Sunday, September 25, 2016
What is your favourite TV quiz show? Do you like Countdown, with the words, the letters, and the Countdown conundrum? Maybe you prefer the Chase, as contenders take on a quiz champion chasing them to get answers right? Or do you delight in the obscure knowledge in Pointless? Over the summer, we watched an episode of University Challenge, and I could hardly understand the questions, let alone get any of the answers...
Every so often, a new quiz show appears on our screens. A while back mum and dad were watching one with people answering questions in armchairs that were moving backwards, and if they didn’t answer, they were flung over the edge into oblivion. (Ejector Seat). In our reading this morning, it looks as if the prophet Haggai was launching a new TV quiz show.
It’s not Deal or no Deal, it’s Clean or Unclean? And the format is very simple; here’s how it works: Haggai asks the priests questions about the law, if something is clean or unclean. Now those aren’t really categories we think about today in the same way, but the Old Testament law was very concerned with whether things were clean or unclean, holy or impure. The Jews were called to live a life of purity, by obeying the law with all its regulations about what sorts of food you couldn’t eat (so for example, no bacon butties). Being ritually unclean meant you couldn’t come before God - you had to go through the ritual set down in the law to become clean again.
So the quiz show begins in verse 12. ‘If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment and touches with his fold bread or stew or wine or oil or any kind of food, does it become holy?’ The answer is no - the priests have got it right. There’s then the second round in verse 13. ‘If someone who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?’ Now, the priests know their stuff. These are easy questions for them - it’s as if they could answer these questions in their sleep. It’s really obvious that something unclean touching other things makes them unclean as well.
So let’s review what we’ve learnt from the priests. Holy touching something else doesn’t make it holy; but unclean touching something else does make it unclean. Or in other words, you can’t catch cleanness, but you can catch uncleanness. Now, in case you’re wondering what that’s all about, and why it really matters, Haggai tells us in verse 14.
‘Then Haggai answered and said, “So it is with this people, and with this nation before me, declares the LORD, and so with every work of their hands. And what they offer there is unclean.”’
God declares that the people are unclean, so that everything they do, and everything they touch becomes unclean as well. It would be someone who had fallen in a mucky field, and then they come into the farmhouse, and you can trace their steps around the house - the mark of the wellies on the kitchen floor, or worse on the cream carpet in the living room; the handprint on the fridge door as they look for something nice to eat; the towel that used to be white that’s now a shade of muck as they wiped their hands or face; they’re unclean, and everything they touch becomes unclean.
It’s a bit like the Greek mythology of King Midas. He was granted a wish that whatever he touched would turn into gold. At the start, he thought it was great, he could turn a twig and a stone into gold. What a great power to have! But then he sat down to eat, and the food he lifted turned to gold. His wine turned to gold. The midas touch was more like a curse. Well here, God says that people have the anti-Midas touch. It’s not that we touch everything and it turns to gold, but rather, we touch everything and pass on our uncleanness.
I wonder if you’ve seen this at work, or in a club you’re involved with, or even in relationships. People are people, and even with the best of motives, we mess things up or make things worse. Our unclean touch, our mucky handprints affect whatever we do.
Now it’s bad enough whenever it’s in relationships, or in work, or in a sports club that this unclean touch affects everything we do. But remember what the people in Haggai’s day were doing. They were building for God’s glory. They were rebuilding the temple that had been destroyed years before. Even as they tried to build God’s house, the place for his holiness and glory, their unclean touch was affecting it. They’ve been building for exactly three months (24th day of 9th month cf 2:10 & 1:15), but their offering is unclean, because they are unclean.
To show how things have been working out for them (or rather, not been working out for them), Haggai uses what seems to be his favourite word. It’s a word we’ve heard him use in chapter 1, and now it’s here in verse 15 & 18. What is it? Consider.
Haggai asks them to ‘consider from this day onward.’ It seems that word ‘onward’ can mean going back or forward, as both consider-ings make them look back. So first, consider ‘before stone was placed upon stone in the temple of the LORD’, well, things weren’t great. The harvest wasn’t just as good as they thought it would be. They’d look at a heap of grain, thinking there were twenty measures in it, but there’d only be ten. Even worse, they’d look at a wine vat thinking there were fifty measures, but they’d only get twenty. Why was that? Because God had struck them and their work with blight, mildew and hail - frustration and disappointment, yet even then they didn’t turn back to God.
