March 28, 2010

Humbly Victorious

How do you start over when everything has fallen apart? We live in a broken world. We all know that. As a function of this brokenness, there are times and places and situations in which people lose everything. It could be a house fire that consumes nearly all of a family’s worldly possessions. In the northern states right now thanks to the incredible amount of snow that fell this winter the people are dealing with equally incredible flooding. I grew up in the Midwest and remember vividly the 1993 floods and the pictures of entire houses being swept away in the torrent. Now, as part of growing up in the Midwest I heard a lot about Tornado Alley, but surely this part of the country knows the reality of hurricanes and tornados. The destructive power of wind is hard to believe until it is experienced. There have been a number of devastating earthquakes around the world recently. Wars ravage whole nations and tear apart lives and lifestyles. Tragic illnesses can take a family right up to the brink of financial ruin and even send them sailing over the edge. But all of these are things over which we have no control. What about when disasters strike that are of our own making? What about the couple that has sinfully lived far beyond their means for a long time and is facing bankruptcy and the host of losses that accompany it? How does somebody like Tiger Woods who has played the harlot and is now dealing with the after effects of such illicit behavior recover?

I think we can safely say that the people of Israel fit squarely within this second category. For reasons to which we simply aren’t privy, God chose the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be singled out for special blessing. He chose to use them in order to bless the rest of the world as the nation from which He would bring the redeemer of all humanity. As a part of this covenant, however, God set some boundaries in place by which the people needed to live in order to maintain a relationship with Him. Well, a big chunk of the story of the Old Testament is about how the people of Israel took these boundaries and ignored them in every conceivable way. God gave them chance after chance after chance to get back on track. He sent them prophets to warn them both gently and sternly. He gave them foretastes of the judgment that was coming if they didn’t shape up. He spoke in signs and wonders. He delayed judgment when the people turned around for a time. He did everything He could and they still turned from Him, trampled on His mercy, and pursued their own path. As a result, He stepped back and let history take its course (under His sovereign guidance). The more powerful Babylonians to the north came in, conquered them, and hauled them off in captivity for 70 years. Still, during this whole time God sent more prophets to give them messages of hope and encouragement that this time of exile was going to come to an end someday and they were going to get to go back home. He was giving them another chance. But when they finally got to go back home, they found that everything had fallen apart. Nothing was the same. They had to rebuild their society from the ground up. Rebuilding a society is tough work. And, because the root problems hadn’t been dealt with (the complete removal of sin), the same sinful desires were there. They (and we, no less) were truly slow learners. They needed the hope that God was going to provide a way to deal with the root of the problem so that they were not forever bogged down by their sinful proclivities. They needed to know that God really was on their side and that things were going to be okay. Let’s be honest: we need to know the same things.

One of the most important aspects of the rebuilding of Israelite society was the reconstruction of the temple. The temple was the primary place of worship for the people. It was the place identified by God where they could enter into His presence and worship Him. Well, like us, their memories were pretty short. They had gotten used to living without the temple and even having worship services in Babylon. Once they got what they determined to be the essentials for society back in place they started getting back to normal life. And think about it: when everything has fallen apart because of something we’ve done, the primary goal is a return to normalcy and anything that serves as a reminder of what once was is avoided. The people started getting back to what they saw as normal life without building back the religious structures identified by God as important. As a result, God sent two more prophets to encourage them to not forget to include Him as they rebuilt their lives. The first of these was the prophet Haggai who focused specifically on the reconstruction of the temple building. The second was Zechariah. His focus was more on the lifestyle that needed to accompany the temple rebuilding. The other thing he talked about was the future. Through the prophet Zechariah, God gave the people messages of hope that He was still working in history for their good. He gave them the great promise that He was in fact going to establish His kingdom which would be for their good.

The first eight chapters of the book focus a bit more on the contemporary rebuilding of the temple. From chapter nine to the end of the book the language shifts to be much more future focused and messianic in nature. In fact, the New Testament draws more from Zechariah 9-14 in terms of demonstrating how the Messiah was heralded in the Old Testament than any other book in the Bible. Well, as we close our journey of seeing how Jesus was predicted and described throughout the Old Testament this morning, I want to look with you at the first of these: Zechariah 9. If you have your Bibles close, turn there with me. Find Matthew and then go back two books and you’ll find Zechariah. On this Palm Sunday when we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant ride into Jerusalem, what we find here is the prophecy that first predicted this ride. But this is far from the only treasure we can find in these verses. Thus far in our journey through the Old Testament, we have seen much about the coming of the Messiah. We celebrate all this, but it does not give us something to anticipate the way it did the first hearers. What we find in God’s word this morning is something into which we can at last sink our own teeth: a prediction of the Messiah’s final victory over this world. This prophecy of the end of times is paired with prophecy about the Messiah’s first coming in such a way that we see here not only the fact of God’s final victory over sin but also the nature of that victory. You see, the people of Judah needed to know that God was going to be victorious over all the things standing against Him—we need to know the same. But just as important as this knowledge is the understanding of the nature of His victorious kingdom: humility and love, salvation and shalom. That’s right. When Jesus comes back it will be in victory. “He’s coming back on a cloud with a shout and no one’s going to get in His way,” as a great song puts it. Yet the path to this victory will not have been cleared by stomping down opposition and casting those who stand in the way to the gutter. The path has been paved by humbly enduring a rebellious world while gently and graciously calling its members to the path of life. In other words, God’s kingdom will be humbly victorious.

