“Then the word of the Lord of Armies to me: The Lord of Armies says this: ‘The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth will become times of joy, gladness, and cheerful festivals for the house of Judah. Therefore, love truth and peace.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Last week we spent some time talking about how much God hates religious exercises. Empty religion is an offense to Him. Just like you don’t want someone doing something for you if their heart is not in it, God feels the same. Ladies, if your guy bought you flowers because he felt like he had to, would you be happy? Guys, if your girl got you the latest cool gadget out of a sense of obligation, would you be drawn to her for it? Of course not. Neither does God want religious exercises done out of the same motives. But, just because He hates empty religious exercises doesn’t mean He hates religion. That’s a distinction we don’t often make, but which we must if we want to be right with Him.
The people had come to Zechariah asking about whether or not they needed to continue some fasting practices they had been doing through the period of the exile. They were in part to mark significant occasions so the people didn’t forget about them. In this, they were about looking back and mourning what had been lost. These weren’t necessarily bad things when they were started. But over time they had morphed into just another religious exercise the people pursued.
And yet here, God promises that their various fasts will be times of joy and gladness. What has changed in the span of a few verses?
Well, I think there are two things we need to understand here. The first comes out of the context. This isn’t God changing His mind about the fasts. Rather, He was giving the people a picture of hope and encouragement. They had been fasting out of a sense of loss and grief. What would it mean for these fasts to become occasions for joy and gladness? Well, whatever had prompted their sense of loss and grief would have to be dealt with in a way that it wasn’t causing them pain anymore. And what might accomplish that? How about being restored by the Lord? What we see here wasn’t a comment on their fasting and God changing His mind on it so much as it was yet another promise of restoration.
Okay, but why use this imagery for restoration? If the religious exercises were the problem, why not offer hope in other terms? Because God can walk and chew gum at the same time. As much as He hates empty, formal acts of religion, He doesn’t hate religion generally. Do you see how there could be a difference there?
While we see plenty of evidence in the Scriptures displaying God’s rather strongly negative feelings toward false and empty religion, we also see Him explicitly commending some acts of religion for His followers to take up and make a regular part of their relationship with Him. For example, in the book of Exodus we see Him outlining several different religious feasts and festivals for the people to keep. Why would He give these to the people if He somehow hated religion?
And perhaps we could take up the argument that this was something He did before Jesus came and made that kind of religion a thing of the past, but from the earliest days of the church the people established a rhythm of worship that included various acts of what we might today identify as religion. They practiced prayer and fasting and singing and the like. And, yes, James said that pure and undefiled religion is found in conspicuous acts of God’s love for those who are vulnerable and otherwise in need, but this doesn’t mean that all other acts of religion are bad. Rather, it means that we need to have the proper understanding of what religion is and what it is intended to accomplish.
God is spirit. John is clear about that. We, however, are physical. We are spirits with bodies, yes, but our physicality is a significant part of what makes us who we are. It is challenging on a good day for physical beings to imagine how they could connect with a being who is purely spiritual. Acts of religion are the practices that help put us in a frame of mind and heart to be able to listen to and experience a God who is spirit. When we experience Him–really experience Him, not just pretend to for the sake of our audience–we will be shaped and changed by Him to more fully reflect who He is through our lives and into the lives of the people around us.
This is what happens when we get religion right. We are changed to reflect Him more and that reflection impacts the world around us in transformationally positive ways. This is also why God takes it so seriously when we get religion wrong and use it for other purposes. When we use it for our own ends, we are taking a tool He has given for connecting with Him and advancing His kingdom in this world and using it in ways that prevent those things from happening. God doesn’t hate religion, but He hates that. Our challenge is not to get rid of religion from our lives. It is to make sure we are using it for its intended ends and nothing else. Then it will indeed be a cause for joy and gladness. Therefore we love truth and peace.