Let me begin by reminding you of some key moments in JPC’s life this year. Back in January, David called on us to be praying that God would grow us to a church of 2,000 in the next five years. Then in May we had that church meeting to hear about the offer of the St Joseph’s site for new ministry in the west of the city; and about another Tyneside church that’s asked us to help it re-launch itself. And then we announced that June Gift week, as the means of deciding whether or not we corporately believed God was leading us to take those opportunities. And the answer in the form of over £1.2 million was that we did.
So we are at the start of a new chapter of JPC’s life which will be very costly and demanding. And that’s the big thing we have in common with the people to whom the prophet Zechariah ministered. On Sunday mornings at the moment, we’re looking at the Old Testament (OT) book of Zechariah – which I first came across as a newish Christian when a friend, Simon, took me along to his church. And the service-leader said, ‘Now we’re going to have a reading from the prophet Zechariah’. And this old bloke with a great shock of white hair and huge white beard got up to read. And Simon, who’s incapable of talking quietly, whispered loudly enough for everyone to hear, ‘Look, the old boy’s here in person.’
Well the real Zechariah ministered to God’s OT people after they’d returned from exile. (The ‘exile’ was the period when God allowed them to be invaded and many of them taken away from the promised land, as a judgement on their rejection of him.) Jerusalem, their capital city, was a ruin. And they’d just re-started rebuilding God’s temple, having given up earlier in discouragement. But God knew how easy it would be for discouragement to set in again. He knew they’d be thinking things like:
• ‘Is God really committed to us and what we’re doing here? Or does the exile prove that he’s not – or that he doesn’t really even exist?’
• ‘Is this really worth all the expense and effort, compared to just living a normal life like everyone around us?’
• ‘Isn’t our belief – that our God is actually the God of the whole world, and that he’ll one day have a worldwide people – just fantasy, given that all we are is a tiny minority clinging on for survival?’
And God knows how easy it is for us to fall into that kind of thinking, as well. Eg, since giving to that Gift Week, have you found yourself tempted to think, ‘Is that really a good use of my money?’ Have you found yourself tempted to think, ‘Can we really do something over in the west of the city?’ Or, ‘Can we really grow to 2,000 in five years? Can people really become Christians in those sorts of numbers over that sort of timescale? Or are we in fantasy world?’
Those are the kind of questions that God inspired Zechariah to address. So would you turn to Zechariah chapter 1. I won’t give any more background than I have done, because the first two sermons in this series have done that – and you can read, listen to or watch them on the church website. But look down to Zechariah chapter 1 and v16, and we’ll pick it up where we left off last time:
Therefore, thus says the LORD, I have returned to Jerusalem with mercy [ie, the temporary judgement of the exile is over; so don’t think I’m against you; I’m with you and committed to you]; my house [that is, the temple] shall be built in it, declares the LORD of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem. Cry out again, Thus says the LORD of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the LORD will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.’” (1.16-17)
But just imagine your family had been carried off in the exile and that the Babylonians had killed your grandparents and enslaved your parents. How could you feel ‘comforted’ unless you knew God had done something to the Babylonians – or was going to – for how they’d treated you? Well, that’s what the next bit of the book is about.
And the question it’s answering is,
Firstly WHAT IS GOD GOING TO DO ABOUT THE PEOPLE WHO ARE HOSTILE TO US? (1.18-21)
So look on to chapter 1, v18, which is the second vision Zechariah was given to help people see what God was (and is) doing. So v18:
And I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four horns! And I said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these?” And he said to me, “These are the horns that have scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem.” Then the LORD showed me four craftsmen. And I said, “What are these coming to do?” He said, “These are the horns that scattered Judah, so that no one raised his head. And these have come to terrify them, to cast down the horns of the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter it.” (1.18-21)
So for ‘horns’, think of bulls’ horns – it’s a picture of strength and aggression. And when Zechariah asks what the horns stand for, he’s told they stand for the people who scattered the Israelites into exile – eg, the Babylonians. And then, in v20, he sees some craftsmen. And he asks what they’re doing. And he’s told they’ve come to ‘terrify and cast down’ the people who’ve been so hostile to the Israelites.
Now one interpretation of that is that the craftsmen stand for new national powers who come along and clobber the old ones. Eg, the new Persian empire had just come along and clobbered the Babylonians – which the Bible sees as God’s judgement on the Babylonians for how they treated his people. And there’s truth in that, which still applies today: eg, the former Soviet Union and western communist bloc persecuted the church appallingly. But it wasn’t the church that fell, it was the communist bloc that fell – and the Bible encourages us to see that as God’s way of bringing judgement on those who were hostile to his people.
