Bigger than you think - Zechariah 1:18 - 2:13
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Now I don’t know how you cope in an emergency situation but the opening six chapters of the book of Zechariah were written to help a group of people who were currently in a crisis. You may remember from last week that in 538BC the new King of the Persian Empire, a man called Cyrus, decided to authorise the return of the Jewish people to their Promised Land. Previously, the vast majority of the population had been deported, or to use the Biblical language, they had been taken into exile by the Babylonians. However, when Cyrus came to power he gave every Jew the possibility of returning home. History tells us that not everyone accepted. Some of the Jewish people decided to stay in a foreign land. But for those who did return, for those who braved the long journey back to the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, there seemed to be a new day beginning to dawn.
Two years later and the enthusiasm was even greater. In April 536BC, the people of God started to build the temple of God. Can you imagine the feeling? After all this time, the monument of God’s special presence was being built before your eyes. What a day to be alive! And then disaster! Opposition from the neighbouring peoples stopped the builders in their tracks. The site was closed down and for 16 years the evidence of failure was constantly before their eyes.
The people of God were in a crisis. They were a small minority in a massive empire. They were despised by their neighbours. Yes they had mission before them but they felt inadequate for the task. And so their temptation was to keep their head down and mingle with the crowd. However, on the 15th February 519BC, God gave the prophet Zechariah eight visions which were designed primarily to encourage the people of God to continue rebuilding the temple of God. Work had recommenced a few months earlier under the preaching of the prophet Haggai but now it was underway God was determined it would continue until the project was completed. And he achieved this by filling the mind of the prophet Zechariah with eight technicolour visions. Eight visions designed to stretch the peoples’ imaginations, to warm their hearts, and, ultimately, to provide them with the motivation to keep on going.
Now I’m sure there will be some of us here tonight who are feeling discouraged. Are you one of them? Perhaps at some point in the past you started well but at the moment, if you are perfectly honest (and of course we all know how hard this is to be when someone asks you how you doing) – but if honesty prevails you would admit to feeling weary. The legs are tired, the fatigue is beginning to set in and you sometimes wonder, is it worth all the hassle? Why not keep a low profile and mingle with the crowd? Well, if that’s you then please listen carefully to what God teaches us in the second and the third vision given to the prophet Zechariah.
First of all, the second vision, what I’ve called ‘Our purpose is bigger than we think!’ Look with me at verse 18. We’re told straight away that Zechariah saw four horns. He may still have been analysing the previous vision when the next one came along. But suddenly his mind is forced to contemplate a very strange picture. He looked up and found himself starring at four animals with massive horns protruding from their heads.
And that’s when he decided to do the sensible thing. Verse 19. He didn’t do what I frequently do when people talk to me about things I don’t understand. Do you ever do the same? Yes, I nod and grin but inside the brain there is no internal understanding of the words coming in my direction. But not Zechariah! He decided to ask a question. He asked the angel who was speaking to him, “What are these?”
Now we are not to assume he did not recognise the animal horns. Of course he did. He was not a stupid man. He could recognise an animal horn from 50 paces. His question was a different one. It was not about identity. It was about significance. Not so much, “What are these?” but “What do these represent?” Well, according to the angel who was speaking to him, these were the horns that scattered Judah, Israel and Jerusalem. Or to put it simply, these horns represented the nations which had abused God’s people in the past.
Now we still use various symbols today to represent different nations. The bear for Russia. The eagle for America. The Bull Dog for Britain. In Zechariah’s day horns were used to symbolise nations. We see from the book of Daniel that different animals were used to represent particular nations. But nations in general were frequently represented in the Bible by a horn. And the reason is obvious when you think about it. Human beings have always associated the horn of an animal with its strength and power. And when this is remembered I think Zechariah’s vision becomes much clearer. In fact, I think it makes perfect sense. The four horns represent the powerful nations which have plundered God’s people in the past.
Now when you read through the book of Zechariah you discover that the number 4 is frequently used to symbolise completeness. So when we hear about the 4 horns in this vision we are not to reach for our history books and contemplate which four empires we should write in the margins of our bibles. This is a general picture not a detailed prophecy. The four horns represent all the powerful nations who have persecuted God’s people in the past. Now at this point in the vision I was expecting a dramatic intervention. I may have watched too many Godzilla cartoons in my childhood but normally at this stage when the underdogs are pressed in on all sides a strong hero enters the scene to save the day.