This fact is worth celebrating and proclaiming. We have to explain it well because in a world where power and money talk it comes across as an oxymoron. But it is the proper reflection of reality nonetheless. Yet there is another fact with which must be dealt before we can get too far here. As it turns out, this is where our passage begins as well. Before victory can be proclaimed, sin must first be dealt with. We need the hope that the people and systems of this world which are opposed to God will be dispatched never again to disrupt the celebrations of the righteous. For the people of Judah who were trying to rebuild life in Jerusalem after the exile (note that Israel no longer existed as it had been destroyed by the Assyrians) these people and systems took the form of the nations surrounding them that had been a source of trouble for the Israelites throughout their history. Listen to the words of the prophet, starting in 9:1, as he sets the stage for God’s humbly victorious kingdom. “An Oracle: The word of the Lord is against the land of Hadrach, and Damascus is its resting place—for the eyes of men and all the tribes of Israel are on the Lord—and also against Hamath, which borders it, as well as Tyre and Sidon, though they are very shrewd.” Then from vv. 5-6: “Ashkelon will see it and be afraid; Gaza too, and will writhe in great pain, as will Ekron, for her hope will fail. There will cease to be a king in Gaza, and Ashkelon will become uninhabited. A mongrel people will live in Ashdod, and I will destroy the pride of the Philistines.” So we see here a list of the typical enemies of the people of Judah and they are described as having the word of the Lord against them. They will be brought down and judged. This was good news for the people of Judah who were trying to rebuild their lives. The peoples who had opposed them so bitterly and in so many different ways were going to be brought down by God. Yet there are a couple of things worth noting here. First, Israel is mentioned. This was odd because as we said a minute ago, Israel didn’t exist anymore. How are the eyes of Israel going to be on the Lord if in fact there are no such eyes? Perhaps this is more forward thinking a section of this passage than it first seemed. Second, the nations mentioned here did not represent an active threat to Judah when this prophecy was given. They were either gone or militarily powerless. So why choose them? Perhaps God is saying that all those who oppose Him will be made like these who have fallen. They will not stand against the Lord forever. They will not prosper from their sinfulness
without limitation.

Speaking of this, look again at the specific things God outlines as reasons for His judgment. First He speaks more specifically to Tyre. Pick back up with me in v. 3: “Tyre has built herself a fortress; she has heaped up silver like dust and gold like the dirt of the streets. Listen! The Lord will impoverish her and cast her wealth into the sea; she herself will be consumed by fire.” Tyre was famous for being an unassailable city. It had previously withstood more than two decades of military sieges by both Assyria and Babylon. These fortifications had allowed the people of Tyre to develop an attitude of invincibility and self-sufficiency. Imagine, then, the mental and spiritual place to which all of this wealth and security had led the people. Tyre is a perfect example that sometimes the world seems to prosper. They were not an especially wicked people. Their former king, Hiram, was a close friend of both David and Solomon. They provided most of the wood and many of the workers for Solomon’s building projects. But they did not worship the Lord. Sometimes we look at people like Tyre who aren’t believers but don’t seem all that bad and are prospering while we struggle and wonder if it’s worth it. But you see, eventually the Piper is going to come and demand his payment. We forget that judgment is coming sometimes because God is so gracious with us. We forget to the point that some of us start to believe that it is in fact not coming. We can do whatever we please and pay no consequences. Isn’t the attitude of this world? This is a common, but dangerous attitude. The Bible promises over and over and over that judgment is coming for sin and all those who pursue its empty promises. Remember the lions swimming to Madagascar? Yes, Tyre was famous for being unconquerable and for being incredibly wealthy. They built their worldview on these two “truths” and felt invincible. Yet neither of these two, which the world views as so very important, will profit them anything we are told here. And as it turns out, not long after this prophecy Alexander the Great destroyed the city beyond recognition. When judgment comes, all will be laid bare before the onslaught. In the same way, when we feel like we are set for the future because we have a solid house or plenty of money put away from some hypothetical rainy day we are setting ourselves up for a long, hard fall. Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to us is to go through some hard experience—like fending off two world powers in Tyre’s case—in which we are able to successfully rely on our savings. This can easily give us the false hope that we can weather the storms of life okay on our own. We did it once, the thought goes. If we have enough money in place we’ll be able to weather the next one whenever it comes. This is what happened to Tyre. They weathered incredible storms because of the systems they put in place. Their systems seemed to work. Yet this was no blessing, friends. It was a curse because they learned to rely on themselves instead of God. When we walk this path, we set ourselves up for disaster because when we disconnect from God and start to rely on ourselves, death and judgment are the only things that will come. If you’ve ever found yourselves saying, after some crisis, “Whew! Good thing we had all that saved up. We managed to pull ourselves through it. We’ll have to save up a lot for the next time just in case it comes,” watch out! Unless our hope and help are found explicitly in the Lord we are walking on thin ice with sharp metal spikes on the bottom of our feet.

