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“Not by Might nor by Power but by My Spirit,” says the Lord of Hosts

 
 

Zechariah 4:6

 

I: — Who can forget the photographs of European cities the day after Hitler’s forces invaded their country and their community?  French citizens, Dutch citizens, Poles – they appear horrified and stunned in equal measure.  They know they are going to be subject to an arbitrary brutality already notorious wherever the Nazi boot has alighted.  Their splendid architecture will be reduced to rubble.  Their institutions, the outcome of decades if not centuries of publicly-owned wisdom, will be mocked and rendered inoperative.  Families are going to be disrupted.  Many people will disappear without trace.  Places of worship will be violated.  (The Nazis, it must be remembered, stabled livestock in synagogues.) Anyone who resists will be shot on sight.  Anyone who conspires with others to sabotage will be tortured.
Invasion writes shock, fear and fury on the faces of its victims.  Can anything be worse? Yes.  There is something worse: deportation.  Deportation is worse than mere invasion.  For those deported the immediate future is forced labour, degradation, and finally death.

II: –In 586 BCE the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem and overran the people who looked upon Hier-Shalem as the City of God’s Shalom.  Deportation followed immediately.  In exile the     deported Jewish people struggled for seventy years to preserve their identity and their hope.

Their hope was fired afresh in 522 BCE when widespread revolt convulsed the Persian states.  Surely these revolts heralded the downfall of the Gentile oppressor; surely they anticipated the long-awaited ‘Day of the Lord.’  Haggai and Zechariah were convinced that the messianic king was in their midst.  God would show his hand, end the rule of the enemy, vindicate his people and inaugurate the messianic kingdom.  When the Lord returned to reign in Zion he would find his kingly throne awaiting him, for only then would he execute his sovereign purposes for the world.

If the Lord were to find his kingly throne awaiting him the temple would have to be rebuilt.  The temple was the central place of worship.  But it wasn’t ‘central’ in the sense that it was larger or grander than other places of worship.  The temple was the foundation of Israel’s worship in that it was qualitatively different from all others, qualitatively different, for instance, from the synagogues that soon proliferated.

The synagogue was the locus of preaching and teaching and praying, the locus of probing Torah and applying it, the locus of religious discussion and community cohesion.  The temple, on the other hand, was the venue of sacrifice.  The temple was the only place on earth where God had pledged to meet his people for sure.  Everyone knew that God, in his glorious freedom, could encounter anyone wherever and whenever it pleased God.  At the same time, everyone knew that God had pledged himself to meet with his people for sure in the temple.  In fact the Israelite people envisioned God in the temple with his head in the heavens and his feet on the earth.  Specifically, they envisioned God sitting on the mercy-seat.  The mercy-seat was the gold lid covering the Ark of the Covenant.  The Ark of the Covenant contained, among other things, the tablets on which the finger of God had inscribed the Decalogue.  God sat (royal rulers always sat to speak and to exercise their authority) on the mercy-seat even as he infinitely transcended the temple, while at the same time the earth remained his foot-stool.

It was in the temple that God could be accessed for sure; and the God whom his people accessed there ruled in mercy.  In other words, in the temple unholy sinners could approach, even encounter, the holy One himself and survive.

To say they could approach him, however, isn’t to say they could nonchalantly saunter up to him or presumptuously sashay over to him and carelessly contact him as thoughtlessly as they might brush up against anyone at all on a crowded Jerusalem street.  They were always aware that the chief exercise of worship was sacrifice, sacrifice offered to God.  Sacrifice was the God-appointed means whereby defiled people, guilty people, excuse-less people could come before God and live to plead his mercy.  Sacrifice wasn’t merely God-appointed; it was also God-provided (hadn’t the psalmist said that the cattle on a thousand hills were God’s?); sacrifice was the God-provided means whereby sin was atoned for and sinners were reconciled and defiled people were cleansed and those deserving death could live before him and with him.

The temple would have to be rebuilt, for only then would sacrifice be offered once again and the people revivified, and all of this as God assumed his throne in Zion and manifested his reign.

