It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Temple for the Israelites. We talked last week about the great detail and work that went into the construction of the Tabernacle, a kind of mobile temple that that Israelites used throughout their journey through the wilderness and for several centuries between the conquering of the land under Joshua and the reign of the third king of Israel, Solomon. The Tabernacle and Solomon’s later permanent counterpart, the Temple, represented the very presence of God with His covenant people. This is why it was such a big event when the glory of God filled the Tabernacle at the end of Exodus 40, and later when it filled the Temple after its completion. And this is why it was such a big deal for the presence of God to be withdrawn, as Ezekiel foresaw in his prophecy.
When Nebuchadnezzar defeated Judah, overran Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and carted all of its utensils and other items to Babylon in 587 BC, it was a physical, emotional, and spiritual defeat for the people of Israel. It meant that God had fled them. He was no longer with them. They were carted off to exile, to finally endure their punishment for generations of ignoring and turning away from God. Such is the story of Israel.
But the story doesn’t end there. After Jeremiah, the voice of God – through His prophets – was silent until the coming of Haggai and Zechariah during the reign of Darius, King of Persia. Much had transpired. The Babylonian Empire that had finally overrun the Southern Kingdom of Judah had itself been swept away by the rising of the Medo-Persian Empire. In one of his first acts after triumphing over the Babylonian army, Cyrus, the king of Persia, issued a decree allowing all exiles to return, and providing for the rebuilding of destroyed temples. This decree, of course, extended to the Jewish exiles.
The book of Ezra records the series of returnees in its first chapters. It even records how the Israelites began the work to restore the Temple. According to Ezra 3, the altar for the temple was rebuilt in the 7th month after the exiles first returned. And in their second year, the people began working on the foundation of the Temple. It was a bittersweet experience. There was the thrill of the work being started after such a long despair in the exile, but there were also those present who remembered Solomon’s Temple, and the work of reconstruction brought renewed weeping and wailing over their loss.
All did not go well for their work on the Temple, however. In Ezra 4, some of Judah and Benjamin’s enemies came to see what was being done in Jerusalem. They asked to join the work, but the Governor of Judah, Zerubbabel, refused their offer. As a result, the people all around Jerusalem began to harass, threaten, and discourage the people from their work. Through the reigns of Cyrus and his successor, Xerxes, they managed to intimidate the Jews into inaction on the temple. They even wrote to Xerxes’ successor, Artaxerxes, and persuaded him to officially forbid the work from continuing due to Jerusalem’s history of power in the region and insurrection against other kings. This despite the original go-ahead from King Cyrus. So while the work on the Temple began early in Cyrus’ reign, three kings later, when Darius came to the Persian throne, work had gone no further than the foundation that was laid soon after the exiles’ first return.
And this is where things are when Haggai prophecies to the Jewish exiles who had returned to the city. Haggai issued a series of four prophecies, all occurring over a four month period during the second year of Darius’ reign. Thanks to the knowledge of archaeology and astronomy, we can precisely date these events to 520 BC. In fact, we can be so precise as to say that the first prophecy happened on what we would call August 29, 520 BC.
What prompted Haggai’s prophecy was that they had forgotten that what made them a people was not a common ancestor. What bonded them together was not blood. What bonded them was the promise of the glory of God in their midst. They were not primarily Hebrews or Jews. They were primarily God’s people. What should have been important was not their economic or personal security, but that God had allowed them to return to the land that He had promised to their forefathers. He was keeping the covenant. He was still their God, still careful to look after them, even after their history of rebellion. Restoring the place where they could commune with Him should have taken precedence.
And it did, for two or three whole years after they returned. Then things got difficult. They lost the vision of who they were as a people and what they needed to set their priorities on. They instead turned to individual concerns. They rebuilt their houses. They made sure that they were as economically secure as could be in a ruined city. Once that was done, they turned to beautifying their houses and making their lives more comfortable. For years, this continued. They neglected the work of rebuilding God’s Temple.
