Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Governor and His Labor: Sermon on Matthew 1:12 (Fallen Leaves from the Family Tree of Jesus)

It was about this time of year. Warmer – about fifty degrees out. It wasn't too uncomfortable for the prophet to walk, his cloak pulled round him, through the streets of rebuilt Jerusalem over twenty-five hundred years ago. December 18. He called out at the gates of the governor's residence. It's late in the afternoon, and he's just come from delivering a message to the priests clustered around the altar at the construction site where the temple used to stand and would again. He'd scolded them on God's behalf: The people in this land are unclean, so every work of their hands is unclean, and what they offer on the altar is mere desecration. And yet, in spite of it all, for just starting work the Lord would at last begin blessing them – would they'd live into it! When the prophet Haggai finished there, he figured he'd call it a day. But then the word of God had grabbed him again – this fresh-faced prophet, new to the job – and given him one last message for the governor.

For the governor's part, he was lost in thought when the prophet came a-callin'. Good news he'd gotten, a copy of a letter from the king Darius to the governor over him, Tattenai. The way was clear. Tax funding from the broader province Eber-Nari would be funneled toward the project. Rebuild the house of God. The governor was pleased. But he couldn't shake some questions. Seventy-eight years and nine days before, his grandfather Jeconiah, as an eighteen-year-old, had been raised to the throne of Judah. And a little over three months later, Jeconiah had been ripped from the throne by the same man, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who'd taken Jeconiah, his mom Nehushta, his wives, and his friends prisoner to Babylon. All to fulfill the words of Jeremiah – who'd told Jeconiah that even if he were a signet-ring on God's own finger, God would rip him off and throw him away, and his children would never be king. And now that deposed king's grandson paced his house in the same city, wondering if all this time he labored under God's curse, if he'd ever really amount to anything. His very name meant 'seed of Babylon.' Child of exile and oppression. Son of the foreign land where God had thrown his family away. Could he ever escape and grow into something else?

The prophet's appearance in the doorway jarred him from his melancholy. The governor heard Haggai say he had a message from God for him. Just like Jeremiah had for Grandpa, he wondered? Words of rejection, exile, futility? The governor gulped, that cool December afternoon, and steeled himself for Haggai's words. “I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms. I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders. And the horses and their riders shall go down, every one by the sword of his brother.” The governor wondered if he should feel relieved or afraid. But the prophet went on. “On that day, declares the LORD of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, the son of Shealtiel, declares the LORD, and make you like the signet ring – for I have chosen you, declares the LORD of hosts” (Haggai 2:21-23). What elation! What relief! What hope! The signet-ring God had chosen, not thrown away! Not on the discard pile of life, but cherished, a living emblem of God's authority!

Zerubbabel, governor of Yehud Medinata, the Persian mini-province built from the scraps that used to be Judah, heard the message that brought tears to his eyes. And he thought back to where it all began. He'd been born, say, fifty years before. Grew up in Babylon. It was all he'd ever known. Him, his uncles, and his grandfather – living like prisoners. But one of Zerubbabel's first memories – he must've been eight or nine, he figured – was the year Nebuchadnezzar finally kicked the bucket. Because it was in those last months of the year – forty-two years ago, for Governor Zerubbabel – that young Zerubbabel had heard the news. Nebuchadnezzar's son, the new king, Amel-Marduk, had taken a liking to Jeconiah. Changed his clothes, set him free, gave him a seat at the royal table to eat with Amel-Marduk daily. New dignity for the whole family. And young Zerubbabel's life had changed. From that point on, he'd played with the children of Babylonian nobles and royals.

Which may have been more trouble than it was worth. Two years later, Zerubbabel was about ten when Amel-Marduk, well-meaning but not terribly effective, was put out of his misery – murdered by his sister's husband Nergal-shar-usur. Who became the new king. Nergal-shar-usur built some things, went on a campaign into the mountains of southern Turkey. But died after four years on the throne of Babylon. His son Labashi-Marduk had taken his place, only to be murdered after a couple months by a court conspiracy. Zerubbabel grew up in the midst of that, his most formative years. Maybe not all his family members survived the chaos.

Well, the conspirators put an old man, 70-something Nabu-na'id, on the throne. A religious zealot, still under his 92-year-old mom's influence. She was an elderly high-priestess of the moon-god Sin, and Nabu-na'id had an undying devotion to Sin. Not so much to Babylon's patron deity Marduk (or Bel, as some called him), nor even Nabu, the god of wisdom his name invoked. In Nabu-na'id's third year, Zerubbabel was about seventeen when the king went campaigning our west, captured Haran where Abraham used to live, and rebuilt the moon-god's temple Ehulhul there. Over the next years, it became apparent to the people of Babylon that their new overlord planned to replace their god Marduk with his god Sin. They thought him a blasphemer and tyrant. Zerubbabel thought it was a bit funny – the whole city in an uproar over which demon fraud they liked best. He was about twenty when Nabu-na'id, a bit out of his mind, left for ten years at an oasis in Arabia and handed the keys to the city over to his eldest son Bel-shar-usur, less of a zealot but still hardly a popular man. For ten years, Babylon's New Year festival was neglected.

