Return to me, not just Jerusalem (Zech. 1-2)

by on Feb.02, 2017, under Sermon

Why are you here? What made you decide to get up and come to West Pennant Hills Community Church this morning? Was it because that is what you do and have always done on Sundays? Perhaps you are trying to reconnect with your Christian roots? Or are you looking to find God? Are you hoping to become a better person? Perhaps you made a New Year’s resolution to get to church more. Or do you just like hanging out with a bunch of fun, attractive, perfect people? (I have some bad news for you…)

As we open the book of Zechariah, we find a bunch of people in Jerusalem who were probably wondering why they were there. Some 70 years before, Jerusalem had been utterly destroyed. But now the pagan king of Persia, Cyrus, had given permission for any Israelites living in his empire to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:1-5). In response, some 5000 people (Ezra 2:64-65) returned to Jerusalem and began work on the temple (c. 537 B.C.). Yet when they arrived I suspect that many of them began to have second thoughts. Here was a ‘city’ with no walls, surrounded by hostile nations of whom they were afraid (Ezra 3:3). As they laid the foundation for the temple, they sang of the LORD,

He is good; his love to Israel endures forever. (Ezra 3:11)

But they must have wondered whether that was actually true? After all, the prophet Ezekiel had spoken of the LORD leaving the temple (Ezek. 8-11); though he also spoke of a future return (Ezek. 43) they saw no evidence around them to suggest that this had, in fact, taken place. Was God still angry with them?

This doubt, combined with the opposition they faced from the surrounding peoples (Ezra 4:4-24) resulted in work on the temple stopping. For nearly 20 years, the foundations of the temple that they had laid stood as a witness to a broken dream. They had returned to Jerusalem, but it had not really turned out to be what they expected. So, instead, they focused on providing for themselves, trying to make ends meet, planting and harvesting, raising children, and generally trying to keep their heads down and out of trouble.

Then, in about 518 B.C., two prophets started preaching in Jerusalem. The first, Haggai, chastised the people for abandoning the work on the temple:

This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the LORD. “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the LORD Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with his own house. Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the oil and whatever the ground produces, on men and cattle, and on the labor of your hands.” (Hag. 1:7–11)

The second prophet was Zechariah, and it is his message that we will spend the next 6 weeks considering. Where Haggai’s focus is on the rebuilding of the temple, Zechariah seems intent on a more wholesale reform. And he starts by calling the people to repentance.

A call to repentance (Zech. 1:1-6)

The LORD was very angry with your forefathers. Therefore tell the people: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the LORD Almighty. Do not be like your forefathers, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the LORD. Where are your forefathers now? And the prophets, do they live forever? But did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your forefathers? (Zech. 1:2–6)

Zechariah’s message is very simple: God was angry because your ancestors failed to turn from their ‘evil ways and practices’ (1:2, 4-6) and they ended up in exile in Babylon. Now you have the same choice they had, don’t make the same mistake (1:3-4)!

Zechariah records their response:

“Then they repented and said, ‘The LORD Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do.’” (Zech. 1:6)
Repentance is a theme that looms large in Zechariah’s message, where it can essentially be seen as a two step process, a turning from and a turning to.1 The Israelites were called to ‘turn from [their] evil ways and [their] evil practices’ (Zech. 1:4). But what were they called to turn to? Surprisingly, it is not to ‘good ways and good practices’ like we might expect. They were not called to turn to something, but rather someone.
‘Return to me,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the LORD Almighty. (Zech. 1:3)

Zechariah sounds this note often. Repentance is an ongoing process, not a one-time event, and Zechariah knows that we will need food for the journey. This he furnishes in the form of 8 visions that keep our focus firmly on the LORD and his love for his people. We will look at the first three visions today.

First vision: a world at peace (Zech. 1:7-17)

The first vision starts in verse 7, and shows a world at peace:

On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo.

During the night I had a vision — and there before me was a man riding a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses.

I asked, “What are these, my lord?” The angel who was talking with me answered, “I will show you what they are.”

Then the man standing among the myrtle trees explained, “They are the ones the LORD has sent to go throughout the earth.”

And they reported to the angel of the LORD, who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace.” (Zech. 1:7–11)

On first reading, this seems to be a comforting vision. Who doesn’t want a world ‘at rest and in peace’? But this is probably not how the inhabitants of Jerusalem saw it.

