Hope Interrupts Power: A Sermon in the Midst of Coronavirus (Zech. 4:1-7)

*Note- The text below reflects an edited version of the sermon that was actually shared with the Colonial Church community (it was edited for time). You can watch the whole original sermon on my YouTube page!


1 The angel who talked with me came again, and wakened me, as one is wakened from sleep. 2 He said to me, “What do you see?” And I said, “I see a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it; there are seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it. 3 And by it there are two olive trees, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.” 4 I said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?” 5 Then the angel who talked with me answered me, “Do you not know what these are?” I said, “No, my lord.” 6 He said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts. 7 What are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain; and he shall bring out the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’”

– Zechariah 4:1-7 (NRSV)


Good morning. My name is Sara, and I am one of the ministers here at Colonial Church. While I am decidedly saddened that we are not able to be present with one another in bodily form, I am grateful that we are able to gather together in our hearts and in love through the gift of technology. And so, welcome this morning; I am grateful to be with you and to see you…even in this virtual way.

As we join together, let us continue in prayer.

Oh, most merciful God, the one who holds and fashions and sustains all of life, hold us now in your hope, in your love, and in your Spirit that we might be your people and that we might love as you love. For it’s in Christ’s name we gather, amen.

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Virtual show of hands, how many of you would say that Zechariah is your favorite book of the Bible? It doesn’t look like there’s too many of you, so I’m going to go on a limb here and assume we don’t all know a lot about this text, so I’ll give you a few thoughts and context about the book of Zechariah.

Zechariah is one of 12 of what the Christian scriptures call the “Minor Prophets”; i the Jewish canon, Zechariah makes up one of the prophets compiled along with 11 others into what is known as “The Twelve”.

Zechariah was a prophet. And the particular book that we’re looking at today is 14 chapters long. The first chapters (Ch. 1-8), are thought to be written by Zechariah himself and the second half of the book is thought to have been written much later by a prophet(s) following in the tradition of Zechariah. The name Zechariah in and of itself means “God remembered”, and the call within Zechariah is to the people to remember God so that God can also live in relationship to them in a way that remembers God’s promises and God’s covenant with the people of Israel.

Zechariah was writing at a time after the people of Israel had already been carted off by the Babylonians during the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 586/587 BCE. During the original time of exile, the Jewish people suffered under the Babylonian Empire, but then the geopolitical forces shifted, and the Babylonian Empire was supplanted by the Persians. Under Persian rule, there was a different way of thinking about how to relate with the territories they’d conquered, and so instead of having all of the people carted off to their cities to get them indoctrinated like happened under the rule of Babylon, the Persians actually sought to build goodwill by sending people back to their land, which has just happened for the Israelites at the start of Zechariah.

So under the Persians, the Jews were able to go back to Jerusalem, and were given money and resources to rebuild their temple…although we discover from reading Haggai and Zechariah that the construction on the temple stalled and prophets like Haggai and Zechariah are challenging the people to return to the work at hand. Haggai, in particular, can be summarized as saying to the people: “Hey, listen, you got to get your stuff together and get your priorities right because we need to put YHWH first in all that we are and all that we’re doing.”

While Haggai and Zechariah are both focused on this temple re-building time, Haggai (which is a lot shorter book) focuses his prophecy on telling people they need to put YHWH first. Zechariah, on the other hand is talking about the ways in which the people of God are called to function in view of the rebuilding of the temple and it’s almost like this eschatological state(meaning the end of times), that he is foreseeing as he is calling people to be the people of God, and to live in accordance with the ways of YHWH. He speaks of these things through sharing different visions he’s seen which call the people to come back to Yahweh, to rebuild the temple, to live as God’s people. So in Zechariah chapters 1-8 is the section of the book where these eschatological visions and prophetic critique are recorded. You can read more about the visions on your own. It’s really great, okay? But sufficive it to say that’s a quick primer on the first eight chapters of Zechariah: prophetic eschatological visions calling the people to get right with God and re-build the temple.

Jumping forward then to the end of the book: most commentators think that the two oracles in Zechariah 9-11 and then recorded in chapters 12-14 are from another one or two subsequent prophets,  written one to two centuries after the actual prophet Zechariah was living and this section of the book has more of this sense of connectivity to a messianic figure—the one who will save Israel. A lot of these messianic images in these chapters that are picked up by the New Testament authors, AND (importantly) the New Testament community would have known these Messianic oracles and thus understood Jesus to be the Messiah of whom is spoken about in this book here and prophesied by Zechariah.

