Well this is my first Sunday after a three month sabbatical for study and learning from other churches. It's good to be back. And it's good to see you – I've missed you. And I want to say thank you for supporting our culture of having these seven-yearly sabbaticals. They're a great blessing, and the aim is for that blessing to reach you in the form of refreshed ministry.
And actually, the main question people have asked me this week is, 'Do you feel refreshed?' To which the answer is, 'Yes.' Refreshed, blessed, re-charged. But strange as it may sound, I've also come back feeling more sick of sin than ever. Because I've had time to reflect on what I'm like as a Christian, husband, father, minister – so I've thought about the sin in myself. But I've also had more time to follow the news in a period when it's been unusually full of evils and wrongs. So I've also thought about the sin in the world. And I find myself feeling more sick of it – both within and 'out there'.
And the sin 'out there' makes you wonder, 'Will the world just go on like this forever?' And the sin within makes you wonder, 'Will I just go on being like this forever? Can the sin in me really be changed? Can its power really be broken?' And that's what the end of Zechariah is all about: it's about the sin 'out there' and the sin within – and how God is ultimately going to deal with it. So would you open the Bible to Zechariah chapter 1. This is the last but one of a series on Zechariah. Let's pray before we go further:
Father God, From what your Son, the Lord Jesus, said about Zechariah, we take on trust that you inspired his words and that they are still your word for us today. So we pray that you would help us to understand his message and take it to heart. In Jesus' name, Amen.
• So, looking at Picture 1 above, there on the timeline of history is Zechariah, 520 years before Jesus.
• And 70 years before, God had allowed his people to be exiled from the land he'd given them, as a judgment on their sin. On the way, the leaders and the majority had turned away from him.
• But then God had engineered things to allow them to return to Jerusalem.
• And some had come back, and they'd started rebuilding God's temple. But then out of lack of faith and commitment to God, they stopped. And that's when Zechariah started prophesying to them.
And Old Testament prophecy was a bit like the weather forecast: you can get the short-term forecast – to see whether you could dry the washing this afternoon; and you can get the long-term forecast – to see what kind of winter we're going to have. And Zechariah's prophecy – like many of the other Old Testament prophets – was a mixture of short- and long-term. The short-term forecast, which is mainly in chapters 1 to 8, was that God would help them rebuild the temple and their lives in Jerusalem. But within that forecast comes a repeated warning which appears first in chapter 1, v2-4:
"The LORD was very angry with your fathers [i.e., the generation he sent into exile]. Therefore say to them [i.e., the present generation], Thus declares the LORD of hosts: Return to me [i.e., turn back to me spiritually], says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. Do not be like your fathers…"
To which the thoughtful soul would have said, 'The trouble is, we are just like them: we've already stopped building the temple out of lack of faith and commitment. We're just as sinful as our fathers. So isn't this Old Testament cycle of a fresh start, and then God's people sinning again, and then more judgment just going to go on forever?' To which God's answer through Zechariah was, 'No.' And that answer comes in the long-term forecast (see Picture 1 above), which is mainly in chapters 9-14, and where God shows Zechariah what he's ultimately going to do to deal with the sin-problem. So turn on to Zechariah 12. And in chapters 12-14 the LORD starts to say through Zechariah what he's going to do 'on that day'. So look, for example, at chapter 12:
"On that day I will…" (v3)
"On that day, declares the LORD, I will…" (v4)
"On that day I will…" (v6)
Sixteen times in chapters 12-14 the LORD says what he's going to do 'on that day'. Now you might think that means a literal, single day. But it's actually like talking about your granny's day – for example, 'In that day they didn't have central heating' (or whatever) – where 'that day' isn't a literal, single day, it's a whole time-period. And when you get to the New Testament, you find that 'that day', which the prophets spoke about, is actually the whole time-period covering Jesus' first and second comings. So God said through Zechariah, 'That's when I'm ultimately going to deal with the sin-problem – and solve it':
Chapters 12 and 13 (which we'll do today) are about how he'll ultimately deal with the sin in his people. And then chapter 14 is about how he'll ultimately deal with all the rest of the sin in his world. So for dealing with the sin in his people, the first thing Zechariah was told is that 'on that day'
1. God Will Bring About Conviction of Sin Like Never Before (12.10-14)
Now you've already covered these verses. But they go together with this morning's passage, so we need to revisit them to see how it all fits together. And the end of chapter 12 says that, to deal ultimately with sin, God will bring about conviction of sin like never before. Because although I say I'm sick of sin, the fact that I still do sin shows that I'm not sick of it enough, not convicted enough to turn away from it even more. And a new kind of conviction of sin is what's promised here. Look at chapter 12, v10:
"And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn."