For the first two years of his reign, the emperor Darius had been busy suppressing rebellion in various parts of his kingdom. Perhaps this was the opportunity for the people to set up their governor, Zerubbabel – who was of the line of David – as a king on David’s throne? But about the time Zechariah first began to prophesy, Darius had finally crushed all those opposed to him, and peace reigned throughout his empire. Any hope of successfully breaking away from the Persian empire seemed crushed. Israel had been promised a king of their own, a Messiah, who would rule over them. Was that promise still valid after their failure and exile?

Can’t you hear the doubters: ‘Why am I here? If we are going to continue as subjects of the empire, why not do it somewhere else, some place where there is calm instead of conflict, and prosperity instead of poverty? Why not live in a city that actually has walls and schools and hospitals and employment and broadband and pubs and good roads and comfortable houses… ‘

The angel of the LORD voices the complaint that underpins these doubts, and receives an astonishing answer:

Then the angel of the LORD said, “LORD Almighty, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and from the towns of Judah, which you have been angry with these seventy years?” So the LORD spoke kind and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.

Then the angel who was speaking to me said, “Proclaim this word: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, but I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they added to the calamity.’

“Therefore, this is what the LORD says: ‘I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,’ declares the LORD Almighty.

“Proclaim further: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the LORD will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.’” (Zech. 1:12–17)

The LORD says that he is ‘jealous for Jerusalem and Zion’ (1:14), and that he will ‘return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there [his] house [that is, the temple] will be rebuilt’ (1:16). This is nothing less than the reversal of Ezekiel’s dreadful vision of the glory of the LORD departing the temple (Ezek. 8-11). Though that first temple had been destroyed, it would be rebuilt and the LORD would return to it with mercy. And it will be the presence of the LORD that will make all the difference, for he is the LORD Almighty! Things will go well for the ones whom the LORD Almighty loves.

Conversely, things will go very badly for those with whom the LORD Almighty is angry… which brings us to the second vision.

Second vision: powerful enemies (Zech. 1:18-21)

Then I looked up — and there before me were four horns!

I asked the angel who was speaking to me, “What are these?” He answered me, “These are the horns that scattered Judah, Israel and Jerusalem.” (Zech. 1:18–19)

Horns in the Bible are often a symbol of strength, especially arrogant strength. Picture a bull with its head up, daring you to chance its horns. That there are four horns may be symbolic of opponents on all sides – the four points of the compass. The people in Jerusalem had some significant enemies, who were directly opposed to the rebuilding of the temple and of Jerusalem in general.

And so the doubters find their voice again: ‘Why am I here,’ they might have said, ‘where I and my family are in danger?’

But the LORD has a plan for these enemies. Zechariah’s vision continues:

Then the LORD showed me four craftsmen.

I asked, “What are these coming to do?” He answered, “These are the horns that scattered Judah so that no one could raise his head, but the craftsmen have come to terrify them and throw down these horns of the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter its people.” (Zech. 1:20–21)

There is a clear contrast here: though Judah is surrounded by bulls intent on destruction, the LORD has prepared craftsmen intent on construction. It is also significant that craftsmen had significant roles in the construction of both the Tabernacle2 and Solomon’s Temple,3 so their appearance again at the building of this new temple would have been tremendously encouraging.

Third vision: slow progress and meagre results (Zech. 2:1-5)

Zechariah’s first two visions focused on the peace in distant nations and the hostility in Jerusalem’s immediate surrounds. But his third vision, the last one we will consider this morning, looks to what is happening within Jerusalem:

Then I looked up — and there before me was a man with a measuring line in his hand!

I asked, “Where are you going?” He answered me, “To measure Jerusalem, to find out how wide and how long it is.” (Zech. 2:1-2)

Again the doubters are out in force: ‘Why am I here? Nothing seems to be happening, everything is going so slowly. You just promised that the LORD’s house would be rebuilt and the measuring line stretched out over Jerusalem (Zech. 1:16); but I see only a foundation instead of a house, and the measuring line over Jerusalem is not returning impressive results. We don’t even have a wall to keep us safe from our enemies!’

We feel the force of these doubts today, don’t we? We want to be part of God’s work here on earth, we want to see the kingdom advancing, we want to see people coming to the Lord, we want to see revival in our time… but it all seems so slow. There are still so many who do not yet know about Jesus. Like the people of Zechariah’s day, we need to look at the situation again, through the LORD’s eyes:

Then the angel who was speaking to me left, and another angel came to meet him and said to him: “Run, tell that young man, ‘Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of men and livestock in it. And I myself will be a wall of fire around it,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will be its glory within.’ (Zech. 2:3–5)

You see, God measures based on his presence, not outward appearance. In one blow Zechariah undermines the two things that had traditionally made Jerusalem so distinctive, its wall and its temple. Remember that when David first captured Jerusalem, the Jebusites boasted, ‘You will not get in here; even the blind and the lame can ward you off’ (2 Sam. 5:6). Yet David did capture that city in spite of its formidable walls; and the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the walls entirely. Yet now the LORD promises that he himself would be a wall of fire – able to expand out to accommodate more men and livestock, yet impossible to break down or pass through. Similarly, though Solomon’s temple had been the glory of Jerusalem, with people coming from all over the ancient world to see it, it too had been destroyed. Yet the LORD promises that he himself will be the glory within.

