Grandchildren are the second chance we get to correct our parenting mistakes and simply celebrate. I’m gonna take a cue from my grandboys and just enjoy the noise and toys this week. Of course, God doesn’t have any parenting mistakes to correct, and he sure knows how to enjoy the grandkids.
Zechariah was a priest and a prophet for God’s people in 520 BC when Darius the Great of Persia ruled over much of the known world. Seventeen years earlier, 50,000 of them had returned to their land from Babylon to start over again in Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, (NIV Study Bible, intro).
They’d faced opposition from local neighbors and governors who didn’t like the idea of Israel’s return and had stopped the work of rebuilding the temple after they got the foundation finished. But with Darius’ support, and Zechariah’s words, the temple work began again and was finished four years later, (NIV Study Bible, intro).
Zechariah was sent to encourage them to finish the temple, because God wanted to come back and live with them again. While he’d allowed them to be punished for their sin against him in Babylon’s takeover, it had been 70 years since then. His discipline was designed to bring them back to him in repentance and faith. It’s a simple message that still resonates–God wants to abide with his people in a love relationship as tender as a bride and groom’s.
God’s first words through Zechariah aren’t new. They’re the same exact words he said to their parents and grandparents through all the prophets before Zechariah, ”Return to me, and I will return to you. Do not be like your forefathers to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed…’Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ But they would not listen or pay attention to me,’ declares the Lord,” Zec 1:3-4.
What’s more, God said look around. Where are the prophets and your forefathers now? “Do they live forever?” The implication being, nope, they don’t. They’re all gone, but God’s still here and his words are still the same to his people. The choice is now their’s. What will they do? Aren’t “my words and my decrees which I command” still before you? Ze 1:5-6.
God had been saying to repent for so long in the years before Jerusalem fell, that when nothing bad happened right away, his people thought his message had no bite. They turned a deaf ear. It was easy to ignore what they didn’t face consequences for. And many did just that, while others pretended to listen and keep up appearances at the temple. They’d go to church on Sunday, put money in the plate, and lived how they wanted the rest of the week.
Their forefather’s thought God was happy to see them show up on the Sabbath, bring offerings for the priests, and go through the motions of prayer and praising. But God had gotten sick and tired of their posing. He sent many prophets to warn them, “Repent and live!” but rather than repent, they killed many of them to shut them up instead, La 2:20; Ez 18:32; Lk 11:48.
God hated their sacrifices and game playing. Did they really think they could worship God while they ran after everything else? Did they think he wouldn’t notice? (for the whole sordid story, see https://iwantmore.blog/2020/12/12/december-12/).
After so many years and so many prophets and so many words, he sent invaders in. The Assyrians carried away the people of Israel first. And then Babylon eventually broke through Jerusalem’s wall, destroyed the temple, and took away all but the poorest of Judah to Babylon.
The thing about the human heart is it’s only got room for one first love. Whether it’s your family or your finances, your work or your play, your house or your health, your food or yourself, only one of these good things can have first place. God says none of them are what we’re designed to love most. We’re designed for him. And he says our love is to come from all of our heart and soul and mind and strength.
But can anyone really do that?
God knows we’ll never get worshipping right. We’ll never love him with ALL of anything we’ve got. We’ll never care for the sick or poor enough or bring him all of our love before everything else. What do we do with the truth of that?
This is where repentance comes in, and this is where the exiles were. It wasn’t that God was keeping score, it’s that he wanted their hearts to come before him, humble and broken with love. Something along the lines of, “Here’s what we’ve got, God. It’s not much. Please make it more. Work in us the humility and faith we need to please you. We have none of our own. Our track record is poor.”
My pastor, Eric Youngblood, said Sunday that “everything we need” will be provided when we come to God. He knows we have no resources or gifts to give him. All we have is our need of him. This is what we have to offer: exactly nothing. It’s by embracing our nothing, admitting our need, that we make room for him to fill us with himself. “Preparing him room” is the emptying out of everything else and waiting for him to come. That’s what repentance is all about. It’s saying, “I don’t have what it takes, so I’m gonna wait for God.”
Another Zechariah–John the Baptist’s father–said some 400 years later that he praised God because he came to his people and redeemed them. God raised up a “horn of salvation” for them. God rescued them from their enemies. God showed mercy and remembered his covenant. God “enabled us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days,” Lk 1:68-75.
