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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Baldivis
 Baldivis, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/baldivis/
 
Title:God returns to His people
Text:Zechariah 1:3 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Covenant faithfulness
 
Preached:2010-11-07
Added:2011-03-03
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 89:1,4

Psalm 6:1,2,6

Hymn 8:1,2,6

Psalm 105:2

Hymn 8:12

Read:  Haggai 1; Zech. 1:1-6

Text:  Zech. 1:3

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Dear church of Jesus Christ.

2,530 years ago, in the month of November, the Word of the LORD came to Zechariah the son of Berechiah, the son of Iddo.  It was a word of comfort and encouragement, a promise of future joy and restoration.

There are visions and prophecies in Zechariah that are hard to understand.  It is not a book that we open too quickly.  Nor is it a prophecy to which we immediately turn when we try to grapple with the events of world history and we fear for the future.  But when we do read the book of Zechariah, what we find there is not all strange, for there are words that sound very familiar.  Parts of Zechariah are quoted a number of times in the New Testament, and many themes in this book are found in other parts of the Bible.

The prophecies of Zechariah have fallen on hard times, but it has not always been that way.  It was a book loved by the early Church and cherished by the Reformers.  Martin Luther wrote two commentaries on Zechariah, and John Calvin wrote that Zechariah was very meaningful for his time and age.  Calvin wrote that when we observe the great power of Satan and experience how the whole world conspires against Christ’s church, then we are ready to faint and become completely dejected.  But in such times, we may be encouraged that this is nothing new: Satan and the world have fought against the Church since the beginning.  But God will see to it that His Church is blessed and victorious.  And in the book of Zechariah, He gives a word of encouragement for the present and the promise of a glorious future. 

The prophecies of Zechariah are encouraging.  But before the LORD gave him visions of comfort and hope, Zechariah was given a word of judgment and warning.  Before the people of Israel could rejoice in the future of Zion, they first had to understand the reason for the present destruction of Zion and turn to the LORD in faith and repentance.

This morning I wish to preach to you from the first verses of Zechariah 1, with a particular focus on verse 3 under the following theme:

The LORD of hosts promises to return to the repentant people of His covenant.

1.    The LORD’s anger when His people turn from Him.

2.    The LORD’s call for His people to turn to Him.

3.    The LORD’s promise to His people when they do turn to Him.

 

1. The Lord’s anger when His people turn from Him.

The Bible did not simply fall down from heaven one day, but it was written over a long period of time, under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Zechariah 1 was written in the 8th month of the second year of Darius, which was approximately November, 520 BC.  I would like to put that date in a bit of context.

Abraham lived about 2000 years before Christ, and it was 1400 BC before God’s people entered the promised land.  For the next 400 years, Israel was governed under the judges, and under the kings from 1060 BC to 586 BC, with the city of Jerusalem being destroyed in 586 BC.  The first people to return to Jerusalem arrived in 538 BC, and now 66 years after the fall of Jerusalem, Zechariah began to receive prophecies from the LORD.  So if we were to roughly divide the first 2000 years before Christ into four parts, the first 500 years was the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob followed by the history of Israel until they left Egypt and entered the Promised land; the next 500 years saw Israel under the judges; for the next 500 years Israel was under the kings, and the last 500 years before Christ was the history of Israel between the Exile and the birth of Jesus Christ.  So it was a long time between the return from Exile and the birth of John the Baptist.  And it was about 450 years between Malachi and John the Baptist, 450 years without a new Word of revelation from the LORD.

The LORD knew that it would still be many years before He would send His Son, and He knew that these years would be challenging for His people.  He also knew that in order for Jerusalem to be prepared to meet her coming King, (that is Jesus Christ), there first needed to be a time of restoration, return and renewal for His covenant people.  And that was the reason for the LORD giving these prophecies to Zechariah.

The days in which the LORD called Zechariah to prophesy to the people of Jerusalem were bleak and dismal.  Nine hundred years earlier, when Israel entered the promised land, they had a population of well over a million people.  They received the Promised land that had cities they did not build and vineyards they did not plant.  Now, returning from Exile to reclaim Jerusalem was a small group of just 42,360 people.  They first had high hopes of Israel returning to her former glory, but soon a feeling of despondency set in.  The city was in ruins and they were overwhelmed by opposition from all sides.  They had stopped rebuilding the temple of the LORD after laying no more than a small foundation.  They said, “The time has not come, the time that the LORD’s house should be built.”  (Haggai 1:2)  And for fifteen years they had done little more than eke out an existence. 

And then the LORD sent the prophet Haggai.  Haggai told the people that the reason for their hard life was because everyone ran to his own house, when the house of the LORD lay in ruins.  They needed to change their priorities and put the Lord’s house first.  And then Haggai 1:12 says that the people obeyed the voice of the LORD.  The LORD then said to the people, “I am with you”, and they started work once more on the temple on the 24th day of the sixth month, in the second year of king Darius.

