My conversations the last few have involved quite a bit of reflection on the part of patriotic citizens. The pandemic has exposed just how little our elected leadership really cares about us. Everything associated with staying well, even something as simple as the wearing of masks, has become a question of political fidelity. So long as they get re-elected, our leaders has demonstrated their lack of care, if not outright contempt, for us.
The recent protests, riots, and conversations have also caused a bit of uncomfortable reflection. Most of grew up in an age where we were taught that America was the shining example for the world. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was our mantra. Better still, if you worked hard, you could experience the American dream. Now, much to our dismay, we are learning that our country did not provide the same opportunities for all her citizens. There are some decks stacked against folk, luck plays a big role in getting ahead, and hard work is no guarantee of success.
As folks have learned more about these imbalances and injustices, other conversations have occurred. People of color are being bombarded by their white friends with all kinds of questions. In some cases, people of color are feeling hounded by their white friends into sharing their stories. And then, once the stories are out there, the conversations can get super uncomfortable. Some white friends want absolution or moral judgments that they aren’t like other white folks, and people of color are put in the difficult decision of deciding how much to trust us. Is this the time we pay attention and fix things? Or will this be like every other protest that came before. And what do they do with our blindness or oblivious or privileged reality that allowed their white friends not to see or to hear their stories? Yeah, I see the squirms.
In one conversation that stands out a bit, I was engaged in a discussion with a younger Adventer, though an adult. Schoolhouse Rock made its way to Disney during Coronatide. She wanted to know why she’d never seen it. To refresh your memories, Schoolhouse Rock was the Saturday morning cartoon commercials that taught us parts of speech, taught us about our ethos as a melting pot, taught us math, and even taught us that Interplanet Janet knew Pluto was a planet! You are all laughing this morning, but few under age 30 ever saw Schoolhouse Rock. I can remember Mrs. Johnson threatening taking off a full letter grade in American History if we broke into song while reciting the Preamble to the Constitution, and our younger members would not even recognize the tune if I hummed it this morning. What has happened to us?
In another outside group, I was reminded this week of a crowd favorite in Nashville. That discussion began with a complaint that folks in California are wanting to rename John Wayne Airport out in Los Angeles. Apparently, John Wayne was not the most morally upright character. I am shocked that an actor or actress is not a beacon of morality—as I have a mask on, and we have visitors, let’s be absolutely clear that was my sarcasm voice. I never turn to Hollywood to teach me how to behave properly in pretty much anything. There was great consternation regarding the discussion in this group. John Wayne was a hero to them. Truthfully, I could not bring myself to care much about the discussion. I know John Wayne played heroic characters, but I could not tell you a single thing about his real life.
That discussion got one of the members of the group to bring up Johnny Cash’s old . . . ballad? I don’t know what we rightly call it, but it was a really long song when I was a kid. It talked about the flag being tattered with bullet holes in Smalltown, USA. It told the story of the stories the flag had seen. The setting was Johnny on a bench with an older gentleman, and the older gentleman instructing the younger that the community was proud of the flag and the nation for which it stood. America was not a perfect nation, but it was trying hard. One day, it might even get there.
I have seen lots of nods, so I am guessing I am speaking into a number of other conversations. Those who have served wonder if the country will survive another generation or two. Law enforcement officials are fighting resentment—they are hated and despised until those that hate them need them. Our leadership demonstrates repeatedly they care only for the own aggrandizement and not the well-being of our citizens. Even police reform, which is the stated purpose of the protests, has become an election issue rather than an issue to be solved and voted upon in the manner in which our government operates. Things are not the way they were meant to be! And most of us probably are certain America has given up its professed aspirations.
