The theology of the tee-shirt
Malachi 1: God said, “I love you.”
I saw a shirt with this message on it: “Jesus loves you…but then again, he loves everybody.” The Lord’s first word to Israel through Malachi is “I love you.” His second word, contrary to the wisdom of the tee-shirt, is that the Lord hates Esau (speaking of the nation made up of Esau’s descendants, Edom). Both of these concepts ought to get our attention. God loves people to the point that he pays an enormous price to reconcile people back to himself. At the same time, those who oppose God’s people are hated by God. Through the years, Edom has been the enemy of Israel. When possible, Edom opposed it’s “brother-nation” openly. Otherwise, Edom cheered when Israel fell on hard times. Because they insisted on being enemies of God’s people they made themselves into enemies of God. The Lord’s love for Israel is, therefore, not a warm, fuzzy kind of “God loves everybody.” Instead, it’s love with an edge on it; love that says to Israel, “Because I love you I make demands on you.” It’s love that also says to the enemies of Israel, “If you mess with Israel you mess with me.” Today, through his Son, Jesus, the Lord invites outsiders to join his family and thereby become heirs to all the benefits of being a part of the people God loves. It’s a terrific invitation and one every person can, and should, accept. As you consider responding to that offer, it might be wise to read these opening declarations from Malachi and be reminded that there’s more to the “Jesus loves you” message than is stated on the theology of the tee-shirt.
Take Away: We’re wise to remember that this “God is love” theology is theology with an edge on it.
The theology of the tee-shirt
The practical book of the Old Testament
Malachi 1: God’s Word to Israel through Malachi.
The final book of our Old Testament has some interesting mysteries associated with it. Aside from his name the author is unknown to us. In fact, we may not even know his name! “Malachi” may be a title rather than a name. The word means “My Messenger” therefore the writer may be only identifying himself as a messenger of God. Another challenge is the date of the book. Malachi is unique because it isn’t associated with some coming disaster or some regional event that has everyone’s attention. Instead, this book highlights the danger that threatens when life is just rolling along at a normal pace. The scholars guess Malachi dates a little over 400 years before Christ because it appears the Temple has been rebuilt and the sacrificial system is in full operation. Since most of life is lived somewhere between wonderful, extravagant days and horrible, painful ones, Malachi is a practical book for most of us most of the time. Whoever Malachi is, he marches into their crisis-free lives and boldly proclaims that they’ve been lulled to sleep by the lack of perceived danger and because of that, are in a crisis and don’t even realize it. This little book has something to say to every day Christians just like me.
Take Away: The danger in common days is that we’ll be lulled to sleep and neglect that which really matters.
The end and the beginning
Zechariah 14: What a Day that will be!
The prophet started out encouraging the returned exiles as they tackled the rebuilding of the Temple. He finishes his writing by looking to the future and reporting on the end of history. When things appear hopeless the Almighty will come to the rescue in what will be the final battle. The Lord will set foot on the historic Mount of Olives, just east of Jerusalem. Years after this prophecy Jesus prays on the Mount of Olives at the Garden of Gethsemane, and later, following his resurrection he ascends to heaven from the Mount of Olives. As he disappears into the sky angels deliver God’s message that Jesus will return in “like manner.” Like pieces of a puzzle revealed as the centuries pass, things fall into place. Zechariah says that when the Lord comes he’ll defeat the final enemy and when he sets foot on the Mount of Olives that it will split in half. His coming will bring all things to an end. At the same time it will begin all things anew. Then, as the disciples stand on that very same spot, angels tell them Jesus is coming back even as he has just left them. Oh yeah, Zechariah has it right: “what a Day that will be!”
Take Away: God’s people look forward to the glorious return of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
There is a fountain…
Zechariah 13: A fountain will be opened…for washing away their sins.
