Return to the Lord

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This morning we start a new series of studies in the Old Testament book of Zechariah chapter 1.1-6. Our title is Return to the Lord and you will see my headings are first, ZECHARIAH HIMSELF; secondly, ZECHARIAH’S MESSAGE; and, thirdly, ZECHARIAH’S SENSE OF URGENCY.

So first, ZECHARIAH HIMSELF (vv1-2)

… and two questions - when? and what? When did he live? And what was his burning conviction? First, then, when did he live? Answer, when Jerusalem was in a terrible state.

In 1958 the summer before I went up to the university, I was on a youth working party in West Berlin, when relations with the old Soviet Union, and so West with East Berlin, were pretty terrible. West Berlin had just been rebuilt with some of the most, for then, amazing buildings in the world. But I was able, in James Bond style, to cross over and visit a family friend in East Berlin. I had never been so shocked. That eastern sector of Berlin seemed totally desolate, with Second World War destruction evident everywhere, apart from the Stalin Alley (now Karl Marx Allee). This was a 2 kilometre length of giant concrete Soviet-style flats, where my friend had managed to get a unit and where I secretly stayed.

Being in East Berlin in the 1950s is what Jerusalem must have felt like for 50,000 Jewish returnees after 50 years of exile in Babylon where they had lived amongst some of the most magnificent buildings in the 6th century BC world. On returning home they found Jerusalem still like a war-zone with destruction everywhere.

2 Kings 25.9 tells us that on defeating Judah in 586 BC the Babylonians “burned the house of the Lord and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem.” So much of Jerusalem was destroyed and ruins were everywhere. But how did things get to this situation? Well, after the Conquest of Canaan and Kings Saul, David and Solomon the Kingdom was divided into two with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The history then is about the drift away from faith in the God of the Bible in both the north and the south. The people compromised with, and turned to, local fertility religions where the worship of Baal involved ritual prostitution and child sacrifice. However, in his mercy God raised up prophets to teach and preach against all this. Sadly, too often they were ignored.

So in the end God judged his people by allowing the Assyrians in the 8th century BC to defeat Israel and the Babylonians in the 6th century BC to defeat Judah. In those days, being conquered meant you could be exiled as captives on mass from your home country to the land of your conquerors. And this happened to the people of Judah, with a few poorer people remaining behind.

However, before long a Medo-Persian empire soon took over as the next super-power by defeating the Babylonians. And the new Persian King was Cyrus. He, then, with God in ultimate control, published an edict in 538 BC to allow the Jews to return home from Babylon and to rebuild their destroyed Temple. So they arrived back home and started to build. But they were soon opposed by, among others, non-Jewish authorities. And they stopped building for sixteen or seventeen years. As Ezra 4.4 says: “the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build.”

However, at this point onto the scene came two prophets, Haggai and [our] Zechariah. Then, after more opposition, Darius, now the Persian King, reissued Cyrus’ edict. This meant the people of Judah certainly should return to work on the Temple. And you read in Ezra 6.14-15: “the elders of the Jews built and prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. They finished their building by decree of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus and Darius and Artaxerxes king of Persia; and this house was finished on the third day of the month of Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of Darius the king.” But it was a struggle to get to there. However, this morning we need to go back to before that completion and four years earlier and (verse 1 of Zechariah 1) to …

“the eighth month, in the second year [not the sixth year] of Darius [and this means back to October/November 520 BC].”

So, secondly, what was Zechariah’s burning conviction? It is there in verse 2:

“The LORD was very angry with your fathers.”

God was telling Zechariah that he was not just angry but “very” angry. His anger had been at white heat with the generations of Zechariah’s father and grandfather and even before that. Do you believe in an angry God? Zechariah did. Perhaps you say, “but surely that is Old Testament. Jesus teaches that God is love and loving.” He does, but he also teaches that God can be sometimes angry. In that great discourse of Jesus in John chapter 3 Jesus tells Nicodemus first in verse 16:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

But then (20 verses later) in John 3 verse 36 he says:

“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

However, God’s anger is not unreasonable like much human anger. Rather it is his judicial holy reaction to human wickedness and sinfulness. And this anger is spoken about throughout the New Testament. So Zechariah knew that our God is not a benign old man who turns a blind eye to all that is evil. No! He is a God capable of great and terrifying anger at evil. True, this is not the first thing Zechariah tells those depressed and dejected returnees. But it was a fundamental assumption behind all he taught. And it is a fundamental assumption behind, and included in, the gospel Christ taught. So, that brings us …

… secondly to ZECHARIAH’S MESSAGE.

