Rejoice 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.
The Lord is gracious and merciful,slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,and his compassion is over all that he has made.
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’
Cyrus the Great ruled Persia from 559-530 BCE. As “King of Kings” and God’s messiah (Isaiah 45:1)he allowed those in captive in Babylon to return to Jerusalem. He died shortly thereafter and was succeeded by his son, Cambyses II, who ruled for 8 years. He was succeeded by his brother, Bardia, who only ruled for several months. He was succeeded by Darius I, who ruled from 522-486 BCE and was on the throne of Persia during the time of Zechariah. (1:1) Point? This isn’t too long after Cyrus the Great and people haven’t left Babylon yet. Nehemiah dates from the reign of Artaxerxes, 465-424 BCE; Ezra perhaps 50 years later.
And so, after much apocalyptic visioning (Zechariah 1-8; apocalyptic literature may be of Babylonian influence), there is encouragement in 9-14 (maybe later by another author) to “Return to your stronghold (Jerusalem) you prisoners of hope.” Jerusalem will become the center of the world (14:8-9). Of course, there was more than a little rivalry as to where the “center of the world” was; the picture is of the stone in Delphi that marked the “navel” of the world. But, the “Jerusalem as center of the world restoration project” never materialized; the empires of Persia, Greece, and Rome would hold sway. “Centers of the world” wax and wane.
Which is perhaps why the words of Zechariah got usurped and projected onto a future messianic figure: Jesus. (Some people may wonder if it’s already Palm Sunday.) Prisoners living in hope of deliverance are always waiting and looking. And maybe – perhaps just maybe – although usurped and projected, the “center of the world” hope never went away?
I am reminded of the final scene in Tolkien’s “Two Towers”. Trapped and under assault in the fortress of Helms Deep, the alliance of Middle Earth seems certainly doomed. Theoden says, “What can men do against such reckless hate? The Horn of Helm Hammerhand will sound in the deep, one last time!” The ancient horn is sounded and Theoden and Aragorn ride out “for death and glory.” Aragorn remembers the words of Gandalf, “Look to my coming on the first light of the fifth day, at dawn look to the east.” And then, amid the hopeless darkness before the dawn, out of the blinding sunrise rides Gandalf the White, Eomer, and the Rohirrim. It is the apocalyptic battle between light and darkness; darkness is vanquished.
Wowzers! That’s the common vision of deliverance for many hopeless prisoners of hope. Grand. Glorious. Apocalyptic. But does it have anything to do with the triumphant and victorious king who comes “humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” In short, “Prisoners of hope, for what exactly – for whom exactly – are you hoping? Are you really hoping to be made the center of the world?” Which, I suppose, is our sinful propensity – “incurvatus in se” – which should get you into Romans 7:15-25 should you want to go that route. It is the route I want to go – via Matthew.
“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, 17’We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ 18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
What do I hear in Jesus’ words? Maybe something akin to this,
“The Baptist came and his bed was too hard for you. The Son of Man comes and his bed’s too soft. Now tell me, in your fairy tale religious world, what vision of the kingdom will be just right for you? What are you looking for, anyway? What exactly do you want from God?”
In many contexts, it will be hard to avoid the fact that this is the 4th of July weekend. There will be – whether spoken or not – the hope that “Battle Hymn of the Republic” or “God Bless America” somehow work their way into the service. Rather than avoid it, I think the texts are an opportunity to address those latent apocalyptic hopes and dreams head on. Here are a few former preached words,
“Now I’m not going to get into the pledge debate, or the “Should we have ‘In God We Trust’ on our currency?” debate. I think that almost everyone – nations included – trusts in God. But, the real question is, “What kind of a god do you trust in?”
The Taliban believes they live life “under God”. The Sunnis and the Shiites – the Israelis and the Palestinians – everyone intones the name of God. The Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the leaders in Iran, both Cortez and Montezuma, the Christian crusaders that “killed Turks for Jesus,” Reverend Phelps who proclaimed that “God Hates Fags”, both George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull, the anti-abortionist who murdered a doctor because life is sacred – the list could go on and on, but all trusted or trust in God.
No matter what the currency says, everyone says “In God We Trust”! Almost every person believes that they are “under God” and every nation believes that they are the “one nation under God”. But the real issue is, “What do you trust God to do?” It’s not necessarily even about which god; it’s about what kind of god. Different views of the same God have different kinds of agendas – different kinds of “royal agendas”. The question for us is, “Is the God we have in mind in sync with the mind of Christ?” because in Jesus we meet a humble and compassionate king on a donkey who challenges the royal ways of the world.”
I can’t remember where I found this quote,
“The possibility of compassion is basic to the heart of God. But the possibility of compassion is precisely what the royal wants to eradicate. Compassion is the ability and willingness to care, to suffer, to die, and to feel. It is the enemy of the royal life. Royal economics is designed to keep people satisfied so that they do not notice. Royal politics is intended to block out the cries of the denied ones. Royal religion is to be an opiate so that no one discerns the misery that is alive in the heart of God.”
In a nutshell, I think personal, ecclesiastical, and nationalistic “incurvatus in se” is what these texts might be about. It is “the kingdom of heaven” against the “royal agendas” of the world; agendas in which we are all entangled and complicit. What’s our agenda? Ought we be the center of the world?
Humanity used to believe that our world was the center of the universe; that everything revolved around us. Maybe, despite all our scientific knowledge, we have not come all that far. What is our hope? Who is our hope? “Wretched people that we are! Who will rescue us from this body of death?”
Grace and peace,
Pastor Don Carlson