Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, November 13, 2016
At our Bible Study a few weeks ago, a question arose about something called the prosperity gospel. It refers to a theology being promoted by some television evangelists, as well as some churches, and goes something like this:
Do you want to be blessed? Sister Dorcas, I know you want to be blessed. Do you want to receive more wealth and better health than you ever imagined? God works miracles and God wants to work a miracle through you right now. All you have to do reach out and touch that TV screen to receive a blessing, which I’m giving you right now. I can see you, sitting alone, worrying about how to pay that bill. Just reach out and touch that screen. God promises us that when we give, more shall be received. God doubles our generosity with blessings we can’t even imagine. You just have to believe and your faith will be rewarded richly. If you give even $5, you’ll receive double the blessing back. So pick up that phone…yada yada yada”
Some might call the prosperity gospel a sham. I call it abusive, for it preys on the vulnerable and the desperate. Today’s reading from Haggai comes from our lectionary, but is one of the scripture passages that is used for the prosperity gospel. In this passage, the prophet Haggai speaks the word of the Lord to the people, telling them to start working again on the rebuilding of the temple. If they don’t have the resources, God will shake down the nations so that all of the nations’ treasures will come to Judah and make the restored temple a place of prosperity.
This sounds very much like the prosperity gospel, but if we look a little more closely at this reading, we will find a much different message. First, let’s look at the historical context of Haggai. He is a later prophet, whose writing took place in the fall of 520 B.C.E. This was long after the Babylonian exile. Persia overthrew Babylon and brought back the Hebrew exiles to Judah, where Cyrus, the Persian king, allowed the returnees to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. The people began to rebuild, but for some reason, work was stopped after the foundation was laid. We don’t know why, but funds probably had something to do with it. For 18 years, nothing more was done.
Then Haggai came along and asked if anyone had seen the former Temple of Solomon in all its glory, before its destruction 67 years prior. If people hadn’t seen it, they had certainly heard stories about its splendour. Undoubtedly, the tricks of nostalgia would have aggrandized Solomon’s temple to even greater glory. Perhaps these stories were another reason why the rebuilding stopped. People were continually comparing the rebuilding project to the glorious past and those involved in the construction were becoming increasingly disillusioned. No matter how hard they worked, they knew that their efforts would never live up to the memory of the past.
There’s a wee lesson for us. We certainly need to remember and give thanks to those who paved the way for us today. We need to remember the glory days when rooms and coppers were filled. But we must take care not to let our reminiscing of the good old days rob us of appreciation for the next generation’s efforts.
Once Haggai had addressed the disillusionment with the rebuilding, he then told the people to take courage and not give up. God was with them; because the Spirit of God resided with them, they need not fear. Haggai then prophesied that the nations would be shaken and their treasures would come and fill the temple with splendour. This is the key line for the prosperity gospel—be faithful and God will bless you with what is not yours. However, what the Hebrew reader would have known was that the treasures to which Haggai referred would have been the original temple treasures of ornaments, fixtures and dishes that were pilfered when the temple was destroyed. What Haggai was prophesying was that the temple’s treasures would be returned upon completion of the temple. After Haggai’s encouragement, the people did renew their rebuilding efforts and in 5 years, were able to rededicate the temple, complete with many of the treasures that were returned.
This reminds me of the story of St. Mary’s Basilica in Cracow, Poland. During the Second World War, its high altar was dismantled and hidden in August, 1939. However, the invading German army found it and took it away to Germany. After the war, it was discovered in the Nuremberg Castle and returned to Cracow in 1946.
The final verse of this passage from Haggai contains the primary key to understanding this story. Regarding the rebuilt temple, Haggai writes, “The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity.” The Hebrew word that the New Revised Standard Version translates as prosperity in this verse is “shalom.” I don’t know why the NRSV chose this translation—usually it contains accurate translations, but in this case, the King James Version, as well as most other modern versions, have chosen a better translation of “shalom”. It means peace, wholeness, security and wellness. One translation says of the rebuilt temple that it is a place where God will hand out wholeness and holiness.
God does not promise prosperity through the temple or the church. Our church may not have as many resources or people as it did in the time of our prosperity, but our efforts are still worthy. They may not measure up to the glory of former times, but it is God we are supposed to be glorifying, not our own efforts. What matters is that we honour God as best we can with what we do have. I firmly believe that we have everything we need in this time and place to serve God. Each one of us is part of the picture and is here for a reason. Our task is to discern how we are to follow God with what we have.
God says to us, “Take courage, for I am with you. My spirit abides among you; do not fear…[for] in this place, I will hand out wholeness and holiness.”