Return To Me by Pastor Teddy
Key Verse 1:3
“Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty.”
Look at verse 1. “In the eighth month of the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo.” This is happening two months after Haggai began to urge these same people to rebuild the temple. John Wesley’s notes mention this Zechariah as the one Jesus was referring to when in rebuking the Pharisees, he charged them with the guilt of all the spilt blood of the righteous prophets who were murdered for speaking the truth of God’s word, among whom was our Zechariah. He must have been an incredibly righteous prophet to be slain by the very people he spoke the word of God to. Jesus said that they murdered him between the temple and the altar (Matthew 23:35), perhaps during a worship service. And Jesus traced Zechariah’s righteous blood all the way back to the first martyr who was slain for his righteous faith— Abel whom Cain murdered just because he was jealous of Abel and angry at God for looking with favor on Abel and his offering and not on his own. If indeed this is the same Zechariah whom Jesus was referring to, perhaps the reason for killing any servant of God whose responsibility is to deliver God’s word doesn’t change much over time. Jealousy and envy of one another, and anger at God may be prime reasons why even God’s people become callous of heart and their minds are even filled with murderous thoughts over time. We may not physically raise our hand to kill our brothers or sisters, but we have all known to despise, to envy and to quarrel— to show hostility, to harbor ill feelings and to hold grudges— to murmur and grumble and to complain against one another, even to harm one another. This is enough reason for each of us to study Zechariah with a humble repentant heart so that we may find forgiveness and renewal of heart and soul, and ultimately revival for our ministry that we might be able to do God’s kingdom work.
Maybe there were many Zechariahs in God’s history, but for all we know, there are only two which any serious Bible student would be intimately familiar with. The first is this Zechariah the Old Testament prophet, and the other is Zechariah the priest, father of John the Baptist. I’m not sure there’s any reason for us to make any comparisons between the two Zechariahs here, but the reason I mention them is because I see a resemblance in the way this Zechariah began his ministry and the way the son of the NT Zechariah began his! We know how the Lord God had John the Baptist begin his ministry among a lost and wayward generation of people of God.
After four hundred years of absolute silence, God had John deliver a message of repentance to these people. He preached “A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Luke 3:3) And he called out to the people who came to be baptized these harsh words: “You brood of vipers!” he said to them, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” he said, “And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ … The ax” he said, “Is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7-9) John didn’t mince words; He told them what they really looked like to God. They were ugly because they seemed snug and comfortable in their Jewish-ness, thinking they were God’s special people, in spite of their sinful lives. They had no idea how wrong they were. It never occurred to them that they were living under God’s wrath and steps away from his terrible judgment. They were like the tree God planted which wasn’t bearing fruit— a tree about to be cut down. But God was now giving them a chance to mend their ways and to escape his wrath. His last prophet John, the son of Zechariah had now come to warn them, and there would be no other warnings. And his message was simple. Change your ways, or repent and prepare your heart for the coming Messiah and his Kingdom. Unless you change your ways, that is unless you repent [and be baptized as a sign of your repentance,] there is no way you can be ready to receive God’s gift of life— that is, the Messiah’s grace of forgiveness and his reign of righteousness in your heart! Repentance and obedient faith are essential here! And it doesn’t matter who you are, children of Abraham or not makes no difference, it is your heart that God desires not your ethnic or national origin! I think John the Baptist’s message shook up many people’s self confidence to the core, because their confidences were misplaced and much of their faith was already deadened by their sinful lives. They needed to hear the message of repentance so that they might prepare their hearts to receive the message of mercy and hope.
Lets go back to the OT Zechariah, our prophet here. And there’s a very close similarity in his message and the message of the NT Zechariah’s son John. They both begin with a message of repentance to a wayward people who have gone astray from the Lord. Before our OT prophet Zechariah moves on to deliver his apocalyptic messages promising mercy and delivering visions of Messianic expectation and of hope of an Eternal Kingdom and relating of everlasting glory, the prophet begins with a message very similar to that of John the Baptist’s— that is, he delivers a message that rebukes God’s people and calls them to turn to God and to return to him. Zechariah begins by telling them how angry God had been with their ancestors whom he had sent into exile some seventy years ago. Then the prophet calls them in God’s Almighty name to return to God, to make it back home to God where they belong. He warns them not to remain unrepentant as had their ancestors been, hardening their hearts and continuing in their wicked ways. Their forefathers had not listened to nor taken God’s word seriously nor taken them to heart. Look, the prophet says to them, what had became of your people!
