Encouragement in a Time of Uncertainty—Zechariah 5:1-11

Zechariah’s ministry was an encouragement in a time of uncertainty. He spoke to those exiles who had made it back to Jerusalem—and he speaks to us.

The exiles had many challenges. They weren’t able to worship as normal because the temple was a pile of rubble. Can you imagine being unable to worship with others like you were used to? The city was in ruins and sanitation was difficult. Although they had laws explaining the need to purify their hands disease was still rife. Can you imagine disease spreading indiscriminately amongst the population?

The leaders were struggling to organise the basics of life and were also distracted by the challenge of taking back control of their borders. Can you imagine being frustrated with your national leaders? The returned exiles were struggling with not seeing loved ones—those that had not made it back from exile. Can you imagine being cut-off from and unable to see people that you love?

The economy of the nation was in tatters. The very poorest in their society were the hardest hit. What a terrible injustice that would be. Things just weren’t how they used to be. It felt like life was on hold as they struggled with what a new normal might look like? Can you imagine this?

Perhaps in our time we can appreciate better some of the challenges faced by the exiles? Their challenges have some affinity with ours, but their situation was more precarious than ours. Zechariah’s ministry provided God’s word in answer to the questions raised by uncertainty. His answers are an antidote to the fear that so easily follows in the footsteps of uncertainty.

Zechariah’s sixth and seventh visions speak to questions we share with the exiles of old. The answers remind us that we too are exiles, though closer to the final stage of God’s plan for humankind.

Vision 6—Zechariah 5:1-4
The exile of the people of Judah to Babylon is a dramatic illustration of the fundamental problem that lies at the heart of God’s relationship with his people.

That problem is that God wants his people to live in wholesome healthy relationship with him—the only thing God expects in return is that his people will fear him.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:7, NIVUK

He instructed his people on how they can do this and gave them the choice. They could live in covenant faithfulness with him and know his blessing. Or they could break the covenant by ignoring his instruction and receive a curse instead of a blessing. This is all mapped out in the Book of Deuteronomy Chapter 28. There we see the promise of blessing put side-by-side with the ‘promise’ of a curse.

We know that the people and their rulers chose to disobey God’s instruction time-and again until the covenant reached breaking point. Whenever I hear the Abba song SOS it reminds me of this most tragic of relationship breakdowns. The love story of the bridegroom Yahweh and his bride Israel:

Where are those happy days, they seem so hard to find?
I try to reach for you, but you have closed your mind.
Whatever happened to our love? I wish I understood.
It used to be so nice, it used to be so good.

The most tragic part of the story was that God left Jerusalem before the people were taken into exile. This is told in visionary language in the Book of Ezekiel. Here is a short snippet:

18 Then the glory of the Lord departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim. 19 While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground, and as they went, the wheels went with them. They stopped at the entrance of the east gate of the Lord’s house, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them.
Ezekiel 10:18-19, NIVUK

Ezekiel makes it clear that God left because of iniquity, wickedness, and idolatry. Old fashioned terms but central to the Bible’s central story and the reality of this broken world:

    • Iniquity is sin and the associated guilt of sin.
    • Wickedness is the fundamental commitment to evil that underlies some sin.
    • Idolatry is the looking for other God’s, whether ancient deities of the modern gods of money, sex, and power.

Zechariah’s visions 1-3 explore God’s return to Jerusalem—the undoing of Ezekiel’s depiction of God’s departure. Visions 4 and 5 are centred on Jerusalem. Visions 6 and 7 explain the outworking of God’s return to Jerusalem.

So why a flying scroll? Its huge size and the fact that it is flying implies this is God’s work. Other references to scrolls in the Prophets (Jeremiah 36 and Ezekiel 2-3) tell us this is God’s word. In the context of the Prophets this is a word that brings judgement to the nation and nations. To put it another way, this is a word of woe.

