Take the Path of Peace (Zechariah 1:1-17)

Michelangelo’s depiction of the prophet Zechariah, Sistine Chapel, Rome

In the eighth month of the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo:

“The Lord was very angry with your ancestors. Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty. Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the Lord. Where are your ancestors now? And the prophets, do they live forever? But did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your ancestors?

“Then they repented and said, ‘The Lord Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do.’”

On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo.

During the night I had a vision, and there before me was a man mounted on a red horse. He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses.

I asked, “What are these, my lord?”

The angel who was talking with me answered, “I will show you what they are.”

Then the man standing among the myrtle trees explained, “They are the ones the Lord has sent to go throughout the earth.”

And they reported to the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace.”

Then the angel of the Lord said, “Lord Almighty, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and from the towns of Judah, which you have been angry with these seventy years?” So the Lord spoke kind and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.

Then the angel who was speaking to me said, “Proclaim this word: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, and I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they went too far with the punishment.’

“Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,’ declares the Lord Almighty.

“Proclaim further: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.’” (New International Version)

God hulking-out isn’t something you want to see repeated, insisted the prophet.

Zechariah directed his message to the Jews returning from their exile in Babylon. He reminded them that their parents and forebears had been called to repent and return to the Lord. They didn’t. Hence, the Babylonian exile. Big hint from the prophet to the people: Don’t ever do that again. Things will get angry, large, and green if you do.

Zechariah’s generation was being given a chance: To live into God’s covenant and law; to hold fast onto their identity as God’s people.

The people listened to the prophet. They expressed their repentance and a desire to turn from past evil ways and embrace the ways of the Lord. And the returning exiles also acknowledged and accepted God’s judgment. The returning exiles understood that, as a people, they deserve the consequences to centuries of neglecting justice, mercy, and humility.

Every generation of believers must learn from the past. Not only do they need to receive the teachings and traditions of those who went before them, but each generation must also struggle with how to put that teaching and tradition into practice.

The past needs to be squarely faced and deliberately pulled into the present. That is the way a genuine hope is born, giving direction for the future. In other words, old words and ways from the past need new experiences in the present; only by doing this will there be guidance.

Bring in your kingdom so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven. (Matthew 6:10, CEB)

Today’s Old Testament lesson includes the first of eight night visions from the prophet Zechariah. The gist of the first prophetic oracle is a message of assurance and comfort: God will restore. The Lord will renew.

Divine intervention is about to happen in the rebuilding of the temple – a physical example of the spiritual reality that is happening. Just as the ancient temple was being restored for new generations of worshipers, so the people were being renewed to be an example of piety and fidelity to God for millennia to come.

Peace and prosperity will again be realized.

Throughout Scripture, trees are a symbol of a thriving and flourishing life. The myrtle tree is a sign of God’s promise to bring new life, branching out to spread into the next generations. Like all trees, the myrtle needs plenty of moisture when young. Yet, it is distinctive in that the myrtle tree can tolerate drought, grow despite limited soil, and remain hardy when it becomes mature.

Your anger lasts a little while,
but your kindness lasts
    for a lifetime.
At night we may cry,
but when morning comes
    we will celebrate. (Psalm 30:5, CEV)

“Tolerate,” “grow,” and “remain” are anything but passive words. People are more than mere observers. “Repent” and “return” and “renew” are verbs. There is a great deal of activity to do. A divine/human cooperation needs to occur. On God’s end, even the angels get involved in the action. What’s happening here is both heavenly and earthly business.

Relational dynamics between God and God’s people are to be a dialogue and not a one-sided monologue. The Lord and the present generation are to demonstrate for future peoples how peace is actually realized and enjoyed.

The Vision of Zechariah, by Unknown artist, c.1300 C.E., Sicily

Like all biblical visions, Zechariah’s is not readily understandable. Nobody is sure about what the symbolism is behind the vision’s horses. Yet, I’ll venture to say that it’s the colors which are significant: red is the color of action; brown is a color of stability and fertility; and white represents purity and holiness. Red, brown, and white mixed together creates a beige color.

Beige is an earthy and dependable color. It’s an inherently welcoming and calming color, offering warmth and symbolizing harmony and comfort. Together, with the horses we have a representation of strength, stability, and structure. They are signs of peace and rest, of God’s shalom.

