My father gave me an ice cream scoop to give my mother for Christmas when I was five. He’d gotten it as a free gift for opening a checking account. I didn’t know what the letters on it meant, but I knew how delighted mama looked when she opened it. She never mentioned the “CB&T” or the numbers on the handle.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized I hadn’t really given her anything from me. I’d only given her a gift I’d been given, and a free one at that. When we packed up her house last October, I found that scoop. She’d used it until she died.
The visions in today’s reading are about a free scoop like this, a treasure I delight in and keep returning to.
God wanted the newly returned Jewish exiles from Babylon to respond to him as their forefather’s had not, giving attention to his words and repenting for their failure to keep them. Zechariah was given eight visions from God, all in one night. They’re illustrations of what God had in mind when he said, “‘Return to me, and I will return to you,'” Zec 1:3.
I like to think of them as being behind-the-scenes peeks into what living in relationship with God means, (NIV Study Bible, intro). We covered the first two visions in yesterday’s post; here it is if you want to take a look, December 21.
In Zechariah’s third vision, he sees an angel with a measuring line in his hand, who’s going to measure the size of Jerusalem. But before any measuring takes place, this angel is interrupted by another, who tells him to “run tell that young man,” presumably Zechariah, what the measuring vision will mean.
The message is that the literal city of Jerusalem is too small for all of God’s people, who will be brought into his family. But no matter. Spiritual Jerusalem is not too small. It will be enormous, unmeasurable, and beyond the bounds of literal city walls. It will be a city without walls because of its size, but also without the need for walls, because the God who protects it is the “wall of fire around it” and “its glory within,” Zec 2:1-5.
This would have been great news to a nation who had been whittled down from more than a million people in King David’s day to the 50,000 who have returned from Babylon in Zechariah’s. While many more Jews than these were still dispersed in all the nations north, south, east, and west of Jerusalem, God has brought back these few as his remnant to rebuild his temple and start over.
I’m guessing that it was a grief to see so few folks in the burned out city compared to how many there had been. It was another grief that the new temple wouldn’t be as grand as the one Solomon built. The young people celebrated when the foundation was finished, but the old timers wept. They knew what had been lost. The nation doesn’t have the resources and contacts Solomon had to build it as he had. While Darius of Persia is footing the bill, this temple would be built during Judah’s humiliation as a nation, not at its glory and height like in Solomon’s day, Ez 3:12-13, (NIV Study Bible note).
In the midst of their disappointment, God mercifully gives them a peek into the future when God’s city and its temple and its people are too big to fit inside Jerusalem. Elsewhere we’re told that it will cover the whole planet. And God’s glory will live in it.
This prophecy is already being fulfilled in the church that Jesus’ fishermen-apostles started, who carried the message of his life and death and rising to the rest of the world. Rather than a building, God’s temple is now in every believer’s heart, sanctified by Jesus’ blood, filled by his Spirit, and protected by the Father’s fiery, jealous love.
“The angel of the Lord,” who is Jesus before his incarnation, tells Zechariah that God will honor the Savior he will send to punish the nations that have plundered Judah and Israel, “for whoever touches you touches the apple of his eye,” Ze 2:8, NIV. He’ll raise his hand against the nations and plunder them, and his people will know that God has sent him (NIV Study Bible note says that an alternate translation of “so that their slaves will plunder them” is “I will plunder them” in Ze 2:9).
I’m loving God’s description of his people as “the apple of his eye.” God could just as easily, and more honestly, it seems to me, have called them “the burr under my saddle” or “the thorn in my flesh” or “the pain in my….” You get the picture.
That God calls anyone “the apple of his eye” is such a grace, such a gift of love and good news, I’m kind of undone just by this much. Because when I look at the history of his people since the garden until the days of Zechariah, I’m not overwhelmed by any notions of precious apples or rightly seeing eyes. I see a lot of rotten apples and blindness.
Does God turn a blind eye to call us the apple of his? Or is he seeing us as he will make us to be–pure and holy, gentle and kind, humbly full of his glory–one day? He doesn’t say. I’m left with the unsettling feeling that God is so generous with his praise that I can never measure up. I can never be good enough to deserve it.
Why do I feel like I have to?
This may be exactly his point: I don’t. No one does. No one can be good enough. All of the goodness we have comes as a gift, like mama’s ice cream scoop, not from any earning we do. Every good thing is what he brings us. If there’s one clear lesson from the Old Testament about people, it’s that left to ourselves, we’re pretty rotten. No matter how many times God blesses his people, eventually they wander off and forget him.
In Zechariah’s fourth vision, the high priest of Zechariah’s day, Joshua, stands before Jesus with Satan on Joshua’s right side accusing him. Priests were supposed to wear spotless clothes that symbolized the holiness they were to have before a holy God. But Joshua is wearing filthy clothes instead. Satan says Joshua’s not worthy to be the high priest of God’s people standing there like that, wearing his dirty clothes of sin, Zec 3:3.
But the Lord doesn’t listen to Satan. He silences him and says that Joshua has been rescued from the fire, “Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?” Zec 3:1-2. Maybe he’s referring to the fire of exile he’s lived through in Babylon. Maybe he means the fire of temptation he’s undergone since returning to Jerusalem. Or maybe it’s just the fire we all face living life. Whatever the fire has been, what warms my heart is that Jesus defends Joshua.
Because Joshua is accusable. He’s not just a priest, he’s the high priest. Wearing clean, white linen clothes was part of God’s law for all priests; it would have been inexcusable for a high priest to be dirty. His clothing, as well as his character, had to be impeccable. But Joshua hasn’t brought anything good with him to come to God, not even clean clothes. All he’s brought is filthiness.
But Jesus doesn’t turn him away. He defends him before the accuser. And then he tells someone to take off Joshua’s dirty clothes, and he turns to Joshua and says, “See I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you,” Ze 3:4-5.
I love this scene. How often do we come to God with nothing except our sin? It’s really all we ever bring to God–our weakness, our emptiness, our need of him. It’s Satan who tells us we’re not good enough to come, we don’t belong here, we should have at least gotten a shower and changed clothes first. Isn’t that how we feel, like we need to do something good before we can get right with God? And the days drag on, and we don’t come. Before we know it, weeks become years.
But Jesus doesn’t tsk-tsk. He gets it, “You’ve had a hard time and been in the fire. Of course you’re charred and burned. Give me your impoverished self. Put on my abundant self instead,” paraphrased. Jesus doesn’t just suggest clean clothes, he gives Joshua perfect ones. He trades his own “rich garments” for Joshua’s filthy rags, the perfect life each of us needs to approach the Father. It’s these “clothes” that he gives to Joshua.
God has this elaborate system set up in the Old Testament of laws for every little and big thing and every now and then, like here, he cuts to the chase and shows us what he’s really about: giving us grace in a Savior who takes our place. And he lets us feel the utter relief Joshua would have felt. Here’s a high priest before God who is absolutely filthy, and what does God do? Shame him? Rebuke him? No. Satan gets the rebuke and Joshua gets grace.
Coming to God isn’t about keeping laws. Not really. Not mainly. It’s about admitting you can’t keep his laws. The laws show us we can’t keep them. They show us we need a Savior who’s kept them for us. These two visions of Zechariah are really about the same thing—the scoop of God’s grace in Jesus I never have to deserve and never get tired of receiving.