And 'pierced' there means 'put to death' (as in, with a sword or spear). So as you saw a few weeks back, it looks like God is saying that he will somehow be put to death. He says people will "look on me, on him whom they have pierced". So is God really talking about himself there – 'on me'? Or is he talking about another person – 'on him'? The answer is: both, because in a veiled way, this is a reference to Jesus' death on the cross. And we know that because both John's Gospel and Revelation quote this verse and say Jesus is the one they pierced (John 19.34, 37, Revelation 1.7). And the New Testament tells us that Jesus was God's Son become human. And the New Testament also tells us that he and his Father are inseparable – so that God the Father was there at the cross pouring out his judgment on our sin, and God the Son was there taking that judgment in our place. So when you come back from the New Testament, knowing that God the Father and God the Son were acting together at the cross, Zechariah 12.10 is worded so accurately, isn't it?
God says people will "look on me, on him whom they have pierced" [in one and the same figure – Jesus dying on the cross] and as a result, "they shall mourn", [i.e. realising who died on the cross, and why, will bring conviction of sin like nothing else]. I guess most of us would say we've experienced conviction of sin for things we've done. And for some that's been very deep and scarring. And that's the kind of conviction David wrote about in Psalm 51, after committing adultery with Bathsheba and then orchestrating her husband's death to try to cover it up. He wrote:
"Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight"
And he's not saying in v4 that he hasn't sinned against anyone but God – that he hasn't sinned against Bathsheba and her husband. He's just deeply convicted that all sin is ultimately against God, whoever else it may be against. And the point here in Zechariah 12 is that nothing shows you that like the cross, because the New Testament says it wasn't just the Jewish high priests and Pontius Pilate who were responsible for Jesus' death. It says they were just representative of us all, and that their desire to get rid of God is in the fallen heart of each of us. So as I look at the cross, the first thing I see, mirrored there, is my own desire to get rid of God and to live as I please. And that gets to the very heart of what sin is.
I don't know if you remember that film about the crucifixion, The Passion of the Christ, directed by Mel Gibson. But in one of the shots of a hand hammering the nails in, the hand is Mel Gibson's. And he said in an interview that he included that to make the point that what they did to Jesus is like a mirror in which we should all see our own rejection of God. He said, 'In some way I was party to it.' So I wonder if you've seen the sin in yourself, yet? And if you've seen it like that – shown up most clearly for what it is at the cross?
Can I say: if you're new to this, it's not that the Bible is calling you a bad person. On the scale from relatively bad to relatively good, you may have lived a good life. But the Bible says that the countless times when you've not done the good or when you have done the bad show that in fact you've always reserved the right to do as you please, to live as if God wasn't there. And underneath that is the attitude that put Jesus on the cross. And to those of us who are already Christians – perhaps very long-in-the-tooth Christians – can I say: it's very easy to minimise our sins, isn't it? Easy just to see them as my 'little lapses' or my 'not so good moments' – when in fact they're the moments that reveal a heart that still has it in it to put Jesus on the cross.
