Tonight on television, they’ll be showing the Grammy Awards, the big annual awards event for the music industry, where all the most popular singers and bands get together and awards are given for the best song, the best album, best new artist, and all sorts of things like that. And musicians aren’t the only ones who do this. Yesterday was the National Hockey League’s All Star game with all their best players getting together to be honored and to see who is really the best of the best. And the NFL has had its pro-bowl over the past few days ending with a game this afternoon. And of course Baseball has an all star game too, and Basketball has an all star game in a couple weeks. Movies have the Academy Awards, theater has the Tonys, TV has the Emmys. 


Every industry, every field, even every hobby, has events like this. People love to give out awards, love to see who is the best of the best. Why is that? We all want to know if we’re good enough. We all want to know if other people like us, if they approve of us. Even world famous musicians with millions of dollars and millions of fans, even athletes who have won in high school and college and the pros, want to know if they are good enough to be the best. 


Our scripture this morning gives us an answer about whether or not we are good enough and it comes from Haggai chapter 2 verses 10 to 14 which you’ll find on page 768 of your Bible and I’d encourage you to turn there. We’ve been working our way through the prophet Haggai who spoke to the people of Israel after they had returned from exile in Babylon. And Haggai had told the people to rebuild the temple, to rebuild the house of God. And the people listened, they obeyed and began to rebuild. But now Haggai came with another message. Listen to Haggai chapter 2 verses 10 through 14: 

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, saying: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Ask the priests for a ruling: If one carries consecrated meat in the fold of one’s garment and with the fold touches bread, or stew, or wine, or oil, or any kind of food, does it become holy?” The priests answered, “No.” Then Haggai said, “If one who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?” The priests answered, “Yes, it becomes unclean.” Haggai then said, “So is it with this people and with this nation before me, says the Lord, and so with every work of their hands; what they offer there is unclean.”


This passage is about holiness, cleanliness and what that has to do with God. It’s about whether or not the Israelites were clean and good in God’s eyes, and it can show us whether we are clean in God’s eyes too. This passage teaches us that God requires spiritual cleanliness. And we’re going to look at that through three questions: what is cleanliness? Are we clean? And who is clean? 


Let’s start with that first question: what is cleanliness? Literally cleanliness is being free from dirt, dust, disease, and things like that. Cleanliness is something we learn from a young age. One of the first things we’re taught to do is to clean up after ourselves. To take what we’ve made messy, what we’ve used, what we’ve played with and straighten it up, put it back where it belongs. And cleaning doesn’t go away, it’s always part of our lives. Our rooms, the dishes, our cars, our clothes, our hands, our teeth, everything has to be kept clean, it's a never ending process. 


And since cleaning has been around as long as human beings have, we shouldn’t be surprised to find cleanliness shows up all the time in the Bible. 

The Bible uses a range of words to talk about cleanliness; things are clean, pure, holy, innocent, spotless, sacred without blemish, unstained, consecrated. And if we wanted to we could get into the distinctions between all those and the tiers of relative purity and holiness, but fundamentally all these words are different ways of describing the same distinction, clean or unclean. 


Is it in order, set apart in its proper place, in good condition? Or is it out of order, mixed up, in the wrong place, in bad condition. Is it clean or unclean? And we see this distinction between clean and unclean most clearly in all the laws around sacrifices, the rules for how priests enter the temple and the presence of God, the rules about which animals are to be sacrificed and how they are to be sacrificed. 


This was the priests’ business, especially the high priest. And as we have heard repeatedly in the book of Haggai, Haggai addresses his message to Zerubabbel the governor and to Joshua the high priest. Joshua the high priest would have been in charge of making the right sacrifices to God, of using only what was clean and holy and proper when coming into the presence of God. And yet earlier in the book Joshua had to be instructed by Haggai, had to be told by God to rebuild the temple so that the sacrifices could occur properly.


And now Haggai again raises a question about holiness and cleanliness, and he turns to the priests, to those under the authority of Joshua the high priest, and asks: If one carries consecrated meat in the fold of one’s garment and with the fold touches bread, or stew, or wine, or oil, or any kind of food, does it become holy?

The answer is no. In fact the answer is obviously no. Holiness is not that contagious. 

