TO BE CHRISTIANAnd the word of the LORD came to Zechariah, saying, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” Zechariah 7:8-10
IT'S hard to be a Christian! On the one hand it is our duty to love God with our whole heart and mind and soul and strength, and to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves – which is immensely, but those little words “love God” include a whole corpus of spiritual duty; a commitment to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ by immersing ourselves in the church’s worship, prayer, personal devotion and by taking advantage of the church’s teaching ministry – which for Christ Lutheran Church consists of catechism class, choir and the Sunday morning study of Scripture. Furthermore the words “love your neighbor as yourself” contain yet another large obligation, arguably more difficult than the first, because it is easier loving God whom we cannot see than our brother with his many glaring faults.
It is hard to be a Christian because the devil, world and Flesh put up stiff resistance which wears us down. It’s also hard because we don’t want to become Pietists in the process. We don’t want to wear our religion on our sleeve, so to speak, because while many think that obvious displays of religion make the love of God attractive, it usually has the opposite effect. This is why Jesus tells us that when we pray we should do so in secret, when we fast we should do so with a happy face so that no one would ever suspect, and when we give alms that we should do so with such discretion that not even our right hand is aware of what our left hand is doing.
With ditches on the left and ditches on the right how ever do we stay on track? It is impossible, of course, apart from God’s Word, so Zechariah’s message is just as important for us now as it was to the Old Testament church 26 centuries ago. In the year 538 BC God’s people were released from Babylon where they had been held captive for 70 years. They were set free and encouraged by King Cyrus of Persia to return to Israel and to rebuild their beloved temple. Church history tells us that he even gave them funds to get the project started, and a letter of authorization in case any local rulers objected. God richly blessed His people through Cyrus and those early days of liberty seemed more like a dream than reality. Their energy was boundless and they felt equal to any task, but as time went on they met defiant opposition from the people who occupied the land and their enthusiasm soon began to wane. They finished the temple’s foundation, but that’s as far as they got. The work ceased and for many years nothing more was done.
They developed a national case of lethargy that they could not shake, so God sent Zechariah to encourage them, and to complete the building of the temple. It would now be more important than ever because the age of prophecy was coming to a close and the temple would have to carry God’s people. It would once again be the place where God dispensed the remission of sins, life and salvation to His people until the birth of Christ, the true Temple of God, which was “destroyed” on the cross and raised again on the third day.
The opposition wasn’t their only distraction. When they lost sight of the temple and the grace that it conferred, they lost their virtue as well because faith and works always go together. Getting stuck on minor points, they wanted Zechariah to instruct them in the proper rules for fasting, a sure sign that their religion was dying. Zechariah had to remind them that the temple was most important because it conferred God’s grace to sinners, because its rituals, teachings and sacrifices looked forward to the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world and restore us to righteousness before God by faith. What was true then is still so today, we cannot fight the good fight unless we are strong in faith; unless we are refreshed and renewed by the blessings that the church imparts in Christian worship.
Since faith must always be active in love, Christians still need to hear Zechariah’s admonition, “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” These are the meat of Christian faith. These are the activities that best display who Christ is and what He does for us. These are the desirable qualities that make the love of God attractive to the world.
God does not care if we fast or not. He does not care if we take all our meals at McDonald’s or if we are Vegans, because the Kingdom of God is not about meat and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17). Instead, God wants our lives to center on Christ our King who came to us in the weakness of human flesh, and who rode into Jerusalem, humbly, on a donkey, in order to meet with certain death, just as Zechariah predicted that He would. It is about the triumph over sin and the victory over death that He won for us by dying and rising again. It is about the blood of the covenant which sets us free from the waterless pit and makes us instruments of God’s peace, Good Samaritans who are always ready to: render true judgments in a world of lies, show kindness and mercy in a cold and cruel world and to do good to those who are most helpless.
No it is not easy to be a Christian, to stay focused, strong and virtuous, but we have God’s Word to keep us on track, to teach us, fortify us, forgive us and fill us with joy and hope in believing, to instruct us as to what is important and to see us through to the end. As St. Paul reminds us: He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion on the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God grant it. Amen.
Rev. Dean Kavouras