Zechariah 4 :1 - 14
I am still surprised to find such spiritual treasures in this small book towards the end of the Old Testament. You don’t have to be a rigid fundamentalist to find goodness and value in studying this prophet’s thoughts. They help us in our lives and even in our present context. That is because there is something consistent about how God relates to us and how we relate to God. As before, Zechariah has been sleeping and is wakened by a divine intimation and in receiving a vision. He is a spiritually switched on person living close to God at that point in his life.
Maybe you can recall some moment or time when you felt very close to God, when it seemed your prayers were answered and when your faith was strong and lively. Even the great saints did not live on the mountain tops of faith for long however. Jesus Himself came from the Mount of Transfiguration to the valley of distress typified by the epileptic boy whom his disciples could not heal.
Someone may ask you - Satan may ask you - “Where is your God?” You might reply, “I’m not sure, right now - not much seems to be happening”. Remaining faithful and persevering when God is not so obviously present is a key aspect of Christian calling. That’s when many give up and turn away, some, never to return.
Joshua though is in a fertile climate for spiritual experience and confirmation of his calling as a prophet. He sees a vision of the Menorah of Exodus 25:31ff - the seven branch candlestick which is the logo and symbol of Judaism to this day. This one has a bowl at the top to hold the olive oil which by means of wicks, is burnt giving light. The olive trees are made of gold and are receptacles for the oil for the candlestick. These are familiar enough objects but Joshua wants to know what they mean in this context.
“Not by might nor by power but by my Spirit”, says the Lord Almighty.
The reply is given to Zerubbabel, the political leader of the returned exiles. He had returned from Babylon with the main party in 537BC. He was part of the group who laid the foundations of the Temple - work which was set aside until this resurgence of commitment and activity some 17 years later. Maybe Joshua had got hold of him and chivvied him into getting his act together again. Joshua was certainly an encouragement to Zerubbabel and he needed that divine and spiritual authentication as motivation. But the Word of God is a rebuke or warning not to trust in armed strength or in his own skills and intelligence.
Zerubbabel would tend more than Joshua to depend on human strength, because he was the responsible political leader. He had the urgency of political expediency pressing on him daily. If it is God's will that changes come, they will come in His good time. There is no need to get anxious. Power, might, human intervention are not the same as seeing God's will and setting to work to achieve His purposes. This was an ancient truth among the People of God. When they took matters into their own hands, they tended to fare worse. When they put their trust in God they were more successful. It was a hard spiritual discipline.
You might say that it is the opposite of how Israel seems to behave today for it seems to trust in military might rather than in God. Israel is afraid to surrender power, land and argument to its enemies because it does not trust them - with good reason. But neither does it trust in doing the right things rather than the powerful thing and to that extent its exercise of power may be self-defeating.
Joshua and Zerubbabel represent Church and State. Joshua wants all political activity to reflect divine purpose. Zerubbabel with a political strategy to set out and a manifesto to implement is keen to get on with it. Political leaders in our country act in exactly the same way. They like to give the impression that they and they alone are doing things. They want to control events and they want to take the credit if anything works. Joshua is reminding Zerubbabel with the authority of God that he must defer to God’s purpose, order and timing. He is told that he will accomplish these tasks without human might. God has intervened in the time, and the conditions are concluded that make Zerubbabel the leader to make political decisions which are now spiritually correct.
One of the problems with the Church of Scotland today is hat it is too close to Scottish politics. It does not communicate a distinct Christian divine eternal spiritual message. An example of this is Ewan Aitken. As a parish minister he was elected as an Edinburgh City Labour councillor. Later he briefly became Council leader. As the Labour Party in Scotland began to lose its traditional hegemony he became Secretary of the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council while continuing as a local Labour councillor. Alan Greig, Convener of the Kirk’s Assembly Council replied to my question about this by saying “It is not for the Church to determine the suitability of an applicant in relation to their political status”. Of course it is. The Church should be distinct and separate from narrow party political interests. It is probable that no member of the Scottish National Party or of the Conservative Party would ever be appointed to this position in the Church of Scotland. This committee’s forerunner, the Church and Nation Committee has been pleased to expose right wing political bias in the history of the Church of Scotland while practising institutionalised left wing political bias. Council general secretaries earn salaries in the range £51,278 - £54,815 per annum. Local councillors earn appropriate financial compensation. Ewan Aitken’s total income is extremely high contradicting the published views of the Church and Society Council on poverty, equality, moderation and sustainability.
