With this post I want us to think about the matter of integrity. When I say integrity, what do you think about? If you say someone is a person of integrity, what does that mean? The dictionary defines integrity like this: “adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty; a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition” such as structural integrity.
I want to get even more specific, though. What does it mean to worship God with integrity? Along those lines, how do we keep familiar acts of worship meaningful–how do we make sure that we are not just going through the motions? Integrity of worship, I think, includes worshiping God sincerely and not for self-serving reasons. It means ensuring that there is not a disconnect between what we do at church and what we do away from church. It means making sure that what we profess and what we practice are consistent. It means that when we are here at church to worship God, we are here. Our minds are not elsewhere, we are not checking the clock or our watch, we are not just putting in our time. No, we are focused on worshiping God.
I would love to tell you I have this down, but I don’t. I would love to tell you that my mind is always fully engaged and focused on the hymns we are singing or the message I am hearing when I am in church, but it’s not true. I say that partially so you know that I am not telling you I have this all figured out and you need to get with it. I say it also partly to assure that if you’re thinking, “Sometimes I struggle with that,” you are not also thinking, “I really messed up. God is so disappointed in me!” We will all mess up at times. There will be moments when each of us will slip or get distracted or even, dare I say, fall asleep in church! That’s not the end of the world but it should not be something we are comfortable with, either. God wants us to prepare ourselves for worship and to commit ourselves to worship with integrity.
To consider this subject, I would like to draw your attention to Zechariah 7. I’ll wait a few minutes if you would like to read the passage.
Shall we continue? Here’s the setting: Zechariah has been ministering to the people of Judah in Jerusalem for approximately two years now when God gives him the messages that we have recorded in chapters 7 and 8. The rebuilding of the temple is half finished; there will be another two years. A delegation of men from Bethel arrive and ask the priests and the prophets whether or not they should continue some of the fasts they began during their time of Babylonian exile. In response, God asks whether they were keeping those fasts for the Lord…or for themselves. This delegation had come about 12 miles from Bethel, and their names suggest that they were born in Babylon and were given Babylonian names. Now that they are back in Israel, they want to know if they should continue to keep the fasts that they practiced during the time of captivity. They were seeking God’s will in the matter.
These men ask specifically about one of the fasts that the people had been keeping. There are others, though. The Day of Atonement was an annual fast that God clearly required of the people–you can find that in Leviticus 23:27. We also know from other Old Testament passages that God sometimes called for other fasts at specific times and for specific reasons. The fall of Jerusalem was actually remembered by four different fasts, held in the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months of the year. Because the temple fell in the fifth month, that fifth month fast was considered the most serious one, so these men from Bethel use it specifically as a test case to find out whether or not they need to continue with this practice. They had been keeping this fast for many years–they were in captivity for seventy years–and in their situation at this time, now that they are back in Israel, the temple is being rebuilt in Jerusalem, it seemed that perhaps it was no longer necessary.
God answers, through Zechariah, beginning in verse 5. He refers to the fast of the fifth month and the fast of the seventh month, the one that mourned the death of Gedaliah, the governor appointed by Nebuchadnezzar. But from His response, we see that God was questioning the sincerity–the integrity–of the people’s fast. Were they fasting for God or fasting for themselves, out of self-pity rather than out of repentance and sorrow? Remember, the temple was destroyed because the Israelites had not obeyed God. When they fasted, were they mourning their sin and disobedience or were they mourning the fall of the temple and the punishment of God?
The purpose of a fast, throughout Scripture, is to help a person have a deeper experience with God. It is to be a time of confessing, of praying, of seeking God. Those things that can easily become routine and time-consuming parts of our day, and that can perhaps cause us to be comfortable, like eating food for example, are eliminated temporarily and instead we focus on God. The Hebrew word for fast literally means “to cover the mouth” and fasting does most often refer to abstaining from food for a time. We see it referenced many times in Scripture and I think fasting has a place in the life of a Christian for a specific purpose and time. I am not convinced that it needs to be a regular practice. If you fast regularly, and you do it for the right reasons, I think that’s fine. If, however, someone fasts because they think God expects it, or because they think somehow God approves of it and it earns them favor with God, that is wrong. The motives are not pure. There is no integrity there. I also, by the way, am skeptical of someone who wants to make sure everyone knows they are fasting. There may be times when a corporate, organized fast is appropriate (i.e. Esther asking the Jews to fast and pray before she went before the king), but generally speaking I think fasting is a personal matter between an individual and God. If you are wanting everyone to know about it, it more than likely means that you are seeking some kind of approval or recognition for what you are doing. That does not come from pure motives. There is no integrity there.