I’ll say some more about this Messianic connection in a bit, but I first want to make sure to give you some more context about what’s happening here in the book of Zechariah. In the middle of Zechariah, as you heard from Christian in his reading of Zechariah 4:1-7, is one of the visions that Zechariah relates to the people. This section is speaking about the governor, Zerubbabel, and this governor, along with the high priest Yehoshua whose name would be translated as Joshua, which means “God saves”, which in Greek, Jesus! This is a profound messianic connection: Joshua means “God saves” (the man who lead the people into the promised land); then here in Zechariah the high priest is Yehoshua, which means “God saves”; and then Jesus is the full high priest and ruler in one…who is the embodiment of the God who saves! So much more could be said or written about this, but I’m running out of time…

Suffice it to say that some cool stuff is happening here in Zechariah that is telling the people about how God is at work in the world. The vision in the fourth chapter depicts the rebuilding of the temple and how that will happen, and what we’re told is that it’s not by force nor by strength, but by God’s Spirit that the rebuilding of the temple is going to happen. And we’re told not to despise the small beginnings, for God’s temple is going to be rebuilt, and people are going to be restored, if only they will trust the God who works not by power (like the Empires the are suffering under), but by Spirit (who is in the small beginnings).

That’s a little bit about what’s hap­­­pening both in the book of Zechariah and particularly in Chapter 4. And I think that central to the message of this book is Zechariah 4:6: a reminder that it’s not by power, nor by might, but by God’s Spirit. It’s a profound reminder to the people and to us about the way that God shows up in the world, doing the work of rebuilding and laboring with a people who are still under the rule of the Persian Empire.

Now keep in mind that these people, they’ve been enslaved, they’ve been oppressed. Remember these are the folks who endured 400 years of slavery in Egypt. They come into the promised land and they built their own kingdom and yet they are then enslaved again. They’re carted off to Babylon. They’ve just come back to their land, but it’s still not theirs, they are vassals of the Persian empire. I imagine they are exhausted and beaten down. They are wondering where God is. They’re longing for God to interrupt the story of what’s been happening in their world. They want God to overthrow these oppressive kingdoms. They want everything to be fine. The want freedom and breath.

Does any of that sound familiar?

We ourselves are in the midst of a global pandemic where the reality is that there is something bigger than us that we can’t on our own just overthrow that’s impacting us and our lives and we too are asking and wondering, where’s a vaccine? Are people on the front lines getting enough of what they need in terms of ventilators and PPE supplies? How do we keep each other as safe as possible? How do we care for the most vulnerable in our midst? And we cry it out, “Oh God, please come!” And Zechariah invites us and reminds us that the way God comes and the way God shows up isn’t just with some lightning bolt that destroys everything or magically cures the whole world…for it’s not my power or by might, but it’s by God’s Spirit–of a God who comes in the small things and in the midst of the suffering.

I think there’s something important about this reality that we’re invited to consider even in the midst of this global virus, right? What I mean by that is anything so often in our world we’ve been taught and tutored to believe that we exist as selves onto our own; that each of us is somehow an autonomous island. And yet here we are: we are, all of us, impacted globally by one market in one city, which could have been anywhere. And this reveals and lays clear, exposing bare in front of us the fact that no matter how much we want to pretend that we are powerful and safe and strong and able to exists and survive on our own,

we are fundamentally connected

and we are fundamentally vulnerable

and we are fundamentally in need of God and of one another.

And I believe that this laying bear of our vulnerability is actually good news and a reason for hope.

For it isn’t by power, no—it isn’t by might that we win. It’s by love, it’s by spirit, it’s by breath, it’s by awakening to the world as God has created it, to join with God in care and concern for all of our neighbors, to truly love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Yes, the book of Zechariah isn’t a place where we often turn inside of the Christian imagination. In fact, in the lectionary, which is a tool that’s utilized by churches around the world to help us cycle through reading the Bible, there’s only one part of the entire book of Zechariah that is read in public worship: Zechariah 9:9-12. In the section of the text, there’s a really interesting line where Zechariah, probably second Zechariah, names that they are prisoners of hope.

What I think is interesting about this is if you turn in your Bible and go read that part of Zechariah, you’ll see that it depicts the imagery that we see of Jesus on Palm Sunday, which we’re coming to next week, where Jesus comes in as the Messiah, the promised one, riding on a donkey…and imagine for the people at that time what they must have thought. They know this story from Zechariah 9; they now this oracle. They know how this is supposed to go…the Messiah is going to come and overthrow the empire, and here comes Jesus riding on the donkey. They think: “Here we go. Jesus is coming. He’s going to overthrow the Roman Empire, he’s going to start a revolution and win and the promised freedom is going to happen!”

