by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
18 July 2021
This summer our worship theme has been “Restore.” After all the events of the last year and a half, we—as individuals, families, a congregation, and the wider society—are in a period of restoration and transformation. And to aid us in our spiritual reflection upon this experience, we’ve turned to the stories of the ancient Judeans as they returned from exile in Babylon and rebuilt their society and culture.
Today we hear from the prophet Zechariah, who along with the prophet Haggai, encouraged the people in the building of the Temple. Hear, now, the word of the Lord:
In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berechiah son of Iddo, saying: The Lord was very angry with your ancestors. Therefore say to them, Thus says the Lord of hosts: Return to me . . . and I will return to you . . . Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the former prophets proclaimed, “Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.” But they did not hear or heed me. Your ancestors, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever? But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your ancestors?
So they repented and said, “The Lord of hosts has dealt with us according to our ways and deeds, just as God planned 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: In the night I saw a man riding on a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen; and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses. Then I said, “What are these, my lord?” The angel who talked with me said to me, “I will show you what they are.” So the man who was standing among the myrtle trees answered, “They are those whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth.” Then they spoke to the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have patrolled the earth, and lo, the whole earth remains at peace.” Then the angel of the Lord said, “O Lord of hosts, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, with which you have been angry these seventy years?” Then the Lord replied with gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with me. . . . Proclaim this message: Thus says the Lord of hosts; I am very jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion. And I am extremely angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was only a little angry, they made the disaster worse. Therefore, thus says the Lord, I have returned to Jerusalem with compassion; my house shall be built in it, says the Lord of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem. Proclaim further: Thus says the Lord of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity; the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.
For the Word of God in scripture,
For the Word of God within us,
For the Word of God among us,
Thanks be to God.
Back in 2012, the youth group was on a mission trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation. Pat Lange, Emma Ferber, John Hodgson, and myself were the adult sponsors. One day that week, our group went for lunch at Bette’s Kitchen, near Manderson, where we sat under the arbor and enjoyed our meal while looking out at the beautiful hills.
Bette, the owner of the restaurant, is a descendant of the Lakota holy man Black Elk. I asked our guide if this was in fact Black Elk’s land, as I knew he had lived near Manderson. The guide said that it was, and that Black Elk’s cabin still stood downhill from where we were sitting, in a grove of trees. He pointed out the trail and invited me and others to walk down there. A small handful of us did.
When I moved here to Omaha eleven years ago, Bud Cassiday recommended that I read Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt. When I did, I was immediately struck by its power, beauty, and wisdom. I’ve been something of a Black Elk fan ever since. So I jumped at the chance to see the holy man’s cabin.
The cabin was old and not maintained. Inside, the walls were covered with graffiti. I wish it were a preserved historical site like the homes of so many prominent persons. Nonetheless, I enjoyed visiting the cabin, taking in the view, and imagining the wise old man sharing his vision in this very spot.
Black Elk’s Great Vision began with two men coming from the clouds carrying long spears from which lightning flashed. He is summoned on a journey to meet the Grandfathers who are the Powers of the World. They tell him that he will receive power from the thunder beings and that they shall take him to the center of the world where he will see, and the sun will shine, and he will understand.
On his journey, Black Elk defeats drought, who is a blue giant. This victory brings rain upon the earth. Black Elk plunges his red lightning stick into the ground and it becomes a tree of life in the center of the nation's hoop, bringing peace and abundance to the people. The people chant and shout with joy.
Near the end of his great vision, he has this moment of epiphany:
And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.
This is a great, holy, eschatological vision that we have not yet achieved—many hoops making one circle, humanity living in solidarity with creation, everyone being sheltered and provided for.
In their commentary on the book of the Hebrew prophet Zechariah, Carol and Eric Meyers write,
The prophet ‘sees’ in the objects or persons around him meanings that transcend the normal qualities of those figures. The prophet’s perception of reality is extraordinary. The conventional properties of realia are transformed.
Because the prophet sees things that others don’t, the prophet’s role is “to clarify in visions and oracles the world about him and to articulate a hopeful vision of the future.”
Through new perception and insight, the prophet makes sense of the world and inspires future possibilities. That’s what people need after a trauma, during a time of restoration. This new perception is what Black Elk offers to the Lakota, what Zechariah offered to the Hebrew exiles, and what we in our own way require now in our own season of restoration.
Zechariah’s visions may, when we initially read them, sound strange to us. But that strangeness can evoke our sense of wonder, leading us to search for deeper understanding. What do all these images mean? Well, we honestly lack the ability to see and understand without a little expert guidance, so I’m thankful for the scholars who help us to figure things out.
Maybe the first aspect of the vision we notice is the nighttime setting. It’s dark and the foliage would make it even darker. Carol and Eric Meyers, in their commentary, point out that myrtles are “dense shade-creating shrubbery.” This is a “setting of darkness,” they write, in which it should be very difficult, if not impossible, to make out the color of horses or to see clearly what’s happening. Yet, Zechariah does see. That’s the significant thing—he does see in the dark.
