Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Help Is On The Way – Haggai 1:12-2:4

Posted by John Montgomery on December 4, 2008

(Preached on the first Sunday of Advent, Nov. 30, 2008, in the chapel of Parkside Meadows Retirement Community, St. Charles, MO, and also in the worship service in the Residential Care Facility (assisted living building of the same on Dec.2, 2008.)

“Help is on the way.”

Last week I made reference to the travel programs of Rick Steves on PBS as he takes us to the modern and ancient cities of Europe and the British Isles. In this week’s program Rick “took us” to Greece. One segment was in the city of Athens: and we saw pictures of the Acropolis with its temple ruins, especially the Parthenon. 2500 years ago these were symbols of the Golden Age of that city and nation.

Now, if you and I could go back in time to see ancient Jerusalem those 2500 years ago, we would have found a far different kind of city. The glorious temple of Solomon had been destroyed some seventy years before. Many of the Jewish people, especially the leaders had been carried away into exile in Babylon where most of them had died. Probably the exiles and certainly those left in Jerusalem had experienced poverty and physical and spiritual depression. Their enemies taunted them in those mocking words found in the Bible, “Where is thy God now?”1

But God has a way of turning history around just as God often turns my life and yours around. After two generations of captivity had passed, Darius I, the kind of Persia, known for religious tolerance, permitted Jews to return to their homeland. Among them was a very old man named Haggai, who must have been no more than a boy when he was taken away.

It is inspiring to know that many of the Jews had clung fiercely to their faith in Exile. The 137th Psalm tells of the agony they endured in that struggle:

“By the rivers of Babylon –there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion . . .How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

But they persisted, and fiercest in the faith of those who returned was the elderly man, the prophet Haggai, whose message is in the little Old Testament book bearing his name. Haggai found that the people were crushed and dispirited. For 66 years the temple had laid in ruins. The people seemed to have no will to work. Because of poor harvests there seemed to be few resources. The Persian-appointed rulers appeared unwilling to take the lead. Everything appeared on the edge of disaster. Then in a period of a few short months this venerable man Haggai managed to rouse the leaders and the people now only to begin rebuilding the temple but also to return to their faith. Perhaps it was Haggai’s blunt oratory, but it was also the promise he brought. I pick out eight short words he spoke, recorded twice in his messages.

“’I will be with you,’ says the Lord.”

Here indeed was his assurance that “help is on the way”

“Help is on the way.” My, we have heard those words spoken so much in recent times. There have been the tsunamis, those destructive walls of water carrying away life and property in Southeast Asia. Or there was the fearsome earthquake in China a year ago. Closer to home, who can forget 9/11 of seven years ago or the debacle following Katrina several years back? Governments and private organizations joined in promising to beleaguered nations and suffering peoples, “Help is on the way.”

Some of us are old enough to remember those uncertain days before our entry into World War II. The French nation was succumbing to the Nazi juggernaut, and it looked like Britain might soon fall. Recently I watched the TV movie series, “The Winds of War,” based on the novel by Herman Wouk. It told of the beginning of the Lend-Lease program when the United States sent ships and vital materiel to Britain. It was a boost in morale as well as material assistance. Help was on the way.

I am still blessed to be “out and about” almost every day. Scarcely a time passes without seeing an emergency vehicle, especially if I go down 5th street or 1st Capitol Drive near the hospital. Perhaps some of you have had to call 911, or you may have even been the recipient of such care. From deep and sorrowful experience which still lives in painful memory I can tell you what a comfort it was to know that the ambulance and trained helpers were on their way to our house. Help was on the way.

This bring me back to the Old Testament scripture, later the New, and the season of Advent which we are entering. There is a similarity of message. The tiny book of Haggai is not a prophecy of the coming of the Christ child. Indeed it is not like the 7th chapter of Isaiah, those prophetic words Matthew used in his version of the nativity story. You remember them:

If Haggai’s promise meant that the power of God would assist the residents of Jerusalem in rebuilding the temple and recovering their faith, “help was on the way.” We believe that the prophecy fulfilled in Jesus meant that “help (was) on the way” for all of humankind. This leads me to several observations which are a blessing to me and I hope will be helpful to you in the Advent and Christmas seasons. One is the importance of the calendar. Our Christian life is not just an event but a Journey, a journey marked by seasons and days. Oh, I know there are times when the calendar seems an enemy rather than a friend. I don’t know about you, but birthdays and anniversaries seem to elude my memory, and all of a sudden I am at the last minute or ashamedly behind in marking them. But the calendar does give us time to get ready. Now the Church in its wisdom developed the calendar of the Christian year. Preparation was needed to mark the great events of the Christian story. We just can’t plunge pell-mell into the events and experiences they represent.

