Thanks for leading us in prayer, that was great. And thank you all for being a part of this work that we’re doing in Mozambique.
I love getting to explain what the church is doing, and why we are doing it.
I think knowing the deeper motivations for why we do certain things as a church is really helpful.
Which leads us to the passage in scripture that we are studying today as we continue our summer long study of the book of Zecheriah.
If you are using the Bibles that we have at the welcome table then we’ll be on page ______, or if you brought your own we’ll be In Zechariah 7, the 2nd-to-last book in the Old Testament.
Over the past 6 chapters we’ve heard many visions that God sent to the prophet Zechariah, encouraging the people to rebuild the temple now that they’ve returned from their 70 years of exile, and telling them about the coming messiah.
But with chapter 7 we get to the next section of the book.
It’s 2 years later and the people have gotten back to work on rebuilding the Temple. And we’ll see as we read that some Jewish leaders from down the road in Bethel, come to Jerusalem to ask Zecheriah an important question.
In the fourth year of King Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah on the fourth day of the ninth month, the month of Kislev. [Historically that’s Wednesday, December 4th, 518 BC. This is a real historical event]. 2 The people of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regem-Melek, together with their men, to entreat the Lord 3 by asking the priests of the house of the Lord Almighty and the prophets, “Should I mourn and fast in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?”
This fast that they mentioned is one that they started to commemorate the destruction of the Original Temple, back when they were first taken into exile by Babylon about 70 years before this.
It’s important when we read the OT prophets that we don’t downplay how incredibly terrible, and impactful, the fall of Jerusalem and the burning of the temple was.
The exile wasn’t just moving out of town for a little while.
No, their entire world was violently turned upside down. For those that survived the wars, everything from their physical lives to their understanding of their relationship to God was just in shambles.
Psalm 137 captures the devastation and sorrow they felt when they lost what they previously had. It says:
[Psalm 137:1-4, 8]
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?...
8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
So their lives were just violently destroyed when this happened, and ever since then, on a certain day, during the fifth month of the year, which is when the temple was destroyed, they would mourn the temple destruction and fast - they would not eat.
But now that the temple is being rebuilt, they want to know if they should keep doing this ritual.
God answers their question in several steps over the next two chapters but we’ll just look at the responses in Chapter 7 today.
God’s answer was not a simple yes or no to this one ritual. He always looks deeper to the heart.
Scripture says that God doesn’t look at the outside appearances like we do. He looks on the heart, searches the heart, tests the heart, and weighs the heart.
The spiritual value of our outward Christian life is largely determined by our heart’s motivation.
And their problem was not as simple as this one fast.
For seventy years their whole lives had been defined by the fact that they had been exiled from the promised land.
Their hearts were so tied into this past event and so sad, they have not just the one fast, but four fasts, each mourning a different event around the fall of Jerusalem, we’ll see two of them mentioned here, and all four in chapter 8.
And so God addresses not this one fast that they ask about. He looks to their hearts and begins to address the condition of their heart.
And we’ll see that there are three major issues with how they were fasting.
Starting in v.4 it says:
Then the word of the Lord Almighty came to me: 5 “Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? 6 And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves? 7 Are these not the words the Lord proclaimed through the earlier prophets when Jerusalem and its surrounding towns were at rest and prosperous, and the Negev and the western foothills were settled?’”
Pause right there. So here we see the first issue with their fast. It was self proscribed, and yet they treated it as ordained by God.
Notice that God doesn’t say don’t fast.
Fasting can be a really great practice. But God never told them to do this fast, and now it has become tradition and they have treated it as if God commanded it.
It’s a question of how do we handle traditions or christian practices that are good but aren’t scripturally commanded.
We have many of them. Maybe you fast from time to time. Maybe you have a quiet time every morning. Maybe you pray before your meals. None of those are scripturally commanded for Christians, but they are really good things that we see examples of in the New Testament.
Or even just look at Christmas, we treat Christmas like it is a high holy day in Scripture and get mad when Starbucks says happy holidays,
but Christmas as a celebration is not in scripture at all - it’s purely traditional, it’s purely self prescribed.
Now traditions are not necessarily bad, I love Christmas! they can be great, and super beneficial to your faith.
But the issue comes in when we treat our traditions as divinely commanded and see merit in the action itself, instead of only as a means to deepen our relationships with the lord.
