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Ask from the Lord

January 3, 2016 Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: Zechariah: Return & Restoration

Passage: Zechariah 10:1–10:2

Sermon from Zechariah 10:1-2 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Series: Zechariah: Return & Restoration (Part 15)
Delivered on January 3, 2016

When I look over the past year, it amazes me how the Lord equips us with his word to face the days ahead. For example, the Sunday that Dan and Amy were sent out for the mission in Eurasia, we happened to be in John 16, where Jesus says, “In the world, you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” One of our sisters learned that she had cancer, and last April we happened to be in the account of the resurrection in John 20, where Jesus’ life overwhelms death.

Happenings in Baltimore and New York raised questions about racism, and on two different occasions we encountered texts where Jesus is gathering a multitude of worshipers from all ethnicities. ISIS was all over the news provoking fear, and the Lord gave us hope from Zechariah 1 and 6 that God will bring justice and destroy all our enemies. The Syrian refugee crisis entered the picture, and God gave us a word about not oppressing the widow, the fatherless, or the sojourner. And most recently, the Sunday before Christmas, we got a portrait from Zechariah 9 of the humility of our King, mounted on the foal of a donkey.

These aren’t just coincidences; God is equipping us with his word every week. Every Sunday he is preparing us to face the days ahead, if we’re truly listening. So, what might he be saying to us this Sunday, the first Sunday of the New Year? We’ll look at verses 1 and 2 only of Zechariah 10. And my plan is to focus on what these two verses teach us about prayer. Let’s read these two verses first, and then spend some time understanding them in light of the broader context, and then we’ll tackle what these verses teach us in relation to prayer. Verse 1…

1Ask rain from the LORD in the season of the spring rain, from the LORD who makes the storm clouds, and he will give them showers of rain, to everyone the vegetation in the field. 2For the household gods utter nonsense, and the diviners see lies; they tell false dreams and give empty consolation. Therefore the people wander like sheep; they are afflicted for lack of a shepherd.

The main exhortation is that God’s people ask rain from the Lord. And it seems a bit out of place at first glance. The people are still suffering at the hands of their oppressors (9:1-6, 13). They still experience the lingering effects of the exile (1:3; 7:14). The nation is still scattered somewhat (2:6-7; 8:7; 9:11-13). Some of them are even in a waterless pit, 9:11 said, and the last thing they want is rain, right?!

But not only that, every promise to this point has been so lofty—a new temple, a new city, a new people, a new King, a new world. And in comparison to those promises, what’s a request for rain? Seems so ordinary, not-so-amazing. Or is it an amazing request? Is this request for rain more than we may initially think it is?

This is where the context of Zechariah will help us see the significance of this call to prayer. These two verses function as a—let’s call it a “hinge-text,” like a hinge on a door. Verses 1 and 2 do two things: they close out chapter 9 and they introduce us to chapters 10-11. And that’s where we see the significance of this call to prayer.

The Prayer in Relation to Chapter 10

Chapters 10-11—let’s take that side of the hinge first. Chapters 10-11 address a really big problem in Israel, namely, the people do not have a true shepherd leading them (cf. 10:3; 11:3, 17). The leaders in Israel have not been leading the people according to God’s word. Rather, verse 2 says that they’ve been leading them according to their own idolatry. Instead of listening to God’s word, they’ve been listening to gods of their own making—using these little household gods to discover hidden knowledge, to predict the future state of God’s people (cf. 2 Kgs 23:24; Ezek 21:21).

They’d go to fortune-tellers instead of God’s prophets. They depended on things of their own making, things they could control, things they could manipulate. And this idolatry then causes the people to wander astray like sheep and become afflicted. Take note of that—especially us elders—our idolatry always has repercussions on others, always. What we depend on for guidance and joy and meaning in life is teaching the others around us who or what we think they should worship. In Israel’s case, the people followed their leaders in depending on idols instead of depending on the Lord.

So God says in verse 3 that his anger is hot against the false shepherds in Israel, and the rest of chapters 10-11 basically tell us what God is going to do about them. This call to prayer comes just before we’re introduced to that problem of idolatry. And in that light, the prophet is encouraging the people to turn away from their dependence on the idols and place their confidence in God. Idols and fortune-tellers don’t come with anything good. They cannot bring blessing. They never speak the truth. They always utter nonsense. And they’re full of empty consolation—and I want you to notice, that’s the opposite of what God comes with.