And yet such a reign, such an operative sovereignty – what would its nature be?  Would it simply be Yahweh out-muscling Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon the way the Allied air forces out-muscled the Luftwaffe when German cities were devastated more thoroughly than British cities had been devastated earlier?  (I trust that no one here thinks that the Allied out-bombing of the Luftwaffe was a sign of the kingdom of God.)  If Yahweh merely out-muscled Nebuchadnezzar then Yahweh’s holiness and righteousness still hadn’t appeared.  For this reason a vision and a word were vouchsafed to Zechariah.

THE VISION: a lampstand with gold, with seven lamps on it, together with two olive trees.  ‘Seven’ is the biblical symbol for completeness.  The lampstand with seven lamps, burning, burning, burning, represents God’s effectual presence, illuminating, cheering, igniting; God’s effectual presence throughout the whole world.  The two olive trees guarantee oil enough to ensure the effectual presence of him whose fire and light never flicker or falter or fizzle out.

THE WORD: “Not by might nor by power but my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.”  To be sure, the temple, that stone edifice, would be rebuilt in Jerusalem.  Yet Zechariah and his people were promised more than they knew, because centuries later Israel’s greater son was to declare, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19)  In his pronouncement Jesus is plainly moving back and forth between ‘temple’ as the stone edifice where the Holy One, high and lifted up, touches the earth for sure and where penitent people may access him for sure; Jesus is moving back and forth between that temple and the temple which is his body, his flesh.  He, and he alone, is the one in whom God incarnates himself; he is the one in whom God touches the earth; he is the one whose self-sacrifice allows, even invites, sinners to access his Father.

Just as plainly (we must be sure to note) the church building in which you and I worship Sunday by Sunday is not the successor to the Jerusalem temple.  We are wrong, utterly wrong, to say to a youngster, “Now don’t run in church; the church is the house of God.”  The church building, even the site of worship, is nothing of the sort.  God does not house himself in anyone’s church building.  God houses himself in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth, and houses himself there only.  “The word became flesh and housed itself among us, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

Jesus Christ is God’s holy temple in that Jesus is the venue of atoning sacrifice.  Not only is he the venue of atoning sacrifice, he is the sacrifice itself and the priest who offers it.  Jesus Christ is priest, sacrifice, and venue of sacrifice all at once.  He alone is the sacrifice offered up on the altar of his own flesh.  Believing as we do that his sacrifice is sufficient and efficient, complete and perfect, neither requiring nor permitting repetition, we speak of a communion table in our church buildings but never of an altar.  Jesus Christ is the altar on which there is offered up to the Father the sacrifice sealing the atonement.

“Not by might nor by power but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.”  “My Spirit”?  According to the apostles God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit, is the power the crucified one bears and bestows.  Everywhere in the Newer Testament Jesus Christ bears the Spirit and bestows the Spirit and pours forth the Spirit in the wake of his cross and resurrection.  There’s nothing wrong with speaking of power (dunamis is a strong, biblical word) as long as we understand power to be the Spirit-power of the crucified.  There’s nothing wrong with ‘might’ (even almightiness) as long as we understand it to be the might of the crucified.  But if we ever start to think of power as sheer force, mere force; if we think of power unmodified, power unqualified, power unchecked, we aren’t talking about God at all.  We are talking about Satan.

III: — My students have enormous difficulty grasping this point.  In introductory theology classes we talk about God’s sovereignty, God’s power, God’s almightiness.  Some students (the Calvinists especially) are eager to speak of the sovereignty of God.  I ask them, “In the 2000 pages of Calvin’s Institutes how many times does Calvin speak of ‘the sovereignty of God?’  There’s silence in the class, and so I tell them: none.  Nowhere in his Institutes does Calvin use the expression.  “But Professor Shepherd, don’t you believe in the sovereignty of God?”  Of course I do.  If God isn’t sovereign he isn’t God.  The crucial question, however, is “What do we mean by ‘sovereignty’?  What do we mean by ‘power’?”

What do we mean by ‘power?’  A brave student (albeit benighted) says “Power is the capacity to do what you want, anything you want.  Power is the capacity to implement whatever you have in mind.”  What the student means, of course, is that power is the capacity to wrench; power is the capacity to coerce; power is unqualified force raised to the nth degree.