This flying scroll brings two judgements:

‘This is the curse that is going out over the whole land; for according to what it says on one side, every thief will be banished, and according to what it says on the other, everyone who swears falsely will be banished’. [v.3, NIVUK]

These sins might well be representative of sins as a whole but both seem to have been especially problematic to the exiles trying to rebuild. In these chaotic times there were those that would steal from their fellows and others who failed to keep their word. Times of uncertainty threaten societal cohesion, at a time when it is especially important that everyone works to support one another.

The dramatic judgement of banishment is rephrased and reframed a verse later:

The LORD Almighty declares, “I will send it out, and it will enter the house of the thief and the house of anyone who swears falsely by my name. It will remain in that house and destroy it completely, both its timbers and its stones.”’ [v.4, NIVUK]

What encouragement can be found in these harsh words? We are two quick to gloss over judgement. God’s judgement is a necessary part of his love for a broken world. Do we not want justice? Are there not deeds of evil that must be dealt with? Only God can ultimately deal with iniquity and wickedness. This is a comfort in times of trouble; that through God’s mighty hand justice arrives sooner or later. This is part of what it means to trust that God still rules this Earth. He will bring order and restoration, and this must necessarily include judgement.

In Christ we have a greater encouragement, for in him it is not yet too late to turn to him for forgiveness. Zechariah’s picture of God’s word is also a call to repentance. It is, after all, the only alternative to a broken house and banishment from God’s holy presence.

Vision 7—Zechariah 5:5-11
As we reach the seventh vision it is readily apparent that God is committed to return now that the people have reversed their exile. They have travelled from Babylon to Jerusalem. Now we see a journey in the opposite direction, from Jerusalem to Babylon. Initially it seems not only bizarre but makes little sense. Just a few details and connections, however, can make this imagery’s meaning and significance come to life.

Seeing the imagery at the end of the vision reveals the punchline. The basket is going from Jerusalem to Babylon. In the original Hebrew the word so often translated Babylon is Shinar, the plane on which the tower of Babel was built. Just as the exiles are rebuilding the temple there is a new Babel building project.

The basket is a parody of the ark through which God is portrayed as having returned to the Temple. The basket has a lid, like the ark, but this one is made of the basest metal, lead rather than the precious gold of the ark’s lid. This anti-ark is not carried by beautiful and powerful winged cherubim but two women that look like storks—a poor echo of the majesty of the real thing.

What does this anti ark contain? Well the original had God’s word – the torah or instruction. Here we have the opposite, wickedness equated to a woman. At first this sound like a patriarchal slur on women, but this is not the case. The Hebrew word for wickedness sounds very like Asherah—a woman named Asherah most likely means that this is a statue of the goddess Asherah. As the anti-ark it contains the heart of idolatrous religion just as the real ark contained the word of God, a God that cannot be portrayed as a physical object according to that law

The visons are reaching their climax of glorious hope—the beleaguered exiles have returned. They are promised that God too is returning to them and that wickedness will depart. They not only have an experience of an emerging new normal from the pain of exile but their hope as God’s people is alive again. They will once again know God with them, Immanuel. They will have wickedness, iniquity, and idolatry removed from them. This hope takes on its full nature only in Christ. For it happened in the single day of Christ’s resurrection (cf. Zechariah 3:9).

The exiles were comforted by the promise of God’s presence in the temple. We know of Jesus Christ, God with us, in a fuller sense. By his Spirit he no longer is confined to a temple but is with us his people.

Teresa of Avila put such hope this way:

Let nothing disturb you, nothing frighten you, all things are passing, God is unchanging. Patience gains all; nothing is lacking to those who have God: God alone is sufficient.

Living Life to the Full with Psalm 16:11

You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Psalm 16:11, NRSV

Introduction
What does it mean to live life to the full? What significance do our lives have? Where do we go for answers to such questions? Perhaps we would rather not face such demanding questions? Sometimes cynicism, disappointment, or lack of faith can make the question of living life to the full irrelevant. Faith of course is key to the radical gospel-focused answers to questions about life, the universe, and everything.

The humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow touched on these sorts of questions, from the perspective of our needs, in the 1940s. At the most basic level we have physiological needs. Forget fullness of life—without air we can’t live more than a few minutes at best. Without water we can’t live more than a few days. Without food we can’t live more than a very small number of weeks. Sleep is another physiological need.

At the next level in what Maslow termed a hierarchy of need, and assuming we have our physiological needs met we look for safety. This includes housing, and civil society and its structures that keep us safe. If those needs are met, we look for love and belonging (Stage 3). We need a family, friends, and/or a partner to meet these needs.

If we are fortunate enough to get all that sorted, according to Maslow we look for esteem (Stage 4). This might be finding, and being recognised for, our role within our neighbourhood or wider society. Finally, in this hierarchy comes Stage 5: self-actualisation—achieving one’s potential through hard work, grit, and determination.

A few weeks ago, I went to my first post lock-down film. It was the film Goodfellas (1990). It is directed by Martin Scorsese and is based on the true story of the mobster Henry Hill. It opens with these words from Henry Hill:

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States. Even before I first wandered into the cabstand for an after school job I knew I wanted to be a part of them. It was there that I knew that I belonged. To me, it meant being somebody in the neighbourhood that was full of nobodies. They weren’t like anybody else. I mean, they did whatever they wanted. They double parked in front of a hydrant and nobody ever game them a ticket. In the summer when they played cards all night, nobody ever called the cops.”

Right there on the silver screen, mirroring a real life, we have the ‘belonging’ of Stage 3 of the hierarchy of need. The ‘esteem’ of Stage 4, and the ‘self-actualisation’ of Stage 5. All of this in an ugly law-breaking fulfilment of Maslow’s five-stage hierarchy of need—the American Dream at its worst.

The Bible, of course, has something to say about all five stages of Maslow’s hierachy. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us to be thankful to God that our physiological needs are met:

Give us this day our daily bread.
Matthew 6:11, NRSV

The Psalms remind us that ultimately our safety is found in God:

The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
Psalm 18:2, NRSV

The Bible celebrates friends, family, and sexual union. Though the gospel puts all of these in second position to loving Christ:

Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
Matthew 19:27–29, NRSV

What the Bible says about our need for esteem and our desire for self-actualisation is a much more complex and is tempered by our brokenness as sinners. Maslow’s hierarchy of need cannot account for our ultimate needs according to the Bible. This is where Psalm 16:11 comes in.

The Path of Life
Psalm 16 can be read as David’s words. It can be read as Jesus’ words. We are going to read Psalm 16 as our words, or better still our prayer.

You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Psalm 16:11, NRSV

The Bible is awash with journeys. The first journey was leaving Eden. If it hadn’t been for this there would have been no need for any other journeys. Abraham famously left his home country and journeyed to the Promised Land. Israel left slavery in Egypt and journeyed in the Desert on their journey to the Promised Land. Jesus journeyed from a quiet northern backwater to the Cross outside the City of Peace.

Our lives are also journeys. As Disciples we follow Jesus and we also bear a cross. As Pilgrims we journey to a Promised Land and the new City of Peace. The path of life is a walk with God; it is walking with Jesus; it is keeping in step with the Spirit. This is a path that is important because of both the journey and the destination.

Joy in God’s Presence
The path of life is about the journey and it is about the destination. This is an important balance. Our faith loses its vitality without this balance. If we only remember the journey our priority to welcome people into the Kingdom—to know Christ—will dwindle and wane. This is the mistake of various expressions of Christianity such as the German liberalism of the nineteenth century.

If we only have a future hope, we will not celebrate our gifts here and now. Nor will we be good stewards of all the good things that God has given us. This has been the mistake of Christian fundamentalism and some cult perversions of Christianity.

Putting God at our right-hand means putting him in the place of honour. It means that our discipleship and pilgrimage both come ahead of all wants and even needs. It means seeing not a hierarchy of need in our life, but a hierarchy of blessing. We perceive that all good things come from God.

