It Is Finished!
"Return to Me!"
A sermon based on Zechariah 1:1-6
Wednesday, February 18, 2015 – Ash Wednesday
The young man stormed out of the room and slammed the door as he left! Yes, he was caught lying to his dad, but he didn't care for the way dad had scolded him. He didn't say a word as dad laid into him, but when dad was done, so was he. He was done with this house, done with these rules, done doing what others told him. He was old enough to be on his own and there were plenty of jobs that didn't require a high school diploma. So he stormed off in a rage and with a plan to launch out on his own.
Dad waited up late that night. And the next. And the next. He wondered if his son would ever return, if they could ever have a good relationship again. Eventually, dad stopped waiting up so late. He had other children that needed his energy. He had other work to do. But he never stopped thinking about his estranged son. He never gave up hope that someday, he would return home.
That sad, but true story, is a fitting illustration for the way God looks at his wayward and wandering people. He never stops loving them. He never stops holding out the hope that they will return to him. But he won't force them to return. He won't go and capture them and chain them up. He lets them wander far away from home, but he also gives the comforting promise, that when they return to him, he'll return to them.
Our text for this Ash Wednesday evening is from Zechariah 1:1-6…
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:
2 "The Lord was very angry with your forefathers. 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. 4 Do not be like your forefathers, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says: 'Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.' But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the Lord. 5 Where are your forefathers now? And the prophets, do they live forever? 6 But did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your forefathers?
"Then they repented and said, 'The Lord Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do.' "
Throughout the season of Lent, we're going to take a look at the prophecies made by Zechariah, son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo. Each Sunday we'll look at one of his prophecies regarding Holy Week and we'll see how he described Jesus' suffering and death with such vivid detail that the nickname "The Holy Week Prophet" is really a fitting moniker for this prophet of God.
But tonight, we hear the opening words of his book and really hear his theme: 'Return to me,' declares the Lord Almighty, 'and I will return to you,' says the Lord Almighty
But why does God say that? Where had they gone that they should now return home? After all, Zechariah's prophecies were made and his book written after the exiles had already returned to the Promised Land, in the second year of Darius. They were now living in relative peace and with a recovering economy.
Well, you know that God wasn't calling them to return to him physically, but spiritually. He was calling them to repent and turn to him. You see, after they came home, they forgot about God. They became so focused on rebuilding their lives, planting their fields, renovating their homes, and restoring their bank accounts, that they forgot about God and about his promises.
So Zechariah, whose name means, "The LORD Remembers," would help them to remember him. And he began by calling them to return to the LORD:
The Lord was very angry with your forefathers… Do not be like your forefathers, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says: 'Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.' But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the Lord.
The Lord had been very angry—literally "He raged! He raged against your forefathers." He was tired of the rebellion that his people showed him again and again. And though they heard his warnings, they refused to listen when he told them to knock it off. So he disciplined them. He took away their nice homes when they were burned to the ground. He took away their homeland as they were carried off to Babylon. He took away their freedom as they became slaves to an enemy nation.
But now the next generation was home. And Zechariah held up their forefathers as a bad example: 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?
"Look around," he told them, "Where are your fathers now? What happened to them when they disobeyed? Everything God said would happen, did! Will you take a lesson from their history and learn from them? Or will you repeat their mistakes? And don't think that God's offer of grace will last forever. I won't be around forever to keep warning you after you reject God's grace.
Someone once said that the only reason some people exist is to serve as a bad example for others. How sad!
But will we learn from the Israelites' mistakes? Or will we go on to repeat them? After all, we too need to be called to repent and turn back to God. For we too daily sin much and make God rage, rage against us. We too get distracted by the cares and concerns of this life, by our jobs and our homes and our bank accounts. And we too all too often forget about God.
And so if God has ever seemed distant from you, you can figure out which of the two of you wandered away. And I'll even give you a hint: It wasn't God.
It may not be with a slammed door and curses mumbled under our breath, but just as a relationship with a parent can be strained by atrophy, one too many forgotten phone calls, long stretches between visits, and little communication when you are together, so too, our relationship with God can be strained not just by rebellion, but by atrophy. Missing one too many worship services, long stretches of time since between opening our Bibles at home, and little real worship even when we are in the building, can all leave us feeling distant from God.