And this brings us back to the heart of the matter. For the doubt that underlies all the other doubts is this: Is God still angry with us? For the Israelites, God had demonstrated his anger through the exile; was returning to Jerusalem enough to secure again his favour? What about rebuilding the temple and reinstating the temple sacrifices? Would that be enough to placate God? They had tried all of these things, yet it did not seem to be ‘working’. They were still subject to foreign powers, surrounded by hostile neighbours, and stalled in their own efforts to rebuild the temple. Those were not the ‘signs’ of the LORD’s favour, surely!

Why are you here? Perhaps you are here to try and secure God’s blessing? Or perhaps this is where you refuel, gain new energy to go out and evangelise your colleagues, or be a better parent, or fight off temptation.

These are good things… but they are not primary things. They are not first things. Because repentance is not about turning from doing that to doing this instead. Repentance is about turning to relationship. Judah returned to Jerusalem; but the LORD says, ‘Return to me… ‘ We come to church to gain wisdom and encouragement in how to serve the LORD; but the LORD says, ‘Return to me… and I will walk that path with you.’ We meet with pastors and elders seeking help in overcoming sin and brokenness; but the LORD says, ‘Return to me… and I will provide the help that you need.’ The LORD desires repentance that leads to relationship, not just proximity or service.

The trouble is that we really suck at this kind of repentance. We’re not comfortable entering into relationship with God because we sense our inadequacy. Deep down we know that we don’t really deserve this kind of blessing … and we are right. We don’t deserve it. So, like the prodigal son, we come up with a plan to earn back our Father’s favour: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ (Luke 15:18–19). We secretly think, ‘Restored relationship is too good to be true,’ … but there we are only half right. It surely is good, but it is also true!

It is true because Jesus Christ repented on our behalf.

Did you ever wonder why Jesus needed to be baptised by John the Baptist? The Apostle Paul said that ‘John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance’ (Acts 19:4). Jesus had no personal need of repentance, for he never sinned and never broke relationship with his Father. But he repented as our representative – like Moses representing the people to God on Mount Sinai and repenting of their sin with the golden calf, though he himself had not sinned (Ex. 32:30-32) – and thus we receive the benefit of that perfect and lasting repentance.

Jesus is the perfect penitent. He returned to Jerusalem, but he did it in company with and obedience to his Father. Jesus returned to cleanse and pronounce judgment on the temple (Matt. 21:12-13, 18-21), but to him it was not a symbol of national pride or divine favour but ‘my Father’s house’ (Luke 2:49) as it had been since his youth. His goal was not the temple of God but the God of the temple. Jesus returned to Jerusalem knowing he could have had peace as a respected rabbi elsewhere, knowing that returning he would face hostility, torture and death. But remember his words, ‘not as I will, but as you will’ (Matt. 26:39). His repentance was always oriented upon his relationship with his Father.

As a result our imperfect repentance is gathered up into Jesus’ perfect repentance. The Father commands, ‘Return to me,’ and it is only by the representative repentance of the Son that we are able to do so. He repents on our behalf because we are not able to do it ourselves. This is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ as the representative of mankind before God, whose perfect penitence covers over our imperfection. With Jesus, it is no longer simply ‘Return to me,’ but ‘Return with me.’

What does this mean for us – for you and for me?

For those who believe in Jesus it means we must live lives that reflect this kind of repentance, repentance oriented on relationship. Repentance is not something we do once and tick off our ‘To Do’ list, because any relationship involving one or more sinful people will require a continual attitude of repentance to continue. Husbands and wives, is this the repentance you practise in your marriage? Parents, do you teach your children just to say ‘sorry,’ or to go further and seek restored relationship? When conflict arises at work do you seek reconciliation or simply to ‘live and let live’? In the church, do we practise repentance toward one another, so that we may ‘keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (Eph. 4:3)? This is the kind of repentance that will constantly remind us of our need to repent before the LORD, and to prize relationship with him. It is also the best advertisement to those who do not yet know Jesus of the kind of relationship that he wants to have with them.

