The Word Among Us

Advent 2005 Issue

Let Us Return to the Lord

An Old Testament story that still rings true today.

The year was 521 b.c. The Temple, once an impressive piece of architecture and the dwelling place of Yahweh, had been burned to the ground and was now a shell of its former self. The Israelites, once the envy of their Samaritan and Edomite neighbors, were dispirited and depressed. They had lost their confidence in God. Their national symbol was a half-built, unusable place of worship. It was at this time that God reached out to them through the prophet Haggai with words of comfort, challenge, and encouragement.

Wanting to wake the people out of their depression and give them new hope, God used Haggai to speak about rebuilding the Temple and making its glory shine more brightly than ever before. He urged them to change their attitude, and he pointed to their governor, Zerubbabel, as having a special role in his plans for them and for the Temple.

Haggai called the Israelites to repent for the way they had given up on the Temple and turned to work on their own homes instead. "Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?" he asked (Haggai 1:4). Haggai's words struck them to the heart, and they repented. Led by Zerubbabel and the high priest Joshua, they set out to finish the Temple.

As the Israelites began to rebuild, God spoke to them again through Haggai. This time, he gave them words of encouragement. He told them that even though the half-
finished Temple seemed "as nothing" to them, they should take heart and keep working. Why? Because his Spirit was working with them. Because he himself would fill this new Temple with his own glory and majesty (Haggai 2:3-7).

So what does the story of Haggai, Zerubbabel, and the Temple have to do with preparing for Christmas? It is appropriate because it can help us question whether the everyday demands of our lives have crept in and replaced the glory of our faith and our dedication to the work of the church. Is it possible that the primary motivator of our lives is not the promise of being transformed by the Spirit and the call to be a light to the world but the hope of a life centered on our own personal goals and advancement? Every year as Advent begins, God wants to ask us, "Are you distracted from me by the demands and responsibilities of this world? Are you spending all of your time building your own world, all the while neglecting my house?"

"Build My House." Just like us, the Israelites had family responsibilities. They had to work to secure a stable living. They faced complex and demanding problems. And yet God called them to rebuild the Temple—a project that didn't seem to meet any of their immediate needs. But God wanted them to know—just as he wants us to know—that no matter how difficult or challenging our lives are, he still calls us to devote time and energy to building his house.

The Israelites saw their decision to rebuild the Temple as far more than a recommitment to a stalled public works project. Rather, it was their expression of repentance for being so concerned with their problems that they put aside their calling to be God's special, holy people. Rebuilding the Temple was their way of returning to the Lord (Haggai 2:17). They heard God's message and they were moved to change, namely to set aside their own plans and concerns for the sake of the Temple.

The principle is the same for us. When we allow ourselves to become distracted, we need to heed this message. We need to set aside our concerns and responsibilities for a time and make a concerted effort to draw closer to God. We can pray, "Lord, I repent. I know that I have allowed my spiritual life to fall into neglect. I want to return to you, Lord. I want to set aside this time just for you because I need you. You are my only way out of this spiritual desolation."

When the Israelites repented and got back to work on the Temple, they discovered an unexpected blessing. Not only were they unified by such a massive project. Not only was their sense of identity as God's special people strengthened. They were also rejuvenated spiritually. The intimate relationship that they had with God—a relationship that had before felt so dark and desolate—was renewed. Their first love for the Lord returned as they felt his love in a new and fresh way. In short, they experienced the glory of the Lord again.

This is exactly what we can expect whenever we come back to the Lord: Our first love for him will be rejuvenated; we will feel a deeper intimacy with him; and we too will be filled with his glory.

Christ in You, the Hope of Glory. When he wrote to the believers in Colossae, St. Paul sought to encourage them to stay close to Jesus. He reminded them of all that the Lord had done in their lives and then pointed them to the future. He spoke of "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27).

Brothers and sisters, Christ is in us. He hasn't abandoned us. His presence can be just as real to us as it was to the Israelites when they heeded Haggai's words and returned to the Lord. "Christ in you" tells us that Jesus truly wants to lead us and inspire us and transform us into his likeness.

By adding the phrase, the hope of glory, Paul points us toward the complete fulfillment of God's plan for our lives: the Second Coming. He knew if the Colossians could just put their hope in Jesus' return, it would affect the way they lived each and every day until that return finally took place. Similarly, when we put our hope in the Second Coming of Jesus, it will help us stay close to Jesus today.

Every day when we wake up, Jesus invites us to come and follow him. Some days are easy, while others can be demanding and stressful. But whether our days are easy or hard, they will all go better when we trust that Christ is working in us, giving us the grace to draw closer to him and to deal with all the negative forces that get in our way. His grace can fill us with the courage and the determination to stay true to our calling until he comes again.

When the Israelites rebuilt the Temple, it was both a work of God and a human effort. The Israelites did the physical building, but it was the Lord, at work among them, who transformed the Temple into his house. Likewise, when we live by the words, "Christ is in me; he is my hope of glory," we are saying, "I will do the work of praying, serving, building, and loving. Still, I know that as I follow Jesus' commands, he is with me, helping me and transforming my life by his power and his glory."

The Israelites probably didn't know how long it would take to restore the Temple. But they did know that God was with them. Similarly, we do not know when Jesus will come again. Yet we do know that until that day, he lives in us. So this Advent, let's put our trust in St. Paul's words: "Christ in me, the hope of glory." Then, knowing that Jesus is at work in our lives, let's follow the Israelites' lead and serve the church so that it might be beautiful and pure and spotless, ready to greet him when he comes again.

The "Signet Ring." At the very end of the Book of Haggai, God promises to make Zerubbabel into a "signet ring" (Haggai 2:23). Because of this promise, Zerubbabel takes a place with all the other great heroes of the Old Testament. Like Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and David, Zerubbabel too stands as a precursor to Christ.

For a people who had lost their hope and vision, Zerubbabel became a rallying point. Through his example and his exhortation, the people took up their heritage once again and were filled with the glory of the Lord.

Similarly, Jesus came to a people, many of whom had lost their hope, and rekindled in them the memory of God's promises and a sense of dignity and honor. To shepherds and tax collectors, to fishermen and carpenters he spoke God's word of mercy and forgiveness. He spoke about God's desire to restore them to himself and to fill them with the glory of his own life. Jesus, the true "signet ring" of God the Father, came to rebuild the house of God, and after he ascended into heaven, he poured out his Spirit so that this new house—his church—would always be filled with his glory.

Knitting Past and Present Together. Isn't it amazing how God works? He knits the past to the present, encouraging us to trust in Jesus and in the blessings to come. The Israelites discovered the glory of the Lord after it had seemed lost for good. They knew his hand of guidance and love was upon them, once again.

Advent is a time of new beginnings. It's a time to enjoy the presence of the Lord in a special way. So try to follow the Israelites' example through repentance and a dedication to build his house. Put your trust in Paul's promise that Christ is in you and that he is your hope of glory. Finally, let's all honor Jesus, who came to us as a meek and humble baby. He is God's own Son, his chosen "signet ring," who has come to restore us all to the Father's love.