Nor did they turn back when they started work. The second consider beings them to the time since the foundation of the temple has been laid. Have things been better? Well, no. Despite it being harvest time (September - December), there was nothing in the barn - no seed, no grapes, figs, pomegranates or olives. Their uncleanness is contagious. They were unclean, and all they tried to do was unclean.They’ve nothing to show for their labours.
And if we’re just like them, and we’re unclean, and all we touch becomes unclean, then it’s natural that there’ll be disappointments and frustration as we seek to build up the temple, our church family. Someone might think they’re being helpful, but they spread the mess around. Someone else says something, not realising the impact of their words. How can we build to God’s glory in the midst of our mess? How can the holy God dwell among an unclean people?
In fact, forget about everybody else. Focus on yourself, and ask that same question - how can the holy God dwell in an unclean person? When this diagnosis lands in our hearts we might think - yes, that’s me, I know that I’m unclean, and I try to change, I try to clean myself up, but just like the muddy footprints and the dirty towel, I just make everything else a mess. What can I do? How do I change?
It was the question on the lips of the man in our reading from Mark 1. He knew all too well that he was unclean. He may well have had to shout it out when people came too close. He was a leper. He hadn’t experienced anyone touching him in years. Everyone was too afraid, in case they caught his leprosy. Uncleanness was contagious - unclean touching something else makes it unclean.
He comes up to Jesus, he reckons that Jesus can do something about his uncleanness, and so he says those words of faith: ‘If you will, you can make me clean.’ I can’t make myself clean, but Jesus, if you want to, you can. And in that moment, Jesus does the unthinkable. He reverses the curse. Verse 41: ‘Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.’
Our uncleanness is contagious - unclean touching something else makes it unclean. But with Jesus it is different. His cleanness is contagious. Clean touching unclean makes it clean. Jesus brings the change we need. The change that God promised right at the very end of verse 19 - the promise that depended entirely on God, and not on the people: ‘But from this day on I will bless you.’ The curse is reversed. We who are unclean can become clean, by God’s design, action and blessing. There’s nothing to do; nothing to achieve here in Haggai 2.
God doesn’t say, clean yourself up first and then I’ll think about helping you out. It’s not about sorting ourselves out to make God bless us. He chooses to do it anyway, for unclean, undeserving people, who receive his blessing and are changed.
This is the grace of God in action. For Haggai and the people, messed up and messing up, God will bless them from this day on - mark it in your calendar! And for us as well, as we build up the temple, the church family, in the mess of the building site, there is also much blessing, great encouragement, signs of growth and change.
Michael W Smith puts it like this: ‘Your plans are still to prosper, you have not forgotten us, you’re with us in the fire and in the flood. You’re faithful forever, perfect in love, you are sovereign over us.’
God has not finished with us. We’re still a work in progress, but he gives us his blessing, his cleansing, his Spirit dwelling in us to empower us to live for him. Let’s do it.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 25th September 2016.
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Over the summer months it's harder to sustain a sermon series, with attendances varying, and people here, there and everywhere. In recent years, I've tended to preach summer sermon series in the Psalms. They are usually standalone units of text - the Psalm by itself can be understood without needing to know what comes before or after. Yet there are ways of doing series in the Psalms - so last year, we followed the Psalms of the sons of Korah. You could also follow the songs of Asaph; do a series in the biographical Psalms of David; the songs of ascents (Ps 120-134); or the 'one hit wonders' - Psalms whose author only wrote one in the Psalter.
This year, I preached through some familiar Psalms with well-loved hymn versions. This meant that we could sing the hymn versions well, even with lower than usual attendances, and there was a variety of emotions and themes coming to the surface.
Here, for your encouragement and upbuilding, are the sermons I preached over the summer - my summer Psalms:
Psalm 72: Praying for the King.
Psalm 23: The Lord's my shepherd.
Psalm 95: Worship and a warning.
Psalms 42&43: Thirsty for God.
Psalm 121: Where does my help come from?