But either way you can be sure that our strained relationship with God is entirely our fault. And we deserve to have him rage, rage at us. We deserve to have him slam the door and bolt it shut forever.
Ah… but that's not how God deals with his wayward and rebellious people. The LORD remembers. The LORD—the God of faithful, steadfast, and never-ending love—never forgets his people, he never stops loving them, and never stops holding out the hope that they will return to him. But he won't force them to return.
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.
"Come home!" God pleads, "And you know that I will welcome you with open arms. Repent, turning from your sin, turning back to me, and you know that I will return to you."
So tonight, we set aside time to reflect… on our sin, on our apathy toward the Word, on our negligence in our relationship with God, on all of our sins, and then to repent—to turn away from them in sincere sorrow and regret and to turn to the Lord.
In fact, let's pause right now to do that. I'm going to use the questions and answers on pg. 156 in the front of the hymnal. If you have a hymnal you can follow along. Otherwise, just listen and consider…
Q: What does God tell me about myself in his holy Word?
A: He says that I am a sinner and deserve only his punishment.
Q: What should I do if I am not aware of my sins or am not troubled by them?
A: I should examine myself according to the Ten Commandments and ask how well I have carried out my responsibilities as a husband or wife or single person, as a parent or child, an employer or employee, a teacher or student. Have I loved God with all my heart, gladly heard his Word, and patiently endured affliction? Have I been disobedient, proud, or unforgiving? Have I been selfish, lazy, envious, or quarrelsome? Have I lied or deceived, taken something not mine, or given anyone a bad name? Have I abused my body or permitted indecent thoughts to linger in my mind? Have I failed to do what is right and good?
Q: When I realize that I have sinned against God and deserve his punishment, what should I do?
A: I will confess before God all my sins, those which I remember as well as those of which I am unaware. I will pray to God for his mercy and forgiveness.
That's not always easy, is it? It's never really fun. But here's how we can do this self-examination often and without fear: We know God's gracious promise: This is what the Lord Almighty says: 'Return to me,' declares the Lord Almighty, 'and I will return to you,' says the Lord Almighty.
And notice how Zechariah emphasizes the truth that this is not his idea, but is the certain promise of God. In this one, short verse he says it three times: This is what the Lord Almighty says… declares the Lord Almighty… says the Lord Almighty." "Return to me… and I will return to you."
The LORD—the God of faithful, steadfast, and never-ending love—remembers us. He never forgets us, he never stops loving us.
The young man in our introduction did eventually go home. Years later, after rebelling against his earthly father and against his heavenly Father, he returned to both fathers. And both forgave him of his sins against them, welcomed him home with loving arms, and embraced him with joy. And since, Lee Strobel (the young man in that true story) has gone on to author The Case for Christ, The Case for the Creator, The Case for Easter, and many other Christian apologetic books, helping countless other wayward sons and daughters find their way home.
And his story is really our story too, isn't it? Even if you never left home and were estranged from your earthly father, you have been reconciled to your heavenly Father. Because the LORD remembers, he remembered his promise to send a Savior in the person of Jesus. And he reconciled you to God. So, back to page. 156…
Q: How do I receive his gracious forgiveness?
A: His Word assures me that Jesus led a pure and holy life for me and died on the cross for me to pay the full price for all my sins. Through faith in Jesus, I have been clothed in my Savior's perfect righteousness and holiness.
When we return to God in repentance, he returns to us with assurance. When we return to him in confession, he returns to us in absolution. When we return to him and seek his favor, he returns to us and assures us that we've had it all along for Jesus' sake.
Yes, we may still suffer the consequences of our sins, and confess with quiet resignation, "The Lord Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do." But we still rejoice that we never get the full punishment of hell that our sins deserve and we accept his forgiveness with joy.
And then, in turn, we also return to God our lives. We give them back to him in thanks. We change our minds about what is important in life. We're no longer distracted by the cares and concerns of this life, by our jobs, by our homes, and by our bank accounts. But we seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, trusting that all these things will be added as well.
Rejoice, dear friends, that though you've often wandered and run away from home, the promise of the LORD remains: "Return to me… and I will return to you." So come on, friends, let's go home! In Jesus' name, and by his grace, amen.