The Jerusalem Temple was the center of the universe. The place where heaven and earth met. Built by the great King Solomon, son of the greatest King, David, to be the very home of God on earth. The place where the holiest object of God’s people, the tablets of the Law, were kept. The place where a person might come to give thanks; to make petition; to seek purification and absolution.
The Jerusalem Temple was the center of the universe, for the people Israel. And it had been destroyed. Judea, the territory around Jerusalem, had become part of the Assyrian empire in the year 700 before Jesus’ birth – still nominally their own country, but forced to pay tribute and obey the Assyrian rulers. When Babylon arose as the new regional power, Judea got tangled up in a war between Babylon and Egypt, and then became part of Babylon’s growing empire. Judah revolted against Babylon, first in 598 and then again ten years later. Both times, Babylon won; and after the second revolt, in the year 587, they made sure there wouldn’t be a third one.
The city walls were torn down. The great Temple was shattered and burned, not one stone left upon another. The holy vessels were carried away as spoils of war. Most of the people of Jerusalem and Judea were killed or taken into exile in Babylon.
Then – nearly 70 years later – the exiles are allowed to go home. King Cyrus, the ruler of the NEW regional power, Persia, gives them permission to return and rebuild – even gives them money. Not everyone goes back, of course. The few who still remember Jerusalem in its glory are old now. Mostly it’s the young, the hopeful, the ambitious who return. Drawn by their parents’ and grandparents’ stories of how things used to be, in their own land, with their own great city. They set out, full of energy and purpose.
But when they get there – it’s not what they expected. For one thing, it’s not empty, a blank canvas for their dreams. There are people living in ruined Jerusalem – a mix of their own kin, mostly poor and rural Judeans who moved into what was left of the city after the exiles were taken away, and of other peoples who had moved into the region from elsewhere in the Babylonian empire. And the great Temple, the center of the universe, the place where heaven and earth meet, is … charred rubble.
The prophet Haggai is among the returnees. His book is short, only two chapters. In the first chapter, God speaks through Haggai to tell the returnees to get busy rebuilding the Temple. In the second chapter, God speaks through Haggai to address the people’s concern and dismay that the new Temple is not as fine and glorious as the old Temple.
Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? Look at it, elders: How does it look to you now? It looks like nothing, right? Yet take courage, Governor Zerubbabel; take courage, High Priest Joshua; take courage, all you people! Work, for I am with you; my spirit abides among you; fear not.The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former.
The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former. The returnees build, and the Second Temple arises from the ashes. Is it better, holier, more splendid than the first? It’s hard to say. But it becomes once again the center of Jewish religious life, the heart of a nation and a faith. The place people come to give thanks; to make petition; to seek purification and absolution. For nearly six hundred years.
Until it’s destroyed. Again. Second verse same as the first. Empire – Rome, this time; occupation; rebellion; crackdown. Fire and death and desecration. There are Roman carvings that show the holy vessels of the Second Temple being carried off as booty by the Romans, just as the vessels of the First Temple were carried off by Babylon.
About forty years before the Second Temple is destroyed, with the marks of Rome’s cultural, economic, and military domination everywhere you look, and the people resentful and restless, Jesus of Nazareth visits the Great Temple. He spends some time there, teaching and debating with other religious groups. One of those groups is the Sadducees.
We don’t actually know a lot about the Sadducees. Most of the surviving texts about them were written by their enemies. We know they had close ties to the Temple and its religious practices. We know they were Torah literalists: they didn’t hold with interpretation or tradition, but only followed what is clearly laid out in the Five Books of Moses. Among other things, that meant they didn’t believe in any kind of life after death, since nothing of the sort is mentioned in the Torah. This puts them at odds with both Jesus and with the Pharisees – with whom Jesus actually has a lot in common.
A few Sadducees approach Jesus with a question. They say: According to the Law of Moses, if a married man dies without having children, it is his brother’s responsibility to marry the widow and have children with her, as a way to give his dead brother a heritage that will live on. They’re not making this up: it’s called levirate marriage.It’s laid out in Deuteronomy, and there’s a memorable story in Genesis about a man who is struck down by God for refusing to impregnate his dead brother’s wife. It’s a central principal of marriage law in Old Testament Judaism, and it’s found in many other cultures around the world. It seems weird to us, but this practice in itself would have been normal for the crowd gathered around Jesus here.
