Monday, March 27, 2017

Zechariah: This is a King?

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Zechariah 1:1, 9:9-12:

When President Trump was deciding on cabinet picks, he said that one of the criteria he was using was to find people who, in his words, looked the part. He wanted them to look like they came from central casting so that people would believe they could do they job because they looked like they could do it. That’s not an unusual position, although it’s probably not stated as bluntly as that. One of the things Prince Charles was always going to have a problem with was the fact that he doesn’t look very king like. Now Prince William, who inherited some things from his mother, he looks like a king. We do the same thing as we see movies where Harrison Ford is plays the role of president, but we do not cast Danny DeVito as president. We have an idea of what rulers, leaders, important people are supposed to look like.  In scripture, we are told, when God is deciding to make David the king of Israel, that God looks at what people are like on the inside rather than on the outside to decide if they are worthy or not, and so David is being chosen over others, but then what are we immediately told about David? That he is a good-looking guy. We still do the same thing, after all, we cast Harrison Ford as president but we do not cast Danny DeVito. It’s true even in the church. The clergy who get appointed to the largest churches are all men, an important issue to be considered, and they tend to be tall and they tend to have been jocks in high school, and quarter backs of the football team in particular. That is, they look the part. They match what we want to see in important leaders. But what if the one we are looking for, what if the king does not look like or match what we expect them to be? Will we accept them as such? Or will we seek to change them to become we want them to be rather than who they are and perhaps even who we need them to be?

The prophet Haggai, who we heard from last week, and Zechariah have many similarities. The first is that they are contemporaries with each other, including both beginning their prophetic careers in the same year, 520 BCE. This is the second year of King Darius, the leader of the Persian empire who is ruling over Judah after the people return from the Babylonian exile. Malachi, the last of the 12 Minor Prophets who we will hear from next week, also prophesies during the Persian Empire, so the last 3 books in the 12 all take place roughly during the same time period. Unlike Haggai, we are given a genealogy about Zechariah although there are some questions about it. In Zechariah, we hear that he is the son of Berechiah and the grandson of Iddo, but in the book of Ezra, we are told that Zechariah is the son of Iddo. Because often the superscriptions, which are the lists of genealogies appear to be later additions to the works, not things the prophets included about themselves, we don’t know which is correct.

But what we do have in this work is what appears to be the work of at least two people. There is widespread agreement among scholars that there are at least two different authors responsible for the book of Zechariah. The first 8 chapters are said to have been written by first Zechariah, and chapters 9-14 are written by second Zechariah, although there are some claims that chapters 12-14 might be written by a third person. There is no claim on which one is the actual Zechariah, although more than likely the first chapters are original and the later chapters are additions.  This would not have been unusual either in the ancient world, or in the Bible itself. The book of Isaiah is believed to have been written by 3 different people, with the latter two working in the school of Isaiah and so are saying things they believe he would have said or continuing in his train of thought and concern. There are lots of reasons why it is believed that there are two different authors in Zechariah, but the major reasons being that there is a dramatic change in focus between these sections, the later chapters use a wide variety of styles and references to other Hebrew scripture materials then the first eight chapters, and the personal characteristics of the prophet found in the first 8 chapters disappear in the later chapters.  In the grand scheme of things this does affect how we would interpret the work as a whole, but that is not our concern today and so has little impact on how we look at the passage we heard that sounds vaguely familiar to most of us because this is the passage that the gospel writers make reference to in regards to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem that we celebrate on Palm Sunday.

As I said, Haggai and Zechariah are contemporaries, Ezra nearly always mentions them in the same breath, but whereas Haggai is concerned with getting the Temple rebuilt and focuses on that as his priority, Zechariah is more concerned with Judah as a whole and the restoration of God’s promises and proclamations for Judah and in particular of their messianic expectations. In the first chapter, in what some people see as the summation of his prophecy, Zechariah reporting on his first of eight visions, with an angel guide, the angel says “’O Lord of hosts, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, with which you have been angry these seventy years?’ Then the Lord replied with gracious and comforting words, to the angel who talked to me, proclaim this message: Thus says the Lord of Hosts; I am very jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion.” He then goes on to proclaim that God is angry with the other nations, but that God’s cities “shall again overflow with prosperity; the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.” This is the message of hope that we have heard from so many of the prophets, but with a strong emphasis on a return of kings from the Davidic line to leadership.  It also comes with judgment against other nations but also still judgment about the leaders of Judah who have continued to lead the people astray.

In this it matches the promise of God that David’s line will continue on in leading Israel, a note of promise and of hope to David, who sometimes led a less than ideal or righteous existence but was and is considered the greatest king in Israelite history. But, when David tells his son Solomon who will reign after him about this promise, David does a little interpretation of God’s promise, and says it will only be true if the kings are loyal to God and do not stray from the path. But they strayed, and so now that they have been punished, God is seeking to try and set everything straight again, by restoring Judah to its former glory and building up messianic expectations of a time when everything will be completely arranged to how God wants it to be, and to do this God is coming to set things in order, and it begins with God as the warrior, an idea we have heard many times, coming down from the north just as so many invading armies have done towards Israel and Judah, but God is going to destroy those nations and rescue Judah, to bring the good news after 70 years of punishment.

There is a long list of the cities that will see destruction that will come upon them. But what is striking about this warrior God is that there is no army that accompanies God in this movement, nor is God using other nation’s armies to carry out these actions. God is doing this by God’s self. God is personally bringing about the Kingdom of God, which then puts an entirely different spin on this image of the warrior God then we have seen in other of the minor prophets which plays into the idea of the king that will ride triumphantly into Jerusalem which is that this is not a warrior king. This is not a king coming in fresh from defeating his enemies.This is not a king coming in with the triumph of war in his past. This is not the king we expect from central casting, this is someone entirely different. This is a king who is different not only from Israel’s experience of kings, but also from every other nations experience of a king.