Read verses 5-6a. “Where are your forefathers now? And the prophets, do they live forever? But did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your forefathers?” What had all their stubborn rebellion brought them but disaster! They thought they knew better than God and his outdated prophets. But did that benefit them at all? What were they thinking when they deliberately closed their ears and their hearts to the old prophets’ sermons? Did they think that they were too smart to listen to such outdated words and Bible studies? Did they really think they had all the time in the world to sin today and perhaps to repent tomorrow? Were they really going to live forever? Didn’t they know that when the opportunity’s gone, it’s gone forever! Opportunity to what? The opportunity to return to the Lord and stay put! The opportunity to listen to his word! When that opportunity is gone, it’s gone! People waste their lives letting such opportunities slip by when they run after worthless opportunities that eventually perish! You will lose everything with roots and foundation in this world— because they will soon perish. One thing alone is meant to last forever. The Lord And His Words. What did the Lord want from his people? “Don’t be like your forefathers who didn’t listen and pay attention to me.” “Return to me, and I will return to you.” Let’s see what all this means.
Read verses 2-3. “The Lord was very angry with your forefathers. Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty.” That’s why they had been in exile for nearly seventy years, in case they had forgotten, although it’s possible that they’d forgotten why their ancestors had gone into exile. It shouldn’t surprise you that human beings easily forget things they should never forget, especially the things relating to the Lord their God. Only a few years ago, the whole eastern block of Asia was buried behind an iron curtain spanning seventy years of communistic rule; oppression crushed even the faintest traces of faith plunging many nations under the tyranny of godlessness and despair. No one dared even hope and people suffered beyond imagination. It was God’s loving hand of discipline for a depraved monarchy and a decadent church— something unforgettable. When the seventy years were over and perestroika [openness] set in, people were aware of God and his grace; they were also open to the gospel message. They couldn’t forget— like the months after our 911 when the churches were still filling up and God was still on people’s hearts. But generally in the once-Soviet-Union today, hardly anyone remembers the sin cause that had plunged them into such deep darkness! People so easily forget! “The Lord was very angry with your forefathers” The Lord wanted the prophet to remind these people of something they most probably had forgotten. They must have forgotten that the Lord had been extremely angry with their ancestors. And they had also forgotten something else as well. They had forgotten why the Lord was very angry with their ancestors to send them into exile. These people— these returned exiles had most probably forgotten all this in the security and comfort of their newly established lives in the land of their return. Lord help me remember your grace every moment with every breath we take, never forgetting who you are and what you’ve done for us in your great mercy. Amen.
So the Lord was angry with their ancestors. And so he commands the prophet to tell these returned exiles: “’Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’”. What did he want of them? Actually several things. He’s reminding them of why he had been angry with their forefathers, for they had strayed from him. How had they strayed from God? Actually in many ways. Their ancestors, before the exile had become as godless as the peoples and nations around them, if not even more so. They had favored the worship of other gods, and rebelled against the Lord God desecrating his Laws, and abusing his prophets. They were stubborn and faithless, and each one did as they saw fit, while still claiming that they were Jews and the special children of God. They had abandoned God, and so God had abandoned them as he had promised he would do. In the end, the word of the Lord came true and they were carried off in misery into exile, swept away by a ruthless nation. It was then that they began to come to their senses and consider returning to God. Return to me, were God’s words to a people who had completely abandoned the God and his ways as set in the Bible. And these same words were being spoken now to the returned exiles for a very good reason. They had forgotten the sins of their forefathers, what their forefathers had become before the day of disaster came and they were carried off into exile. Not these words are being spoken to them because they seem to have inherited the sin of their ancestors.
It was the plea of a father to his wayward children who have gone astray and who often do things in their own way, thinking that as long as they maintain a religious appearance they would be in God’s good favor. But the very fact that God said “return to me” is the sign that they had abandoned God. They had been just like their ancestors. No sooner did they return from their exile than the waywardness set in and they began to go astray almost as soon as they arrived. How so? We saw in the Book of Haggai that most of them became devoted to their own private affairs, building their own paneled houses, while the house of the Lord was abandoned and left in ruins. History such as the books of Ezra and Nehemiah the prophets attest that many of them went ahead and married foreign women contrary to the Law of God, which forbade them to marry unbelieving women or women of a different religious background. They had given in to the corruption of the flesh. Who knows, maybe just like the people of today, they thought that loving someone is more important than keeping the holiness and sanctity of God’s command! Maybe like some Christians, they revered their lustful desires above the love of God. Who knows, perhaps in their twisted faith it was easy for them to convince each other that God understands why they wished to marry exotic foreign women even against God’s wishes. They had surely gone far away from him in the span of a short time. Although God had extended his arm of grace to bring them back home, their hearts and minds already wondered. “Return to me”, “And I will return to you”. And so, each of them had so much soul searching to do to find out how they might return to the Lord.
