Zechariah Part 1: The Coming Kingdom: The Coming Kingdom: Return to Me

Sermon by David Strain on January 27, 2014

Zechariah 1:1-6

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Now let me invite you once again to take your copies of God’s Word in hand and turn with me this time to the Old Testament Scriptures and to the prophecy of Zechariah.  You need to find Zechariah, actually start with the gospel of Matthew and then work backwards.  Matthew, Malachi, Zechariah.  I say that because if you’re like me, Zechariah is one of those books, one of those roads less traveled, and you may not be terribly familiar with this portion of God’s Word which is one important reason why we are going to be reading it and studying it together in these Lord’s Day evenings.  Before we do read, let’s bow our heads and ask for God’s help.

Our Father, our prayer is simply that You would speak, Lord, for Your servants are listening.  In Jesus’ name, amen.

Zechariah chapter 1, reading from verse 1.  This is the inspired Word of Almighty God:

“In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo, saying, ‘The LORD was very angry with your fathers.  Therefore say to them, ‘Thus declares the LORD of hosts:  Return to me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.  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.  Your fathers, where are they?  And the prophets, do they live forever?  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.’”

Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy and sufficient Word.  May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

The Life and Times of Zechariah

Zechariah, the prophet, was sent to God’s people at a confusing, trying time in their history.  Verse 1 tells us that he began his ministry in the eighth month in the second year of Darius. That puts the commencement of Zechariah’s ministry somewhere in November 520 BC.  Seventy years earlier, King Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, had conquered Judah, taken the populous captive, deporting them as it were into exile in Babylon.  They’d been displaced.  They’d been living in a foreign land.  But in 539 BC, Cyrus, King of the Medes, came to power and he began to allow the various conquered peoples of the empire to go back to their homelands.  And so the people of Judah began to come home from exile.  By the time Darius took the throne, some 50,000 Jews had finally returned to Jerusalem, which was now no longer the capital of an independent nation but the capital of the Babylonian province known as Yehud.  Ezra, the Book of Ezra – Ezra was Zechariah’s contemporary so if you read Ezra along with Zechariah you’ll be able to see some of the facts and challenges that were facing God’s people at this point in their history.  The Book of Ezra will show you when the exiles came back they found the city in terrible disrepair – the city walls torn down, the gates were burned with fire, the once magnificent temple of the Lord utterly destroyed.  The land had been devastated and their neighbors all around them were hostile, throwing up every conceivable obstacle and roadblock as they attempted to rebuild the city and restore the temple.  Internationally the political situation remained rather unstable as the new emperor, Darius I, sought to consolidate his power.  It remained to be seen what his new regime would mean for the fortunes of the remnants of the people of God.  And meanwhile, under Ezra the scribe, the work of rebuilding the city had begun in earnest.  The temple foundations had at last been laid.  

And as you might expect, given those circumstances, pretty soon discouragement overtook the workers and the efforts to restore the temple ground to a halt.  By the time Zechariah began to preach, some seventeen years after the foundation of the temple was laid, the work remained incomplete, unfinished.  The restoration effort had ground almost completely to a halt; it had stalled.  The glorious promises of Messianic fullness and joy with the nations streaming to Zion to worship the Lord, those promises that were held out to Judah in the ministries of the former prophets like the prophet Isaiah, but have seemed to God’s people at this point in their history now like utterly forlorn hopes.  They had come home, it’s true, but home to what? Where is the glory from it?  Where is the blessing looked for?  They were discouraged; they were afraid.  They were uncertain; they were bewildered.  The people were filled with political and social uncertainty in the wake of dramatic changes in government.  They were surrounded by neighbors hostile to their convictions on every side.  The tasks facing them must have seemed insurmountable. 

A Familiar Parallel?