Spiritual wholeness, moral integrity, relational harmony, and settled peace don’t just magically happen. 

For the Christian, peace was bought at a price – the blood of Jesus. (Colossians 1:20)

Peace must be both passively received and actively pursued. (Ephesians 4:3)

Practices of peace need to be engrafted into our lives so that we might daily experience it. (Romans 14:13-15:7)

The name “Zechariah” is a Hebrew word meaning, “God remembered.” God has not forgotten divine promises. 

The time has come to take hold of the vision God had from the very beginning to walk with humanity in continual fellowship and happiness in the garden, a place of abundant growth, beauty, and health – a place of peace and rest.

The happiest, fully rested, and most peaceful people and nations on earth continually find a steady stream of joy in their families, their rituals/traditions, and their religion.

To find joy and happiness in life is to find peace and rest. And peace is something to be shared, to be passed onto others.

“The peace of Christ be with you.”

“And also with you.”

Such ritual words and practices are reminders of continually returning to the Lord and finding simplicity and satisfaction in Jesus.

In observing and celebrating the Lord’s Table, we find our penultimate remembrance of how peace was achieved, as well as our supreme participation in the triune God.

Perhaps, then, peace and prosperity will extend their tree-like branches over the earth and into the next generations.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Peace before us,
Peace behind us,
Peace under our feet.

Peace within us,
Peace over us,
Let all around us be peace.

Christ before us,
Christ behind us,
Christ under our feet.

Christ within us,
Christ over us,
Let all around us be Christ. – a Navajo Prayer

Ephesians 2:11-22 – Included

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (New International Version)

There is perhaps no better explanation in the entire New Testament about what the Church truly is than here in today’s lesson.

The redemptive events of Jesus – especially the crucifixion of Christ – has completely changed everything. The cross is the mid-point of history, the fulcrum in which all things in heaven and on earth hinge.

The cross has totally transformed our status from being:

  • in Adam (fallen and separated from God) to being in Christ (now lifted and in union with God)
  • in the flesh (driven by our immoral and unethical impulses) to being in the Spirit (now driven by moral and ethical desires)
  • a Jew or a Gentile (defined by race, ethnicity, etc.) to being one people of God, a new egalitarian society, the community of the redeemed, the Church.

We were once far from God. Now we are brought near through the blood of Christ.

We are included, not excluded; graced and loved, not shamed and shunned.

And our status isn’t based on physical circumcision but on circumcision of the heart, that is, by faith.

There was a time when we were estranged from God, as if we were migrants from another country, or aliens from another world. We were strangers with no visible hope in anything or anyone.

But now, because of Christ’s cross, we have become near to God, gained an inheritance in Christ, and are seated in the heavens as royalty. Everything has mercifully changed. All is incredibly different – a good different.

Jesus Christ himself is our peace. He is the superglue who has bonded us to God and to one another as the one people of God. Because of this gracious union, there is no more anger and malice toward each other. There is, instead, peace.

The Lord Jesus has torn down the walls of separation between people, stripped the armor off of those who used it to keep a distance, and obliterated all obstacles to genuine relational connection – including the obstacle of the Law.

By his crucifixion, death, and resurrection, Christ Jesus fulfilled all the demands of the Law. Therefore, the Law of Moses is no longer needed. Those who love one another and carry one another’s burdens are the ones who fulfill the Law of Christ.

The reason for abolishing all the laws and layers of separation is so that Christ could create one new people from the disparate groups – thus making peace through the cross.

Just as two people come together in marriage and create an entirely new relationship – one new person from the two – so Christ has joined Jew and Gentile together and formed an entirely new society of unity and one-ness.

We are, then, on equal footing with one another. One group is no longer privileged over another. There is no such thing as an underprivileged people-group in God’s new society.

The Church is to be the one place on earth where all are privileged, all are included, and none are left behind.

There is reconciliation. The situation isn’t of people simply not fighting with each other, not at one another’s throats and sitting with a grumpy affect and arms folded. Quite the opposite. It is a restored relationship, harmonious interactions, and working together in loving fellowship.

