Haggai 1:15b-2:9; Luke 20:27-38
Good morning. As many of you know, I have a weekly podcast. My partner in this adventure is my dear friend, Charissa, whom many of you will remember from my installation service. So, on Monday, Charissa and I were talking through the week’s episode and she asked me, “What are your texts for Sunday?”
When I told her that Haggai was the first reading, she made a face and said, “you must hate your lay reader.”
I told her that I love my whole congregation—even Bob! And I’m sure that a couple of you are relieved that you didn’t sign up to be the lay reader this morning. Then I told her that my other reading was from the Gospel of Luke. She shook her head and made that face again, then she said, “If you want to preach a sermon on Levirate marriage, go ahead!”
Clearly, she wanted no part of a discussion of ancient Jewish law or questions about spouses in the afterlife, and I don’t blame her. But as I spent more time with each of these texts, as I held them in conversation with one another—I realized that they speak right into the divisions in our churches and our society today.
The prophet Haggai is what we refer to as one of the minor prophets, which simply means that he didn’t leave behind a large body of work, like Isaiah, Ezekiel, or Jeremiah. The Book of Haggai is only two chapters long, and it covers a span of a few months in the year 520 BCE. This is important; the history matters.
In 605 BCE, the kingdom of Judah began an extended war with Babylon—this was to the north and east of present-day Israel; we now call this territory Iraq. Over the next 20-25 years, the Babylonian Empire conquered the kingdom of Judah. In the process, Jerusalem was sacked and many Jews were taken captive. The captives included members of the royal family, the nobility, and the priestly class. In other words, the elites of Jerusalem.
The Babylonians completed the conquest in 581 BCE, when they sacked Jerusalem for the third time, took the last wave of captives, and destroyed the temple. That was the temple that King Solomon built. It was the center of the Jewish faith—it was the only proper place for worship and to make sacrifices. After the temple was destroyed, the city of Jerusalem was abandoned.
Over the next 40 years or so, a new power arose in the Near East, the Persian Empire. The empire began in the country we now know as Iran. The Persians went to war against the Babylonians, and in the year 539 BCE, King Cyrus II of Persia defeated the Babylonians. One of Cyrus’s first acts was to allow the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland.
Not all of the captives returned, but those who did return expected to be greeted as heroes. They were not. They were met with indifference. The Jews who remained had learned to live without the elites in their lives. They learned how to live and feed their families, and even worship God, I suppose.
But the exiles didn’t suppose that would happen. They thought the common folks would be lost without them. They thought the commoners would be delighted to see their natural rulers return and give them guidance. The exiles thought that the commoners would be overjoyed when they were told how to worship properly. I mean, what do common folk really need, but to have their betters tell them how to live, right?
Yeah. No. Not so much.
Okay, back to the history. In 522 BCE, a new king came to the throne in Persia, Darius the Great. Over his long reign, Darius would expand the Persian Empire into Egypt, Asia Minor, Macedonia, and some of the Greek Isles. Darius needed to keep things peaceful in the territories that the Persians had already conquered, so in 521 BCE, he allowed the Jews to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.
You would think this would make everybody happy. Again, it did not. The descendants of the commoners who remained in Judah were not convinced that rebuilding the temple was necessary. Even worse, some of the exiles weren’t happy with the progress of the new temple. They were taken captive when they were young children, and they actually remembered what Solomon’s temple looked like—and the new temple didn’t measure up.
As I thought about this text, I thought, “Wow! Church hasn’t changed a bit!” The events in this story took place 2,500 years ago, yet it might as well be today! Every congregation is hung up on the way things used to be. And in every congregation, there’s someone who remembers the old ways, and is perfectly happy to tell someone else, “you’re doing it wrong.”
I have a friend who serves a church in western Pennsylvania, and the big fundraiser there was the chicken-and-biscuits dinner. Everything was made from scratch. It was a huge effort and it was so successful, they did it twice a year. They’d rake in five or six thousand dollars each time.
The dinner was a lot of work and it was done by a lot of people. And there was one woman who ruled the kitchen with an iron fist. She had the recipes for everything and you had to make the biscuits her way—or else!
Eventually, the woman developed some heart problems and she couldn’t oversee all of the work, and she certainly couldn’t do any of the cooking herself. But that didn’t stop her from telling all the other women in the kitchen that they were doing things the wrong way. And eventually, all those other women got tired of hearing that what they were doing wasn’t good enough, it wasn’t like it used to be. One by one, they found reasons why they couldn’t help in the kitchen, and the chicken-and-biscuits dinner died on the vine.