Sometimes our life situations are too dark and difficult for us to see. We wonder where God is? If we can ever hope or love or rejoice again? If there is any path forward? If anything makes sense anymore?
In those moments we need the help of others who can see for us and who can help us to gain our own insight and perception. There, even in the darkness, is something to draw our attention, that can help us move forward, that can restore us.
So the first important lesson from the vision is gaining the ability to see in the dark. But what is it that Zechariah sees? First, a glen of myrtle trees. In his commentary on this vision, Marvin Sweeney draws out the importance of the myrtle. He writes that “Myrtles play a role in ancient mythologies” because of “their evergreen character.” People believed that “their long roots reach to the depths of the subterranean waters.”
So, myrtles go deep, into the very depths of creation, where creation itself first overcame chaos.
After a time of trauma, when we are healing, we too must go deep into ourselves. The healing begins by restoring our sense of self, by reconnecting with what’s important to us, by tapping into that higher power that helps us to transcend our current situation.
There’s more to the myrtles. They were also used in the Jewish festival of Tabernacles as part of the ritual. Now, Tabernacles was the festival during which Solomon first dedicated the Temple and during which the restorers of Zechariah’s time will also rededicated their Temple. During these religious celebrations, branches of the myrtle tree are used “to symbolize the rebirth of creation.”
So, according to Marvin Sweeney, the myrtles in Zechariah’s vision suggest going to the “center of creation and the cosmos” in order to experience “rebirth and new creation.”
And then there are the horses Zechariah sees in his vision, inside the myrtle glen. Horses who patrol the earth. Carol and Eric Meyers write that “the horses with their riders go everywhere, see everything that needs to be seen.” Horses, in the ancient world also conveyed the idea of speed. That there are three horses represents totality. So, the idea contained in this image is that God goes everywhere, is watching everything, sees all. God has plans for the entire world. The work that the Judeans are doing rebuilding the Temple is only a part of something much bigger than they realize.
And what is God’s plan for the world?
Well, something that may unsettle us in the Book of Zechariah are the references to God’s anger. When the Judeans were exiled in Babylon, they came to understand their history in this way—they had been disobedient and sinned, breaking the covenant, and that God had brought calamity upon them. Now, we don’t usually share their interpretation of trauma and suffering, but we do understand how this is a narrative that a traumatized people might use in order to cope with their circumstances.
Let’s sit with their explanation for a moment to better understand it. What did they think God was angry about? What had their ancestors failed to do? What was the disobedience that brought about the calamity?
Well, for Zechariah, as it was for Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and so many of his predecessor prophets, God’s anger was directed at injustice. In chapter seven of Zechariah, we read:
Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.
Breaking these rules is what angered God. And what did God do? First God sent prophets to appeal to the people and call them to change. But when the people still didn’t listen, God acted to end the injustice.
So, if we sit a while with the ancient Judean view of God’s anger, we might find that it does resonate with us. We too want God to act against injustice. We too want a world where there is no oppression, where truth and kindness and mercy are the order of the day. Right?
But, Zechariah doesn’t stop there. In his nighttime vision there’s another vital piece. God’s no longer angry; God is compassionate.
So, even if these exiles used God’s anger to explain what had happened to them, they are by this time beginning to move beyond that explanation to a different understanding. In their new understanding God is compassionate and God is comforting the people.
The great bible scholar Phyllis Trible in her classic work God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, helped us all to understand that the Hebrew word for compassion originates in how a mother nurtures her baby. So, when Zechariah declares that a compassionate God is comforting the people, you should picture God as divine mother, soothing her crying child.
So, now that we’ve followed some expert help, we can see and understand better. Zechariah’s vision, when we initially read it, seemed strange to us. But when we open our eyes, when we develop the ability to see, what is revealed is a wonderful vision of hope, healing, and future possibilities.
The vision began in darkness and rises up into comfort. Here’s a lesson for us: When we are troubled, hurt, and traumatized, we can’t see the path forward, the world does not make sense, we are on the verge of losing our hope—
But God is working in the darkness and the depths, seeing all, and transforming all, in order to bring about justice, compassion, and comfort.
The theologian Serene Jones, in her writing on trauma, states that the ability to wonder is “the complete opposite of the truncated, shut-down systems of perception that traumatic violence breeds in its victims.”
Zechariah and Black Elk both teach us to wonder at the strange things they see. Wondering breaks us open to new possibilities, which is part of healing and restoration. Serene Jones writes, “Wondering is the simple capacity to behold the world around (and within you), to be awed by its mystery, to be made curious by its difference, and to marvel at its compelling form.”
So, even when it’s dark, let’s look at what is happening around us, and be open to what it might teach.