Turn in your Bibles to Haggai 2:10-19. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been walking together through the Old Testament book of Haggai, one of what we call the minor prophets near the end of the Old Testament. We call them the minor prophets not because their message wasn’t or isn’t important, simply because the books are shorter. Now, in most churches these days most of the preaching comes from the New Testament, except for maybe the Psalms and parts of Genesis, and the prophet Isaiah during Advent. But Paul, writing to the Ephesian church’s young pastor Timothy, said that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness …” (2 Tim. 3:16). What Scripture was he talking about there? He was talking about the Old Testament. It was the only Scripture they had at that point. This was the early to mid-60’s AD, just three decades after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and the New Testament was still being written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Paul was talking about the Old Testament. All of Scripture, from the opening words to the last word, points to Christ and is filled with the power of Christ. Every syllable. Every word. We cannot pick and choose the parts we like and ignore the parts we don’t. We need the Word of God in its entirety. And so we spend time in the Old Testament sometimes too. And the book of Haggai is about priorities and obedience. We focus our time, our talent, and our treasure on that which is important to us. And so, through the words of the prophet Haggai, God asks us a penetrating question: “What is important to you?”
In Greek mythology, Midas was the name of a king in the region of Phrygia in what is now modern-day Turkey. According to the myth, the god Dionysus was trying to find his teacher Silenus, who had gone missing after drinking too much wine. Silenus was found by the men of Midas, who brought him to the king; Midas recognized him and returned him to the region of Lydia, where Dionysus was. The god was so happy that he told Midas he would fulfill one wish for him. Midas asked that everything he touched would become gold, and Dionysus kindly granted the wish.
So Midas was very excited with his new power and started turning trees and rocks into gold, on his way back home. When he reached his palace, he asked his servants to prepare a huge feast, but to his despair, he soon realized that the food he touched also turned into gold and would soon die of starvation. Even his daughter turned into gold when she greeted her father. Midas, realizing that his wish was foolish, prayed to Dionysus, who told him to wash in the river Pactolus. Midas went straight to the river and felt his powers leave him and flow into the waters.
The Jewish people, having returned to their homeland from exile in Babylon, are worried. The land has not been good to them. They have to feed their families, they have to feed their livestock, and they need to save enough seed to replant for the next season. But their storage bins weren’t full. Their harvest was down about 50%. That’s a lot. Look at Vv. 15-16. And here God was asking them to trust him completely with their lives, with their futures, by getting to work rebuilding the temple. They didn’t have the time. They didn’t have the money. They had other things to worry about. And so God pulled back the curtains and let them see what exactly was going on, why their crops were failing.
And he begins by asking a couple of rhetorical questions. Look at Vv. 12-13. There is something written into the law that God wants them to see. God built into the law a sense of cleanness and uncleanness. Of holiness and unholiness. To be holy is not to be perfect as we think of perfection. To be holy is to be set apart before God. To be set apart for his purpose and his use. The priests were set apart and through cleansing were made to be holy. The items in the temple used for the sacrifices and burnt offerings were cleansed and set apart as holy. To become holy, set apart, that object or person had to be cleansed and the law was very specific as to how that cleansing was to happen. Anything that hadn’t been cleansed was considered unclean. So for an unclean person or object to become clean, it had to be cleansed in a very special way through sacrificial blood. But for something holy to become unclean, all it had to do was touch something that was unclean. Uncleanness, unholiness, was more contagious than holiness. Like Midas’ curse, sin is passed on so easily, with just a touch.
Now, look at V. 14. Their offering was unclean. Why? Because they were just going through the motions. They weren’t living as the people of God. They gave God lip service, but their hearts weren’t in it. He wasn’t their Lord. They were offering sacrifices hoping that the sacrifices themselves would make them clean, but their hearts were far from God. In Samuel 15:22, the prophet Samuel declares, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” In other words, I don’t want sacrifices for the sake of sacrifices. I want your hearts. I want you to listen to me. I want you to obey me. The elaborate system of sacrifices and feasts was the way they were to worship God, but God didn’t want any of it if their hearts weren’t in it.
In the New Testament, Peter says “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). In Christ, through the blood of Christ, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, through our faith in Christ, we are now set apart, holy, to be used by God to proclaim his glory and his majesty throughout the world. But we don’t, in fact, we can’t, place our faith in Christ and then just sit back and let him do his thing. There is still a part for us to play. There is still this messy business of following Jesus. “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (1 Jn. 2:6). And the words of Jesus himself, ““If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15). If you love me, you will … obey me. You will live as I lived. Obedience requires action. Doing something. God doesn’t want us to come to church on Sunday morning and sing the songs and listen to the sermon and take communion and then go about our lives as if none of it mattered, as if we were going through the motions. He wants our hearts. And if he has our hearts, we will follow him, not just with our minds, but with our wills, and with our bodies.
Now, look at V. 17. “I struck you and all the products of your toil.” Why? Because they weren’t obedient. “You looked for much (in your harvest), and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? Declares the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house” (1:9). So what was God doing here? I mean, this really messes with our theology of grace, of God’s goodness in spite of our shortcomings and failures, right? They’re struggling, and God takes credit for it. What’s going on here? This isn’t grace, is it? Some argue that the God of the Old Testament was very different than the God of the New Testament. The book of Hebrews blows that idea out of the water. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:8). And by the book of James, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (1:17). And the same Jesus that present in the New Testament was there in the days of the Old as well. “In the beginning (what does John want us to remember here? The first words of the book of Genesis!) was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). In the Old Testament God is called the everlasting God. There is no change in the essential nature and character of God between the Old and New Testaments. So what is happening here? God is doing two things here.