If your clothes touch something holy and then your clothes touch something else, that other thing doesn’t magically become holy. Now according to Leviticus, what touches something holy does become holy, the clothes that touch the sacrifice do become holy, but that holiness goes no further, just one degree of separation. 

 It’s hard for something to become holy. Just like it’s hard for something to become clean. When you wash dishes, you don’t just dip the dirty dishes in the water, you don’t just touch the dirty dishes with the sponge, you don’t hold the bottle of soap close to the dirty dishes, and you certainly don’t touch a clean dish and then touch a dirty dish to magically make it clean. No. You soak the dishes and scrub the dishes and wash the dishes and then rinse the dishes and dry the dishes and then they are clean. Touching something clean is not enough to make dirty things clean. 


Then Haggai asks another question of the priests: If one who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean? 


And the answer is yes. In fact the answer is obviously yes. These were not hard questions for fully trained priests who knew the system of sacrifices inside and out. Obviously touching a dead body made you unclean and the Law of the Old Testament was clear that there was a whole procedure you had to perform to become clean again after becoming unclean. The Law was clear, when you touch something unclean, like a dead body, you become unclean, and if you touch something else that other thing is also unclean. 

It’s a lot like the modern idea of contagion in medicine. If I’m sick, and I cough on you so that my germs are all over you, you become exposed, and now you might as well be sick too, so you should avoid other people just as much as I should. 

Haggai asked two easy questions of the priests: If my clothes touch something holy, and then my clothes touch my food, does my food become holy? No. Definitely not holy.. 

If my clothes touch a corpse and then my clothes touch my food, does my food become unclean? Yes. Definitely unclean. 

Has anyone ever asked you a question that seemed too easy? Almost like a trap? Like you were getting set up for something? Let me tell you a story. A man’s phone rang and he didn’t recognize the number but he answered it anyway. 

“Hello! Are you satisfied with your phone service? AT&T has a wonderful new offer we’d like to share with you.” 

The man replied “Sorry I can’t talk right now; could you give me your home phone number and I’ll call you back later?

“Uh, no, no, we’re not allowed to do that.”

“Oh, so you don’t want people calling you at home?” 


“Good, now you know how I feel.” 


Sometimes easy questions can set a trap. And Haggai’s questions were setting a trap. Together Haggai’s two questions show that holiness isn’t that contagious, that clothes touching something holy can’t magically make other things holy, but unholiness is very contagious: clothes that have touched something unclean do make other things unclean. Cleanliness doesn’t spread from one thing to another, but uncleanliness does. And we all know this. 

If you have a beautiful clean living room, vacuumed and dusted and spotless, and then you put an eight year old boy who just came home from soccer practice covered in mud and sweat into that living room. Does the boy magically become clean? No. Does the room become unclean? Yes. 

This is the nature of clean and dirty. Introduce one dirty thing and the whole thing becomes dirty.  What is cleanliness? Cleanliness is having everything in order, in its proper place, in good condition, free from dirt and dust and disease. And if you add anything dirty to something clean. What was clean becomes dirty. 


And so now that Haggai has set his trap, we turn to our next question: are we clean? Haggai gives us the answer in verse 14: So is it with this people and with this nation before me, says the Lord, and so with every work of their hands; what they offer there is unclean.

Just like the food touched by clothes that touched the consecrated meat was unclean, just like the food touched by a man who touched a dead body was unclean, so too this people is unclean.

Why? What made the people unclean? Haggai doesn’t point to any particular action and the narrative doesn’t include much. In fact the story tells us that the Israelites have been stirred up and have begun rebuilding the temple. They are doing the right thing, the holy thing, the clean thing, but what did Haggai just say about clean things? They spread a little bit, but not very contagious, but unclean things are very contagious. The Israelites were doing one good thing, one pure thing, one clean thing, but that didn’t undo everything else they did; what they did wasn’t enough.  

There are many interpretations about what they did wrong, whether it was using the hastily built altar referred to in the book of Ezra or not rebuilding fast enough or something else; it’s unclear. What is clear is that something was wrong, something was unclean, and that one unclean thing outweighed all the clean things. 