The Sadducees have an elaborate what-if about levirate marriage and resurrection – which, remember, they think is bunk: This unfortunate woman is married to seven brothers in a row, and they ALL die without having children with her. Then she dies. In the afterlife, whose wife is she?
This isn’t a good-faith question – they are trying to trip Jesus up. But it’s also not entirely a bad-faith question. This IS actually how Jews seek out the meaning of Scripture. The Talmud is a body of law, interpretation, commentary and debate that’s core to Jewish teaching, built up over many generations both before and after the time of Jesus. And the Talmud has lots of stuff like this in it: posing hypothetical questions, debating how the Law applies. It’s rich and contentious and wonderful. So, yeah, the Sadducees are poking at Jesus here; but this is also a game which everyone basically enjoys.
Jesus, as usual in these situations, sidesteps the trap. I think his answer is important in a couple of ways. For one thing, he liberates this poor hypothetical woman. Please note that marriage is fundamentally asymmetrical, in this context: the men marry, the woman is given in marriage. And for the most part, women had to be married to have any social standing or security. What a relief for this woman, to be able to just be herself in the afterlife, rather than having seven immortal husbands, only one of whom actually chose to marry her!
But this isn’t really a conversation about marriage. That’s missing the point. It’s a conversation about resurrection. It’s a conversation about the scope of reality: Is this IT, or is there More? Is there After? Jesus says: There’s More. There’s After. Because our God is God of the living.
We don’t know much about the Sadducees because they disappeared from history. Right around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. While the Pharisees, and the Christians, and others, developed new forms of Jewish life and practice and identity, the Sadducees just faded away. It makes sense. If your core identity and practice centers on the Temple and the Temple is gone, what else is there to do? Why go on? Judaism, the faith of Moses, might as well be dead. And they didn’t believe in resurrection.
But Jesus says: Our God is a God of the living.
Beloved friends, it would have made all the sense in the world for me to use that Haggai text to preach about our church renovation. To promise renewal and prosperity stretching unbroken into the future, now that the kitchen has decent lighting and we have more than one meeting room. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former.
But I can’t not know the next chapters of that story… the ones where the latter splendor ends up as rubble, too. And I won’t lie to you.
The second Temple lasted over 500 years, which is a pretty good run. St. Dunstan’s is only 61 years old – and counting. Like those returning to Jerusalem from exile, we, too, have elders among us who remember the glory days – of this church or other churches. St. Dunstan’s is one of many churches planted in the heady ecclesial optimism of the late 1950s, when a population boom combined with a spike in religious engagement, and churches and Sunday school classrooms across America were bursting at the seams. When people would be turned away from church committees because they were FULL.
The former splendor of this house – like all those hopeful midcentury church plants – was pretty splendid. Will the latter be even greater? Hard to say. As I often remind you, the landscape of 21st century faith is complex – though not all bad, by any means. Let me be clear: I think we have some splendor ahead of us. God has some next things in mind for St. Dunstan’s. I don’t know what they are yet; but I can feel the space beginning to open.
It’s easy, in the dust and muddle of the final phases of a major renovation, to be pretty focused on the building – like our faith ancestor Haggai. Some days the best thing I can imagine is for all the mess and chaos to be finished, and for us to settle in to a newer, nicer version of what we already had. But fortunately God’s imagination is bigger than mine.
Parts of this place really are looking comparatively splendid. But we don’t come to church – we don’t come to Jesus – for splendor. We come to church – we come to Jesus – for life. If the goal were, Make the old thing into a nicer, newer thing, then yay! We did it! (Mostly. And we’ll still be paying for it for a while.) But all that is just the container for what God is doing among us. It’s a safer, cleaner, more comfortable and accessible container now, but it’s still just a container.
I’d like to stand here and promise you that the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former. But I believe a truer and stronger and more hopeful promise is Jesus’ promise is that our God is the God of the living. A promise we live into not only by sharing worship with our beloved dead – but by trusting in the possibility of a future better and bolder and more beautiful than a freshly re-painted version of the past.
Take courage, leaders! says the prophet Haggai.Take courage, priests! Take courage, all you people! Work, for I am with you; my spirit abides among you. Fear not.