If you look back at 1:13, it says this: “the Lord answered gracious and comforting words” (cf. 1:17). All that idols leave you with is “empty consolation.” That comes from the same Hebrew root that we see in 1:13, and can be translated “empty comforts.” The Lord gives comfort; the idols give comfort—the question is, “Which comfort is real and which is empty?” Don’t be duped. Idols can appear to provide comfort, but all they leave you with is death and destruction. Israel only has to look at their exile to see that.

So Zechariah is telling them to place their confidence in the one who gives true comfort. God has their best interest at heart, not their idols and not these false leaders in Israel who seem to be getting their counsel from the idols—or better, the demons behind those idols (Deut 32:17; Ps 106:37; 1 Cor 10:10-21). Their hearts cannot be divided; they must trust in God alone to act on their behalf. That’s part of how this call to prayer fits the bigger picture—“Ask God for rain, because he’s your only hope for blessing.”

The Prayer in Relation to Chapter 9

But how in the world will a prayer for rain do any good? Well, that brings us to the other side of our hinge-text. We saw how the prayer relates to chapters 10-11. But we also have to see how this prayer relates backwards to chapter 9.

But first we need to understand something about Israel and the Promised Land under the old covenant. Israel was utterly dependent on God to bring the rains, if they were going to prosper as a nation. When they were in Egypt, the crops were normally fed by irrigation systems coming off the Nile River. But when God delivered them out of Egypt, he brought them to the land of Canaan; and Canaan was a land of hills and valleys that needed the rains to prosper it.

So God took his people out of Egypt to a land where they’d be utterly dependent on him to provide rain. It’s not something they could control. This is why the covenant curses are such a big deal. If they obeyed God, then God would bless the land with rain. But if they disobeyed, he would curse the land by shutting up the skies altogether—and to shut up the skies was to destroy the land and then the people. This comes out very plainly in Deuteronomy 11:10-17.

That’s exactly what happened in Israel. Despite God’s repeated warnings, Israel continued to disobey God until he cursed them. He shut up the skies, and made the pleasant land a desolation (cf. Zech 7:14). Jeremiah 3:3 says that God withheld the showers and the spring rains, because Israel polluted the land with their vile whoredom, that is, their idolatry (cf. also Isa 5:6; Amos 4:7; Jer 5:24; 14:17-22). They were utterly dependent on the rain, but God took it away for their sin. And years and years go by till Israel and the people amount to a dessert wasteland. If anything was going to change, it would be wholly by the grace of God.

So it becomes a really big deal—and really good news—when the prophets promise a new day of prosperity, when the land would start producing its crops once again, such as we see in 9:17—“Grain shall make the young men flourish, and new wine the young women.” Zechariah is using the categories of the old covenant to speak of the abundance in God’s future kingdom. If Israel didn’t have grain and wine under the old covenant, that meant that they were under God’s curse for disobeying him (e.g., Lev 26:20; Deut 28:15-19). But for the grain to prosper the young men, and for the new wine to prosper the young women, was for the prophet to be saying that the people’s curse would finally be lifted. God was planning to be gracious to them and restore his people in a new and prosperous land (cf. also 1:17; 3:10; 8:12).

But here’s the deal: how will a land that is now desolate become so plentiful? God still has to send the rains—which is what Zechariah is calling them to pray for: “Ask rain from the Lord in the season of the spring rain, from the Lord who makes the storm clouds, and he will give them showers of rain, to everyone the vegetation in the field.” In other words, God has shown them what the end will look like—a kingdom full of blessing and plenty and abundance. Now pray that he takes us there by sending the rains!

And we shouldn’t think of this rain as just any old rain. These are rains that create new realities altogether, and transform the world as we know it. This prayer still has the final kingdom in its sights. For example, notice at the end of verse 1 that the Lord will give to every man the vegetation in the field—which, I think, should remind us of the Garden of Eden, where God gave to man “every plant [same Hebrew word that we find here] yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth…for food” (Gen 1:29; cf. 2:5). These rains will create a new Eden-like paradise (cf. Ezek 36:35).

