Belonging to the Age

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.