Sermon, November 6, 2022

A Sermon


The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton

Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ

November 6, 2022

“Living in the Not Yet”

The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts…

Haggai 2:9a[i]

This sermon is given for me.  I need to cling to hope.  Personally, I have a brother who is suffering from a chronic illness and will be lucky to see Christmas let alone Easter.  I have a friend and colleague dying from ALS and another friend who’s recovery from breast cancer is uncertain. I’m at the age where one’s medical history becomes a common topic of informal conversation!  Add to this that although God called me into ministry, I wonder if God got the wrong number.  You see it.  This church should be filled with young people seeking the purpose of life.  Instead, our congregation is slightly larger than a small group.  This sermon is for me because I need to cling to hope.  That is exactly what I found when I came to this reading from Haggai.

            The evidence that would make for doom and despair was all around him and his people.  Indeed, he acknowledges the bleak condition of their present moment.  The nation defeated.  Many taken into captivity.  The Temple destroyed.  It is hard to cling to hope when death and loss are constants.  Yet Haggai hoped.  He clung to the promises of God and asked his people to do the same.  He saw beyond the undeniable present to a promise making and promise keeping God. 

            We, too, must make the promises of God our ultimate hope.  Let me suggest that it will require three affirmations.  First, realize that any given moment is capricious.  Second, cling to this truth — the promises of God never fail.  Third, know that the constraints of our finitude are not final.

            We already know the truth of the first affirmation — namely, any given moment is capricious.  That’s why we invented marriage.  Right?  Do you remember the days when you were head over heals in love?  It hurt to be apart.  You were infatuated with the other person.  Twenty years later?  Not so much.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer captured this truth when he wrote to a couple who either were or were planning on being married.  He talked of marriage as an institution, an office, that one enters into.  While you might be driven to getting married out of a mutual infatuation with each other, marriage is more than sentiment.  It is an obligation centered on a promise and a willingness to keep it.  He said that while love may drove folks to get married, it is now the marriage that will sustain their love.  One’s infatuation with the other will not always burn with heat.  What is needed is commitment to a future that cannot be fully seen in the present.

            But why would anyone do it?  Why take such a risk?  I have shared this before but here is what Joseph Sittler has to say:

“The heart of marriage is a promise.  On the face of it, it’s a crazy promise: two people who have only a partial understanding of each other stand up and make this bizarre statement that they’re going to cherish and care for one another for a lifetime.  They say, ‘I take this one and this one takes me as long as we both shall live,’ not ‘as long as we both shall love.’  To many persons this seems like a mad and risky thing to do.  Yet I would suggest that the madness is the romance.  Without risk there is no beauty or strength or goodness.”[1]

            What is true for marriage is true for the passage of time.  The imprint of either despair or joy is capricious.  It can change in any given moment.  If we cling merely to the heat of our emotions, we will be trapped by what is and never see what might be.  To have hope Haggai had to see beyond his present moment to a nation restored and a Temple rebuilt.

            If we are to have hope, the second requirement is to affirm that the promises of God never fail.  It is impossible to make this affirmation if we cannot live out the first requirement of seeing any given moment as capricious.  Right?  I catalogued at the beginning of this sermon why I needed hope.  My present moment is filled with enough ominous reality to sink my optimism.  How, then, am I supposed to affirm the promises of God never fail?  Aren’t they failing now?  Why do the good people in my life have to suffer?

            I don’t know.  What I do know is if I let this question consume me, I will go down a rabbit hole of speculation.  In the end, I don’t believe there is a satisfying answer to this question.  But if I continue to affirm that God’s promises are always kept, it changes the way I frame the question.  Given the fact that good people suffer, suffering is not their final end point.  There is a Sunday com’in.  The cross may serve as a reminder of suffering’s reality, but it is empty.  It is not Christ’s end point but the means by which He arrived at an empty tomb.  The promise was kept.  Trust in the promise making and promise keeping God. 

            If we are to have hope even in dark times, then, as just suggested, know that our finitude is not final.  Put succinctly, God is not done yet.  Satan, the forces of evil, they know this.  If Hell has parties, certainly they had one on Good Friday.  The voice of truth, the champion of justice, the ambassador of peace, silenced on the gibbet of shame.  But there was a Sunday com’in.  What Satan could not see, what the forces of evil cannot comprehend, is that God is not done yet.  Even amidst all of life’s afflictions, our lamentations about the condition of the world, the promise making and promise keeping God is not done yet.  Satan and his minions were fooled.  But I will never be, and for that reason, I live in hope.  And you?  Let us pray…

[1] Sittler, Joseph, Grace Notes and Other Fragments, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1981, p. 17.

[i] Haggai 2:1-9

2In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 2Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, 3Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? 4Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, 5according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.6For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; 7and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. 8The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. 9The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.