For those who have not yet believed in Jesus, today is the day when you need to repent and return to your Father by trusting in Jesus. Zechariah’s urgency in the remainder of chapter 2 is directed at you:

“Come! Come! Flee from the land of the north,” declares the LORD, “for I have scattered you to the four winds of heaven,” declares the LORD.

“Come, O Zion! Escape, you who live in the Daughter of Babylon!” For this is what the LORD Almighty says: “After he has honored me and has sent me against the nations that have plundered you — for whoever touches you touches the apple of his eye — I will surely raise my hand against them so that their slaves will plunder them. Then you will know that the LORD Almighty has sent me. (Zech. 2:6–9)

Those who remain unrepentant face disaster, for a day is coming when the Lord will return regardless of whether we do or not. But the results will be vastly different depending on whether or not we have repented and entered into relationship with him. Jesus spoke of that day and warned that there will be many who seek blessing on that day because of the many good things they had done – after all, hadn’t they returned to Jerusalem and built the temple, the church? But on that day Jesus himself will say, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matt. 7:23). On that day, the opportunity for repentance will be gone; no longer will it be ‘Return to me,’ but, ‘Away from me.’

Is this you? Perhaps, even now, you are thinking of some reason why you cannot or should not repent today. ‘I just need to succeed in my job, or raise my family, or care for my parents.’ Jesus says, ‘Return to me, and we will do those things together.’ ‘But you don’t know what a mess I’ve made of my life – my addictions, my violence, my debts, my broken relationships.’ Jesus says, ‘Return to me, and we will face those things together.’ There are no excuses.

Friends, Jesus left his throne in heaven to enter into a broken and sinful world. And by his presence he transforms them to be something new and beautiful, a new creation, a new kingdom that encompasses all nations.

“Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,” declares the LORD. “Many nations will be joined with the LORD in that day and will become my people. I will live among you and you will know that the LORD Almighty has sent me to you. The LORD will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land and will again choose Jerusalem. Be still before the LORD, all mankind, because he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.” (Zech. 2:10–13)

The promises to Israel – that they would be God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule – are fulfilled with the return of the king. Jesus Christ, the God-Man, left heaven and came to earth; will you return to him?

Prayer

Will you pray with me?

Father, we acknowledge that we are guilty of looking at what the world has and wanting it for ourselves. We see those around us who are successful, attractive, and influential, and we think, ‘I wish I was more like that.’ Yet in so doing we overlook the fact that they are far from you. Jesus said, ‘What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?’ (Mark 8:36) Lord, we repent of our materialism and covetousness. Fix our eyes firmly on Jesus, our greatest treasure, who comes to us in mercy, and who will one day return once more to bring overflowing prosperity and comfort (Zech. 1:17).

In our earthly relationships, Lord, we are guilty of avoiding conflict to maintain a pseudo-‘peace’. We have the opportunity to speak your name but draw back because it might cause us trouble. We avoid being known as Christians, for fear of either ‘rocking the boat.’ Or perhaps we worry about the standard of conduct we will be held to as ambassadors of Christ, a standard we feel unwilling or unable to uphold. Forgive us, Lord, and drive us back to the cross and the empty tomb. Jesus returned to Jerusalem knowing that it would bring him suffering and death, yet he also knew that it was the way to eternal peace in the presence of God. Teach us to trust in him and to follow his path – the way of suffering and death that leads to life.

Forgive us also, Lord, of our habit of measuring the work of the kingdom by the standards of the world. We find it all too easy to measure our church according to numbers – how many attend, how much is raised, how many are sent – and lose sight of your presence (or lack thereof) in our midst. Let us not be like the elder brother so caught up in the numbers – an inheritance squandered – that he missed the joy of his father in welcoming his lost brother home. Give us hearts that rejoice in every person who turns to Christ.

Finally, Lord, for those who have decided to embark upon this life of repentance, we pray that you would draw them deep into relationship with yourself. May they be filled with an insatiable desire for more of you in every aspect of their life. Let them always look to Jesus as both the exemplar and the enabler of the life they are to live.

Amen.

Bibliography

Boda, Mark J. Return to Me : A Biblical Theology of Repentance. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015.


Endnotes

  1. For an excellent exposition of the theme of repentance throughout the Bible, see Mark J. Boda, Return to Me : A Biblical Theology of Repentance (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015).
  2. Exod. 35:35; 38:23.
  3. 1 Kgs. 7:14; 2 Chron. 24:12.
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