First Congregational Church
March 20, 2016
“Amazing Grace for the World”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
The sub-themes that followed our Lenten series called “Amazing Grace” have been for the Faithful, the Tempted, the Healed, the Free, the Filled, and the Faithful. “Amazing Grace for the World” throws this topic into a whole new arena, particular in this 21st century, media-saturated day and age.
Zechariah 9:9-12 John McElduff
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.
12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” 14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:
15 “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” 16 At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.
17 Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. 18 Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him. 19 So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!”
Call me Zechariah. It means, “Yahweh remembers.” My father Berekiah chose my name when I was born in Babylonia to assure me and all the exiles of Israel that Yahweh would not forget God’s people; that God would indeed keep God’s promises.
And, true to the promise, Yahweh did remember. God saw the suffering people in far-off lands and gathered us like a shepherd gathers lost sheep, bringing us home again to Jerusalem. I was among the first to return. Zerubbabel was our leader and Joshua our high priest. Blessed of Yahweh, those two were. Some thought one or the other might be the Messiah we longed for, that Isaiah and the prophets before me spoke of.
I lived 500 years before the first Palm Sunday, the event you’re commemorating. Words I wrote form part of the Gospel lesson you read today. But I’d have to say, even I didn’t fully understand these words when the Spirit of Yahweh moved me to take pen and ink and set them down on the scroll.
You moderns say, “Hindsight is 20/20,” implying that over time something once misunderstood becomes clear. Perhaps, but can anyone really say he or she understands the ancient prophecies clearly? It’s been 25 centuries since I wrote mine, but if “Hindsight is 20/20” wouldn’t everyone agree on what the prophecies mean by now?
The children of Israel still misunderstood them on that first Palm Sunday. Yes, the adults and children shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13). And it was all true, but who did they think this king entering Jerusalem on a donkey was? Who did I think he was?
One of the problems we prophets have is that though we sometimes see far into the future, the events we foretell seem compressed and distorted. I’ve heard that baseball is
America’s pastime. Perhaps you’ve watched a Saturday afternoon game on television.
Have you noticed those camera shots taken behind the pitcher’s mound looking down range toward the batter and the home plate umpire? The camera is closest to the pitcher, but the batter who’s farther away looks bigger, and the umpire bigger still.
That’s the way it is with prophecy. When I penned my words, Israel was barely home again from Babylon and all the other nations where she’d been held captive. Old enemies like Egypt and Philistia to the south still threatened us. Hostile Arabs menaced us to the east, as did rich and powerful Tyre to the north.
And as if that weren’t enough, with the discerning eye of the prophet, I could see a new enemy on the horizon, Greece, soon to become more powerful than all the old enemies and even the current power in our part of the world, Persia.
So when I wrote these words quoted in the Gospel, I understood them to speak of a Messiah that was coming right away, in my day, a Messiah who would vanquish every oppressor of God’s people, from Egypt, all the way to Persia, and to the ends of the earth.
He would be a Messiah very different from the kings he came to conquer. This Messiah would be gentle. He would ride a donkey like the common people. He would free from the dry cisterns every child of God held prisoner in far-off lands. Soon, in my day, Yahweh would honor his covenants with Moses and Abraham and through the Messiah extend his divinely enforced peace over all the world.
This is how I understood my vision of Messiah’s coming in triumph into the holy city. He would come to the temple we had struggled to rebuild and had just now finished. He would take up residence there as our priest and king. Jerusalem would become strong and prosperous again. The kings of the earth would enter our city and bow down. The Lord would reign from Zion over all the world, and we, the people of God would be happy and safe forever.
But my day came and went and it didn’t happen. The Greeks came and oppressed us, as had the Canaanites and the Midianites and the Assyrians and the Babylonians and the Persians. Yes, Yahweh raised up Judas the Hammer who got rid of the Greeks. (This is not the Judas most people “know,” but one that lived long before him.) Valiantly, that prior Judas fought against the sons of Alexander’s generals and defeated them. Some thought Judas was the Messiah. But ultimately Judas and his family were a disappointment.
So my understanding of my own vision was far from accurate. But still the children of Israel clung to it, and were doing so when Jesus appeared outside Jerusalem in the days of the Romans. Might he be the Messiah, the common people wondered? Yes! This is the Messiah! This is the Son of David! “Save us, Lord!” they shouted, waving palm branches as they had done for Judas, throwing garments on the ground before him, their version of a red carpet.
The circumstances were much the same as in my day. Israel was still weak and defenseless. Roman armies occupied the land (at the invitation of my people, mind you!) after we’d had enough of the corrupt descendants of Judas. Roman chariots were in Ephraim, their warhorses in Jerusalem, their bowstrings always ready to launch iron tipped arrows at anyone who rebelled.
In my day, the leaders of Israel had sold out the people like a merchant would sell sheep to the highest bidder for personal gain. Long before the first Palm Sunday, the priests and Pharisees had done the same.
If you read my prophecy you can see why the people of Jerusalem were so excited when Jesus entered the city. He was riding on a donkey, no less! (Zechariah 9:9c). It would be with just such a humble entrance that Yahweh’s self would come! Hadn’t I said so? Soon there would lightning from heaven and the great sound of a trumpet heralding the destruction of Israel’s enemies, just as I had predicted! (Zechariah 9:14).
