Have you ever lost hope? I can think of someone for whom I wanted more for years and in my heart, I gave up. I lost hope based on their choices and the lack of evidence that God was working in his heart. And then, out of nowhere—after years, perhaps as many as 20—God broke through. He had been up to something all along that I couldn’t see. I can also think of a few times that I have lost hope with change in my own life. And then, at a superficial level, I can recall occasions when I gave up hope while participating in an athletic contest or while viewing my favorite sports team. Of course, we love it when we lose hope in our team, possibly even walking away from the game only to learn later that they came back and won! Or maybe we hung in there, bored and hopeless, never dreaming a comeback was on the horizon.
We are on the “eve” of Pentecost Sunday where we celebrate the greatest ongoing gift God gave to us. I have to confess: I love the Holy Spirit! I am so grateful for this precious gift from God. I never grew up with much of an understanding of who He is or what His work is. We feared the Spirit, or perhaps more accurately, we feared people’s understanding of what it meant to have the Spirit. Not anymore. Not for me. I would be lost without him. I can’t always say I know what is of Him but sometimes I sense his Voice or his nudges. I believe he wants to help me day-to-day in conversations and in choices that I make. I can identify a couple of "big" times when I have felt His strong guidance and I can surmise a few times, actually more than a few, when I have sensed his gentle leading whether while listening to someone or writing. Jesus had such confidence in the Spirit’s work that He felt comfortable leaving his band of fearful, rag-tag disciples to the Spirit's care/guidance. But, back to the question, only asked differently this time: what makes us lose hope?
In Haggai’s day, I think hopeless describes the people of God. They have just returned from the Babylonian captivity. Work on the temple had begun, I expect with vision and energy and excitement, only now it had stalled. They had met opposition. Perhaps they were weary. Maybe they thought it would move along much quicker than it was. Strange, isn’t it, that when God commissions us to do something, you would think that it would go well? You would think that He would want it to go well? Often, it doesn’t. We meet opposition like the Jews did. So, the people lost hope and when they did, they turned inward. That alone is a pattern worth pondering. We find them living for themselves in Haggai chapter 1. Perhaps they are plagued by the question, “What’s the use?” Into this context, the Lord God sends Haggai. He speaks on God’s behalf: “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruin? Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much and harvested little. You eat but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes. Did you hear God's delineation of the cycle of emptiness? More importantly, do we recognize it in our own lives? We chase after what we think is life but it never satisfies. It is never enough. Twice, God exhorts the people to “Consider their ways!” I wonder where I have lost hope and turned to the things of this life to give me meaning? Where I am hoarding my money or refusing to invest my energy because it doesn’t seem worth it? From whom am I withholding my heart because I have been hurt and am unwilling to open up again? Where has opposition beaten me down that I have forgotten my true calling?
Haggai’s words do the trick. We are told the people feared the Lord. They took seriously what God was asking of them. And they got back to work, back to the calling God had on their lives because the Spirit stirred them to do so. The Spirit was at work. From Haggai’s contemporary, Zechariah, we read that the work of rebuilding the temple would get done not by might and not by power but by the Spirit. We don’t make things happen by our great scheming or by our heroic efforts. Anything that truly matters happens because the Spirit makes it happen and if we don’t understand that, we are in grave danger of interfering with God by making it about ourselves, thinking it is a result of who I am. O so subtle. O so dangerous!
Notice something in the text of Haggai’s words. If you ask me, God has a terrible marketing strategy. He calls together what is essentially the elders, those who saw the “glory days”, as we like to call them. He makes them look at the present condition of their surroundings. Terribly discouraging. Far from what they once knew. A rather demoralizing exercise in futility from my perspective. Why would God do that? What does he hope to accomplish by rubbing their noses in how bad things are? Perhaps the Lord knows our propensity toward denial. Perhaps He does want them to see just how bad it really is. Is there a lesson in that for us as it pertains to our broken lives, the mess in us and around us? Two things strike me from this odd strategy on God’s part. First, perhaps seeing how bad it is is actually a stroke of genius because when we are pained by something that is beyond our ability to fix, something that matters to us deeply, we actually have an opportunity to acknowledge what is most profoundly true about our condition: we are dependent! We need God for anything good to happen! We are forced to either grow calloused and turn away, living for ourselves and the emptiness it creates, OR, we can cry out to Him for help. Secondly, as we cry out, we come to the freeing realization that if anything good is going to happen, it will happen not by our efforts but by the efforts of God’s Spirit. And that is exactly what happened. Haggai says to the the governor (Zerubbabel) and the high priest (Joshua), and to the people, Work! Work, for I am with you and My Spirit is in your midst. Get back to your true calling, which is not to live for our own comfort or our own agenda, or for our own recognition. Live for the calling that I (God) have placed upon your lives. Forsake the temptation to make your own smaller story the biggest story and instead, join what I am doing. Link your story to mine and believe that my Spirit is working despite what you see and what you sometimes feel.
There's really never a reason to lose hope. Of course, we do from time to time and when we do, may we remember Haggai and Zechariah’s words. May God use others to lift up our heads to see that something is just over the horizon that we cannot see, that there is always hope because the Spirit of God is always working, never passive, working to make our hearts His temple where He can more fully dwell. We can take the pressure off ourselves and realize it is His work, the Spirit’s work and we can celebrate this Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, that very truth…and be grateful for this incredible gift given to each of us who follow Jesus.
Peace and patience to you,