Two kinds of repentance are possible in human experience. There's false repentance and there's true repentance. False repentance is all about regret and sorrow that doesn't last. It normally comes about because we've been caught doing something wrong - had our sin not been revealed, we'd probably still be doing it. We need look no further than the Ashley Madison scandal of the past few weeks for an example. Apparently some 33 million user accounts of the online dating service for would-be adulterers were published on the web by a vigilante hackers group. In Britain alone Ashley Madison claims to have 1.2 million members, 70% of whom are men. Stories now abound of many who have been forced into confessions and declarations of repentance because details of their sinful adultery have been made public. But will it last? False repentance is often accompanied by temporary reformation. We can say sorry, we can feel remorse, we can acknowledge our sin and we can even be ashamed of what we've done…but with false repentance all this is quickly shrugged off and we're soon back to our old wicked ways. There is no genuine turning to Christ for forgiveness. True repentance, on the other hand, is a very different thing. It comes from a completely different place and has wonderful eternal consequences. And the part of Zechariah's prophetic message before us this morning, written about 500 years before Jesus, reveals some really helpful basic elements of true repentance.
Whilst preparing for this sermon a friend texted me and asked "How's it going?" I had just read a quote in Barry Webb's commentary on Zechariah so I texted it back to him: "We are approaching the most mysterious and profound part of Zechariah's message". On the text I added a comment something along the lines of "gulp!" Quick as a flash he came back and said "Don't worry it feels like every commentary on every OT passage says something like that!" Well, that may or may not be true, but what we have before us today is something indeed very profound and very mysterious. Not least because this part of Zechariah's message gets to the very heart of the Christian gospel and our need for true repentance. As I hope you will see, true repentance is all about grace, it's all about grief, and it's all about forgiveness.
1. True Repentance Foretold (Zech 12:10-13:1)
a) A Sovereign Act of Grace (12:10)
"And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn."
We know from verse 1 of this chapter that the one speaking is none other than "the Lord, who stretched out the heavens and founded the earth and formed the spirit of man within him". So it is this powerful, mighty, creator who will both initiate and control future events. He will pour out. He will allow the house of David and those who live in Jerusalem to pierce him. He will oversee a deep and intense grief. So if God is the source of this grace, what exactly does this grace look like? Well, it is a sovereign act of 'pouring out' and 'piercing'. God "will pour out a spirit of grace". In other words he is going to infuse those who live in Jerusalem and their leaders with awareness or an awakening to enable them to turn to him. And once they realise that it is God who helps them in their struggle the people will turn to God for pleas of mercy (or in other translations 'supplications' or 'prayers'), they will turn to God in prayer! The second act of grace in view here is the 'piercing'. Now this is a little bit more complicated – bear with me – but if it is complicated for us, what I hope to show you is just how utterly shocking and startling this would have been for Zechariah's original hearers. God says:
"I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they [house of David & those who live in Jerusalem] look on me [God], on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him."
Do you see the confusion – the change of pronouns from 'me' to 'him'? The implication is that somehow God and the one pierced are one and the same. But how can that be? That is outrageous. How can God be pierced? The word pierced here literally means death blow, a stab to the heart, not just merely wounded! First shocking problem: God can't be pierced. God can't die! Second shocking problem: they are responsible. It's not the defeated hostile nations that have pierced God, but the 'house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem'. How could this happen? Well, no immediate answers are given by Zechariah. We'll come to some answers that we have, living as we do this side of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, later. But for now what I want you to see is that this is a sovereign act of grace. God allows the piercing and pours out a spirit of grace so that the people are then able to grieve over what they have done and seek God's forgiveness for it.
b) A Profound Grief (12:10-14)
Second half of verse 10:
"they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn."
You know there is actually a striking contrast between what Ben was looking at last week and these verses. The euphoria of victory in verses 1-9 is now replaced by mourning and grief. And what a deep and intense grief it is, like mourning over the death of an only child or the death of your first born. Those among us who have experienced the reality of such tragedy know only too well the depth of grief associated with losing a child. I think of a good friend of Deb's and mine in Scotland. Now in her 70s, her only child - a daughter - was killed as an adult in a tragic and quite horrific car crash. Her grief is a grief that never really goes away. She has no other children, no husband and no grandchildren – there is a depth and intensity that she won't ever lose this side of glory. True, in God's grace she has been a wonderful witness and example to me and my family over the years. But that is the kind of grief we are talking about here: deep, intense, stomach wrenching, numbing, shocking, sleep depriving, painful grief. It exists in the background and rises up from time to time in most unexpected ways. That's partly what this grief is like. But it is also likened to the loss of treasured or well-loved leader. That's most likely what v.11 is all about.
"On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadad-rimmon in the plain of Megiddo."
This is a reference to the deep mourning that followed the death of King Josiah (one of a few good Kings) in a battle there. A bit like we mourn publically when great leaders pass. Witness the crowds and queues for leaders like Churchill in 1965 and more recently in 2002 the Queen Mother. But that is not all. This grief is also described as a grief that accepts responsibility.
Traditionally, when things go wrong – what do we do? We blame someone else don't we? (Usually someone in authority). Children blame their parents – especially when we're older! Church members blame the leaders or vicar. Football fans and players blame the manager or, in Newcastle's case, the owner. Citizens of the country blame the government. But here, when God has poured out his spirit, the people will not blame the leaders nor the leaders blame the people. All will mourn and take responsibility for their own actions.