I wonder if that sounds at all familiar to you.  We live, don’t we, in a time of rapid cultural, social change.  The values of our society are becoming increasingly hostile to biblical Christianity.  Economic stability still seems far away for many of us.  The Lord has called our beloved senior pastor away to serve now at Reformed Theological Seminary.  Billy Joseph has recently been called on to serve in Montgomery and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.  It’s scary and it’s hard.  And in view of all of that, one would expect that a word of comfort and reassurance from the Lord through His prophet would be just exactly what the doctor ordered.  And in many ways that is the burden of the book of Zechariah, as I hope we’ll see in the coming weeks.  It is designed to speak words of encouragement for these difficult circumstances to the beleaguered people of God.  But that is not where the prophet begins.  

Zechariah’s Unexpected Opening

In these opening six verses, Zechariah, notice, starts on an entirely different note.  And although it may at first seem rather jarring, abrupt even, given the needs of God’s people, the truth is, the challenge of Zechariah 1:1-6 lays for us the necessary foundation for the kind of encouragement that is going to last.  If God’s people back then and if God’s people here tonight are to benefit from the warm, reassurances of God’s present faithfulness and from His plans for future blessings that are in large part the burden of the book of Zechariah then this is where we need to start.  A stable foundation for any building never was laid that did not involve digging down deep.  Zechariah 1:1-6 excavates, it drills down deep into our hearts and calls us to self-examination and change.  Only then, only when that foundation is laid, can the edifice of a robust Christian life that can face the challenges with confident hope in the promises of God find a stable basis.  

So let’s take a look at the passage together, these opening six verses.  I want you to notice three things with me. First of all, Zechariah tells us about a new direction we must face there in verses 1 to 3.  And then secondly in verse 4 – an old mistake we must avoid.  And then in 5 and 6 – a timeless truth we must trust.  A new direction we must face, an old mistake we must avoid, and a timeless truth we must trust.  

I. A New Direction We Must face

First of all there’s a new direction we must face.  It is striking, at least to me, that the very first message from God that Zechariah brings to his people begins with a remarkably blunt statement of fact.  Verse 2 – “The LORD was very angry with your fathers.”  It must have felt to his original hearers like rubbing salt on their wounds.  For some seventy years, remember, they’d been in exile under the judgment of God and now they’re living in poverty, grinding poverty and hardship, trying to claw their way back from under the consequences of their fathers’ sin.  “The Lord was angry with our fathers Zechariah?  You don’t say.  Tell us something we don’t know.  We’re living with that and the consequences of that every single day!”  It is not the gentlest of starts.  Obviously Zechariah was sleeping that day in homiletics class in seminary because otherwise he’d know better than to begin a sermon to a hurting congregation with a verbal slap like this.  But Zechariah is no mere pulpiteer, tickling ears and bringing pastoral pep talks to cheer us on our way.  Zechariah is the prophet of the Lord.  The Word of the Lord came to him.  Notice in verse 3 three times we’re told that Zechariah’s challenging message is the declaration of “the LORD of hosts.”  We’re left in no doubt at all that this is the message of God, not the best advice of a post-exilic Dr. Phil.  This is not a pep talk.  

And so challenging as it may be, we’re hearing the voice of God speaking with supernatural and divine wisdom into the midst of the trials of the assembly of His people.  That Word, not Zechariah but the Word of the Lord, will not let them forget that the reality that the God of covenant promise and the God of covenant love is also the God of holy anger at sin, even the sin of His covenant people.  And so with that stark reminder of God’s past anger at the sin of their fathers ringing in their ears, Zechariah, verse 3, calls his contemporaries to repentance for present sin.  “The Lord was very angry with your fathers.  Therefore say to them, ‘Thus declares the LORD of hosts:  Return to me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.’”  They’re being called to repentance.  

A Call to Repentance 

But repentance for what?  We get a clue to the nature of the besetting sin of the returned exiles dwelling in Jerusalem if you turn for a moment to Zechariah’s other contemporary, not Ezra but the prophet Haggai.  Listen to Haggai chapter 1 verses 2 to 8.  Haggai chapter 1 verses 2 to 8:

“’Thus says the LORD of hosts:  These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD.’  Then the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, ‘Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?  Now, therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts:  Consider your ways.  You have sown much, and harvested little.  You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill.  You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm.  And he who earns wages does so” – here’s a phrase that I’m sure will resonate with many – “he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.