Did you notice who the key player is here? God’s like your Aunt Bee cooking up Sunday lunch in the kitchen, not letting anybody help. God gives us “everything we need.” I love the idea of that, even though I keep cramming in every other thing I think will fill me up, because I don’t like to feel empty. Even less, to wait.
Faced with their forefathers lack-of-faith-record and the truth of God’s words, the grandkids with Zechariah repented. They simply said, “The Lord Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do,” Zec 1:6.
So refreshingly straightforward, it must have been music in God’s ears. They don’t deny what they’ve done, and they don’t try to explain why. They don’t blame their parents and their upbringing or the next guy. They just say they’re wrong and deserve God’s curse, the very thing Moses said would happen if they turned from him, De 11:16-32.
And what does God do after they repent? He gives Zechariah eight visions of his love, of what he means when he says he’ll return to them (we see two of them today). Why does God keep giving them second chances after they mess up? Why does he tell them eight ways he’s watching over them? This is the question I ponder a good bit. God’s a love-machine, pumping love out, despite the fact that we give him so little back.
Zechariah’s first vision:
Zechariah has a vision one night and sees a man riding a red horse, “standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine.” The man is thought to be a prefigure of Jesus, since he’s called “Lord Almighty” by an angel who’s there and explains things to Zechariah, Zec 1:8.
There are more horses of various colors behind the God-man. The angel with Zechariah tells him these horses are “the ones the Lord has sent to go throughout the earth.” They’ve returned to report to the man among the myrtles, and they say they’ve “found the whole world at rest and in peace.” Well, I’m enjoying that these horses speak, but what they say isn’t well received, Zec 1:8-11.
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,” Zec 1:14-15.
The nations are happy–they feel secure and are “at rest and in peace”–while Israel is still suffering from their harsh punishment, a judgment much worse than God intended it to be. While he was “only a little angry” with Judah, intending simply to discipline his people, Babylon came in and destroyed their beloved billion dollar temple and their capital city, and tried to completely wipe them out of existence by transporting them to Babylon where thousands were assimilated. Other nations stole their land while they were gone.
For all of the plans of the pagan nations against them, God protected his people and brought 50,000 back. And he has words of love for them, “kind and comforting words,” the angel says, Zec 1:13.
Here are God’s tidings of comfort and joy…
“I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt,” Zec 1:16. God’s ready to move back into his temple and he wants them to hurry up and finish it. God had left his temple before its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar. He’d given the prophet Ezekiel the vision of it as it happened. He lingered as he left on the Mount of Olives for a last look back, (for the story of God’s trip out of town, see https://iwantmore.blog/2020/11/04/november-4/).
Having God’s presence with his people again would mean a lot to them. It meant safety and security, despite the threat of enemies. God had been with them and protected them in the past, parting the Red Sea so they could escape Egypt, and he’d provided for them in the wilderness, two miracles among many others, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since.
God’s presence means that the God of heaven and earth, who rides the wind and brings up the sun in the morning and the stars out at night, who heals and helps and hears, lives among human beings and walks with them through life. It’s an amazing reality. If you’ve tasted it, you know it’s the one thing you cannot live without, the only thing that life is really all about. When Judah lost God’s temple presence, everything else turned to ash. They’d lost their source of life and love. God promises to come back to them “with mercy” and love, not with judgment, and this time, he’ll stay for good.
The measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,” Zec 1:16. God says what Jeremiah prophesied would happen–Jerusalem would be restored so completely that it can be measured by the same line, using the same markers, Jer 31:38-40. Having been uprooted for so long and then hearing that their city, their “place,” would be completely restored would feel like somebody paid off your mortgage. Safe and secure.
“My towns will again overflow with prosperity…,” Zec 1:17. Haggai, a prophet during this time with Zechariah (yesterday’s reading), had said that their harvests were skimpy since they’d returned to Judah because they hadn’t rebuilt God’s house. They’d been preoccupied with building their own houses and had neglected his, “Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. I called for a drought on the field 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 1:10-11.
Their return to God and rebuilding the temple would bring about a reversal of this judgment, and the land would be so productive it would “overflow.” God’s idea of “blessing” is far and away beyond anybody else’s. God created everything good, after all; he knows what prosperity looks like for us, and it’s a lot more than we might think, (see God’s idea of blessing in Deuteronomy 28:1-14, https://www.bible.com/bible/110/DEU.28.NIRV).
