Painting God’s World
“Persisting: Painting God’s World
4th in Series on the Prophetic Imagination of God’s Kingdom Hope
9Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! 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. 10He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse 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. 11As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
12Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double. 13For I have bent Judah as my bow; I have made Ephraim its arrow. I will arouse your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and wield you like a warrior’s sword. 14Then the Lord will appear over them, and his arrow go forth like lightning; the Lord God will sound the trumpet and march forth in the whirlwinds of the south. 15TheLord of hosts will protect them, and they shall devour and tread down the slingers; they shall drink their blood like wine, and be full like a bowl, drenched like the corners of the altar. 16On that day the Lord their God will save them for they are the flock of his people; for like the jewels of a crown they shall shine on his land. 17For what goodness and beauty are his! Grain shall make the young men flourish, and new wine the young women.
We have come to the words of Zechariah, and the conclusion of this series listening to the prophetic voice speaking of God’s desires for how we are to live together – the prophetic imagination of “In that day,” the day of the Lord, how will the world appear?
Zechariah is representing for us the late tradition of the prophets. His prophetic message comes as the tradition of the prophetic – at least the literary tradition – is coming to a close and in the wake of their message apocalypticism emerges. Apocalypticism is born of a skeptical world view, skepticism turned to cynicism about human agency. It is formed from a weariness with the world and the inability for us to hear and live God’s word for us. And so the prophets turned visionaries imagine that the only way God’s Kingdom can emerge is a with a cosmic battle, a divine warrior making the kingdom win out against our stubborn waywardness – the care and indifference of all the nations to each other, and our casual disregard for those in need when it does not suit us. And an old tension is embraced at even greater lengths: a kingdom of peace established with war.
God’s vision is for a kingdom of peace – but we cannot imagine establishing such a kingdom without God appearing in overwhelming strength. And so cosmic battle and assertion of God’s unequaled strength must come first. And we see that tension clearly in Zechariah’s prophesy that the king who is to some, will arrive victorious…. on a donkey. A prophesy that should ring familiar to Holy Week hopes of Jesus. A king… yet humble and riding on a donkey.
And so it is that we come to our second reading and Zechariah providing us a review of the prophetic voice. You can hear his weariness and fatigue that this voice has been ignored “in the former prophets” and yet he cannot help but try one more time. Listen now to our second text from Zechariah 7:
4Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to me: 5Say to all the people of the land and the priests: When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? 6And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink only for yourselves? 7Were not these the words that the Lord proclaimed by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and in prosperity, along with the towns around it, and when the Negeb and the Shephelah were inhabited?
8The word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying: 9Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; 10do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. 11But they refused to listen, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears in order not to hear. 12They made their hearts adamant in order not to hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great wrath came from the Lord of hosts.
The origins of Zechariah’s cynicism is that the former prophets spoke and nobody listen. Prophet after prophet, generation after generation, spoke and nobody listened. The message stayed the same, clear and consistent, and yet nobody was willing to listen. Hearts adamantly closed.
But Zechariah tries again and provides the vision for how society would work by God’s creative imagination, what we might call the Kingdom of God or I like to call the Community of God…. “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; 10do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” This is the picture of the Kingdom God desires. This is the picture of how we are to live. That those who have no power, standing, or ability to provide for themselves: the widow, the orphan, the alien, the poor – that these who are treated as the least among us will be cared for and lifted up. In this vision we will not seek to harm one another and we will not seek to make ourselves win, and others lose. This is the vision for the Kingdom, it has always been the vision for the kingdom, and though the messenger and the vehicle may change the end vision has never altered.
I spent just a few minutes thinking through places we receive this message – I name that because this list could go on forever but I will only touch on the ones that occurred to me first.
We find it first in Genesis when a communal God desires to create a communal people, “Let US make humankind in OUR image.” (Genesis 1) And in the second creation story with God’s claim that it is not good that we live alone but that we live, as Adam greets Eve, recognizing that our neighbor is “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.” (Genesis 2). And then of course this culminates in Genesis 4 when Cain grows jealous of Abel and he leads him out to the fields where he kills him. And God asks him, “Where is your brother Abel?” And Cain’s response will resound in every chapter of the Bible: He says, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the answer God gives to him will also resound in every chapter of the Bible: essentially? yes.
“For the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.”
Yes, you are your brother and sister’s keeper, and everyone is your brother and sister.
In Jewish law, all 600+ of them, there is no law, not even the law to love God or keep Sabbath, that is as often repeated as the law to love the stranger as yourself. 36 times! 36 times including, most notably, in the height of Leviticus, a text about holiness and purity, the people are commanded to give their hearts to strangers, for they too have been strangers.
Again in Jeremiah 22, “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages… Are you a king because you compete in cedar (wealth)? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord. But your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence.”
And again in Luke’s seventh chapter, when the prophet – John the Baptist – is wondering if Jesus is the messiah, the one we have been waiting for, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if this is so and Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”
This is how you will know me because this is how God has always been known – this is the way God lives in the world, this is the way God cares for God’s people. The community that God seeks is on where we love one another. For five chapters of the Gospel of John’s farewell discourse Jesus, speaking to his disciples – his friends, on the eve of his death will say over and over again that God loves them and desires that they love each other in the same way. Jesus will claim community and one-ness with God and then tell them that he desires they have that same one-ness, that same community, that same love and care for one another. We are to be as one with each other, as Jesus is with God.
And Paul will pick up this thread with the churches he plants and nurtures. He will instill in them a care for each other’s hardship and struggle. To the Corinthians he says (2 Corinthians 8):
“I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”
Over and over and over again the message of God to God’s people is to be in creation, in life, together. To share the understanding that we are all brothers and sisters and we are indeed each other’s keeper – we are to love, as we have been loved. Care for one another, support one another, seek a world where there is not an imbalance of power with privileged and marginalized, where there is not those in need and those with plenty.
That we seek not only to relieve the stress but to dismantle the systems that create it and build new ones that do not.
This is the message Zechariah tells us the prophets shared over and over and the people turned a deaf ear to it. I give you again, the message of God for God’s people, do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor. Do not devise evil in your hearts towards one another. We are all God’s people, we are all bound together because we are all God’s people. When one among us is hurting – God is hurting, and we are hurting.
I was at the installation on Wednesday of the new Catholic Bishop of Boise, Bishop Christensen. And toward the end of the sermon he shared that he loves doing landscape painting. He said that when he does a landscape painting he always starts with the sky, because how the sky is dictates how everything else is. The play of light in the sky casts its nature on the nature of the landscape – of the world around us.
Zechariah struggling to find hope, struggling to imagine that we can finally hear and age old message and receive the love of God – casts a picture for us, a landscape of the community of God in which the light that is God dictates how everything should look and feel. The light that is God is one of love, of care for all people, of community in God’s own being – let us make humankind in our imagine, and the father and I are one: be one as we are one.
This is the light that is shining, a giving God who desires the same goodness for all of God’s creation, and this is the light that is illuminating how we are to live in the world. And the question we put before ourselves now is: if this is how God has painted the sky, how are we going to paint the world?