Have you ever played “Whac-a-Mole”? If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an arcade game where little cartoonish moles pop up randomly out of holes on the game table, and players use a mallet to, well, whack them. The faster you react, and the more moles you whack, the higher your score. The game was created in Japan and made its debut in the U.S. in 1978. Soon it began appearing in pinball parlors, arcades, carnivals, and amusement parks. The toy company Hasbro even made a home-edition for a while.
Even if you’ve never played or even seen the game, you’ve probably heard the term “whack-a-mole.” In 1996, Bill Clinton’s national-security adviser, Samuel Berger, described U.S. policy toward Saddam Hussein as “a little bit like a Whac-a-Mole game at the circus.” Ever since, we’ve been using the term “whack-a-mole” to describe any situation where we repeatedly fix one problem, just to have another problem crop up.
The book of Haggai is the story of God playing whack-a-mole with the ancient Jews in Jerusalem. No sooner would God address one problem that another would pop up. First there was the problem of the people neglecting to put God first in their lives—neglecting work on the temple while they made themselves comfortable. God spoke to them through Haggai, they heard and obeyed, and got back to work. Mole whacked; problem solved.
Three weeks later, another mole pops up. This time it’s the people’s discouragement about the results of their work. The new temple is a mere shadow of the first one, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians. God again spoke to the people through Haggai, promising that the work the people were doing was merely the start of what God would build—a temple that would be greater than the first one. Mole whacked; problem solved.
Two months later, yet another mole pops up—the mole in our passage today. We have to do a little digging (pun intended) to figure out what the problem is here, because God isn’t quite as direct in this passage as in the previous ones.
Instead of bopping this mole squarely on the head, God comes at it sideways. God sends Haggai to the priests with some questions. The first is about meat that’s used as an offering. Animals were sacrificed in one place, and the meat had to be carried to the altar. To keep the meat from becoming unclean along the way, the priests would wrap it in a fold of their garment. (Sounds gross, I know, but this was in the days before plastic wrap and aluminum foil.) Haggai asks, “If the fold that wrapped the holy food comes into contact with some other item—say, bread, or stew, or wine, or oil, or any kind of food for that matter—does that other food become holy?” Basically, is holiness contagious, once the sacrifice leaves the altar? In keeping with the law, the priests answer, “No.” Anything that comes into direct contact with consecrated meat, within a holy place, would become holy, but that’s as far as it goes.
“OK,” Haggai says to the priests. “Now suppose that a person touches a dead body. They become “unclean”—ritually unfit to go to worship. If they touch anything after they’ve become unclean, do the things they touch become unclean? Again, in keeping with the law, the priests answer, “Yes, of course!”
“There you go.” God says to the people through Haggai. “It’s the same with this people—this nation before me—and, in fact, every work of their hands.” The people aren’t holy, so everything they touch is unholy.
But, what is making them and the works of their hands unholy? After all, they had listened to God about putting God first and working on the temple. Some scholars explain it in terms of ritual uncleanness. The temple wasn’t completed, and maybe the altar hadn’t been ritually purified, so offerings couldn’t be made holy there. But, that situation hadn’t changed since the opening verses of Haggai, and each time when God solves the immediate problem, God declares that God is with them. God doesn’t seem all that concerned about the temple or the state of the altar, except as an indicator of the state of the people’s hearts.
Each time God has spoken through Haggai, it’s about exactly that—the state of their hearts. First, their hearts were focused on themselves. Then their hearts were focused on the past. It makes sense that once again, God has diagnosed a heart problem. This time, they appear to be focused on the technicalities of holiness.
The people had indeed turned their hands to the rebuilding of the temple. But, somewhere along the way, they got the idea that working on something holy could make them holy. They had fallen into this error of thinking that they could earn their righteousness by what they did—that they could absorb the holiness of the temple like the dust of the construction site was absorbed into their clothing. They thought that just by working in a holy place, or working with holy materials, or doing holy work, that place or that work or those materials would make them holy. It would make them righteous before God.