Mercifully, our reading assigned for today is from the prophet Zechariah. My guess is that, if I asked you all to tell me what you know about Zechariah, the only thing you would know is the passage from which we read today. Each year, we celebrate the Triumphal Entry of Christ into Jerusalem. You know the day as Palm Sunday. Yes, Zechariah is THAT prophet. Zechariah is the prophet to whom the Gospel writers turn when they look to the prophesy that God’s Anointed would enter in humility. It will, because of that familiarity I think, be challenging for us to hear the words in the context in which they were delivered. But given the similarity between our context and that of Zechariah’s initial audience, it is certainly worth exploring on this weekend when we celebrate our Independence, when we remind ourselves that we are called by God to represent Him in the world around us, that we are ambassadors of His, planted in this country to speak with His voice, to see with His eyes, to desire the things He desires in His heart.
Those who come to Sunday morning Bible study are certainly familiar with the time. Most of the commentaries I turned to put the date of first Zechariah at around 520 BC. To place it in the biblical record, and to remind ourselves where we are in history, this comes many years after Jeremiah. Last week, we read the battling prophesies of Jeremiah and Hananiah. Hananiah famously prophesied that those Israelites carried off into Exile by Babylon would be returned within two years, along with all the stolen vessels and artifacts from the Temple. In dramatic flair, Hananiah even took Jeremiah’s wooden yoke and broke it, signifying that Israel subjugation by Babylon was coming to an end.
For His part, Jeremiah wished Hananiah’s prophesy was true. Jeremiah longs for the return of those in Exile and the Temple vessels, but Jeremiah is certain it is not going to happen any time soon. Israel is stiff-necked. Israel refuses to repent and return to Yahweh and His instructions. God gives Jeremiah the prophesy that Hananiah’s will prove false, that Hananiah will be dead before the year ends, and Babylon’s subjugation of Israel will intensify. As an outward sign of that prophesy, God commanded Jeremiah to wear an iron yoke. Not surprising to this group assembled today on this holiday weekend in Nashville, Jeremiah’s prophesy has proven true. Hananiah dies within a few months of his false prophesy. The exiles are not returned within two years, nor are the Temple vessels brought back. And, true to the image of the yoke, Babylon’s enslavement of Israel has become more rigid, more firm. Years have passed before our reading today. Israel knows Jeremiah was correct, but most folks refused to repent and return to God.
For the faithful remnant, though, the experience has been horrific. I have reminded you over and over that the possession of the Land was the outward sign of the inward and spiritual grace. Just as your partaking of the Eucharist today is a pledge of God’s promises to you, ownership of the Land, the family plot, was a pledge of God’s promises to them. Nobody owns their plots. Worse, they are enslaved by Babylon. Their leaders’ sons and daughters are serving the king. Temple sacrifices are no longer happening. And, just to rub it in from time to time, the king has parties and uses the Temple vessels to demonstrate the power of Marduk over Yahweh.
The cosmological understanding prevalent throughout the Mediterranean basin was that the things that happened on earth were happening in the heavens AND the things that were happening in the heavens were mirrored by events on earth. Think of it as a symbiotic relationship. We would pray to our God and offer sacrifices. The more faithfully we did this, the stronger our god got. The stronger our god was, the better he could fight the other gods OR the more our god could bless us when we fought those who worshipped other gods. The people of Israel were famously derided and mocked for their refusal to ignore that certainty. Even when they were exiled and their God had clearly lost, the faithful remnant refused to worship or acknowledge other gods. They remained true to Him and His promises.
But let’s think of the weight of that faithfulness. Everybody around them mocked them for their loyalty in spite of the evidence. Their refusals to worship other gods prevented them from being seen as part of the communities where they had been moved. The temptation to follow the herd would have been strong.
Theologically speaking, the faithful people of Israel were worried that God had finally given up on them. These last acts and refusals to repent according to the word of Jeremiah had caused Yahweh’s patience finally to run out. The Temple was no more. David’s descendants had been carried off into slavery. There was no chance of them being restored to the throne. Plus, a lot of people chose to do as the cultures around them demanded in order to fit in, to experience a less burdensome life.