But if you look at Zechariah and the story that the people were anticipating versus what Jesus actually does, you’ll see that Jesus absolutely does embody the first verses on Palm Sunday through to Easter, but when you look at the second section of that passage, you see that Jesus doesn’t follow the script for there’s this sense in Zechariah 9 that when the Messiah comes, there will be a violent overturning of the ways of this world and that is the oracle that the prophet hopes for and longs for…as do people in Jesus’ time (as we do too, right?). And yet, as was pointed out in a commentary on Working Preacher by Margaret Odell, there’s something important about this “prisoner of hope” line in verse 12 because it isn’t the kind of normative hope we read about in scripture, which is the waiting for God to show up. No, the word here for hope is tiqveh, which is connected to false expectations. Dr. Odell thus invites us to see that verse 12 names the sense that the people and the prophet had that God would show up and just overthrow, which is precisely what the people at Jesus’s time were hoping for. For once again, the people of Israel found themselves underneath the rule and occupation of a foreign nation. This time it was the Roman Empire. So when Jesus comes into Jerusalem–as we will celebrate on Palm Sunday—the people spread their cloaks, crying, “Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” they’re thinking Jesus is going to come and get rid of the Roman Empire… but yet that’s not what happens. When Jesus comes, he comes riding on a donkey of peace, not on a warrior horse, and in so doing Jesus reminds us about something that Zechariah 4:6 already told us: That God’s coming isn’t by power or by might, but it is by Spirit that God shows up. He is the one who will “proclaim peace of the nations; the empire stretching from sea to sea, from the river to the ends of the earth (Zech. 9:10).”[1]

And likewise, we sometimes become prisoners of the wrong kind of hope. A hope that tells us if only we can be more in control, if only we can have more resources, if only we can be more powerful, then we will be safe. But hope interrupts those pretentions and grasps for power that tells us, yes, we are vulnerable, and yes, we are frail, but is this not a thing of beauty? For we were created into a world that was already made by a loving creator and then the day after our creation in the story about humans on earth in Genesis, we’re told that God rested the day after we were created and we get to be held and sustained by this God of love and life and love.

For it was never by our striving or our strength that we were able to breathe, but it was in the resting and trusting in the God who had already fashioned all of life and turning towards one another and this creation with gratitude and thanksgiving, with humility and rightly orienting ourselves so that we might be a people of hope, who bear witness to a kingdom that comes not in power or in might, but a kingdom that comes through spirit and in love to heal, to renew, and to restore…this is how we were meant to live and be free.

Now, of course, when you have a narrative that tells you that the kingdom coming or getting ahead comes through power then it’s profoundly disorienting and it’s scary and risky to all of a sudden be invited into a different type of story. So it’s no surprise as we look forward to Palm Sunday that the people who say, “Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” very quickly thereafter, were plotting to kill Jesus once they realized that the kind of kingdom that Jesus was bringing was not one of power, not one of military strength, nor one of revolutionary violent rebellion, but was one that was more beautiful and more fraught and more of hope and possibility…pregnant with new worlds that together as the church and the people of God, laboring with God’s spirit, we have been able to midwife throughout history.

And so once again, the truth is exposed before us: our lives are not separate from one another, our breath is not disconnected. What happens in China or Sri Lanka or Cambodia or Mexico or Minnesota (which is not a country, I realize) or in the United States or Italy or England or Zimbabwe impacts us all. We are all a people fashioned and created by a loving God who holds this entire world and is breathing and inviting and challenging us by God’s Spirit to join with God in this new way of being human…A way of being human which acknowledges that our frailty and our vulnerability is not a thing to be overcome, but a thing that actually opens us to God, to love, and to one another. And this is a thing of hope that interrupts power.

As I was working on this sermon I was reminded of a song from when I was a kid. It’s a song by Rich Mullins called “We Are Not As Strong As We Think We Are.” The lyrics read:

Well, it took the hand of God Almighty

To part the waters of the sea

But it only took one little lie

To separate you and me

Oh, we are not as strong as we think we are

And they say that one day Joshua

Made the sun stand still in the sky

But I can’t even keep these thoughts of you from passing by

Oh, we are not as strong as we think we are

We are frail, we are fearfully and wonderfully made

Forged in the fires of human passion

Choking on the fumes of selfish rage

And with these our hells and our heavens

So few inches apart

We must be awfully small

And not as strong as we think we are.[2]

These lyrics are an invitation and a reminder to us that we are human. We are frail, but we are fearfully made. And so, instead of trying to turn from or escape our vulnerability or building up our own kingdoms or looking to rulers to save us, we are instead invited into a hope that interrupts reminding us that it’s not power or might, but it’s by Spirit that we were meant to LIVE.

