The story of Haggai 2:10-19
The date was December 18th, about sixteen years after Jerusalem began to be resettled with Jewish people returning from exile. The Altar and Temple foundation had been built, but then construction was abandoned for sixteen years. A few months ago, Haggai the Prophet had received some words from God that it was time to get back on track with building the Temple, and the Jews and their leaders were beginning to respond positively to this call. And now, for a third time, Haggai receives a word from God. He gathers around him an audience, including both clergy and laymen, and announces “I have some bad news and some good news.”
The people look at each other and groan a bit. “We already know the bad news,” they grumble. “Back in August, you got us all excited about getting this Temple built up, and we started giving sacrificially towards the project. But then the harvest came in and our crops were terrible. Grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives – you name it – we barely got anything out of it. Now we’ve got a fruit shortage for our own food, a shortage for the resultant wine and oil for God’s sacrifices, not to mention a shortage of seeds for planting these fruits next year! Now we’re planting the wheat and the barley grains for the latter harvest, and if these also fail we’re hosed for the next couple years! We’re on the verge of famine, business is terrible, we’ve already given so much away to God, and we’ve got nothing to show for it. Thanks, Haggai, but we already know the bad news.”
Haggai patiently shakes his head and turns to the priests. “Help me with some teaching from God’s Law. When serving in worship, you carry the sacrificial meat in the fold of your robes up to the altar. If your robes then touch some other sort of food, does that food also become holy like the sacrificial meat?” The priests answered, “No, the ordinary food remains ordinary food.” Haggai continues; “Alright, now, what if someone who is ceremonially unclean touches that ordinary food?” The priests answer, “that food becomes unclean.” Haggai nods and explains, “That’s the bad news; it’s the same with this people, this nation, and all their works. Despite these tough economic times, they still haven’t turned their trust over to God. Therefore they are unclean. Therefore the offerings they bring to you to bring to the altar are also unclean.”
A great murmuring spreads among the priests and the people. “Our holy sacrifices at the altar, offered in good faith and obedience, according to the Law, are still unclean?” “I thought even if our offerings were imperfect, they’d be made holy by virtue of the priesthood!” “If unclean offerings have been burnt on the Altar of God, does that mean we have desecrated the Temple, God’s own house?” “This is very grave news, indeed!”
Haggai quieted down the crowd and continued. “Just as I said in my first message from God, back in August, I say to you again now in December: Consider your ways. How was your situation before you began building the Temple a couple months ago? The stores of grain and the wine and the oil were not even half of what they ought to be. If you remember, I also said back then that your money was going into purses with holes in them. Back then, and since then, God struck you and all the products of your work with both extremes: a dry withering wind, and a damp rotting mildew. Yet you did not turn to the Lord. But now it’s December 18th; consider your ways, and see what the Lord will do. Yes, the first harvest of the year has failed. But here is the good news: from this day on, God will bless you.”
Explanations & Applications
That is the story of Haggai’s third of four sermons that we heard from chapter 2. Haggai’s first sermon was mostly bad news – “consider your ways;” his second sermon was mostly good news – “God promises a glorious restoration;” and this third one balances the bad and the good together. The bad news was not about crops and famine, poor business and poverty; the bad news was sin. The people, despite having been stirred up to increased obedience to God over the previous few months, were still living in a self-centered world where food and money were their top priorities and concerns. The good news was that there is grace for those repent, and blessings from the Lord on the way. Several lessons for us today come through Haggai’s teaching here.
#1 – Grow in Faith
First, of all, if you’ve been following along carefully through the book of Haggai, you might have noticed that both times previously we’ve heard about God’s people responding faithfully to God’s word. But if they responded with faith then, and now they’re being told they’ve been unfaithful, what’s going on? The observation worth making here is that people grow in faith. It’s a step-by-step process. Sometimes Evangelical Christianity talks about faith like it’s an off-on switch. You meet Jesus, the Holy Spirit indwells you when you “come to saving faith,” and your faith switch is turned on.
But the reality isn’t that simplistic. Faith is a spiritual gift that we grow into – just like how we grow in hope and love. Sometimes we grow in leaps and bounds, and sometimes we grow very slowly. The people experienced some extremely good growth in faith in response to Haggai’s earlier preaching – their recommitment to the Temple-building project is ample testimony of that. But they still had a long way to grow, and that’s what we see being identified here in Haggai’s third sermon. Although some good new habits of faith are being developed, there still remain some trust issues in the hearts of God’s people.
If you’re still worrying too much about food and money, you haven’t placed as much trust in God’s provision as you could have done. Jesus teaches the same thing in Matthew 6; “do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”
#2 – Sin is Contagious
Another lesson we get here is about just how big of a deal sin is. There have been times in Christian history where perhaps sin’s damaging effects have been over-emphasized, and penitential disciplines got rather bloated beyond what is biblically necessary and appropriate. The Reformation did much to restore that balance. But since then we’ve swung in the opposite direction; today we downplay the damaging effects of sin so much that many Christians seldom even confess their sins anymore. Catholic and Anglican Confessional booths are in wide disuse, and the majority of Evangelical worship services don’t include any sort of confession of sin at all. We take sin in stride; “everybody does it, what’s the big deal, isn’t God more gracious than my sins?”
Correcting this laissez-faire attitude, Haggai directs the priests to realize that uncleanness is more contagious than holiness. So the Old Laws went, if someone touches a dead body (or does anything else that makes them unclean), then also everything and everyone they touch also becomes unclean. It’s like cooties in elementary school – once it’s on you, everyone has to stay away. This wasn’t just a game, though, it was a picture of how quickly and easily sin spreads both in a person’s life and in a community.
