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Focusing on the Future
November 7, 2010
Projects sometimes flounder. Dreams don’t always materialize and great plans sometimes fall short. Case in point: At 17th and Lavaca Street here in Austin sits a development called La Vista on Lavaca. La Vista was envisioned as an eight story residential mixed use tower consisting of nineteen condominiums on the top four floors, a three-floor Executive Business Center and a first floor restaurant. The grand project was billed by its developers as “Downtown living for Grown-up Texans.” Yet as some of you know, construction has come to a standstill prompting one writer to conclude that “La Vista on Lavaca is a mid-project catastrophe.”
Well, the Hebrew exiles who returned from Babylon in the year 539 BC faced their own catastrophe. After 70 years in Babylon, the exiles returned to Jerusalem with dreams of restoring Solomon’s Temple to its former glory. Yet progress had been excruciatingly slow. Fifteen years had passed and only the foundation had been laid. The whole project was in danger of collapse. Such was the situation, when on July 21st, in the second year of King Darius, the prophet Haggai began his campaign to encourage this dispirited people.
Notice that the prophet began with a bit of nostalgia. He asked, “Who among you can remember the old days when the Temple stood in all its glory? Well, probably a few of the old timers could recall Solomon’s glorious Temple before it was destroyed and the inhabitants of Jerusalem were exiled to Babylon. We can imagine these old timers reminiscing about the good ole days telling the younger folks how 30,000 Israelites cut and transported timber along with 80,000 stonecutters, 70, 000 laborers, and 3,300 supervisors. It took seven years to complete the Temple, and what a temple it was. Yes, those were the days.
Of course, it’s still common for us to think of the past as the good ole days. Some of you can remember the days when this congregation had as many as 1,000 members. Remember the Century Class so named because over one hundred university students packed the class every Sunday? Remember how we blocked off San Antonio Street for a giant street party? Some you still here who remember the excitement and renewal generated through the Faith and Life Community in the 60’s. Those were heady, glorious days. Just as the returning exiles waxed nostalgically about their lives before the exile, so today we may find ourselves doing the same. As the Spanish poet Jorge Amado declared, “Always to our view, time now past was just better to us.”
But how do things look now? That was Haggai’s follow-up question. Well, to the returning exiles hopes for a restoration had collapsed. Rebuilding the Temple to its former glory now seemed a dream far out of reach. For one thing, the promised Persian funds for rebuilding the Temple never materialized. For another, skilled labor was scarce. Furthermore, a period of drought had produced poor crops and a slow economy. Perhaps most significantly, zeal for the project had waned. In a word, the people were discouraged. “How does it look to you now,” the prophet asked, “Is it not in your sight as nothing?”
And what’s the mood today? All indicators point to the fact that most Americans are discouraged about the present condition of things. Surely the results of last Tuesday’s voting revealed as much. A recent Gallop poll showed that three-fourths of Americans say the country’s moral values are worsening. In yet another survey, seventy-five percent of Americans polled said they are dissatisfied with the way things are presently going in the country. And a New York Times/CBS poll found 81 percent of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction.
Church folks, too, have reasons to be discouraged about the present. This week Presbyterian Outlook reported on the largest survey of worshippers ever conducted in the United States. The survey highlighted an aging church population, economic challenges and declining numbers. If we direct Haggai’s question to folks today–How does it look to you now?– our response might be similar to that of those long-ago exiles: It doesn’t look too promising.
Yet hear the word of the Lord, beckons the prophet. “Take courage…Get to work…Fear not…for I am with you…my Spirit abides among you”…says the Lord. Haggai tries to jolt his people out of their fear and resignation. He moves their attention away from a nostalgic recall of the past to embrace the future with courage. Haggai would approve of a quote I heard recently: “Nostalgia is a poor strategy for facing the challenges of future.”
Clearly Haggai has a better strategy. He inspires the congregation to look forward in the confidence that God is still working God’s purpose out and we can be part of that work. Haggai evokes the Exodus and God’s presence on Mt. Sinai to convey his conviction that God’s liberating activity is ongoing and God’s presence still abides. Thus, even in a time when many are cautious, discouraged and fearful that things are getting worse, the prophet refuses to give in, hunker down or lose hope. Instead he rallies people of faith to imagine the work that God can do through them.
So let’s take courage and imagine what God can do through us today. Yes, the challenges are significant. In our own building there’s a kitchen, great hall and courtyard yet to be completed. There’s next year’s budget that needs to be fully subscribed. Beyond that, there’s a sister church in the Congo that needs repair, a medical clinic across the border in Mexico that is half-finished. There are men and women, young and old, poor and rich in our city who are yearning for a place and a community where God’s presence and activity are palpable and where God’s people are embracing the future with a bold and adventurous faith.
Friends, God’s promise to heal the creation and usher in God’s kingdom of peace has not been withdrawn. God has work for us to do here and now. So take courage, do not be afraid, God is with us. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.