Alfred Place Baptist Church

4:8-14 Who Despises the Day of Small Things?

Then the word of the LORD came to me: ‘The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it. Then you will know that the LORD Almighty has sent me to you. Who despises the day of small things? Men will rejoice when they see the plumb-line in the hand of Zerubbabel. (These seven are the eyes of the LORD, which range throughout the earth.)’ Then I asked the angel, ‘What are these two olive trees on the right and the left of the lampstand?’ Again I asked him, ‘What are these two olive branches beside the two gold pipes that pour out golden oil?’ He replied, ‘Do you not know what these are?’ ‘No, my lord,’ I said. So he said, ‘These are the two who are anointed to serve the Lord of all the earth.’
Zechariah 4:8-14

This chapter begins with a vision of the people of God being compared to a glorious fluorescent lampstand, every light in it shining brightly, on and on. The power they have to continue to shine on steadily comes from two great olive trees on each side of the lampstand which are raining down oil unceasingly into the reservoir. The picture reminds us of grace unceasing that comes from God to his people day by day, amidst challenge after challenge. So the theme is that we will certainly receive of God’s fulness and grace upon grace. It will be all-sufficient for all our needs. It will in fact be super-abundant. Now in the second half of the chapter in the verses above this theme develops and the first lesson is this:

1. GOD COMPLETES EVERYTHING HE HAS BEGUN.

Then the word of the LORD came to me: ‘The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it’” (v.8). You see the picture of the governor Zerubbabel ‘cutting the turf’ as it were as the foundation of the new temple is laid. All around is a scene of devastation. The city has been in ruins and uninhabited – except for snakes and jackals – for up to 80 years. It has been a ghost town. Tumbleweed blows down the main street. There are a few good homes and many mean dwellings in which the first immigration of returnees from Babylon have erected their homes. Then a day came when the announcement goes out to all the inhabitants. A herald proclaims, “The time has come for us to begin to erect a new temple. The ceremony will be held next week on a certain day at such and such a time.” That announcement was saying in effect, “We are here and here to stay. We are in for the long haul. This city is going to emerge from the ruins; it will be rebuilt and at the heart of it there will again be a magnificent temple honouring God.” It was a call to the inhabitants of Zion to consecrate themselves again by putting Jehovah first in their lives, to spend and be spent in serving him, to seek first his kingdom and righteousness, to present their bodies to the Lord in all the toil of the following years of temple-building. It was a challenge to make sure that these were their priorities and to trust in the Lord. So these were the words that Zechariah received from God, to encourage the people at this time; “‘The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it’” (v.8).

Has the Governor Zerubbabel cut the turf and laid the first foundation stone? “Don’t tell me you missed it! Weren’t you there? Didn’t you see it? Didn’t you hear the psalms sung and the prayers made that God would be with them?” Yes, most of Jerusalem – except for the men on watch in the watch-towers and the sick – were gathered there on that never-to-be-forgotten day. They saw the hands of Zerubbabel take up a spade and dig the first shovelful of dusty earth where the ruins of the great temple of Solomon lay. You saw his hands trembling with emotion at what he was doing, at the thought of the longing they had had in Babylon to see this day, and the thoughts of all the years’ toil that lay before them before the work would be completed. Then the prophet Zechariah preached to them, “Know this! Zerubbabel’s hands will also complete what he started today!” It is not than in a hundred years’ time after the death of Zerubbabel another generation will witness its completion. No! Zerubbabel’s own hands are going to lay the fnal coping stone. The work is going to go on and go on, in spite of their poverty and the hostility of surrounding war-lords. That is the wonderfully encouraging message of God to his servants both then and today. Let us consider it. How can we profit from this promise?

Firstly, not by assuming that anything we decide to do is the very thing that God wants. We have to be sure that God has called us to do some things for him. Has God called us to this courtship and marriage (because there can be no courtship without marriage in mind)? Is the special one another believer? Perhaps we announce that we are setting out on some evangelistic work. Then are we doing it with the knowledge and support of the leadership of the church? Do they agree that we have the gifts for this enterprise? If there’s going to be some scheme of outreach and expansion then are there others who are prepared to do this work alongside us? Is it the subject of prayer in the church? In other words, is all this of the Lord? I am asking whether there is agreement that it is God who has begun the work. Does it fit in with what God says about Christian work in the Bible?

