|This is the spillway at the Lower Nihotapu dam at Parau in the Waitakere rangers west of Auckland. It is one of the reservoirs that provides water for Auckland City… A real blessing.
We are working our way through the book of Haggai. We are calling the series renewal in the ruins. Haggai has spoken to the people who had come back from exile to Jerusalem and inspired and encouraged them to rebuild the temple. He had called them to renew their focus as a community, their identity as God’s people was to be found in God’s presence with them symbolised by the temple. As they started to rebuild and encountered discouragement and despondency he had spoken to them about the renewal of their Hope: Hope found in the presence, providence and purpose of God and now Haggai turns to speak of foundations for the renewal of God’s covenant blessing for them as his people. As I sat down to put this message together my devotions for the day were entitled “only Holiness leads to happiness” and that was a real God moment because it sums up in nut shell what Haggai’s message to the then and there and the here and now is… “Only Holiness leads to happiness”.
That is not a recipe that says if we are good god will be good to us… More that if we simply seek our own pleasure as the returnees had been doing, we meet the law of diminishing returns… we get less out of more we have… If our focus is on God and his Kingdom… then we become more and amore aware of God’s blessings.
Let’s set the scene.
Once again Haggai’s words have a specific date. In this case it is the twenty fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius (December 14th if you want to tie it in to our calendar). Three month’s after the people had started to build the temple in response to Haggai’s first message. The previous two oracles had been tied to religious festivals. The new moon festival and the feast of tabernacles, but this one does not fit in with such a religious holiday or gathering. However, in verse 18 Haggai refers to the day that the foundation stone of the temple was laid and in Ezra 3 we have a record of the people gathering for a festival when that happened. In the Ancient near east when a foundation stone was laid there would be a religious gathering and a blessing for the endeavour. This day could also have been a significant other step in the building process, maybe even something being build on the foundation stone. We’ve laid the stone but know we are getting on with the job.
We do know that in the agricultural calendar this would have been at the end of the period of time when people would have been planting out seed for next years harvest. So at the end of that time there may have been a gathering to celebrate that and to pray for the coming harvest, Haggai says in verse 19 is there any seed yet left in the barn? Which fits in with that… and his message that from this day on God will bless you, does fit in with hope for the coming harvest. In his first oracle Haggai had said that because of the people were disobeying God’s call on them to rebuild the temple, that God could not bless them and the harvest were going to be small, now as they have started the work Haggai makes the bold prediction that God will change that.
What we have in the passage we had read out to us is two oracles given on the same day, given together. In structure it is very much like the first of Haggai’s oracles, it starts with a series of questions that leads into the prophets teaching and calls the people to carefully consider their ways and finishes with a declaration of God’s actions on behalf of his people. In this Haggai sets the foundations for the renewal of God’s Blessing. It is a restoring, a turning round of the way things were because the people have turned round, they have repented and gone God’s way.
In these two coracles Haggai considers the consequences of past disobedience, looks at current obedience, and declares the certainty of blessing. So let’s explore those three things.
The consequences of past disobedience.
When the people had come back to Jerusalem they had been very quick to re-establish the sacrificial system. The altar was re-established and sacrifices offered. This forms the basis for Haggai’s questions to the priests in verse 11-13. They have to do with ritual cleanliness or holiness.
The first one asks if food that has been set aside for God is carried in the fold of a garment but then touches other food does it make that food Holy? The answer to that from the priests is “no”, Holiness being set aside for God is not contagious. It can’t be passed on…
The second question is about dead bodies. If someone touches a dead body then touches food set aside for an offering does the food become defiled? And the answer is yes, uncleanliness is contagious. This being ritually unclean by touching a dead body is at the heart of Jesus parable of the good Samaritan, the priest and the Levi going up to the temple. If they touched the man who was set upon by robbers and he was dead they could not have served their turn in the temple, as they would have been unclean and what they touched would have been deemed ritually unclean.
Haggai uses these questions to show that God considered all the offering they had made as being unclean and unacceptable because the people had not obeyed God, and rebuilt the temple. Even though they had gone through the motions how Could God bless them if they were being disobedient. Like God’s people down through the ages they had tried to separate the idea of ritual holiness from ethical holiness.
Sacrifices were given for the forgiveness of sins, but the call of God was that people would live a life that reflected the God they knew and served. It is like when my kids were smaller I used to like doing things like taking them out for icecream or another treat, but when they were not behaving I couldn’t do it, I still loved them and cared for them and had to discipline them, but when change happened I would be quick to give them a treat…
For us it is the sacrifice of a totally righteous person, Jesus Christ that has put us right with God, that has atoned for our sins. That has put us right with God, the call we have is that we live that out by hearing Jesus words and obeying them, and we can do that because of the presence and guidance of the holy Spirit in our lives. We are justified by faith in Jesus Christ and we are called to a life of sanctification as we grow in Christ and learn to live and love as Christ lived and loved.
