|Zechariah, by Michelangelo|
THE LORD WORKS TO REFINE YOUR FAITH.
In the name + of Jesus.
The Lord called the prophet Zechariah to preach to the people of Israel during Israel's exile to Babylon. For centuries, the nation of Israel had been rebuked by the Lord's prophets for their faithless ways. They had prided themselves that they were God's chosen people, but then they chose to live their lives as they pleased. They took pride in the temple that was dedicated to the Lord's offerings, but then they dedicated their time and efforts to their own wealth and businesses. The nation had, by all appearances, a God-fearing people whose religious ceremonies did not cease. But the Lord had no use for animals which were slaughtered for the sake of empty traditions. And since the people did not heed the words of many prophets who had called them to repent, the Lord raised up the nation of Babylon to destroy the temple and the city of Jerusalem, to slaughter the priests, and to kill the people. Those who were not killed by sword or famine or disease were carried off into exile.
You might think that the one third which survived had gained for themselves a better, easier life. But that was not the case. The Lord declared, “In the whole land, declares the LORD, two thirds shall be cut off and perish, and one third shall be left alive. And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested.” (Zechariah 13:7-8) The Lord was at work to refine their faith. His plan was always to bring a remnant back to Jerusalem who would serve him faithfully and through whom the Savior would enter the world. But to do so, the Lord would put them in the crucible. The Lord would work to refine their faith, and make for himself a people who would be faithful to him.
While it is true that God our Savior desires all people to be saved, it is also true that the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.” (Matthew 7:13) Sadly, only a remnant of the world's population will be saved. But that does not mean that life for those who are in the Church becomes easier. The easier way is the way that leads to destruction because you never fight against your sinful flesh. But for those whom the Lord has set apart for salvation, the Lord continues to refine and purify your faith. Just as gold and silver must be heated up and turned into a molten state so that impurities can be removed, so the Lord does to us. The Lord turns up the heat and puts us in the crucible in order to purify us.
The Lord works to refine our faith. It is not just a matter of calling us to repent of sins we have practiced. It is also calling us to not cling to the blessings he has given us. Christians do not usually fall away from the faith because they suddenly prefer wickedness to godliness. Many Christians fall away because they love the good things that God gives them too much.
The First Commandment is, “You shall have no other gods.” What does this mean? We should fear and love and trust in God above all things. (Luther's Small Catechism) If you want to see how easy it is for you to make idols out of the blessings God gives you, then ask yourself, “What is precious to me? What do I trust to get me through life? What do I fear losing?” Your answers will likely reveal things you fear, love, and trust above all. Common answers: “I need more time to get things done. I need a strong economy to guarantee a comfortable retirement. My life is better when my team wins. I am only comfortable when my political party is in charge.” “I fear losing my children. I fear losing my job. I am afraid of losing my health or my insurance plan. I am afraid people will mock me or ostracize me if I take my faith seriously in my life.” In these cases, you are not craving to do wicked things. Instead, you are afraid of losing blessings. Even the fear of being mocked for your faith recognizes that your reputation is a blessing. But if you think you must maintain your blessings in order to maintain your comfort and peace, and if you fear that losing your blessings means you lose your sense of worth or purpose, then you love the blessings God gives more than the God who gave them. Then you have turned God's blessings into idols.
The Lord works to refine your faith, and in doing so, he teaches you the hard lesson that all his blessings are temporary. In order to teach the Israelites that the temple, the rituals, and the city of Jerusalem were not to be trusted for their safety and prosperity, the Lord destroyed them. The remnant which survived destruction were taken into captivity. What was the result? “I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them.” (Zechariah 13:9) They called upon the Lord in their distress. They cried to the Lord for mercy. They sought after the Lord, recognizing that God was the only one whose word mattered. Even though they lost all things, they still had God and his promises. God was at work to refine their faith.
The lesson for us is the same. And it is really no different than what Jesus said in today's Gospel. He said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) The Lord Jesus calls on us to forsake our claims on all he gives us and to put to death in us our cravings for earthly praise and popularity and possessions. This is hard because we have to crucify our sinful desires for worldly comforts, and the sinful flesh does not want to die. Nevertheless, all earthly blessings are temporary. We receive them with thanksgiving and make use of what God, in his grace, gives us. But we also ought to recognize that God, in his wisdom, can withdraw them. And he often does.
When God does this, we regard it as an evil we are suffering; and it is. The loss of blessings is the consequence of living in a sinful world. It is especially grieving when we lose something precious. But even when such evils afflict us, God remains our good and merciful Father in heaven. God even uses the evils that come to us for our eternal good. He teaches us not to long for this world. He reminds us that all blessings in this world are temporary. And he also drives us to call upon him for mercy, for justice, for relief, and for strength. Consider this: When are you more inclined to pray to God—when things are going well, or when things are falling apart? We usually pray when we are afflicted by evils and when we suffer loss. So, even though we are put in the crucible, God uses these things for our good. God is working to refine our faith.
But no matter what you lose—and eventually, you will lose it all; for no one packs a suitcase for the grave—you have not lost anything you truly need. Zechariah declares the word of the Lord. “I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The LORD is my God.’” (Zechariah 13:9)
When you have lost your friends, your family, your hearing, your balance, and finally your breath, you still have a Savior who lives and reigns for you. You have a Savior who bled and died for you. You have a Savior whose blood was poured out as the payment for your sins, was poured upon you in baptism to cleanse you of your sins, and is poured into you for the strengthening of your faith and for the forgiveness of your sins. You still have a God who declares, “I will say, 'They are my people.'” (Zechariah 13:9) Your worth, your purpose, and your life are all found in Jesus Christ. Your peace, your hope, and your comfort are all received through Jesus' promises of mercy now and of eternal joys to come. Neither Jesus' promises nor your place in his kingdom are changed by captivity or loss or pain or death.
The Lord works to refine your faith. And though he may withdraw his blessings, he does it all for your eternal good. He teaches you not to love his gifts instead of him. He teaches you not to trust in worldly goods for peace, for hope, or for joy. He teaches you not to fear losing what he gives you for this life. And once he leads you to realize that nothing in this world is reliable, then you have nothing left but to throw yourself completely on God for your hope, your comfort, and for your salvation. The Lord may withdraw blessing from you, but the Lord never withdraws himself or his promises from you. He remains your loving and merciful Redeemer. And this is, finally, all you have ever needed.
In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.