Zechariah 14 alludes to this as well. We get this picture of the end in terms of the old covenant. And God’s people will drink from living waters flowing out of a New Jerusalem, while God’s enemies will continue to suffer under the curse of no rain (14:8, 17-18). There’s more going on here than just a prayer for H2O.

Other prophets use the same imagery to describe the future day of God’s blessing. Hosea 6:3, for example, uses the same imagery of the spring rains, but applies it to God’s future return for his people: “Let us press on to know the LORD; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth.” The presence of God himself will nourish their souls in the kingdom, just like the spring rains replenished the Promised Land (cf. also Ps 68:8-10).

Isaiah 44:3 says, “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.” Israel needs more than just a new land, in other words; they need a new heart, which comes with the gift of the Spirit (cf. Isa 32:15; 43:22-28). Joel 2:21-28 make the same connection—God’s end-time blessing brings both the rains on the land and the Spirit on the people. They go hand-in-hand. Just like God made Adam and Eve to go with Eden, and Israel to go with the Promised Land, so God would create a new people to go with his final kingdom on earth. The Spirit would transform the people; the rains would transform the land in which the people would dwell.

And also Ezekiel 34:23-31—it pairs these same kinds of blessings together. He even calls them “showers of blessings,” but Ezekiel sets the whole thing within the context of God’s rule coming on earth through his messiah, the new David, that we know is Jesus Christ—such that we begin to see that the rains falling on the land become a picture of God pouring out blessings on his people in the end-time kingdom.

Again, he’s speaking of the future in categories of the past—even in terms of this prayer, I think. It’s old covenant language that points to the future kingdom of God on earth. He’s calling them to pray for that kingdom to come. To ask rain from the Lord is to ask the Lord to bring his kingdom on earth, to realize his promises, to bring them to fruition, to make them our experience.

The Kingdom Inaugurated through Christ and the Spirit

In some ways, we must say that God has begun to answer this request through the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Sure, we haven’t yet seen the new Eden-like paradise on earth—the one described for us in Revelation 21-22. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t experienced some of the initial showers of God’s end-time blessings.

Ephesians 1:3 says that in Christ we have received every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. The river of living waters has yet to flow out of a New Jerusalem, but that doesn’t mean we can’t drink from them already by faith. Wasn’t it Jesus who came to the woman at the well and said, “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

Jesus also said in John 7:37-38, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” And John says that Jesus was talking there about the gift of the Holy Spirit, who would come once Jesus was glorified. The gospel writers then go on to tell us that Jesus was glorified on the cross. On the cross, God displayed the glorious worth of his Son, because he and he alone was able to please God and satisfy his wrath and take away the sins of all the people that his Father gave him.

But he didn’t stay dead. God also raised Jesus on the third day. And since he’s also been exalted to the right hand of God, Peter tells us in Acts 2:33 that he has poured out the Holy Spirit on Jew and Gentile alike who trust in Jesus. And that outpouring of the Holy Spirit on you, my friends, is God’s down-payment that more “showers of blessing” are coming. The land will be restored along with the entire earth one day; and living waters will flow in the New Jerusalem. But right now God has a people to prepare to dwell in that land. In the same way that he prepared Adam for the Garden and Israel for the Promised Land, he is preparing us for the final kingdom.

A Few Things We Learn about Prayer

And so we long together with the prophet for God to bring the rains of that day. We long to experience them in full. We long for the day of plenty. We long for the trees to bear fruit for the healing of the nations. And these longings in our heart find their expression in prayer—because you know what, we can’t bring that day any more than we can command rain to fall from the sky. We are utterly dependent on God to bring that day. And so we pray. We pray for his kingdom to come. Now, with that broader framework in mind, I see at least five things that we can learn about prayer from these two verses.

We won’t pray as long as our confidence is in our idols

First of all, we won’t pray as long as our confidence is in our idols. I doubt that many of us participate in traditional idolatry like we see here, seeking knowledge from a household god or from a fortune-teller. But all of us are vulnerable to internal idolatry, idolatry in the heart. We have things that we trust in more than God. We’re vulnerable to placing our confidence in our time and in our money and in our gadgets and in our abilities, quite apart from any confidence in God.

Can you be still with God in prayer for longer than 10 minutes every day? How many hours a day would you say that you spend in prayer? Could somebody look into your daily calendar and see that time alone with God is one of your highest priorities? Would others around you be encouraged to worship God and cast themselves utterly upon his care, by looking at the time you spend in prayer?