So the first thing God said to Zechariah here was that, to deal ultimately with sin, he would bring about conviction of sin like never before. But God never convicts us in order to leave us paralysed under conviction. He convicts us so that instead of minimising our sin or rationalising it or thinking we can make up for it, we come to him for mercy. So the second thing Zechariah was told is that 'on that day':
2. God Will Provide a Source of Forgiveness Like Never Before (13.1)
Look on to chapter 13 and v1:
"On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness."
And that's talking about the result that flows from the 'piercing' we've just been looking at. It's saying that what Jesus would one day do on the cross is like a fountain or spring – it's the same word in the original. So, from one angle, the cross shows us what we have it in our hearts to do to God. But from another, the cross shows us what God had in his heart to do for us – the opening of an inexhaustible source of forgiveness.
I said earlier that most of us would say we've experienced conviction of sin. And I guess also that most of us have tried the various ways to deal with that apart from the cross, apart from Christ: like punishing ourselves inwardly with self-accusation and self-hatred (and maybe punishing ourselves outwardly through self-harm); or like trying to make up for it by working hard, after the failure, to be a better person, better husband, better wife, better parent, better whatever; or like just hoping that time will be the great healer.
But none of that deals with it, does it? Because deep down we know that sin is an issue between us and God and that only God can deal with it in a way that frees us to move on. And if you're just looking into Christianity, this is the heart of it. The heart of it is that in Jesus' death on the cross, God dealt with our sin once and for all, so that we can be forgiven, whoever we are, whatever we've done, however long we've been keeping him out of our lives. Our conviction of sin is like a 'sixth sense' – a sense of the judgement (or punishment) we deserve from God. And the heart of the Christian message is that on the cross, Jesus – who had never sinned and never deserved judgment – took our place, took responsibility for our sins, and took the judgment they deserve. Which means that, on the one hand, we can be forgiven our sins while, on the other, justice has been done on our sins. And because Jesus died like that for all our sins – past and future sins – his death is an inexhaustible source of forgiveness.
And Zechariah 13.1 pictures it as a fountain or spring:
"On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness."
I guess that generations of us here have taken children to Tynemouth Longsands and played in the Engine Well Spring there which bubbles up onto the beach just by Crusoe's café. (At one time it came up through the Lion's Head Fountain, which is now buried under the sand). And the thing about a spring is that it just keeps coming – it never stops. And however much you and your children dump loads of sand on it to try to plug it, it always washes the sand away – the spring always wins.
And here comes the hardest thing to believe this morning: God's forgiveness, that flows from the cross, is just like that. It just keeps coming and never stops – so if you ever think you've sinned once too often to be forgiven, you're (thankfully) wrong; and if you think the point will ever come when God despairs of your progress and gives up on you, you're also (thankfully) wrong. And if there's something on your conscience that you think is just too big a load for the spring of his forgiveness to wash away, you're also (thankfully) wrong. I don't know what that thing might be but in a gathering this size, there will be people carrying the load of guilt from unfaithfulness in marriage; or from the failure of a marriage; or from an abortion; or from being totally alienated from a close member of your family; or whatever. But there is nothing too big for the cross to deal with. However much you dump on the spring of God's forgiveness, it will always wash it away – the spring will always win, because God's grace is bigger than our sin.
And maybe that's all you needed to hear this morning. So if you've been staying away from God, or never turned to him in the first place because you think you're unforgivable, then know that you're not, and come back to him. Or come to him for the first time. And if you'd like something that explains how to do that, please take a copy of this booklet 'Why Jesus?' from the Welcome Desk.
But when you're thinking straight as a Christian, you don't just want to be forgiven your sin. You want to be rid of it, don't you? And understanding and trusting in Jesus' death for you doesn't just bring conviction of sin and assurance of forgiveness of sin. It also changes your heart to want to be rid of sin. So the third thing Zechariah was told is that 'on that day'
3. God Will Create Love For Him Like Never Before (13.2-6)
Look on to chapter 13, v2:
"And on that day, declares the LORD of hosts, I will cut off the names of the idols [i.e. false gods] from the land, so that they shall be remembered no more. And also I will remove from the land the prophets [that is, the false prophets who spoke for the false gods] and the spirit of uncleanness [that is, the spirit of the majority who turned away from the LORD to false gods].