A computer animated movie, like Pixar’s Finding Nemo, is made up of twenty-four individually-rendered frames for each second of the movie. Each of these frames takes hours for a computer to render. Some of the individual frames in Finding Nemo took up to four days of computing time for the computers to process and render into a video clip because of the complexities of the environment that Pixar was trying to create in their animations. 24 frames per second are required in order for the human eye to perceive consistent motion. Each frame must carry the motion forward ever so slightly.
Disney artists use a process they call Imagineering when creating a movie. Instead of thinking through each of the frames one by one, a daunting and overwhelming task for anyone that would bog the team down, the artists instead imagine where the action is going, where the movie is going to wind up. Knowing where the action is heading helps them to know how to draw the current 1/24th of a second frame. That’s the Imagineering. By always keeping the end in view, each frame’s composition was easier to imagine and therefore to draw, or engineer.
The Jews returning from the exile in Babylon and Persia lost sight of their end goal. Proverbs 29:18 says, “Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained.” There is no direction, so they go wherever they set their minds, or wherever they had already been heading with or without forethought. One quote I read this week of an ancient Chinese proverb says, “If you don’t change direction, you’re likely to wind up where you are headed.” With no boundaries defined by what they were seeking to accomplish, the people sought their own ends. There was no vision of a completed Temple and a restored worship of Yahweh. There was simply existing and surviving from day to day. They had no end goal, so they meandered aimlessly, hoping that each frame of their life would amount to something and take them somewhere. But they weren’t headed in any particular direction, and that’s exactly where they were going to wind up: no place in particular, certainly not a restored, worshipping Israel.
The people who had returned to Jerusalem had paneled their own houses with wood while neglecting to gather the necessary wood for the Temple. They looked after their own conditions without considering the disgrace of a ruined Temple. They let outsiders intimidate them into accepting the status quo rather than declaring that this was the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it – and let us do it in a Temple! While they had allowed all of that to hamper them, God still told them through His prophet, Haggai, “the latter glory of this house will be greater than the former.” Where they were headed was going to be better than any of the memories of those old enough to remember the wonder of Solomon’s Temple. They just needed to keep it in view. They needed to utilize Disney’s Imagineering process. Their view of the future was too small. Or, rather, it was simply nonexistent.
And so my question for us today is this: how is our Imagineering going? Together, we need to know what our end story is. We need to know what finishing well looks like. We need to write our story with the end in mind. J.K. Rowling long said that she always knew what the last line of the last book of the Harry Potter series would be. Through all of the success and fan mania while she was writing the series, through everyone else’s ideas of how it should end, she knew where she was going. The same should be true of us. We cannot take the view of living from moment to moment, just on the thread of a hope that somehow all of the frames of our life and common lives together will amount to something. We need to write them with direction and with purpose.
Doing so will require at least four things that were required of the Israelites in Jerusalem under the Persian King Darius. First, we will need to take courage. According to the account in Ezra, the people who returned from exile faced a barrage of attacks from every side. They had suffered the humiliation of defeat and exile. Their return was at the command of a king who could just as easily revoke his order and summon them back to exile. The situation in Jerusalem was bleak. The signs of conquest were everywhere. There were far too few people for the size of the city. There was every reason to be discouraged and satisfied with just the success of making it alive through to another day. They desperately needed a healthy dose of courage.
We succumb to this lack of courage rather easily in the church. We get excited when we’ve met our budget. When the nominating committee was successful in finding a full slate of workers for the coming year. We’re ecstatic to see a visitor randomly walk into our service. But mostly, we just go from one week to the next, one day to the next. Sunday blurs to Sunday. Year blurs to year. It’s a monotonous tone of just background noise, of just existing and making it through. Brothers and sisters, this is not the way it is supposed to be.
We need courage to reach out and grab all of the things that God is calling us to. We need the courage to live passionately. We need the courage to love boldly, forgive endlessly, serve painfully, give cautionless-ly. We need to do far more than exist as a body and as individuals. We need to live out loud. And that will take the same courage that Haggai commanded Zerubbabel and the people in Jerusalem to have.
We need to not be satisfied that a visitor randomly finds us. We need to be going out and inviting them in so that we aren’t surprised when they show up. We should be filtering workers because we have so many volunteers, rather than struggling with how to fill all of the different jobs that church work requires. We should consistently be busting the bounds of our budget because we find God to be so abundantly blessing us.