But the problem with interpreting the craftsmen as great powers like the Persian empire is that craftsmen don’t sound like great powers. In the book of Daniel, when God wanted to symbolise great powers clobbering one another, he pictured them as great beasts. But here you’ve just got craftsmen, which was the word they used for ordinary, humble workers – like stonemasons and carpenters. In fact, in the book of Ezra, exactly the same word is used to describe the people working to rebuild the temple.
So here’s the other interpretation, which I think makes more sense. The craftsmen stand for the ordinary, humble Israelites, who are working to rebuild the temple. Now that begs the question: how is that meant to ‘terrify and cast down’ the hostile world around them, as v21 puts it? Well, to some extent that may be picture language, but there’s a clue in the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah returned from exile after Zechariah. The temple had long been rebuilt, and Nehemiah’s job was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. And in Nehemiah 6 he says:
… the wall was finished… And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God. (Nehemiah 6.15-16)
Ie, when believers work for God’s purposes and God enables them to accomplish things, even people who are hostile have some sense that God is behind what’s going on and feel some disquiet about whether they’re really on the wrong side. Eg, I remember the extraordinary way that God gave us the opportunity to buy 3 Osborne Road, when the developer who’d outbid us dropped out. The agent came back to us and said we could buy it at our originally bid lower price. But he said to Jonathan Pryke pretty cynically, ‘You’ll never do it, will you?’ But God enabled ordinary, humble, Christian ‘craftsmen’ to give, in fact, way above what was needed. And I guess that agent must have wondered how, and whether there really is something in this God stuff after all, and whether he might actually be on the wrong side.
So their question to God back then was, ‘What are you going to do about the people who are hostile to us?’ And in the vision of the craftsmen God seems to be saying, ‘I’m going to enable you to build my temple as a witness to them that I’m real, and as a sign that you’re on the right side and they’re not.’ And for us, living this side of Jesus’ first coming, the message is, ‘God is going to enable us to build his church, as people are converted and changed by the gospel, as a witness to people that he is real, and as a sign that there are ultimately two sides and that they need to change sides before it’s too late.’
So it’s a very striking answer, isn’t it? What’s God going to do about all the hostility to him in his world? Overthrow it just like that? Well, one day – when Jesus returns, yes. But meantime, his answer is to plant and sustain us as his witnesses in the middle of all the hostility, so that more people can change sides. So the point of this vision of the craftsmen is that, back then, their temptation was to look at the part-built temple and think, ‘This is completely insignificant. What are we really doing?’ And that’s our temptation as we work at building JPC in a region where 97% of people don’t go to church. And this vision is to remind ordinary, humble Christians that being part of God’s church and part of building it is the most important and eternally significant thing you can be part of in this world. Let’s believe that and not forget that.
So, let’s move on to Zechariah’s next vision in chapter 2, where we shift from the question, ‘What is God doing?’ to the question,
Second, WHAT SHOULD WE BE DOING? (2.1-13)
Look on to chapter 2 and v1:
And I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, a man with a measuring line in his hand! Then I said, “Where are you going?” And he said to me, “To measure Jerusalem, to see what is its width and what is its length.” And behold, the angel who talked with me came forward, and another angel came forward to meet him and said to him, “Run, say to that young man, ‘Jerusalem shall be inhabited as villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and livestock in it. And I will be to her a wall of fire all round, declares the LORD, and I will be the glory in her midst.’” (2.1-5)
So Zechariah sees this man heading off to measure up the walls of Jerusalem for rebuilding. And he stands for what your typical Israelite back from exile was thinking. Because they were thinking, ‘Let’s rebuild the old walls asap so that we’re secure and can at least survive.’ But in v4, an angel is told:
“Run, say to that young man, ‘Jerusalem shall be inhabited as villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and livestock in it. (2.4)
So what should we be doing? Well, says this angel, for a start:
• Have a bigger vision
This angel was saying to them back then: ‘Your vision is too small. You’re just thinking of Jerusalem as it has been. You’re just thinking of replaying what’s been done before. Whereas God is thinking far bigger – of a multitude of people.’
And the message to us, as we work to build the church is that our vision is almost certainly too small as well. Our vision statement as a church is that in the next generation we’re looking to grow, under God, to be a church of 5,000 made up of many congregations with a further 5,000 in church plants – whether locally or worldwide. And, as I said, in January, David called on us to be praying that, as a step towards that, God would grow us to 2,000 in the next five years. And on the one hand, I’ve heard someone say that’s fantasy. While on the other, I hear Zechariah saying that our vision is almost certainly too small, shaped by our experience of how we’ve done church for the last however many years – rather than by our knowledge of what God can do (which are two quite different things). Eg, Acts chapter 2 tells us that,
The Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2.47)
Well if he added just one converted person a day to us, we’d grow to 2,000 in under 3 years. And Bill Bright, who founded Campus Crusade for Christ, loved to remind Christians of the multiplier effect. That is, imagine that this coming year I led one person to Christ and invested in them so well that in the following year they were equipped to lead someone to Christ, while I also led another person to Christ (so that there are now four of us). And then the next year, all four of us lead one person to Christ – and so on. Starting from just one Christian, that gets you to over 1,000 in 10 years. And how many are we starting from?