“The Lord their God will save them in that day,” I had prophesied, “as the flock of his people; they shall sparkle in his land like jewels in a crown” (Zechariah 9:16). Jerusalem would once again be a city filled with people; boys and girls playing in the streets, old ladies walking with canes, old men sitting and talking. It would be the best world anyone could imagine when the Messiah came, riding on his donkey. That’s what those people thought on the first Palm Sunday.
But of course, things didn’t quite turn out that way, just as my own understanding of the vision was never realized. Yes, Jesus did cast some money changers out of the temple. He did work a few miracles. He did teach in the temple portico. He did have a few arguments with the leaders. He did delight the people with his verbal victories over his opponents.
But at the end of the day, the Romans were still there. The priests and Pharisees continued to oppress the people. And a week later, Jesus was dead. Thank God he was raised again after three days, giving new hope and confidence to his followers!
But had they learned anything? Have you learned anything? Is hindsight really 20/20?
As I look ahead to your day, I see Christians reading the paper, scouring the web, attending prophecy conferences and making all the same mistakes God’s people have made over the centuries. Even today there are faithful but confused people eager to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem in preparation for Messiah’s return. When will the faithful learn that prophecy is timeless and current events are not necessarily the place to see its fulfillment?
The truth is that Messiah has come and has already done what he intended to do. You see, the oppressor has never really been the nations surrounding Jerusalem, or even the drug dealers or the child molesters in your own neighborhood. Rather, the oppressor is Satan and the powers of darkness that control the uncertain. But you need not be afraid because those very powers of darkness were broken at the cross and the empty tomb of Jesus. And “Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
And when will the faithful learn that the Jerusalem of God is not a city in Palestine but a kingdom of souls freed from the power of evil by faith in Christ? I’m speaking of the Church of course, a community made up of everyone joined to his victory by faith. The return of the scattered people of God is not just about Jews returning to the ancient land of Israel; that’s but a picture of the real return of God’s people as they repent of their evil ways, trust Jesus as the Messiah and Savior from sin, and are welcomed into the shelter of the Church he died to save.
This is how the Messiah answers the shouts of his people, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (John 12:13a). This gathering of people today, all of you gathered in the name of Jesus are the holy city. The gates you throw open to welcome the King are your hearts. The enemy he drives out, the chariots he smashes, the bloody clothes he burns, the arrows he breaks, are sin and Satan and evil.
When this is the Messiah and Savior you welcome with shouts of “Hosanna!,” then you truly celebrate God’s wondrous grace. But if you think he’s come to destroy the Russians or the Chinese or the North Koreans, or Al Qaeda, you will be sadly disappointed. In fact, you will be completely wrong. This very day he comes offering even them deliverance, forgiveness and welcome if they but repent and receive him in faith.
Now don’t get me wrong. Remember I said prophecy distorts images of the future and often compresses them. There is yet a Judgment Day, and those who reject the first judgment day ultimately will be excluded from the Kingdom of God.
First judgment day? What do I mean by that? By that I mean the cross. That lightening and trumpet and wrath of God against God’s enemies foretold by prophets like me has already taken place. It happened when Jesus died. There at the cross, the whole of the divine fury against sin was directed at Jesus in the place of sinners. Now God offers the olive branch of peace through faith in God’s Son.
Every moment of every day since Good Friday and Easter Sunday is a time of amnesty, an invitation to lay down every weapon, to cease rebellion and come home to God.
God’s waiting ever so patiently for you to hear God’s pleadings to come, for you to stand at Jesus’ feet. All are welcome. And once you’ve come, you’ll wonder why anyone would ever wait, because, now, having come, you can’t help but celebrate the wonders of God’s grace.
Thank you, Zechariah. This past Thursday, those pastors at the Ministerial Association got to doing something we hardly ever do: talking politics. What was interesting is that while no names were really spoken, there was a common consensus of the concern that all of us - all across this nation - remember the big picture in this political season. Zechariah and the people from his day thought the Messiah was for them and their time. They forgot or didn’t realize that there was a larger picture to the prophecies.
So there is a larger picture to God’s amazing grace - larger than just the forgiveness of your or my sins - but for the sin of the world - all of us - throughout time and for all eternity. Until the day when Christ comes again, we will always have those among us with whom we will disagree, those who drive us to the brink just by their mere presence. Just as Christ rode in gentleness amidst the very ones who would disavow him, we have his example of making our way amidst those who don’t understand us or our motivations. God didn’t send Christ just for us, but for all of us - those we love, those we tolerate, those who push our buttons and get under our saddles, yes, even those we would call “enemy.”
God’s amazing grace is big enough that we don’t have to like all those in God’s kingdom, but helps us to love those seem unloveable. For that kind of grace, so should we pray.
Gracious God, we thank you for the balance you give us in our lives, most especially for the grace that is not just for favorites, but for each and every one of us - throughout time and realm. Help us to realize that whether we’re doing dishes, raking last year’s leaves or trying to hold on to our sanity, that you offer us your grace - your divine, free, eternal, larger-than-life, covering everything grace. For those times when your grace saved our necks - literally or figuratively - even spiritually - we are grateful. For this gift that grows greater as the weeks have gone by, all your people say, Amen.
By Don Neidigk. © 2015 Creative Communications for the Parish, 1564 Fencorp Dr., Fenton, MO 63026. 800-325-9414. www.creativecommunications.com. All rights reserved
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.