Our Imagineering of what it means to be the church has to account for this kind of courage.
Second, we need to trust God. And this trust is two-fold. We need to trust that God is with us, which is something that we say easily, but only live with difficulty. Church, God is with us! Not just as a Bible in our hands, or a friendly or kind word in a time of need. He is with us in the thick and the thin. He is with us in the inspiring rainbow and the mundane Corn Flakes we had for breakfast. He is with us as we provide a shoulder to cry on, and He is also with us as we bemoan our lack of luck at the umpteenth red light we sit at. God is with us when we meet for a business meeting, and He is with us when we sing our Sunday hymns, when we listen to His word, and when we drive out of the parking lot. He is with us – really with us! More than the air we breathe or the water we drink. More than the hunger pains waiting for lunch or the shirt that keeps us warm. He is with us, and that gives us every reason to not fear, which is the second part of trusting God.
The returned Israelites knew well how to fear. They feared their neighbors. They feared another exile. They feared Cyrus and his successors. They feared not being able to eat the next day. They feared not having shelter over their heads. They feared mockers if their houses were not nice enough. They feared that the harvest was not going to be plentiful enough. They feared a lot. But God says: Do not fear them. Fear me! I am enough. I will provide. I will see you through. There is no reason to fear anything else as long as I am with you. Trust God: do not fear.
Our Imagineering of church has to account for this part of trust: God is with us, and therefore we do not need to be fearful.
We can live with abandon, give generously, preach compellingly, witness boldly, accomplish miraculously. The end picture has us and God together. And it is already true! God really does want to accomplish His stated goal of saving humanity from ourselves. He really wants to manifest His glory in all the nations and peoples of the world. He really wants to do this before He comes back. He really wants people from every tribe, people, nation, and language to worship Him around His throne. He really wants to accomplish all of this. And He really wants to use us – you and me! – to do this. In fact, He is already active in doing so. God wanted what the people of Jerusalem were going to see rise from the ruins to be a greater display of His glory than anything that Solomon in all of his wisdom and wealth could even begin to imagine.
Our Imagineering of church has to account for this: that God is active is pursuing His glory. And He is active in pursuing it through us, His church.
Finally, our end story has to include us doing hard work. The Temple’s foundation had already been laid for years by the time Haggai prophesied. Stones from the sacking of Jerusalem seventy years prior were everywhere. They needed to gather wood. But most of all, they needed people to just get to work putting everything back together. To build a Temple. Sure, God could do it with a word of His mouth, but He wanted the people to care enough to want to work at it. Show me what a person spends her time doing, and I’ll tell you what her passion is.
There is no easy way to do or be the church. There is no easy way to love God and be His people. It requires work. We’re not constructing a Temple, we’re contributing to a Body. Haggai commanded the governor and people of Jerusalem to get busy. “Work!” he told them. There is no other way to build a Temple than with men and women moving stones, weaving cloths, shaping metal, chopping down trees. You have to do in order to accomplish.
Our Imagineering of church has to account for this: we must work.
We are not a body because we meet in a common location called Monte Vista Baptist Church. We are not all bonded together by blood. We are bonded together by the promise of the glory of God in our midst, even as He was with the returning exiles. We must remember that we are primarily God’s people. What is important is not our economic or personal security, but that God has called us and made us His. He has spliced us into His vine. He is our God, careful to look after us, even despite our common history of rebellion. This body. This work. This community. This redemption story. This is where our life and our priorities need to lay.
We just need a good vision of the end goal. What are we doing? What are we aiming for together as a body of believers? For the next weeks, I want to put our Imagineering into focus so that we can compose our frames right. We’ll be looking at different aspects of what we need to be doing as a body of believers. I want us to get a good vision of the end goal so that we can know how to paint today so that it contributes to the story that God is telling here. As I said a few weeks ago when we were talking about our stone-stories: I am confident that the stories God intends to write in the future of our church are greater than anything we have to tell from out past. The latter glory that God derives from our body of believers will be greater than the glory He derived from us formerly.
 Haggai 2:9.