Christianity is distinct from all other religions and all other ethical systems because everything is based, tethered, and moored in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. In Christianity, enmity, hate, and rage aren’t managed; they’re put to death – nailed to the cross and done away with.

Unfettered access to God, through Christ and the Spirit, means that we have an open channel to receiving the faith, hope, and love needed to address the darkness of this world and those still stuck in chaos, disconnection, and shame.

Christ himself is the cornerstone to the superstructure of peace and love which has been erected – the very things we have longed for throughout our personal lives and throughout history.

Jesus is the King who brought radical amnesty and hospitality to the entire country by making us all fellow citizens, enjoying all the rights and privileges thereof.

The Lord Jesus Christ is the Son who welcomed us into God’s family, embracing our adoption and making us full-blooded brothers and sisters, and giving us a prominent place at the Table.

All of these things about Christians and the Church aren’t ideals; they’re reality.

Anytime we are spiteful, ignorant, prejudiced, or unkind, we are not living in reality – we’re living in an old evil world that isn’t ours.

Therefore, we are called to fully live into God’s new society – a community of equals – loving and leading like Jesus, living into his words and ways, embracing our new status as children of God, offering radical mercy and grace because that’s exactly what our Lord did for us.

Creator God, who made us different from one another in myriad ways, yet all made in your image: Fill our hearts with your love and our minds with your wisdom so that we may truly become brothers and sisters of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

John 14:23-29 – Spiritual Peace

Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.

“All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

“You heard me say, ‘I am going away, and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe. (New International Version)

The Holy Spirit is our Advocate, Companion, Helper, Comforter, Counselor, and Teacher. All of that is wrapped up in the word “Paraclete” (a transliteration of the Greek word, Παράκλητος).

A straightforward literal translation of “Paraclete” needs a phrase rather than a word: “Called alongside for encouragement,” fairly-well translates the word. Our needs as followers of Jesus are many – thus requiring a multi-faceted mentoring ministry by the Spirit.

The Spirit was sent to be with Christians continually, reminding them of all Jesus has said and done as the ultimate witness to Christ’s life and ministry. So, the role of the Holy Spirit is providing aid for Christians, especially in difficult situations; the Spirit helps in a time of need.

The Spirit is also our close Companion. Indeed, it is a special friend who stands up for us, advocates on our behalf, gives us remedial teaching, and brings comfort. In other words, the Holy Spirit is motivated with love for us, just like the Father and the Son.

Whatever we need, the Holy Spirit is something of a divine concierge in the middle of adversity, attentive to our every need. Perhaps a story will better illustrate the Spirit’s nature and work.

When my girls were small and I was a financially struggling seminarian, we were one evening down to our last bit of food. Although they thought it was a privilege to eat Wheaties for supper, my wife and I knew the cupboard was now bare.

So, we prayed. As we got up from our knees and started off for bed, there was a knock at our patio back door. We looked at each other wondering who in the world it could be at such a late hour. When I drew the shades, one of our neighbors, a little Puerto Rican woman, was outside holding what appeared to be more than her own body weight in overflowing grocery bags.

As I ushered her in and before I could say a word, she said this: “I went to bed and had just fallen into a deep sleep. But the Holy Spirit woke me up and told me to take as many groceries as I could carry to you. So, here I am.”

In that moment, I knew in my head and felt in my heart a ministry of the Spirit which transcends language. And the next morning, our girls learned something about God that they would never get from listening to their Dad’s teaching and preaching. I must also add that this is a story which gets retold often because it reminds us of how God meets us in our need and how much God cares.

Through such encounters with the Spirit (and I have mercifully been granted many of them!) I begin to understand and appreciate the wisdom of the saints throughout the ages:

“When the grace of the Holy Spirit enters a soul and is established there, it gushes forth more powerfully than any other spring; it neither ceases, dries up, nor is exhausted. And the Savior, to signify this inexhaustible gift of grace, calls it a spring and a torrent; He also calls it gushing water, to indicate its force and impetus.”

St. John Chrysostom

“Trying to do the Lord’s work in your own strength is the most confusing, exhausting, and tedious of all work. But when you are filled with the Holy Spirit, then the ministry of Jesus just flows out of you.”

