My mum was talking about the news recently – Syria, Islamic State, the migration crisis and so on. And she took me aback by saying, 'I'm glad I won't live much longer, to see it get worse.' Which reminded me of something Bernard Levin wrote in The Times years back:
"Would my readers kindly note that when I have finished this column, I shall be on my way to Christmas Island, never to return. I choose this because it is the most remote inhabited place in the world – only one ship goes there, once a year. I have been in touch with the postmaster and he has promised to burn any letters addressed to me. And if, when the ship does approach, it is carrying newspapers, the coastguards have orders to fire on it.
And what, you ask, has brought about this urge to escape the human race? It is that another bundle of papers from Amnesty International has landed on my desk."
And after a list of atrocities, he writes,
"How much wickedness can the world stand? That is not a cry of despair, but a wish to know. Because I now begin to believe that at some point the world will be drowned in evil, and evil will rule the world."
And if I wasn't a Christian, I might well feel the same. Of course there are the non-Christian optimists who think we're making progress – after all, isn't that what evolution makes? And they're shocked that there's still so much evil 'in this day and age' (to use one of their favourite phrases) – as if, compared to the old days, we're a new, improved human race. But many non-Christians are pessimists – like the one who wrote, 'Progress doesn't mean we've stopped killing one another. It just means we do it in new ways.'
So what's the Christian view of where things are going? Well, it's not the optimistic one, which says we're making progress. Because the Bible says that, by nature, we all reject God's rule over us – which is the one thing that would make for everything being good – and instead, we live as we want (which is what the Bible calls sin). And that's why we can expect evil in every human being in every generation – which means we'll never create heaven on earth. But the Bible also says that, in his kindness, God restrains our potential for evil – which means that, however bad things gets, we'll never create hell on earth, either.
But above all, the Bible says that only God can make things ultimately better – and that he will, when he wraps up this present creation and brings in a new one, where he rules unopposed. And that's what the end of Zechariah is about, as we finish it today. So would you turn in the Bible to Zechariah 14. And here's a quick reminder of the background:
• God had let his people Israel be taken into exile as a judgment on their sin.
• He later let them return, and they started rebuilding the temple and Jerusalem, but then stopped.
• So through Zechariah, God gave them a mixture of short- and long-term promises.
• The short-term promise was that he would help them rebuild the temple and Jerusalem. To which a thoughtful soul would have said, 'But that doesn't solve our sin-problem – which is what ruined everything for us in the first place, and is ruining the world around us.'
• To which God's long-term promise was that he would ultimately deal with the sin-problem, and bring in his unopposed rule – which is what the Bible calls 'the kingdom of God.'
But in the meantime, the first lesson of Zechariah 14 is this:
1. There is no earthly kingdom now to which we can fully belong (vv1-2)
Look at chapter 14, verses 1-2, where Zechariah says:
"Behold, a day is coming for the LORD, when the spoil taken from you will be divided in your midst. For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered and the women raped. Half of the city shall go out into exile, but the rest of the people shall not be cut off from the city."
Which at first sight makes no sense at all. Because having said he wanted them to rebuild Jerusalem, God is now saying that, sometime in the future, he's going to cause Jerusalem to fall again – and in what looks to be a very final way. So what's this about? Well, last time (on chapters 12-13) we saw this picture:
We saw that Zechariah's long-term prophesies were actually predicting everything from Jesus' first coming – to die on the cross for our forgiveness and rise again – through to his second coming.
