Prior to the book of Daniel was a period of disobedience, idolatry, and judgement that brought about the exile. The people of God were uprooted from their own land and settled in an alien culture where they were oppressed and faced very real threats to their livelihood.
Even in these dire circumstances, the Lord still worked to show favor to his people. He blessed them and even used their own triumphs and blessings to bring mercy and peace to their neighbors and enemies. We don’t often hear talk among Christians about loss and blessings in the midst of defeat and deprivation. Those stories are out there and people are telling them, but they are rarely elevated in the same way as narratives of triumph and victorious blessing.
And after we have navigated our way through the hard times where blessings and victories seem few and far between, there is no guarantee that we can simply take the favor of God for granted. That is where we find Israel in the book of Haggai, a brief stop before we move on to Zechariah during this Advent season.
The people of Israel are slowly reestablishing themselves in their own land. They have built homes and cultivated crops, but one very important piece is missing: the temple of God.
Now remember, God does not really care all that much about the temple as a dwelling so to speak. He was just fine with a tent for quite a long time and made it clear that the temple was man’s idea, not his own. Nevertheless, he meets us where we are at and creates space for us to worship him with a particular time and place.
By this point in the history of Israel, the temple was an essential part of worshipping the Lord, and we must recognize the significance of its absence among the returned people. What seems to rankle the Lord is that his people have not fully repented and turned to him. After communicating this to the people through the prophet Haggai, “The people worshipped the Lord in earnest” (1:12 NLT). The Lord quickly responds, “I am with you.”
Even after the exile and 70 years of living under foreign rule and persecution, the people of God still find it hard to remember him. The quickly forgot him in the midst of rebuilding their lives and putting food on the table. Dare I add to this the task of purchasing gifts for the holidays . . .
I’ll just take a stab at this and say that one lesson we can draw from this story today is the importance of sacred space, time, and practices. We don’t need a particular form, but do need something that will help us remember. The temple really wasn’t for God. He often said he didn’t need it. The temple was for the people so they would have a place to meet with God. It didn’t have to be a temple, that’s just what worked at the time.
It’s not the symbol that matters, it’s what the symbol points to.
As I look at my Advent wreath, I am reminded of the call to repentance and the hope of Christ symbolized in the first week. Today we celebrate the peace of God that has come through his son and will be made complete in his second coming. Next week we celebrate the love of God that brought his son into our world for our salvation. Lastly, during the fourth week we rejoice in the coming of God’s son who initiated the redemption of creation and brought his Spirit into our lives so that we may call him Father.