Defilement and deliverance - Haggai 2:10-23
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
I don’t know how you feel about getting early Christmas presents when, for some reason or other, a present arrives for you which you are encouraged to open before the big day itself. Now, some presents come to you in this way and you have no option but to receive them. Our eldest son Christopher, for example, was due to be born on the 25th December- that is the kind of parents were are- anything to save on buying presents-combine birthday and Christmas! But Christopher came early and was born on the 18th of December: a lovely Christmas present if ever there was one. Well, in Haggai’s day, God’s people were going to get the equivalent of an early Christmas present. In fact they were going to receive a message from God which actually prepared the way for the real Christmas- the birth of Jesus Christ himself. And it happened, would you believe on the 18th December, 520BC- as we read in chapter 2 v 10: ‘On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Haggai.’
This early Christmas present comes in three parts and what God says to his people then is also a message for us his people today.
The first part of the gift might not seem that pleasant, but is essential if the rest of the present is going to be received and enjoyed and it is an idea which needs to be disabused, v10b-14, ‘the word of the Lord came to the prophet Haggai: 11 “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Ask the priests what the law says: 12 If someone carries consecrated meat in the fold of their garment, and that fold touches some bread or stew, some wine, olive oil or other food, does it become consecrated?’” The priests answered, “No.”13 Then Haggai said, “If a person defiled by contact with a dead body touches one of these things, does it become defiled?” “Yes,” the priests replied, “it becomes defiled.”14 Then Haggai said, “‘So it is with this people and this nation in my sight,’ declares the Lord. ‘Whatever they do and whatever they offer there is defiled.’
What’s that all about? It is the idea, still held by many people today, that holiness is transferrable. It is the belief that so long as you are in a ‘holy’ place, in contact with ‘religious’ people, then somehow by having such close proximity spiritual blessing and change is going to rub off on you and protect you regardless of how else you are living your life or what the quality of your relationship with God is like. In the case of the Jews here the view might have been going the rounds that simply by virtue of building the temple, being on holy ground as it were, that would automatically make them holy and better people. And God says in effect, ‘Don’t be so stupid’. If you have meat set apart for religious purposes and it touches unconcecrated meat, will that become consecrated? Hardly, in fact it deconsecrates the meat that was holy. We might think of it like this: suppose you have a fruit bowl full of good, ripe bananas and into that bowl you were to place a banana that was starting to turn brown and beginning to rot. Would its contact with fresh bananas reverse the rot, so that it starts to turn yellow and become fresh again? Of course not, the opposite would happen, the rest of the bananas would start to blacken and become covered with mildew in due course. Similarly God is saying, don’t think that by simply coming to a consecrated building like this or mixing with Christian people that somehow it is going to automatically make you acceptable to God- because it will not. And yet it has to be said, that there are many people today who put their faith in such misguided mystical beliefs as did these people in being near the temple. Can we honestly believe that going to a cathedral and lighting a candle for someone is going to make God well disposed towards our wishes? Can we honestly believe that a clergyman pouring water over the head of a person is going to have a special effect on the spiritual well being of that person? Does it make any rational sense to think that prayers offered in this building by virtue of it being ‘consecrated’ by a Bishop in 1833, are going to be more effective than if they were offered at home? You see, all of these things betray what can be called a ‘contagion’ view of religion- that is; by virtue of having special contact with a holy place or a holy people we are going to have some kind of inside track with the Almighty. No. As we have been seeing over the last few weeks, what God has been driving home through his prophet Haggai, is that the kind of religion God wants is of the heart, one which believes in God’s promises and acts upon his commands. In other words, it is a matter of having a right personal relationship with him. If you have that, the rest will follow. If you don’t, then no matter which building you are in or which St Christopher medallion you are wearing, you remain, using this language, defiled- out of sorts with God, and that needs correcting. And that only comes when you devote yourself to God from the heart. Once you do that, then you will be in a position to receive the gift of God’s blessing.
