‘Lift Your Eyes’. That’s my title as we come to this next chapter of the prophecy of Zechariah. Please have that open in front of you – it starts there on p794. Zechariah is a prophecy for our times. This is a word from God that’s massively relevant to the church in the West and not least to us.
It’s about 500 years before the coming of Christ, and 70 years after the terrible war that saw Jerusalem and the Temple destroyed. Some of the Jews have returned from exile in Babylonia, but nothing is as they’d hoped.
So Zechariah is speaking at a time when God’s people are at a low ebb – devastated by decline, harassed by opponents without, undermined by compromise and corruption within. At the same time they have a great and daunting calling to rebuild all that has been lost, starting from scratch. Central to that project is the reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple – but that’s symbolic of the building of the Kingdom of God and the revival and renewal of God’s people.
And all of that rings a lot of bells with the situation that we, as part of the church in the West, find ourselves in. So we need to pay close attention to God’s voice through Zechariah. His message is life-changing and church-changing. And in a quite wonderful way it centres on Jesus Christ, 500 years before he was born.
At first sight it isn’t very easy to follow. But the more you get into it the easier it becomes. Imagine you’ve never seen an Andy Gawn family service talk before – perhaps you haven’t! – full of dressed-up volunteers and visual aids and mini sketches and all sorts. Walk in half way through and it could be a while before you get the hang of what’s going on. But when you do, it’s all very simple, clear and helpful. So I would encourage you to invest time in Zechariah. This is one of the key prophecies for Jesus – he refers to it repeatedly. It’s a vital and badly neglected part of Scripture.
By way of revision, let me recap what’s happened so far in the first four chapters. Zechariah sets the scene at the start by calling people to turn away from evil and back to God. And then he begins to record a series of 8 visions. Think of them as like Andy Gawn visual aids. Let’s just track them through quickly, so we can get our bearings. The first is the vision of the horseman, from 1.7. So 1.8:
“I saw in the night, and behold a man riding on a red horse!” (1.8)
That’s about God’s oversight of the whole world. Then 1.18: “And I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold…” This second vision of horns and craftsmen speaks of God’s judgement on the nations that destroy God’s people. Then 2.1: “And I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold!” The man with the measuring line is the third vision. That’s about God’s ultimate protection of the Holy City. So 2.5:
“And I will be a wall of fire all round, declares the Lord, and I will be the glory in her midst.” (2.5)
Then from 3.1 comes the fourth vision, speaking of God’s reinstating of Joshua the High Priest as a sign of the coming Messiah, who he calls The Branch. And from 4.1 there’s the fifth vision of the golden lampstand and the olive trees, which is a picture of God’s empowering of Zerubbabel the prince and governor, who is another sign of the Messiah alongside Joshua the High Priest. Those two signs of the Priest and the Prince will be united in the single Priestly King or Royal Priest figure of the Messiah in chapter 6.
But before that come visions 6 and 7 in our chapter for this morning, chapter 5. What are these about? If the Kingdom is to come by the power of the Spirit under the rule of the Messiah, then a lot has to change. The people of God are in a moral and spiritual mess. I quote:
Here… the issue is unrepentance – the continued presence in the community of people who persist in conduct offensive to God.
[God’s] response to this problem … is eradication … and removal.
So this is strong stuff. In fact this next vision has been called…
… one of the most terrifying warning passages in the Old Testament.
But the purpose of this warning is to provoke and promote change. We need to be holy as God is holy. Becoming so is a continuous process – but we must be on the way. We have a vision for this church to grow to 2000. But growth begins with spiritual and moral renewal in us. We need to hear this warning.