Sunday, September 11, 2016
How do you deal with discouragement and disappointment? You know those times when you start up a new project with enthusiasm and positivity, and then about a month in you think, why am I bothering with this? Or you take over from someone, and you’re faced with the comparisons with how things used to be, and you’ll never match up to the good old days. Where do you turn for help? How do you keep going, when everything seems to be against you, when it would be easier to just give up and not bother? How do you deal with discouragement and disappointment?
This is the issue facing Zerubbabel, Joshua and all the remnant of the people in Haggai 2. These were the people who had returned from exile in Babylon back to Jerusalem. Last week we heard the challenge of God’s word to them, to ‘consider your ways’ - they had been living in luxury panelled houses while God’s house (his temple) lay in ruins. At the end of Haggai 1, ‘they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the month, in the sixth month.’ (1:14-15).
It’s now almost a month later (1), when God sends Haggai with another message. Each of Haggai’s messages is dated, it’s as if he was keeping a diary or journal, and so on the 17th October 520BC, God speaks again. God knows the discouragement and disappointment they’re feeling - and so speaks into the situation, to diagnose the problem:
‘Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?’ (3)
It’s 67 years since Solomon’s temple was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar. Yet some of the oldest people around (who had gone into exile and now returned), could still remember seeing the old temple in all its glory. The gold, silver, precious stones. A glorious place. And as they remember the old temple, well, the one they’re working on just doesn’t compare. It’s as nothing in their eyes. They wonder why they’re bothering. Such a disappointment. Such a discouragement. Should they just give up?
I wonder if you ever feel the same way, when it comes to building God’s house? Maybe as you look at the work needing done here on the parish church, and you see the plans, and the amount of money that needs to be paid, you think - we’ll never reach it; we just can’t do it; why bother? Or, as we saw last week - to build God’s house now is to build up the temple - the place where God dwells, that’s us, his church, his people. And building up God’s people can be a slow and steady process - it takes time getting to know people, knowing how to help them, what to say. And sometimes there’s disappointments that come, when people walk away, or fall back, and you might think - will they ever get it? Is it worth bothering at all?
Or when you persistently invite someone to come along to church, and they keep saying no; or they come and then don’t come back; or they come but aren’t as excited as you are about being with God’s people. And maybe you’re tempted to think, I’ll not bother with trying to build up the church; I’ll leave it to someone else. All your efforts, but very little to show for them, at least outwardly. Disappointment and discouragement.
But look at what God says to them through Haggai. In verse 4 and verse 6, there comes the word ‘yet’. It’s a turning word, a word that shows a change in direction, a change in prospects. Things might be like this, YET here’s how they’re going to change. And these two ‘yet’s are words of encouragement for a discouraged people. Let’s look at them in turn.
First of all, in verse 4, here’s what God says: ‘Yet now be strong... all you people of the land, declares the LORD. Work, for I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not.’
Be strong. Don’t give up. Keep on going. Continue your work. God calls us to action, to play our part in what he’s doing in the world. Do you see how the ‘be strong’ message is repeated, is addressed to Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest - the leaders of the people; but it’s then addressed to ‘all you people of the land.’ Be strong! Work! Why?
‘For I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt.’ They’re not slaving away on their own, with just their own weak efforts. God is with them - the LORD of hosts, that is, the Lord of angel armies. But more than that, the LORD who made a covenant with them when Moses brought them out of Egypt. God made a promise to be with them, a promise he is keeping, a promise he is fulfilling as he calls them to work.
What difference would it make to you, knowing that the LORD of angel armies is with you every day? Knowing that his power is made available to you in your weakness. Knowing that you’re not on your own, that he is on your side? Be strong, and work, for I am with you.
Now that would be a good enough encouragement to keep going, wouldn’t it? But then God says something even better, another encouragement for these brow-beaten builders. Look at verse 6. ‘For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the LORD of hosts.’
The first encouragement was something God’s people had to do. But this one was something that only God could do. Shaking the heaven, earth, sea and dry land - it reminds me of my Henry Hippo money box, giving it a wee shake, to make sure all the money came out when it was holiday time. Well, this shaking that God’s going to do is a bit like that - he’ll shake the nations, ‘so that the treasures of all nations shall come in.’ God is going to provide for the work of building his house to be completed; for his house to be filled with glory.