I daresay we’ve seen this very dynamic happening across the country over the past couple years – even this past week – as more black people are being shot by police officers, and police officers are being shot by other civilians. One sin provokes another, which inspires another, which leads to another… sin naturally begets a vicious cycle, and it takes great care and caution to make it stop. Yes, “the blood of Christ cleanses us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7), but the more unrighteousness we drum up in the meantime, the more damage we do to ourselves and to others in the course of this life, and the more we hamper the good work of the Gospel. Not only must we be careful to identify our own sins and faults, but also our handling of the sins of others. Do we cheer when others suffer or sin? Do we ignore the plight of the innocent and the needy?
#3 – Receive God’s Holiness
On the flip side of the lesson of sin’s contagious nature is the disappointing reality that holiness is not contagious in the same way. Yes, good deeds can inspire further good deeds, and certainly good habits set us up for holier lives; but the “fun factor” of works of the Spirit is nowhere near as high as for works of the flesh.
Haggai’s audience had fallen into a sort of superstitious mindset, assuming that because the Priests were handling the sacrifices, their offerings were made holy. But that isn’t how it worked. Imagine you robbed someone, or cheated someone out of a lot of money, and then you decided to do something good with that money and you go way past the basic tithe and gave half of that money to the Church. Does that stolen money become an honorable offering to God just because you put it in the basket and I prayed the offertory thanksgiving over it? No, of course not. Like the blood money that Judas returned to the Pharisees after betraying Jesus, it’s an unclean thing that isn’t worthy of being offered to the Lord. The right thing to do is go back and un-do the sin and restore what has been lost, plus restitution.
For holiness is not simply about “getting around” our sinfulness, nor is it about “making up for” our sinfulness. Rather, holiness is what God the Holy Spirit gives to us from his own divine source. Sin is our own, and so we’re free and able to share it with anyone and everyone. But holiness is not our own; it is a gift from God, and only He can instill it in us and give it to others.
#4 – Recognize God’s Blessings
Last of all, the promise of God’s blessing at the end of Haggai’s sermon is important to observe and understand. Remember that the people have just been scolded for their sinful lack of trust in God. They began to have faith, they began to obey, but they still sin and fall short of the glory of God – they still deserve punishment. This is true with you and me as well; we all still sin and fall short of the glory of God, and therefore rightly deserve punishment. Only by God’s grace, and his promise of mercy to those who turn to him, is any serious blessing possible.
This is especially illustrated in the fact that God promises to bless his people with fertile crops before they have a chance to respond to this latest chastisement. This flies in the face of so-called Health Wealth Gospel preachers out there who say silly things like we deserve God’s blessings, or that we can invoke God’s blessings. No, God blesses his people on his own terms, and that often has absolutely nothing to do with our initiative, and sometimes is not even related to our faithfulness or obedience!
Therefore, we can never expect God’s blessings of prosperity upon our lives as if it’s inevitable that God will make us rich. Sometimes he does give wealth to his people – be it through a good job, a successful business venture, good connections, family inheritance, or through the sheer generosity of others. But most of us don’t see great wealth in the earthly sense, and have to understand what God’s blessings are, without the health & wealth image.
To this, I think St. Paul’s words to the Philippians are particularly helpful to keep in mind: “I do not complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (4:11-13). That’s the deal: Christ is with us to strengthen us to get through “all things,” be it abasement or abundance, plenty or hunger. When we share testimonies of God’s great love for us, it’s worth noting how He has blessed some in wealth, blessed others in poverty, and blessed others in between. God is not a one-trick pony, so the stories of our experiences with Him should probably reflect that.
So Haggai’s bad news of sin and good news of blessing is really quite a standard story or sermon of God’s actions. He afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted. He calls out our sinfulness and shows us the way out of it. He shows us how hopeless we are and then rescues us. This is the Gospel, really, and no matter how it plays out in anyone’s life, it’s always dramatic. Our perspectives and cultural biases may not always recognize the drama of the Gospel – the repentance and salvation of a serial killer is always going to look bigger to us than the repentance and salvation of that kid you knew in school who was generally a “nice guy.” Sometimes the gift of faith is given in abundance and a life is drastically changed overnight. Sometimes God’s blessings are poured down from heaven and a tough life situation is transformed into a dream-come-true. Or sometimes spiritual growth is measured in decades instead of days, and the transition from the newly-weds’ apartment to a family house takes many years. The way God grows us and blesses us and gives us gifts is different for everyone, so we can’t get too caught up with any one-size-fits-all model for a “good Christian testimony.”
But we are called to grow, and as far as we are able, we must seek closeness with God, we must practice obedience, we must ask the questions of faith in order to learn and follow Christ more accurately. God will bless us in his own time and in his own way. We cannot presume upon his grace, not because he doesn’t love us, but because grace is (by definition!) free. If we had to earn grace by our good works or by “being faithful enough,” then grace would not be free, grace would not be a gift, grace would not be grace. After all, considering how contagious sin is, and how easily it can just eat up holiness, any religious system that requires us to earn God’s grace would just be a picture of utter hopelessness. If God did not choose to have mercy, there would be no mercy, because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Thanks be to God for his great grace!
Let us pray.
Lord of all power and might, Author and Giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of your great mercy keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.