Sorting out a passage and finding at its core: grace
Haggai 2: From now on you can count on a blessing.
“Temple fever” is sweeping the nation as governor Zerubbabel and his people give themselves to the rebuilding project. One group that’s especially energized is the priests who’ve served without a Temple. They’re sure things are going to be much better once the Temple is restored. Haggai comes teach them a core spiritual truth and he does so by asking two questions. Question number one has to do with imparted holiness. If meat from a sacrifice is put into some priest’s pocket, it will make his robe holy, but what about other foods then touched by the robe? The priests respond that there’s no ripple effect concerning what other foods the robe might touch. Therefore, those foods remain unholy. The second question concerns the flip side of things. If a person touches a corpse, becoming ceremonially unclean and then touches various foods, do they also become unclean? The answer is “yes” – the “uncleanness” is imparted to whatever that person touches. Haggai then tells them that the sacrifices they’ve been making haven’t been proper because of their spiritual failure. The sin of not rebuilding the Temple has impacted all they’ve done, making them all worthless. Even as a person who touches a corpse makes all they touch unclean, so has their disobedience concerning the rebuilding of the Temple had a negative impact on all their religious practices. The flip side, which I wish Haggai had more clearly stated, is just as disturbing. Just offering proper sacrifices in the rebuilt Temple isn’t going to have the hoped for ripple effect of making the entire nation holy. It’s like the robe touched by the sanctified meat. It’s made holy but that’s as far as it goes. Touching other things with that robe won’t make them also holy. In other words, rebuilding the Temple isn’t a cure-all. Still, the prophet has some wonderful, and educational, news. From the moment they returned to God he began to bless them. His blessings weren’t a result of their making the right kind of sacrifices; in fact, they weren’t the right kind. Rather the blessings were the result of his grace. As I read this especially confusing little passage I come away with a better grasp of this truth: sin has contaminated our entire lives, making us exempt from any hope of self-manufactured holiness. Even when I return to God, my renewed commitment to him will still come up short because of the contamination of sin that has ruled my life. However, I’m not without hope because of God’s grace. He blesses me, not because I’ve managed to restore all that was broken but because he chooses to respond to my surrender to him with wonderful grace.
Take Away: The blessings of the Lord are the result of his grace.
Me, doing my part
Haggai 2: I own the silver, I own the gold.
Every Jew knows about the Temple. Even though it was destroyed decades ago they’ve heard stories of its glory. A few of the old people actually saw it when they were children. It could be that one reason the returned exiles have neglected the rebuilding of the Temple is because they don’t think they can do it justice and whatever they do will be a pale reflection of the great Temple of history. For one thing, they can’t furnish it in silver and gold as their ancestors did when they first built the Temple. Fearing that they can’t do a good enough job of rebuilding they haven’t started at all. Now, in Haggai’s second sermon, he tells the people they don’t have to worry about that. If they do what they can do God will do the rest. In this case, the Lord’s word is that he’ll provide the silver and gold if they just get started on the building. So what is it in my life that’s never been started because I know I lack the resources to complete it? Is my failure here not so much resource-based as it is faith-based? Years earlier the ancestors of Haggai’s congregation were told to march forward through the Red Sea. Even though they didn’t have the resources to dam up the waters, they obeyed. When they did what they could do, God did the rest. What might the Lord do in my life if I would simply do what I can do while trusting the One who owns the silver and gold of this world to do the rest?
Take Away: We do our part while trusting the Lord to do his.
Listening and honoring
Haggai 1: In listening to Haggai, they honored God.