During all this time, Zerubbabel began to form a family, under his uncle Shenazzar's guidance. Zerubbabel took a wife. Started having kids. Two sons, Meshullam and Hananiah. And a feisty little girl, Shelomith. And in those days, he often got visits from an elderly prophet named Daniel, who'd served as an administrator amidst the chaos. Daniel it was who kept Zerubbabel sane! Nurtured his faith, too. Set an example of daily prayer, no matter the social cost. Reminded Zerubbabel that, before he was ever the 'seed of Babylon,' he was, and would always be, born of the seed of Abraham, like one of the unnumbered stars dotting the skies above.

Zerubbabel was about thirty when King Nabu-na'id returned to Babylon in a panic. His long neglect had let a former ally, the Persian king Cyrus to the east, amass so much power beyond his walls. And now his kingdom was at risk of being eaten away. So he began frequenting the temples, celebrating the New Year ceremony, putting the people to work in forced-labor projects – Zerubbabel had some hands-on work to do, building walls that year, I reckon – and Nabu-na'id even started stealing the idols from all the towns around. He figured if he could just pack Babylon full of hundreds and thousands of gods, surely they'd protect Babylon, keep him safe!

It didn't work. On October 10 that year, when Nabu-na'id had gone out to defend Sippar, it fell and he fled. He wouldn't make his way back to Babylon until it was all over. The next night, his son Bel-shar-usur was in the middle of a Babylonian alcohol-soaked feast – using the vessels from God's demolished temple in Jerusalem – when a ghostly hand scrawled judgment on his walls. Daniel had been called in to interpret, and exalted to the third place in Babylon after Nabu-na'id and Bel-shar-usur – but to no avail. On October 12, a disaffected Gutian governor named Ugbaru led Persian troops up the river during low season, right into the city, and took it with nary a fight. Put Bel-shar-usur to death, but banished Nabu-na'id to the hinterlands. Seventeen days later, the Persian king Cyrus entered himself, hailed as a political and religious liberator by the Babylonians. Zerubbabel was about thirty-one when he saw the great king, whose governor Gubaru kept Daniel in a high post.

Cyrus didn't think like the Babylonians thought. The Babylonians liked to steal talent from conquered countries and import it for themselves. Cyrus liked to spread the joy. So early the next year, he gave an astounding order – that captives could go rebuild their homelands. The Jews could go back to Judah! Cyrus even told his chief treasurer Mithredath to turn the temple treasures over to Zerubbabel's uncle Shenazzar, whom the Babylonians called Sheshbazzar – the late King Jeconiah's son, the prince of Judah. Zerubbabel and his family were thrilled – the home he'd never known, the land of promise, of the days of David! He and his uncle tried to urge all the Jews to make the trip. Most, though, said they were perfectly comfortable in Persian Babylon. Even Daniel said he had to stay behind and advise the Jews of Babylon – though he no doubt assured Zerubbabel that God would raise up others back in the homeland to speak words of truth.

It took a few months before they were ready to set out. But the caravan traveled up around the Fertile Crescent and down to the scorched ruins of Jerusalem. With them came the elderly priest Jeshua, son of the high priest Jehozadak who was taken away alongside King Jeconiah. And thousands of others. Still not the majority. The first thing they did, under Governor Sheshbazzar, was celebrate the Festival of Booths – making little huts to live in. They celebrated alongside the Jews already living in the land, descendants of the lowest classes who had never gone into exile in the first place. And where the temple used to be, the returnees built an altar and, for the first time in decades, offered a sacrifice to their God. A bright day.

As the Festival of Booths ended, they started settling in. It was hard times. They reached out to Tyre and Sidon – both subunits of the same Persian district – for supplies. They started laying a foundation for the temple. But Sheshbazzar died. Zerubbabel carried out the project and went to go get official confirmation of himself as his late uncle's replacement. Zerubbabel, grandson of the old king, descendant of King David, was now governor of the poor little Persian province where David's grand kingdom once stood. Zerubbabel managed to get the foundations for the temple in order – most celebrated and sang, but the oldest people cried nostalgic tears, said it would never live up to the old one they remembered as kids. Zerubbabel felt rather discouraged. But he felt he needed to press on. An embassy came down from the north, from Samaria. They said they, too, worshipped Zerubbabel's God – sort of – and wanted a hand in building the temple. But they'd only mix it up with idolatry and pagan rubbish and conflict, he thought. So after consultation, Zerubbabel and the elders turned them down. They were furious. They started a campaign of harassment. Interrupted shipments of supplies. Vandalism. It was madness. And Zerubbabel found himself overwhelmed with civil strife, economic woes, and the need to run a government when two or three other levels of government were demanding taxes on top of it all.