So thinking back to his first coming, how did the Lord Jesus come to die on the cross? The answer is: he was put to death by the leaders of Jerusalem (which Zechariah also predicted in chapters 10-11). And by that ultimate act of sin – rejecting God's Son himself – they brought on themselves a judgment which showed that Jerusalem and its leaders had no further part to play in God's plan – because it had rejected the key to that plan – namely Jesus. And that's what Jesus himself spoke about in the reading we had from Luke's Gospel. He said:
"But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies… know that its desolation has come near… For this is the time of punishment, to fulfil all that is written [including what was written here in Zechariah 14]. For there will be… wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles [ie, non-Jewish nations], until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled." (Luke 21.20-24)
And those words were fulfilled 40 years after Jesus spoke them when, in AD70, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. And that's not just irrelevant, ancient history. Because Jesus spoke about that final fall of Jerusalem as a visual aid of the judgment that anyone will ultimately bring on themselves, if they finally reject him. Because if in this life we say 'No' to Jesus – 'I don't want you as king of my life, I don't want to live it your way' – then beyond this life, with no pleasure at all, he'll have to say, 'No' to us – 'You can't be part of my kingdom.' Because you can't be part of a kingdom if you won't recognise the king. So I take it: verses 1 and 2 are pointing forward to that final fall of Jerusalem. But look at the end of v2:
"Half of the city shall go out into exile, but the rest of the people shall not be cut off from the city."
Which is Zechariah's way of saying: it may be the end of the place – Jerusalem – playing a part in God's plans; but it won't be the end of God's people. They're going to continue in the form of believers in Jesus worldwide. But where does the final fall of Jerusalem leave them? The answer is: with no earthly kingdom of their own, with no place to call 'home'. You see, here's a picture of the kingdom of Israel in the days of David and his successors:
So they did have a place to call 'home': they were in their own land, with their own king ruling them under God's law (that was the ideal, anyway). But the final fall of Jerusalem in AD70 shows that it was never God's plan, after the exile, to get his people back to those days. Those days (of David and the kings that followed him) were just a temporary visual aid of the kingdom that Jesus would one day bring in (at his second coming). But meanwhile we live, as Jesus put it in that Luke reading, 'in the times of the Gentiles.' That is, we live under governments and leaders and laws and policies and guidelines that don't acknowledge Jesus as Lord. So we're never going to live in a society we feel fully at home in. And we're never going to see politics we can fully believe in. I lost count of the number of Christians who said at the last election, 'I don't think there's anyone I can vote for with any conviction.' That's life in the 'times of the Gentiles'.
But that doesn't mean we don't work to influence government, so that the rule of law is closer to God's law. We must do that for everyone's good – because unless the rule of law is based as closely as possible on God's law, democracy will just lead to the tyranny of what the majority currently thinks is moral – which is often actually immoral (or even amoral). So we should work to influence everything from national government down to guidelines in education and our workplaces. Which is why one of the three parts of our church mission statement is, 'Change our nation.' And that's exactly what Christians helped to do again very recently, in the defeat of the Assisted Dying Bill. But whatever successes like that which God grants, we'll always be fighting against the tide of societal sin. So that's the first point this morning: there is no earthly kingdom now to which we can fully belong. And the other point is:
2. God's kingdom will ultimately come (vv3-9)
Look on to Zechariah 14, verses 3-4:
"Then [i.e., sometime beyond that final fall of Jerusalem] the LORD will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem…"
And in the Old Testament, that word 'stand' often had the idea of taking possession of what you're standing on. So this is a picture of God re-possessing his creation. Because right now, he's allowing the human race to oppose him and reject his rule. But he is going to bring that to an end, when he wraps up history through Jesus' second coming. That's what Zechariah was predicting here. Which begs the question, 'Is that credible?' You may just be looking into Christianity and thinking, 'Do these otherwise normal-looking people really believe that Jesus is somehow going to step back into history and bring it to an end?' And the answer is, 'Yes.' And we think that's credible because of what happened when he stepped into history a first time. Because when he stepped in that first time, he predicted three things:
1) That he would die on the cross for our forgiveness,
2) That he would rise from the dead and return to heaven, and
3) That he would ultimately come again to wrap things up.
And we're convinced by the evidence that he's done 1) and 2). So isn't it credible that he'll also do 3)?