The drought has everyone worried. If rain doesn’t come soon the resulting famine will bring misery and death. Not only that, but there’s a general dissatisfaction among the returned exiles. Even when they do things that ought to satisfy they’re left feeling empty. Then Haggai brings his sermon. He says that the reason for no rain is that God’s getting their attention. They’re living self-centered lives and have failed to honor him by rebuilding the Temple. He also says that the reason for their general dissatisfaction is that they’ve been looking for satisfaction in the wrong things. Only the Lord can satisfy their lives and they can experience him only by putting him first. At this point the people stand where their ancestors stood many times through the years. Will they listen to the message from God or will they harden their hearts and become more entrenched than ever in their refusal to honor him? Their answer is a resounding decision to obey the voice of the Lord. Where their ancestors failed they succeed. This watershed moment is rewarded with a further message from the Lord who declares, “I am with you!” I love what happens here. As I’ve read through the Prophets I’ve encountered one instance of rebellion after another. How refreshing it is to hear God’s prophet declare God’s message to God’s people and see them listen and obey. It’s almost as though the sun breaks through the clouds to shine down on the words I’m reading. The people of Haggai’s day messed up, but when God got their attention and declared his intentions they responded in humble obedience. Personally, I’d rather not mess up in the first place but when I do, I want their “listening and honoring” to be my inspiration.
Take Away: Better to do it the Lord’s way all along, but if not, it’s good to at least humbly accept his correction and move forward from there.
My attitude toward things that matter to the Lord
Haggai 1: I’ve matched your tight-fisted stinginess.
Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Generally, I put about 95% of the emphasis on the first part of that statement. I certainly know I need the Lord’s forgiveness for the many “debts” of my life. It makes me a bit uncomfortable to realize that the Lord uses the level of my forgiving attitude toward those indebted to me as his measure of his forgiveness in my life. In the passage before me today the Lord uses Haggai to deliver a message concerning current events in the lives of the people of his day. They’ve been stingy in their support for rebuilding the Temple. Now, the Lord says he’s treating them with that same level of stinginess. They’re holding back in supporting the rebuilding of the Temple and the Lord’s holding back in his provision of rain for their crops. I’m glad today for the abundant generosity of God. His provision in my life greatly exceeds all that I do for him. Still, there’s a time to be reminded that some of the Lord’s blessings to me are linked to my attitude toward the things that matter to the Lord. Jesus teaches me to pray, “Lord, forgive me to the same extent that I forgive others.” Today, Haggai adds that I should be able to pray, “Lord, care for the needs of my life in the same way I care for the place in which I worship you.” If that makes me squirm a bit, well, maybe it’s supposed to!
Take Away: Remember that some of the Lord’s blessings to us are linked to our attitude towards the things that matter to him.
The correct focus in worship
Haggai 1: The little you have brought…I’ve blown away.
The people being addressed in Haggai’s short story aren’t pagans who have turned their backs on God to worship another. They aren’t godless people at all. Despite their having ruins instead of a Temple they have worship services. As faithful Jews they bring sacrifices and observe the feasts and regulations of their religion. Yet, somehow, their worship experience is dissatisfying to them. As they leave these events they feel they’ve been faithful in keeping all that which is required of them but they remain empty inside. Haggai puts his finger on the problem. In reframing their religion to suit themselves they’ve blundered into a religion that the God they worship rejects. Failure to rebuild the Temple is the symptom of this larger problem. This situation speaks to me today and its tone isn’t soothing! How much of my religious life is founded on obligation and tradition and how much of it is about a living, vital relationship with God? While I’m busy being sure all the details of worship are taken care of have I forgotten that it isn’t me who’s in charge? What makes me think God will accept a self-centered worship effort from me in the first place? The thing is that as I picture the people of Haggai’s day walking out of a worship service feeling that somehow something is missing, I can identify with them. That, my friends, makes me very uncomfortable.
Take Away: Our religious lives are to be founded on a living, vital relationship with God.
Haggai 1: Do it just for me. Honor me.