And as this word came to them through the prophet, each of them needed to consider the consequences of returning or not returning to the Lord. It isn’t easy to return— everyone knew that. Actually everyone who’s had to put away something dear or precious to them, or repent of something unholy by cutting it off of their lives, as an act of repentant faith in returning to the Lord, knows that it’s not easy— knows how difficult it is— that sometimes returning to the Lord is excruciatingly painful! Listen to what the prophet Nehemiah’s words regarding the sin of these people. “I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: ‘You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves. Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?’” (Nehemiah 13:25-27) And here are the Prophet Ezra’s words in this regard as well. “Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.’ So Ezra rose up and put the leading priests and Levites and all Israel under oath to do what had been suggested. And they took the oath.” (Ezra 10:3-5) It sounds harsh. But repentance, or cutting off that which is offensive to God, the very thing that erodes away at your spiritual life until you are left spiritless and desolate and without God’s blessing, and so far off from God like these people were, that kind of repentance or “returning to God” was absolutely vital to them because the alternative was much worse. “And I will return to you”.
For some of them it was lust and marriages that offended God and for others it was paneled houses private affairs that too priority over God’s business. But for you and me, it might be other things that lead our hearts astray from God, and leave our minds dull and thinking that as long as we invoke God’s name like a magical charm, we will magically remain in heaven’s favor. But if the heart is away from God, God’s word must speak to us as well with the same earnestness: “Return to me”, “And I will return to you.” We always have to search our hearts to find out if anything might have stolen my heart from the Lord’s presence and possession. And if we are honest with ourselves and with the Lord, and we see that there is, then we need to deal with it severely. If my heart has been wayward— stolen by an idol, then I must repent and [make my way back] return wholeheartedly to the Lord, casting off whatever has dared to take the Lord’s place in my heart. And when I have done that, not only I am most blessed because the Lord is pleased to be with me, but I am a blessing on my community on which I now have influence. God spoke to the individual people, but also to the community as a whole. One person’s return can ignite the fire of the whole community’s change of heart and the nation’s revival.
God would have us return to him and remain in him rather than come and go as his people the Jews did over and over throughout the centuries, where he had to rebuke, chastise and punish them and then restore them— only to repeat the cycle all over again and again. Surely the Lord willed that his people return to him and remain with him that he might remain with them forever. It was his ultimate hope that the day would come when they would return and remain with him forever, for that is God’s glorious and eternal hope to be with his people. When he spoke these words to them, “Return to me”, “And I will return to you”, God understood his people’s frailness and weaknesses and tendency for endless failures and mistakes again and again. God knew his people well enough to know that they were unable to maintain their hearts in him long enough before they lost their hearts again to the worldly things all around them. Yet God spoke these words to them not once but several times in history. Why did God do that? Because they were God’s words of hope! They looked to a time when his people would return and never again leave his side. They looked to a time when they would return— and he would return— and the twain would forever be together— never to part one from the other. When was that? It was the time of the coming of the Messiah— the Emmanuel— God with us! (Isaiah 7:14)
When our Lord Jesus who is Emmanuel— God with us (Matthew 1:23) finally came to this world fulfilling God’s great promise to his wayward people, he called disciples to himself. For the most part, they too were as weak and helpless as the people of whom the Lord God Almighty had to constantly rebuke, chastise and restore in history. But there were a few differences in them. If you would look at Zechariah 1:4, God had trouble with these people because they had too much wax in their ears and would not listen. They despised the prophet’s words and never paid attention to the words of God spoken to them. They were prideful and arrogant. And they thought they knew better. But the disciples Jesus called to himself were open hearted and humble, and their crowning glory was they listened to Jesus’ every word and accepted his teaching as the words of eternal life. (John 6:68). So before he sealed this eternal life in them with his death and resurrection, Jesus had a powwow with them the night before and taught them many secrets. One of them is that he would soon ascend to heaven and then return to be with them and in them through the Spirit of Christ. And this bonding would be forever— eternal. He said: “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers;” (John 15:4,6) It was not a threat, but a serious word regarding the bond we have in Jesus. It’s unbreakable. It’s non negotiable. The fruit we must bear depends on remaining bound and bonded to him. There is no going astray and coming back on a whim. There are no gaps in the relationship. There is nothing but a life long bond of cultivating the fruit we must bear. But there is one unchanging principle over time. Remaining in Jesus requires continued the humility of repentance, and in turn that calls for you and me to remain in his word and in his love. (John 15:4,6,7,9,10)
The people of Zechariah’s time received this message from the prophet reminding them not to be like their forefathers and close their ears. To open their hearts and receive God’s word. To make a decision to return to the Lord and the Lord would return to them, because it was time to make a new beginning. Look at verse 6b. We’re not exactly sure who actually repented. But we are certain that repentance is always a good way to respond to the words of the Lord. May God help us listen and respond with humble faith to God’s word every time. Amen.