By Ed Little
A Reading from Haggai 1:1-2:9
1 In the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest: 2 Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house. 3 Then the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 4 Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins? 5 Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. 6 You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.
7 Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. 8 Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored, says the Lord. 9 You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the Lord of hosts. Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses. 10 Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. 11 And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the soil produces, on human beings and animals, and on all their labors.
12 Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, and Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the Lord their God, and the words of the prophet Haggai, as the Lord their God had sent him; and the people feared the Lord. 13 Then Haggai, the messenger of the Lord, spoke to the people with the Lord’s message, saying, I am with you, says the Lord. 14 And the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God, 15 on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month.
In the second year of King Darius, 1 in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 2 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, 3 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? 4 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.
“The church is what’s left after the building burns down.” When a beloved building has been destroyed by fire, flood, or wind, these words bring consolation. “You are the body of Christ,” St. Paul says emphatically, “and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). We are the church, not the building. “The Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (Acts 7:48), St. Stephen tells the Sanhedrin — in the shadow of King Herod’s splendid temple, a dangerously subversive statement that helped to get him stoned to death.
And yet… when the people of Judah returned to Jerusalem after their years of exile in Babylon, God had to remind them of what’s truly important: Rebuild the temple. Build a building. You’ve got your priorities all wrong, God says. “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? … Go up into the hills and bring wood and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored, says the Lord.”
There’s a both/and here. We can encounter God everywhere. We don’t need a building. He is as close as our hearts or on the face of our neighbor. At the same time, Haggai is right. We’re “wired” for specificity. Christians instinctively seek out sacred spaces. We go on pilgrimage to a place, not a state of mind. Something happens when we enter a beautiful church building and pray before the Blessed Sacrament, something that can’t be duplicated in the forest or on the beach. And most profoundly, when God decided to encounter us, he did so in person, at a specific place and time, in a visible, touchable human body (1 John 1:1). “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). The Bible presents us with a God who is grand enough to be everywhere at once, and humble enough to make himself known in a place of prayer, in a piece of bread, and in Jesus our Brother and our Lord.
The Rt. Rev. Edward S. Little II was bishop of Northern Indiana for 16 years after serving parishes in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Joaquin. He is the author of three books; most recently: The Heart of a Leader: St. Paul as Mentor, Model, and Encourager (2020).
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