But listen to what we are told in verse 20. “Then the LORD showed me four craftsmen. I asked, “What are these coming to do?” He answered, “These are the horns that scattered Judah so that no-one could raise his head, but the craftsmen have come to terrify them and throw down these horns of the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter the people.” Now at first sight it does not seem like a fair fight, does it? In the blue corner we have four powerful animals and in the red corner we have four craftsmen – or carpenters, joiners, tradesmen. Of course skilful at what they do but not your typical Hollywood heroes!
The appearance of the craftsmen should make us sit up and pay attention. It is a surprise, or at least it should be a surprise, that they walk into the middle of this vision. There is wonderful contrast between so-called power and so-called weakness. Now to understand what I mean let me tell you who the craftsmen are. The word describes the weavers, engravers and carpenters who worked on the tabernacle in the days of Moses, and on the temple in the time of Solomon. It is also used of the workmen who made repairs to the temple during the reign of King Josiah – and if you want to check out the references I’ve put them all on your handout. But crucially for us it is also used in the book of Ezra for the workmen who were hired to complete the initial rebuilding of the temple in 536BC.
So when we draw together the use of this word craftsmen in the rest of the Old Testament and remember the historical background to the visions themselves, then it seems clear that the craftsmen in the second vision are supposed to represent the people of God who are currently engaged in the mission of God – which was to build the temple of God. Now at this point you should be thinking, how does this activity, the building of the temple by a small group of people, rob the nations of their strength and power? We can understand how military battles rob a nation of its strength but how does the building of God’s temple throw down a powerful horn?
Let me try and explain. The normal response to a more powerful military force is to keep a low profile. You keep your head down and you try not to be noticed. Fear is supposed to rule the day. But what frightens an empire which exerts its authority primarily through military power is a group of people, who despite the odds, continue to live with confidence and boldness. Now the reason this type of behaviour is so unusual is because it requires great inner strengthen to hold your head high when all the pressure is keep your head low. And this is what makes the people of God unique. We don’t achieve God’s mission because we are strong in ourselves but because we have God’s Spirit as our strength.
Now in Zechariah’s day the people of God may have been a small and marginalised community, a tiny drop in a dangerous ocean, but they were the people of God, who were being strengthened by God’s Spirit to complete their God given mission. This would surely terrify the nations around them and would also show them that their so-called power was impotent when confronted with God’s Spirit empowered people.
The same should be true for Christians today. Christians are constantly under pressure from governments, from culture, from intellectual life – you name it – from the person at work, from the next-door neighbour – there is always pressure to keep our heads down and compromise so in the end we behave like everyone else. It almost seems impossible to walk against the tide of secular opinion. But we can stand our ground because of the Spirit of God working in our lives. And because of this God alone gets the glory for his peoples’ witness in his world.
I love what the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:7-9, “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”
What the people of God had to realise then and what we need to realise now - this life is not all about us. We should not be the centre of God’s world – he should be! And when we live the Christian life it is not only for our benefit – it also enables God to receive more of the praise and honour he deserves.
Or to use the title that I’ve put on the handout – Our purpose is bigger than we think! And that’s what I want us to remember as we struggle to live and speak for Christ in a rebellious world. Our mission has a bigger purpose than we normally contemplate. So yes it is the best way for us to live and yes it will also change the eternal destinies of some of those we come into contact with but ultimately it will continue to give more and more glory to God – because only he can sustain us in this task by his Spirit. Our purpose is bigger than we think!
Secondly, our future is bigger than we think!
When Jesus was alive he was once asked about the future population of heaven. He was making his way through the towns and villages of ancient Israel when someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”
Now Jesus detected straight away that this was one of those safe religious questions. I sometimes get them at the golf club. What do you do all day? Is it one day a week? Or do many people come to your services Lee? Different from ‘Will you come?’
Jesus eventually hints at the answer to the man’s question but before he did he made it more personal. Not so much how many will be saved but will you be amongst them?
We need to make sure our place is secure before we speculate about the destinations of other people.