Talk about hopelessness and depression on a grand scale. Sound familiar? Feel familiar?
It is into that morass that Zechariah is given these words to speak. Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter, Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you . . . I know we are familiar with these words from the Palm Sunday liturgy, but can you imagine how ridiculous they sounded in the ears of faithful, remnant Israel in Babylon and scattered around the western basin? Can you imagine how crazy their gentile neighbors would have seen them, had they rejoiced and held out any hope that their king would return? Yet that is precisely the promise made by God.
Of course, as good a promise as that sounds, God has more in mind. This king who comes to Israel will come humble and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey. We spend a bit of time each year noticing the difference between Pilate’s triumphal entry, as an ambassador of Caesar, and the triumphal entry of Jesus of Nazareth. They could not be more different. Pilate enters on the warhorse, with the battalions at parade ready. Caesar’s rule is absolute. And, as bad as Israel might find Caesar as a conqueror, at least he left the Temple standing and most of them in their lands. All they have to do to keep Caesar from hurting or humiliating them more is to obey the laws and to pay their taxes.
Babylon, by contrast, has uprooted Israel and torn down the Temple. Now they live in foreign lands and may not speak the language. And there is no opportunity to fulfill the sacrifices required by the torah. And God’s prophet is claiming the king will come in a humble manner, as if Babylon will just decide not to fight him to keep Israel enslaved. It’s nuts.
Zechariah, of course, is still not finished. This king will command peace! Have you ever heard anything that crazy? Imagine you have been carted off by a conquering nation and dispersed to keep you from fomenting civil unrest. The king is going to come, and your current overlords are just going to accept his command to peace? What must they thought the prophet was thinking? It would have been well received as if I stood here today telling you that our next President is going to command unity. Those are definite scoffing noises in the sanctuary. I hope none of you at home spit out your coffee on your devices.
Where were we? Oh, yeah, the humble king is going to command peace. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem. The instruments of warfare will be broken. And somehow, somehow this humble king who commands peace will see his dominion extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.
If I prophesied this today, would you accept it? Would you believe it? If I had strolled to the pulpit and read the words of the prophet Zechariah and gave you no context, no background, would you accept it as the word of God I today? Keep in mind, we are plagued by a pandemic! (pun intended) We are experiencing social awakening and unrest. We are experiencing economic destruction. We are participating in how many conflicts around the world. And I have not even gotten to the personal stuff, the things that make us wonder whether God has given up on us.
Today is a Healing Sunday. We will have Adventers come forward, I hope, for healing. In some cases, Adventers have been coming forward for months or longer and, as far as they are concerned, He has not heard their cry. Death stalks a couple members so closely that their loved ones can feel it, see it, fear it. The anxiety levels of folks are off the chart thanks to all those macro events I mentioned a few seconds ago. Family relationships are, to use a kind word, frayed. Many of us have experienced that truism that family is like fish. The longer they hang around . . . . lol. Some of us are worried that we are seeing the Goths come over the walls in Rome, that we are living in the demise of our nation, our nation that most of us love, that many of us served, and that we valued because it set the bar so high. And, just in case we forget, we have a general election in just four months. Those ads on television and radio and those wonderful declarations on social media are not likely to get kinder and softer and allay any anxieties.
We are not unlike those who first heard Zechariah’s words from God.
Of course, if we trusted God, if we had faith that He really was Who He said He was and that He had power to keep all His promises, we would have received those words gladly, eagerly! Still, it is not enough for God! God realizes our hurts, our doubts, our fears, and our anxieties. Loving Father that He is, He even speaks to those in this amazing word. Today I declare I will restore you to double. In the midst of all that evidence to the contrary in the world, in the midst of that maelstrom of strong feelings and anxieties, God reminds His people of His love for them. He reminds each and every member of Israel, male or female, that He will restore them double. In our world, however many years and miles removed, we do not hear the promise of the firstborn. God loves all His children like a firstborn.
