I want you to read a section of Scripture that you might not be familiar with. I don't think I've ever heard a sermon preached on this. I know I've never read it and comprehended it until this year, but this section of Scripture has been weaving around my brain for two solid months now, and I've been so affected by it that I want to share it with every person I know. It has broken me. It has led me to confession and repentance. It has comforted me in times of distress. It has become a value I use to make decisions. It has helped me to better understand God, and that's no small thing.
Let me try to clear up what is going on here because there are some words and backstory that I didn't know. After the Israelites were taken into exile, they had no temple and therefore no place of worship. They began the religious observance of fasting on four significant days around their exile. They fasted on the day the siege of Jerusalem began, the day the wall of Jerusalem was broken through, the day the temple was destroyed, and the day their high priest was murdered. In my mind, I've always pictured Jerusalem's fall happening in a slow-motion movie sequence that lasts only a few days. The reality of these events recorded in Scripture shows that the destruction of Jerusalem and exile of God's people was a series of horrific, traumatic violence that lasting at least 10 months.
The word Chislev in the first paragraph is the name of a month in the Jewish calendar, the third month to be exact. At the beginning of the fifth month was when the Jewish people would fast in remembrance and mourning of the destruction of the temple.
You also need to know that the exile had ended, many of the Israelites had returned to Jerusalem, and the temple was in the process of being restored.
When the men came to ask the priests, “Should I weep and abstain in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?” what they were asking was could they stop fasting in mourning of the destruction of the temple now that the temple was being rebuilt?
The people had just fasted the month before in remembrance of the destruction of the wall. The was not yet rebuilt, and it wouldn't be rebuilt for another 70 years. The people didn't really want to fast, and they thought they could get off the hook for one of the four fasts since the temple was now being restored.
God cut right to the people's heart issues when He gave Zechariah these prophetic words: "When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted?"
God sliced away every bit of the outside, surface, distracting baggage, and He shined a spotlight on the heart of His people.
Was it for me?
With these words, God swept away the religious acts, the busyness of their hands, the pious physical actions, the empty observances, the outwardly sacred, the pride-building sacrificial compliance, and He uncovered the barrenness of their feelings towards their God.
Was it for me?
Here's where this account of our God becomes so beautiful to me. God doesn't do what I would expect Him to do. He doesn't lecture His people on how they need to actually love their God. God points to who He loves, and says love these people.
These are the words God gives. “Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.”
God cuts deeper into their already exposed hearts, and He points out their lack of justice, love, and mercy. He reminds the people of the lawless, heartless sins that lead to hard-hearted people that were allowed by God to be exiled.
This is where my heart shatters. I look around at our American church and I don't see a focus on justice, love, and mercy. I see a focus on religious acts, busyness of hands, pious physical actions, empty observances, outwardly sacred, and pride-building sacrificial compliance. I see a focus on defending political views as if they are sacred while ignoring the sacredness of showing mercy to the sojourner (which would include foreign refugees.) I see a focus on following rules while distancing themselves from those who are poor or oppressed.
I look at my own heart that is exposed. I see pride, selfishness, and hurry instead of love, mercy, and seeking justice.
I look at my religious weekly activities. I let God ask me, "Was it for me?"
Sometimes I don't like my answer.
I think of the praise song we sometimes sing when we join with other parts of our Church, "Break my heart for what breaks Yours." Here we have God plainly lining out what breaks His heart: lies and corruption in justice, people who don't show kindness and mercy (giving others more than they deserve), oppressing the vulnerable, not caring for the temporary stranger, and not caring for the poor.
My heart breaks for these things, and I feel unbelievable comfort when I realize God cares more than I do about injustice.
My trip-ups in my twenty years of ministry haven't always been neglecting the poor or seeking justice. I've been serving in urban, missional church in the heart of my city sharing the love of Jesus with the vulnerable.
My heart issue comes when I allow God to ask me that question about my ministry: "Was it for me?"
Was I feeding children for God's benefit? Was I serving the poor because it was God's will, and was I serving each of those faces because Matthew 25 tells me that those faces were Jesus himself?
If I allow God to slice into my human heart, I see emotions that shouldn't be present in these religious actions with my hands. I see pride. I've gotten something out of the service, and I am not honest with myself when I don't recognize it and repent of it.
It feels good to serve. Look at me. Look at the sacrifices I am making to love and care for the overlooked, vulnerable, hurting people of my city. I read the end of James, chapter one, and I boast that I'm doing religion right. I feel sorry for the suckers sitting in "regular church."
And God says, "Jennifer, was it for me?"
I can care for the poor, the refugee, the widow, and the orphan, and still, I am not God. I don't deserve the praise.
I can give up comfortable church to serve in a missional church for twenty years, and still, I am not God. No one should pat me on the back.
If our motivations are wrong (if you are human, your motivations will be wrong), we should stop what we are doing and figure out what God is doing.
This doesn't mean we cease to care for the vulnerable. Instead, we daily take a pause to repent of our pride and ask God what we can do for Him.
He daily asks, "Was it for me?"
We honestly answer. We hope we can answer that we acted out of love. We hope we can answer we did it for His glory and not our own.