Sunday, September 25, 2016
Sermon: Haggai 2: 10-19 Clean or Unclean?
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.