"The land shall mourn, each family by itself: the family of the house of David [the leaders] by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Nathan [David's son] by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Levi [the spiritual leaders] by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the Shimeites [Levi's descendants] by itself, and their wives by themselves"
In fact the grace of God will be such that not just the named tribes, but v.14 "and all the families that are left, each by itself, and their wives by themselves". Everyone will take responsibility for their actions. So this profound grief takes responsibility, it is deep and intense, and finally we learn that it is also genuine: the fact that God uses repetition and deals with each family in turn stresses the honesty and genuineness of the grief. This isn't hypocritical grief. It isn't motivated by professional mourners or the result of emotionalism. No! - True repentance is a gift of God's grace and it is accompanied by a deep and genuine grief that accepts responsibility for sin. But repentance on its own is no good, unless it is matched in some way, some action by God, to deal with the sin that has been committed.
c) An Undeserved Forgiveness (13:1)
And here I want to take the liberty of straying one verse further than our allocated text! Chapter 13 verse 1:
"On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness."
Last week we had victory. Today we have had grief and now (and next week we will pick up on this some more) we have undeserved forgiveness! Whatever it is that will cause the piercing of God, whatever it is that will motivate such a crime (here in the text we do not know), whatever it is will be considered and intentional, which makes this cleansing through the fountain so unbelievably staggering. It is completely unprecedented and completely undeserved. Total grace! But how and when will such grace happen?
2. True Repentance Made Possible
And for this you need to forward to p.906 and our New Testament reading (John 19).
"But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water… For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled… 'They will look on him whom they have pierced.'"
Look no further than Jesus! He is the key to this whole passage. Jesus is the fulfilment of this passage and it is he who makes true repentance possible. Praise God! In Jesus we see an answer to the confusion of the pronouns and it makes perfect sense. Jesus is the Son of God, the third person of the trinity. He is God. And knowing that, we can read Zech 12:10 with a privileged clarity:
"when they [house of David & those who live in Jerusalem] look on me [God], on him [Jesus] whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him [Jesus]"
In Jesus is the heart of the Christian gospel. A sovereign act of grace - yes - by which God brings redemption to his people by entering into the experience of human suffering. Oh Jesus makes true repentance possible alright, because he pays the penalty that all our sin deserves. He takes it on himself. In this one act, that John describes here, he not only pays the penalty but he brings forgiveness too. The grace, the grief and the forgiveness are all wrapped up in this one earth shattering event. But it doesn't stop there. The sovereign act of grace continues being fulfilled in the pouring out of the spirit on the disciples at Pentecost, and it's worth just reminding ourselves of what exactly happened. In Acts 2:36 we join Peter at the end of his famous Pentecost sermon. The disciples, you will no doubt remember, having been filled with the Spirit, are accused of being drunk, and Peter stands up and in effect says 'No! We're not drunk. Let me tell you how Jesus really is the fulfilment of our Scriptures.' And he ends his address with a call to true repentance, picking it up in v.36:
"Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified." [God has done it – the sovereign act of grace!] Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, [there is the profound grief] and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, [undeserved forgiveness] and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit [the grace just keep on coming!]"
Friends, true repentance is only made possible through Jesus. The question now is – how will we respond?
3. True Repentance Embraced? (e.g. Psalm 130)
Hopefully by now, you're getting the idea of what true repentance involves. It is not simply about feeling sorry, or even changing your mind. It is a complete alteration of motivation and a complete change of direction of life, by God's grace, through grief over sin and undeserved cleansing and forgiveness through Jesus. But I've deliberately put a question mark at the end of the heading – because the question is have you or will you embrace true repentance? Or are you going to wait until you are found out? The sovereign act of grace needs a response.
Maybe you're here this morning and you're not sure if you'd call yourself a Christian and you're thinking: 'Well I don't know if I really need to respond. I'm not sure my sin is that big a deal.' Well let me say this. It is to God. Maybe this illustration will help. Apparently the Romans didn't just rely on the cross as a penalty for wrong doing. They had plenty of other gruesome methods too. One was for a murderer to be chained face-to-face, arm-to-arm, leg-to-leg with the body of his victim. In time the horrible effluvia from the dead body would be such that it destroyed the life of the living victim. The ancient Roman poet Virgil describes this cruel punishment:
"The living and the dead at his command were coupled face to face, and hand to hand;
Till choked with stench, in loathed embraces tied, the lingering wretches pined away and died."
Without true repentance through Jesus, we are shackled to a dead corpse - our sinfulness. Life and death cannot coexist indefinitely. And Jesus died and rose again to free you from that dead corpse of sin and offer you the free gift of eternal life.
Of course, most of us here would call ourselves Christians. We embraced true repentance when Jesus saved us. But is that it? No – there is an ongoing response to grace. It's a whole lifetime of honest repentance. And so brothers and sisters, in response to his grace we should grieve our sins as and when they happen. Christ is our king, our sins were his death, and for that reason our sins ought to be our grief. We cannot take sin lightly. We cannot excuse it. We cannot make fun of it and laugh at it as we are so prone to do through our culture's films and TV. We cannot become numb or blind to it. With God's help, I have to kill it, to flee it, to grieve what it cost the eternal, holy, creator God to deal with my sin. And I tell you what, I for one, am not very good at doing that. But I take comfort from the fact that God is not some distant, removed deity looking down from above on all this mess. No, he entered into human history and he knows. He knows our grief, he knows our agony, he knows our temptations, because he has experienced them too.
And so my friend who lost her daughter is not alone. You are not alone in facing whatever it is you are facing right now. God is with us in our grief and in our struggles. Friends, let us honestly examine our sins and grieve over what forgiveness cost our Creator. If we don't, then really we are just living under the pretence of repentance. Likewise, if we don't regularly rejoice in our undeserved forgiveness and the wonder of God's grace – then again we are living in false repentance.
True repentance involves a sovereign act of grace, a profound grief over sin and an undeserved forgiveness.