Rejoice O Zion! Rejoice O Jerusalem! For your king comes to you. There were three expectations laid out about this king, about the messianic expectations of this king, although they are harder to see in the NRSV translation, which to remind you says “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Many translators object to the use of “triumphant and victorious” here not only because they don’t convey the true meaning of the Hebrew words, but also because they smack of military victory which is far from what is actually happening here. A better translation would be that the king comes, righteous and saved is he. Those are two of the expectations of the coming messiah. The first is that he would be righteous. According the Jewish scholar Maimonides, a righteous person is one “whose merit surpasses his” or her “iniquities.” Or to put it another way, one who has replaced their own desires and needs in order to follow the desires and needs of God. Someone who is seeking to follow and to do God’s will in the world, rather than their own, and from a Jewish perspective, one who is following God’s laws, and thus they live a life that is pleasing to God. That seems like a given for the messiah, but we remember that the term messiah means anointed one, and all the kings of Israel and Judah were anointed when they became king and clearly they did not live up to the expectation of being righteous, of living a life that is pleasing to God, and that he will also rule with righteousness and justice. This now becomes the baseline of expectations for the desired king.

So, the first expectation was that the messiah would be righteous, and the second was that he would be saved, although it’s much harder to find an English translation saving this, although some say “having salvation.” Being saved is clearly one of the harder ones for us as Christians to use, especially at the only time we do use it which is Palm Sunday, because we know that Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution await him. We believe in a messiah who must suffer and die, so how does saying the messiah is saved possibly fit into that scenario? Well, it’s a matter of definition.  Saved here means that they will given victory over their enemies by God. That he rules and relies not on his own strengths but on God’s strengths and wisdom. So being saved builds upon the idea of being and ruling with righteousness. Which leads us into the third characteristic, which is that this messianic king is humble.

Now when we hear that in its context of him riding we think that Jesus’ humbleness is reflected by his riding a donkey.  But, that is not a sign of humbleness, because that is just a messianic expectation that doesn’t start here with Zechariah but goes all the way back to Genesis. In the 49th chapter of Genesis, as Jacob is giving his final blessing to his 12 sons, he blesses Judah and says “your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you.” (Gen 49:8) and then a bit father on says Judah shall bind “his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine.” (49:11) So the donkey has nothing to do with humility but with being the rightful and legitimate ruler of Judah. Now as an aside, the listing of saying a donkey, and then in the next line saying a colt, the foal of a donkey, is not saying it’s a different animal, but instead is known as a poetic doubling, which is a literary form to make a point rather than saying there were two animals. But in Matthew, because he is so concerned with having Jesus fulfill prophecy, he actually has Jesus riding into Jerusalem on both a donkey and a colt. It’s true you can look it up. The other gospels reduce it to just one animal. But it’s what the donkey stands for that makes this passage important for us, and that is that the donkey is an ordinary working animal, and not a war horse.

What the other Jews who were making a pilgrimage into Jerusalem for the Passover would have seen was the Roman military bringing in a legion of troops to help keep the peace, with the leaders and the Roman governor coming in on mighty steeds, not donkeys, with the imperial banners waving in order to make an impression on the people and to prove their might and their worth. This is what legitimate kings and rulers look like. That was what was expected of kings, because that is how power was made visible. But in the 37th Psalm we read “a king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.” A donkey is a symbol of everyday life, indeed even life itself when we consider it’s uses, whereas the war horse is a bringer of war and death. So where do we find hope in the donkey or the warhorse? The one who brings peace and a radical different way of being and of seeing the world, or in the one who represents power and might but also war and death? The romans brought Pax Romana, roman peace, by conquering and destroying and threatening violence against anyone who challenged them. But what we see in this image from Zechariah, combined with the rest of his prophecy, what we see in Jesus riding triumphantly into Jerusalem, is that the way to peace is not through war, rather war is a consequence of rejecting peace. War is a consequence of choosing the war horse over the donkey, it is a consequence of choosing appearance over substance, it is a consequence of choosing the world over God. The image of the warrior God that we have seen throughout the prophets, at least according to Zechariah, is not the way that God wants to be but instead the response to the world’s rejection of God’s peace and healing and hope. God’s king reigns from a donkey and brings peace, true peace, rather than reigning through war, which is how the passage concludes.

Because the one who rides in on a donkey, but not just a donkey, but the foal on that donkey, “will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem; and the battle-bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” This will happen not because the other nations are destroyed and eliminated, but because they are brought together, for in verse 6 we are told that the remnant of the Philistines shall become like a tribe of Judah, they shall be like the Jebusites, who were the original inhabitants of Jerusalem but who continued to live there in peace with the Israelites. So, the one who comes in the name of the Lord, comes not to bring judgment but salvation and not just to a few chosen, but to the entire world. This king exercises universal dominion, and comes in the light of salvation and peace that God has already delivered. That’s the power of God’s peace and the power of God’s hope. It is not the exertion of power and might, but the exertion of love and peace and forgiveness. Because the one who rides into Jerusalem on a donkey is not saved the way the world says he should be saved because he suffers and dies on a cross, and yet he gains victory because death itself is defeated. When we reject the idea of peace and reconciliation then we reject the image of the messiah and accept the ways of the world over the ways of God. We are called to see in Jesus the fulfillment of God’s promises, the personification of righteousness and of salvation, of peace and victory, for, as Paul says, “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:7b-11)  May it be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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