Corrie Ten Boom

One of greatest gifts which is given to us because of Christ and the Spirit is peace. Personal peace. Family peace. National peace. World peace. There is such a tremendous need for peace!

And yet, so many of us lack peace to the degree that we must medicate ourselves to sleep, at all. For some folks, avoiding family seems normal, just to keep the peace. National peace almost sounds oxymoronic. World peace is merely wishful thinking for far too many people. Perhaps we are in such a befuddled conundrum because of this reason:

We already possess what we so desperately want.

The search for peace is really the search within. The simplest of observations about Christ’s words is that Jesus has left us his peace. He gave it to us. We have it. Perhaps we have misplaced it? Maybe its lost in that huge stack on the desk?  Most likely, we plain old forgot about it. We need to remember that God’s peace is here with us. Right now. This very minute. We have exactly what we want.

The peace Jesus is talking about is far more than the absence of war, conflict, or infighting. The peace of Christ is the settled and restful calm and confidence of being with God, of an intimate union with the divine.

Jesus has given himself. He himself is our peace. Peace isn’t some happenstance thing, nor did it just magically appear. Peace was bought at a price – the blood of Jesus.

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [the Son] and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:19-20, NIV)

The gift of peace needs to be unpacked.

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:3, NIV)

Practices of peace and peacemaking must be acknowledged and engrafted into our lives if we are going to experience it on the daily practical level

The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.

Romans 14:17-19, NIV

Since Jesus gives in a different way than any other gift, it may have thrown us off. Like the delivery guy who leaves a package in an odd place, we could be searching for the ongoing gift of peace somewhere on our property. It’s there – it just seems so darned elusive.

The authentic peace that is harmony and unity, can neither be found in perfect circumstances nor in idyllic families and faith communities. Divine peace is the security of relationship with God, smack in the middle of life’s crud.

The reason Jesus can exhort his disciples to be untroubled and unafraid is because the life of God is within them. As that life grows within us; as our hearts are healed with that presence; as we receive peace from the gracious hand of God; then, we discover, often by happenstance, that perfect love has driven the fear away.

Fear focuses on the hard situation in front of me, whereas love directs attention on Jesus. As the Father has loved the Son, so the Son loves us – and we have peace – without trying to miraculously conjure it with positive thoughts.

It is the glorious, gracious, and mystical union between Jesus and the believer which is peace. All obstacles have been surmounted and tossed into the trash for the garbage guy to haul away. And no, you did not accidentally throw your peace in the dumpster. There really is no need for any dumpster diving with Jesus around. He has already done that work for you and me through the cross.

Yet, peace still seems a pipe dream for some, even with the understanding of the gift. Like a new product packed so tightly in the plastic, we struggle to open it. Maybe the following thoughts may help to unpack peace for us:

  • Stop and breathe. It is no coincidence that the Holy Spirit of God is likened as wind. Pausing to take deep breaths in through our nose, and full exhales through our mouth can become prayers. The ancient Christian practice of breath-prayers can help us here. Some examples: Inhale saying, “More of you,” and exhale saying, “Less of me.” Inhale, “Holy one,” exhale, “heal me.” Inhale, “Abba Father,” exhale, “let me feel your love.”
  • Listen to peaceful music and words of peace. If we are continually in a state of agitation, it could be that we are inhaling a steady stream of radio, TV, or social media that is anything but peace forming – leaving us perpetually upset. So, pay close attention to who and what you listen to.
  • Identify some trigger words or phrases. Have a go-to word or phrase that brings you back to the peace within. For me, its quoting Psalm 23, Romans 6, John 14, or other Scripture passage from memory. So, the trigger phrase is, “The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need, or “Trust in God, trust also in me.”
  • Smell it. I keep candles around with pleasant odors and light them when feeling stressed. I also have found that, for me, burning sage helps to feel unburdened and, thus, peaceful.
  • Forgive. I have observed that many of the behavioral health patients I work with have little to no peace in their lives due to either resentment toward others or the inability to forgive themselves. Forgiveness brings peace, even if the other party does not want it.

May the Holy Spirit’s work abound in your life. And may the peace of Christ be with you always.

Ezekiel 2:8-3:11 – Use the Head-Butt

Rufus R. Jones (1933-1993)

Son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not join them in their rebellion. Open your mouth and eat what I give you.”