‘Thus says the LORD of hosts:  Consider your ways.  Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD.’”  

The Sin of “Normalcy”

You see the problem among God’s people?  The particular sins that plague them was a shirking of responsibility.  It was not what they had been doing that was so terribly wrong as much as what they’d not been doing.  They’d been tending to themselves, licking their wounds, making their lives as comfortable as they could amidst the terrible poverty and political uncertainty of their times.  They’ve had no time for the temple, no energy to spare for the Lord’s house.  Life was hard, they were making the best of a bad lot – the temple will just have to wait.  Life was so hard, in fact, that as one of the commentators on Zechariah puts it, “They just wanted to be normal for a while.”  I wonder if you can relate to that?  Sure, you know what the Lord has called you to be and to do, but things are hard.  They’re so hard, so sore, so stressful that you feel you barely have space in your life for much more than getting the kids ready in the morning, putting food on the table at the end of the day, paying the bills at the end of the month – reading the Bible will have to wait.  “I’ll get to church from time to time when I can spare the time.  I don’t have the energy to pray.  Things are so hard right now, quite frankly I’m not sure it makes much difference anyway.  Living a life of holiness, of obedience, having to be different from the world all the time is exhausting.  I just want to be normal for a while.  The Lord will just have to take a number and get in line.  I have other priorities.”

That was very much how God’s people felt.  They were tired and worn out.  They just want to be normal for a while.  The commentator goes on.  He says, “The reality is that they and we are not meant to be normal people and we don’t be happy trying to be so.”  We’re not meant to be normal people.  We are as 1 Peter 2 and verse 9 reminds us, we are a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession that you may declare the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.”  That’s who you really are, not normal people.  The danger is, when things get hard and the cost of discipleship seems impossibly high that we lose sight of who we are and of whom we’ve been redeemed at the cost of the blood of Jesus Christ to be – a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation – and we settle instead for the sin of normalcy, of mediocrity, of conformity to the world.  But Zechariah’s call to us here is a call to repentance that says it’s time to be a non-conformist.  This is a call, if you like, to be weird, a call to be different, to be the person Jesus died to make you – not normal, not like the world, but distinct, set apart, holy.

Perhaps you’ve fallen into the sin of normalcy. You find you’ve been using your difficult circumstances to excuse your looking indistinguishable from the world.  Maybe tonight you’re on auto-pilot.  You are backsliding.  You are running away.  You are faking it.  But tonight you are being called to turn back, to come back to the Lord, to “Return to Me.”  The Bible scholar, Walter Kaiser, tells the story of a trip that he took in 1952 while he was a freshman at Wheaton College near Chicago.  He was driving home with his parents who had come to visit.  They were heading back to Philadelphia.  They had decided to drive through the night.  This was before the interstate system was complete so they’re driving on the old Lincoln Highway Route 30.  And Kaiser said: 

“Sometime past midnight I took my turn driving in western Ohio and suddenly I encountered a detour that was poorly marked.  I carefully followed the signs for Route 30 but I could not tell if it was Route 30 East, which is what I wanted, or Route 30 West.  About five o’clock in the morning I was surprised to notice another town named Bryan, Ohio in what I thought was eastern Ohio.  I thought that was strange for we’d past Bryan, Ohio the night before as we entered Ohio.  And then the terrible reality set in.  We had reversed our direction at that detour, halfway through the state, and now we’d gone back to where we’d been hours before.  And once more we had to turn around and head east.  That,” says Kaiser, “is what Zechariah’s word, ‘Return,’ means.  It is a U-turn theology which calls us to head in the direction that will take us back to the Savior.”

Are you running away from the Savior?  He is calling you to turn back.  There’s a new direction we must face.