If I spat in your soup, it wouldn’t matter that most of the soup was soup; no, one bit of spit outweighs all that soup. One unclean thing outweighs many clean things. 

And so this uncleanness in Israel doesn’t just contaminate the ones who did it, but everyone: this people, each of you has become unclean. And this nation, this group as a group, the nation has become unclean. And every work of their hands, everything this group of people does has become unclean. 

The Israelites thought they were clean; they thought they were doing alright. But they were wrong. And it was Haggai’s job to tell them. Again and again we see that this is the work of God’s prophets, to reveal to God’s people where they had gone wrong. And God does this, God sends his prophets to tell the people what they’re doing wrong, because he loves them. 

A true friend is someone who will tell you when you have something stuck in your teeth. A true friend tells you when your shirt is on backwards, or the tag of your shirt is sticking out of your collar. A true friend tells you when you’re making a mistake. And God is a true friend. And Haggai brings God’s message: So is it with this people and with this nation before me, says the Lord, and so with every work of their hands; what they offer there is unclean.

We all want to know whether or not we’re good enough, whether or not we’re clean. The Israelites wondered and God told them, every work of their hands is unclean. And this is part of the gospel, part of the Christian message, and this message is very different from what we hear in other religions, other worldviews, other approaches to life. 

We are not clean. We are not pure or holy or good. We may do some good things, we may have some pure motives, we may have some holy thoughts, but we are not clean. To be clean we would have to be totally clean. A dish that is 99% spotless and 1% spot is a dirty dish. A shirt that is 99% unstained and 1% stained is a stained shirt. A story that is 99% trues things and 1% false things is a lie. And if a human being were to do the right thing 99% of the time and do the wrong thing 1% of the time, they would still not be perfect. They would not be clean. 

If someone were to judge you, to look at all your actions, all your motives, all your thoughts, all your desires, I don’t know where exactly you’d fall and I’m not about to guess about who’s 75% clean and who’s 90% clean and who’s 10% clean, because it doesn’t really matter 99% clean and 1% dirty is dirty, is not clean. And I know none of us are 100% good, we all have something wrong with us.

And that’s why we’re always wondering if we’re good enough, because we aren’t. That’s why being the best soccer player on the high school team isn’t enough, you have to play in college, then you have to make it to the pros, then you have to be an all star, then you have to be a champion, then you have to be the greatest of all time. The pursuit of improvement never ends because we can never get there. We can never be perfect, we can never be fully clean. 

This is the Christian doctrine of the fall: that man was made good but chose to sin and become bad, and man can never again become fully good on his own, that all fall short of the glory of God, that we are under the curse of sin and every work of our hands is unclean.

So are we clean? No. None of us is perfect. Well who is clean? Is anyone clean? Yes, God and God alone is clean. God is the one perfect being, no flaws, no errors, no mistakes, no sins. And God is holy and holiness means being set apart being different; God is separate from the world he created. And God is clean and pure and spotless. And more than just being clean, God requires spiritual cleanliness of us. When something dirty comes into contact with something clean, they both become dirty. As Haggai said, when clothes that have touched a dead body touch food, the food becomes unclean. As we all know, when an 8 year old comes home from soccer practice to a clean living room, that room becomes unclean. But God cannot become unclean, he cannot become dirty, and therefore he can’t touch, he can’t contact that which is unclean. God requires spiritual cleanliness for us to come close to him. 

This was part of the point of the whole sacrificial system in the Old Testament, that set of rituals and rules of clean and unclean that determined how the Israelites were to approach God. God gave the Israelites the sacrificial system so that they could cleanse themselves because an unclean people coud not come into God’s presence. 


There’s an old saying, cleanliness is next to godliness. It means that part of being a good person is being neat and orderly and hygienic and all those good things, and that’s true. But spritiutally, cleanliness is next to God, if we want to get near God, if we want to enter into God’s presence and come next to home, we have to clean. God requires spiritual cleanliness, right actions, right thoughts, right feelings for us to be fully in his presence. We are called to be  clean, pure, holy, innocent, spotless, sacred, without blemish, unstained, consecrated. 

But we can’t. None of us is clean, none of us measure up, none of us is able to come into God’s presence based on our own holiness. 