God’s prophet describes a wonderful day of hope when the last battle has been fought and the last foothold of sin has been purged from the people the Lord claims as his own. Zechariah envisions a cleansing fountain where people can come to have their sins washed away, their lives made clean. It was in 1772 that William Cowper penned a poem based on Zechariah’s words. Cowper had not enjoyed an easy life. He suffered severe depression and had at one time attempted suicide. Even after coming to Christ he struggled with depression. At the same time, he wrote the words to many songs of faith. His hymn based on the passage before us today is his best known. Cowper realizes that the fountain Zechariah describes flows, not with cleansing water, but with the blood of Christ. The fountain that makes “soiled lives clean” was opened at Calvary and the blood spilled there continues to wash away sins to this day. “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins. And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.”
Take Away: Thank the Lord for that cleansing fountain.
There’s a great day coming
Zechariah 12: I’ll pour a spirit of grace and prayer over them.
The prophet with a name similar to Zechariah is best known for his “Judgment Day” sermons. Zephaniah’s three chapters focus on that topic. Now Zechariah turns his prophetic gaze to “that day” (which is paraphrased in the Message “the Big Day”). Jerusalem, that city of peace, is going to be ground zero for a battle to end all battles. When it appears there’s no hope, God will take over its defense. He’ll not only destroy the attackers, but he’ll move on the hearts of his people, pouring a “spirit of grace and prayer” over them. In a moment of clarity, they’ll realize their Messiah came centuries earlier. They’ll weep as they realize that they rejected him. They’ll mourn as they remember how his life was taken, a spear thrust to the side being the final act of violence done to his body. This national act of repentance will result in God’s “washing away their sins.” As history winds down Israel will be restored as God’s chosen people. We Christians, according to the New Testament, have a place in all this. Paul says we’re like a branch from a wild olive tree that is grafted into the cultured one that has been lovingly cared for by the husbandman. Because of that, I have a stake in this promise and like Zechariah and Zephaniah I anticipate “the Big Day” promised in this passage.
Take Away: There’s a Great Day coming, a Great Day coming by and bye.
Thirty silver coins
Zechariah 11: They paid me an insulting sum, counting out thirty silver coins.
I confess I’m lost as I read this passage. Up till now, Zechariah has been the encouraging prophet, cheering the people on as they rebuild the Temple. With its negative tone, this prophecy seems out of place and sounds more like something Ezekiel or Jeremiah might have said and done. Indeed, there are no time markers in the text and it doesn’t necessarily have to chronologically follow what comes before. I don’t know whether or not this message is intended to have great meaning to Zechariah’s contemporaries. However, the thirty pieces of silver really gets our attention. This sum is the amount that’s paid for the betrayal of Jesus. Without making a serious attempt at dealing with this passage as a scholar, here’s the picture as I see it. Zechariah’s directed to take a job as the shepherd for a flock that’s marked for slaughter. Apparently, he has some authority and soon fires the other shepherds who are care nothing for the sheep. However, even though he leads the sheep with their best interests in mind, they rebel against him. Zechariah quits his job and demands his salary and is paid what he thinks of as an insulting wage of thirty silver coins — about three month’s wages. He then throws the money into the poor box. As a reader who can simply turn the pages of the Bible to the story of Jesus, this passage makes all kinds of sense. Here’s the Good Shepherd who comes to lovingly care for a people doomed for destruction. Jesus longs to gather the people of Israel to himself and to lovingly care for them. However, they rebel against him and he’s betrayed for thirty silver coins. Here we have a remarkable statement of prophecy given over 500 years before its fulfillment.
Take Away: The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.
God, golf, and grace
Zechariah 10: They’ll get a fresh start, as if nothing had ever happened.
I’m not a golf historian, so I may not have the story right, but I understand that in days of old a golfer who had not had the opportunity to warm up on the driving range was allowed to declare his first shot off the tee to be a “mulligan.” That meant it was going to be a practice shot and wouldn’t count. The “mulligan” morphed into an after-the-fact point of grace, first, for the opening shot only and then to any one tee shot during the round. I’ve even played golf with some folks who took however many “mulligans” they wanted. My response has always been, “You can take as many second shots as you want as long as you don’t brag about your score!” I’m reminded that out in real life we don’t get many mulligans. Once in a while we do, for instance, when the traffic cop lets us off with a warning. However, if my poor driving has resulted in a car wreck the clock can’t be turned back and there’s no mulligan for me. God’s man Zechariah has good news for Israel. The Lord’s going to give them another chance. He’s going to gather this scattered nation from all the places where it’s landed and give it a fresh start. We serve a God who graciously gives nations and individuals second chances. When I confess my sin and failure and return to the Lord, I find that he delights in forgiving me and restoring me to his family. In golf, the mulligan is just an unofficial part of a game. With God, it’s the real deal and it happens only because of his grace.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
Palm Sunday foretold
Zechariah 9: Your king is coming!