So they left the temple foundations alone. Rationalized that the seventy years of exile weren't up yet. Besides, their fiscal situation wasn't ripe for... 'special projects.' Better to build up the basics of society, just what they'd need for bare survival. Surely God would send blessings of prosperity to cue them when the time was ripe to get back to the temple work... someday. And so years passed. Cyrus died in battle, and his mess of a son took over. Cambyses killed his own brother Bardiya, then passed down around Yehud to go subdue the one region the Persians didn't rule yet: Egypt. Zerubbabel was about forty-five years old when Egypt fell to Persian rule. Three years later, Cambyses' secret murder of his brother came back to bite him when a man named Gaumata, one of the Magi, said he was Bardiya and seized the throne – few people knew Bardiya was dead, after all! And Cambyses died before he could get back and retake power. A few months later, though, a conspiracy of nobles assassinated Gaumata, and put one of their number, Darius, on the Persian throne. It was late September, Zerubbabel remembered, when Darius – only a distant cousin to Cyrus and Cambyses – grabbed the kingship.

Four days later, chaos broke loose. One by one, it seemed like every province rose up and rejected the power of Persia. Babylon was first – a nobleman named Nidintu-Bel claimed to be Nabu-na'id's other son, and led a revolt. It took a couple months for Darius to get there, retake Babylon, execute Nidintu-Bel. The next year, an Armenian imposter named Arakha crept into Babylon and claimed to be the same guy; Darius had to send a general to go take the city again and crucify the imposter. Darius himself was busy putting out the fires of rebellion everywhere he went – but not in Yehud. Tempting, Zerubbabel had to admit. But with so many stronger, richer, hostile provinces around, Zerubbabel knew Persian imperial power was the safest course. So he waited. And sure enough, by the November when Arakha was crucified, things had started to quiet down.

The next year was a tough year. Zerubbabel was in his late forties. The land had been challenging to cultivate for years, but this... this was a drought and a blight, all at the same time. Scarcely anything was growing, and what was growing, you had to look hard to find much without disease. Zerubbabel felt very small – governor of a pitiful pittance of land that wasn't even working, people struggling all around to tend their sickly crops, and the rate of inflation outpaced job growth so that no matter how hard anybody worked, nobody could get ahead. Zerubbabel felt like a failure as a leader.

And then, on August 29 – it was the start of a disappointing harvest – a man rose up with a sudden word from a long-quiet God. Only, this man – Haggai – said God hadn't been quiet. He'd been shouting through the drought and the blight and the bad economy. And he was scolding them for making excuses – “the time isn't right to go rebuild God's house” – while they'd used their imported cedar to build fancy paneled houses for their own private dwellings. They were content to focus on their own livelihoods but leave God homeless! All the woes they faced – it wasn't that they should wait for God to bless them before they got to work, but God was waiting for them to get to work before he'd bless them. “You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? … Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house” (Haggai 1:9). That's what the prophet had said, right to Zerubbabel's face. That was the lapse in his leadership – letting the people focus on their own houses, their own personal projects, while God's work sat on the back-burner. “Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD (Haggai 1:8).

It was just the kick in the pants Zerubbabel needed. He sent out the order through the land – it didn't take long. And by September 21, when what little had grown and survived had been harvested, the people all flocked to Jerusalem, stunningly ready to refocus their lives. With stone and timber on hand, that last week of September saw the resumption of work on the house of God – the temple, the temple. Of course, some weren't happy, least of all the Samaritans. And they took advantage of the fact that Zerubbabel had to answer to Tattenai, who had jurisdiction of Yehud and Samaria and a few other provinces; and Tattenai had to answer to the satrap Ushtannu in Babylon; and Ushtannu had to answer to King Darius, who called himself “king of the universe.” So at their behest, Tattenai came down to interview Zerubbabel and the elders on who authorized them to do what they had started doing. Zerubbabel gently informed Tattenai that Cyrus had sent them back to their homeland to do that very thing. But when Tattenai wanted to see paperwork, documentation... Well, they didn't exactly have any. So he said he and his investigator Shethar-Bozenai would write to the king, see what the Persian archives had.

The next month was the Festival of Booths again. They all moved out of their paneled private houses into these makeshift huts. It was the 440th anniversary of when Solomon had built the First Temple, but progress was slow on replacing it, and morale was low. Everyone had heard of the old prophet Ezekiel's vision of the temple to come, and this... this looked nothing like it. Zerubbabel, in his hut, was sad. But as the feast was underway, Haggai stood in their midst and encouraged them with another word from God. “Be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the LORD! Be strong, O Jeshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest! Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the LORD! Work, for I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not. … I will fill this house with glory … Mine is the silver, mine is the gold … and in this place I will give peace” (Haggai 2:4-9). And so, renewed in his conviction, as soon as the feast was done, Zerubbabel ordered work to start again.