In many of our churches and some of our homes the calendar of Advent is marked not by the desk or wall calendar on which we write engagements but rather by the Advent wreath of which we lit the first candle. I believe Chaplain Remington will be building her messages around that, so let me take a few moments for explanation.

Our wreath is a circle, reminding us of the encompassing love of God. The circle has neither beginning nor end. God’s love and mercy have no ending. The evergreen has has always been a sign of growth, of hope, of newness. Candles are light. We Christians think of Christ as being :”the light of the world.” In many wreaths there re four candles on the circle, three purple (or blue) and one pink. On Christmas Day or for a Christmas service a center white candle represents Christ. Each Sunday an additional candle is lit. Thus the wreath becomes a kind of calendar, reminding us of the coming of the Christ Child. The passing of the candle-lit Sundays and the growing of the light remind us that God’s help is on the way.

The Advent season also becomes a time of holy waiting. Now waiting is one of the hardest of human endeavors. It has been said that modern Americans are the “now Generation. We want instant gratification, seek immediate answers. But life does not always work that way, And the answers of God sometimes seem interminably slow. Those of us with army experience remember that one of the catch sayings of the service was “Hurry up and wait.” The waiting was often harder than the preparation.

We re so action oriented. We want to see results. We know that there are times when delay can be deadly, but there are rimes and seasons in God’s calendar when waiting is the virtue, is also life changing. Waiting can be an act of faith. I love the 27th Psalm. You remember it ends with these words:

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; Be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.

It was a simple act of devotion, but it is a sweet memory for me from the Christmas days of our children. What fun it was to see them come down the stairs, rubbing the sleep from their eyes and yet in a spirit of excitement s they spied the wrapped packages we had placed under the tree the late night before. And yet before the gifts were unwrapped my late wife Mary always wanted us to read the nativity stories from Matthew and Luke’s gospels. And even after the children were grown and gone she wanted the practice continued. It was a holy waiting, a moment to acknowledge the Gift of God which outweighed all other gifts. There is a slogan about “the gift that keeps on giving.” It is another way of speaking of the Gift which is always coming and yet always here.”

Now I haven’t forgotten the message of the prophet Haggai that God would be with the people of Jerusalem as they set about the rebuilding of the temple. How might God’s help have come? How did God manifest God’s self? Perhaps the very promise of God’s presence encouraged the residents. Their depression and feeling of defeat turned into determination.

But the Bible record from Haggai is only one of many ways that God’s help has come to humankind. This had been multiplied and amplified in all pages of history. People looked for and longed for the presence and power of God. But does it not come in surprising and unsuspected ways? The people of Israel believed that a Redeemer, a Messiah, would come to free God’s people from their burden of oppression. He would defeat their foes and restore them to their place as God’s chosen people. And we celebrate that, not with a victory parade. God’s Help was, of all things – a Baby.

George MacDonald, the Scottish author who wrote many children’s stories as well as fantasy novels, caught that truth in one of his poems:

They were looking for a King

To slay their foes and lift them high;

Thou cam’st, a little baby thing,

Who made a woman cry.

Are you old enough to remember when we came to railroad crossings which bore the sign:

STOP! LOOK! LISTEN!

Life might have depended on heeding those warnings. Does not Advent say the same to us? Whether in the songs, the worship, the Bible stories, the opportunities for service, yes, even in the waiting. Advent and Christmas may bring unexpected blessings from God, and we will know that all the time “help was on the way.”

1 Found in numerous Psalms.

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One Response to “Help Is On The Way – Haggai 1:12-2:4”

  1. Helen Finley said

    Glad to see this sermon and know you are still preaching and going. My husband’s grandfather was still preaching and even performing weddings for grandchildren in 1973 when he was 92 years old.

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