With King Cyrus’ decree of freedom in 538 B.C. the captive Israelites in Babylon were able to return home to the Promised Land. However, many of them chose to stay in Babylon where they could live comfortable and familiar lives in an established and wealthy society. Meanwhile, the “Promised Land” of milk and honey was now the land of rubble and weeds. Not very enticing.
While many chose to stay, there was a faithful remnant who chose to return. They stepped out in faith and through trial and opposition attempted to rebuild their lives as the chosen people of God living in His land and serving in His temple. As you know from the writings of Ezra and Nehemiah the rebuilding process was no smooth sailing. Outside opposition threatened to topple both the stones of the new building projects and the hopes of the people. At the same time, tempted-hearts threatened to move the people to inaction and disbelief. This is where the prophets Haggai and Zechariah came onto the scene with both a word of rebuke and encouragement from God.
The opening words of Zechariah’s message are fascinating. He tells the returned remnant that God is calling them to return.
“Return to me,” declares the LORD Almighty, “and I will return to you.”Zechariah 1:3
Hadn’t they already returned? Hadn’t they already demonstrated their faith by leaving the city of man behind and returning to rebuild the city of God? Clearly they were lacking something.
Through the prophet Zechariah, God reminds and warns the people to avoid following in the wayward footsteps of their forefathers. They too were called God’s people and lived in God’s land. They built cities and temples and made sacrifices. And they too had been called to return to God by his prophets. Yet they put their hands over their ears and attempted to ignore God. They thought belonging to the chosen people of God and living in the chosen land of God was enough to keep them from the wrath of God. Zechariah points out the flaw in their thinking, since in fact, their forefathers were overrun by the wrath of God (Zech.1:6)
Proximity to the things of God is not the same as obedience to God. Repentance is more than a return to (or a remaining in) a physical location or a particular people. This is why the returned remnant were called to return to God. God himself is the purpose and goal of our return. Being in the midst of the people of God, but remaining in sin is pointless because sin always separates. Returning to God means not only leaving Babylon behind, but the sins of Babylon as well.
Through Adam we have all been made exiles from God and the place of God. Remember how Adam was cast out of God’s good garden because of his sin. As exiles, we are all called to leave our sin and return to God. We are called out of darkness and into the light. We are called from old Babylon to New Jerusalem. We are called out of the crooked order of this world to participate in the new order of the already-but-not-here world. We are called away from the enemy camp and into the household of God.
This returning certainly involves turning toward a particular place and people, in our day this means the church. But like the returned remnant of Zechariah’s day that is not enough. It is possible to fool ourselves in the same way the returned exiles did. We think that because we are in the right place among the right people we are in a right relationship with God. Many in history have been lulled into this ancient, but erroneous way of thinking. Belonging to the church or covenant community is not the automatic guarantee we truly belong to God. Instead, we are called, through church and covenant, to God himself.
Like the prodigal son of whom Jesus spoke, we are called to return to the Father himself, not simply to the Father’s house. And as Jesus promised by way of his parable, when we turn our face and minds toward God, he will not hesitate to return to us with forgiveness and love. In fact, he’ll run at a full-on sprint to welcome us back.
The One who taught us this parable is of course the Way back to the Father. To use the language of Zechariah, Jesus is the one who gives us clean clothes in place of our filthy clothes. Jesus is one who will remove sin from the land in a single day. Jesus is the one who dwells among his people. Jesus is the king who brings salvation and peace to the nations, from sea to sea. Jesus is the blood of the covenant which saves. Jesus is the fountain of living water which washes away sin. Through Jesus, we find our way back to God.
Have you returned? Are you seeking God’s face each day and living by his grace? Have you found the good and trusted Way back to God? Or are you still in the far country chasing false freedom and famished for swine food? Or perhaps, you are living comfortably in the house of God, but you have yet to meet the Host? Where-ever you are: come, return to the LORD and he will return to you, for he is faithful and righteous