But sometimes I do find myself wondering about the scale of God’s future plans. I wonder if you do. It’s easy to feel discouraged and believe that the future will be small. Lots of empty space because the vast terrain of the New Creation will have a very small population. And yet this is not the answer the Bible gives.
Jesus says, “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 13:29)
Revelation 7 – a great multitude that no one could count all washed in the blood of the Lamb.
And yet this is not simply a New Testament idea but it is at the very heart of Zechariah’s third vision. So as we finish let’s try and understand the third vision from Zechariah chapter 2.
o Verse 1- Zechariah saw a man with a measuring line in his hand – who, according to verse 2, had the express purpose of measuring the dimensions of the future city of God.
o It seems fair enough when set against the historical background of this vision. Temple being rebuilt, future walls. Maybe the people were thinking – how big would it be?
o When we hear the surprise of verse 3. The angelic tour guide decides to leave but before he can disappear he is given an order from another angel who says, “Run, tell that young man, ‘Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of people and livestock in it. And I myself will be a wall of fire around it,’ declares the LORD.”
o Or in other words, he is being told – “Don’t be so daft. How small is your vision? A physical city in the middle east will never have the capacity to hold all my future followers,” says God.
o Clear he is not talking about the literal city any more. Place where all the faithful will dwell and where they will be protected by God and where they will enjoy his presence.
o Verse 5 is a wonderful combination of various OT ideas.
o Exodus – pillar of fire which guided them and also protected them from their enemies,
o The glory of the temple – but now the glory will not be restricted to the temple but will fill the whole location of where God’s people dwell.
o Must be talking about the New Creation. Picked up in the book of Revelation particularly chapter 21.
o Something to look forward to and something to motivate us to keep on pressing on even when the times are tough and when the times seem small.
o One of the reasons why Christians love big Christian conferences. You stand in the tent with thousands. Town Hall event at Easter Praise.
o Why not contemplate being part of this future? We may not be able to see it yet but by faith let’s trust God’s word and know for certain that although being a Christian now may seem like the weird thing to do, it is actually the sensible thing to do in the long term.
o And if you don’t believe me listen to the earnest pleas of God in verses 6-13. Listen to what he says.
Verse 6. “Come! Come! Flee from the land of the north,” declares the LORD, “for I have scattered you to the four winds of heaven,” declares the LORD.
Verse 7. “Come, O Zion! Escape, you who live in the Daughter of Babylon!” 8 For this is what the LORD Almighty says: “After he has honored me and has sent me against the nations that have plundered you — for whoever touches you touches the apple of his eye — 9 I will surely raise my hand against them so that their slaves will plunder them. Then you will know that the LORD Almighty has sent me.”
Someone sent from the Lord and also is the Lord – can be no other than the second member of the Trinity. We’ve already met him in the first vision as the Angel of the Lord. One day he will destroy Babylon. At this Babylon stands for all those who stand in opposition to God and his people.
What is the message? Come out of her. Get out of the way. Get yourself out of the firing line.
Message to the unbeliever and the backslider. You demonstrate your present convertedness by associating with the people of God.
If we do we can look forward to enjoying the wonderful consequences spelt out in verses 10-13.
2:10 “Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,” declares the LORD. 11 “Many nations will be joined with the LORD in that day and will become my people. I will live among you and you will know that the LORD Almighty has sent me to you. “
Christianity is not a Western religion. Didn’t start here and is not a cultural expression of Western civilization. It is a global religion which simultaneously is very inclusive and very exclusivist.
Nepali event. Songs they were singing.
This is our future. One of the reasons we should keep on pressing on in the Christian life. We are to be reassured that our future is bigger than we think. We are to live now in the light of eternity.
In 1796, Henry Venn came to live at his son John Venn’s vicarage. In June of that year it was evident that this old Christian soldier was dying. Now apparently when he was told he was dying the prospect of being with Christ and his people face to face made him so jubilant and high spirited that it kept him alive for two more weeks.
I love this story and find it very challenging. A man who was clearly living his life now for the eternity that awaited him. And if we want to keep on pressing on, if we want to remain distinctive in a world which rejects the Bible’s ways, then we must keep this future vision ahead of us. We may be a minority now but our future is bigger than we think! Let’s pray as we finish.
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