After setting Tyre in her place, God turns His attention to Philistia. Hear His words to them: “I will remove the blood from their mouths and the detestable things from between their teeth.” We all know that the Philistines were the hated enemies of Israel. Here their fall is envisioned. The reference to blood and detestable things in their mouths is a reference to their idolatrous religious practices. The idolatrous practices of Judah’s neighbors are easy for us to recognize as grotesque and wrong. Seeing someone drink blood would gross us out. Yet these practices were not so culturally unacceptable in that day. We have our own idolatries today which Satan has helped to shape to be just as culturally acceptable as those of the ancients. They bowed down before statues made of wood and metal and participated in drunken orgies in order to somehow achieve a spiritual union with their gods and goddesses. We sit down before a box made of plastic and metal and glass and watch others prostrating themselves before various things in order to feel a spiritual connection with the god of materialism. Different form; same substance. When we put things before God and live lives which give no evidence of His existence to those who see us, we are following in a long line of worshipers all of whom have been promised judgment. The other side of this, of course, is going through seemingly proscribed religious rituals without giving our hearts to God. God has even more dire warnings in other places for these folks, but that’s not what’s in view here.

So we have this series of verses in which God calls out various past enemies of His people and pronounces judgment on them. In this list we can certainly find ourselves. The mistakes of those who came before us may not look the same anymore, but the heart of the rebellion hasn’t changed a whit. Yet look at the end of v. 7. Look at what God says about these people on whom He has just pronounced judgment. “Then they too will become a remnant for our God; they will become like a clan in Judah and Ekron like the Jebusites. I will set up camp at My house against an army, against those who march back and forth, and no oppressor will march against them again, for now I have seen with My own eyes.” God no sooner finishes talking about how He is going to bring these people down then He announces that they too are going to become like a faithful remnant, dedicated to serving Him. Let me ask you something: when a new president takes office how much of the former president’s cabinet does he maintain? Or better yet, how many of the people from his opponent’s campaign does he bring in to help him govern? That’s right: none. Notta. Zero. That doesn’t happen. It doesn’t make sense. Their vision for governing is fundamentally at odds with his. Yet here we find God defying human reason once again. Every judgment of God prior to the final judgment outlined in the book of Revelation is redemptive in intent. His goal is always to bring people into the fold of His kingdom. His kingdom will be victorious over all those who oppose it, but what incredible humility this is. The kingdom of God will be humbly victorious. There will be those who turn to the Lord in the last days whom we never imagined would. God does not turn anyone who earnestly seeks Him away, but desires that all the world should freely come to love and obey Him. So in these first verses of the chapter we find God paving the way for the coming king by putting down those who pridefully oppose Him and then inviting them to be a part of His kingdom. And this is really important to the rest of book. As one Old Testament scholar who has since gone to be with the Lord noted: “The first section of this second part of the book establishes from the start two important facts: the Lord’s victory is certain, and he intends to bring back to himself peoples long alienated from him. These truths underlie all that follows…”1

