When I was a kid, if you had a birthday party, you wanted to go to Chuck E Cheese. Chuck E Cheese was a magical land of amazing games, prizes, the world’s greatest foods: Pizza and ice cream, and a magical band of animals that played rock music. It was the Valhalla of kiddom.
A few years ago Diana went to a birthday party at Chuck E Cheese. I hadn’t been there in years, and when I drove to the storefront in a mini-mall, next to a Burlington Coat Factory and an Ace Hardware. I was first struck by how small the place actually was. In my memory, Chuck E Cheese was approximately the size of the Taj Mahal. Inside, about half the rides were broken. Children screamed to receive candy from a costumed mouse. And for the first time, I realized that the mechanical band’s mouths moved at times seemingly completely unrelated to the piped-in covers of sweatin-to-the-oldies. The review on yelp covered it just about right: “Same cardboard pizza, mechanical rat, and tired game consoles from when I was a kid.”
My disappointment in the faded glory of Chuck E Cheese is just a shadow compared to the deep gloom the people of Israel felt returning from Exile to the holy city, taking in the partly-completed repairs to the broken foundations, the mended curtains, the beat-up furnishings. The sad reality of the situation is expressed in the very first words of our reading:
Haggai 1:15: In the second year of King Darius.
This would be a little like if I said “in the second year of President Vladmir Putin.” The Israelites are under foreign control, and it’s not good.
Haggai 2:2 NIV: Speak to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people.
After the Temple was destroyed, and the king’s line cut down, people were allowed to return under governor Zerubbabel, but there would be less of them, only a remnant, and no Israelite king, no great Davidic monarchy. This meant a loss of power and wealth.
Temple ornaments that were once silver and gold would now have to be replaced with wood and brass.
And amidst this backdrop, the people have to keep going.
Haggai 2:1 NIV: On the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai.
That day would have been the seventh day in the eight-day festival of booths. Now remember, the festival of booths was an autumn festival in which the people of Israel had to live in tents, a little like camping, to recall the days of wandering in the wilderness and give thanks for what God had done. It was something like our American feast of Thanksgiving. This is ironic because the people are not feeling very Thanksgiving-y.
Haggai 2:3 NIV: Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem like nothing?
Rather than giving thanks for the new project underway, the people are unimpressed by the work that’s going on, instead gloomily remembering the good old days. Does any of this sound familiar? Does anyone remember this house—this church—in its former glory? Do you remember when the building was new and state-of-the art, when the pews were full of worshipers dressed in their Sunday best, when the Sunday school rooms were teeming with children, and there was a wedding every week? It must seem like nothing to you now. Our small attempts to reach out to the community, they aren’t growing us by leaps and bounds the way we want to grow.
The church is but a shadow of its former glory. Or is it? Maybe it’s all in how we define “glory.” In Hebrew, the word is Cavod, and it can be defined by appearance, impressiveness, and magnificence.
But the root of the word has to do with weight. So “glorious” really means “weighty” or “heavy.”
We hear the word again in verses 6-9:
Haggai 2:6-9 NIV This is what the Lord Almighty says, in a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord Almighty. The silver is mine and the gold is mine, declares the Lord Almighty. The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house, says the Lord Almighty. And in this place I will grant peace.
Have you ever heard someone say something and you just go, woah, that’s heavy? Like Diana says to me the other day, “Just because you’re breathing doesn’t mean you’re really living.” That’s heavy, or maybe we would say, that’s deep. But that’s what God means by glorious; cavod, heavy.
The meaning to us might be impressive, or beautiful, or shiny; but to God it means, weighty, deep, fundamentally important.
The things of God are glorious. Not because they are pretty; not because the pews are filled up, or the children wear their Sunday best, or because we have a shiny new pipe organ. The church, like the Temple, is glorious to the extent that Jesus is here. God says, the silver is mine and the gold is mine. God is saying, do you think it matters how fancy things look? How shiny? Whether we have a pipe organ or new carpeting or an electronic sign? Do you think it matters whether children are here in fancy dresses, or homeless people dressed in whatever they happened to find? That’s not what makes the church glorious! The silver is mine and the gold is mine, says the Lord.
