When I was in seminary we had to write summaries for every book in the Old Testament. The Book of the Prophet Haggai, which we just heard read, was honestly a book that I had never heard of in my entire life, and when I found out that it was only two short chapters long I figured that summarizing it would be a piece of cake. Unfortunately for me it turned out that while this book may be short, it’s a book that’s crucially important to the overall story of the Old Testament and the history of the Israelites. So, I got a really bad grade on my little summary, but I did learn that there is a lot to learn from this little book about who we are as people and who God is in the midst of our up and down lives.
Here are the basics of the Book of Haggai: about six hundred years before Jesus born, the great empire of Babylon sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple and sent the Jewish people out into exile. But about fifty years later the Babylonians were overthrown by the Persians and the Persians allowed some of the Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple and their lives. And here is where Haggai comes in…God gives him a message to deliver to the Israelites who are in the midst of trying to put their lives back together again. Some of them are going about this by building new homes for their families, moving on from
God in a way, from the ways of old and projecting their future health and happiness on their new and improved situations, while others are focused on rebuilding the old Temple, longing for the days of old and trying to reconcile themselves back again into God’s graces. But the new Temple they’re in the midst of building is looking nothing like the mighty one built by Solomon about five hundred years earlier. So everyone is trying to fix things, but nobody is happy.
What I love about this passage is the way it locates and describes so much of what it means to be a person who feels anxious, feels dissatisfied, discouraged and disappointed about the way things are, about the way they’ve been and how try as we might we don’t seem to be able to do much about it. Who hasn’t felt like this? We all have of course. And in response to these feelings, who hasn’t looked back with a sigh at a simpler and better time, or continued to look forward and said to yourself, “If I could get there, or if we could just get to this place, then…[fill in the blank]”? This passage tells us we’re not alone, that the human heart seems to have some universal chamber of angst within itself. The irony is that when we look to the future or to the past for deliverance from what ails us, in a way we’re actually looking back into ourselves—we’re looking at a past or future version of ourselves thinking that if we could only become that then all our problems would be solved. But the more we look within ourselves for freedom the more we just fan the flame of our own anxiety.
But Haggai delivers this message from God; “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…The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former; and in this place I will give prosperity.” God reminds us that He is in control, and the splendor of freedom and deliverance from bondage will come from him, not us.
We can escape for a brief moment out of our present situations and with a longing gaze consider how great things once were or how great things certainly will become. But more often than not both of these things simply aren’t true. Life was full of sadness and sin and loneliness two years ago, two hundred and two thousand years ago—life was and will be again a difficult and maddening existence. It will be in the future as well because when people are the topic of discussion, history, human nature and the Bible of all things are all pretty clear in showing us that people will find a way to mess things up, to make things complicated, sad and divisive. We are who we are, a people who always have and always will be in need of a savior.
In William Faulkner’s great novel “The Sound and the Fury”, he writes about the tragic Compson family. Two of the main characters, brothers Quentin and Jason, provide powerful examples of this escapist mindset, with Quentin so fixated on the honor and sins of the past that he decides he literally can’t live in the modern world anymore, and he sadly take his own life, and his brother Jason whose gaze is so set on the future, on profiting off the modern world, that he neglects the well-being of those around him in order to do things like literally invest in cotton futures. But the Compson family’s servant Dilsey is another story, she seems to be the only person capable of remaining emotionally present in the family and in the closing chapter of the book we catch a glimpse at the reason for that. On Easter Sunday, she takes some of the Compsons with her to church, where they hear a sermon climaxing with images of Jesus on the Cross, the resurrection and the blood of the lamb, the only thing that will save you. As she walks out Dilsey begins to weep and her friend Frony tells her she better stop because people are looking and they’re about to walk past some white folks, but Dilsey just lifts her head up with tears of joy rolling down her face as she says, “[I’ve seen the first and the last..I’ve seen the beginning, and now I see the ending.]”
There was never a time and there never will be a time when anything else, but the Resurrection and the Blood of the Lamb will be what saves us.
So, what is it about the past and future that attract us? I think it’s that they both begin with an acknowledgement that things at the present moment aren’t the way they should or could be. And this is not a bad thing to observe or feel, because while it may not be a fun or happy thought, it is true. Things aren’t perfect. Our world is cracked and broken in many places and to recognize this is certainly healthier than to live with our head in the sand. But things get a little messy when we begin to long for progress or for a distant past, a simpler time because in both cases our hope is placed in ourselves in our own ability to progress towards some level of perfection never seen or our ability to regroup and reinstate that much preferred way of life of our forefathers. We realize that we aren’t who we want to be, we want to be somebody else.
The podcast Snap Judgment had an episode a few years ago with the title, “12 Pageant Queens, 10,000 Snakes.” In Sweetwater Texas they hold the “Annual Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup.” There is a short documentary you watch about this, but if you’re afraid of snakes like I am, please don’t watch it. Honestly, please don’t watch it, it’s terrible. It gave me nightmares. Just listen to the podcast. So, at this “Roundup” they literally round up thousands of rattlesnakes to kill, eat and celebrate with of all things a beauty pageant—with the champion crowned Miss Snake Charmer. Some the teenage girls participating fit the part; beautiful and wealthy cheerleaders, a few girls whose mothers won the pageant a decade or two ago, but there was also a girl named Cheyenne Hamilton who describes herself by saying “I’m not the cutest, I’m not the smartest, and I’m definitely not the sweetest.” She comes from a very poor family, had to borrow clothes and buy a dress from Goodwill for the competition, looks like and literally was a powerlifter for a little while, and while her “against all odds” mindset is refreshing and almost inspiring, you can’t help but wonder why in the world she would put herself through the pain of this pageant where the whole point is to literally look the part of a beauty queen. Until she tells the interviewer exactly why she entered, “I want to do something different, I want to be something. I want to prove to everybody else that I’m actually, I guess, somebody.” Cheyenne’s life was hard. Separated or abandoned by her parents, she had a history of depression and became suicidal and ended up in a mental health facility. So, she was there entering the beauty pageant in an attempt to find, create or start a new life. “I just want to start over and turn over a new leaf…I’m working on my twelfth second chance,” she said. “I want to impress my parents], cause I always wanted to hear, ‘I’m proud of you.’” Once the results are in, unsurprisingly Cheyenne sadly tells us that she didn’t win anything, “They know people,” she says, “I don’t know anybody.”
This is a really sad story and illustration, but I think it’s a powerful one because it shows us how Cheyanne, like so many of us, wants to be someone, to be somebody else. But it turns out all she needed was to know somebody else, or more specifically to be known by somebody else. To hear from someone else the promise that at the beginning and at the end, you are mine and I am with you. In the Gospel, God gives us His promise that he has come to rescue us all from the voices in our heads saying that we’re not enough. The promise that we don’t need to escape to the past or into the future because I am with you, right here in this very moment. Just as I delivered the Israelites out of the slavery of Egypt, I have delivered you from sin and death. Through the Resurrection and the blood of the lamb I have delivered you into this very moment where I have made you somebody, someone whose slate has been wiped clean, someone who can look to God and in return hear, “I’m proud of you.”
Our lives begin and they will end with God at our side giving us his promise of love, admiration and faithfulness. You don’t have to run to the past and you don’t have to run to the future, because God has already given himself to you and to us all. Today, you are somebody, and so am I. Today we have all been made beloved children of God.