Israel is without a king and under the rule of the Persian King Darius. As the returned exiles accept the call of God to rebuild the Temple, the Lord encourages them through the messages and visions of the prophet Zechariah. God’s pleased with them and their commitment to the huge Temple project and promises to be with them. He’ll do for them what they cannot do themselves. Good days are ahead. Not only will the Lord help them in the reconstruction project, he’s going to make them into a great nation that will influence all the nations of the earth. The day will come when they’ll be freed from the rule of Darius and will, instead, be ruled by a King sent from God. That king will come into Jerusalem, not riding a mount of war, but upon a mount that symbolizes humility and peace, a donkey. It will be 500 years before that event takes place and then at least 2000 years more before the promise Zechariah gives is totally fulfilled. However, the “donkey riding King” has already ridden into Jerusalem. It happened when Jesus, the Messiah, rode a borrowed donkey into Jerusalem on the day we call Palm Sunday. When that took place, the words of long dead Zechariah were proven literally true.
Take Away: The Lord always keeps his promises.
Truth and simplicity
Zechariah 8: Keep your lives simple and honest.
They’ve been through a terribly hard time but now things are getting better. The 70 year exile is over and the new generation of exiles is returning to Jerusalem. When they arrive they’re overwhelmed by the devastation but the Lord sends leaders and laborers and things are coming together. Stones aren’t the only things being put back into place: the Lord is rebuilding a people to be his very own. Through his prophet, Zechariah, the Lord tells them that he wants them to be truthful people who do the right thing in every situation. His desire is for them to live simple and honest lives. If that’s what God wanted in the lives of these ancient Israelites, it’s most certainly what he wants in the lives of Christians today. I wonder if my life can be described as a “simple life?” What is it that dominates my time? In describing his life, the Apostle Paul begins, “This one thing I do….” Is that something I can honestly say? Even as the people of Israel rebuild their city and Temple, the Lord’s rebuilding a people who’ll live truthfully and simply. How can I better respond to this desire of God for his people?
Take Away: The Lord wants us to be people who live truthfully and simply.
Promise box theology
Zechariah 8: Is anything too much for me?
This section of Zechariah’s writing is made up of short “Proverbs-like” statements from the Lord. Years ago we had a little plastic box that had cards with individual verses printed on them. Each day we would pick a card and read the promise for that day. In spite of this fortune cookie approach to Scripture there was the positive aspect of our becoming familiar with all the good things the Lord has to say to his people. To those of Zechariah’s day, his short words of encouragement might have contained some of that “promise box” value. After years of putting it off, they’ve accepted the challenge of rebuilding the Temple. It’s a huge job and they’re overwhelmed by it all. In the midst of all this God’s prophet comes around every so often with a new word of the Lord to them. He tells them that the Lord cares about what they’re doing and that Jerusalem has a bright future. On this day, Zechariah encourages them to remember that the Lord’s helping them and nothing’s too hard for God. As I reach out to make this word of encouragement my own I’m reminded of the downside of using that old promise box. These words are spoken in a specific context. They aren’t about my getting a passing grade on some important test I’m about to take or my getting a raise at work. If I try to make these words about my wants then I’m guilty of twisting the intent of the Almighty. This promise is that God will help me to do what he calls me to do, even if that mission seems like an impossible task. This is a terrific promise just as it is and I need to respect it and not turn it into a tool for getting God to do stuff for me.
Take Away: The Lord will help us to do what he calls us to do.