We’re looking at these two visions under the two headings that you can see on my simple outline. First – The Flying Scroll: the Word of God will eradicate all wrong-doing. And secondly – The Woman in a Basket (you see what I mean about Andy Gawn visual aids): the Spirit of God will remove all wickedness. So:
First, The Flying Scroll: the Word of God will eradicate all wrong-doing
This is 5.1-4. Let me remind you of that. Take a look at it:
Again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, a flying scroll! And [the angel] said to me, “What do you see?” I answered, “I see a flying scroll. Its length is twenty cubits, and its width ten cubits.” Then he said to me, “This is the curse that goes out over the face of the whole land. For everyone who steals shall be cleaned out according to what is on one side, and everyone who swears falsely shall be cleaned out according to what is on the other side. I will send it out, declares the LORD of hosts, and it shall enter the house of the thief, and the house of him who swears falsely by my name. And it shall remain in his house and consume it, both timber and stones.” (5.1-4)
What’s this flying scroll? This is the living, active and urgent Word of God. It’s not filed away gathering dust. Think of a massive banner covered both sides with the Scriptures. It’s about 10m by 5m – which is about the size of a quarter allotment (if that means anything to you). It’s open like a banner for all to read – not a rolled up scroll.
I remember well the advertising blimp that we sent up into the sky for the launch five years ago of Holy Trinity Gateshead – a giant balloon with the HTG logo on the side. This flying scroll could have been the inspiration for that. The point is, no one could miss it. There’s no excuse for not seeing it. This is Spirit-empowered Bible teaching winging its way wherever the people of God are to be found.
“This is the curse,” in verse 3, refers to the fact that those who keep God’s law prosper, and those who break God’s law meet with disaster. So, for instance, Deuteronomy 28 spells out the blessings and curses of the covenant. Deuteronomy 28.15:
However, if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you… (Deut. 28.15)
This curse “goes out over the face of the whole land”. ‘The land’ here is the land of the Jews – the promised land. In other words in our, New Testament, terms, this word is addressed to those who call themselves Christians – to the church and the churches.
“Everyone who steals shall be cleaned out… and everyone who swears falsely shall be cleaned out…” Theft, and perjury which is in God’s name (as verse 4 makes clear), are a pithy way of referring to both tables of the Ten Commandments – the laws that refer to how we treat one another, and those that refer to how we treat God. So those to be ‘cleaned out’ are those who neither love God nor their neighbour. And to be ‘cleaned out’ is to be purged, got rid of, cut out.
I once saw one of those reality TV shows about a cleansing team that would go into houses to deal with extreme cases of filth and neglect. They would wear protective clothing, and have to deal with vast quantities of rubbish and rotting food heaped up everywhere – removing dozens of sacks of squalid garbage from one home. In spiritual and moral terms, that’s what’s going on here. I quote:
The offenders on view here .. .are not people who have lapsed temporarily from an otherwise moral life, but people whose conduct is of such a settled and persistent kind that ‘thief’ and ‘perjurer’ properly express their character. The solemn message of this vision is that such people have no place in a community ruled by the Lord Almighty. He himself will root them out.
It’s like a surgeon removing a cancer to save the life of the body. And verse 4 makes clear that God’s Word has what we might call executive power. It makes things happen.
“… it shall enter the house of the thief, and the house of him who swears falsely by my name. And it shall remain in his house and consume it, both timber and stones.” (5.4)
Did you hear about the recent case of Ariel Castro in the United States, who held three women captive for years in the most appalling conditions, inflicting terrible abuse?
After Castro’s conviction and imprisonment, on 8 August this year, at 7:30 in the morning, a wrecking machine smashed through the house to begin demolition. A crew of workers tore the house down using heavy demolition kit. Within minutes, the house was reduced to a pile of rubble. Castro's neighbours … had vowed to see the house demolished at the conclusion of the trial. It seemed the only fitting thing to do.
This vision makes it clear. In God’s time, the powerful Word of God, which gets everywhere and from whom no one can hide, will eradicate and demolish all wrong-doing from the church. That’s Zechariah’s sixth vision – the vision of the Flying Scroll.