And there are three things to say. First, look at how it begins in verse 3:

“Therefore [because my anger is real] say to them [these returnees] Thus declares the LORD of hosts

Zechariah is emphasising that God is the “Lord of hosts”. At that time this was encouragement in itself. It was to say, “Thus declares the God who is over literally everything and everyone – over every power in earth or whatever there is in heaven.” Having been in Babylon under the Persians, the Jews would have discovered Zoroastrian religion with its teaching about two forces in the world - one for good and the other for evil. The statement that our God is the Lord of Hosts is a statement that whatever evil there is in the world (and the Bible teaches it is not just an evil force but an evil personality) God is in control and ruling and over all. His, indeed, is the kingdom and the power and the glory. That is encouraging – it was then, it is today.

When you read the newspapers, or use electronic media, so often you get depressed. But I find that when you remember that God is in control, total control, and then wants you and me to try to make a difference, that drives away depression. So Zechariah first reminds the Jews opposed by many enemies and discouraged by some of their own number – for they had moaners among them, who complained that the new Temple was not a patch on the old one - he first reminds them that God is in control and totally in control.

Secondly, look at the promise in the rest of verse 3, in which he is also hammering home that description of God as “the Lord of Hosts”:

“Return to me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.”

That is a wonderful promise: “I will return to you, says the Lord”. But it requires the people’s return to the Lord. The fundamental issue here is that, through Zechariah, God is addressing, not pagan Persians, but his own people who had just started to rebuild the Temple! God, however, seems to be judging that that outward action was just that - an outward action. For underneath people were drifting away from God and so needed to return to him.

But how had they drifted away - for this younger generation is not being accused of the gross sins of their fathers? Haggai provides the answer. It is the problem that lay behind their earlier reluctance to rebuild the Temple. Haggai had said this in Haggai 1.4:

“Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your panelled houses, while this [God’s] house lies in ruins?”

You see, these people were putting the repair and improvement of their own homes before the restoration of the Temple. Perhaps you say, “So what? A temple isn’t that important. It is people, not buildings that matter.” Yes, that is true. But that is only a half–truth, even today. For the Temple was symbolic of God’s presence. And today Church buildings are still symbolic and a bad witness when they are in disrepair and untidy. But the basic point was the people putting their DIY before God and his work. And that is serious.

Who here this morning is like that? It is not something wrong that you are putting in the place of God. But any such thing is an idol. DIY was, and is, good and creative. After the destruction of Jerusalem it was necessary to repair private houses, but not at the price of neglecting God and his work. Well, Haggai was persuasive. The people started to work on the Temple once again.

But Zechariah realised that it is perfectly possible to be outwardly conforming, but with your heart still not right. That, too, is true in the 21st century. You can give and work for the Church, but God can still be in second place. Zechariah, therefore, tells the people who had returned to rebuild the Temple, that God still says, “Return to me.” You see, true repentance is radical and not just Temple or Church work. It is a personal turning to God, not just to his work, and putting him first in every part of life – Monday to Saturday as well as Sunday. And such repentance is so important.

Jesus began his ministry with such a message, as we heard in our New Testament reading. In Mark 1.14-15 Jesus’ summary of the “gospel of God”, as he calls it, was

“the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe in the gospel.”

Paul, too, summarised his message as telling people to

“repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance” (Acts 26.20).

Repentance is simply turning, or re-turning, to God. Do you sometimes unknowingly take a wrong turning in a car and drive on and on, and only then realise you have taken a wrong turning. So you stop and turn round. Well, repentance is like that, turning round to go God’s way.