And on the believability of this, we also need to realise that Zechariah is describing real events, but not describing literally how they're going to happen, literally what we're going to see. It's like the book of Revelation – which in fact borrows a lot of its images from Zechariah. So, for example, the picture of Jesus' second coming in Revelation is of him riding out of heaven on a white horse. Which makes me immediately think of Gandalf in the film of the Lord of the Rings. But it's not literally going to be like that. This is just picture language to describe the coming of God's unopposed rule. So look at verses 4-5 again:
"On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northwards, and the other half southwards. And you shall flee to the valley of my mountains, for the valley of the mountains shall reach to Azal. And you shall flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the LORD my God will come, and all the holy ones with him."
So Jerusalem here stands for God's genuine people, down the ages. And the picture is that God has made them a way of escape when the day of judgment finally comes on everyone who's ever lived. And we now know that that way of escape is Jesus' death on the cross, where he took the judgment our sins deserve, so that we can be forgiven instead of judged. And that's the only reason any of us can be safe on the day of judgment. After all, just imagine what it will be like when we finally stand before Jesus, face to face. We'll be so conscious of our sin, won't we? But I trust I'll be safe because of what he did for me on the cross – because he, my Judge, died to take away the sentence I deserve from him. And I trust he'll recognise me as someone who has accepted him as king and – albeit imperfectly – tried to live for him. The only alternative, as I said earlier, is that you go all the way through life saying, 'No' to Jesus. In which case, on that day, he'll have to say 'No' to you – because you can't be part of a kingdom if you won't recognise the king.
Now the last thing in the Bible I want to believe in is hell. But Jesus said it was real so, if I'm convinced he's the Son of God, I have to accept that it's real. And we have to understand that only by excluding those who don't want to be changed can God create a place that's finally perfect because his rule is unopposed. So look on to verse 6. Because it shows that, for God to bring about a finally perfect place, he has to re-create creation:
"On that day there shall be no light, cold, or frost. And there shall be a unique day, which is known to the LORD, neither day nor night, but at evening time there shall be light. On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea. It shall continue in summer as in winter." (vv6-8)
Now some of that is, again, picture language. But the new creation is going to be a real creation – not just some airy fairy spiritual existence. But it's going to be so new, you can barely get your mind round it. And this is the point: the only way any of us can be there is if, in this life, we submit to the process of being completely recreated by God ourselves. And that process begins with God forgiving you and changing your heart by his Spirit, so that you want to live for him as king. That process continues throughout your whole life, as that change of heart works itself out, even though you still have irremovable sinfulness 'in your system'. And the process climaxes at the end of your life when, by the power of his Spirit, God raises you out of this old creation into the new one, fully and finally free of sin. And if you've not begun that process, and want to know how to, then please take a copy of Why Jesus? from the Welcome Desk and read it.
Let's finish with verse 9 – which isn't the end of the chapter, but it is the climax of it, and the climax of the whole book of Zechariah. Here's where everything in God's plan is heading.
"And the LORD will be king over all the earth. On that day the LORD will be one and his name one" [ie, everyone – willingly or unwillingly – will acknowledge that he really is the one true God.]
'The LORD will be king.' That begs the question, 'But isn't he, now?' to which the answer is, 'Yes, in the sense that nothing happens that he hasn't allowed to happen – including human evil.' But that's the point: right now he is allowing people to oppose his will. Whereas in the new creation, he'll rule unopposed – because the people who are there submitted to being changed; and because the people who wouldn't submit to being changed are not there.
Remember that Bernard Levin quote I began with? He said:
"I now begin to believe that at some point the world will be drowned in evil, and evil will rule the world."
But Zechariah says, 'No' to that. Zechariah says we shouldn't fear that, or live passively in the face of evil, thinking that it will inevitably win. It won't. Because God will ultimately rule the world, unopposed. And in one way or another, in one place or another, every human being who's ever lived will finally acknowledge that he is King – and always was.