preached Sunday at Grace UCC and Mt. Tabor UCC (St. Louis, MO)
I imagine confidence was high when the battle began. Sure, the Babylonian army was bigger, stronger. But the Israelites were the people of Yhwh. They all knew the stories – the war songs. At night around the campfire would come the stories of Moses, whose army would win as long s someone held up his arms, and Gideon, who defeated the enemy with a handful of weaklings, of David, who was just a boy when he killed a giant Philistine soldier. “This will be just another chance to show that you shouldn’t mess with us,” they thought. WE are the chosen ones. WE are untouchable. WE have got the God on our side.
Of course, that isn’t what the prophets had been saying. Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos had been pulling their hair out – and doing all kinds of OTHER crazy things – to tell folks that if something doesn’t change, then their nation will be no more. They had warned and warned and warned – and warned – but no one listened. At least, not until the battle got going. And the Israelites were sent into exile.
For 70 years, the Israelites were exiled. Psalm 137 explains the devastation well:
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!”
Exile is brutal. We squirm at the idea that anyone would be “happy” at dashing children against a rock. What might it take to drive someone to that point? By the time we get to our passage, the time of exile is ending. Some of the Israelites are beginning to return home – or at least to what is left of home. But what now? How do you recover from the pit? What does it mean to be the losers? Has Yhwh abandoned them? God’s chosen people – but chosen for what? For THIS? As Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, “I know, I know. We are your chosen people. But, once in awhile, can’t you choose someone else?”
Zechariah is a book of encouragement. It is a book to remind people who have lost their way – people who have wished to dash children against the rock — that they are still children of God.
We all need encouragement when we’ve lost our way. A friend of mine sent me a review of the new documentary “Fambul Tok” or “Family Talk” in English. The film focuses on African communities in the aftermath of war. Individuals who are accused – and usually admit guilt – are placed in a large circle, surrounded by the community – often including their victims. The people in the circle take turns telling the guilty individual something good he or she has done. “And that’s the punishment,” the articles says. “Over and over and over, people tell you how good you are in trying to bring you back into the community.”
That is what the writers of Zechariah are doing. They are reminding the broken people of Israel that they are the people of God. That they are part of a community. That God hasn’t given up on them. In our passage today, that encouragement comes in the form of a poem – or perhaps a hymn. It is a song of joy – “Rejoice greatly, daughter, your king is coming!” That might not mean a lot to us – here in the United States we don’t know much about kings, but way too much about political scandals. But the Israelites understood kings all to well. While they were returning home, that home was still under the rule of a foreign government. To hear that their king was coming was to announce that they would soon be free, soon be their own people again.
And then the song takes a strange turn – “triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on donkey.” Just in case you missed it, the poem continues – “on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Our triumphant king is riding in on a petting zoo animal? We lost a war, were in exile for 70 years, having returned to rebuild and a king on a donkey is supposed to make us feel better? If we had wanted a clown, we would have hired one!
Wait, Zechariah says, that isn’t the end of the song. You see, this king on a donkey is going to put an end to war. God is saying violence isn’t the answer we thought it was. Rachel Sophia Baard reminds us that the war horse is a sign of death, while a donkey is a sign of life – “It is the animal used on the farm to help in the production of food and in the town to carry people and goods.” The mode of transportation is a symbol of the life-giving nature of God. This life isn’t just for the Israelites, but for all people – this king’s dominion will be from “sea to sea” and “to the ends of the earth.”
Sounds good, doesn’t it? World peace, release of the captives? And its hard not to wonder – did we miss it? A friend asked last week “when did this happen? When was the kingdom restored?” And that’s just the thing… it hasn’t been. Our world certainly isn’t filled with peace. Our own nation seems to be in more and more conflict everyday – both with other nations and amongst ourselves. While the Israelites did rebuild the temple around the time of Zechariah, it was destroyed again in the first century of the common era – and the Israelites were always under someone else’s rule. Our Psalm last week cried out “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”
I do, though, seem to recall someone who rode on an unbroken donkey into Jerusalem about the time an Emperor was charging in on his warhorse. And maybe something else about palm branches being waved? And shouts of Hosanna? I seem to recall that man announced freedom for the captives and good news for the poor. Some folks made fun of him calling him “King of the Jews.”
But he couldn’t be, could he? Wouldn’t his followers be more willing to embrace a life that is different? A life that turns the normal order upside down? A life where a bunch of would-be losers usher in a world of peace?
Followers like Metropolitan Kyril, a leader in the orthodox church in Bulgaria who decided to do something when the Nazis rounded up the Jews from his city. Tony Campolo tells the story that guards were just about to load the Jews in the train that would take them to Auschwitz, when Kyril stepped out of the darkness. He laughed as pushed aside the guns of the guards and stepped into the barbed wire enclosure. He was surrounded by Jews who were weeping. He raised his hands and quoted one verse from Ruth: “Whither thou goest, I will go. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God!”
Not a single Bulgarian Jew was killed during World War II. I wonder if some might have thought they saw a donkey stumble by.
Sometimes I wonder if most of us have given up on the king and returned to the security of the warhorse.
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Grace! Shout aloud, O daughter Mt. Tabor! Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he.”
Where might his donkey be leading? What kind of life might he be calling you to? As we move forward, that life might not look like we expect. Maybe it means giving up personal comfort in order to grow with our sister congregation. Maybe it means thinking creatively when bumps along that road come – because we all know they will. Maybe it means breaking down the barriers that keep us from getting to know the community around us as individuals and friends.
As individuals, maybe it means standing alongside those who are trapped in a waterless pit – those cast out by society or simply those who can’t seem to escape whatever hole they find themselves in. Maybe it means refusing to buy into the idea that the warhorse can provide security and look for creative – and possibly foolish – solutions to the world’s problems.
At times, it might even look like we are losing. But perhaps it is in those times of being losers that we are able to hear the creative call of God; that we are able to step out in new, life-giving ways; that we are able to change the world. As a recent Christian movement states, Another World is Possible, Another World is Necessary, Another World is already here.
The war horse or the donkey – upon which will you ride?