The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Online Evening Prayer      26th April 2020
Haggai and Paul - Building a New Society
Andrew Penny

Haggai 1. 13 - 2.9; 1 Corinthians 3. 10 - 17

It’s extraordinary how quickly words and phrases come into our everyday vocabulary; no one, I think had heard of Zoom two month ago; we don’t need to puzzle out ICU, and PPE is not something budding politicians study at university. While there is a distinct consciousness- or hope-  that this is a crisis that, however disastrously, will pass, we haven’t heard much of “for the duration”- perhaps because that phrase has a whiff of class and privilege- notably the use of titles- which never did return in their unabashed form, after the Second World War. And even the most pessimistic prophets do not predict the duration of this plague at the five years of that war. We do, however, talk a lot about the “the new normal”. Society is going to be different when the lockdown (who’d ever heard of “lockdown” before?) is over, and it’s right that we should start to think now about what that will be like and what we can do to make the New Normal a bit better, a bit more like the Kingdom of Heaven, than the old one was.

 I can think of one or two obvious changes. I suspect, and hope, that the establishment, political and social, will have a little more respect and acceptance for the many black, Asian and other, “not quite British” workers, especially, but not only in the NHS, who have risked, and in so many cases lost, their lives looking after their fellow citizens or their often less than welcoming hosts. I hope too that the awareness of the plight of the lonely elderly and the homeless and the extraordinary mobilisation that this awareness has brought about, will be lasting effects. The New Normal should be an opportunity to build on the foundation of human kindness, to water the many seedlings of generosity, that this danger has sprouted. This growth, and this hope, remind me of the very early church in Jerusalem, pooling its resources and devoting itself to a Christlike existence.
Both Haggai writing about the rebuilding of the Temple after the return from the Exile in Babylon, and Paul encouraging the fledgling, the sapling, church in Corinth have some advice to give us in this enterprise. 

Haggai’s vision is essentially conservative; he wants the new Temple- and the Temple is I think both the real building and a metaphor for society as whole- to replicate the glory of the old Temple and to symbolise the wealth, power, and influence of Israel in Solomon’s time. He’s talking about restoration, not revolution, but it’s the restoration of a truly just and righteous society. This comes through more in the passages just before and after the reading we heard this evening, but we did have the delightful image of the shaking of the nations to drop their rich fruit like trees. Wickedly, I see this more as some of the wealthier members of our own society being suddenly up ended by the heels and having their pockets shaken out. There are signs, just few, that something like that is beginning to happen.

Haggai’s argument is that the Temple can only be rebuilt by a society directed by fairness and justice; a proper dwelling for God, a proper place and way of worshipping our creator can only be achieved by a community which conducts itself in accordance with His laws. Righteousness is the right relation with God; that cannot be a close relationship unless we make ourselves just and fair as He is. For us, that has a pressing practical application. We are going to have to pay for the cost of this plague, the grants and the subsidies. I hope we shall all bear that cost justly and fairly, building the New Normal on those noble principles.

Paul’s message is expressed in more spiritual terms, although his metaphor too is building, and his particular image of bringing Gold, Silver, straw and hay (strange building materials!) is surely a, not so veiled, reference to financial contribution. The central point of his argument, however, is that we must build on the foundation of Jesus Christ alone. Superficially- although importantly, his point for the Corinthians, and for us, is that we must not be beguiled by partisan interpretations; we must not slip into the facile certainties that all institutions love, and in which their members feel so comfy. Rather, and this is the fundamental point, we must look back to Jesus Christ. As Haggai exhorts us to righteousness, so Paul is encouraging us to identify with Christ, to try to live as he lived. We are made in the image of God; in the incarnation, we are shown how a man can be God, and transcend the apparent limits of physical humanity. If we can even begin to achieve that new life in the New Normal, as those very early and idealistic Christians tried to do, we shall be some way to creating a new Jerusalem which our Psalmist tells us to

12  Walk about [Zion] and go round about her; count all her towers; consider well her bulwarks; pass through her citadels,
13  That you may tell those who come after that such is our God for ever and ever. It is he that shall be our guide for evermore.

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