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Post-exilic Prophets and the Church Today

By John Mason Lock

Recently I took a class at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, with the sleepy title Jerusalem Rebuilds: Haggai, Zechariah, and Ezra 1-6. The biblical books in question are texts that I have not spent a great deal of time studying, and I suspect this is true for most people, clergy included. After taking the class, I was pleasantly surprised at how much these particular texts speak to the context in which the Church works today.

Dr. Bryon Curtis, a professor from Geneva College, was the instructor. Some of what I relate here comes from his lectures, while the remainder is drawn from the magisterial commentary on Haggai and Zechariah in the Anchor Bible series written by his mentors, Carol and Eric Meyers.

Next to the exodus from Egypt, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 B.C. with the ensuing exile in Babylon are probably the most important events of the Old Testament period. I have not surveyed the question directly, but my guess is that more text of the Old Testament pertains to the exile than to the Exodus. The exile put an end to the idea of the sovereign monarch descended from David, the worship of God in his chosen seat of the temple in Jerusalem, and even the glimmer of an autonomous state of Judah. After 70 years of exile, the people were allowed to return to Judah by the mandate of the Persian emperor Cyrus.

Persian policy generally was to return displaced people to their native lands, where they would act as loyalists in maintaining Persian sovereignty and interests. The returning exiles were allowed and even encouraged to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, but it was a far cry from simply a return to pre-exilic patterns of life. There was still no king, although a governor was appointed who was a descendant of David. The rebuilding of the temple encountered significant resistance (Ezra 3), and the completed building was only a shadow of its former grandeur. The Book of Ezra relates that many of those who had seen the old temple wept when they saw the foundations of the new edifice.

According to Meyers and Meyers, one of the exceptional qualities of Haggai and Zechariah was that they encouraged rebuilding the temple and a newly framed religious life that adapted aspects of the old religious order within the new political and social circumstances of the Persian period. It would be easy, I suspect, to underestimate the significance of these accomplishments because we are looking at them as historical facts rather than as the creative adaptations within a relatively unstable religious context that they were. Meyers and Meyers conclude that

Haggai and Zechariah … must be given enormous credit for using their prophetic ministries to foster the transition of a people from national autonomy to an existence which transcended political definition and which centered upon a view of God and his moral demands. … Both prophets succeeded in an unprecedented way in helping to reconcile the present circumstances with sacred traditions. If they seemed to point in a new direction, it is because there was no turning back. (p. xliii)

Serving as the rector of a parish in the increasingly secular Northeast, I often feel like I am working in an unstable religious context. Perhaps this sense of instability is common to every age as one experiences the fluctuations and vicissitudes of history. However, it feels very much like we are living in a border region — the sun is setting on a former age of the Church, and a new epoch is beginning. When I first came to the Diocese of New Jersey there were more than 150 congregations. Six years later there are just over 140, and many are teetering on the edge of closure. The Bishop of New Jersey, William Stokes, has done an admirable job of trying to manage these crises, while also trying to give significant attention to adaptive strategies that might stem or alter the tide.

As many pastors and lay leaders in this region will testify, there is a pervasive indifference to the Church and to a certain extent to faith itself. Not all of these changes are necessarily the fault of the people. Many in the Church look reproachfully across the secular divide, but it would be a gross generalization to say the masses are just depraved and wallowing in their secular wickedness. This is too simplistic a conclusion and certainly too negative about secularism. The truth is that the Church has become in some ways obsolete. Mental and emotional distress are more readily treated by psychiatry and medication. Social engagement can be found through sports, social media, and elsewhere. Churches that formerly paid significant roles in these spheres no longer hold sway.

In addition, the language of sin, redemption, salvation, and of a world enchanted by the goodness of the Creator all sound foreign and perhaps even hollow. There are some within the Church who would cast off the outmoded framework of the institutional church. The lesson of Haggai, Zechariah, and the post-exilic community suggests that the old religious content should not be dispensed but creatively adapted. There is no question in my mind that the classic model of pastoral ministry — contextualized in a book like George Herbert’s The Country Parson — still has gravity. The discipline of showing up, caring for, and praying with people has tremendous power. It doesn’t have the dynamic flare of fireworks, but the steady heat of embers, hard to light but long to burn. I also think our friends at Mockingbird have a critical grasp of the culture when they identify the lingering shame, guilt, and self-loathing of our society and suggest that its panacea is love, divine and human, in that order. In the other words, we do not need to throw up our hands in despair, but we do have to accept that things are changing and will continue to do so, sometimes at a confounding pace.

Who is competent for leadership, either ordained or lay, in such an environment? As I divulged in my last post for Covenant, I have been learning humility as I strive to understand and adapt to this complicated social landscape. There is particularly poignant passage in Zechariah that speaks to this issue of leadership in times of fluctuation.

In Zechariah 4 we receive a beautiful vision of two golden lamps, like the Menorah in the temple. By each of the lamps is an olive tree, and from the trees, oil is poured out into the lamps so that there is a continuous supply of fuel. The method of olive oil production has been collapsed, and the oil goes directly from the olives to the bowls. The imagery is about how God will sustain the work of rebuilding the social and religious life of Judah. The prophet declares, “The hands of Zerubbabel [the governor] have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it” (4:7). Why will this happen? It is not because Zerubbabel is such a great leader, but rather, as he is told, “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit” (v.6).

The sense is clear even if the wording is somewhat laconic. Only by God’s Spirit can this work be continued and perfected. Success is not dependent on charisma or talent. I am not dismissing the idea that church leaders should be competent. Seminary training, continuing education, and clergy retreats are all good and sometimes very useful things, but churches and clergy also need to be reminded that we are the sowers, not the growers. We can sometimes be confused into thinking that it is up to us, when our Augustinian heritage clearly states that we need grace before, during, and after any undertaking. The adjustments and adaptations that churches need to make today are not a matter of cunning, but of faithful obedience and trust in the Lord.

The other verse in this vision that is of great significance for today is the rhetorical question of the angel of the Lord about the work of Zerubbabel and the others returning from exile. He asks the prophet, “Who despises the day of small things?” (4:10). The modesty of the new temple should not belie that this is the Lord’s work. The kingdom of God might appear very dim, but the flame is not snuffed out.

In the Church today, the instruction I keep hearing is simply to keep moving forward. Do not despise the day of small things. The day of small things is to visit someone in a hospital, to teach a Bible study, or to celebrate the Holy Eucharist — about which a dear friend used to say, it’s never a bad time tohave Communion with Christ. I’m not suggesting the church be like Candide, pretending that misfortune is beneficial or enjoyable. As Christians we have to walk by faith because there is no other alternative. In doing this, we have to draw on the old patterns of fidelity that will fill out the life of the Church in this new social and cultural context. To paraphrase Meyers and Meyers, if this seems revolutionary, it is because there is no turning back. While we don’t get to see what is around the next bend of the Church’s history, perhaps this is because it is not necessary information for us to do the work that is before us.

Walking by faith in God’s Spirit, I do not despise the day of small things, knowing that Christ is risen and is still Lord over the Church.



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