Lesson for a church setting
God’s vision for every city and town
Conflict is as old as humanity. From wars to spousal abuse, from terrorism to sibling rivalry, from debate in Congress to church fights, we humans seem destined for conflict.
The Bible itself tells about serious conflict. Cain killed Abel. Lamech abused a younger man. Sodom and Gomorrah were rough and tumble cities. Judah and Israel fought years of civil war. Both 2 Timothy and 2 Peter warn of false teachers and the resulting problems. James 4 compares church conflict to a war.
In the midst of any conflict, it’s always helpful to have a final arbitrator. The bank’s branch manager settles the problem between the front desk tellers. The coach puts an end to the squabble between the ends and the linemen. In church fights, we rely on Scripture to arbitrate, but often our different views of what the Bible has to say may only intensify the conflict.
One little known conflict in God’s spiritual community occurred when there was a resident prophet nearby. Some of the earliest returnees from the time of captivity were from Bethel, a small village a few miles north of Jerusalem. Later Nehemiah came along and urged some of the city people to move to the close and far suburbs. Some of the people moved north to the historic village of Bethel (Neh 11:31).
The arbitrator of this post-exilic conflict was the prophet Zechariah, whose 14 chapter book is the source of prophecies about the 30 pieces of silver for which Judas betrayed Jesus (Zech 11:13; Matt 27:9), the triumphal entry of Jesus riding on a donkey (Zech 9:9; Matt 21:5; Jn 12:15), and the soldier piercing Jesus’ side on the cross (Zech 12:10; John 19:34). It was clearly a book New Testament writers knew and quoted. It would seem that Zechariah not only served as an arbitrator in his own day, but also in the days of our Lord.
We might call the conflict in Bethel an early version of the worship wars. God’s people have frequently quarreled over worship policies. In frontier days it was over whether or not to cover the communion set with the white linen cloth while later controversies ragged over whether the church could pay to have indoor plumbing. Fortunately those controversy are behind us.
For years the people had worshipped by fasting. The particular fast in question concerned the temple. When the temple where the people praised God, read the Bible, prayed to God and offered sacrifice was destroyed in 586 B.C. they began to fast and mourn on a certain date each year. Now that the temple had been rebuilt some questioned whether the practice needed to be continued.
From our perspective where the church is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16) and where each individual Christian’s body is a temple (1 Cor 6:19) such a conflict may seem insignificant, just as the question of having restrooms in our buildings seems equally inconsequential, but each conflict is quite real in its time.
Fortunately the people in Bethel remembered that Zechariah the prophet lived in Jerusalem. They appointed two of their leaders, Sharezer and Regemmelech along with some others to visit with the people in Jerusalem, especially Zechariah, about the conflict.
Zechariah started with the correct words: “Then the word of the LORD of hosts came to me” (Zech 7:4). Those wonderful words are sweet music to anybody in the midst of conflict. If only God would decide. Zechariah has two answers to their conflict.
Answer number one: Your fasts were nothing but hypocritical self-serving times. God said, “I knew you were not fasting for me, but for yourselves so you could eat and drink afterwards.” Ouch. That’s not the message Sharezer and Regemmelech wanted to take back to Bethel. They could imagine the group waiting on them to return.
“What did the prophet say? Do we continue our fast or not?”
The duo fresh back from Jerusalem had to say, “God thinks our worship is self-centered.” That would not be a good news message to bring back to the home folks. But that was only part one of how to solve the worship wars. Zechariah makes clear that the second point was the fundamental problem.
Like a good preacher, Zechariah had two points. Sharezer and Regemmelech hoped the second response was more positive than the first. Here’s answer number two: “8 The word of the LORD came to Zechariah, saying: 9 Thus says the LORD of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; 10 do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another (Zechariah 7:8-10). Zechariah indicates that God pays as much attention to their service in the community as he does to their service in the assembly. How they treat other people is connection to how they worship God.