“‘…the Lord will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.'” If you’ve ever been on the outs with God, you know how good this news would feel. It’s a miserable thing to know you’re getting God’s anger and discipline and not to feel his comfort for a season. His people had been feeling his discipline in captivity in many ways for many years. They would be overjoyed to have the hope that they’re up for some comfort because they will again be his favored people, the ones he will “choose” all over again. Who doesn’t want to be the favorite, the apple of God’s eye, his beloved? Deu 32:10, 33:12; Zec 2:8.
Zechariah’s second vision:
And there’s more good news. Zechariah’s second vision is of four horns. The angel who explains things tells him these are the powers that scattered Judah and Israel. They’re thought to be Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and the Medo Persians who have oppressed them. Then four “craftsmen” come along to terrify and cut these “horns of the nations” down because they have “lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter its people,” Zec 1:18-21, (NIV Study Bible notes).
Not only does God have good news of his returning presence with them, their recovered land, their overflowing prosperity, his comfort and favoritism, he’s also got their back with their enemies. Nobody gets away with messing with God’s people. Those who have will be humbled.
It’s thought that the nations of Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, and Greece are the “craftsmen” who came along and cut down the “horns,” the reigning power nation they each conquered in order to rise to the top, (NIV Study Bible notes). God tells us to love our enemies and leave them to him, because he will avenge. He repays, Ro 12:19.
“I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion.” I saved my favorite piece of good news for last: God’s passionate love for us is expressed in his fiery jealousy. He told his people in the desert not to follow other gods, “the gods of the peoples around you, for the Lord your God is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you…Be sure to keep the commands of the Lord your God…Do what is right and good…so that it may go well with you and you may go in and take over the good land the Lord promised,” Deu 6:15-18. His jealousy was for their good, so that it would go well with them, and they would receive the good things God promised.
God’s angry jealousy is also intended to bring us into relationship with him if we’re not already his, or back to him if we’ve strayed. He uses the fire of our troubles to purify us from the things that keep us from him, so that we will “call on the name of the Lord and serve him,” Ze 3:8-9. It’s in order to bring us to him, not to get rid of us, that God disciplines us, like any good father does.
If you’ve ever been in an open relationship, you know the misery of feeling like you don’t matter enough for the other person to do whatever it takes–even if it means getting angry–to connect with you and hang onto the relationship. They’re more like “meh” when it comes to being close.
But God? He’s an attentive lover. He’s “all-in” in his relationship with us. He doesn’t look at his watch when we’re with him–even if we do. He’s never too busy or distracted running the world for a heart-to-heart or a romp. He’s up all night with the light on and the door open, wanting to hear from us, hoping we’ll stop by.
Human jealousy is a misery, and this is nothing like God’s. God’s is for our good, to win us back and give us what we most need and long for–himself. Human jealousy is just the opposite–it seeks its own good; it wants to take away what we most need and gives us back nothing in return.
When we give away his place inside us, when our hearts are turned first to other interests and first loves, he comes after us. He doesn’t yawn and turn over, thinking we’re really just too much darn trouble, or “I’m not getting much out of this relationship anyway.” No. God chases us down. He pounces. He’s the “hound of heaven” who stops at nothing to find us and win us and bring us home, even if we’re not all that sure we want to go.
I know because God says he’s unwilling to share us with other lovers. That’s what the first commandment is about, “Thou shalt not worship other gods.” I also know because I’ve experienced him this way. I’ve wandered off and gotten lost, and he didn’t let me go. He came after me with bared claws, and he had to hurt me to get me to go back, but it was worth every loving scratch. But mainly I know because he gave away the One he most loved, Jesus, so that he could bring me close, Jn 3:16. (For the story of what God does with his “wife,” who has many lovers, see https://iwantmore.blog/2020/11/06/november-6/).
“The Hound of Heaven” brings us what feels like harm, so that we will find what we most long for in his arms. God says,
“‘…whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save me, save only me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in my arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home;
Rise, clasp my hand and come!…
Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He whom thou seekest!
*Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest me.'”
(*You drive love away from yourself when you drive away me.”)
This is who God is, and this is what Love does.
I’m looking at this post of about 3000 words, most of them describing all that God gives after a mere 19 words of repentance from the grandkids. Is there any doubt about who gets the most out of this relationship? Is there any doubt about God’s love?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably keep saying it. Why does God bother? Why does he care this much about people who constantly turn away from him?
