7 : 1 - 14
We know for sure that the fourth year of the reign of King Darius was 518 BC. The prophet Zechariah receives a living Word to be delivered to the people on a specific day and month of this particular year. In the Old Testament period, each month began when the thin crescent of the new moon was visible at sunset. The ninth month was called Kislev and was in our November-December time. It was associated with the sowing of seeds.
The occasion was a question by the people of Bethel “Should I mourn and fast in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?” The fifth month was Ab - our July-August at the time of the olive harvest. This fast remembered the destruction and torching of the Temple of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the exile of the people of God to Babylon in 587 BC. This was a reasonable question. The exiles had been returning. There was talk of rebuilding the city and the Temple. Was there any need to fast and mourn for something that was now long past and able to be overcome? Another fast in the seventh month, called Tisri - our September-October - the early rainy season - is mentioned. This goes back to the assassination of Gedaliah in 587 BC. He had been appointed by Nebuchadnezzar as the Jewish ruler of those Jews who remained in Judah at the time of the exile. That group included the prophet Jeremiah, for example. He was seen as a collaborator - a place man - a puppet - and so was murdered. Many Jews fearing retribution left their homes and made their way to Egypt as a result. So - there had also been a fast to remember this unfortunate incident in Israel’s history. Again - however - the question was whether anyone needed to continue to observe this fast and time of mourning.
It seems that the people were bored with this observance. They did not see the point of it. It was time wasted and energy lost which could be used for better things. The prophet discerns that this is an excuse. They were backsliding, decreasing in faith and commitment. They wanted more time for themselves. They did not want to learn the lessons of history and continue in faithfulness of life and vocation as the People of God. Zechariah delivers God’s stinging rebuke that they went through the motions without the heart, soul and mind commitment of believers to whom God was real and important. When they broke their fasting - they went on binges of indulgence with food and drink, thereby negating the spiritual purposes of their observance. They were caught between feeling a burden and necessity to fast at these times and a deeper desire and wish not to have to do so.
Does it sound familiar? Is it not like so much church-going in our own day? Do we have to go to Church? What is the point? What good does it do? Week-ends are precious. People say 'I need quality time with my family. There are many activities for children on Sundays now. I need more time to myself'. The people of Scotland have, many of them, abandoned going to Church for reasons of selfishness and laziness. And the land and people are suffering as a consequence. The spiritual discipline of a lifetime of church-going and genuine worshipping in the heart and soul and mind adds greatly to the overall health and strength of a nation. Nominal church-going might not do much good. A kind of self-serving appeasement of inner conscience might be all going to Church means for some. That won’t do. God would rather you didn’t bother than not offer a full heart and life commitment.
It does not take much to turn people off going to Church. Its seems as if some are only waiting and begging for a reason or an excuse not to come back again. They will certainly blame someone else - mostly the Minister. The most trivial of excuses allow people to stop coming to Church. The real reason is they have given up on God. That is a dangerous thing to do. Peter said to Jesus when Jesus asked Him if he wanted to leave Him 'Where can I go - you have the words of eternal life'. You can’t find any substitute for your Maker anywhere. No-one else rose from the dead except Jesus Christ. You won’t get a better deal anywhere than forgiveness of all your wrong-doing and the gift of eternal life. But - you have to factor in going to Church into your life and responsibilities and routine. It is something very special and very different from other habits and activities. It is a constant challenge and something that will enlarge and expand your understanding and spiritual horizons. You have to take it seriously. It is not a football match or an entertainment. But - it is not a miserable experience either. It belongs in that part of our experience in which what is deepest and most precious to us lives. It’s not like getting a new car or a new house or a fancy holiday. These have their place. Meeting the Risen Jesus Christ is on a different level altogether. It is life affirming, life enriching, life enhancing, life ennobling. It is a quality encounter - of the highest order.
Fasting is not something we Presbyterians do much of. We don’t even observe Lent as such. Even good evangelicals have little place for fasting. Why is this? Zechariah offers an answer for his time and ours. Rather than fasting, God wants His people to do good. 'Administer true justice, show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts, do not think evil of each other'. Jesus Himself taught this in words echoing the prophet Hosea 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice'. The clearest exposition of this consistent Old Testament teaching is found in Isaiah’s words 58 : 3-9.
"Why do we fast, and you do not see it? afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?" On your fast day you carry out your own pursuits, and drive all your labourers. 4 Yes, your fast ends in quarrelling and fighting, striking with wicked claw. Would that today you might fast so as to make your voice heard on high! 5 Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: That a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? 6 This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; 7 Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own. 8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; Your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. 9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer,”
To build a true relationship of love with God you have to be sincere about it. It is not easy and you could argue that it is impossible to be perfect. It is your innermost intentions that matter and that is where it counts. God does not want you to make yourself miserable by forced worship. God would rather have your full and true heart. Love of God and others go together too. Doing something good for someone else is more important to God than going without food. Our Scottish Christianity is sometimes described as pretty grim, lacking in the celebration and beauty of other worshipping Christian Churches. Externally that might be so. But God is not impressed by show. Clerics dressed up like Danny la Rue or Lily Savage don’t impress Jesus Christ. The penitent heart of a prayerful man or woman or child is much more important in heaven. Your broken heart means more to Jesus than anything you are wearing. The money we send to Kenya for the orphans is very precious to their heavenly Father.
Our country does not conform to the high requirements articulated by the prophet Zechariah. We have found that our Government and Parliament are corrupt. We cannot and do not trust a single word our Prime Minister says. A secret inquiry into the Iraq War - to be published just after the next general election - so that Gordon Brown’s part in the decision to go to war is not an election issue. Dragging in unelected people and creating instant Lords so that they can work in government is the opposite of what we expect when we elect Members of Parliament. Lying about the state of the nation’s finances buys the chance of political survival at the expense of truth. Christian integrity is far lacking in the corridors of power. It is self-defeating. It does not work. No-one is fooled.
That is true of each and every Christian life also. Yours and mine. You know by now whether or not I really believe the Christian Gospel. You know by now whether or not I seek honestly to serve God here in this parish and community and Church. You know about each other too and you know about yourself.
Make this a moment of re-dedication. Cease the pretence, the self-deceit, the self-delusion. Become a real Christian or a significantly more committed one. Today. Here and now. Jesus Christ needs you for His name and purpose in this world. If you will respond, you will never regret it.