Then I looked and saw a hand reaching out to me. It held a scroll, which he unrolled. And I saw that both sides were covered with funeral songs, words of sorrow, and pronouncements of doom.

The voice said to me, “Son of man, eat what I am giving you—eat this scroll! Then go and give its message to the people of Israel.” So, I opened my mouth, and he fed me the scroll. “Fill your stomach with this,” he said. And when I ate it, it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth.

Then he said, “Son of man, go to the people of Israel and give them my messages. I am not sending you to a foreign people whose language you cannot understand. No, I am not sending you to people with strange and difficult speech. If I did, they would listen! But the people of Israel won’t listen to you any more than they listen to me! For the whole lot of them are hard-hearted and stubborn. But look, I have made you as obstinate and hard-hearted as they are. I have made your forehead as hard as the hardest rock! So don’t be afraid of them or fear their angry looks, even though they are rebels.”

Then he added, “Son of man, let all my words sink deep into your own heart first. Listen to them carefully for yourself. Then go to your people in exile and say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says!’ Do this whether they listen to you or not.” (New Living Translation)

When I was a kid, my brother and I watched “All-Star Wrestling” on television every Saturday. One of our favorite wrestlers was Rufus R. Jones. Like all wrestlers, he had a signature move, a lights-out-nobody-is-getting-up maneuver that always ended the match. 

Rufus’ move was the head-butt. Slamming his hard forehead into the head of his opponent always brought raucous behavior from me and my brother. Then, as the boys we were, we acted out the head-butt scene over and over. The hardest head always won…. I usually lost…. That probably explains a lot.

God gave a message to the prophet Ezekiel concerning the stubborn hearts and hard heads of the Israelites. The Lord was looking for repentance, for the people to turn their hearts and minds back to true worship and an authentic humble relationship with their God. 

The prospect of facing such a task, such an opponent, seemed daunting to Ezekiel. So, the Lord assured the prophet that his forehead would be harder than that of Rufus R. Jones. So, there is no need to be afraid of the opponent. They may be hard, but they’re no match for the rock-hard head of the prophet.

In essence, God told Ezekiel to pull-out the signature wrestling move and do the lights-out head-butt maneuver. And the promise from God that backed up Ezekiel was this: There’s absolutely no way you’re going to lose the match with the kind of head I’m giving you.

Like Ezekiel, we are to speak the Word of God with the promise of not losing. Prideful ungodly stubbornness will get us knocked-out. But conversely, gracious bold stubbornness, which determines to do the will of God, shall always win the day.

The only catch is: The Word needs to sink down deeply into our own hearts through listening well – before we can effectively speak to others.

God provides us with spiritual giftedness. Yet, that doesn’t mean we never need to develop that gift or engage in any spiritual practices to make it better. We are to use that which God gives us, no matter the response from others.

There is often a fine line between sinful obstinate stubbornness and godly persevering tenacity. We are never to use our abilities to slam people, obnoxiously and persistently, upside the head with an oversized King James Version of the Bible – in the wrongheaded notion that the Word doesn’t come back without effect.

That kind of effect, however, is harmful spiritual bruising that is devoid of grace. It’s really nothing more than an individual working out their own anger and frustration on somebody else.

Rather, we are to carefully, deliberately, consistently, and daily internalize God’s Word so that what comes out of us is helpful, not harmful. Only by a constant use of solitude and silence, in truly listening well for the voice of God, can we effect the sort of positive ministry which is needed for the present moment.

Put another way, whenever we head-butt an opponent, the grace and mercy ought to be uncompromising. It’s not our job to be the judge; our task is to communicate effectively and humbly without giving in or giving up. The message may be hard, but it should always be sweet.

Almighty and ever-living God, we pray that you would give us the Spirit of wisdom and discernment so that we may know you better and love you more. Give us an understanding heart so that we may be open in hearing your voice of grace and guidance.

Use us, your people, not to be unthinking and unfeeling tools of bludgeoning others, but to be your hands and feet – your voice and heart so that we may be a channel through which you pour out your grace to help others – may we decrease to nothing so that only Christ is seen in our lives – we ask this in the power of the Spirit and in the name of Jesus. Amen.