With the way thus prepared, the prophet announces the arrival of the King. Read with me starting in v. 9: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout in triumph, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your King is coming to you; He is righteous and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the horse from Jerusalem. The bow of war will be removed, and He will proclaim peace to the nations. His dominion will extend from sea to sea, from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth.” These are the words Jesus fulfilled with His victorious ride into Jerusalem at the beginning of His final week on earth. As the people of Jerusalem waved palm branches and threw their cloaks on the ground for Him to ride on they were unknowingly celebrating the coming of the King; the King who proclaimed the kingdom of God; the King who demonstrated that the kingdom of God will be humbly victorious. This is indeed a reason for rejoicing. The King has come. He has come in victory—His enemies are laid low before Him. He has come in righteousness—He conforms perfectly to God’s standards and is thus rightly related to Him and other people. He has come bringing salvation—this is an alternate but legitimate translation of His coming in victory. Essentially, salvation came when victory was achieved thus both are legitimate interpretations. He has come in humility. Let’s stay on this point for just a minute. We have talked about this before but let me define humility for you. Humility is not thinking we’re not good at things. It is not saying we are worse than we are in order to make others feel better about themselves. Humility is having a full understanding of who we are and being okay with that. It is letting others become fully themselves because this represents no threat our core identity as created by God. So how can God be described as humble? He is humble because He knows fully who He is. He wants us to become fully who we were designed to be (by Him) because this will increase our joy and His glory of which He knows He is worthy. He is humble in giving us this chance because we don’t deserve it. He is the Creator of the universe who has been offended to His face by His creation. Yet He does not first come in obliterating judgment but humbly walking a lifetime in our shoes to be fully acquainted with our experience so that He can adequately offer us the life for which we were intended. He comes first peacefully bringing the good news of His kingdom. The donkey was a symbol of peace, not humiliation in the ancient world. Victory will come, but the kingdom of God will be humbly victorious. This is the promise of v. 9 and it was fulfilled in Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem. The promise of v. 10 and its hope of Christ victoriously reigning over all of creation with the full shalom of His presence obviously has not yet happened. This will come with His return. This we have to look forward to as His contemporary followers. Christ came once clothed fully in humility. He will return as a conquering hero to proclaim once and for all His victory. The kingdom of God will indeed by humbly victorious.

The remainder of the chapter talks about what happens between now and then. The words describe just how complete His victory will be and yet do so in language of continued humility. Hear these words well: “As for you, because of the blood of your covenant [probably the Law of Moses], I will release your prisoners from the waterless cistern [a deep, dark prison from which there is no escape without the aid of another…kind of like sin]. Return to a stronghold [like God’s kingdom], you prisoners who have hope; today I declare that I will restore double to you [probably indicating an exact replacement, not a numerical doubling…either way an enormous blessing]. For I will bend Judah as My bow; I will fill that bow with Ephraim [This is a picture of the Lord using His people to accomplish His purposes in His cosmic battle against the forces aligned against Him, not necessarily a picture of some great future armed conflict. God needs no shield and sword to advance His line. We are God’s weapons of choice for advancing His cause in the world.]. I will rouse your sons, Zion, against your sons, Greece. I will make you like a warrior’s sword [Paul would later describe the Spirit as the sword of the believer.]. Then the Lord will appear over them, and His arrow will fly like lightning. The Lord God will sound the trumpet and advance with the southern storms. The Lord of Hosts will defend them. They will consume and conquer with slingstones; they will drink and be rowdy as if with wine. They will be as full as the sprinkling basins, like those at the corners of the altar.” The imagery of this last part is that of a people totally victorious over their enemies. Imagine a rowdy hall of Vikings who have just wiped out another village and are toasting each other and getting uproariously drunk as they celebrate. The imagery is actually even more graphic than that, but I’ll let you ask me about that later. The Bible is not a book for the faint of heart, no? This victory is complete with no question of the foe which was vanquished rising back up to attack again. This is a picture of the enemies of God (and thus of His people) absolutely subdued, never again to challenge His authority as God. Friends, whatever it is that you’re facing now, know well that one day God’s victory will be complete. All of your failings and frailties will be washed away. All the trials and temptations you face will cease entirely. When you place your life in God’s hands, you have reason for hoping. If you have not done so, rest assured that there is no hope for you apart from turning your life over to Him and accepting His Son as the King He is revealed to be in these words. The victory of God’s kingdom will be humbly won but it will be complete. God’s kingdom will be humbly victorious.

The question I asked you several minutes ago was what you do when things fall apart? Thanks to the sin born into us as broken humanity we all start out in pieces. Life itself is a process of rebuilding ourselves in someone’s image. The question we must answer is whose. We can certainly try rebuilding in the world’s image, apart from God. The wealth and secure life of the people of Tyre was no doubt greatly alluring to the returning exiles. It still is to us. Yet the fruits of such a life are as clear as they could be. Such a life is a dead-end street. The kingdom of God offers us another option. It offers the acknowledgement that this world is broken, but that there is still hope amid the brokenness. It clearly announces that we suffer now and are going to suffer more before things are over. Yet buried within this suffering is the promise of life and redemption. In the midst of the brokenness we find that life is available. The Creator of the universe allows us to become fully who He made us to be that we may humbly worship Him and that He may humbly accept our worship. Listen to the last words Zechariah writes in chapter nine: “The Lord their God will save them on that day as the flock of His people; for they are like jewels in a crown, sparkling over His head. How lovely and beautiful they will be! Grain will make the young men flourish, and new wine, the young women.” That sounds like the kind of kingdom I want to be a part of. God calls us to be jewels in His crown. All of this comes when we fully enter God’s kingdom. So again, what do we do when everything falls apart? We dig down and set ourselves on the foundation of the kingdom. The King who road into town to great celebration established His land through a cross so that all those who follow Him may live with Him. God’s kingdom will be humbly victorious. The only question remaining is whether we will share in that victory.