A Disturbing Christmas
Topic: Our Disturbing Truths Scripture: Haggai 2:4–2:9
One of the benefits of social media is that I get to stay connected to people back in PA. I get to see updates into their lives, pictures of their kids, and every religious/political opinion they have. Sure, it’s a mixed bag. But it also gives me the chance to hear about things that I wouldn’t have known about. About a week or so ago I noticed that a bunch of my friends from back east started tweeting and Facebooking the same kind of thing. “Did you feel it?” “Wait, what just happened?” “I felt it!” “Was that real?I, being out here in the Midwest, had no idea what they were talking about but it turns out there was an earthquake around Delaware that was felt through a good chunk of PA. Earthquakes aren’t very common out there and it was strong enough that it made everyone stop what they were doing. That’s usually a common response when you feel the earth shake.
This morning our text talks about a shaking of the earth. It tells us about a great disturbance that impacts the ground, the seas, the heavens, and all people. Something that no one could successfully ignore, and something that would change things from that point forward. And the fact that it came from the mouth of a prophet adds an even more ominous, penetrating quality to this pending event.
This morning we’re exploring the words of another minor prophet. This time, it’s Haggai. Much like Amos and Micah and Zephaniah, Haggai dwells in obscurity and rarely makes it into sermons or devotionals. Part of that might be because it’s a really short book, only two chapters. But regardless, we’re going to look at the words of this often neglected prophet to gain insight into just what kind of impact the truth of Christmas should have on our lives. We’re in chapter 2 and we’ll be looking at verses 4-9.
So we come into Haggai’s message to the people with this declaration from God. A declaration of presence, power, and peace. And we have to remember to place ourselves in the time and place when this declaration was given. What was the state of God’s people? What was going on at the time? Why did the people need to hear this? Some of the other prophets we’ve looked at spoke out during what was called the Exile. A time where the people of God were ripped from their homes in Israel after being conquered and forced to live in far off lands. Haggai’s prophecy came after that. He is actually speaking out to one of the first groups of God’s people to be released from Exile, and who have returned home.
This isn’t the kind of warm return we might think. The people are returning to a war-torn, virtually desolate landscape, which had been picked over and destroyed by the invading enemies. They come home looking to start a life but there is a lot of adversity and hard work that needs to happen. It’s in this environment that we hear Haggai’s words. And Haggai does something that several of the prophets in Scripture are known for, something that actually inspired and shaped pretty much every preacher that has ever given a sermon. He uses an object lesson as an analogy for a deeper truth. In this case, it is the temple of the Lord.
The people had returned home and started to rebuild their lives and that included their devotion and worship of God. Just as with their homes, centers, and markets, the people began rebuilding the temple. But as life progressed and reached a new normal, the construction and restoration of the temple ceased as the rest of life continued on. The foundations were left bare and began collecting debris. It became an eye sore to everyone, and likely something that caused a twinge of guilt. Almost like that project you have been wanting to do around the house but still haven’t. I have a ceiling fan still in the box outside Isaac’s room that I wanted to install in the summer. Every time I notice it I get that little dagger of, “Ah, I gotta do that.” But it hasn’t been enough to get me to actually do it. Not yet anyway.
Haggai knows that it is not only the physical structure of the people’s faith that has been left incomplete and ignored. Their spiritual life and devotion to God had ended up in the same place as those foundations. What began with zeal, anticipation, and conviction has now fallen victim to the lethargy and atrophy of everyday life. It is in this time and space of God’s people that the prophet Haggai offers the words of our text. A message of power and action but also one focused on promise and presence.
Haggai’s message from God begins by encouraging the people to be strong and to work. The people have been returned to their homeland but that doesn’t mean life on easy street. In every aspect of their lives they would need to work. God tells the people, “I am with you.” God goes on to remind the people of the covenant He had made with them all the way back to the days when Moses led them out of slavery in Egypt. “My Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.” It’s perhaps one of the most precious and powerful declarations that God could make to His people, both then and now: Be strong. I am with you. I haven’t forgotten my promise. My Spirit is still among you. Don’t be afraid. Yes, these words are spoken to a people centuries ago but they are also the words spoken by God right before the birth of Christ. This declaration of God is the preamble to Christmas. It is the preface to an event that will fundamentally and holistically change the world.
And then Haggai describes a great disturbance. The earth, the heavens, the seas will shake. Every nation will be rattled and it will be felt by every single person. And the glory of God will come and fill this place in a way it never has. In a way more powerful and more potent than it ever has before. And as a result, peace. As a result of a world-changing, globally-felt event, and the overwhelmingly total flooding of God’s glory on earth…there would finally be peace.
This is so obviously a foreshadowing of Christmas. Yes, the Minor Prophets might seem confusing and obscure a good bit of the time. And yeah, we’re not all seasoned biblical scholars. But this is as plain as breaking day. A promise of God’s presence and faithfulness. “I am with you.” “My Spirit is among you.” An event that changes and impacts everything. The glory of God coming in a way it never has before and in such a way that will transform every human life. This is Bethlehem and the manger and the infant Jesus. This is Christmas! And it reveals something about Christmas that I think is important: We’ve been doing something wrong or missing something.