One of many examples we see in the new testament is Jesus in Mark 7 when the Pharisees asked Jesus why he and his disciples didn’t do the traditional hand cleansing before their meal. And Jesus quotes the book of Isaiah at them and says
[Mark 7:6-8, 21-23 (keep up until the end of 23)]
“These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’
8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
He tells them that it’s not just what you do on the outside that matters, but it is what's inside of you that motivates you to do those things that matters.
He says. “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
So it’s imperative that when we have various Christian practices or traditions, that we constantly examine why we are doing that. Even if they are good things.
Are we doing them out of Envy, or arrogance, or greed? If so, then we should let it go.
Last year I was studying fasting and learned that the great John Wesley wouldn’t even ordain any pastors who didn’t fast twice a week.
And I thought, “You can do that and not die?! I want to have a faith like John Wesleys!” So I began to be quite focused on growing in my Christian faith through fasting twice a week. I wouldn’t eat Wednesdays or Fridays, instead I would pray. and I was quite disciplined about it for maybe 6 months.
It was really great and I grew to understand God in a much deeper way during that time,
but then I realized that at some point it had changed from a way to deepen my understanding of my dependance of God and instead I was doing it to feel spiritual - I was doing it just because I said I would and because John Wesley did it.
And that turns fasting into the goal instead of just a means to worship God.
So I had to stop fasting.
It’s not that fasting for me, or for the Israelites for those 70 years was good or bad, but why we were fasting meant everything.
Another example is having kids pray at meal time or before bed. Sometimes they might not want to.
And at least for me, there is a reaction to push them into it. “You going to pray, don’t be shy.”
because I deeply want them to be comfortable praying.
But that would not lead them closer to God, it would only check off my “my Kid prayed today” box.
What I do instead of making them pray is that I’ll pray for them, not to shame them, but to bless them, that I’m thankful for them and that God would bless them and keep showing them how much he loves them and teaching them how to talk with Him.
That’s turns the moment from focusing on prayer for the sake of the prayer, to prayer for a deepening of our relationships with God.
So, we must constantly be examining our hearts for motivations for whatever we do so that we can’t be counted among the hypocrites who raise our own self-dictated traditions and rules to the level of God’s word.
If you’ve done that with something in your life, even if it’s a good thing,
either change your motivation if possible,
or recognize that it’s become an idol, and stop doing that thing until you can approach it just as a means to help us grow closer to Christ, and not as the goal itself.
And this brings us to the natural next question… What is it that God has commanded? So let’s pick up reading in v.8:
8 And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: 9 “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’
So the second issue with their fasting was that it was an indication that their spirituality was only inwardly focused - personal piety, which can also be said about so many of our practices as Christians.
The private life of a Christian is important and good,
but God never describes his kingdom as one that is full of fasting, and reading devotionals, and memorizing scripture as important as those things are.
Instead He quite often describes it by talking about how people will treat each other.
If you miss that, then you miss the very heart of Christ for people.
Remember, that the God who is talking here in Zechariah is the same God that came as Jesus Christ to the Pharisees in Matthew 23 and says “You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”
Think of the things you do to grow closer to God. Are they all internally focused?
Is it only bible reading and prayer and tithing and church attendance?
Those are really good and important, please do those things, but that’s also really lopsided and you’ll miss the heart of Christ for people if that’s the case.
One pastor I read this week while I was studying this verse put it this way: “Some among the people of God found it easier to fast a few days a year instead of truly treating others in a godly way. Their bad relationship with others demonstrated a fundamentally bad relationship with the LORD.”
Honestly, this is one of the most common issues that I see among honest Christian struggling in their faith.
They are so focused on inward spirituality that they don’t actually make an effort to go and do the things that He tells us to do, living the actual way he lived, doing the things he did.
Things like actually sacrificing to help care for Kids without good families,
or older folks without family,
or just poor people who need help.
Finding a way to welcome and serve people from other places.
Working for Godly justice in our society.
Not just the worldly justice that people call for, but the Justice that God calls for..
Being merciful and compassionate towards those who are suffering,
and we have a lot of suffering people in our world today, people that need this “true justice” that Jesus brings.
Which starts by actually going out on a limb to tell someone about Jesus's love for them.
These are the spiritual disciplines that describe God’s kingdom most clearly in scripture.
But when we neglect these things we end up wondering why our “religion” wasn’t “working” for us.
I hear it pretty commonly from people who say “that church thing just doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t really do anything.”
And I think Jesus would look at them and say that’s because you think following me is just reading, and singing, and coffee.
Maybe you heard the good news that He died for you, and maybe you even embraced that at first but then you don’t know what to do with that.