In your presence there is fullness of joy.
Psalm 16:11b, NRSV

When we have God at our right hand—Jesus in that place of authority in our lives—then we discover true blessing. This is the blessing that the Bible speaks about, a blessing which is also happiness, and joy. This is what God’s presence does in our lives. This fullness of joy, that comes through putting Jesus Christ in the place of Lordship in our lives, replaces esteem on the hierarchy of need and transforms it into the hierarchy of blessing.This also should remind us that bringing a one-dimensional gospel to people who have physiological needs, issues with safety, and a lack of belonging will be fruitless.

Eternal Pleasure
Faith in Christ means we have knowledge of an ultimate destination. We tend to spend too little time and effort on celebrating and reflecting on this hope.

in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Psalm 16:11, NRSV

We don’t just have a place in eternity with the living God. It is a place of immense blessing. We need to forget our culture’s misreading of the biblical hope. This is not a disembodied floating, cloud-based, harp-playing eternity of repetitive singing. It is rooted in physical resurrection.

In centuries gone by when life was hard, unpleasant, uncomfortable, and short for just about everyone, this glorious future of a New Heaven and a New Earth was something that was more central to Christian faith.

If the hierarchy of need has as its hard-won pinnacle self-actualisation, our hierarchy of blessing has an eternity with the living God at the summit. This blessing is achieved in Christ, on our behalf, and is not subject to a fiercely competitive race to the top. The apostle Paul of course does portray the journey  as a race, but this is a race that all can win in Christ.

Psalm 16 verse 11 provides beautiful answers to the difficult questions we started with. This is a verse worth taking with us, either literally or by committing it to memory.

Reflecting on the Christian Hope: War Cemeteries

The Christian Hope, of a future heaven and earth, is often an appendix to traditional theologies. More thorough-going theologies rightly make the ‘life to come’ an integral part of theology. From a biblical perspective it should not be any other way. The Bible tells of the good creation of the past and its frustration in pre-history. It reveals how, in Christ, new creation has come. This new creation is both ‘now’ and ‘not yet’. This bifocal eschatology is well-known from Saint Paul’s pneumatology, in which he argues that the Spirit is a seal and deposit guaranteeing a future inheritance (1 Corinthians 1:21–22 and Ephesians 1:13–14). The past frustration of creation is remedied first by Christ’s past deeds, culminating in his rising from death as a first fruit, evident now in the work of the Spirit but only complete in the age to come.

This post is the first of three that reflect on the Christian Hope in terms of experiences of things and events that are important to me. These reflections arise from a conviction that we can be too slow to recognise the impact of our future with God, here and now. One remedy is to look to diverse experiences and interests to fire our imagination about the full promise of our bodily redemption. Each of these posts concerns a subject matter that is of special interest to me. I hope others too, can find some promise in how these specific topics speak of the greatest of all promises.

It is very much my hope that it will be evident that the chosen topics are not simply helpful illustrations. Rather, in each case, there is something that illuminates our future with God in a profound and organic way. The first of these subject matters is the emotive, even pathos-laden, topic of war cemeteries. For some this might sound unhelpfully morbid even if the obvious explicit presence of death at the heart of the subject connects firmly and bluntly with the question of ‘life after death’.

This reflection began during my family holiday in Normandy in France in June of 2019. Our holiday took place just after the 75th Anniversary celebrations of D-Day. In part, it was the historical legacy that took us to France this past summer—partly my continuing lifelong fascination with the events of 6th June 1944 and their immediate aftermath, and partly a wish to ensure my three children knew more of the second world war and its legacy today.

It was only when we arrived in Normandy that we appreciated that the lovely farm that provided our week’s accommodation was right next to the largest German war cemetery on French soil in La Cambe. Even as we drove past it the first time, looking for the farm, it made for a sobering experience. Our visit later that week proved to be more so as I’ll explain below. Before we made it to La Cambe’s cemetery we went to the famous American war cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer and the British one at Bayeux.