Secondly, there has to be a foundation commensurate with what the plans are. You remember how the Sermon on the Mount ends, with the Lord telling us about two builders, one wise and one foolish. The foolish builder erected a structure with hardly any foundations and the first big storm destroyed it. The one foundation to be laid was there in the Sermon on the Mount, the teaching of Jesus Christ, and we are to make that our priority. The incredibly stringent ethic of forgiving 70 times 7 and turning the other cheek and loving our enemies and praying earnestly; the blessedness of being aware how poor and empty we are and that we can only get by with strength from heaven – that is the foundation on which any enterprise from heaven is erected, the beatitudes, the ‘beautiful attitudes’ of Matthew five. If you go into something full of self and arrogance then there is no guarantee that you are going to get very far at all. You have to build on the right foundation.

Thirdly, there has to be a dawning realization that God is in it from the start and that in fact he is the originator and inspirer of all this. I am thinking of Paul’s familiar words of encouragement to the Philippians; “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phils.1:6). Sometimes you can actually see how God began the work, for example, maybe you were ‘tricked’ into attending a meeting. When you went there you were a little nonplussed. It was a Christian meeting with a speaker, and you had no intention of becoming a Christian, but there you heard the intriguing gospel of Jesus Christ. You were hooked and you wanted to find out more and more. You voluntarily went to meetings and read books and read the Bible and enjoyed the company of Christians. Looking back you can see that the very beginning of this work of grace in your life had been from God. Then we are told that the same God never stops half way through a work. If he begins something then the arm of his strength completes it. We have many things half done. Our homes are full of books half read, and full of jobs half completed. God is never like that. Never. He always carries on to completion what he begins, and carry on he will, throughout your life, throughout possible senility, and even when your body is moldering in the grave your very dust is precious to him and he will “carry it on to completion until the day of Christ,” until that time when the heavens roll back as a scroll and our Lord will appear and all his holy angels with him. He will bring the spirits of just men made perfect with him, and he will raise the dead and join their bodies to their souls and welcome them to a new heavens and a new earth. Until that climax of our salvation God will carry on willing and doing of his good pleasure in us until that work which he’s begun (when he tricked you into attending a gospel meeting and illuminated your mind and warmed your heart with the old, old story of Jesus and his love) is complete. So that is the first message that Zechariah received from God and proclaimed to the people, “Then the word of the LORD came to me: ‘The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it’” (v.8). God completes everything he begins.

Then Zechariah adds this; “Men will rejoice when they see the plumb-line in the hand of Zerubbabel” (v.10). Now I have read the commentaries that discuss the words of our text written in the original Hebrew. When this particular verse was commented on then I learned that the Hebrew is not using the technical word for a plumb-line used elsewhere. In fact the phrase is odd; it is literally ‘the stone the tin’ and tin would not be used in a plumb line. One commentator persuaded me that the best translation of the Hebrew word was some kind of specially prepared stone, like one that would be put in a place as the final coping stone of the temple. So when you read the word ‘plumb-line’ you think of the progress of the work of building the temple with Zerubbabel checking the vertical stance of one of the stones, but it seems that the reference is in fact to the final stone being put in place. It is finished! The temple is complete. The project that seemed so awesome at the start has now come to an end. The very last stone is in its place, and so the workmen and the special guests and the men, women, boys and girls of Jerusalem are all rejoicing as they see the last stone being put on the top of the building by the old man Zerubbabel just as he much younger had laid the first foundation stone. God gave them the order to build his temple and the God who commands is the God who provides. He ensured that the word would be completed.

