Pastor John on Zechariah 8

As I was reading through Zechariah, and came across Chapter 8, I was reminded of a story I wrote years ago. The story included a character named Pastor John, and he gave a sermon. Here is that portion:

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Pastor came to the podium and arranged his things, then cleared his throat and began. “In continuing my series on sin, we are still in the Old Testament, rich in examples. We’re learning what sin is, how to recognize it, and what to do about it. When we sin, it is important to look at it, recognize it as sin, and confess it. Let the Holy Spirit work in you. I pray that is an effect of this message. My sermon this week is titled, ‘Sin, Confession, and Peace,’ and the main text is from Nehemiah Chapter 4 and Zechariah Chapter 8.” He stopped, listening to the rustle of tissue pages as the congregation turned in their Bibles to the passages.

“If you’ve read the book of Nehemiah, you know that he is a humble man of God. Reviewing his heartfelt prayers to God in chapter one, we see that he handles the Word of God rightly, and prays God’s own words back to Him. Nehemiah writes this in the first person: I heard these words, I sat down and wept, I prayed before the God of Heaven. This was a man who knew God’s Word, and knew how God’s people had broken His heart. In chapter one verses 6 and 7, he says that he prays and confesses, the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father’s house have sinned. We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses. He knew God’s purposes for His people, His plans to prosper them and not to harm them. He also knew God’s people had utterly rejected their God, their Provider, and their Protector. The prophets, before the Jews were carted away to Babylon, had told the people to go ahead and let themselves be carted away, to not rebel or make war. We see then that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and many of the priests who ended up in Babylon heeded the prophets. They listened to God, they heeded His Word, and they obeyed Him.

“So, there’s Nehemiah, serving the king of Babylon. Note first that God has grabbed Nehemiah’s heart. Nehemiah loves his God. In the first chapter, he pours out his heart to a very personal God. Secondly, God has put him in what may seem to be a menial position, that of a wine taster. This is not a menial position at all, and maybe that can be the topic of another sermon. Suffice it to say that Nehemiah has ongoing, face-to-face contact with the king of the civilized world. This is also a personal relationship: Nehemiah notes that he had not previously had a long face before the king. On this day, he is so sad that his face shows it, and the king notices! Not only that, but the king asks him what’s up. Not only that, but Nehemiah is on a comfort level with the king that he asks (albeit with knees knocking) a huge favor, and the king grants it – big time!

“Nehemiah gets to go back to Jerusalem and work at rebuilding the temple. He lets nothing distract him from his goal of making Jerusalem a center of refuge for the remnant of Israelites who lived in the region (Nehemiah 6.3). Here is a picture: The church needs to be a center of refuge. It is here for those who will avail themselves of it – to those who come. Notice, not all chose to return to Jerusalem; many chose to stay in Babylon. As today, not all choose to come to church; but we build this church, this body of Jesus Christ, for all who will come, and we invite His people to this place of refuge.

“In Nehemiah Chapter 4, while the people are building, the enemy is coming. Let’s pick up in verse 13.” He proceeded to read verses 13 through 21.

“Nehemiah lays it all out for us: When the enemy came, they 1) prayed to God, 2) set a watch, 3) continued to build and 4) kept their weapons and alarms in hand. God makes for us a wall of protection around us, not only as a church, but also individually. His Holy Spirit resides within each of us. We are His temple, as God tells us in 1 Corinthians 3.16. We don’t always walk in the Lord. We don’t always fully obey. Sometimes we allow the enemy to invade; sometimes it’s because we live in the flesh (and we like it); sometimes it’s through simply not knowing God’s Word and not bothering to find out (like David and Uzzah, when he tried bringing the ark back to Jerusalem and Uzzah died). When our walls are destroyed, we are desolate, and we lie in ruins (see Isaiah Ch. 64). Because God’s Spirit is within us, we can look up to Him and confess. He will quicken hearts, raise up people and resources to accomplish His work, and lead us. But we must be faithful to remain diligent in the work, else we return to desolation and ruin. This is exactly what happens later in Nehemiah, by the way, and what happens in each of us. Diligent in the work means staying in God’s Word and staying with the tasks to which He calls us. The book of Nehemiah outlines what they did back then, and we can use those same tools today. 1) Pray to God. Make sure you know to Whom you pray. 2) Set a watch. God’s Word tells us that Satan prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Watch out for Satan, for evil, for opportunities for the flesh. 3) Continue to build. Read God’s Word. Meditate in it. Pray. 4) Keep your weapons and alarms in hand. Peter tells us to be ready always to give an answer to every man that asks you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear. Memorize God’s Word, to keep it in your heart. Know the promptings of His Holy Spirit. Setting an alarm might mean being accountable to another person.

