The Word of God judges the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts. The word of the Lord that came through Zechariah here in chapter 7 pierces the hearts of God's people then and now. What is the real heart motivation behind what we do and what or who are we really trusting in?
The ice bucket challenge has certainly been sweeping the news feed of Facebook around the world and it can be done for a good cause. But Matthew 6 tells us to give in secret, rather than telling everyone else about it. I'm not sure how I can do this if I'm sharing the fact of my giving with everyone on Facebook. The whole premise of ice bucket is: Look, I'm giving, and you should too. The Bible says: Look, Christ gave so much to you, who will you give to?
And Zechariah 7 takes us right into the heart of this conflict between false motivation, false religion and true religion. The collision between trusting in Jesus and living for him and trusting wrongly in religious systems or rituals and living for ourselves and in the past. Zechariah is set at the time of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem following the exile in Babylon. The building work had stopped and now it was time to start again, and time to get the big vision for the global people of the promised Messiah. And we've already learned from Zechariah that the work of rebuilding this time would succeed because it was all part of the eternal purposes of God in sending his servant, the branch, the Messiah, to redeem the world. Zechariah chapters 5&6 lifted our vision to the coming of the Messiah who'd bring real cleansing judgment and rule the nations with righteousness.
Now in Zechariah 7 we have a response in the form of a question. It's 2 years on since the visions of Zechariah 1. And now men were sent by the people of Bethel to the priests to ask whether it was worth them continuing the mourning and fasting of the 5th & 7th month as they had done during the 70 years of exile.
Well what sort of question is that?
What's it all about? Well in 2 Kings 25:8 we learn that the Temple of Solomon was destroyed in the 5th month by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar. And v25-26 of 2 Kings 25 tell us that in the 7th month Gedaliah the Babylonian governor was murdered and the few remaining people in the promised land all ran away to Egypt. So after these events of the 5th and 7th months the Temple was destroyed and the promised land was depopulated. It seems that those who were in exile maintained mourning and fasting during these months to commemorate these significant events. They must have been times of wallowing in the failure and judgment of the past. They were not fasts appointed in the Lord's law. They were merely 'religious' expressions of misery by the people in exile. And now they were back in the promised land they wanted to know from the priests was it worth continuing with the fasts, with these self appointed rituals, with false fasting?
The Word of the Lord told Zechariah what to say (v4). A devastating counter question was posed. V5 Were any of the fasts throughout the 70 years ever really done for the Lord of hosts? Were any of the fasts motivated by love for the Lord? And then (v6) forget the fasts - what about the normal day to day eating and drinking - those meals were not consumed full of gratitude to God - yet everything we eat is supposed to be consumed only as we give thanks to the Lord. So when it came to the fasts, the fasts were no more genuine than the time of eating. "They did no more intend the honour of God in their fasting and praying than they did in their eating and drinking. But self was still the centre in which the lines of all their actions met." The fasts were mere ritual - occasions for those in exile to feel sorry for themselves rather than being sorry for their sins. In fact the fasts hid the spiritual poverty of the nation. We see the same sort of thing today with Christmas & Easter when the opportunity for genuine engagement with the living Lord Jesus can be so often squandered on TV specials.
The priests thought these fasts had served some purpose but the fasts had done nothing but distract the nation. Rather they should reflect on why the judgments had fallen upon the nation leading to the exile. Why had the Temple been destroyed? Why had all the people been driven out of the promised land? They were not mere random tragic happenings. They'd long been predicted (v7). Many, many, warnings had been sent by the Lord through the prophets long before the exile. These severe judgments had fallen on the people of God because they'd refused to live for the Lord God. They'd done their own thing. Followed their own agendas. Stuck their fingers in their ears. And pretended not to hear when the laws of the Lord were taught. When the prophets spoke the truth. Look at V11-14 - when the Word of the Lord provided the kind of useful meditation that should've occupied those fasts
...they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear.2 They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the LORD of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great anger came from the LORD of hosts. "As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear," says the LORD of hosts, "and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known. Thus the land they left was desolate, so that no one went to and fro, and the pleasant land was made desolate." This is how they made the pleasant land desolate
If the exilic people felt that the Lord was ignoring them they needed to recall how the previous generations had ignored the Lord Almighty. If the promised land had become a desolate ruin - empty of people and in desperate need of rebuilding - then they had to face up to the fact that it was the diamond (the ultra, the could not be harder) hard hearted sins of the nation that had brought this about. It was them not the Lord that had made the promised land desolate.
If the fasts during the exile were to have had any value at all then they had to have been times when these terrible sins were thoroughly rejected. They had to be times of penitent and heartfelt turning to the living God. If the fast times had been like that - times of genuine engagement with the Lord, times of facing up to reality - then the whole of their lives would've been transformed. The meal times as well as the fast times. But none of that had happened. The Word of the Lord told Zechariah the truth - tearing down the 'religious' mask covering up the spiritual sickness beneath. The fasts were times of self pity covered over with a spiritual veneer. We can all act outwardly religious. We can all go through the motions. But if our hearts and minds are not fixed on the Lord and his Messiah every day, wherever we are then we are left with pointless religious playacting. We mustn't trust in false religion but only in the living God. False & empty religion and religious practice is such a convenient tool to keep reality away from our normal lives. That kind of religion is a way of marking out bits of time, space and thinking so that the reality of the living God can be ignored. False religious practice keeps us pacified about our sin and unbelief - it's a deadly whisper in our ear telling us that all is well, that our souls can be cured by human remedies. That if we do our bit if we trust in the religious system then we need not fear the grave and judgement. That kind of religion is the opiate of the masses - not to keep us all distracted from the' class struggle' but to keep us distracted from the Lord and his will. How tempting it is to do a few 'religious' things with the wrong motivation such as prayer and fasting and feel we've done some important things. But where is your heart? Where is mine? Is it in true fasting for the Lord? Or is it really in pleasing ourselves?