Friend, you are both over complicating it and dumbing it down at the same time, when it’s very clear how to come work right next to Him. How to let him work in and through you.
You don’t feel close to God and so you don’t act out of obedience. “Maybe if I memorize more verses, or read that new devotional, or listen to that new podcast, then I’ll feel closer to Jesus.”
But I believe it’s more clear in scripture that you don’t feel close to God because you aren’t acting in obedience.
You do not know him because you do not follow,
you only think about following and
study how to follow,
even preparing to follow (all very important!),
but you rarely, if ever actually do the things he’s told us to do.
And if you look at the people who look the most like Christ, whose faith you admire and you can just see the power of the Holy Spirit dripping off their lives, it’s always people that are talking about Jesus with people who are hurting, and aren't only focused on their private spiritual practices.
The other day Pastor David pointed out to me that this is why mission trips can be such high points of Christian’s whole lives. It’s because often, on the mission field, Christians have intentionally set out to do all of these things that Christ has called us to do, and they are doing it all day with other Christians. They aren’t just in the humdrum of suburban life and reading a devotional.
No, they are sharing their faith,
praying with strangers,
worshiping with each other,
sacrificing all day
and then it’s no wonder that they so often wind up with powerful memories of how God worked in their lives during that time.
The thing is that you are already on the mission field right here if you are a Christian.
But you have to choose to engage that work.
Start with small things.
Instead of picking up another devotional, offer to pray for a coworker or neighbor.
Instead of joining another ministry team, (as much as we’d love that) go babysit for your friend once a week who could really use some support. I
Instead of starting the next podcast, call your mom.
Work to find some spiritual disciplines that are outwardly focused as a way to grow to know Christ’s heart better.
Maybe it will lead you to take steps that encompass more of your life into His work.
You might need to leave your business in your prime years to move to the other side of the world to be a missionary.
You might need to go to seminary to become a pastor,
you might quit your job and move into a smaller house so that you can raise your children more intentionally, or care for an aging parent.
Maybe you need to find a way to use your professional skills to serve people in need.
You’d have to figure out what that looks like in your context, and those bigger things often start with the small steps,
but the bottom line is that when you give your life to God, your life should then look the way he described it.
Now if we look back at Zech 7 we see that the Israeiltes knew this before the exile, just like you know it now, and Let’s see what their response was. We’ll start reading in v. 11:
11 “But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. 12 They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry.
13 “‘When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen,’says the Lord Almighty. 14 ‘I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations, where they were strangers. The land they left behind them was so desolate that no one traveled through it. This is how they made the pleasant land desolate.’”
So here we see the third issue with their fasting. Their motivation for fasting was nostalgia -
They were mourning over what they lost, instead of repenting for the sin that got them there.
As one pastor said, “[when they should have been repenting of their sin in exile], instead they responded with empty ceremonies and heartless rituals which were nothing but disobedience in disguise.”
How often in life do we come to God, not sad about our sin, but just sad about our circumstance?
Their fasting was more about petitioning God to get the temple back, and less about repentance and embracing their relationships with God on honest grounds.
But your heart doesn't grow cold like that overnight.
It only happens after many rejections of his voice.
It says that the people knew what God wanted,
but that they first refused to pay attention.
Then turned their backs,
then they covered their ears,
and finally their hearts grew hard as stone.
It’s like someone who’s messed up their marriage because they can’t stop drinking, and is praying for God to make things right in their marriage again, but doesn’t want to actually repent of their drunkenness…they just want God to make their marriage like the old times.
Or someone who is asking God to fix their relationship with their parent or adult child and make it like it used to be, but they’re not actually repenting of the hurt they contributed…
Or someone who prays for better health like when they were younger but won’t turn and repent of the unhealthy lifestyle that’s been abusing their body.
For some of you, you believe in Jesus but you continually reject his call to step out in faith and do his work. Beware that you are hardening your heart to where you won’t hear him at all.
Instead, listen, and follow, and he will be with you.
For others of you, you have U to follow him but you know he’s calling you.
You see that following Jesus is more than just singing and reading, though that’s a great part of it.
There is serious work to be done.
Join him in his work while you can still hear his call.
In the book of John he says:
27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
That’s where it all starts.
We can’t be a blessing to the world if we don’t first believe. If you need to do that today. Our follow up team will be up here on the left.
Listen to that God’s voice, and come talk to them about it. They’ll help you get started.
Copyright: Josh Pollard
Renovation Church in Blaine, MN
You may use this material all you like! We only ask that you do not charge a fee and that you quote the source and not say it is your own.