Former Moderator of the General Assembly and sometime Liberal member of Inverclyde District Council Andrew McLellan is another case where to-ing and fro-ing between Church and State has been thought acceptable. He left the ministry to become the Chief Inspector of Prisons in Scotland at a salary twice that of a parish minister while continuing to seek the representative privileges of a serving minister and using his honorary doctorate of divinity as a title in his new employment. This has diminished the Church of Scotland and has compromised its purpose and role as part of the universal and eternal catholic church of Jesus Christ. It is unlikely that the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope would follow this example. This would be seen as a selling out of Christianity’s eternal message for a time specific secular role.
The central administration bends over backwards to accommodate political correctness. The case of Scott Rennie may force the Church to consider this accommodation again. He is the avowedly and openly homosexual minister who wants to move from Brechin to Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen and live in the manse there with his male partner. Evangelicals have objected to the appointment. This General Assembly will have to decide the issue. The Church of Scotland as an employer has agreed not to discriminate against anyone on grounds of sexuality. Does that mean that Scott Rennie must be allowed to be employed? As a minister he has vowed to be subject to the moral and spiritual authority of the Church and has acknowledged the Church’s right to decide such matters. If denied by this General Assembly, he could still take forward a civil case against the Church of Scotland on grounds of sexual discrimination. This would be a test of the 1921 Church of Scotland Act giving the Church of Scotland authority over its own faith and ministry. This is why it is right for the General Assembly to debate the issues involved. Every minister inducted to a Church of Scotland parish is asked to promise to live a “Godly and circumspect life”. Is this now to include practising homosexuality? The General Assembly must decide.
In Zechariah Church and State seem to work in harmony. Church encourages and inspires State. Joshua supports Zerubbabel’s effort to complete the rebuilding of the temple. It seems to be a time of excitement and anticipation. Obstacles will be overcome. “Who are you, O great mountain? before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain; and he shall bring forth the headstone of it with shoutings, crying, Grace, grace to it”. Moreover the word of the LORD came to me, saying, The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also finish it; and you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you.
For who has despised the day of small things? refers to their meagre efforts so far on the Temple. It was a miserable building when compared to the glories of Solomon's Temple but it was only a beginning of greater things to come. The chapter closes with an affirmation of God’s choice and calling of Joshua and Zerubbabel as his instruments of spiritual leadership and government specifically to accomplish the completion of the building of the temple.
Do you not know what these are? And I said, No, my lord. Then said he, These are the two anointed ones, to serve the Lord of the whole earth.
In chapter three Joshua was introduced as a major leader and instrument of God. In chapter four, therefore, Zerubbabel is the major actor and seen as the leader in the nation and the work of rebuilding. Both are of equal importance in unifying the nation in the work of restoration. They together provided the fuel for progress. They are therefore "the sons of oil." They are a unit, but separate as two olive trees who have one purpose.
Anointing is a special calling to do something. In Christian terms it is being filled with the Holy Spirit to do something which humanly speaking n-one can accomplish. This begins with professing faith in Jesus Christ and in living out a faithful Christian life, overcoming temptation and sin and completing the journey in faith. But it can also mean being given a special task or calling and though not feeling up to it, finding the inspiration to be successful. The Book of Acts often describes someone as “being filled with the Spirit” and then speaking or healing or doing something extraordinary. We should not think of the early Church as being full or religion or religious people. That is not how it was. Ordinary people were enabled to do extraordinary things by the power of the resurrected Jesus. And that is how we must seek to be also.
We are approaching the time of Pentecost and we celebrate the birth of the Church on that Day. We ourselves need to be filled with the same Holy Spirit for only then can we be carried forward in Christian purpose. Without that blessing it is only hard labour and it achieves only on that level. Let us look to the Risen Lord for his anointing of our personal pilgrimage and our collective life as a congregation. The power of God is able to do anything even in this day and age. Let us believe and hope and pray.