Around the time the work on the temple started, the ruler of the region started putting on pressure for the work to stop. They even went so far as to write to King Darius, to get his command for them to stop building. (See Ezra 5) Perhaps this was also why the builders were discouraged. But shortly after Haggai prophesied, a letter came back from Darius - ordering the work to continue, but more than that, for the full cost of rebuilding to be paid out by the ruler of the region from his tax revenues. He also had to pay for whatever was needed for the sacrifices in the temple - God was indeed shaking the nations to fill his house with treasures. But it shouldn’t surprise us. Do you see what he says in verse 8?
‘The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the LORD of hosts.’ God owns everything; it’s all his, and he will give it and use it for his purposes. God may allow us to use the gifts he gives us, but we’re only stewards, not owners. Everything in our pockets, purses, wallets, bank accounts, or under the mattress is God’s - he gave it to us to use for his purposes. Do you really want God to have to shake it out of you?
God is concerned with his glory. And even though the house they were building looked like nothing to them, compared to the old temple, God promises that the future will be even better: ‘The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts.’
Last week, we traced the temple theme through the Bible - the place where God dwells - from the temple in Jerusalem, to Jesus (do you remember what John said of him? ‘The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we have seen his glory...’), to us, his people as God dwells in us; but the final temple scene is the new creation. We heard part of John’s walking tour of the new Jerusalem from Revelation 21 - but the most striking thing is that there is no temple in the city, because God himself is there with his people. And did you notice what will be brought into that new Jerusalem?
‘By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it... They will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations...’ (Rev 21:24,26)
Last night, you might have swayed, hummed or sung along to the Last Night of the Proms, Land of Hope and Glory, and everyone feels proudly British. It’s nothing to see the glory of all nations coming together in the new Jerusalem, as God brings people from every nation to be his people. This is what God is up to in the world - and you think, well, God can do all that on his own, he doesn’t need me. Yet he involves us in his work. He calls us to play our part, to take up our trowel, to build his church - even when we face discouragements and disappointments. Keep going! Be strong, work, for I am with you, and I will shake all nations, and I will fill this house with glory. Amen, Lord!
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 11th September 2016.
Sunday, September 04, 2016
“It’s too early! I’ll get up in five minutes’ time!” I wonder if that’s been said these mornings as school starts again. There’s another version of it in the afternoons - I’ll do my homework in a wee while. I’ll get round to it eventually. But it’s not just the kids who can put things off. Have you ever had one of those days when you wake up with a list of things to do, all good intentions, and then go to bed that night no further on. Maybe tomorrow, you think. I’m reminded of the wee saying - when a man says he’ll do something about the house he doesn’t need reminded every six months...
But have you found that when you have important things to do, unimportant things become so much more attractive? They’ve no time to do their homework, but have the time to complete ten levels of a computer game. You didn’t manage to get your tax return finished, but did arrange your cds in alphabetic order. No time for the things that really matter, but loads of time for other things.
As the prophet Haggai steps up, this is the problem he’s facing in the city of Jerusalem in 520BC. Sixty-seven years earlier, Jerusalem had been destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar. Its walls and its houses, had all been destroyed. Even worse, the temple had been destroyed - the place where God’s presence dwelled; the place you met with God; the place of sacrifice. God’s people had been taken away to Babylon, where they lived in exile - you might remember when we looked at Daniel.
Some of the exiles have returned now, they’ve been around for about 18 years. Ezra 3 tells about the restoration of the altar and the foundations of the temple. But that’s all they’ve done, at least, to the temple. They’ve been busy doing other things, though.
And so, on this certain day, the first day of the sixth month (29th August 520BC), Haggai delivers the LORD’s message. ‘This says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD.’ Not yet, we’ll get round to it eventually. But Haggai continues: ‘Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins?’
Do you see the contrast between God’s house and their houses? It wasn’t time to build God’s house, which was in ruins; yet they were living in panelled houses - luxury houses. Just imagine walking along Temple Street, Jerusalem. You see the big, impressive houses, and, even though you’re not meant to, you can’t resist taking a peek through the windows as you walk past. It’s not just bare stone walls inside, there’s panelling. You can nearly hear Lloyd Grossman from Through the Keyhole asking ‘Who lives in a house like this?’ And then you walk up the street, and well, you don’t need to go through a keyhole, there’s just a pile of stones, a ruin of rubble. Who lives in a house like this? Oh, this is meant to be God’s house. The contrast is shocking, and it’s meant to be.