2. WE ARE NOT TO DESPISE THE DAY OF SMALL THINGS.

Then you will know that the LORD Almighty has sent me to you. Who despises the day of small things?” (v.10). The congregation at the inaugural foundation-laying of the new temple were not all totally persuaded. Not all of them had strong faith. They had hope and longing but no assurance that in the lifetime of their leader they would see this work complete and a beautiful temple rise and be finished in the centre of a rejuvenated city. They hoped it would be so, but some were not certain. Now Zechariah tells them that on the day when Zerubbabel puts the last stone in place then they would stand back and rebuke themselves for their little faith. Then they would know that the message Zechariah had brought to them telling them that this work was going to be finished was a message he had brought to them from God. They would know that the Lord Almighty had sent him to them with this message of assurance of a work not just started but completed.

Then notice that Zechariah challenges them about their emotions. He was looking at this bedraggled dusty group of men, some of them living in hovels, standing all around him in the midst of the ruins of Solomon’s temple. What an insignificant and weak group of people they were. That was correct. They were so ordinary, but it is essential for all of us to face up to our ordinariness and accept that, that we realise that we are utterly inadequate as mere men, who are yet doing the work that God calls us to do. We are weak physically; we are weak intellectually – there are few geniuses among us; we are weak in our rank and possessions and influence. Let us have no silly notions that we are super-Christians, that it was because of something special we had or were that God chose us. Let’s be convicted with the words Paul said to the Corinthians because they are 100% true for us. “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no-one may boast before him” (I Cors. 1:26-29).

The mighty Paul, in order to increase his usefulness, was given a thorn in the flesh, and he found it very distressing. He took seasons of prayer, three of them, focused on this thorn, explaining to God of all he’d be able to do for the gospel if God removed it from his life, but the only reply he got from God was that his grace was sufficient to enable Paul to do all that he wanted the apostle to do. Grace is Omnipotence acting to complete the word God has begun. Paul made a great discovery through this experience, that when he was weak then he was strong. You understand? When you are strong you feel you don’t need to pray, “Lead me not into temptation and deliver me from evil.” When you feel strong you don’t need to pray for help to believe and to speak and to be patient and to love, because you are strong in all those graces. You hear a man saying, “I have great faith” and you wonder, “What does he know? Who is he trusting?” You hear another man who says, “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief” and you feel that that man knows the struggle of keeping trusting in God in winter time. It is a consciousness of our weakness that drives us to the Lord. “God I am only going to get through this by your strength. I can only keep nursing my loved one by your enabling. I can only cope with my handicap with your help. I can only handle the stress and strain of ruling and leading a congregation by your power.” That is the way we get by. That’s the way Jesus himself got by! He didn’t take the cross in his stride. He needed to pray in an agony of heart, and ask for others to pray with him, and to supplicate his heavenly Father to discover whether it were possible to have another cup.

We live in days of small things; the work is tough; we are greatly outnumbered; we have fightings without and fears within; our own folk, and even our families can let us down by their behaviour and by failing to set a watch on their lips; we seem to advance numerically by three steps and then retreat by two; the forces arrayed against us have the media, and the powers that be, and most education structures and many of the heroes of the young all on their side. Many churches don’t see a single conversion from one year to the next. These seem to be days of small things in which we are being asked to do great things for God, and dream impossible dreams, and reach the unreachable shore of revival blessing and a nation being born in a day. So how are we to receive encouragement from this probing question, “Who despises the day of small things?” There are two further questions that arise.