“While Nehemiah was building, there is no record that enemy armies are actually invading or attacking the builders, yet there were Sanballat and Tobiah with their armies, mocking. In verse 13, it says, I even set the people after their families with their swords, their spears, and their bows. Nehemiah arranged people in their families with their swords and their spears and their bows. Sometimes it just feels safer to carry a big stick, whether danger is imminent or not. He’s a wise man, that Nehemiah. The trust is in God. He makes his people ready, should the need arise, or should God call.

“Later in Nehemiah, as I said, the people again sin. Nehemiah calls them together and reads God’s Word. They are convicted, fall on their faces, and repent. Only God’s Word has the power to do that.

“In these passages, let’s look at how God’s Word is used. First, it’s their big stick. Paul calls it the sword of the Spirit. It’s how they defend themselves, and how they feel safe. Second, God’s Word brings recognition of sin, the power of conviction; and with it, the hope of forgiveness in repentance.

“Why do all this? It’s a lot of work for Nehemiah and the people, and they stand in danger. What’s the goal? What do they think they’ll get out of it?

“Seventy-five years before Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem, God raised up a prophet in that city, Zechariah. Within seventy-five years, we can only guess whether Nehemiah had access to Zechariah’s writings. He may have. Whether he did or not, Nehemiah knew God, and trusted Him.

“Let’s look at what God promised through Zechariah, in Chapter 8. It’s a fairly short chapter, only 23 verses. Its wording is powerful, and worth reading aloud, so I’m going to go ahead and read the whole chapter.”

As he finished reading, Pastor John looked up at his flock and beamed.  “What a song of hope for the despairing Jews returning to their wasteland! To see what lay around them, and then to see the vision Zechariah presented to them from their God would have been a great leap of faith for these people, and a great blessing. This is what I see:

Safety: verses 4 and 5, Old men and women in the streets with children playing. This is a picture of security, showing that they will live long lives and will not be snatched away in their youth.

Unity:  verses 7 and 8, He will save His people from the east country and bring them to the west country to dwell in Jerusalem, and He will be their God in truth and in righteousness.

Purpose: verses 10 through 12, Before, there was no hire, no jobs, no peace. Now they have promises that the vine shall give her fruit, the ground shall give her increase, and the heavens shall give their dew; the remnant will possess all these things. But 1) v 13: let your hands be strong, 2) v 16: speak the truth, 3) v 16: execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates, 4) v 17: don’t imagine evil in your hearts against your neighbor, and 5) v 17: love no false oath. These are things the Lord hates.

Promise: verses 19 through 23, Fasting shall be turned to feasting. They shall have joy and gladness and cheerful feasts. There shall come people, and the inhabitants of many cities who will desire to go speedily, that they may pray before the Lord of hosts, and may seek Him. People will take hold of the skirt of him who is a Jew saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you.

“These are still the promises of God to His people, when we live in obedience to Him. Praise Him! In the words of Psalm 33.1, Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous! For praise from the upright is beautiful. I close with Psalm 100: Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands. Serve the LORD with gladness: come before His presence with singing. Know ye that the LORD He is God: it is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture. Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise: be thankful unto Him, and bless His name. For the LORD is good; His mercy is everlasting; and His truth endureth to all generations.”

Forsaking Our Own Mercies

Jonah 2.8 They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.