We may shake our heads at these people, but the truth is that it’s very easy to fall into this way of thinking. And, this way of thinking leads very quickly into what we call “works righteousness.” We start to think that we can earn God’s favor by what we do. If we do holy things, the holiness will rub off on us. If we can check off all the tasks on our religious to-do list, God will love us, bless us, and reverse our misfortunes. Righteousness will be the prize we earn by doing a good job at tasks that God will approve of—kind of like the stickers my childhood piano teacher used to put on my lesson book if I played well enough.
It works the opposite way, too. When bad times come, we start to think that God is mad at us because we didn’t pray enough, or read our Bibles enough, or serve enough. We didn’t respond to the homeless man on the street, or we gave the side-eye to a disruptive child in the restaurant. We think that if we’re not coming into contact with holy things and holy places and holy tasks often enough, we won’t be able to soak up the righteousness we want and need.
This heart problem comes with its own set of symptoms. Sean Sumlin, a pastor at a church in Fresno, California, called The Well, observes that these symptoms fall into two categories. The first is fear and insufficiency. The second is pride and self-sufficiency.
When we start thinking that God’s opinion of us is based on what we do, it shouldn’t take us long to figure out that there’s no way we can do enough to earn God’s favor. We work long and hard but, in our hearts, we know it’s not sufficient. So, we work longer and harder, but it’s still not enough to gain God’s approval. Eventually we figure out that what we do can never be enough to convince God to love us or to manipulate God into blessing us. Our sense of insufficiency leads to fear. How can we ever expect to obtain God’s love if our work can’t generate the holiness we so desperately want and need?
The flip side of this thinking results in pride and a feeling of self-sufficiency. According to Rev. Sumlin, these feelings spring up when we start comparing ourselves to other people and stop comparing ourselves to God. We become confident that we’ve got the whole righteousness thing covered, and we’re doing it better than other people. Remember the story Jesus tells in Luke about the tax collector and the Pharisee going up to the temple to pray? The Pharisee says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” He’s a prime example of thinking that if we’re better than other people, then surely God must love us more.
God had whacked down the first mole of misplaced priorities. God had whacked down the second mole of over-valued memories. Now God has to whack down the mole of inaccurate theology. The ancient Jews had begun to think of blessing as something that was theirs by right. They had begun to think of righteousness as something that could be earned. They had begun to think that God was a God who could be manipulated.
So, God asks them to think for a moment—to consider what the situation has been. Before they got back to work, their heaps of grain and vats of wine weren’t nearly as full as they expected. God had struck all the Jews and all the work of their hands with blight and mildew and hail. Whether we read this literally, as the ancient Jews likely did, or as a metaphor for empty lives, the point is the same. There was no true repentance. There was no turning to God. There was no acceptance of the fact that the people were totally dependent on God. The holiness of their project didn’t produce righteousness or the blessing that goes with it.
But, God has a solution—an answer to their mistaken theology. “From this day on I will bless you,” God says. Not because they’ve been in the right place at the right time. Not because they’ve participated in a holy project. It’s not even because they’ve fully repented—yet. It’s because their sovereign God chooses to bless them. The blessing doesn’t come as a result of works. It comes as an outpouring of God’s grace.
God pours out that same, grace-filled blessing on us. That blessing may or may not include the blessings of health and material gain. But, it does include all that makes life worth living—all that fills the granaries and wine vats of our hearts. It includes the gracious gift of Jesus who, as Paul wrote to Titus, “has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” More than that, this gift doesn’t leave us in the condition God finds us in. It “trains us,” Paul says, “to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” We can’t become righteous by our own works, but we are made righteous by Jesus. “He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”
God has one more mole to whack in Haggai, and we’ll read about that next week. But for now, God has knocked down the obstacles that stood in the way of righteousness for God’s people. God has refocused their priorities. God has given them hope for the future. And, God has shown them the true source of righteousness. That source is God’s grace alone—the grace that God showered on the ancient people in Jerusalem, and the grace that God showers on each of us today, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young