i] Are these days of small things? I said to theologian Bob Letham, “These may be days of small things but they are not days of absolutely nothing at all.” He looked sternly at me and said, “Since Pentecost we’re not living in days of small things.” What did he mean? The Lord Christ has ascended to the right hand of God, and he is head over all things to the church, and he is head of the church. He is building his church and the gates of hell are frustrated that they cannot destroy it, but rather those gates are being broken down and the prisoners are freed. At Pentecost the Lord initiated the new covenant dispensation of the church and 3,000 men were converted, and since that time what Paul says about God our Saviour is true, “He has poured out on us generously the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ” (Tit.3:6). There are more Christians in the world today than ever before. There is not a country in the globe where there are not believers. There are more ministers and preachers and missionaries today than at any time in the history of the church. There are more fine Christians books published in a decade than in the entire history of Christianity in its first 19 centuries. All of us were once dead in trespasses and sins but we have been made alive in Christ, and there are millions like us. Devilish persecution cannot kill Christianity in North Korea. The snare of materialism cannot kill it in the USA. Marxism is not obliterating it in China. Poverty is not strangling it in east Africa. Though there are tiny communities without churches in our land yet there’s not a town in Wales without a gospel witness to Christ crucified. We are not seeing the mega churches of the past anywhere in Wales today, nor are we seeing the enormous personalities in the pulpits of past eras. That is not God’s plan for today. He is using a host of anonymous preachers, and gospel congregations, and Christian families, and a network of magazines and publishers and web sites and camps and conferences and home schoolers and Christian schools and biblical seminaries, and all of these are utterly ignored by the world and unknown to them. A thriving alternative Christian community has been established. Many Christians at this time of the year send us letters along with their Christmas cards and tell us of what has been going on in their churches and families over the past months. Thousands of small things are recorded and passed on. None of us is a Nelson Mandela, but the things that are happening in the lives of little Christians that may be of far more significance to God than the life of that statesman.

ii] How can we despise such days? Zechariah is talking about a spirit of deep repugnance, loathing and deploring. He is speaking of being contemptuous about the lives of fellow believers living around us. Who are we to behave like that? Are we ourselves so wise and holy and discerning and godlike that we can rubbish the days we live in and our fellow believers? We have no right to despise the weakest evidences of grace seen in the life of fellow believers. Yes, they are muddled. They are not well taught because of the pulpit ministry they hear and the fellowship they’re attending. We talk to them when we can. We give them booklets and books to read. We pray for them. We live as much of a Christ-like life before them that we can. We turn the other cheek at their grumbles. We overcome any evil they do by our good.

We don’t look back in longing to the 16th 17th and 18th centuries when they had public burnings and hangings and the torture of Christians. We only know from a few books that we’ve read of the churches at those times. We don’t magnify those days as ‘great days’ in such a way as to despise our own days. In those days Jonathan Edwards was sacked by his church. We don’t day dream that we’d be walking tall if we lived 300 years ago and that we would hear giants who preached then, but we judge that preachers today live like dwarfs. God has told us not to say that the former days were better than these. Today we know some remarkable people, some are missionaries, and some humble sufferers, and some parents, and some pastors, and some students (of whom a number are still in their teens), and some people who work in publishing houses and teach in Christian schools, and we esteem all of them as men and women of stupendous spirituality and enormous faith who are accomplishing great things for God, but who don’t know this for the most part. How can we despise such days? What extra spirit of judgment do we have to think like that? What mistakes we have made about men.

Here is a cobbler’s shop near Northampton and the cobbler has been working there for 12 years from the age of 16. His name is William Carey. His education has been minimal; he is largely self-educated; he has no degrees; his savings are depleted. You are tempted to despise the achievements of that man. He wrote and published an essay on the task of the church to take the gospel to the whole world and soon he left England never to return, spending the rest of his life in India. For the first seven years there he did not see a single Indian saved. But then there came a trickle of converts and the Bible was translated into many Indian languages and he became the Professor of Oriental Languages in Calcutta. They were days of small things in the cobbler’s shop outside Northampton and they lasted for 12 years followed by seven years ploughing up the barren ground in India. Who would have dreamed what God achieved through him? Do not despise the day of small things.

Don’t despise the smallest time of prayer. Don’t despise the least task you do in the congregation. Don’t despise reading the Bible if only for ten minutes each day. Don’t despise looking down to the pavement when an underdressed woman comes walking by you on the street. Don’t despise speaking lovingly to your children and spouse and parents. Don’t despise getting your homework done. Don’t despise the lisping stammering tongue by which you speak to others. The tongue is a small thing. Do not despise it! Some of our students have produced their own magazine. This  second edition looks small but it is full of good stuff.