Living by Spirit is loving our neighbors as ourselves. It’s found in front line workers who care for people in the midst of their inability to breathe. It’s scientists who are searching for cures. It’s folks I’ve seen on Twitter who say, “Anybody need money? I have $2,000 for the next 20 people who need 100 bucks for groceries.” We are frail, we are vulnerable, and we are in need. But that’s the point.

My mentor and dissertation advisor, Hille Haker, delivered a lecture in 2016 at AAP on Vulnerable Agency. In it she contrasted her work and invitation to recognition of vulnerability inside of the tradition inside of philosophy that has told us we are on our own, that through being rational beings we are able to conquer all things, and she invites us to think about our agency as both vulnerable and thereby also a thing of beauty and how we are then human and how we care for one another and the most vulnerable in our midst.[3] For yes, vulnerability reminds us that we are able to be wounded, but it’s not thus the thing to be avoided. It the thing that makes way for an openness that opens us to God, that opens us to love, that opens us to one another. It invites us to see one another, to be in solidarity with one another, and to care for the least of these who are the most vulnerable in our midst.

This last week, Pope Francis picked up the same invitation at his prayer gathering for the end of coronavirus and for all of the world (that he hosted in a completely empty square due to the drastic quarantine measures in Italy). He said:

“The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish and sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities….In this storm, the facade of those stereotypes with which we have camouflaged our egos, always worrying about our image, has fallen away uncovering once more that blessed common belonging of which we cannot be deprived: our belonging as sisters and as brothers.”[4]

As painful and as real as this virus and global pandemic is, and as much as I wish it weren’t the case, and as much as we join together to pray for healing, for vaccines, for safety, for wellbeing…I believe we also have an invitation in the midst of this moment to refuse to turn to power. In our fear let us not turn to thinking we are the only ones who matter or to keeping only ourselves safe, but instead might we let God’s Spirit breathe and open us up to one another so that we might recognize that the way God’s kingdom comes, the way hope interrupts is that it comes in like a little mustard seed that through its love and tender liminality brings forth new life. Let us not despise these small things but follow the God who is Spirit.

And I don’t know about you, but I want to be a person of hope and mustard seed faith and spirit-inspired life in this season. I want to be reawakened to the knowing and the reality of how God is at work in our midst. I want to see and pay attention to how the kingdom we pray for and long for is already at hand. And so even as we gather virtually while remaining distant in body, we reach our hands to one another and open our hands to this God who is Spirit. This is the God who invites us into hope. The God who reminds us that our littlest action for good matters. For to be a good neighbor doesn’t mean we’re tasked with having to save the whole world, but we are called to show love and kindness: To be the people of God, to be the church by the way we live and order our lives in accordance with the God who says and who remembers all of the people who suffer and long for health and freedom and life. For God shows up not in power or in might but is already at work with us in the midst of the suffering, working by Spirit to care and heal and breathe on all of us.

I haven’t yet told you, but I knew the verse from Zechariah 4:6 since I was a little girl on account of my Grandma, “G”. I distinctly remember her, sitting at her round kitchen table with her Bible and her teaching me a song “Not by power, nor by might, but by my Spirit.” And I always loved this verse on account of her. Well, I wanted to say a bit more about how my Grandma animates this gospel truth that God comes not in power but by Sprit.

A a couple of years ago, during Women’s History Month (of which this is the last Sunday), my spouse, Andy, gave me a picture every day of a famous woman from history along with a famous quote from this woman. He included women like Audre Lorde and Gloria Steinem and Billie Holiday. On International Women’s Day though, Andy gave me the most important woman in my life. It was a picture of my grandma, “G”, as I called her, and her famous quote was, “I love you, Baber.” What I love about him giving me a picture of my G on International Women’s Day is that though I’m so grateful for the women throughout history whose names we remember, women tennis players, scientists, and leaders of all forms, and their lives have made mine possible, the most important woman in my world in a woman who will not be included in anyone else’s list of important figures from Women’s History. The most important woman in my life’s famous quote was the woman who regularly told me she loved me. And this matters because, as Audre Lorde reminds us, you don’t destroy the master’s house by using the master’s tools; we don’t build a new kingdom of heaven by looking to the kingdom of earth as a template for salvation.[5]

For the way God’s kingdom comes that is not power or might or through names that we remember across national or international boundaries. It comes through people like my grandma who showed up for me, who reminded me I was loved, who fed and clothed me, who cared for me and my brother. This is why although I wish I could fix and save everything and come up with the cure for the Coronavirus to save us all from suffering, I am reminded as I so often have been in the midst of Zoom prayer meetings and conversations in these last weeks as I find myself crying, that it is in gatherings like those with real people who choose love in the face of fear and show up for their neighbors that God comes on earth.