The student is wrong.  Power is the capacity to achieve purpose.  What is God’s purpose?  It’s a people who love him and obey him.  How does God achieve this purpose? – through the cross.  God exercises power (God achieves his purpose) when the Son of God die helpless at the city garbage dump, strung up between two criminals, pinned in disgrace to a piece of wood used in that era to execute three kinds of malefactors: revolutionaries, military deserters and rapists.  In the economy of God, God achieves his purpose when he, in the person of his Son, is so helpless he can’t even wriggle.
I tell my startled students that power doesn’t mean “God can do anything at all.” And even if did mean this we’d be no farther ahead, since we don’t know what God can do.  We haven’t a clue as to what God can do or can’t do: we know only what he has done.  In his Son he has given himself up to suffering abuse, degradation and that death which is alienation from the Father (“Why have you forsaken me?”)

This is what God has done.  We know God only as by grace we are made beneficiaries of what God has done on our behalf.  We have no warrant at all for speaking of who God is apart from what God has done.

Then what about God’s power?  God’s power is the power of the cross.  Since God is love, God’s characteristic work is to act in love.  Since God is almighty, he can’t be defeated in reconciling a wayward creation to himself.  At the cross God does his most characteristic and his most mighty work.  God does his most characteristic work (love) and his most mighty work (reconciliation) when, from a human perspective, he appears helpless.

I didn’t say ‘ineffective.’  The cross is anything but ineffective.  When the immature Christians in Corinth wanted a display of worldly power and wisdom in Christian dress Paul reminded them that the cross, and only the cross, is both the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Think about it for a minute.  Through the cross God bore our sin and bore it away, didn’t he?  Through the preaching of the cross God has brought you and me to faith, hasn’t he?  Through the crucified one rendered alive but still bearing the wounds of the cross the Spirit is poured out upon us, isn’t he?  Never confuse seeming human helplessness with divine uselessness.

My students never get this point the first time around.  Upset now, they shout at me, “You’re forgetting something.  You’re forgetting that while Christ was certainly crucified, once, Sunday followed Friday and he was raised above the cross, beyond the cross.”  Whereupon I ask my students, “Was Christ raised whole or was he raised wounded?  Was he raised beyond being crucified or was he raised as crucified?”  According to the apostles our Lord has been raised as crucified, not beyond it.  On Easter morning the risen Lord invites sceptical disciples to confirm the wounds of the cross.  His wounds are that by which they recognize him.
When Saul, soon to be called Paul, is persecuting Christians without letup the risen Christ comes upon him and speaks to him.  What does the risen One say?  We expect him to say, “Why are you hurting my people?”  But in truth he says, “Why are you hurting me?”  In other words, the risen One suffers in the suffering of his people; which is to say, the risen One suffers still.

In the book of Revelation John the Seer looks around for someone who is worthy to open the sealed scroll and render God’s redemption operative.  He looks for the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, someone who can wrench things right.  When John is finally able to see through his tear-blurred eyes he sees not the Lion of the Tribe of Judah but a lamb; specifically, a lamb that is haemorrhaging, haemorrhaging still.
The power of God isn’t the capacity to wrench or coerce.  Zechariah repudiates all such power.  The might of God isn’t the almightiness of sheer might, unqualified might.  Zechariah repudiates all such might.  (What’s more, no less a figure than John Calvin insisted that a god who was sheer power, nothing but power, is a god we could never worship.)

The power of God is the power of the Spirit, and the Spirit is the unique efficacy of the crucified.  God’s almightiness is the limitless efficacy of the cross.

IV: — The point we have made tirelessly tonight concerning the efficacy of God’s Holy Spirit in achieving God’s purpose versus the power of brute force to achieve nothing but carnage; this point no one grasped more profoundly than Martin Luther.  At the Heidelberg Disputation (1518) Luther, recognizing his opponents’ reliance on everything except the cross; Luther declared, “Apart from Jesus Christ [the crucified], God is indistinguishable from the devil.”  Approaching the same matter from a different angle, Luther subsequently announced that he would always reject a Theologia Gloriae, a theology of glory, in favour of a Theologia Crucis, a theology of the cross.   For the rest of his life Luther held up this distinction.