As Haggai continues, though, he says that they should have known something was wrong. Do you see in verse 5, the therefore? ‘Now, therefore, (because of all this), thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways.’ Or to put it in a Northern Irish saying, ‘Catch yourself on.’ Haggai points to a series of disappointments they were facing. You sow much, but only harvest a little. You eat, but you’re still starving. You drink, but you’re still thirsty. You put on clothes, but you’re still cold. You earn wages, but they seem to disappear too quickly - like putting them in a bag with holes.
Now, was it just that times were hard, and they were unfortunate with the way things turned out? Not at all - verses 10-11 show that God was behind their difficulties. He called for the drought they were facing - in the original there’s a play on words Haggai uses - God’s house is in ruin - ‘hareb’ - so God sends a ‘horeb’, a drought.
Verses 10-11 are an echo of the old covenant curses, which Moses pronounced in Deuteronomy 28. As the people of Israel entered the promised land, they were given the choice of obedience or disobedience, life or death, blessing or curses. They’ve already been through exile, losing their land because of their disobedience. Now they’re back, and they’re doing it all over again.
So again he says, ‘Consider your ways.’ Catch yourself on. Think about what you’re doing. But this time, it’s also a call to action - catch yourself on, and here’s what to do: ‘Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD.’
Here’s the big problem. The temple lying in ruins spoke volumes about their attitude to God, and his glory. They didn’t really care about God. They didn’t care what other people would see or think of their God in his temple ruin. They were much too busy keeping up appearances in their own houses to worry about God’s house.
They went about their own business, but neglected God’s business. Could that be true of us, as we gather today? We’ll worry about getting serious with God stuff sometime, just not today, or this week, or this year. We’ll get to it eventually, but in the meantime, we’ll concentrate on ourselves. In Jerusalem in 520BC, it meant that the temple was neglected. So does that mean that we apply this now by looking at the parish church, that we need to consider our ways and compare our houses with this house?
It would be great to be able to do it - except, we’re not sitting in Jerusalem, in the temple ruin in 520BC. We’re here in Aghavea in 2016. The challenge is the same - are we focusing on ourselves and neglecting God’s house - but we have to ask, what is God’s house?
You see, the temple was the place on earth God had chosen to make his presence especially known on earth. If you go to Jerusalem now, there is no temple. But do you remember the Christmas gospel, John 1, which tells us that ‘The word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ Jesus is the temple, the place where God’s presence is found. And now, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3, the temple isn’t bricks and stone - the temple, where God dwells is, is us - his people. ‘Don’t you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?’ (1 Cor 3:16). That ‘you’ is plural - yousins, you together are God’s temple.
So if we gathered together are the temple, what will it look like to give ourselves to the work of building the temple, God’s house? We’ll want to build up and encourage each other, by coming together, being there for one another. We’ll want to see others brought in, added to the building, like living stones. We’ll not just focus on ourselves and what we like, but seek to serve one another. And as part of that, we’ll want to make sure that our meeting place is well kept and welcoming - but we shouldn’t work on the building, and neglect building us, the church.
Consider your ways. Perhaps we need to hear that word from the Lord today, just as the people in Haggai’s day needed it. From verse 12 on, we’re told how the word was received that day. Zerubbabel, Joshua with all the remnant of the people ‘obeyed the voice of the Lord their God, and the words of Haggai the prophet, as the Lord their God had sent him. And the people feared the Lord.’ They heard God’s voice, they obeyed it, they feared the Lord. As they do so, Haggai has another message, a word of grace as they repent: ‘I am with you, declares the Lord.’
They might have initially abandoned God’s house, but God has not abandoned them. God is with them - and so God stirs them up to action, to work on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God.
As we turn from our own glory to live for the Lord’s glory, so we have that assurance - I am with you. As Paul reminds us, God is with us, and God dwells in us. As we respond to God’s word, and consider our ways, may we know both his promise that he is with us, and also his stirring up to action.
This sermon was preached in the Haggai: Building for God's Glory sermon series in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 4th September 2016.