God comes in the midst of you who gather across social media platforms, you who have chosen to withdraw from public life so that the most vulnerable in our midst might have life. This is how God’s Spirit functions and how God’s hope interrupts. It’s a hope that interrupts power. A hope that brings us back to life. A hope that invites us to be human together. A hope invites us to remember our vulnerability and our being connected with each other so that we might be a people who truly then love God and love neighbor as ourselves because we know what it means to be loved in our vulnerability and frailty; we know what it is to live not by power nor by might, but by God’s Spirit. This is how the kingdom comes, through people who are awakened to the hope that interrupts power and invites us all to live in the midst of our vulnerability as people of Spirit.

So my friends, might we be people who open our hands, let go of any of the grasping for power and instead turn our hearts, our bodies, and our whole lives to the God who was and is and is to come, and in so doing, open ourselves to the whole wide world that love might be our song, that life might be our anthem, and that freedom and breath and healing might indeed be a kingdom for everyone.

Let us pray together.

Loving God in the season of Lent, in the midst of all that we hold in our hearts, will you open us again? Will you renew us? Might we, oh God, take this moment as an invitation to move more deeply in, to love more radically than we had before, and to look for and to participate in the kingdom that comes not by power nor by might, but riding on a donkey, bringing peace on earth. Oh Christ, be near to our whole word and our hearts. Amen.

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Benediction

A few weeks ago, my spouse and I had the opportunity to sit down with Janet Hagberg over dinner as she was mourning the recent death of a young man who was like a son to her. As we sat together, she pulled out Steve Spangler’s Science Energy Stick (you can get on Amazon for $7.99!).[6] She demonstrated something that filled my heart with giddy joy, as she grabbed each end and suddenly the lights began to flash as an electrical current ran through the magic energy stick. Then she invited us to do join her.

I took her hand, then she took Andy’s, and together we formed a circle of three connected by this energy stick! And you know what? The light went on again, reminding us that we can indeed clench our fists in times like these and hold power for ourselves thinking it will keep us safe…and sure there is something to that, that clenching our hands to harness our own power will, indeed, make a spark.

But this is not the way we are invited to live, nor is it the truth of how Christ invites us to be the church. We are to be a people who, like we do every Sunday, extend our hands to one another and thereby to the world to grasp one another’s hands, completing the circle, reminding each other that it is not by power nor by might, but by God’s Spirit in and through us as we hold one another, that the light shines, that the energy sparks, and that the world is healed.

So go forth, my friends, with hands extended in open invitation to all of our neighbors and to the God of all life whose hope interrupts and fills us by God’s Spirit, that we indeed might be a people who join with Christ in journeying towards Jerusalem, bearing witness to this life! Go in the love of God, the fellowship of the Spirit, and the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Peace to you, my friends. Amen.


Works Cited

[1] Margaret Odell, “Commentary on Zechariah 9:9-12,” Working Preacher. Accessed online: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2142

[2] Rich Mullins, “We are Not as Strong as We Think We Are,” from Songs (Nashville: Reunion Records), 1996.

[3] Hille Haker, “Vulnerable Agency,” Delivered at the Australian Academy of Philosophy (July 4, 2016). Accessible online: https://www.academia.edu/31651801/Vulnerable_Agency_AAP_lecture_2016_hhaker.pdf

[4] Pope Francis, “Urbi et Orbi (To the City and the World)”, Homily delivered at St. Peter’s Square, Italy (March 27, 2020), accessed online: https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2020/03/27/rea.d-pope-francis-urbi-et-orbi-address-coronavirus-and-jesus-calming-storm?fbclid=IwAR2wSFNHGI0jn3SHYF8bHZ2lBmMTJ3WRwhWeTIhecSidymnwN2TZti_ijW4

[5] Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 110- 114 (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2007).

[6] Access Online: https://www.amazon.com/Steve-Spangler-Science-Energy-Hands/dp/B07RHWJP4R.

 

 

 

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