Luther insisted a church that disdains the theology of the cross, preferring to luxuriate in a theology of glory, is a church that boasts.  Such a church struts.  It swaggers.  It brags about itself: its size, its political clout, its place in the community, its material resources, its higher-profile members.  A church luxuriating in a theology of glory exalts itself instead of its Lord; it preens itself instead of adoring him.  It’s preoccupied with self-aggrandizement rather than with its mission.  It craves social acceptance rather than the salvation of the lost. It adulterates the gospel through adding what’s intellectually fashionable instead of bringing the gospel in its purity to bear on what’s intellectually current, if not intellectually questionable.
A church bent on a theology of glory, it would appear, is laughable.  Would that it were merely laughable, for in truth a church bent on a theology of glory is lethal.  Lethal?  Of course.  Such a church has confused the triumph of Jesus Christ (which is to say, the Spirit or power of the crucified) with the triumphalism of the institution.  A triumphalistic institution can’t endure seeming failure, and therefore it has to ensure success (what it considers to be success.)  In a word, such a church insists on converting people.

Now it is never the church’s business to convert.  Everywhere in the book of Acts (and elsewhere, of course) it is the Spirit’s business to convert.  It is the church’s business to bear witness, to evangelize.  Evangelism is the church’s responsibility; conversion is the Spirit’s responsibility.  A theology of glory, however, finds the church impatient with the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit appears not to act quickly enough, dramatically enough, successfully enough.  Therefore the church thinks it can do better than the Spirit what God has declared to be his own responsibility.

A church that confuses evangelism and conversion; a church that usurps God’s prerogative in the salvation of the world does two things.  In the first place it announces to the world that it doesn’t believe in God.  Plainly it doesn’t believe in God, since it has advertised its non-confidence in God to do what God has declared he alone can do; namely, make alive those dead in trespasses and sins, quicken faith in those who are spiritually inert.  Such a church, no longer content with its commission to evangelize and attest, elbows God aside in order to take over his role, thinking it can do better than he what he has declared only he can do.  Any church bent on conversion announces its unbelief.  In the name of God it announces that it doesn’t believe in God (since it doesn’t trust the Spirit of God.)

In the second place, a triumphalistic church, confusing the triumph of the crucified and institutional triumphalism; a triumphalistic church always persecutes.  A church bent on converting people soon finds most people resisting conversion.  Their resistance spells failure (supposedly) for the church.  Having already disdained the ‘failure’ of a crucified Lord the church insists that people become converted.  Such insistence swells into coercion as all kinds of pressure are mobilized: psychological pressure, social pressure, even financial pressure, not to mention that harder-to-define, much more subtle ‘oppression’ of which the Older Testament speaks, ‘oppression’ that is much less visible but no less distressing.

Genuine Christians have always existed as a minority.  They exist as a minority even in Christendom.  And persecution of them at the hands of the church has always occurred.  Think of gospel-believers in The United Church of Canada.  (Never doubt that The United Church was resolute in its efforts to convert people, especially clergy, to its ideology. Never forget the oppression it visited on those clergy who resisted such conversion.)  Think of Protestants in Quebec a few years ago.  Think of the children of my Roman Catholic friends, children who were enrolled in Christian Reformed elementary schools and who were savaged.

Anyone who reads church history reads two stories.  One story is the story of the Spirit-invigorated surge of the gospel as the gospel triumphs over unbelief.  The other story is the story of the triumphalism of the church.  This latter story is a sad story, a shameful story, for it details persecution.

If you doubt what I say you should chat with your Jewish neighbours.  The saddest chapter in the church’s history has been the chapter concerning the church’s relation to the synagogue.  Jewish people have been the target of the church’s persecution for centuries.  Let us never forget that until 1948 when tensions mounted in the Middle East over the arrival of the state of Israel; until 1948 Jewish people had always received better treatment at the hands of Islamic people than at the hands of the church.