Paul Miller puts it this way: “If you’re not praying, then you’re quietly confident that time, money, and talent are all you need in life.” You see, we have our own idols too; they just look more sophisticated and usually fly under names like “efficiency,” “multi-tasking,” and “productivity.” We have things that we trust in to get done what we need to get done—and many of those things may not be inherently evil—but they eventually become God-replacements.

Who needs God for comfort when money can buy you comfort in this world? Who needs God for daily bread when we’re so rich and the grocery store is always full? Who needs God for insight to his word when I have the ESV Study Bible on my phone? Who needs God to bring the kingdom when we’re quite comfortable here? Who needs time with God when time is what I need to finish all my projects today? And slowly, slowly, we wander like sheep away from our Shepherd.

These verses call us to turn away from our idols, and place our ultimate trust in God alone. All that our idols will bring us is disappointment—utter nonsense, lies, and empty comforts. But God gives us his kingdom. Why set our trust in things that will not satisfy? Place your confidence in the God who cares for his people—who speaks truth and provides true and lasting comfort in his kingdom. We are nothing without him.

Prayer isn’t hindered but enlivened by God’s plans for the future

Second, we learn that prayer isn’t hindered but enlivened by God’s plans for the future. There are numerous reasons why some Christians may struggle to pray. We already saw one of them—they’re confidence lies in their idols. But another reason may be this: you may struggle to pray because you believe it’s pointless. After all, God is sovereign. He has already ordained whatsoever comes to pass. So why bother?

But Zechariah teaches us to think differently. Notice again the unbreakable flow between the future promise in 9:17 and the call to pray in 10:1. God has promised to give the grain and the new wine in 9:17, and what he promises he will also do. But that promise doesn’t undermine the call to pray for rain in 10:1. And this shows us that God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are compatible, not contradictory.

And even more than that, God’s sovereign plan becomes the only hope that God will act on our behalf when we pray (cf. also Acts 4:24; Rev 6:10). That’s part of why I say that God’s plans for the future enliven our prayers. It’s because we know that he’s going to act on our behalf that we pray the way we do. We pray because God is sovereign over human hearts; we pray because God is sovereign over the planet; we pray because God is summing up all things in Christ.

But let’s take it to a more intimate level than just that. What this call to prayer shows us is that while God can certainly accomplish his plans without us, he chooses to include us. Prayer is the ordained means through which God chooses to accomplish his purposes. His purpose here is to bring an abundant kingdom on earth; part of the means in realizing that purpose are the prayers of his people.

This is also why Jesus would later teach his disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” God is sovereign to bring his kingdom. But in his love for his people and in his desire to relate to us despite our sin—he gives us the privilege of interacting with him in his purposes, even like a son depending on his Father. And it’s through these prayers that God is pleased to bring the kingdom.

God refuses to give us the kingdom apart from a relationship with himself

Which leads me to make a third point about prayer: God refuses to give us the kingdom apart from a relationship with himself. One of the reasons that we raise objections to prayer like, “Why bother if God is sovereign?” or “Who has time for that?” is that we miss the relational aspect of prayer. It shows that we want the kingdom without the relationship. But God intends to give these promises to his people, not apart from their communion with him in prayer but through it. There’s a real, vital relationship with God that possesses the recipients of his kingdom.

You see, God has made us for a relationship with himself. Any attention to the larger storyline of Scripture reminds us that God created us for perfect communion with him, for moment-by-moment dependence on his provision and care (Gen 1-2). But because of Adam’s disobedience, we were born dead in sin (Eph 2:1), separated from God (Eph 2:12), and attempting to live our lives by the power of self-sufficiency (Rom 1:18-32). We weren’t merely unaware of our need for God; we actually preferred nothing of his divine care even when he offered it. And that merited divine punishment.

But here’s the good news: despite our rebellion, God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to live in perfect communion with his Father (John 5:19; 1 Pet 2:23), so that he could become the perfect sacrifice we needed to bear the punishment we deserved (Rom 3:25-26; Gal 3:13) and to reconcile us to God that we might have fellowship with him once again (2 Cor 5:19; 1 Pet 3:18). The Bible tells us that “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” That’s prayer.