Who needs this morning, perhaps for the first time, consciously to do that – to “turn” or “return to God” (then as now, the one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit)? And it is to God you need to return, not the Church (although fellowship is necessary). God says, by faith “turn” or “return to me”. It is personal, as Jesus shows. And the good news, then, is that he will return to you, as Zechariah said. And you will know his Holy Spirit’s strength and power.

All that is the second aspect of Zechariah’s message.

Thirdly, now look at verse 4:

“Do not be like your fathers, to whom the former prophets cried out, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.’ But they did not hear or pay attention to me, declares the LORD.”

Social scientists know about cycles of deprivation - not least the ones caused by family breakdowns copied from parents by children and then passed on to their children. But even worse (and often related) are cycles of spiritual deprivation which are passed down the generations. So Zechariah says, “do not be like your fathers.”. Zechariah is warning these returnees not to follow their fathers’ pattern of belief and behaviour, condemned by the former prophets, and that led to the destruction of Israel and Judah.

The “former prophets” he speaks about would have been Isaiah but especially, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. I was recently reading Jeremiah 6. It was written not long before the sack of Jerusalem in the 6th century, but it could have been for 21st century Britain. Jeremiah starts off by indicting the politically correct clergy. Just following fashion, they were saying there were no problems and Jeremiah was scare-mongering. Then Jeremiah 6 verses 15-16 say:

“Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush. [And note – abomination especially included sexual sin] Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown,” says the LORD. Thus says the LORD: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’”

And so Zechariah said to his contemporaries and, by God’s Holy Spirit, his message comes to the Churches and Christian people in 2013 (and then to the listening world), “do not be like the people of Jeremiah’s day.” And that is especially because of …

… and our third heading, ZECHARIAH’S SENSE OF URGENCY

Look at verses 5-6:

“Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live for ever? But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers? So they repented and said, As the LORD of hosts purposed to deal with us for our ways and deeds, so has he dealt with us.”

Zechariah is saying, “some of your parents, probably many of your grandparents, and certainly your great-grandparents, who have ignored God, are no more.” But that is equally true of prophets like Jeremiah (and now, from our perspective, Zechariah). All human life is short and transient. But God’s word is not. It does not fade away. And it comes true. What it says will happen, will happen. The evidence of the truth of God’s word through Jeremiah in Zechariah’s day was for all to see - in the destruction all around them in Jerusalem. And that is why this older generation of exiles repented (verse 6) but only after their nation had been destroyed. In that sense it was too late. However, for their own eternal destiny they were just in time.

Sadly, for some who died before the sack of Jerusalem, and “did not return from their evil ways [their lifestyles] and their evil deeds [their evil actions]” it was not in time and with eternal consequences. The old Puritan commentator, Matthew Henry, drew attention to those eternal consequences in his commentary on the book of Zechariah. He said that question in verse 5, “Your fathers, where are they?” can be asked of every person who has died. And Zechariah in this passage to his younger contemporaries is implying a similar urgent, timeless, challenge to us across the centuries in the form of three questions. They relate not to his conviction of God’s present anger but his coming anger at the final judgment.

One, are you going to be like those who died ignoring God’s word and not turning from their evil ways and deeds, and so should fear those terrible words of Jesus (in the Sermon on the Mount):

“I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matt 7.23).

Or, two, are you going to be like those older Jewish “fathers”, “overtaken” by God’s word, losing all, and only at the last “repenting”, and so like someone, as Paul said, whose

“work is burned up [and] he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3.15)?

Or, three, are you going to be like those who obeyed Zechariah and returned to God, who returned to them, and so can expect to hear one day words from Jesus’ Parable:

“Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ (Matt 25.21).

Yes, you will hear those words if you trust Jesus Christ and obey him.

However, and with this I conclude, as you think about and share Zechariah’s necessarily blunt convictions about God’s anger and his challenges, remember the conviction he also had. We will discover this in later chapters. And it is expressed in Psalm 86 (this morning’s Psalm) and verse 15, namely that God is

“merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”

But don’t soften Zechariah’s truths. For Paul reflected exactly these convictions in 1 Thess 9.10, when he described a true believer as someone who

“turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”

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