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This past Sunday I had the joy of preaching at St. John the Baptist Anglican Church, here on the MEF campus. It is a tiny congregation with Zambians, muzungus, and Malayalees. In other words, it is a coming together of the various contexts in which I have lived! They have been doing a study of Zechariah, taking on a hefty two chapters per Sunday. The following is the Sermon I preached.
This carving of Jesus is the same carving that welcomed me everyday at the Mundakapadam Mandiram Society Chapel in Kerala. Again, talk about my contexts coming together!
Visions of the Kingdom
Zechariah has been having a lot of visions at night. These visions have been metaphorical, difficult to understand, in need of interpretation. Now, a year later, the LORD of hosts is speaking more directly to Zechariah so that the prophet can give a clear message to the Israelites: “They shall be my people and I will be their God, in faithfulness and in righteousness.”
The Israelites had been in exile under the Babylonians for generations and now were subjects of the vast Persian empire. Their temple had been destroyed, and in an all-too-familiar repetition of history they were forced to wander far and wide away from their homeland. As the major prophets make clear, this time of exile was not good for the people. For, as they wandered into the hearts of these empires they wandered away from their foundations as the people of YHWH, the LORD of hosts. They no longer had the temple with the holy of holies at their geographic center, and this time around they did not have the column of smoke, the column of fire, and the tabernacle in their midst as they traveled. Neither the Babylonians nor the Persians were necessarily bad or evil. The problem, though, was that in these other lands and cultures many Israelites had lost their identity. They no longer saw themselves as God’s people, following in faithfulness and righteousness.
It is a terrible prospect to be forced away from one’s cultural and religious identity! We have seen this happen too many times in our world—with the trans-Atlantic and trans-Arabian slave trades, colonialism by the Western world, and continued human trafficking across tribal and national boundaries for the purposes of labor and rape. This wiping away of identity across a population is rightly called cultural genocide.
Yet, Darius, emperor of Persia, finally allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem. In the books of Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, and now Zechariah, we see a new generation coming back to the homeland. For the first time in a long time the Israelites had that rare and precious phenomenon: HOPE. OH THE JOYS OF HOPE!
The difficulty, though, was that this was a generation that had never known Jerusalem. This was a generation that had been raised in an entirely different context with an entirely different cultural identity. This was a generation that was not anchored to home. So, even though they had made it back to the geographical homeland, they had not yet made it back to their true identity.
Oh, they were trying. Or, as we would say in the U.S., they were going through the motions. We see this when the LORD of hosts rebukes their fasting, saying, “When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink only for yourselves?” The situation on the ground was not good. Again, we hear the LORD of hosts saying, “For before those days there were no wages for people or for animals, nor was there any safety from the foe for those who went out or came in, and I set them all against one another.”
This situation is very familiar to us. There are no wages for people. Look at the levels of unemployment here in Zambia and really across the world, especially for young people who most need to enter the work force! There is no safety from the foe for those who go out or come in, and people are set against one another. Look at how people with different political ideologies are treating each other! Look at the ever-growing levels of violence across this world! Look at the ways in which refugees fleeing violence and poverty are being treated! The world is in crisis. Zambia is in crisis.
AND YET we must not forget that rare and precious phenomenon. HOPE. For, in the midst of this new generation the LORD of hosts started speaking loudly and clearly to the prophets. “But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as in the former days,” says the LORD of hosts. “For there shall be a sowing of peace; the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground shall give its produce, and the skies shall give their dew.” God promises an abundance of those resources most needed for the thriving of life: PEACE, FOOD, AND WATER. Indeed, God gives a glimpse of what we Christians today call the Kingdom—“Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.”
People will live long and happy lives! Children will not only survive, but they will have the God-given right of being children—of playing, exploring the world around them, and experiencing joy! The old and the young shall share the streets with each other and enjoy each other in harmony! HOW WE NEED THIS VISION OF THE KINGDOM TODAY! Zambia needs this vision of the Kingdom today, when children and old alike are dying of poverty, malnutrition, and AIDS. The city of Jerusalem needs this vision of the Kingdom again today, as Palestinian children are being murdered in the streets by Israeli security forces.
The LORD of hosts, however, will not bring this vision to reality without the work of God’s people. God requires that the people rebuild the temple. Let’s take a moment to explore what this means, to rebuild the temple. This was a generation that had not known the original temple, that building of beauty and power commissioned by Solomon. They had no awareness of a place that God called home amongst the people. As we saw earlier, this was also a generation that had not known the tabernacle, the vehicle of God journeying alongside of the people in their wandering. In other words, they only knew God through stories. They did not know the living, breathing God. Rebuilding the temple, then, would mean making the living, breathing God a home back in their midst. It would mean making this God the CENTER OF LIFE. It would mean reclaiming their identities as the people of God.
This passage is remarkably relevant for us today! Not only are we experiencing the difficult and unjust situations listed before, but we are also in dire need of reclaiming our identities as people of God. We need to make God the CENTER OF LIFE.
How do we do so? How do we rebuild the temple? Again, the passage is remarkably relevant. For, the LORD of hosts provides us with the timeless answer: “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” Let me repeat that. “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”
Friends, the Zechariah generation did indeed rebuild the temple. They constructed a building in order to give God a home once again at their center. If you go to Jerusalem today, though, you will not find that structure. Another empire and colonial power—Rome—destroyed the second temple in the first century of the Common Era. Many people, especially Christians, want the temple to be rebuilt in Jerusalem once again. For, they think that the rebuilding of the temple will hasten the coming of Christ.
I have talked to Jewish friends and colleagues, though, who absolutely DO NOT want the temple to be rebuilt. They have come to realize that a return to the temple would only lead to a return to the levitical laws of sacrifice and purity. It would also mean that they would have to see Jerusalem as the centralized home of God. When we look at the world today, we can see why this would be a problem. Jews and Christians are ALL OVER the globe. How could we restrict the presence of the living, breathing God to a single geographic location? What these Jewish friends have taught me is that God can be the center of life no matter where we are or the situation in which we find ourselves. For, to rebuild the temple really means to follow that command to render justice, eliminate oppression, and destroy the evil we have in our hearts that turns us against each other. This is how we make God the center of our lives!
Friends, hear the Good News! We Christians have a unique understanding and offering of what it means to rebuild the temple. We believe in a messiah who declared, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up!” We believe in a messiah whose mission was to bring about true justice, to give new life to the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, and the poor, and to turn people’s hearts from evil! We believe in a messiah indeed rose up again from the dead, meaning that God is living amongst us no matter where we are! We believe in a messiah who is making that vision of the Kingdom a reality!
Our reading today ends with Zechariah proclaiming HOPE. At the beginning he rebuked empty fasting, but now he calls the people to have fasts that are seasons of joy and gladness, cheerful festivals. We are to celebrate the love of truth and peace. And, as we do so, let us open our hearts, arms, and doors to those who are seeking the LORD of hosts. Chapter 8 closes with a final vision of the Kingdom: In those days people from nations of every language shall say, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.” May we make it so. May people of every nation and tongue join together and declare in the fullness of truth, “God is with us!”