Everything in this preemptive prophecy about the holiday says this: Christmas is supposed to be disturbing. I don’t mean disturbing like X-Files or Stranger Things. I mean disturbing like when all my friends back east felt that small earthquake. Our observance and celebration of Christmas should force us out of whatever we’re doing. Whatever rhythms we’re in, whatever routines we have going, anything that contributes to the status quo – it should be disturbed. The birth of Jesus is an event that impacts all of existence and that includes our small corner of the world. If the reality and truth of Christmas comes and goes through our lives like a plate of Christmas cookies or a stack of greeting cards, then we’re missing something.
And I’m not talking about simply surviving the battle royale shopping trips or the marathon cookie baking sessions or your 15th viewing of A Christmas Story. I’m referring to the significance and the meaning and the depth of Christmas that we find in a manger. In the infant Savior born in Bethlehem. Those events, that very first Christmas, weren’t comfy and sentimental. It was the definition of disturbing.
Mary went into labor while traveling in a foreign place. There’s no extra room available for this little family so the newly born Messiah is placed in a manger. Holiday marketing has turned the concept of a manger into something cute but don’t be fooled – it was a feeding trough for animals. The first folks to visit the baby weren’t family or friends but shepherds. And then we get to the magi, often called wise men or kings, and their notorious three gifts. Even these, the first presents given on the very first Christmas are disturbing. The newborn is given gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
We’re several centuries removed from the day of Christ’s birth but those are still awkward baby shower gifts back then too. Gold, while obviously very valuable, signified royalty and prestige. And here it is nestled on top of hay at the bottom of a feeding trough where a newborn lay. Frankincense was most commonly used as the incense priests burned in worship. It’s even referenced in Exodus as a pure and holy concoction. This priestly incense is would barely have been able to mask the smells of animals. And myrrh. The most disturbing of them all. Myrrh was the resin substance that was placed upon and around the deceased to mask the smell and to honor the one who had passed. A gift given to honor the dead offered to a child still brand new to the world.
This is why the shout of the prophet, Haggai, has a perfect place in our celebration of Christmas. The incredible truth and wonder of Christmas gets wrapped up, both figuratively and literally, in all the trappings of the holiday we see on the calendar. We might describe our Christmas in a lot of ways: hectic, tiring, warm, traditional, fun, special. But is your Christmas disturbing? Does it shake up the everyday parts of your life or is it just a seasonal twist on your everyday norm?
This is where the context of Haggai and his reason for preaching becomes so helpful to us. Remember, Haggai uses a tangible example as the launching pad for God’s message to the people. In this case, the neglected and discarded foundations of the temple. The very place where the presence of God is meant to dwell among the people. I tell you every time I preach that this building is not the church but that you are. And while that is true, this place, this structure, has purpose and meaning. In fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch at to say that it is because of the faith of this church (people) that we have a church (building). The faithfulness of God’s people has always forged itself into tangible, physical things. For the people in Haggai’s time, it is the temple. For us, it could be this building or the communion table or even the Bible itself.
Haggai noticed that the failing and neglect of the physical structure of the people’s faith was actually a condition of the waning faith in their hearts and lives. And so what does he do? He tells them to get to it and to build something. Something that, as he says in our text, will be filled with God’s glory. Here’s the thing: I think our observance or celebration or belief in Christmas is like the temple. This monumental reality that shakes everything and touches every life has become overlooked in the bustle of the holiday. What should be a disturbing truth to each of us, that our God would come and take our form so that He might die for us, has become, for many, just as ho-hum as the songs playing in the car. If we want to break that cycle and give Christmas the meaning and the power it is meant to then, just like the people of God in our text, we have to build something.
Maybe you have a tradition in your home that helps you and yours remember the reason for the season and to focus on the person of Christ. Maybe you don’t. My point and my challenge is this: Build something into your holiday that forces you to not only have a holly jolly Christmas but a disturbing one as well. Some practice or action that makes you leave the comfort of the norm and familiar of the holiday. It could be something as simple as setting aside the time to read the Christmas story out of Luke. Maybe it’s finding a good devotional book to go through. It could be having your own advent wreath in your home and having to light those candles that signify the hope, peace, joy, and love we see and have in and through Jesus Christ.
And this is about so much more than me putting another thing on your plate. It’s about all of us being able to join in the refrain of O Come O Come Emmanuel. That all of us might be able to rejoice that God is with us. That we might be able to rise above the gifts and the fairy tales and the extra calories and truly celebrate the most important birth in human history. The birth of a child who is the King of Kings. Who is the high priest that goes before us and advocates on our behalf. The same child who would grow into a man that commanded the elements and gave sight to the blind and who is THE truth – capital T. That we might celebrate the infant who came for us so that he might die for us. That is a different spin on Christmas. That kind of observance and celebration has the power to really shake things up. That, my friends, is a disturbing Christmas.