What's that about? Well, Zechariah knew that, looking back, the story of Israel had been the story of people who were supposed to be God's people turning away from the LORD to all sorts of other gods. At many times, most of them seemed to have no real loyalty or love for the LORD at all. And with no time for more of the detail, verses 2-6 are saying, 'That's not how it's going to be 'on that day': God is going to create a love for him in his people like never before.' And, like conviction of sin and forgiveness of sin, that also comes from the cross.
Now this side of heaven we won't get out of the bind of wanting in our heart of hearts to be rid of sin and yet still sinning. We'll always need to pray that line of the hymn Love divine, which says, 'Take away the love of sinning.' Do you pray that for yourself? I do – and the best way to see that prayer answered is to feed our heart of hearts by understanding the cross better and remembering it more and thinking about it more (that's one reason we have communion as part of our services). Because the more you take in what Jesus did for you there, the more you'll love him rather than sin.
So being practical: a while back, for example, I realised that in my personal Bible reading, I might go a week or two weeks without hitting a passage about the cross – because I was in Ecclesiastes or Esther or something like that. So I drew up a list of my top passages about the cross and looked at one of them regularly, in amongst whatever else I was reading. So maybe you could do that; maybe you could pick up a book on the cross from the resources area. But feed your heart of hearts on the cross – because only that will take away the love of sinning. Internet accountability software, for example, may block your way to viewing porn – and many of you men here will have that, if you're wise. But software can't wean our hearts off sin. Only the cross can.
Finally, chapter 13, verses 7-9. Let's finish the passage. Look down to v7.
"Awake, O sword, against my shepherd,
against the man who stands next to me,"
declares the LORD of hosts.
"Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered;
I will turn my hand against the little ones."
That's the verse which we heard Jesus quote in our New Testament reading, on the brink of his betrayal (see Mark 14.27). So from Jesus' own mouth we know that he is the shepherd, and that the 'sword' and the striking are referring to his death on the cross – just like the piercing (12.10) and the fountain (13.1) are. So, because all the things we've seen this morning depend on Jesus' death on the cross going ahead, here is God the Father giving the command, as it were, for his plan of salvation to swing into action: "Awake, O sword, against my shepherd". And some opponents of the Christian message caricature this and say, 'How can it be right for God to force his Son into taking our place on the cross like that?' But that is a caricature, because there was no forcing: Jesus himself said (with this part of Zechariah in mind):
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord." (John 10.11, 18)
So after verse 7 – the verse foreseeing the shepherd's death for his sheep – the chapter then ends with a potted prophesy of what will happen between Jesus' death and resurrection and his second coming:
"In the whole land, declares the LORD,
two thirds shall be cut off and perish" (13.8)
And that's describing the tragic fact that most of the flock of Israel would cease to be God's people. But God also promises:
"and one third shall be left alive." (13.8),
This describes the new flock that is going to emerge after Jesus' death and resurrection – made up of both Jews and non-Jews who put their trust in Jesus. And what is going to be the story of their lives in each generation until Jesus returns? Verse 9:
"And I will put this third into the fire,
and refine them as one refines silver,
and test them as gold is tested.
They will call upon my name,
and I will answer them.
I will say, 'They are my people';
and they will say, 'The LORD is my God.'"
So the story of their lives is that God will refine them – i.e., get the sin out of them – and ultimately, out of them completely. We're not told how in this verse – but we know from the rest of the Bible that it involves everything from God's Spirit working in our wills, through his shaping of us by both the blessings he gives us and the sufferings he allows to come our way, to our own ultimate resurrection from death. And that resurrection is when there will no longer be any sin within us to be sick of – because, as Zechariah prophesied, God will have dealt fully and finally with the sin in his people.
That leaves the rest of the sin in his world out there. And how he's ultimately going to deal with that is what chapter 14 is all about.