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So next week, we officially launch our Mission Action Plan with the Archdeacon, Luke Miller, coming to join us. And it will be a time for us to rejoice in what God has done in the past and a time for us to look forward to all that God will achieve, in us and through us, in the future. It will be a time for us, as a church to recommit ourselves to the mission of God in Enfield.
And in preparation for that, we have been studying this book of Haggai in the Old Testament: a short book, but one packed with good spiritual teaching for us at this stage in the life of St. Andrew’s. Because the book of Haggai is, in many ways, a sign of a new beginning: it’s not the end of the story for Israel but the prophet pointing them towards a new future. Rather than being the last word, it is the first word as they began a new stage on their pilgrimage of faith.
If you remember, all that has happened in this book of Haggai all happened within the space of 15 weeks: the temple hadn’t been rebuilt in that time, the work hadn’t been completed, it wasn’t time for the people to hang up their boots and relax. Only the foundations had been dug – and now was the time for them to put the bricks together and put the windows in, so that the Temple would rise up as a sign to them of God being in their midst.
So as we come to Haggai 2:10-23, the prophet is pointing the way forward in the task that lies ahead. And there’s three things that this passage tells us about the work of building the temple, building the Kingdom of God.
The first thing is that the call to build God’s church is primarily a call to holiness.
Now, holiness is a bit of a dirty word in society today: it’s not a concept people relate to easily, if they understand it at all. On one hand, people think that holiness is a bit boring: why be holy when there’s so much fun to be had in life? And if people do want to be holy, often it comes with a proviso – a get-out clause, as if holiness in small doses is OK but too much of anything can be a bad thing.
It’s like that lovely story of a man who had just become a Christian and he felt pangs of guilt about the things he had done wrong in the past. And there was one thing that particularly kept him awake at night, so the next morning, he wrote to the Inland Revenue and he said “I can’t sleep at night, so I’m enclosing £500 I forgot to declare. P.S. If I still can’t sleep, I’ll send the rest!” Holiness with a proviso!
Perhaps there is a misunderstanding about what holiness truly is…
Holiness is not some sort of morality code. It is not the following of a list of Do’s and Don’t’s. Holiness is about a relationship. When the Bible speaks of the need to be holy, it’s always in the context of a right relationship with God: being set aside by him to live for him and with him. Holiness is not something we do. Holy is someone we are. If we are children of God, we are, by definition, holy: not because of how we behave, but because of what God has done for us by his work of reconciliation on the Cross. And that’s why Christians should never have a holier-than-thou attitude – because being holy doesn’t mean we are better people. It’s just a statement about our relationship with God.
And so Haggai wants to challenge the Israelites, firstly, in their understanding of the basis of their holiness. The basis of holiness is not found in the rituals they undertake. In verses 12 and 13, he is absolutely clear on that. The performance of certain rituals in worship does not make us holy. Holiness is founded on our relationship with God. The Israelites thought that going through the motions of ritualism was enough. But in verse 14, Haggai says, “The same thing applies to the people of this nation and to everything they produce; and so everything they offer on the altar is defiled.”
I have always said that tradition and ritual plays an important part in worship: it is important for liturgical and educative reasons. But we must never allow these things, in and of themselves, to become important to us. We must always hold before our eyes the worship of God and allow our practices to facilitate that. We are a holy people – not because of what we do but despite what we do. We are a holy people – because God has destined us to be in relationship with him.
First then, ours is a call to holiness.
Then, when we respond to that, the second point that Haggai makes becomes a reality for us – that God will bestow blessings on us.
We’ve thought about this a few times over the last few weeks, so I don’t want to go over old ground again. But Haggai’s message has been clear: that when we obey God’s call, he will bless us. He has repeated this message over and over again – that God has more blessings to pour on us than we can ever hope to ask for.
In verse 15 and 16 and 19, God says to them through Haggai, look in your barns: the seeds are still lying there, look are your vines: they are empty, look at your olive trees: there’s nothing on them. But then, in verse 19, God finishes, “Although there is no corn left, and the grapevines, fig trees, pomegranates, and olive trees have not yet produced, yet from now on I will bless you.”
The people of Israel were being called by God not to look at what they had, but to consider the potential for what they might receive and what might be enjoyed into the future. The people of Israel were being urged not to limit God. God wanted to pour out his blessings on them, not because of their faithfulness, not because of all the hard work they had put in, not because they deserved God’s blessing…but simply because he loved them and wanted good things for them.
And so it is with us, that God wants to give us his blessings; not because we are in any way deserving of them but because he loves us and wants the best for us.
First, then, ours is a call to holiness.
Second, ours is a call to receive all the good things that God has to give us.
And finally, and very briefly, ours is a call to embrace a glorious future.
I wonder how you feel about the future? I wonder how you feel about the Mission Action Plan? Some people, I know, view it with trepidation whilst others are really excited about the possibilities it contains. But the final words of Haggai’s prophecy urges us to look towards the future with excitement because, through Haggai, God says in verse 21: “I am about to shake heaven and earth and overthrow kingdoms and end their power…The Lord Almighty has spoken.”
This hope for the future, which was being prophecied in Haggai, was firmly founded on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. It is through Christ that heaven and earth has been shaken. It is through Christ that earthly powers have been superseded by a heavenly Kingdom. It is through Christ that power resides in the hands of God. The Lord Almighty has spoken – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
So at this stage in the life of St Andrew’s, through Haggai, we are confronted with the wonderful truth that our hope for the future is firmly founded on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. That’s not to suggest that the Christian life is a fairy tale of living Happily-Ever-After: we know that’s not the case. Certainly, the people of Israel had problems after this prophecy and, in the same way, we continue to endure difficulties and suffering even though we are in a relationship with Christ. God never promises us a life without troubles – but he does promise to stand with us in all we have to go through and he does promise to put it all into the context of an eternal future with him.
And, as we come to the end of our study of Haggai and prepare to meet with the Archdeacon next week for the launch of our MAP, we end with the two wonderful promises of God recorded in Haggai 2, verses 19 and 23. In verse 19, God says, “I will bless you”. In verse 23, God says, “I have chosen you”. These are wonderful promises to hear. These are wonderful promises to take with us into the future of this church. These are wonderful promises to hold into through our lives.
God says to each one of us, “I will bless you”, “I have chosen you”. What else could we ever want to hear? That is Good News indeed.