You see in Zechariah 7 they all found themselves in the firing line: all the people of the land and the priests (v5). And this word is for all of us today. When they had fasted all those years had they really done it for the LORD? Wasn't their fasting actually just as self-centred as their feasting (v6)? And didn't Zechariah have to speak to them like this because they were in fact no better than those to whom the earlier prophets had preached before Babylon (v7)? What they called 'fasting' was not true fasting, and what they called 'mourning' was not genuine sorrow. The problem was not with the outward aspects of what they'd been doing, or even with the words they'd been saying, but with the motivation behind it. It had not been for the LORD. That is, they'd not come before God in order to submit themselves to him, to obey him and act according to his character, but simply to try to get things from him. In short, there had been no genuine turning towards God in repentance. And so to
The kind of fasting God requires is not to abstain from food, but to abstain from sin - especially the sin of mistreating our fellow human beings. V8-10.
And the word of the LORD came to Zechariah, saying, "Thus says the LORD of hosts, Render true judgements, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart."
This is what the Lord wants from his people. This is true fasting according to Isaiah 58 and here in Zechariah 7. And in his letter James stingingly tells us about the only religion God the Father cares about. James 1.27
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
Zechariah 7:9-10 is the same thing. But these words are not to be taken as simply a call to provide a social welfare system. To the people of God who heard v9-10 there was a much deeper agenda. The actions described here were nothing less than the actions of the Lord Almighty himself as described in the law. This was a call for them to return to the Lord in repentance and trust - to be joined to him and to share his heart and mind.
The mark of those who trust in the Lord is that they display the character of the Lord in caring for people whether in Safe Families For Children, our international ministry etc.. If their fasting had truly been 'for God' it would have resulted in changed behaviour - behaviour that reflected God's own character, and his own passionate commitment to justice. Without this the question of whether or not certain religious observances should be continued is of no consequence at all. Without the kind of repentance that affects behaviour no religious rite has any validity, for it's not honouring to God and not acceptable to him.
You see Zechariah returns again and again to the issue of repentance for one very good reason: it is necessary. Zechariah understands the weakness and sinfulness of human beings and therefore their need to be reminded of certain basic things. Repentance isn't something that can simply be done, once and for all, and left behind. It's not merely the renunciation of a particular sin, but the renunciation of self and the reorienta¬tion of a person's entire life around God. Repetition is needed because the self is always seeking to make a comeback as the controlling centre of people's lives, and any giving in to it is a sin that needs to be renounced - again and again.
Now fasting is perhaps the last activity in which anyone would think they had given in to self. After all, fasting is a deliberate act of self-denial, isn't it? Well not necessarily.. As sinful beings we have an almost inevitable tendency to move from the true centre of things to the periphery, and from the depths to the surface. In short, to lose the heart of the matter and to turn even religious observance into a cover for an unrepentant lifestyle. In other words, to become religious hypocrites. Fasting, with its outward show of self-denial, is perhaps the classic example of a religious rite that can go badly wrong if we're not constantly reminded what the heart of true religion really is.
The challenge to the newly returned exiles in Zechariah 7 was clear as it is to us. They could carry on with their self pitying religious fasts or they could return to the Lord God himself. The Lord God who'd just given them the marvellous Joshua crown in chapter 6 to keep their faith and hope fixed on the promised Messiah. They could stay in exile in the death of their own resources and problems or they could return from exile receiving new hearts and minds that reflected the heart and mind of the living God. They could live lives of miserable self pity or they could live lives that were caught up in the justice, mercy, and compassion of the living God. They could live in the past learning nothing from it but trapped in its difficulties or they could seize hold of the joyful rebuilding work in Jerusalem. They could waste their lives in rel systems or they could become part of the great vision of showing to all nations that the promised land was where they could find all the answers to all their questions - the place where true justice, mercy and compassion was experienced.
Well this morning we face the same basic choice. We trust either in ourselves or we trust in the Lord God. We can hoard up our time and resources for ourselves and our own or we can for the Lord God. How will we use our time and resources this week? We can get caught up in the deceptions of false religion or we can meet the living God in Jesus his Messiah. We can live lives caught up in our own little issues our own self pity our own self satisfactions our own self deceptions or we can be crucified with the LJ allowing ourselves to be put to death in his great death and receiving his mighty resurrection as we're born again of the Holy Spirit. We can give our lives to our little agendas or we can be part of the greatest agenda in the universe the mission of God as we pour out our lives showing to the world the truth and love of Jesus involved, eg, in Safe Families For Children, in Benwell, in international ministry etc. with the right motivation.
The people of Bethel asked when the time for observing certain fast days will be over. The larger issue is when fasting itself will be over; that is, when there will no longer be any cause to mourn at all. This is what Zechariah takes up in chapter 8. The refusal of the forefathers to listen to what God said through the prophets led to scattering and desolation. But judgment is not to be God's final word. In the future this will be reversed. The movement from chapter 7 to chapter 8 is from scattering to re-gathering, from rebuke to promise, and from fasting to feasting and we'll hear more about that next week.