spirit, and so to God his Father who has become again our Father. When we are struggling, whether with the decline of a parish, or of a denomination, or more personally, when we struggle with sickness – mental or physical, when we struggle with violence, with poor relationships, with job losses, with retirement, with wondering what purpose our lives have anymore, or how to endure through pain and suffering, the thing that has allowed God’s people to hold on is no great strength or power, no program, no political victory; it is simply this: that God came to us in Jesus Christ. And by his death and resurrection, by our baptism into Jesus’s own life, we have entered into new life, into the promise of life eternal, and into seeing our daily affairs not as our culture does, but rather as we find our daily lives, the events, fears, anxieties, losses, frustrations, confusions, addressed by God in Scripture.
God says to us over and over: fear not little flock for I have come for you. I will wipe away those tears that you cry now; I will wipe away the suffering; I will not break you on account of your weakness and your uncertainty, in my Son I have come to you and you are mine. And so then, Paul says to the Thessalonian Church and so to us, in our struggling Anglican denomination, as he said to the Israelites in exile in Babylon, or those struggling to survive in the desert: stand firm in your faith. Do not fret. Live by hope in me so that your hope is seen as faith, the faith given to you and sustained in your weakness by Jesus Christ. You are not alone my little flock – whatever you suffer, wherever you’re at in life – you are not alone, you are mine. Seek me, ask me, and I will give to you all that you need to come to me, even with your final breath. AMEN.