But then, just a number of weeks later the Word of the LORD came to Zechariah.  And this is what the LORD said:

“The LORD has been very angry with your fathers.  Therefore say to them, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts: “Return to Me,” says the LORD of hosts, “and I will return to you,” says the LORD of hosts.””  (Zech. 1:2,3)

When you read these verses in the light of Haggai 1, they are quite surprising, even shocking.  The people who had returned from Exile were a small group, with opposition pressing in on them from all sides.  They lived in a city where the walls were still down and the Temple was in ruins.  They had returned to the land of milk and honey only to be faced with a barren wilderness.  But now, under the encouragement of Haggai, they decided to give it another go, and go about rebuilding the Temple of the Lord.  And that time the Word of the LORD came to them saying, “I was very angry with your fathers.  Therefore repent and turn to me!”  Is Zechariah not in danger of crushing a bruised reed, or snuffing out the smouldering flax?  Would it not have been better for Zechariah to leave such talk of judgment to another day and instead to speak exclusively of the love and the kindness and the mercy of God?

These questions are important also for us today.  This life is no more than a constant death.  There are many times when we too feel that the present is dismal and the future is bleak.  We need to hear the Gospel.  We need to hear those words of hope, those words of healing.  But what about those verses in the Bible that speak of God’s anger?  What about His words of judgement?  Should we not hear those words as well?

Yes we should, for we can not understand one without the other.  Just as we can not speak of God’s wrath without holding out the promise of the gospel, so we can not understand the Cross, the rich fullness of God’s love, without first understanding the righteous anger of God against sin.

This was something that the fathers Zechariah spoke of did not understand.  Before the Exile many believed that Jerusalem would never fall.  Before the Exile many thought that since they were God’s covenant children, His special ones, they were safe.  They had changed the character of God to make Him the kind of god they could feel comfortable with.  A kind and generous god who would give them what they wanted without insisting too strongly that they change.  They confessed that God is generous and gracious, that His mercy knew no limits.  But they did not accept that He is just and that He is a God who judges sin.  (See Jeremiah 7.)

But the justice of God and His anger at sin should not take us by surprise.  Sin has covenant consequences, for the wages of sin are death.  It was because of His anger at sin that God sent Adam and Eve out of Eden.  It was because of His anger at sin that He sent the Flood to cover the earth.  It was because of His anger at sin that He overthrew Babel and later Sodom and Gomorrah.  And it was because of His anger at sin that He judged His people, allowed Jerusalem to be overthrown, the temple destroyed and the people of His covenant sent into exile.  The LORD had warned His people when they first entered the Promised Land, in Deuteronomy 28, that if they turned away from Him that He would punish them severely and send them into exile.  And then when His people did turn away from Him, He first sent His prophets to warn them of God’s coming judgment.  But just as the people in the days of Noah refused to listen and repent, so the nation of Israel did not believe that God was so angry with their sin that He would allow Jerusalem to be destroyed and His people scattered in Exile. 

And now, at the time that a remnant of God’s people had returned and work had begun again on the building of the Temple, Zechariah called the people to learn the lesson their fathers had failed to learn.  Their fathers had turned away from the LORD and refused to listen to the many warnings they received.  This made the LORD very angry, and He poured out His anger on them.  And now, as they considered what had happened to the Promised Land and the people of God’s covenant, they saw a destroyed city, a demolished temple, and just a tiny remnant of God’s people who had returned.  A sinful turning away from God makes God angry.  Very angry.

And just as the people in the days of Zechariah needed to hear so we also need to understand that God’s anger at sin has not changed.  It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.  As Hebrews 10:26,27 says,

“For if we sin wilfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries.”

And Jesus Himself said in Luke 12:4,5,

“And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do.  But I will show you whom you should fear:  Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!”

And as we confess in Lord’s Day 4 of our Catechism,

“[God’s] justice requires that sin committed against the most high majesty of God also be punished with the most severe, that is, with everlasting, punishment of body and soul.”

We need to understand not just God’s love but also His anger.  Indeed, if we do not understand the depths of His anger, we will not understand how deep is His love.  If we do not comprehend the anger of God against sin, then we can not comprehend the wonder of the cross.  The LORD is very angry at sin, and the only way for us to escape His wrath is to run to the One who suffered the burden of God’s wrath in our place.  The weight of our sins and the wrath of God against sin was so great that it pressed out of Christ the bloody sweat in the garden of Gethsemane.  God can not and does not leave sin unpunished.  But Jesus Christ has suffered the full extent of God’s wrath for us.  The wages of sin are death.  But the good news of the gospel is that our past does not need to dictate our future.  There is a future hope, and we can be restored to God’s favour.  But to live in that hope and to enjoy God’s favour we can not live in our sins but turn back to God in Jesus Christ and so receive from the Lord a future and a hope.

2. The LORD’s call for His people to turn to Him.

The LORD God had been angry with His people Israel because they did not turn from their evil ways and their evil deeds.  As a result both Jerusalem and the temple that was in it were destroyed, and God’s people were taken into exile.  But the LORD did not forget His covenant promises and so He called a remnant out of Babylon, who returned to Jerusalem.  But while physically the people had come back from exile, the lesson of the exile had not been fully accepted.  A few weeks earlier Haggai had called them to resume the rebuilding of the Temple, and although they were doing this, Haggai 2:14 says that the people were still defiled.  Their hearts had not fully turned back to the LORD.  And so the LORD sent Zechariah to teach them that it was not simply enough to rebuild the temple.  If God was to once more live with them in His temple, they must fully turn to Him in repentance. 