Which brings us to the second part of God’s early Christmas present- a promise to be embraced, vv 15- 19. We clearly have a major turning point in the people’s fortunes- look at verse 15, ‘Now give careful thought (or as we saw back in chapter 1 with the same phrase-literally it is ‘consider the road your heart is on’) - from this day on…’ and again in verse 18, ‘from this day on’- the 18th of December- things are going to change. Up to now they have had unrealised expectations- the harvests have been rubbish, the hoped for blessings have not materialised because, as we saw at the beginning of the book, God had been sidelined. And so God took some drastic steps to get their attention, by getting them to wonder why things had been going wrong, v 17, ‘I struck all the work of your hands with blight, mildew and hail.’ And this together with the word of the prophet seemed to work, for now with the rebuilding of the temple, we have a sign that the people have at last woken up to their calling and have grasped a deeper understanding the nature of the God they are serving. He is not to be treated like a ‘sweet dispensing machine’, so we put in the ‘coin’ of prayer and expect him to deliver the goods; he is a personal God who is to be related to on a personal basis. It seems that the people had now got that and so God extends his loving kindness towards them. If they have any seed in the barn, although it is still winter, God’s promises and predicts that come July they are in for a bumper harvest- v19, ‘From this day on I will bless you.’
Now let me ask: what might this kind of ‘harvest’ look like in spiritual terms? Well, to help answer that question, let me read to you an account of what happened amongst some of the Confederate troops during the American Civil War as clear, biblically-minded chaplains did their work- ‘building God’s temple’ by sharing the Gospel. The writer says: “This was the beginning of the great and glorious grace that followed. Every night a deeper and deeper anxiety was manifested (amongst the soldiers). There was little or no excitement and no extraordinary means to promote deep feeling were resorted to. The Spirit of God went with the preached word and earnest, pointed conversation, and heads of many of the most hardened sinners were bowed down, as they ‘became convicted of sin, of righteousness, and of a judgement to come.’ A deeper sense of sin, or a more childlike faith I have never seen manifested. Another striking characteristic was the eagerness which was manifested by all for the sincere milk of God’s word. The Bible was the book to which they continually resorted; and those who tasted of the love of Christ showed the greatest eagerness to lead others to the same precious fountain.’ The writer goes on, ‘Among the six soldiers who came forward to enlist under the banner of the great captain of their salvation was a great variety in character. The first was a poor, weak man, who had given much trouble to the officers of his company; the next, a man of remarkable bravery, had been one of the most notorious sinners in the company. His evidence of conversion was strikingly clear. His sorrow for sin was very deep, and his faith simple and ardent. Then came forward one who had been regarded as one of the most unpromising men in his company-whose previous life had been anything but religious. He seemed now to be thoroughly in earnest, and manifested the spirit of the genuine penitent. The next was an amiable and moral young man, who had been long in seeking the Saviour. The last two were among the bravest and best men in their army. Having nobly struggled as good soldiers of their country, they came forward to enlist zealously in the service of their Redeemer. …. This was an evening never to be forgotten by any who were present. The Holy Spirit was evidently with us, working with power in many hearts; and Jesus was also there, manifesting His power and willingness to save.’ (Christ in the Camp- J William Jones- pp288-289).
Friends, that is what happens when God’s people recognise their need and face the fact that true and lasting satisfaction is to be found in Christ alone, who has promised that he will build his church- his temple- made up of saved people- and ‘the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.’ This is where true hope lies, in God’s faithful promises. Wouldn’t it be great if we saw more of that?
Which leads us on to the next point, a future which is certain, vv 20-23: The word of the Lord came to Haggai a second time on the twenty-fourth day of the month: 21 “Tell Zerubbabel governor of Judah that I am going to shake the heavens and the earth. 22 I will overturn royal thrones and shatter the power of the foreign kingdoms. I will overthrow chariots and their drivers; horses and their riders will fall, each by the sword of his brother. 23 “‘On that day,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘I will take you, my servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”’
What is going on here? Well, it is this: Zerubbabel is the grandson of the last official King of the Jewish people, Jehoiachin. God had described his grandfather as being like a signet ring which he would take off in judgement, which he did as he was carted off into Exile and died there. His reign lasted only a year. You see, the signet ring of a king was not only a sign of his authority but the means whereby he exercised that authority. So if the King wanted to make a special proclamation for the people to obey, it was written out and then sealed with the royal seal which was on the signet ring. So God is saying that Zerubbabel will now be God’s signet ring, he will have God’s authority to bring about God’s saving purposes for his people. In other words, God is gently encouraging Zerubbabel with this prophecy. But why? Why would he need that kind of encouragement? Well, for one thing, his very name was a constant reminder of how badly things had gone wrong for God’s people as they rebelled against him, for it means, ‘seed of Babylon’. So he may have been conceived in Babylon and born there. But the point is his name was a stigma; every time it was mentioned, it had bad associations. I am reminded of the classic Fawlty Towers, ‘The Germans’ episode where it was said, ‘Don’t mention the war’- of course by saying don’t mention it, they kept mentioning it and it just caused more upset. And given the track record of the people, don’t you think Zerubbabel could do with some reassurance that his leadership isn’t going to be a total waste of time? And God very kindly re-assures him that unlike his grandad, Jehoiachin who lost everything, Zerubbabel is going to be singly used in bringing about God’s great saving plan. The question is: how?