I was out doing some errands this week and dropped by the church for a minute. No one was there but me but when I went into the sanctuary, almost without thinking, I removed my hat. At that point I smiled to myself that no one would know whether or not I removed my hat in reverence and I wondered if the Lord even cared. I’ve seen church guys working in the building who went in and out of the sanctuary without a thought about it and, frankly, I’m okay with that. Still, there’s something about being in that place where we worship the Lord that makes it special to me and I want my actions there, even on a Monday when no one else is around, to reflect that reality. Through his prophet the Lord calls for the people of that day to pick up the task of rebuilding the Temple. Practically speaking, they can worship the Lord anywhere. As Jesus put it in John 4:24: “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” Still, there’s value in setting aside sacred space. Haggai tells them that God feels honored when people make a special effort to provide a place of worship. While I understand that the Temple has a unique role in the life of the people of Israel I still think there’s a connection between it and the place where I worship. We should seriously think about the fact that the Lord didn’t say, through Haggai, “You can worship me anywhere, just do it with all your heart” but, instead said, “Rebuild the Temple; do it just for me. Honor me.”
Take Away: There’s value in setting aside sacred space.
The secret to satisfaction
Haggai 1: Take a good, hard look at your life.
The work of the Temple was put on hold years earlier because people felt they needed to concentrate on the necessities of life. They built homes and cleared land for planting crops. They built walls to protect them in what had become a dangerous land. Meanwhile, the Temple was left in ruins. Now, as they face a devastating drought, God’s man tells them it’s time to take a hard look at their lives. All their building and planting is meaningless without God. Even with plates full of food and warm clothing to wear they’ve faced an inner dissatisfaction with life. Their neglect of the Temple is a symptom of something even more important. Beyond the building, they’ve left the God of the building out on the periphery of their lives. Without him life is empty and meaningless. Their mistake is both colossal and common. The worship of God is not a luxury to be put on hold till “important” things are cared for. In fact, worship is a core necessity and without God, nothing ever satisfies. We can’t be too hard on the people of Haggai’s day because we too tend to view worship as something that can be pushed aside as we pursue things we deem to be more important. The issue isn’t that God’s unhappy with us and will find a way to get back at us for ignoring him. Instead, it’s that when we leave God out, we’re ignoring the central need of our lives. In the case before us, that’s evidenced by their failure to rebuild the Temple. In our case, it might be that we don’t show a proper interest in the worship of God. When we fail here, we find that all other successes in life taste like failures. When we succeed here, we find that everything else in life finds its proper place.
Take Away: Without the Lord life is empty and meaningless.
Haggai 1: The people procrastinate.
The land of Judah reels from a drought: no rain means no crops means no food. It’s a serious situation. Governor Zerubbabel feels a shred of hope as he sees prophet Haggai coming to meet him. Maybe the prophet has prevailed upon the Lord to send some rain. However, Haggai disappoints the governor. He’s heard from the Lord God and what he’s heard isn’t about rain. God’s man says that God’s displeased with them because they’ve settled in to their homeland but haven’t yet rebuilt the Temple. The Lord’s complaint is that they’ve found time to make their homes comfortable but they haven’t found time to repair the Temple which lies in ruins. Now, this charge of God doesn’t come the first day they arrive in Jerusalem. It’s likely that Haggai arrived with that first group of 50,000 people who returned from exile around 16 years earlier. At that time there was considerable emphasis on rebuilding the Temple. However, other needs were pressing so the Temple project was suspended as the city of Jerusalem was secured, permanent homes were constructed, and agricultural concerns were addressed. Along the way people got used to seeing the Temple as it was. Now, a serious drought threatens their welfare. Haggai says the lack of rain is God’s doing. The Lord’s getting their attention. There was a time for them to deal with the necessities of life but when the time came for them to take care of the Temple they put it off. This little book of our Old Testament is all about priorities. Apparently, the Lord didn’t mind their focusing on dealing with housing and food needed for survival. However, their place of worship was also a necessity and the Lord expected that matter to become a priority to them when the time was right. Today, I’m reminded that the priorities of my life are in constant flux. What I need to do at 8:00 in the morning gives way to what needs to be done at 11:00. Like a river, life flows along. Because of that, I have to keep up with the current priorities of my life.
Take Away: We have to keep up with the current priorities of our lives.