What a lot of meat to chew on in this verse! This is a reminder of the Israelites in 2 Kings: they knew God, they knew His commandments, they knew He loved them and had saved them; and yet, they chose to follow the heathen practices of their neighbors. God called those ways vanity:

2 Kings 17.14 – 16a Notwithstanding they would not hear, but hardened their necks, like to the neck of their fathers, that did not believe in the LORD their God.  And they rejected his statutes, and his covenant that he made with their fathers, and his testimonies which he testified against them; and they followed vanity, and became vain, and went after the heathen that were round about them, concerning whom the LORD had charged them, that they should not do like them.  And they left all the commandments of the LORD their God.

In Jeremiah 10, God points out the foolishness (vanity) of preparing their own idols from wood or silver, and then worshiping / receiving instruction from them. And then, Jeremiah 16 portrays the wonder of the people that God would pronounce this great evil against them: “What is our iniquity? or what is our sin that we have committed against the LORD our God?” (v10)

We simply cannot expect the blessings and mercies of God when we are disobedient. He told us so in in the whole Old Testament, especially in Deuteronomy (and especially Chapter 28).

We are without excuse:

Romans 1.19 – 21 Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.  For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

God has made Himself clearly plain:

Psalms 98.2 The LORD hath made known his salvation: his righteousness hath he openly shewed in the sight of the heathen.

Christians are called by God’s grace, and given His Holy Spirit – divine wisdom. We can live day – by – day for His blessings. We can pray that we see His blessings.

Beloved, we cannot imagine the blessings God has for us when we obey!

2 Corinthians 2.9 But as it is written [in Isaiah 64.4], Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.

His blessings are so magnanimous and beautiful that we cannot even imagine them!

May we pray fervently “unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3.20) that we will read His Word, and obey Him Who loves us so deeply and widely!

In that belly of the fish, Jonah recognized that God’s ways are not his ways, and that he forsook the mercies of God by following the vanity of lies he preferred.

How often do we do this? We feel that tap on the shoulder that this activity or person is not what the Lord intends for us; we feel that caution, and we know it’s from God that we should not enter into what is ahead of us.

We will never know the blessings we forsake when we go our own way. We think we can imagine the blessings of following our ways, and it looks good – enticing. Even in the details, we may think this little thing is not going to make any difference. We cannot imagine the peace God will give us when we obey.  We think that it will be worth it to go ahead with this sin this time.

And we forsake our own mercies.

But God always blesses obedience! When we weigh our options, we cannot imagine any kind of blessing by rejecting this thing we love; we can only feel how good it would be to follow the sin. But we can listen to and obey that still small voice, that one Who tells us to walk to the right or to the left.

Isaiah 30.20, 21 And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity, and the water of affliction, yet shall not thy teachers be removed into a corner any more, but thine eyes shall see thy teachers: And thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left.

When we recognize this, when we run to God in the face of sin, we run blindly. But when we run to Him anyway, this is FAITH. God will increase this faith, and He will BLESS you!

Isaiah 55.6 – 12 Seek ye the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it. For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

Jonah 2.9 tells of Jonah’s final, encompassing confession: “Salvation is of the Lord.” He humbled himself, and gave himself up to whatever God wanted for him.

God directed the fish to vomit Jonah out upon the dry land (v 10). Note that Jonah still could not save himself – God did not direct Jonah to crawl out of the fish. Jonah’s tribulation and deliverance were completely under God’s control.

So are ours. Submit to God.

James 4.7 – 10 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded.  Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness.  Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.

Letting Go, Moving Up

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Galatians 4.21-26 Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.

Hebrews 11.13-16 (speaking of Abraham, Sara, Isaac, and Jacob) These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.

Starting in the Garden, God made promises to man. His first promise was that we would surely die if we disobeyed.

After Adam and Eve disobeyed, God blessed them with many promises. He has continued to give and repeat promises throughout His Word.

Chief among His promises are blessings for obedience.

When God called Abram out to a strange land, Abram fully obeyed in faith. God counted Abram’s faith as righteousness (Romans 4.9).

