It’s October of 520 BC, and the returned exiles from Babylon have begun construction on the new (Second) Temple under the leadership of their governor, Zerubbabel, in response to the urging of the prophet Haggai. But just a month into the effort, discouragement has set in.
It appears that there are some older folks watching as the young bucks do the heavy lifting. They’re old enough to remember the First Temple, Solomon’s Temple, now gone for 66 years. Let me tell you, that was quite a piece of work, they say. The gold. The silver. The ivory. And those two columns on the front porch. Six feet in diameter. Three stories tall. Bronze four inches thick around a hollow core. Now that was a temple. This one? Not so much. Ah, well. I guess you can do only so much with rubble.
On the 17th of October, Haggai returns to the deflated construction workers with another message from God. He confronts the problem directly.
The old men are right—as far as they go, he says. This one isn’t going to have all the gold and silver and ivory of Solomon’s Temple (Hag 2.3). But this time is different. This one isn’t going to be about gold and silver. Gold and silver are trivial; if you need gold and silver to make this Temple great, I can get you all the gold and silver you need. I put the ore in the hills, and I know exactly where it all is. I can get it for you if I want to (Hag 2.8).
But this time I’m doing something much, much bigger than mere shiny things. This Temple is going to be different.
The day is coming, he says, when I’m going to turn the whole world upside down (Hag 2.6-7). I’m going to do something unprecedented, unimaginable. And when I do, the eyes of the entire world are going to be focused on this Temple, the one you’re building—and it will shine with a glory that gold and silver could never approach (Hag 2.7).
You see, what the construction workers couldn’t possibly know is that in a little more than half a millennium, a little baby boy would be brought into this Temple to be dedicated to the Lord, and a prophet named Simeon would be among the first to know that this was a baby like no other (Lk 2.25-35). And a dozen years later, the same boy would sit in this Temple and confound the rabbis there with the wisdom of his questions (Lk 2.41-50). And as a man he would stride into this Temple—“My Father’s house!”—and drive out those who had filled the courtyard with abusive money-making schemes, robbing God’s people in the very place God had designed to be their sanctuary (Jn 2.13-17). Twice! (Lk 19.45-46). And there he would teach (Jn 10.22-38).
And one day—one dark Friday afternoon—as the priests were going about their normal duties in the Holy Place in this very Temple*, with a horrifying crack, the veil of this Temple would be torn in two, from the top to the bottom, without hands, leaving the way open into the very presence of God for everyone.
Gold and silver? Trivial stuff.
This is about eternal things, life-changing things, world-shaking things.
So keep working, the Lord says. Your work matters, even if it doesn’t look like it to the folks looking on. This is really, really big.
What’s the theme of this second sermon?
It’s God who makes the work great.
Any work done for him, in obedience to his commands, is infinitely great, because the one for whom it’s done is infinitely great.
Labor on, my friend.
* Of course I’m aware that by Jesus’ time Herod the Great had massively renovated the Temple, with the effect that it was significantly greater and more impressive than was the one Zerubbabel’s workers constructed. But Haggai doesn’t make that distinction, and neither will I. The building they were beginning work on would eventuate in world-shaking developments.