God then asks the people about other practices, the eating and drinking that would accompany some of the Jewish festivals such as the feast of the Tabernacles. Were the people at those times focusing on the meaning and purpose of the festivals or were they just eating and drinking for the fun of it, enjoying the fast and the celebration and all of the pleasure of the occasion? The answer that is implied in these questions is that the people were doing these things for themselves, not for the Lord. The implication is that their worship was not sincere.
We do not have anything really that equates to these fasts and feasts in the church today. We celebrate the Lord’s supper, and that is good and I think it is biblical. And while someone certainly may do that and just be going through the motions, I do not think many people celebrate the Lord’s supper purely for themselves. I think perhaps a better comparison would be Thanksgiving. Now Thanksgiving is not commanded in the Bible, we see no specific biblical example of it, but I think the example works. Thanksgiving was originally intended to be a day of feasting but along with that a day of focusing on God and His provision for the people–of thanking Him for His blessings. How often is that really what we do not? Other than a quick prayer before the meal, how much time do we really spend on Thanksgiving thinking about God, thanking Him for what He has done? Instead, we get caught up in the food, the fellowship, the football…. Thanksgiving today, for many people, is much more about the pleasure and enjoyment they get out of it personally than it is about truly giving thanks and worshiping God. That’s what God is getting at there with what He says through Zechariah.
In verse 7 of chapter 7 God asks the people about their obedience. God is basically here saying, “I asked your ancestors the same question before I sent them into Babylonian exile.” Indeed, their ancestors were exiled primarily because they were no longer obeying God. It was obedience to God that brought peace, prosperity, joy and blessing to the people of God for a time, but once their obedience was replaced with ritual accompanied by doing whatever they wanted, God judged that. And He is telling the people here that the same thing will happen to them if they get focused on ritual.
I think there are some sincere and pious Catholics. I think there are some Catholics who are saved. But I think there are a lot of Catholics who are doing exactly what is being addressed here. I have known some of them. As long as they went to confession and went to mass–as long as, in other words, they checked the right boxes and fulfilled the right rituals–they could do whatever they wanted, live however they wanted in the in-between times. That is not worshiping God in spirit and in truth. That is not worshiping God with integrity. It is not only Catholics who do that, though. There are plenty of other folks sitting in churches on Sunday mornings thinking they are doing their duty for God and as soon as the final Amen has been said they can live however they want until the next Sunday morning.
In verses 8-10 God provides instruction on what it means, what it looks like, to express or live out the integrity He is telling the people He wants. When we examine the messages delivered by some of the earlier prophets like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah we see that God wanted the people to practice what they professed. Acts of worship become empty, ritualistic and meaningless when they are not accompanied actions. This is what James emphasizes, right? Faith without deeds is dead!
God, here, is telling the people that He wants them to produce fruits of righteousness. Basically, God is saying the rituals, the fasts, the feasts, in and of themselves mean nothing. “I want you and I want you to live your life in a way that reflects your relationship with Me, that demonstrates that to others,” He is saying. Justice, mercy and compassion should be character traits of true followers of Christ. The widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor are people who are vulnerable and who have no ability to repay acts of kindness. Because of that these individuals become easy prey for those who are unscrupulous. Followers of God who worship with integrity, however, do not oppress or defraud or take advantage of those who cannot defend themselves. Again, this is exactly what James says in 1:27, writing, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”
Finally, in verses 11-14, God instructs the people to learn from the past. We can learn a lot from the experiences of others, from the lives of those who have gone before us. It is not necessary for us to experience everything for ourselves in order to learn! Here, God says that “they”–the Israelites addressed by the earlier prophets before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity–refused to listen to God. God gives five specific responses of the ancestors toward His commands to treat each other with truth, justice, love, compassion and fairness. What were those responses?
1. They refused to pay attention (v 11)
2. They turned a stubborn shoulder (v 11) – this pictures an oxen that will not let its owner put a yoke on its shoulders
3. They closed their ears (v 11)
4. They made their hearts like a rock (v 12) – God wants pliable, open, yielded hearts
5. They would not obey the law or the words of the prophets (vv 12 and 13)
What was the result of this? In verse 13, God says because of their hardness, their disobedience, their rebellion, when they called, He did not listen. Not until the invasion finally came did the people call out to God and by then it was too late. Even then, in fact, they called out to God primarily for physical deliverance, not out of repentance and confession.
The last sentence of verse 14 is important. No doubt there were some people among those in Judah who blamed Babylon for what had happened to Jerusalem and the surrounding land. No, God says; it was the ancestors, the unbelief and disobedience of the people that caused the downfall. Sin has consequences.
Like the people of Judah, we need to examine our worship. Are we worshiping God with sincerity? Are we worshiping Him with integrity?