3. GOD USES MEN TO ACCOMPLISH HIS PURPOSES IN THE WORLD.

Then we see a question asked by the prophet. “Then I asked the angel, ‘What are these two olive trees on the right and the left of the lampstand?’” (v.11). Of course we know what the two olive trees are. They represent the God who supplies all our needs and enables us to be the light of the world. You can think of the two olive trees as the Son of God and the Spirit of God, or you can think of them as the twofold nature of Christ. There was a brief silence; the angel said nothing, and then we read, “again I asked him, ‘What are these two olive branches beside the two gold pipes that pour out golden oil?’” (vv.11&12). The angel seems puzzled at Zechariah’s ignorance. “Don’t you know?” he asks. Then he tells the prophet about the olive branches, “‘These are the two who are anointed to serve the Lord of all the earth’” (v.14). They are the means by which the grace of God comes to the world; they are God’s agents; they are the ones by whom God’s blessing comes to us. They could be Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest, or they could be the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, the men through whom the Holy Spirit speaks to his favoured people. Grace comes to us through God’s means, through the church, and the gifts he gives to all his people, gifts of speaking and help and leadership and exhortation and prayer and so on. God ministers to us through people whom he calls and gifts.

A book was written almost a century and a half ago that has never been out of print and never will be. The author was a Wesleyan Methodist who had been a confederate chaplain in the American civil war belonging to the Missouri Fifth Infantry Regiment. His name was Edward McKendree Bounds. He wrote eight books on prayer only one of which was published during his lifetime, but now all eight books are bound together in one volume. The most famous of these is the one entitled Power Through Prayer. What is remarkable about that book is its opening paragraph which is the one passage of Bound’s writing that is best known and often quoted. I am going to quote it and adapt it now to support what I am saying to you about “the two olive branches beside the two gold pipes that pour out golden oil?’” (v.12). They represent the people through whom the grace of God comes to Christians. By our lives, and by our words, by what you are and what you say the grace of God ministers to other people. Through people. Not through methods! And So E.M. Bounds opens his book on prayer with these words . . .

“We are constantly on a stretch, if not on a strain, to devise new methods, new plans, new organizations, new engineering to advance the church and secure growth and success for the gospel. This trend of the day has a tendency to lose sight of the man, or sink the man in the medium, or in the organization. But God’s plan is to make much of the man, far more of him than of anything else. Men are God’s method. The church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men.”

So there were men at the time of this prophet, one named Zecharaiah and another prophet named Haggai; and other men too whose names were Joshua and Zerubbabel. Just before Christ appeared God prepared a person who was to be the herald and forerunner of the Lord Jesus; he was called John. “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.” Then God’s salvation came to us through the seed of the woman, son of Adam, son of Abraham, son of David, son of Mary, the man Christ Jesus. “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given . . . unto you is born this day in the city of a Saviour which is Christ the Lord.” The church’s salvation comes out of that boy born in Bethlehem. Paul sees men taking the gospel through the world and he appeals to their personal and moral characters. It was through men that the gospel was spread and rooted in the nations. The glory and efficiency of the gospel they preached was staked on the lives of the men who proclaimed it. Paul says to the Thessalonians, “You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (I Thess. 2:10-12). It was such men, who lived as Paul lived who were the two gold pipes who poured out golden oil. The living water that Jesus Christ gives doesn’t come to people in rusty cups filled from dirty taps. No bracken cisterns, no wells of bitter water can bring peace and health and everlasting life. Holy men are needed; they are the channels through whom the Spirit of God works and refreshes and irrigates a dry world. This non-negotiable reality of God choosing to use men is one that this age of the world wide web is apt to ignore. It will brag about methods. We will look to pure Spirit-filled men. If you look to methods and trust in them then darkness, confusion, and death will ensue. What the church needs today is not more machinery, or better engineering, or new organizations, or more novel methods, but holy, loving, wise men whom the Holy Spirit uses. Golden pipes through whom his golden oil flows, men of the word, men mighty in prayer, men who thus can encourage, comfort and urge others to live lives worthy of God. The Holy Spirit does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men.

So three great lessons God has brought us today. One was a word about God: God never leaves a job half done; he completes everything he began. That is for our comfort. Two was a word of warning to us: do not despise the day of small things. Three was another word about God for our instruction: God uses men to accomplish his purposes in the world.

15th December 2013     GEOFF THOMAS