God saves his people to commune with him in prayer as he works to bring the kingdom. If you want to be changed and you want the church to be changed and you want the world to be changed and you want all the blessings of the kingdom, but you don’t want God, then you’re not saved. Or, you may need a huge reality check to the whole point of your salvation, which is a relationship with God. He’s the goal.

God will not give his kingdom to those who don’t want him. He will not give his kingdom to those who don’t care to spend time with him. He gives the kingdom to those who enjoy a relationship with him through Jesus Christ. He gives the kingdom to those who see their hopelessness without him and call for rain, for living water to fall on a dry land and a dead soul. He gives the kingdom to those who depend on him to bring it through his Son Jesus Christ. That dependence finds expression through prayer in our daily lives. Prayer is not just a discipline to be checked off; it’s a relationship to be enjoyed till we meet God face-to-face.

Prayer is about aligning our hopes with God’s plans for his kingdom

Fourth, we also learn that prayer is about aligning our hopes with God’s plans for his kingdom. Why does he call them to ask rain from the Lord in particular? He does so, because that is God’s plan for his kingdom plainly revealed in the words of Holy Scripture. Whether through Zechariah himself or through the prophets that came before him, God revealed his purpose to establish an end-time kingdom of abundance. This is what they are to be asking for. This is where they should set their hopes. And this is where our hope must be as well. This is one reason why I encourage people to pray the Bible. These are God’s plans for his kingdom.

Some of us may not pray very much, because we’re content with our own kingdoms in the here and now. Could it be that your prayer life has little vitality, because your hopes are in the wrong places? Dear friends, God is creating longings for a better country in this passage, longings for a kingdom that’s greater than any of your wildest dreams. Don’t settle for what you see here, and what you can build here. God’s kingdom alone will cover the earth one day, and he doesn’t share glory with others. Align your hopes with his plans, and make your prayers to be ones of, “Your kingdom come and your will be done.”

It’s very often that I will find myself praying for one thing—even some very good things. But as I keep praying, the Lord begins to show me how some of those things are to build my own kingdom instead of his. On one occasion, I remember praying for some time that God would use Redeemer Church to spread the gospel far and wide. A good prayer, right? Then one by one, the Lord started moving some of my dearest friends to other countries and other parts of this country. And I was somewhat upset with God that he would answer my prayer like this.

But what was exposed through prayer? I wanted him to spread the gospel far and wide as long as it was done on my terms and in ways I was most comfortable with. You see, it’s inconvenient to make new relationships. It’s not easy to pour yourself into making more leaders. It’s harder to serve with people who don’t know you well enough to finish your sentences. But God had other plans, and the kingdom he’s bringing as a result is so much better than the one I wanted to build. It’s hard to hold on to your own kingdom, when speaking to a King who’s replacing it with one that’s infinitely greater.

God is generous to answer our prayers

Finally, our passage reminds us that God is generous to answer our prayers. There are times we may not pray simply because we doubt God’s generosity. We start believing the lies that people are too sinful, the needs are too great, and the circumstances are too dire for God to work. So, we don’t ask.

But look again at verse 1. It says to ask rain from the Lord; and then the latter half of verse 1 promises this to those who ask: “and he will give them showers of rain, to everyone the vegetation in the field.” God not only hears our prayer, but he answers them generously. None of our requests are too great for him to handle. Look here, he has the power and the resources in himself to make the world new altogether. His grace is able to transform desserts into lush vineyards and make the dead come alive.

Therefore, let’s ask him for the kingdom to come. Let’s ask him to change others around us, so that they look more and more like Jesus. Let’s ask for the Lord to change us, so that we treasure more of Jesus. Let’s ask for him to change the things in our culture that grieve us. Let’s ask him to bring down the strongholds of Satan in this city, as the gospel advances. Let’s ask him to guard people from the deception of false teachers in our community, who hold out empty comforts for the people.

And let’s ask for all this and more, while trusting him to answer generously. His answers will come in his own timing and by his own wisdom and in his own ways, but they will be generous, and they will prepare us for his final kingdom on earth, indeed they will bring it.

More in Zechariah: Return & Restoration

March 20, 2016

Holy to the Lord

March 13, 2016

The Return of the King

March 6, 2016

A New Covenant through a Struck Shepherd