I really do not know.
I’m just glad that he does.
Quoted selection is from “The Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thompson. (Here’s the whole poem if you’re interested, http://houndofheaven.com/poem).
If you’ve ever dealt with an abusive relationship, this psalm will feel like support and validation. In it, David asks for God’s rescue from evil men, those he describes who are both verbally and physically abusive. It’s sometimes hard to tell if an enemy is truly evil or if they’re just a fool. Proverbs has a lot to say about fools that’s helpful.
This psalm describes what an evil man is like:
The evil person devises evil plans, both in their hearts and with their hands. They are “people of violence,” who “stir up war every day,” v 1-2, 4.
They use their words as weapons, “They make their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s; the poison of vipers is on their lips,” v 3. Verbal attacks can be subtle or strong, and the damage can feel as destructive as a knife.
They set traps to trip him up and make him fall, “Proud men have hidden a snare for me; they have spread out the cords of their net and have set traps for me along my path,” v 4-5. These enemies know his path–they aren’t strangers. They deliberately plan him harm, and they know where and how to do it.
This psalm describes how David prays to God:
–You’re my God
–Hear me! (it’s bolstering to believe that God is mine and hears me when I call)
–You’re my “strong deliverer, who shields my head in the day of battle,”
(Since we’re engaged in “war everyday,” there are many battles to be fought.)
–Don’t give the enemy what they want, “or they will become proud,”
–Let the trouble they cause come back on them,
–“Let burning coals fall down upon them,”
–Let them be thrown “into miry pits, never to rise,”
–Let them “not be established in the land,”
–Let “disaster hunt down men of violence.” v 6-11.
David doesn’t pull any punches. He asks God exactly for what he wants, even down to the “miry pits” and “disaster.” His honest and awful requests are brought to God for him to deliver, and that’s where he leaves them. He doesn’t avenge himself. I’m guessing it felt good to say all of this to God, to be this transparent and real. I’m glad it’s not wrong to tell God how we feel.
This psalm praises God for what David knows God will do, even before he does it:
“I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.
Surely the righteous will praise your name, and the upright will live before you.”
These words only resonate when you need them. I’ve needed them in the past, and they’ve been life giving. Today as I write this, I’m thankful that God “upheld me” and “secured justice” for me. The war is about over.
But peace hasn’t come in the way you’d think. It wasn’t until I began to pray as if we were both guilty of making our war, as if we both were equally needy of God’s help, as if we both had knives for tongues, as if we both wanted to keep the other off balance (because we both did), that I was able to see the truth about me and make the adjustments I needed to make.
Turns out, I did these things, too. I just didn’t know it before I began to pray it. God likes to answer prayers to open our eyes, I think.
Praying for another person to see the light isn’t wrong, it’s just not very effective. You can’t do much to adjust someone else. And it proves you’re part of the problem. Pride is blind, and it’s born in wickedness, v 8.
Coming into the light might hurt, but it’s where the freedom is, Jn 8:32.
My take away today is PRAISE for the God “who enables us to serve him without fear” and gives us everything we need to live for him (from Luke 1), and PRAISE for the God who chastens us and chases us with jealous love (from Zechariah 1), and PRAISE for the God who answers prayers beyond our wildest dreams (from Psalm 140).
One year ago today, I wrote this after reading this same psalm,
“God, don’t let the wicked prevail; don’t let their plans succeed. Let them feel the trouble they cause. But God, redeem. Give us new hearts and peace. I don’t want anyone thrown into ‘burning coals of fire’ or ‘miry pits never to rise.’ Not really.
“I don’t want to move on in life without everyone I love coming, too. Surely you want what I want? Please circumcise all our hearts, humble us, meet with us, move in us, and fill us. Do in us what we cannot do for ourselves. In Jesus’ name.”
It’s been a long year, and there were a lot of hard years before that. But God is faithful. And his love is enough. “Bless the Lord, O my Soul, and all my inmost being, bless his holy name.”
Thanks to Eric Youngblood for his fine preaching on Sunday from Luke 1. Many of these thoughts came from him. (Here he is if you want to take a look at the December 20, 2020 Worship Service, “Acting on Our Behalf: Unmuted Mercy to Silence the Agonizing Dark, https://youtu.be/YYbfV8pxTX8
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