But God was not content to let us remain outside of his presence. God loves us and wants us to draw near to him, to be next to him, to enter into his presence. And since we are incapable of becoming spiritually clean and coming next to him through our own power, he made a way for us to come to him through Jesus Christ. 

Let me make an analogy. When you’re washing dishes, there’s no way to make the dishes clean without making something else dirty. A dirty sponge and dirty water will never make a dish clean. But a clean sponge and soap and clean water can make a dish clean. They have to scrub and the dirt has to go somewhere, it has to get in the sponge and the water, but with enough water and soap and scrubbing the dish will get clean. 


God took on flesh in Jesus and Jesus was perfectly clean, he committed no sins, he never did anything wrong, never had any wrong thoughts, any wrong feelings, he was perfect. And he used his cleanness to wash away our sins. He took the punishment we deserved for our sins upon the cross. Like a sponge Jesus absorbed all the sin and suffering and pain that we deserved and he washed it away. And because Jesus is so clean, so pure, so innocent, so perfect, that when he took on all that sin and suffering and pain, he remained clean.


When Jesus had died on the cross, the soldiers came to make sure he was dead and they pierced his side with a spear. And from his side flowed out blood and water. It was the blood of a sacrifice, the blood shed for the remission of sins, the blood which should have been our blood. And it was the water of purification, the water which makes us clean and spotless, and enables us to come into God’s presence. 


Through the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ, God made it possible for us to be clean, he made it possible for our sins to be washed away if we put our trust in Jesus, if we believe that he is God, that he rose from the dead, and if we ask him for forgivness. God understands that none of us are good enough, that none of us are perfect, that none of us have the spiritual cleanliness required to enter his presence. Therefore God has given us the option of believing in Jesus, in acknowledging that he alone was good enough and if we do that we will receive eternal life. Maybe you’ve never done that, maybe you’ve gone through life thinking you were perfect or that someday you’d finally become perfect. There’s another way, trust in Jesus, in his goodness rather than your own. 


And for those of us who have put our faith in Jesus, who have received the spiritual cleanliness God requires through Jesus, we are called to live out that cleanliness, that holiness in our life each and every day. Here are three ways to apply God’s call for us to be holy. 


First, ask. Haggai begins his message by asking the priests for guidance, for a ruling on what is right and what is wrong. It was not easy two thousand five hundred years ago to tell right from wrong and it is not easy today. So ask for help, ask for guidance, ask for advice. When you aren’t sure if something’s ok to do or not, when you’re wondering if you’re doing the right thing, ask for help. Ask a friend, ask a parent, ask a fellow Christian. We don’t follow Jesus alone; we follow him as one body, as the Church. And we are called to help one another discern right and wrong, so when you aren’t sure, ask for help. 


Second, avoid. Part of being holy, being clean is simply avoiding things that are unclean. Haggai asked the question and the answer was obvious, can you touch a dead body and be clean? No. Unclean. And there are lots of things in life that are unclean just as obviously as a corpse is unclean. As Paul says in Galatians: the works of the flesh are obvious. Although sometimes it’s hard to discern right from wrong, some things are obviously wrong and we as Christians are called simply to avoid those things. Here’s Paul’s list, he says: the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. Spiritual cleanliness means avoiding things that are obviously wrong. 


Third, atone. Although atone sounds like one of those fancy theological Christian words when we talk about Jesus’ atonement, really atone has a very simple meaning: at one. To atone is to be at one again, to make one again, to unite, to fix what is broken. Jesus has made atonement between us and God, he has united us, he has fixed what was broken by sin. And Jesus has called us to make atonement with those we have wronged. Jesus calls us to forgive those who have wronged us and in the gospel of Matthew Jesus says this when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Reconciliation, atonement is that important to God. 


Our passage this morning from Haggai reminded us that none of us are clean, none of us are perfect, we all do wrong. We all hurt and wrong others, and when we do that, we are called to atone, just as Jesus did for us. 


And it’s wonderful to think of what Jesus has done for us in his atonement, in making us right with God by washing away our sins, but really we will not fully understand the glory of this gift until we receive the blessing of God’s full presence when we leave this world of dirt and pain and sin and death for the new heavens and the new earth, where we will be in God’s presence forever, where there will be no more sin or death and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Let’s pray.