Secondly, The Woman in a Basket: the Spirit of God will remove all wickedness
Now we’re on to 5.5-11. Here it is – verses 5-8 to start with:
Then the angel who talked with me came forward and said to me, “Lift your eyes and see what this is that is going out.” And I said, “What is it?” He said, “This is the basket that is going out.” And he said, “This is their iniquity in all the land.” And behold, the leaden cover was lifted, and there was a woman sitting in the basket! And he said, “This is Wickedness.” And he thrust her back into the basket, and thrust down the leaden weight on its opening. (5.5-8)
This basket is technically an ‘ephah’ – that is, a basket used to measure out grain. It would usually have held about 5 gallons, but just as the scroll was outsized, so is this basket, because you can fit a woman in it. Because an ephah was a measure used in the markets it became a symbol of injustice and corruption especially of economic kind.
Then added to that is this woman who is a personification of wickedness. It’s a bizarre image, this woman in a basket – but that makes it all the more striking and memorable.
The angel of God lifts the lid on the woman. She struggles to get out it seems. But the angel is too strong and forces her down again. That’s a picture, perhaps, of the reality of spiritual warfare and the struggle with evil on the one hand, but also of the supremacy of the power of God at work on the other hand. Despite the best efforts of the forces of wickedness, they ultimately remain under God’s control.
Of course our culture is no stranger to economic iniquity. When I spoke last year about the economic crisis, I mentioned a trip to London I made, when the Libor bank rate fixing scandal was all over the papers. The London Evening Standard had a front page article headlining comments from the governor of the then Bank of England, Mervyn King:
King blasts the banks as ‘shoddy, deceitful’: Governor demands change in the culture.
I travelled between the City of London and Canary Wharf on the Docklands Light Railway. Seated just in front of me were two be-suited city gents, deep in conversation about the economic crisis and the Libor scandal. One of them said:
It’s greed and ignorance. There we go. We’ll be sorting it out for a generation. We’re now in the sorting it out phase. They must have known it was wrong. We’ve had a good ten years of greed that we’re now trying to winkle out of the system.
It has to be sorted out. It all has to be removed. That’s God’s plan. That’s what he’s going to do. So this seventh vision reinforces the message of the sixth. Verses 9-11:
Then I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, two women coming forward! The wind was in their wings. They had wings like the wings of a stork, and they lifted up the basket between earth and heaven. Then I said to the angel who talked with me, “Where are they taking the basket?” He said to me, “To the land of Shinar, to build a house for it. And when this is prepared, they will set the basket down there on its base.” (5.9-11)
These winged women take up all this wickedness that’s ruining God’s people, and they’re swept along by the wind – the symbol of God’s Spirit. And the wickedness is removed far away to the land of Shinar. That’s Babylonia. The home of the Tower of Babel. The capital city of rebellion against God and rejection of his loving ways. That’s where wickedness belongs – not in the Kingdom of God.
And there it is set up “on its base” as verse 11 says. That is, wickedness is put on a pedestal, as it were, to be worshipped. In Babel wickedness is idolised. No wonder it has to be removed from the City of God as far as the East is from the West.
So, God has evil in his power. And the time will come when he will carry it far away, never to be seen again in his Kingdom and in his Holy City.
What are these striking visions teaching us? The Word of God will eradicate all wrong-doing. The Spirit of God will remove all wickedness.
How then are we to react to that? We are to heed the warning. We are to turn from wickedness. And we are to turn to Christ our only hope.
Our hope is in Jesus who became a curse for us when he died on that cross to atone for our sin as Zechariah will so graphically go on to prophecy.
Our hope lies in repentance, faith and obedience. As that prophet of the exile, Ezekiel, says, God does not want anyone to die. He wants everyone to repent, and turn, and live.
Our hope lies in the very fact that is made so clear in these visions, that the evil and wickedness that surround us today and that so dangerously infiltrate the church will not have the last word. They are under God’s restraining and powerful hand. And one day they will be no more.