Zechariah was not teaching a new lesson. Samuel had stressed to King Saul that God wanted obedience more than sacrifice (1 Sam 15:22) while Amos stressed that just and righteous living offered God more praise than songs and solemn assemblies (Amos 5:21-24) as did Isaiah who tried to explain why the temple worship in Jerusalem was null and void in light of the oppression and brutality of their community (Isa 1:12-31). John stressed the same point in his first epistle: “17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him (1 John 3:17-19). John later returns to the same thought in which the apostle seems to summarize the entire biblical teaching about worship: “20 Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20).
John offers a divine commentary on the conflict in Bethel. The people at Bethel neglected the weak ones in their community, but expected God to hear their praise. They did not love the ones they could see and then expected the God they could not see to accept their heartfelt love. God said, “No.”
We can only imagine the trip Sharezer and Regemmelech had on the way back to Bethel. But they were faithful messengers. They told the hometown crowd that God would accept their worship only when they began to care for the needy among them.
Listen to some of the saddest news in the Bible: Zechariah 7:11-12 “But they refused to listen, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears in order not to hear. 12 They made their hearts adamant in order not to hear the law and the words that the LORD of hosts had sent by his spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great wrath came from the LORD of hosts.”
They were willing to conduct their regular fasts, but not willing to obey the LORD. They were willing to offer their worship on their terms, but unwilling to offer their service on God’s terms. They were willing to seek and answer to a conflict over worship in their community, but not willing to listen when God himself responded to the query.
We wonder what happened to the folks at Bethel. Did God wipe it off the map? Did the community cease to exist? Did they split into the fasting congregation and the non fasting congregation? Were there pro-Zechariahites and anti-Zechariahites? We don’t know.
But God did act in the way that God typically acts. He sets the standard even higher. He reminds the people of the kind of communities he wants us to form. He paints a picture of what our villages and towns will look like if we live God’s way. It is one of the most serene pictures in the Bible. God knows how the future can be and how it will be. Whether we obey him now to form these kinds of communities or whether it happens in the afterlife, God will prevail. The dream of the future is an old one:
Someday, God says, “Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. 5 And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets. 6 Thus says the LORD of hosts: Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, says the LORD of hosts?” (Zechariah 8:4-6)
When God describes life as He wants it to be, He paints a picture of a city park. Not one filled with litter, drug deals, and perversion, but one with grandmothers and grandsons, papas and grand babies, all enjoying the safety of an evening in the park. We can see the strollers and the balls. We can hear the old people laugh at the antics of the young, pointing out to their friends which grandchild is theirs.
Those lines tell us at least three things about God’s view of children. First, God cares about children. That’s why they are central to His vision of the perfect world. When God sits down at the canvas to paint tomorrow’s picture, He puts kids in the middle. He wants to make sure those He cares about get in the picture.
Second, God plans a safe future for children. In our day, safety for all children seems impossible. It seemed just as unlikely in Zechariah’s day. The last line says, “This may seem impossible to those of the nation who are now left, but it’s not impossible for me.” This vision is not a program from earthly Washington, it’s a plan from heavenly Jerusalem. The kids will be safe.
Third, happy children are a sign of a healthy society. Throughout scripture, God gauges the well-being of the human community by how it cares for its weakest members. That rule applies in this painting of the future. We can tell it’s a community worth seeking because the young and the old are happy and safe.
The story in Zechariah about how a prophet played the role of arbitrator in a spiritual conflict is not terribly well known, but the principles of the story are everywhere. The concern about vulnerable children runs through the entire Bible. Many of the laws in the Mosaic covenant are about orphans. The Psalms and Proverbs take up the matter of unwanted children. The descriptions of the virtuous woman (Pro 31) and the virtuous man (Job 31) both show concern for the poor especially the orphan. Jesus’ attention to children is well known (Mark 9:33-37; 10:13-16). James in summarizing the kind of Christian communities we are to form cuts to the core of what is a perpetual biblical truth: James 1:27 “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Now that’s a message that Sharezer and Regemmelech could write home about with great joy. May we rise up to the standards God has set.