And that remains the same for us today.  The grace and the mercy of God is not an license for us to sin, but a motivation for us to turn to Him in repentance.  Question 87 of our catechism asks, “Can those be saved who do not turn to God from their ungrateful and impenitent walk of life?”  Can you be saved if you live a careless life of sinfulness?  Will God be gracious if you fail to listen to and respond to the Word of God?  Will He still receive you if you neglect the great salvation that He has provided for you?    “By no means!” our Catechism answers.  We must grieve with heartfelt sorrow that we have offended God by our sin, and more and more to hate it and flee from it.  We must turn from our sinful ways and turn to God.  The LORD requires that we have a heartfelt joy in God through Christ and a love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works.

Do not be mislead!  Do not treat God’s goodness and patience as a license to sin, an excuse to lower the holy standards that God requires of us.  It is a privilege to be one of God’s children.  It is a blessing to receive the promises that He gave you at your baptism.  Your salvation is a gift to be cherished!

My brother and sister, young and old, how is it with you?  In what manner are you living before the LORD?  Are you in danger of ignoring the holiness of the LORD and His call to turn to Him, exchanging this for a spirit of “eat, drink and be merry”?  Jesus warns us in Luke 21:34,

But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly.”

The LORD calls the people of His covenant to repent, to turn to Him.  And that is not a new message, nor is it only Zechariah 1:3 that calls us to turn to the LORD.  The LORD calls us to turn to Him in repentance from Genesis to Revelation.  Isaiah 55:6,7 says,

“Seek the LORD while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near.  Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; Let him return to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.”

And Jeremiah 3:12,

“Return, backsliding Israel”, says the LORD; “I will not cause My anger to fall on you.  For I am merciful says the LORD; I will not remain angry forever.”

And Amos 5:4

For thus says the LORD to the house of Israel: “Seek Me and live.”

And so it goes on.  Throughout the Old Testament the LORD continued to call His people to turn to Him.  And then when John the Baptist came to prepare the way of the LORD, he called to the people saying,

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”  (Matt. 3:2)

The message did not change.  And still today, the message of the Gospel calls us to turn to the LORD in repentance.  James 4:7,8 says,

“Therefore submit to God.  Resist the devil and he will flee from you.  Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.  Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”

And Revelation 3:3,

“Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent.”

 The call to turn to the LORD is not just for others; it is for me and for you.  For we all like sheep have gone astray, and we all fall short of the glory of God.  But when you hear that call to repent, remember that in this call to repent, God extending to you not His wrath, but His mercy!  In the call to repent we see our God who is angry at sin, but who stands before us in love calling out your name, saying, “Turn to Me and live!” Although our present lives are still deeply marred by the effects of sin, when we turn to the LORD He will have mercy on us and He will abundantly pardon.

3. The LORD’s promise to His people when they do turn to Him.

Zechariah was called to preach a message of hope in the midst of ruins.  But before he gave his message of hope and comfort, the LORD first called him to call His people to turn to him in covenant faithfulness.  But in that call to turn to the LORD was also a gracious promise:  The LORD God, who had been with His people in the past, would return to them. 

And, as we can read in verse 6 of Zechariah 1, God’s people did return to Him.  And so they could once more look forward to receiving the blessings of the covenant.  And the LORD said in Zechariah 1:16,

“[T]hus says the LORD: I am returning to Jerusalem with mercy; My house shall be built in it, says the LORD of hosts.”

And the LORD did return to His people, just as He had promised.  The people could look forward to the glory of God dwelling with His people.  But it would not be the same as before: it would be much better than that!  In the past God’s glory was limited to His presence in the Most Holy Place of the Temple.  However the Day was coming when the glory of the LORD would be revealed in His Son Jesus Christ.  In Jesus we have Immanuel, God With Us.  In Jesus we can have hope and a future.

In the days of Zechariah, the LORD wished to encourage His people with the promise of greater things to come.  It was a message that Zechariah was called to proclaim to a small remnant in a ruined city.  The future looked bleak and until recently the spirit of the people was dismal.  But when they returned to the LORD, they could be sure of a glorious future.  For He is the LORD Almighty, the LORD of Hosts.  He is the great and mighty God.  And He will do what He says.

And for us today, we have the privilege not just of looking forwards, but also of looking back.  Of looking back to the cross, where the justice of God was satisfied and the full measure of His anger was poured out.  We may turn to the LORD knowing that Jesus has already paid the price of our sin so that when we turn to God through Christ, we are not the objects of His wrath, but His mercy.  Turn to the LORD who fails us never, and seek His face, His strength, forever.  Leave the past behind, for the past does not need to dictate the future.  Turn to the LORD, with your eyes fixed on Jesus Christ.  Follow Him, and enjoy the restoration of your life and the renewal of your souls.  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2010, Rev. Stephen 't Hart

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