A couple weeks later, a young priest stood amidst the people, saying God had spoken to him, given him a vision – and called him to preach repentance. “Return to me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you” – that's what the priest Zechariah said God wanted to tell them. They needed to recommit themselves, not even just to a project, but to the God whose house they were building – needed to be all-in for him, loyal and trusting in the God whose word outlived every prophet and every elder (Zechariah 1:1-6). Zerubbabel, unlike most of the masses, took it to heart. And a little over a month later – then came the December afternoon when Zerubbabel, doubting himself once again, heard Haggai come a-callin' to tell him he'd be like God's signet-ring of authority in a crazy, mixed-up world. That was Haggai's final message. Zechariah had more visions to come – he said to Zerubbabel the next year, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts! Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of 'Grace, grace to it!' … The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it. … For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel” (Zechariah 4:6-10).

The word of God came true. In March of 515 BC, about four years after Zechariah spoke it, Zerubbabel lived to see the Second Temple dedicated. He overcome the mountain of obstacles and became the first Jewish leader since Solomon to build God a temple. When Zerubbabel died, his son-in-law Elnathan, Shelomith's husband, stepped in as the new governor. After him, the family of Zerubbabel stayed out of politics during the later days of Ezra and Nehemiah, and on down through the centuries after them. But then there came a child, born to descendants of Zerubbabel. Great Zerubbabel's greater Son – Jesus Christ. Seated – unlike Zerubbabel – on David's throne; and, more than David's, on God's. The fulfillment of every promise the LORD ever made to Zerubbabel found its fuller, louder 'Yes!' in Christ crucified and risen. It was among stones laid by Zerubbabel's command that Jesus taught and gave life to a new temple built from living stones. Zerubbabel paved the way.

In the days of great Zerubbabel's greater Son, I'm sure that we can still sometimes identify with the worry and self-doubt that plagued Zerubbabel even that December afternoon in 520 BC before Haggai spoke to him. Like Zerubbabel, sometimes we feel small and hemmed in. We wonder if any glory can really come from what we're doing. It seems like our problems mount high up like a mountain we can't see past or get around. Have you felt that way, ever? And maybe, like Zerubbabel, your upbringing was so tumultuous, you've scarcely got memories of stability to fall back on. We may now be the seed of Abraham in Christ, but we, too, were once the seed of Babylon (cf. Galatians 3:29).

Or maybe, as a church, we know what it was like in the days of Zerubbabel. Maybe we feel small in the distant shadow of glory-days past. Maybe we feel hemmed in by our resources and a changing culture that leaves us high and dry. Maybe we wonder if what we're doing matters at all, if it could ever really be a glorious thing, if God has a purpose for us to be here now, if the time is right to act. Zerubbabel knew how that felt! He knew what it was like to face a mountain of problems, to wade his way through a bad economy and the ruins of days gone by, to celebrate a holiday and know it isn't quite the way they used to do it in the good old days.

So maybe what we need to hear is what Zerubbabel heard – the words that gave him encouragement. Because today, too, a temple needs to be built up. Only, it isn't confined to a hill in a petty Persian province. It's built from living stones all around us, has no limitation in earthly geography. It's the church. Not the church walls and windows and roof around us, but the church itself, the living temple of God built of living-stone believers. When Zerubbabel despaired that everything was going wrong amidst the drought and blight and inflation, he heard Haggai scold him. The people had put so much emphasis on their own personal private lives, tending to them first, investing resources in their own houses, that God's house was an afterthought.

Perhaps, Haggai says to us as he said to Zerubbabel, we need to make God's living house the center of our work; perhaps other things would start falling into place if church became less of a Sunday morning event and more of the thing we work to build up throughout the week – as we gather living stones in evangelism, polish living stones in fellowship, assemble living stones through edifying each other with our gifts. Perhaps what we need is to return to the Lord – and he'll return to us. And perhaps, faced with all the challenges of limited resources and distractions and fear and problems – perhaps what this church needs to hear is, “Be strong! Work, for I am with you! My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not! I will fill this house with glory. And in this place, I will give peace.” God said that to Zerubbabel through Haggai. In two days, we'll celebrate the birth of great Zerubbabel's greater Son – Jesus Christ, the Resurrection and the Life, our Lord and Glory. On what words of priorities and perseverance and hope of glory might we need to think? What lessons Zerubbabel learned do we need to bring into this church and into our lives this season? That question, I leave between you and God's Spirit. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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