During our visits to these three war cemeteries it become clear that they unsurprisingly had a common impact—the all too obvious horror of grave-after-grave of both known and unknown combatants evoke the Psalmist’s most frequent question of lament, “why?”. In addition to this common ground, however, each had something different to say when viewed from the stance of resurrection hope.

The British War Cemetery in Bayeux echoes an English garden not least because the gravestones are surrounded by plants typically found in an English country garden.

Whatever the intent of the designers of this cemetery I could not escape seeing it as fusion of English gardens with the age to come. Almost certainly there is an element of reading far more than is intended into the layout and form of the cemetery. But for me it hinted at the unfortunate linking of biblical hope and British nationalism that is evoked by the hymn Jerusalem which uses words from William Blake’s poem: And did those feet in ancient time? This poem and the hymn Jerusalem ask:

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

These words might only ask questions, but these seem rather rhetorical, and at the same time plainly false and unhelpful. My reflection is of course not a criticism of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who manage the Bayeux cemetery and so many more sites around Europe—one can only wonder at such a remarkable effort made over so many years.

Elsewhere in the cemetery there is a clear allusion to the Book of Life (Psalm 68:29 Philippians 4:3, and Revelation 21:27) with the bold claim that ‘Their name liveth for ever more’, see photograph below. The availability of written records, made readily available, is almost a sacramental echo of the heavenly book. The principles of the Commonwealth Ward Graves Commission include ensuring the uniformity of the headstones and making no distinction on account of military rank, race or creed. Such principles seem fitting giving the twofold levelling we all experience in first dying and then being redeemed in Christ.

This principle of uniformity of headstone is taken in a different direction in US war cemeteries, including the one at Coleville-sur-Mer, pictured below. The headstones are styled as crosses in most cases on the basis that every soldier was a Christian unless they claimed otherwise. This uniformity of headstone and the precision of their geometry in rows and columns adds more anguish to the vexed question, “why?”.

The dominance of the cross also speaks powerfully of the foundation of our hope. It also echoes the poignant iconographic use of similar crosses in some of the works of the British artist Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) whose life was never the same after his experiences in the First World War. The use of white crosses to denote the idea of resurrection dominates his monumental paintings at Sandham Memorial Chapel.

Spencer was infamous for identifying his beloved home village of Cookham as heaven. But his imagination ventured to the day of resurrection and he perceived the dead rising from their graves, whether on the battlefield as Sandham Memorial Chapel or in the graveyard of Holy Trinity, the parish church in Cookham.

Of course, not everyone buried at Coleville-sur-Mer was a Christian and some headstones reflect this, for example a star of David is evident in the photograph above. If British war cemeteries echo a future idyll of heaven awash with roses and American ones speak of ‘the glorious dead’, what of La Cambe’s war dead?

Putting it in words is difficult. The iconography of gravestone and statue is heavy and chunky as if it would have been inappropriate to aim at beauty. This is especially so in the cross and figures which top the central mound, which is a mass grave for around 300 bodies, both known and unknown. It is also seen in the small crosses, each of which typically marks the grave of four people.

The visitor’s centre is sobering but in a very different sense. It tells the life story of some of those buried in the cemetery. In reading these stories we discover, although we should have known, that many of the dead here are very ordinary men. Men with no strong political view, nor driven by any nationalistic ideals, but men who would rather have stayed at home in a Germany that chose a path of peace. We also find men who only wanted peace after inflicting their worldview on other nations. Some of these men not only killed soldiers on the battlefield but they also killed civilians, men, women, and children.

Just as there are very different approaches to war cemeteries so to each person buried is unique. Only God knows the extent of virtue or vice in each life. He also knows which of these men, struck down before their time, will rise again to resurrection life. This, of course, is not on the basis of the magnitude of our virtues or vices, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God—but on the basis of our hope and belief in the sure and certain hope of resurrection life.