When I was a curate near High Wycombe my vicar, John Olhausen, liked to talk about the bible as ‘the pasture-lands of God’. He taught me to expect to hear God’s voice speaking through scripture each day, and I have tried to follow that example ever since. So when we read the set readings at Morning Prayer I listen out for something that God wants me to hear for the day or the week ahead.
Recently we read through the prophet Haggai – one of those prophets I still have some difficulty locating in my bible! God’s words through the prophet seemed particularly appropriate in these days when the church appears to be in decline in so many areas, and our church in Old Coulsdon faces the added pressure of needing to spend a lot of money on our buildings, and to restore our finances to a deficit-free state.
Haggai’s message was a simple one about the Temple in Jerusalem: ‘Build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honoured.’ He was speaking at a time when the Jews had begun to return from exile in Babylon and were settling back in Jerusalem. They were rebuilding their own houses and spending their money on their own needs, but God’s house – the Temple – was still in ruins. As a consequence they were finding that their money didn’t go very far – it was as if it was kept in a bag full of holes; it just drained away.
“Make my house your priority,” is what God was saying to his people. Much later, St Paul described the church as the temple of God – a sacred temple where God dwelt. Not a building now, but collectively the people of God. If that is the case, it means that we should treat the church – as the body of Christ, and as the dwelling place of God – with the same respect that the Jews treated the temple in Jerusalem. Today, though, the church is often relegated to the level of a ‘leisure activity’, or a ‘therapy session’ to get you through the week ahead.
Perhaps those of us who are in the church ought to heed the words Haggai spoke out and take the church more seriously, and pay it more attention in terms of what we give – our time, effort and money. The point of the Temple in Jerusalem was that it was a physical place where people could meet with God; the point of the church is exactly the same – a community in which people may encounter the risen Christ and through faith in him meet with God. This is what keeps me going when the media are so negative about the church, and the statistics tempt us to give up. In spite of its shortcomings, this is what St Paul said about the church: ‘God’s intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms…’ So not only do we have an earthly mission, but, in a way I don’t fully understand, we have a cosmic mission as well. There’s food for thought.