It’s not whether we present a shiny package to the world. It’s whether Jesus is here.
And why do I say that? Because Haggai says:
Haggai 2:7: I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord Almighty.
What was God talking about? Was he talking about the end times? I don’t think so. God is talking about the time when all nations will come into the temple. And when is that? What is the moment when the earth shakes, and the curtain of the Temple was torn in two, because the glory of God could no longer be contained in a little room in a little temple in little occupied Palestine?
Matthew 27:50-51: Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.[a] 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.
The moment Christ died for our sins was the moment when the glory of God filled the earth, and all nations were called to come into right relationship with God the Father, through the sacrifice of His only Son.
That moment was the moment of greatest glory, the heaviest, deepest, truest moment the universe has ever known.
And you and I and this church are glorious not to the extent that we look good, that we have a nice fancy budget, even that we have people in the pews.
We are glorious to the extent that we reflect that moment, of Christ’s sacrificial love, to the world.
Are lives being changed here? Are people on fire with the Holy Spirit? Are we going deeper into relationship with God? Are we doing our daily devotionals and Bible reading, really making time for God as though He is the most important thing in our lives? Are we sharing the Good News? Are we repenting from sin? Are we serving the poor and needy? Are we working for peace and justice? Are we putting Christ, more and more, in the center of our lives? When we are doing the weighty things, the fundamental things, we are what God calls glorious.
If you want to see God’s glory in this church, don’t just talk about the good old days.
Because if we’re honest, for many years, not just in this church but in America, there was some, not all, but some, people going to church as a matter of habit, not a matter of faith. And God isn’t looking for empty ritual. God is looking for lives in which Christ is fully present. God is not looking for a pretty picture or a nice building; God is looking for the kind of earth-shaking glory that changes hearts and minds and families and nations.
This is a greater mission than keeping the building clean or having a nice coffee hour. This is great, weighty, deep work, and it is not easy. We have great work to do, but we have a great God to help us do it.
Haggai 2:4: Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the Lord; and work, for I am with you, declares the Lord Almighty.
In this season of fall, we give thanks that God is in this place. We might not have our former glory as the world sees it. But I see lives being changed, I see hearts being brought closer to God. I look out and I see people—not hundreds, but a few—who have come to this church in the last few years after being estranged from the church for decades. I see people who have come to know Christ because of the message that is being shared in this place.
Thanks be to God—we’re getting heavier!
And I know we are not alone, that we have a companion in this great work, and He will not rest until it is brought to completion.
During my maternity leave I worshiped at a big church with a budget about ten times ours. When I would go out into the sanctuary rocking Charlie, I was surrounded by beautiful stained glass windows. The floor is decorated in beautiful patterned tile, angels adorn the chancel, and the baptismal font was carved from marble by a commissioned artisan. By contrast, here we don’t have angels in the chancel, just a plain wooden cross; the floor is decorated with plain, brown carpet, purchased by the faithful savings of the members of the church; and the font was carved by hand from ordinary wood by George, or as we know him, military George. But you know what? They are more beautiful to me. Because the cross; the carpet; the font; I know they were given out of simple faith, sacrificial faith, not out of a desire for window-dressing. They’re not silver or gold, but they are glorious, because Christ is here.
So don’t lie around complaining about the glory days.
Don’t sit around saying somebody should do something about that.
Somebody should restart this ministry. Somebody should start an evangelism campaign. Somebody should start doing mission work.
Instead, be the somebody.
Be the hands and feet of Christ as you and I are called to be. Be strong, and work.
For I am with you, declares the Lord Almighty.
Do the weighty things, the fundamental, ordinary, heavy lifting of showing Christ to the world. Because that is how God shows forth his glory.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.