V: — “Not by might nor by power but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.”  Let’s think next about discipleship.  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)  We’ve heard it since infancy and it no longer registers; we’ve read it so often we read right past it.  Yet it remains true: discipleship is cruciform.  There is no such thing as cross-less proximity to Christ.  To be intimately related to him is to be appointed to cross-bearing.

Not so long ago I was asked to preach at the worship service of a para-church organization.  I gladly agreed to do so, even though I knew a price, a small price, had to be paid.  The small price was singing sub-gospel choruses before the service.  We began singing: “He bears my shame, my guilt, my cross….”  I elbowed the woman beside me so hard she doubled over.  “No he doesn’t,” I expostulated; “Christ doesn’t bear my cross; he bears his own cross and appoints me to mine.”  Whereupon she looked at me as if I were deranged and gasped, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

But it isn’t small stuff.  If it were small stuff the North American ‘Prosperity Gospel’ would be sound.  But we’re rightly turned off by the Prosperity Gospel.  We know it panders to material acquisitiveness and social superiority.  We recognize it to be a hideous caricature of Christian discipleship.

We must be sure to understand that we are never asked to carry Christ’s cross.  No one of us has commissioned to be the Saviour of the world.  We have been asked to carry our own cross.  We can’t bear his; and just as surely he won’t bear ours. Our Lord bears his own cross and appoints us to ours.

How did North America’s ‘Prosperity Gospel’ come about?  It came about when its proponents assumed that Jesus Christ had been raised post-crucified instead of raised as crucified; when it was assumed that Jesus was raised scar-less instead of raised marked by his wounds; when it was assumed that Jesus had a bad day (once – it happened to be a Friday) but he got over it, moved beyond it and has never looked back.

By definition Christians are those who have been raised with Christ.  If we think he, in his resurrection, has left his cross behind, we shall assume that we have too.  But if we understand that he has been raised as crucified, then to be his disciple means we’ve been appointed to cross-bearing, and therefore sacrificial self-renunciation will always pertain to the definition of discipleship.

VI: — Lastly, in conformity with the cruciform nature of discipleship the Christian knows she will always incur the hostility of the world.  The servant isn’t above her Master.  If he incurred the world’s hostility, she will to.

Think for a minute about the word ‘world.’  In the writings of Paul ‘world’ (kosmos) means the entire created universe, planets, stars, galaxies.  In John, however, ‘world’ (kosmos) means the sum total of defiant humankind tacitly organized in its opposition to God and the gospel.  It’s ‘world’ in this latter sense that concerns us now.  Tacitly organized in its opposition?  Never forget that on the day Jesus was condemned, Luke tells us, Herod and Pilate, two fellows who had had little use for each other, finally became friends.  The Christian incurs the world’s hostility, necessarily incurs the world’s hostility, added Luther.

Now don’t assume that tonight’s sermon is going to end on a ‘downer,’ for the God who operates not by coercion or compulsion but rather by his mysterious Spirit supplies his people with invisible resources.  As often as we incur the world’s hostility we find faith strengthened.  Recall the principal character in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  The man’s detractors kept pouring water on the flame of his faith in order to extinguish it, while unbeknown to them, out of their sight, oil was always being poured on the flame of faith to keep it burning ever brighter.

For this reason the Christian can rely on the peace that God alone supplies, the peace that surpasses all human understanding just because it isn’t humanly engendered, just because it’s a peace the world neither gives nor takes away, just as the joy of the Lord is a joy the world neither gives nor takes away.

We must always be Spirit-attuned to recognize the strengthening God lends his people by means of their fellow-believers.  Over and over in Acts Luke tells us of the apostles venturing throughout Asia Minor, “strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:41), “strengthening all the disciples.” (Acts 18:23)  Most tellingly Luke speaks of Paul and his colleagues strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

VI: — If I have made one point consistently tonight it is this: Zechariah’s “Not by might nor by power but by my Spirit” doesn’t boil down to feebleness or ineffectiveness or uselessness.  On the contrary, God’s Spirit is the guarantee of genuine power, God’s purpose achieved.

The apostle Paul always knew this.  He had in his bloodstream what Zechariah his foreparent in faith had written 500 years earlier.  For this reason Paul prays for the Christians in Colosse, “May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy.”

                                                                                          Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                   

August 2012