A Word of Warning

Haggai 2: 1-9, Malachi 3: 1-3, Matthew 24: 36-44

Warnings aren’t necessarily bad. They can be very helpful. We like warnings the prevent us from accidents – rumble strips tell us when we start going off the road before we get too far. Alerts for contaminated produce may prevent us from getting sick. And at least some of us, watch the weather report so we know how to dress for the day – maybe. Warnings, in and of themselves, shouldn’t create fear. Warnings are often a public service announcement to help us stay safer.

Shaking. Thus saith the Lord…I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and dry land. I will shake all the nations…. Thus saith the Lord, the world needs a shaking. Things have gone wrong for far too long. Here is the shaking that the Lord intends:

  • The poor will be lifted up

  • The wealthy will be cast down – so there is an even-ing out.

  • The powerful will be cast down from their thrones

  • The powerless will receive justice

  • Thus saith the Lord from the mouth of the prophet Haggai.

Haggai was a prophet in the time of the return from the Babylonian exile. The people had returned to Jerusalem to find the city in ruins, its defenses in rubble, and the Temple desecrated by pagan religions and torn apart just as the prophet Micah had predicted 200 years earlier. The fertile fields around the city lay in waste and wild animals had taken up residence there. The people were discouraged and Haggai wanted to encourage them as they went about their tasks of restoring the city and particularly the Temple – God’s house.

As often happens, some of the people were critical and dissatisfied. This was particularly true of those who had carried the memories of the First Temple – of its glory days from 60 years previously. So far, the re-building wasn’t living up to their memories, and they were disappointed. “Is it not in your sight as nothing?” Haggai said that it might not look like much yet, but God is working nonetheless. “The task of each generation is to take courage in God’s goodness and to work on behalf of God’s purposes…. Discouragement and depression are contagious and need to be resisted.” – for the good of God’s purposes. God wants dedication to the work before us, not nostalgia for the past. [i]

Even in times of rebuilding, there are problems. It rarely goes as expected. Our rose-colored memories are problematic. The actuality was not as wonderful as the idea of returning. Haggai says that the work isn’t done. We need to prepare ourselves for God’s shaking of the world. What will we hold onto when all else fails?

-- Earthquakes. Anyone who has lived through an earthquake knows that there is real fear. Destruction. Sometimes a minute to “Grab and go.”

-- Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps the “where were you?” historic moment we don’t want to discuss. Responses: head to bomb shelters, or family?

-- Health Crisis. Longing for God.

Haggai tells us that in times of shaking – the past matters less. He reminds us that all the rebuilding in the world means nothing without the glory of the divine presence. Don’t worry about how things look or do not look, Haggai says. The ONE THING that matters is whether or not God has decided to make God’s holy presence felt among you. [ii]

The world needs shaking. It is an unjust and tragic place which has never known a day without oppression and hunger. But in the midst of the shaking, Haggai offers a world of hope: God is with us. God will help us in the shaking. “Don’t get caught in despair…Just wait. There’s more.” Thus saith the Lord through the prophet Haggai.

PURIFIED. “You need to be purified.” Thus saith the Lord through the prophet Malachi. “Who can endure the day of his coming – and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire.” Malachi’s warning is that “any age, any nation that thinks God is absent has a surprise in store – the terrifying prospect of (God’s) appearance! Yet his coming in judgement is not annihilating, but refining. It is to separate the good from the bad so that the good may shine more brightly.”[iii] A fire purifies – separating pure gold from the impurities attached to it. A refiner would heat the gold in a fire, and then put it in water, where the pure gold would settle on the bottom and the impurities remain in the water.

Malachi was a bit later than Haggai. He is generally understood as the last prophet until John the Baptist appears in the wilderness about 500 years later. In his time, the Temple was finished – but the worship had degenerated. God is wearied by worship that seems to be intended for the worshippers more than focused on God. God is tired of worship that is more concerned about form than with genuineness or justice. Read a little further into Malachi and you’ll find God’s anger with the people over limiting their giving – tipping God instead of tithing. But maybe not even that – a tip is 15-20%. God asked for 10% and the people didn’t give – and the prophet accuses them of robbing God! The people are complaining that God isn’t doing what they want, as we humans so often do.[iv]

CONTRA. We would like to dismiss this refining as an outdated notion. A refiner’s fire sounds worthwhile for Gold, but not very pleasant for us. The prospect of having our impurities burned away isn’t appealing – we are attached to our impurities, as it happens. And none of us are fond of examinations – whether in school or a physician’s office.

To us, as to Israel centuries before, Malachi would tell us that this is for our good. This is not to destroy, but to purge the dross or pollution from us, from our nation. Sin pollutes us – and clings to us.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, talked about our divided hearts – one part focused on God and one part focused on ourselves. As sin clings to us, the division moves so more of our heart is devoted to ourselves and less to God.

Jesus in the Temple. This is reflected, often, in our offerings. Jesus will come to examine our hearts. When he showed up in Temple in is lifetime he watched how people acted and how they gave. He threw out those who had turned a house of prayer into a place of business. He commended the poor widow who gave all that she had. In our time and place, Jesus will search our hearts to see if we draw near with our lips, but not our hearts. Jesus will examine us to see if we are more concerned with rules and regulations than with feeding the hungry.[v] If there is going to be an examination, it usually helps to know the questions in advance.

It turns out that judgment and love go together. God loves us too much to allow us to continue in patterns and behaviors that are not for our good.[vi]

Child. Like correcting a child who runs into the street – judgement and correction for love’s sake. God will be stern with us about anything that is self-centered. God’s love yearns to raise us up to be our best selves. Judgement is to restore us.[vii]

Young adult. When we mentor a young adult, we affirm the positives, trying to nurture them in their strengths. But we also point out errors, concerns, things that can be improved. Because we want them to thrive, to be their best selves.

Judgement and love go together. Refining fire – separating the pollutants from the pure gold.

Thus saith the Lord through the prophets: Warning: Shaking and refining are ahead. The shaking and the refining are for your good. God is working behind the scenes with both judgment and restoration. So disregard negative thoughts and comments and WORK! Live in active expectation of the changes coming. Grace and deliverance may be unrealized at this moment, but they are certain – and they will come. Carry on…for God’s purposes. And be ready – the Day of the Lord will come.

[i] NIBC, “Haggai” 725.

[ii] Every Valley, 11.

[iii] Bullard 20.

[iv] Bullard, 18.

[v] Di Gangi, 17.

[vi] McCabe, 23.

[vii] McCabe, 24.

Photo by Ash from Modern Afflatus on Unsplash