Summary: God is a God who scatters those who oppose him, but who brings back those who belong to him.
As we come to chapters 7&8 of Zechariah we move from an account Zechariah’s visions to the central narrative section of the book. Here we’re no longer dealing with images, but with issues the nation needs to grapple with: of true or false worship, of what God has done and what he will do with his people, of who they’ll serve, who they’ll obey.
Two years have passed since the first set of visions. Things are under way with the rebuilding of the Temple and so, quite naturally, the people are beginning to wonder about the validity of some of their worship practices. In particular they’re interested in the fast that was held in the 5th month to commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem. This was introduced as a way of expressing their grief at the fall of Jerusalem and their prayer that God would forgive them and restore the city again. But now that the city has been rebuilt, and the temple is almost finished, they’re wondering whether they should keep these up. So the people of Bethel, in the north, send a deputation to Jerusalem to put the question to Zechariah and the priests.
Well, the priests obviously can’t answer the question so they come to Zechariah. When they ask him the question they get more than they bargained for. Zechariah takes their question and uses it as the basis for a sermon that spans chs 7&8 and that addresses God’s concerns for his people. You could summarise the sermon, and indeed the point of this sermon with two sentences, one from 7:14: "I scattered them." and the other from 8:8: "I will bring them back". And I hope you’re aware that these two sentences in fact summarise one of those big themes of the Bible. One of those themes that run all the way through the biblical revelation. Later on we’ll have a look at how that theme is repeated through the whole bible.
Well, the people have come to Zechariah to ask about this fast, so let’s look at what he says to them. (Zec 7:4-7) "Then the word of the LORD of hosts came to me: 5Say to all the people of the land and the priests: When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? 6And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink only for yourselves? 7Were not these the words that the LORD proclaimed by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and in prosperity, along with the towns around it, and when the Negeb and the Shephelah were inhabited?" They were fasting religiously every 5th month. They were celebrating the various feasts in the Jewish calendar, but they’d lost sight of what they were doing it for. Notice, by the way, that when they want to know what God thinks, when they want to know how to worship God correctly, the place Zechariah points them to is outside themselves, to what God has done and said in history. He points them to the words of the prophets like Isaiah and Amos, and to the events of their history. That’s an important lesson for us at a time when the prevailing religious view is that if you want to know how to worship God the way to find out is to look within yourself .
In fact Zechariah’s answer has a surprisingly modern ring about it, doesn’t it? How much religious observance that goes on around the world today has its origin in the need of the worshipper to feel a sense of spiritual connection rather than in a desire to do what God wants. How much worship is done for the sake of the worshipper and not for God? It doesn’t seem to matter what our particular inclination is. It’s so easy to look at our worship and ask whether we’re getting what we want from it. How often do you hear someone say something like, "I just don’t seem to get what I want out of worship" or the other way around, "What I want out of worship is ..." But God reminds us here that when we come to worship it should be with God in our minds, not our own likes and dislikes. What’s primary in our corporate worship is the body of Christ with whom we’re joining and the word of God proclaimed in our liturgy and in the preaching of his word. Doug and I were talking this week about the danger of using a liturgy week after week, in that the repetition can make us forget the significance of what we’re doing and saying. The words become something safe and comfortable and so carry the danger that they simply serve to make us feel good about being in church. Instead we need to take the words we use and make them significant each time we use them. So each time we say the words of the confession, let’s make sure we’ve thought about what we’re confessing before we do it; let’s make sure we’re thinking about how seriously God takes our sin, let’s be aware that our sin affects those around us, and so it’s appropriate that we confess our sins together.