God calls all of us out of our land. He does not want us to live in man-made environments. He has bigger and better plans for us. Like Abraham, if we obey, we will live in the freedom of His promises.

Abraham had opportunity to look back, to pine for what he was missing (Hebrews 11.15). But his desire for God was greater than his desire for whatever he was leaving behind.

When God promised Abraham a son, he must have been overjoyed. His faith was greater than Sara’s, but he allowed Sara to convince him to follow a human way instead of waiting on God. That’s like building your house on sand. It can’t stand up to the storms of life.

When Ishmael was born, Abraham loved him. Ishmael was, in Abraham’s eyes, his first-born. Abraham delighted in Ishmael.

But Ishmael was not the son of the Promise, he was the son of the flesh (Galatians 4.23). When it’s not God’s Way, it’s not going to work out God’s way. It can’t, when we’ve built it ourselves.

And therein lies the bondage. Abraham allowed his heart to become bonded to the son of his flesh. It was hard to let go when God told him to; but he did. Abraham remained faithful to God, and did not follow after his flesh or his disobedience. He didn’t look back.

He (and we) still suffered the consequences of his sin; that was passed down through the generations, in wars and disputes. But God led Abraham, in obedience, to the promise of the blessing in Isaac. That was built upon the Rock.

Do you have cherished possessions or people that are created from the flesh? Are you tightly holding onto something that is not related to God’s promise? Have you been working for God, and finding out that it was all your idea, and it’s not what He wanted at all?

It’s hard to let these things go. When it’s our “baby,” something we’ve worked so hard for, it’s hard to let all that energy and pride and time and money just – GO!

Paul said, in Philippians 3.7, 8 But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ.

Can you change your lenses, your perspective, to see how God sees things? He loves you, and wants all His promises for you to come true. Don’t stand in His way. Don’t keep up a wall of your own building just because you built it and think it’s beautiful. Let God tear down that wall so that you may see beyond it to the beautiful freedom God has for you.

Just as Abraham obeyed God and let Hagar and Ishmael go, you can, in faith, let go of your fleshly works. God will give you the strength and desire if you humble yourself under His mighty hand. He will lift you up (James 4.10).

There may come surprises, pleasant and unpleasant once you give up your works and start building according to God’s plan. But God is the refiner’s fire. He will make a way.

Preserve Me from Me

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In my devotions today, I read from passages in Jeremiah 10 and Psalms 121. These verses jumped out at me:

Jeremiah 10.23, 24 O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps. O LORD, correct me, but with judgment; not in thine anger, lest thou bring me to nothing.

Psalms 121.7, 8 The LORD shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul. The LORD shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.

These verses tell me that I am not to depend on my own discernment or judgement: my way is not in myself, it is not in me to direct my own steps. Jeremiah reminds me that, when I do so, I will fall into sin. When that happens, I must cry out to God Almighty to correct me, but with judgment, not in His anger.

God promises, in Psalms 121, to preserve me from all evil – He will preserve my soul, He will preserve my going out and my coming in. Even when I depend on myself, even when I forget (or decide not) to follow Him, He will preserve my soul, evermore because I am His.

So I know I can rest in Him. I don’t want to become complacent in Him – Heaven forbid. But I may do my best to know Him and to obey Him, and therein lies my peace, my joy, my rest.

I like peace and joy and rest a lot. I am glad and blessed that my Lord offers me these gifts, just for the taking.

 

Promises of Love

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John 14.15  If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

John 14:21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”

John 14:23  Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

These are promises, not ultimatums. They stem from The Greatest Commandment in Matthew 22.37-40

Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

And from 1John 4.19 We love him, because he first loved us.

In and of ourselves, we are unable to love God. He quickens our spirit through His love, and then we are able to love Him. As we surrender to Him, we receive His love more and more. As we love Him, we desire more and more to know Him more deeply, to know His commandments, and to keep His commandments. He fills us with desire for Him, and His desire is for us to find true joy, peace, and love in Him, His way. That’s how He designed us.