Well, by very simply and quietly getting on with the job that God had given him to do in building the temple and in having a family. We do not read or know of any great exploits by this man, he is not up there with the great and the glorious with men like his ancestor King David, or in the annals of the disgraced and disgusting like Manasseh who burnt his son as a sacrifice and consulted mediums and the like. He just got on with being governor- all very down to earth and unspectacular really. But, as we shall see in a moment, in God’s hands what appears to be mundane and simple can become something marvellous and significant. The thing is, we don’t always know how things are going to turn out, and we just have to get on with what God has given us to do with his strength and leave the outcome with God.
Take William Wilberforce. He really didn’t know if he was going to succeed in the abolition of the save trade when he started out. And defeat after defeat in Parliament would, and did, cause him to plumb the depths of despair. But just listen to part of a letter written to a young Wilberforce by an elderly John Wesley as he began his lifelong struggle: ‘Unless the Divine Power has raised you up to be as Athanasius ‘against the world’, I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion of England and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils, but if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? Oh, be not weary in well doing. Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall, vanish away before it.’
Do you see? ‘If God is for us who can be against us?’ Well, God had said in no uncertain terms he was for Zerubbabel. Was Zerubbabel successful? In one sense, yes he was. The temple was rebuilt- and was dedicated in 516BC. He did have a family. But in another sense these prophecies were not wholly fulfilled. The earth wasn’t shaken by God in judgement. The power of other nations remained; so after the Persians, came the Greeks and after the Greeks came the Romans and the Israel never did seem to shake off occupation of one kind or another. The temple during Zerubbabel’s time did not surpass the glory of Solomon’s temple. And at the end of this prophecy there is a feeling of incompleteness about it all. And that is exactly what we are meant to feel. For we are meant to keep turning the pages of our Bible until we come to the one who fulfils all these prophecies- the Lord Jesus Christ.
Even when this second temple was extended by King Herod and completed 30 years after Jesus death, it was never going to possess the beauty or the glory which is prophesied here- not really. That was to be seen in the one who described himself as ‘greater than the temple’, the Lord Jesus Christ. This is because while the temple represents God meeting with people and meeting their deepest needs, Jesus is God meeting with his people and meeting their deepest needs- for he is the sacrifice which wipes away all our guilt and makes us into God’s children. While the temple may display something of the splendour of God Jesus is the splendour of God, displaying before us such divine sweetness and love we are simply drawn to worship him. While there was something of a harvest at the time of Haggai, with the coming of Jesus a spiritual harvest has started to be reaped which results in billions of people from every age and every class and culture gathered into the secure storehouse of heaven. And while Zerubbabel was God’s signet ring, his great descendent, (following the family tree in Matthew’s Gospel in which Zerubbabel is mentioned which leads directly into the Christmas story)- has now been given all authority in heaven and earth and under the earth. Sure, even then there is more to be fulfilled, there is the shaking of the heaven and earth yet to come.
Today we may look around us and think that we and God’s work doesn’t seem to amount to very much, as these people thought they and his work didn’t amount to much- but we could not be more mistaken. If you are a Christian, you have residing in you treasure, a glory which is going to outshine the most precious collection of diamonds known to man. You have someone who has your best interests at heart, such that he willingly died to save you, and lives to guide and protect you. And if you are a friend here today who is not yet a Christian, then verse 21 stands as a warning to you, that whatever you are trusting in and hoping in, is going to be shaken and will not stand- especially at death. And so he invites you today, as he invited these people, to put your trust in him, the one who is not the seed of Babylon- Zerubbabel, but the seed of the Holy Spirit- the Lord Jesus. Why not do that now as we pray and receive the gift which Christmas- even an early Christmas- is all about.
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