We think of Israel as an agrarian society and in need big families to tend the family farm. In some cases, that was true just as it was for other cultures in the world. But children had a sacramental role in Israel. They were the outward sign of the inward and spiritual grace of God. To the people of Israel, a firstborn was a sign of the continuing covenant with God for that family. They might not get to share in the reign of Messiah themselves, but so long as there was a firstborn, God’s covenant would be assured for another generation. And the possibility that one of their own descendants might experience those blessings caused faithful Israelites to give thanks to God by redeeming the firstborn. Israel was also meant to understand that wonderful proverb from SpiderMan—with great power comes great responsibility. Because the firstborn sons were responsible for caring for their parents in their old age, they were lavished with a double portion of inheritance. Yes, they received more, but they were expected to bear more. And here is God, reminding Israel in the midst of their utter defeat and ridicule, that He will restore them to double. There should be no fears about the validity of the covenant. There should be no fears about God’s continuing love of them.
You and I, of course, have it even easier. We live on this side of the fulfilment of the first promise in this prophesy. Our humble King has come! He has even gone so far as to command peace, but we do not listen. We do not yet obey. Better still, of course, we live on this side of His Passion and Cross, we live on this side of His Resurrection, we live on this side of His Ascension, and we live on this side of the coming of the Holy Spirit!
Each one of us who has undergone the sacrament of Baptism has found ourselves bound inexorably to the Lord God Almighty, and we have been reminded that He binds Himself inexorably to us. When we suffer, He suffers. When we mourn, He mourns. When we are mocked or derided or dishonored, He is likewise mocked and derided and dishonored. And He promises to each one of us that one day, one glorious day, He will return not as the humble King who entered Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey wooing the people of the earth to choose to follow Him, to listen to Him, to obey Him, but as THE KING, as the One to Whom all things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth bow and obey. That day, my friends, He returns to fulfill the last of His promises to His people, to wipe away every tear, to give us those eyes and ears and hearts for which we have longed, to dwell with His people, and to restore His children with double. But armored with that Word of hope, confidant of His redeeming power, we are sent back out there, back into the wildernesses of our lives to bear witness by word and deed, of His saving grace.
Like what does that double restoration look? As varied and as our ministries. What have you lost? What has been taken from you? What have you offered Him in thanksgiving for His saving work in you? We each have different answers to those questions. Similarly, we are each prepared uniquely for our work in the world. Our talents and passions and crosses are as numerous as the sands in the oceans or stars in the skies. On this day we remind ourselves of the opportunities we have to serve Him in this country where we were planted. Historically, Advent’s history has been in service to the poor, to those enslaved in our midst, and to those who have lost everything. We are uniquely equipped as a congregation to be those who speak to power even as we minister to those on the margins. In some sense, the tasks appointed may seem daunting. How do we change complex systems? How do we empower those from whom all power has been taken? How do we helped nudge this country along in fulfilling its promise as a land of opportunity, as a nation committed to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
Were all thise up to us, we would rightly despair. But He who keeps these promises, He who planned for our salvation long before we were ever born, He who assures us that He loves us even in spite of our dire circumstances, He who promises us that double restoration is the One who has given us that opportunity to serve. He has given us, those who have seen the beginning of the fulfillment of the word He gave to Zechariah in the triumphal entry of our Lord Christ, who know of His Death and Resurrection and Ascension, the glorious possibility to serve Him, not as the world would like, but as it needs, even if such service requires our very lives or seeming futility. But as firstborn inheritors of His promises, as a people soothed with the knowledge that we will dwell with Him for all eternity, we can attack what seems impossible or incredibly hard.
To what is He calling you my brothers and sisters? What is He asking you to do in this place, at this time, in these circumstances? That is a question we should be discerning constantly, not just on special feast days or holidays, but on every day in which He gives us breath.
In Christ’s Peace,