Look again at V. 17: “I struck you and all the products of your toil … yet you did not turn to me, declares the LORD.” First of all, sin has consequences. That isn’t to say that everything bad that happens happens because we are sinful. Or that good things happening to someone are a sign of God’s blessing. God causes rain to fall and sun to shine on the just and unjust alike. But both eternally and in this world, sin has its consequences. And in their case, their disobedience to God led to God reducing the size and quality of their crop.
But even then, God was seeking to draw them back to him. Blight was a drying out of the crops caused by hot winds. Mildew was the rotting of the crops due to a moist wind. And hail would batter crops. He was revealing himself to them as the LORD of all, and they couldn’t see it. They had no idea what was going on. That’s why God sent Haggai. There are a grand total of 38 verses in Haggai, and the word “LORD” appears 32 times in those 38 verses. In every instance, it is written in all caps. That means the formal Hebrew name for God, Yahweh, is the word being translated. Literally, “I AM,” and that word, “Yahweh, I AM,” is packed with meaning. It reminds us that God never had a beginning, and will never have an end. That we, and every person, place, or thing that has ever existed depends completely and totally upon a God who depends on nothing or no one else. Everything else that has been created is secondary to him. He is sufficient. That the vastness and power and might and grandeur of the universe itself pales in comparison. That God is constant and does not waver in his steadfast love for his people. That God answers to no one and yet is entirely consistent within his being, and that God is the most important reality and person in the universe.
In the New Testament Jesus revealed himself as “I AM.” “I Am the bread of life. I Am the light of the world. I Am the door. I Am the good shepherd.” Over and over again, “I Am,” and we focus on the descriptor and miss the first two words: “I Am.” And so Jesus makes it clear to us: “Before Abraham was, I am (Jn. 8:58). And over and over again, 32 times in 37 verses he reminds them, “I AM.” Ever wonder how martyrs can stand firmly and faithfully in the face of persecution, facing death with boldness and confidence? Because they know Christ, and they know that HE is I AM, the most important, significant, and sufficient reality and being, and that death itself cannot separate us from his love.
God reveals himself in this passage as Lord over all of creation, as Lord over the land, over the winds, over the rains and the storms and all that they need for a healthy harvest, and yet they do not turn to him. They just keep on doing what they’ve been doing, working and planting and cultivating and harvesting and it doesn’t matter. Their crops fail, because they will not turn to I AM. Their lives are filled with sin, and God is calling them, once again, to repent. They needed to be cleansed. But God won’t clean us up if we want to stay dirty.
Sin and repentance. We don’t talk them much anymore. We talk about grace. We talk about love and hope and peace. We talk about joy and we talk about God’s presence with us and among us. But we don’t talk about sin and repentance much anymore. It’s so easy to see sin in everyone else and convince ourselves that by comparison we aren’t all that bad. And yet we all admit that we miss the mark, that we mess up, and sometimes intentionally do the wrong thing, no matter how we justify it. And when we’re caught in it and there’s no way to wiggle out, what do we say? Well nobody’s perfect. I’m only human. Yes, we are only human, and none of us is perfect. That’s why we need to be cleansed. And to be cleansed, we need to repent. That word literally means “to change your mind.” In the words God spoke through Haggai, we need to turn or re-turn to him. Even in the church, we need to regularly take the time to search our minds, to search our hearts, and to repent, to turn back. A modern day parable tells the story of a man in Haiti who wanted to sell his house for $2,000. Another man wanted to buy it, but he was poor and couldn’t afford the full price. After a lot of going back and forth, the owner agreed to sell the house for half the original price, provided he would retain ownership of just one small nail sticking out from over the door. Several years later, he wanted the house back, but the new owner wouldn’t sell. So the original owner went out and found the carcass of a dead dog and hung it from the single nail he still owned. Soon the house was unlivable, and the family was forced to sell the house to the owner of the nail. The moral of the parable is this: If we leave the devil with even once small peg in our life, he will return to hang his rotting garbage on it, making it unfit for Christ’s habitation.[i] It doesn’t mean that we have fallen out of grace. It does mean that we need to keep seeking Christ, knowing that we are all works in progress, but that does mean progress.
We are all being shaped by the Holy Spirit into the image of Christ. We are all called to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” To cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
And look at the promised blessing. Look at Vv. 18-19. The seed wasn’t in the barn because it had been planted. They were hoping for a better season once again. Look at the divide. In the past, the yield has been nothing. From this point on, I will bless you. So is that it? If I obey God he’ll like me and bless me? No. God loves me, and my obedience is evidence that my heart, my life, belongs to him. And God blesses our obedience by making it fruitful. His blessing is so much more than a material blessing. It is the blessing of God in this life and beyond, regardless of our circumstances. Life is not without struggle, whether we live for Christ or not. Usually, living for Christ brings more struggle, not less. And yet God promises to bless us, in this life and beyond. Maybe we need to rethink our definition of blessing. Maybe we need to realize that those who die a martyr’s because of Christ are just as blessed as we are, maybe more. Maybe the blessing is in knowing that absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God and living as if that is true, knowing that God is bringing us to place where his ancient purpose for creation itself will be fulfilled in his presence, where “He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). My friends, THAT is a blessing!
[i] Leadership Magazine, Spring 1983