Ninth Sunday After Trinity August 12, 2001

INI

Scratching the Surface of Faith

Zechariah 7:4-10

Hymns

44, 384, 398, 394

Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to me, saying, “Say to all the people of the land, and to the priests: ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months during those seventy years, did you really fast for Me—for Me? When you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink for yourselves? Should you not have obeyed the words which the Lord proclaimed through the former prophets when Jerusalem and the cities around it were inhabited and prosperous, and the South and the Lowland were inhabited?’” Then the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Execute true justice, show mercy and compassion everyone to his brother. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. Let none of you plan evil in his heart against his brother.’” So far the Holy Word.

In the name of Jesus Christ, who loves us in spite of our sin, Dear Fellow Redeemed,

I was watching TV late one night recently, and I saw one of those crazy jewelry ads: “Genuine 24-karat gold necklace, only $19.95 if you order today!” The catch, of course, was that the necklace was only gold-plated, not solid gold. There’s a big difference. with today’s technology, modern jewelry manufacturers can cover a ring or a necklace with an extremely thin layer of gold. So thin, in fact, that it’s only several atoms that separate the golden surface from the cheap metal beneath. Scratch the surface, and you’ll quickly discover that the bulk of your “precious jewelry” is brass, or copper—or even stainless steel!

You know, that’s a prob1em that some Christians have, too. They’re careful to preserve a shiny plating of Christian lifestyle—outward piety, good church attendance, etc., when, in reality, the bulk of their lives is made up of much poorer stuff. Through the prophet Zechariah the Lord took Israel to task for that very problem. Does His criticism apply to you? Look carefully at our text for today—and then take a look beneath your own Christianity! Our theme today is:

SCRATCHING THE SURFACE OF FAITH

  1. Is your faith just a cover-up?
  2. Christ makes it solid through and through!

Zechariah was a prophet during a very important period in Old Testament Israel—the return from captivity. God had punished the sinful people of Israel by allowing them to be defeated by the Babylonian armies. Those who were left alive had been carried away to Babylonia, and stayed there as slaves for seventy long years. While they were there, they kept up the outward forms of their religion; on certain days of certain months they went without food and mourned, supposedly as a sign of repentance for their sin. On other days, they held special festivals and feasts in the name of Jehovah. When the seventy years were up, God graciously allowed them to return to their homeland. And that brings us to our text.

After they had been back for a while, the people came to the prophet Zechariah with a question: “Should we continue with the religious fasts and festivals that we observed when we were in Babylon?” It seemed like a natural thing—they wanted to start up their regular form of worship again. It looked like the right thing to do—and it would have been, if the worship came from a sincere devotion to God. But it didn’t. It was a cover-up; you see, their “faith” was nothing but a thin, artificial plating!

God’s answer to them was an angry one. He saw right through their trumped-up piety. With a few probing questions, He scratched the surface of their faith: “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months during those seventy years, did you really fast for Me—for Me? When you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink for yourselves?” The answers were obvious. No, they hadn’t fasted because they were sorry for their sins; they did it because it made them feel good, made them look religious. No, they didn’t take part in the holy feasts and festivals because of their love for God; they went because it was a good time—at the feasts there was always lots to eat and drink!

God said, “Should you not have obeyed the words which the Lord proclaimed through the former prophets when Jerusalem and the cities around it were inhabited and prosperous, and the South and the Lowland were inhabited?” God’s people had had plenty of time to listen to His Word and learn what real religion was all about. Long before the Captivity, when the country was still at the height of its prosperity, the prophets had tried to make them repent—to confess their sins and turn back to the Lord. They tried to teach them that faith in God isn’t just rules and regulations and feasts and festivals. It’s how you live your whole life—with true devotion to the Lord, and real kindness toward your neighbor.

