1 In the second year of King Darius, 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, 5 according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. 6 For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; 7 and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. 8 The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. 9 The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.
The book of Haggai comes near the very end of the Old Testament. It is the third from the last book. And it’s late in the story of God’s people, too…to borrow a metaphor from baseball, you might even say that the prophet Haggai steps up to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning.
In any case, God’s people, the people of Israel, have been through a lot. Moses brought them out of Egypt and through the wilderness. Joshua led them into the promised land. King David forged them into a nation, and King Solomon built for them a glorious temple in Jerusalem. Then came a succession of not-so-great kings, and prophets like Elijah who tried to bring the hearts of the people back to God. Eventually came the Babylonian army; the temple was destroyed, and the people of Israel were taken away from their homes and forced to live in captivity. 40 years passed, and finally a small remnant of them were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple.
And it is at this point, to these few, remaining faithful people, that Haggai speaks, saying “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?”
I suspect there are some among us today, here at First Presbyterian Church, who can relate to Haggai’s words.
There are some among us who remember this house in its former glory–the days when the Rev. George W. Burroughs led his congregation up the mountain to this location and built this sanctuary, or the days when Dr. Bob Young preached from this pulpit, looking and sounding like El Paso’s very own version of Billy Graham. In those days, a thousand people or more filled this house for worship every Sunday. There was much coming and going in this place, and much was accomplished for God’s kingdom by those saints of old.
And yet Haggai’s message is not to them, but to us–to the remnant, to those few who remain, some who remember this house in its former glory, and some (like me) who do not, but still look around and say, “Who’s left?”
Haggai reminds the people that God has made a promise to them, to be with them and abide with them through good times as well as hard times. Haggai reminds them that all the gold and silver in the world still belong to God, and that he will restore the glory of his house in due time, so that its latter splendor shall be even greater than its former splendor.
But buried within the words of that promise, Haggai (speaking for the Lord) also gives that small remnant, those few faithful people, a task–something to do. Listen to verses 4 and 5; listen specifically to the verbs, the actions required of the people:
“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, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.”
Take courage, take courage, take courage. Work. Do not fear. I think it’s safe to say that taking courage and not fearing are pretty much the same thing, so basically there are two things Haggai and the Lord want them to do: Work, and don’t be afraid.
It’s easy to be afraid when you look around and see how much work there is to do, and how few people there are to do it.
Especially if you forget to count God as one of those people doing the work. It’s easy to be afraid when you remember the glory and splendor of older days, and you get stuck in thinking those days are the very definition of glory and splendor themselves. It’s easy to be afraid when you think of the giants of faith, the saints who carried the church and its ministry, and you think, “I can’t possibly do what they did.”
I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a few of those “saints of old” in the last years of their lives, and the funny thing is, they felt the same way about the ones who came before them. They didn’t think of themselves as special or saintly in any way, but when their mentors, their teachers, their parents and grandparents went on to be with the Lord, they looked around and said, “Who’s left?” And then they realized the answer to that question was none other than themselves. For awhile they were afraid. But then did the other thing Haggai suggested: They got up, and they got to work. Haggai’s people rebuilt the temple, even though they were few. And the people of this congregation, those saints of old, they rebuilt the church, not just once, but twice in our 134 year history.
Today is “All Saints Sunday.” And in the Presbyterian tradition, when we say, “All” Saints, we mean all. Not just Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul and Mary. We believe and teach that the saints are all those who do God’s worrk in God’s kingdom. In other words, that’s you and me, and all those who came before us. Together we are the “communion of saints” that we mention every week when we say the Apostle’s creed. Yes, we are all sinners, too. But by God’s grace and love, we are made holy, and so we are God’s saints.
So today we’re going to do something special. Maybe it will be the start of a new tradition. We’re going to remember some saints who walked among us this past year, but are now gone, who now walk with the Lord. We’re going to remember those saints, but we’re also going to celebrate the saints among us (that’s you!) who carry on the important work of those who came before. Maybe, by the time we’re done, a few new saints will even be born today!
There are ten large candles on this table. I’m going to share with you the names of ten saints we have lost in the past year, along with some of the things that were important to them, things or people they cared about and worked for as they built this church, this community of saints. After each one, I’ll pause. You are invited to come forward, as you feel led, and use the large candle to light a smaller one–as an appreciation of that saint and his or her work, and as a commitment to help carry that work forward in some way, in the church, in your own family, in our community and in the world.
By the time we’re done, I think we’ll have a visible picture of “who is left” among us, and what God meant when he promised to abide with us, when he said “I will fill this house with splendor, and the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former.”
1. Milton Colia, December 1, 2015
2. Glendora McVey, February 5, 2016
3. Elizabeth Ferguson, March 3, 2016
4. Dr. John Wilbanks, April 9, 2016
5. Robert Thompson, May 31, 2016
6. Frank Weidner, June 9, 2016
7. Ada Long, July 18, 2016
8. Jessica Nelson, September 8, 2016
9. Dr. Kenneth Bailey, September 21, 2016
10. Patricia Davenport, October 7, 2016