Of course, there are many examples of conflicts in churches that are much worse than the loss of a beloved fundraiser. But in most cases, what happens is that someone in the church insists that there’s only one way to do something, and everything else is wrong. Compromise becomes a dirty word.
The divisions within Judean society that we see in the Haggai text were never healed. The text mentions the High Priest at the time, Joshua, son of Jehozadak. That name, Jehozadak, suggests that both men were descended from Zadok, who was the High Priest during the reigns of King David and King Solomon. The High Priesthood was passed down from father to son. These men, and the faction that supported them were also known as Zadokites—and that’s where we get the word, Sadducee.
In this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is sparring with some Sadducees. They were still in control of the temple and much of Jewish religious life. They were still a powerful faction in Jesus’ time. They retained their power by compromising with the Roman Empire, which occupied Judah.
The Sadducees didn’t believe in an afterlife, but in this story, they’re not really interested in
what Jesus thinks. They’re trying to trap him, to get him to say something that goes against traditional Jewish teaching. If they can do this, they can discredit his teaching, and they can discredit him in public. They see Jesus as a threat to their power and position, and if they can trap him, if they can trick him into saying the wrong thing, then they can neutralize the threat that Jesus presents. At the very least, they don’t have to listen to what he has to say.
And again, this reminds me of our world today. We have so many divisions in our society, yet we won’t listen to people who stand on the other side of the political fence. If you’re a liberal and I’m a conservative, I’m not interested in listening to anything you have to say. Or, if you’re a conservative and I’m a liberal, I’m not interested in anything you have to say. I mean, maybe we can talk about sports, or food, or how Bruce Springsteen is such a great song writer. Sure, we can be nice about it, but neither one of us is willing to change. That’s a problem. And it’s a problem we’ve been living with for a long time.
In the 1950s and 60s we had a lot of conflict: we had the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. In either case, hard lines were drawn. They were movements that permitted no compromise.
I’m not going to try to re-litigate the Vietnam War in a sermon, especially not at this point in the sermon. But I do believe the war led to deep rifts in our society and I don’t think they were truly healed.
The civil rights movement is a little bit different. In the 1950s, our nation had many laws that were discriminatory and profoundly unjust. And some people—some white people—were willing to commit murder to keep African Americans from having the right to vote.
The cause of the civil rights movement was clearly just. For the most part, it succeeded in changing the laws of this land, if not the hearts and minds of all the people in this nation.
By the 1970s, many people were tired of fighting. Instead of protest songs on the radio, there was easy-listening music. For a while, there was a cease-fire. There were some skirmishes over busing in the 70s, but those were local conflicts, it seemed. And then the culture wars began anew in the 80s.
I believe that we were, as a society, unwilling to do the difficult work of reconciliation. The church should have led the way, but often, it was easier to take sides, or even sit out entirely. As a result, the rifts that were revealed in our society in the 1950s and 60s were never healed. That brokenness is still with us.
The Jerusalem elites thought that everything would be better when they were released from Babylon, but they clashed with the Jews who remained in Judah. They couldn’t let go of the idea that they were the rightful ruling class. That was their identity and they clung to it. They dug in their heels. They didn’t reconcile.
The religious and political factions in Judea in Jesus’ time all grew out of those divisions 500 years earlier. And the different factions all clung to their identities, their truths. Many of them couldn’t hear Jesus, because there was only one right way to do things, their way. Like the lady who thought that no one else could make chicken and biscuits the right way.
I’ll be honest with you: I don’t want to take on the work of reconciliation. It’s hard work. I’d rather just preach nice, uplifting sermons, with lots of clever references to pop culture. I’d rather hear you laugh at my jokes than try to move you to action. But Jesus doesn’t call us to do the easy stuff.
Jesus calls us to follow him into the broken places.
Jesus tells us, “Blessed are the peace makers.”
Jesus urges us to see beyond our own identities; our own, narrowly-defined identities as Sadducees or Pharisees, Jews or Greeks, Democrats or Republicans, Baby Boomers or Gen-X-ers or Millennials. Jesus calls us to do the work of reconciliation and build the kingdom of God here on Earth. If we want to do that work—and I believe that’s the work we’re called to do—then we have to be willing to give up some of the things that we cling to. The only thing that we have to hold on to is our identity in Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that our true identity is in Christ. Remember, too, that Jesus calls us to follow him into the dark and broken places. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!