But the Jews never did learn that lesson. They went right on with their feasts and their festivals, their fasting on special days. In fact, by the time of Christ, every good Jew went without food on two days every week—every Monday and Thursday they fasted! But it was a thinly-plated religion. Jesus said of them, “Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me, and in vain they worship Me.’” Matt 15:7-9. They kept the letter of God’s Word, but not the spirit. Their faith was just gold plating

What about you? Is your faith just a cover-up? Do you come to church on Sundays because of your love for the Savior? Do you come to offer your worship and praise to God, and to learn more about Him from His Word? Or—are you here for some other reason? Perhaps to look good in the eyes of others? Because your family members pressured you into coming? Because of a vague feeling that, by coming to worship services, you’re “chalking up points” or “covering all the bases” with God?

Try scratching the surface of your faith once. Subtract your Sunday church attendance and the money you put the offering—what’s left of your faith life? There should be a lot left! The bulk of our religion should be seen, not on Sunday, but on the other six days of the week—in the way in which we live, act, speak, conduct ourselves. Zechariah says: Do you want to know what real religion is? “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Execute true justice, show mercy and compassion everyone to his brother. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. Let none of you plan evil in his heart against his brother.’”—And that means seven days a week, not just on Sundays!

I wonder if you’re thinking what I’m thinking. “I haven’t even come close to living the kind of faith-life my Lord expects from me!” How can we get clean from the sins and the shortcomings of our past? How can we find the motivation to live the kind of life that is truly Christian? By looking to our Savior for forgiveness and strength. Instead of having a faith that’s just a cover-up, Christ gives us a faith that’s solid through and through!

Not long ago I read an account of how prisoners were treated in the olden days of colonial Australia. Many of them were forced to work in leg-irons. The chains would be connected to a heavy weight; they could move around well enough to work, but they could never hope to escape. In the same way, Christians often feel so burdened by their past sins that they don’t make any progress in their faith-lives. But the reason Jesus came to earth was to cut that chain that binds us to our sin. The oppressive weight of the sins of the world was taken up by our Savior. With an effort that could only come from One who was true God, Jesus dragged that burden to the cross, and shed His blood to make a once-and-for-all atonement for them. He set us free from that awful weight—made us free to serve God with a holy life. Isaiah speaks comforting words to us sinners: “Come now, and let us reason together, says the Lord, though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Is 1:18.

In Christ, every day is a new start. Each time you confess your sins, and call upon the name of Jesus for forgiveness, your past falls away from you. There are no limits to what kind of servant you can be—no limits to what you can accomplish for God’s Kingdom! Through the Word you’re listening to right now, the Lord is putting fire your faith. Through the Word you read at home in your family Bible, God will be inspiring you, giving you the ability, as our text says, “…to execute true justice.” Well, that sounds like something difficult, like something a judge in a courtroom would do. But to execute true justice means nothing more than to do the right thing in all the little problems and situations that arise in our daily lives. Jesus showed us incredible mercy and compassion, and with faith in Him we, too, can show kindness and compassion. For instance, the kind of everyday compassion that made the Samaritan in our Gospel Lesson help that poor fellow lying along the roadside. The other fruits of faith our text mentions are things like not taking advantage of those who are less fortunate than we are, like widows and orphans, poor people and strangers; not dreaming up ways to hurt people, and get back at our enemies. These are the kind of things that mark a real faith—a “seven-day-a-week faith.” A faith that’s not just gold plating, but solid through and through. A faith that only our loving Redeemer, Jesus, can give us!

They say that whenever a poor man suddenly becomes rich, one of two things almost always happens—he is either very generous, or he becomes a very great miser. Jesus has made us—yes, each of us here today—wealthy beyond our wildest dreams. Through Christ, we have all become God’s own dear children, and eternal life is our inheritance! Will we be miserly with those riches, and keep them locked up in this building, to be taken out and polished once a week on Sunday? Or will we be generous, and share God’s love with the people we meet every day? May God’s Holy Spirit grant each of us the kind of Christian faith that’s not a thin plating, but that works through and through our lives as believers! In Jesus’ name, AMEN.

—Paul Naumann, Pastor

Sermon Preached August 20th, 2000
Ascension Lutheran Church, Tacoma WA


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