So what should we be doing? ‘Well, for a start,’ says Zechariah, ‘Have a bigger vision.’ But then he says:
• Put your confidence in God
Look at v5 again:
And I will be to her a wall of fire all round, declares the LORD (2.5)
Now that’s not to say that God thought the literal walls of Jerusalem didn’t matter. After all, he raised up Nehemiah to rebuild them. But the book of Nehemiah doesn’t say that was to make God’s people more secure. It says it was to restore God’s honour – since he was hardly being glorified by his chosen city lying in ruins. And Zechariah was saying to them back then ‘Don’t put your confidence in the wrong place. Don’t think that rebuilding the walls is priority no.1 – as if your security lies there. Because whether or not the walls are rebuilt, your security ultimately lies in God.’
And that needs to be our attitude, too, as a church as we face the coming years. Because from a human point of view, we are vulnerable to the increasingly unbiblical leadership in our denomination; we may become more vulnerable to an increasingly anti-Christian state; new ministry in the west of the city may be vulnerable to bigger challenges than we face here; and as time goes on there will be the vulnerability of the transition from old leadership to new leadership. And the bottom line is that all of that has to be trusted to God as our ultimate source of security – all the challenges and all the unknowns – on the basis of what the Lord Jesus said:
I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16.18)
So, what should we be doing? Zechariah says, ‘Have a bigger vision; put your confidence in God.’ But also:
• Get a grip on reality
Look on to v6:
Up! Up! Flee from the land of the north [ie, from where you may have ended up in exile], declares the LORD. For I have spread you abroad as the four winds of the heavens, declares the LORD. Up! Escape to Zion, you who dwell with the daughter of Babylon. For thus said the LORD of hosts, after his glory sent me to the nations who plundered you, for he who touches you touches the apple of his eye: “Behold, I will shake my hand over them, and they shall become plunder for those who served them. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent me. (vv6-9)
Now at first sight, there, Zechariah seems to be addressing the Israelites still in exile who’ve not returned. The message being, ‘Pack your bags and get back here!’ But he wasn’t on a preaching tour to the exiles. He was in Jerusalem, speaking to Israelites who had come back – but who were tempted to wish that they hadn’t; who were tempted to think that life in Babylon (or wherever) had actually been quite good compared to their present struggles and challenges. After all, Babylon had seemed strong and life there had seemed secure. To which God says, ‘Get a grip on reality.’ Verse 9 again:
I will shake my hand over them [eg, people like the Babylonians], and they shall become plunder for those who served them. (2.9)
And in fact God had already done that to the Babylonians, who’d fallen to the Persian empire. So in vv6-9, Zechariah is rebuking anyone thinking, ‘I wish I was back in Babylon.’ He’s saying, ‘If you were, my message to you would be, ‘Up! Flee! Escape!’ – because far from being strong and secure, Babylon, like all cultures that are anti-God, ultimately stands under God’s judgement.’
And we need to hear that today in our culture which seems so strong and self-assured in its increasing secularisation, and marginalisation of Christian faith, and predictions that the church will be extinct within a generation. But Zechariah says, ‘Get a grip on reality. Any anti-God culture ultimately stands under God’s judgement.’ So being part of it might be easier now – there is a kind of security in numbers and in conformity – but it’ll take you to hell in the end. So however costly it may be to swim against the cultural tide and to invest in the spread of the gospel and the building up of the church, don’t ever wish you were back in Babylon just living a normal life.
Well just look on to v10 to end with, where Zechariah says:
Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the LORD. And many nations shall join themselves to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people. And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. And the LORD will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem.” (vv10-12)
So back in v4 we were told to have a bigger vision. And in v11 Zechariah says God’s vision is to have a people from ‘many nations’ (which is the vision that drives our Globe Café and internationals ministry). And back in Zechariah’s day it would have been unimaginably faith-stretching for that tiny Israelite remnant to believe they were part of something that would one day be that big. Whereas, this side of Jesus’ first coming, we live after massive fulfilment of that promise, when there’s a worldwide church bigger than any religion on Earth. So we can look back to how small things have grown massive. And we can look around at the worldwide church, rather than just our unrepresentative and unhealthy part of it, and see that in reality God continues to grow it strongly. Which means we should be able to look at the church-building we’ve been given to do here and think, ‘God could grow us way beyond 5,000 and 5,000 in one generation.’
The question is: Do we believe that? Do we live by sight – ie, just thinking in terms of how we’ve done church so far, and what we’ve seen happen through that? Or do we live by faith in God, in the power of the gospel, and in his promise to be with his church and to grow it more than we can imagine?