II. An Old Mistake We Must Avoid

And then secondly there’s an old mistake we must avoid.  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.”  Prior to the exile, God had sent prophets to Judah with warnings and calls to repent.  God had offered His mercy through the prophet Isaiah, for example.  “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth, for I am God and there is no other” – Isaiah 45:22.  He had warned them in the words of the prophet Jeremiah – “Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you.  Return, everyone from his evil way.  Amend your ways and your deeds” – Jeremiah 18:11.  He pled with them through the message of the prophet Ezekiel – “As I live, declares the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked but that the wicked turn from his way and live.  Turn back, turn back from your evil way.  For why will you die, O house of Israel?”  Again and again and again the Word of God had come to the fathers pleading for repentance, promising mercy.  “Return to Me!  Come back!  Repent!”  But they would not listen.  They would not listen. 

We have a long and noble history at First Presbyterian Church.  The Lord has sent us faithful ministers to open His Word week in and week out for 177 years and we are right to celebrate the remarkable blessings that God has lavished upon us over all those years.  But surely while we do that we must also recognize with grief that the prevailing sins of our culture today were only made possible by the prevailing sins of our fathers yesterday.  Zechariah’s call is a call to learn the lessons of history lest we be doomed to repeat it.  And so Zechariah says to us, “Take a look at your children and your grandchildren sitting around you.  Think about those children who are sitting here learning the Catechism.  Look at them long and hard. The Lord has sent you Gospel preachers, this sanctuary has rung with the Good News for 177 years – what have you done with the truth delivered to you? Will you make the same mistake your fathers made?  Will you sow the seeds of besetting sin in the lives of your children and your children’s children by your neglect of the besetting sins of your own heart?  Take warning,” Zechariah says, “from the example of your fathers, and turn to Me.”  

III. A Timeless Truth We Must Trust

A new direction we must face, an old mistake we must avoid, then finally there is a timeless truth we must trust.  Look at verses 5 and 6.  “Your fathers, where are they?  And the prophets, do they live forever?  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.”  Our fathers are gone.  Preachers, as we know from recent painful experience, come and go.  There is only one solid Rock on which to rest all your confidence.  There is only one sure, unchanging standard to which we must all always look.  Not the fallible example of our fathers, not the imperfect model provided by your preachers.  We must look to the words and promise of the Lord our God.  His Word and statutes endure forever.  His threats are never idle and His promises are unassailably sure.  

The Word of God, we’re told there in verse 6, overtook their fathers. That term, “overtook,” conjures for me the image of a highway patrol car pulling alongside you on I-55 pulling us over.  The Word of God arrests us, brings us to the curb.  The judgment threatened fell.  “On this you can be sure,” Zechariah is saying, “God keeps His promises.”  Do you see what that means?   It means that His promised mercy here is every bit as certain as His threatened wrath.  He stands ready with grace to wash all clean who come back to Him.  “Return to Me,” He says, “and I will return to you.”  If you look at the next section of the prophecy of Zechariah you will see it depicting a mysterious figure walking among the trees in a myrtle grove.  It’s actually a picture of Eden restored.  It is the Lord, once again, dwelling among His people.  It’s a promise that will find its fullest fulfillment in the Lord Jesus in whom God took flesh and dwelt among us.  He is the one in whom God keeps His promises of mercy to repentant sinners like you and like me.  In Christ God has grace for the most wayward among us.  So however far you’ve wandered, come back to Jesus.  He paid for sin.  He’ll make you clean.  And He’ll restore fellowship with God to you.  Hear the Word of God.  “Return to Me, backslider, and I will return to you.”

Wonderfully the last line of Zechariah’s sermon here does end with the repentance of the people.  They recognize, don’t they, that God has done what He said He would and they turn back.  And so now the same call comes to all of us.  Will we follow their example?  Will you repent?  Will you make a U-turn and go back to the Lord?  Let’s pray together.

Our Father, we thank You that Your Word sometimes rebukes as well as comforts and we need to hear Your disciplining Word.  Help us to receive it in meekness and all of us together help us to flee back to Jesus Christ that He may have mercy on us.  Help us to draw near to God keeping Your promise that You will indeed draw near to us to return to You and to find to the joy of our own souls that You also return to us.  For we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Please stand and receive God’s benediction.

And now may grace, mercy, and peace from Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be with you all now and forevermore.  Amen.

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