I long ago saw a ministry cartoon that resonated with me. It was of a pastor coming into his home where his wife was watching him enter through the door. He was carrying his Bible and briefcase, but looked ragged and tired – with his tie undone and his shirttail hanging out a bit. And the caption said, “You know, it’s funny, but I used to like Easter.”
I have soured more than a little bit over the past 35 years of ministry about the big holidays of Christmas and Easter. For a while – especially when doing music with choirs and orchestras – it was really enjoyable and an energetic experience. But it sorta turned a corner one Christmas Eve when my three oldest boys were still very little. I had put a lot into the Christmas season at the New Jersey church where we lived at that time. I was so busy with it, that I remember getting home to the boys and seeing their excitement and beginning to finally enjoy the festive season with my family now that the work was done; but then the phone rang. It was an old lady from church who was calling to tell me that I had ruined her Christmas with the lousy Christmas Eve service – something was wrong with all the music – was probably too contemporary for her, and her night was ruined. And that is when I realized that the church celebrations of these holidays for too many people were not really about the meaning of it all, but about the way the celebration of the vague meaning was undertaken. It gave me the feeling of being something like a circus performer.
The topic of our passage today raises the question of genuine worship and spiritual experience and expression.
This chapter seven of Zechariah is dated now two years later than what we read yesterday. The temple is being reconstructed, because, here now the end of the 70-year-long captivity to the Babylonians has in recent times come to an end. The people have returned to Jerusalem and the Promised Land, and a new era is beginning. A sad time of remembering the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzer about 90 years earlier seemed to perhaps be something no longer necessary (especially since God never told them to do this). So, a delegation of people came to the priests to ask if they should continue with a fast of remembrance and morning about that sad occasion and time in their history.
7:1 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. 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?”
In response, Zechariah receives a message from the Lord. And it addresses the genuine nature of their hearts in both fasting and feasting. Were they really doing it for the Lord? Or for themselves?
4 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?’”
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.’
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.’”
The people prior to the judgment from Babylon had not really listened to the Lord. They had fasts and feasts, but had failed to be mindful of God’s instructions to show justice and mercy and compassion upon downtrodden and helpless people around them. They were oppressive, and even toward each other they devised plots, presumably for personal gain. Prophets came and warned them about their behavior and their lack of genuine hearts for both the Lord and the people around them. And so God in anger did not honor their prayers, and He scattered them away from their land which became desolate.
The message for this current generation was to learn from this – to not be people who merely performed perfunctory religious duties, but to rather be people truly motivated by honoring God and serving one another. Those who are genuine in religious duty will be genuine as well to be cognizant of the needs of all others around them.
So why do you do church? Why do you come? Why do you seek to worship God? Are you truly amazed by His grace that saved you? Are you regularly aware of that and His blessing that … well … for one thing enables you to be aware of His grace that has reached to you, among all people? Are you mindful that such grace drives you to want to be gracious and serve others? Is the church service about you, or about God and His Word? Are you there, first, to express your love for Him or to see if you are going to get a happy blessing from it? And when you look around at the others there, are you thinking, “How can I help people here today? … How can I serve others?” Do you go home after Sundays critically evaluating what you got out it, or more often evaluating how much you were able to be a blessing to someone else?
Tell me again why we do this … why we do church … why we worship … why we serve.