Long, long ago, in a land far away from here, God’s people were feeling discouraged. For many years, all the people who mattered had been taken off to exile in Babylon, and now only a few of the poorest remaining, plus people from other tribes who had taken advantage of the empty city. Most of the city had been reduced to rubble, and, worst of all, the Temple had been burnt down.
But that had been some sixty years ago. Now, the Babylonians had been conquered in their turn. King Darius was on the throne of one of the greatest empires the world had ever known, the Achaemenid Empire, also known as the First Persian Empire. It had been founded by his grandfather, Cyrus the Great – you might remember Cyrus from when you’ve been reading Isaiah – and now spanned a huge swathe of territory, which, at its greatest extent included all of the territory of modern-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, parts of Egypt and as far west as eastern Libya, Macedonia, the Black Sea coastal regions of Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Russia, all of Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, parts of the North Caucasus, and much of Central Asia. It truly was one of the largest empires ever!
Obviously one person couldn’t govern all that, so they basically devolved their government into provinces, ruled over by a provincial governor. The area we’re concerned with today was known as Yehud Medinata, which is basically just a translation of “Kingdom of Judah”, but, of course, it wasn’t a kingdom any more, just one more province of this huge empire.
King Cyrus had decreed that the Jews could, if they wished, return to Judah and rebuild their temple, and appointed a man named Zerubbabel, a grandson of the penultimate king of Judah, as governor. Zerubbabel went to Jerusalem with the new High Priest, a man called Joshua or Yeshua, it’s not quite clear which. Unfortunately, not all that many exiles went with them. The people had settled down in their new homes, as Jeremiah had told them to so long ago, and now were prospering and most reluctant to uproot themselves and their families. Most of them had been born in exile, and had no idea what Jerusalem was like, other than that it was some distant corner of the Empire. No thanks, they were very-nicely-thank-you where they were, they might come and visit when the city was rebuilt, but not just now.
That was the first setback. But those who went with Zerubbabel worked very hard, and gave very generously, and eventually the foundations of the Temple were laid. There was great rejoicing – you can read all about this in the book of Ezra, if you feel so minded – great rejoicing, although some of the older people were overcome with grief at the memory of the first Temple, which they could just, just remember.... and this? Not the same at all!
But many of the people who lived in the area – again, this is all in the book of Ezra – didn’t want to see the Temple rebuilt. Now, they knew as well as anybody that really, only the people authorised by King Cyrus could do any building work, and anyway, these people were not really Jewish. But they came to Zerubbabel and said, sweetly, “Oh, do let us help!” and when he said “No”, they did all they could to stop the building works – sabotage, frightening people, and writing incessantly to the King to ask him to make them stop work.
And for eighteen years, no more work was done on the Temple.
But then King Darius came to the throne and eventually the situation came to his notice. So he wrote to the other governors in the area saying that Cyrus had authorised the rebuilding of the Temple, and therefore: “I order you to stay away from Jerusalem. Don’t bother the workers. Don’t try to stop the work on this Temple of God. Let the Jewish governor and the Jewish leaders rebuild it. Let them rebuild God’s Temple in the same place it was in the past.
Now I give this order. You must do this for the Jewish leaders building God’s Temple: The cost of the building must be fully paid from the king’s treasury. The money will come from the taxes collected from the provinces in the area west of the Euphrates River. Do these things quickly, so the work will not stop. Give them anything they need. If they need young bulls, rams, or male lambs for sacrifices to the God of heaven, give these things to them. If the priests of Jerusalem ask for wheat, salt, wine, and oil, give these things to them every day without fail. Give them to the Jewish priests so that they may offer sacrifices that please the God of heaven. Give these things so that the priests may pray for me and my sons.
Also, I give this order: If anyone changes this order, a wooden beam must be pulled from their house and pushed through their body. Then their house must be destroyed until it is only a pile of rocks.
God put his name there in Jerusalem. May God defeat any king or other person who tries to change this order. If anyone tries to destroy this Temple in Jerusalem, may God destroy that person.
I, Darius, have ordered it. This order must be obeyed quickly and completely.”
Quite a turn-round. And then, enter the prophet Haggai. We don’t really know who he was, whether he was one of those who went off into exile, or one of those who stayed behind. Either way, he supported Zerubbabel and Yeshua, and he knows that God wants the Temple to be rebuilt. So, three weeks after the work began again, he receives this message from God, as we heard in our first reading: ‘How many of you people look at this Temple and try to compare it to the beautiful Temple that was destroyed? What do you think? Does this Temple seem like nothing when you compare it with the first Temple? But the Lord says, “Zerubbabel, don’t be discouraged!” And the Lord says, “Joshua son of Jehozadak, you are the high priest. Don’t be discouraged! And all you people who live in the land, don’t be discouraged! Continue this work, because I am with you.”’
“Don’t be discouraged”. That was God’s message to the people of Jerusalem at that time. The Temple was at that stage of construction that you wish you’d never started, when it gets worse before it gets better. You know what it’s like, when you set out to have a massive tidy-up at home, it always gets worse before it gets better, and half-way through you start to wish you hadn’t bothered! “Don’t be discouraged.”
It’s a good message for us just now, isn’t it? 2016 has been an appalling year so far – not just the celebrity deaths, sad though they are. But the Brexit referendum, and the upsurge in racism and intolerance we’ve seen since then, the awful situation in Calais, the sword of Damocles hanging over us in the shape of the US elections this coming week.... it’s been a dreadful year so far and it’s not over yet.
But I do truly believe that God says to us “Don’t be discouraged!” The Christians in Thessalonica appear to have been discouraged, too, when St Paul wrote to them. They had received false teaching, saying that Christ had already returned, and they thought they had missed out. Which they hadn’t. St Paul points out that there has to be tribulation first, and this hadn’t happened at the time of writing, so Jesus can’t possibly have returned yet. And when he does, they’ll all know all about it!
And he goes on to tell them not to be discouraged, either: “Brothers and sisters, you are people the Lord loves. And we always thank God for you. That’s what we should do, because God chose you to be some of the first people to be saved. You are saved by the Spirit making you holy and by your faith in the truth. God chose you to have that salvation. He chose you by using the Good News that we told you. You were chosen so that you can share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So, brothers and sisters, stand strong and continue to believe the teachings we gave you when we were there and by letter.”
“Brothers and sisters, you are the people the Lord loves.” And that’s just as true for us as it was for the people of Thessalonica. We, too, are saved by the Spirit making us holy, and by our faith in the truth, and God chose us to have that salvation.
So, in the face of all the awful things happening around us, let’s not be discouraged! We are the people the Lord loves, and we will continue to share that love with others in His name, no matter how many awful things happen. No matter what the result of the American election. No matter how badly our quality of life may deteriorate when we leave the EU. If we leave – I still find it hard to believe that anything so disastrous could possibly happen.
We are the people the Lord loves. We will not allow ourselves to be discouraged. Amen!