It is a challenge for all of us, as biblical scholar Mark Boda says “it’s easy for us to get caught up in the mechanics of our religious activities and not focus on the importance and impact of individual and corporate obedience”.
Then in Haggai’s second oracle on that day he turns from consequences of the past to look at the people current obedience. Here they are they have started to rebuild the temple. During the harvest time they had thought carefully about what they were doing and had started to rebuild the temple, they hadn’t just stopped at cleaning off the altar and having the sacrifices, but had begun building the temple. They were doing what God had called them to be doing. The temple was not just a place for sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin but was a place to focus on God’s presence with his people and that they were called to live as a witnessing community to the goodness and holiness of God by the way they lived. In 1 Chronicles 28 as David lay out his plans for the temple, he calls Solomon and all those who were to build the temple “to give careful thought to their ways” sound familiar “ to keep all the commandments of the Lord, that you may possess all the good things of the land.”
Amos was a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel, he had come at a time of great prosperity and religious fervour in the city of Samaria. The people saw their prosperity as a sign of God’s blessing, and God’s word through Amos was that this was not the case, in fact they were laying the foundation of their own judgment, by treating God, like one of the other gods around them, thinking he would simply bless them because the observed the right religious rituals. While at the same time their prosperity was based on the exploitation of the poor and unjust trading practises. Amos’s message is that “God hates your festivals and your songs and sacrifices make God sick to the stomach, what God wants is that justice flow like a river and righteousness like a never ending stream.’
The difference of the foundation in the two builder in the parable Jesus finishes his sermon on the mount in Matthew’s gospel is that on with the solid foundation is the one who listens to Jesus word and obeys it, the other hears the word and carries on their own way. They both experience the storms and floods of life, but the one who obeyed Jesus words stands.
Now Haggai also calls them to carefully consider their ways. The obedience wasn’t just in rebuilding the temple that was a symbol of that deeper call to live as God’s people. But the current obedience laid a foundation for the renewal of God’s blessing.
Haggai finishes his oracle with a declaration of certainty that God would Bless his people. They had not had a good harvest, when they had come back to Jerusalem they had expected that it would be wonderful and prosperous and full of happiness, but it had not been. Now Haggai takes a bold step by telling them that as they had started to obey God’s purpose for them, that the deprivation of the past would change and God would bless them.
For Haggai his focus is specifically that they would have a bumper crop. Maybe as he was speaking the autumn rain that was so necessary for the agriculture of the region to grow was starting and the Haggai is tying that in with what is happening in Jerusalem, or he is making a bold prediction. Up until know Haggai has told forth the word of God, bringing God’s word to the situation and context, but here is foretelling. But it is based on what he knows of God and God’s character.
The foundation for God’s people in Haggis’s day and in our own is the goodness of God, that God is with and for his people. That it is God’s desire to bless his people, that is a certainty. God’s desire is that his people, all the people of the earth, come to know God and his goodness. Haggai’s previous oracle had finished with and in that place I will give you peace… which means wholeness. In the book of Timothy, Paul tells us all to pray because it is God’s desire that all may come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. That we will be put right with God through his gracious sacrifice for us. In John’s gospel that saving knowledge is called abundant life, full life, it’s so abundant because of the presence and provision and purpose of God that it goes beyond the grace into eternity, lived with our eternal God.
And If the book of Haggai finished here we might be tempted to say that we can earn God’s blessing by our good deeds and equate God’s blessing with prosperity. In the end the grace and hope of Haggai’s declaration is God’s sovereign promise to bless his people, it’s God’s grace, God’s grace, God’s grace…
The challenge of Haggai is the same for us as it was for God’s people then and there. It is to consider carefully our ways, it is a call to see that fulfilment and fullness comes from knowing God through Jesus Christ, hearing God’s word and putting it into practise in our lives… “Only Holiness leads to happiness”. The promise is God’s blessing…
Also the book of Haggai does not finish here. There is one more word that Haggai brings on the same day as the two we looked at today. It is a word for Zerubbabel and it is a word that finishes the process of renewal by speaking of the renewal of covenant relationship, which is at the heart of covenant blessing… the heart of our hope… that points us forward to Jesus Christ, the fulfilment of all the promises and hopes of the remnant in their coming back, the fulfilment of Israel’s hope and ours. The fulfilment of God’s promise to bless his people. We are going to look at that in a fortnights time.