Finding Our Way Home
AUGUST 13, 2020
There are times when I’m traveling and trying to get back home, or back to a campsite or hotel if I’m on vacation, when my GPS fails me.
It either takes me off the beaten path, away from any type of civilization for miles because it’s supposed to be faster (?), or it flat out delivers the wrong directions. In those moments I feel a flood of emotions — a mix between excitement, weariness, and frustration . . . wondering why something so simple can be so complicated. When we read the Bible, it invites us into this same kind of tension: a distant call to come home, a “GPS”-type problem presenting itself, but then a glimmer of hope on the horizon, a type of hope that travels towards us rather than guides us.
We see this portrayed well in the book of Zechariah, one of the prophets who prophesied during Israel’s return from Babylonian captivity hundreds of years before Christ. The first six verses read like this:
In the eighth month of the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo: “The Lord was very angry with your ancestors. Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty. Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the Lord. Where are your ancestors now? And the prophets, do they live forever? But did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your ancestors? (Zechariah 1:1-6)
What exactly are we returning to?
The prophets help us see how physical types or events in the Old Testament are shadows, not realities. The “return motif,” then, isn’t simply about returning to the land, but to God himself. See how God says through Zechariah as they’re returning, “Return to me!” It’s not enough that they returned to the land, they needed to return to the one the land symbolized, namely God himself. God, essentially, is the land. The land is — symbolically — God, which would then make Babylon a picture (or shadow) of sin and exile.
It’s as if God is saying here, “Enough with the land! I’m not concerned about it anymore! I never really was. What I truly desire is for sinners to return to me.” — maybe in the spirit of how Jesus says, “God desires mercy, not sacrifice.” The shadows are fading in the prophets, and it’s becoming more clear that Israel’s physical experiences were typical of the world’s spiritual state and a foretaste of future deliverance.
We shouldn’t be surprised then when we see Jesus not only talk about the kingdom of God being like a son returning to his father (Luke 15:11-32), but also about himself in land-terms like “share” or “portion” (words used for land allotment in the Old Testament). Even more, the gospel is called an “inheritance,” like the land was to Israel. This simple call of God to return, then, is a prophecy. It’s a glimpse of hope that one day God will say, “Arise from your graves, my people! Come out of the Babylon of sin and death and come share in the true land of blessing, which is my very own presence. I can’t wait to see you.”
The treacherous, impassable road of the law
Before we get home, though, there’s another important message that God wants us to understand, and that is: we can’t truly get home on our own. God says through Zechariah, “Do not be like your ancestors who would not listen to me. My words and decrees overtook them. Turn from your evil practices.” A cursory reading of Zechariah’s context and a broad survey of Old Testament history tells us that this generation of Israelites was no better than the others. We see in Ezra that they break the law immediately after their return and in Zechariah they require washing. The simple invitation to return to God is fraught with difficulty, as if we were running home but then needed to complete the world’s most difficult American Ninja obstacle course, while getting chased down by actual ninjas in the process. In this case, the obstacle course and the ninjas chasing us represent the law. The law “overtakes” us. It condemns us in our inability to keep it. And it further threatens exile from God, even on our best days.
This is where our emotions run wild, right? We hear: “God is speaking to us, inviting us to return!” And yet we’re asked to watch reruns of how every single human being before us has failed the test. Excitement, yet depression . . . feelings like the temple itself would have elicited: God is drawing near, yet he’s saying “stay back” at the same time, because no sinner can draw close. Mixed messages? Sort of. But we’re supposed to feel the tension. God is doing something, there is hope on the horizon, but it clearly won’t be the works of our hands that will accomplish it.
Jesus speaks a better word
The rabbit hole of the return motif goes deeper still. And that’s good news for us, because it’s not just “Return to me”, it’s “I’ll return to you.” Isn’t that such a relief? Like the word “came to” Zechariah in verse 1, so one day would the true Word come to us and take on flesh and dwell among us. It doesn’t say Zechariah “found” the word, or traveled to it in some way, but instead the word found him. It’s reminiscent of the equally comforting truth that love is not that we have loved God, but that he loved us by sending his son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
So, it’s not just Jesus’s active movement towards us that’s good news. It’s what he came to do for us that’s good news. Not only is he returning to us, he is returning in order to take on all of the curses of passages like Zechariah 1 in order to fully ensure that we are able to fully, once and for all, return to the land of his presence. As a toddler he was forced into exile in Egypt. As an adult, he was pushed into the wilderness for 40 days and nights in order to face hunger and expulsion for us. On the cross he faced separation from God for the sake of us separated ones. And he was “overtaken” by law, born under the curses of the law, for us, so he could bear the full weight of our disobedience. Per Zechariah 1:6, Jesus is our true ancestor who was overtaken, overwhelmed, cursed, and crushed for our sins, and that’s what makes the way back home possible. That’s what gets us back on the freeway of grace. And, even better, that’s the image we’re left with: not so much a road map home, but a God who leaves his home to run to us in love, willing to die for us, and to replace the old system of “Return to me” with the new system of “I am returning to you.” So, turn off the GPS weary sinner, pull over, and rest easy. Jesus is running down the mountain to you, and nothing can stand in his way. Home is coming to you.
Chris Wachter (@pastorwachter) is the Lead Pastor at Hiawatha Church in Minneapolis, MN (www.hiawathachurch.com).