The Land of Delights
Text: Zechariah 7:1-14
[The words of the prophet Zechariah date to a few years after Jewish exiles in Babylon had returned to a devastated Jerusalem, a city still in ruins, around 520 B.C.E. Along with the prophet Haggai, Zechariah urged the rebuilding of the temple and a return to more faithful devotion to the law of God, especially the law of love.
The sermon that follows the reading is in the form of a letter from an old man and returned exile to his daughter. Now, listen to the Word of God from Zechariah 7:1-14.]
My beloved, winter is almost upon us and with it the holidays. It is hard to believe that we have been back in Jerusalem for ten years now. Not one of us has forgotten the long years of exile in Babylon when we wept day and night for home. As another Sabbath approaches, the temple construction has progressed but it is far from finished. Still, we go to an even unfinished temple in thanksgiving because we spent most of our lives with no temple to attend, as captives in a foreign land.
I will always remember that even though those butchers torched our homes and separated our families and laughed at our faith, we still keep four fasts each year. During the fourth month, we do not eat or drink in commemoration of the breaching of the city’s walls. In the fifth month, we fast to recall the destruction of our holy temple. The fast in the seventh month reminds us of the ruthless murder of our governor, Gedaliah. And, in the tenth month, we fast to remember the siege of Jerusalem when so many of our kin starved.
I tell you all this, my daughter, because there are those among us who say it is time to stop our fasting. They say, “The temple is being rebuilt. It is time to stop fasting over what happened in the past.” Conservatives insist that these liberal voices are not only wrong, they are dangerous. They worry that all memories are short and we will soon forget the awful exile if we give up any of our traditions. The liberals disagree and say it is time to let the past stay in the past, time to leave all our painful memories behind. As for me, I am undecided. I am waiting to hear from the prophet Zechariah.
[Four Days Later]
The last sliver of sun passes out of sight. The ram’s horn echoes throughout the streets. The Sabbath is upon us and the makeshift temple has prepared for record crowds tonight. Any able body person will be at this service.
Inside the temple, candles flicker as the cantor chants the final psalm. The prophet Zechariah rises, but it seems as if he is carrying a heavy weight. My beloved, I will admit that I have sometimes nodded off during an evening sermon. I have meant no disrespect, but after a day’s work, sleep comes easy. Tonight, though, I am sure that no one will sleep. We are too curious to hear what this ancient prophet, wrapped in a prayer shawl, has to say.
“Hear the Word of the Lord,” are the first six words out of his mouth. All conversations inside the temple cease. Moments earlier the sanctuary sounded like a barnyard. Now you could hear a pin drop. The conservatives sit to one side of the sanctuary; the liberals to the other. Each side awaits the prophet to confirm their religious views. Then he begins the sermon.
Zechariah preaches: “While you have been fasting and mourning for the past seventy years, have you been fasting for my sake or yours?” You can hear some shifting in the pews. “And, when you were eating and drinking, were you eating and drinking for my sake or for yours?” I hear someone seated next to me whisper, “Never should have invited that old man here tonight.”
Zechariah now stands at full height as he delivers his next words, “Do you not know the words which the Lord God proclaimed through the prophets in the past?
. . . Apply the law fairly, and show steadfast love and compassion toward one another. Do not oppress the widow and the orphan, the immigrant and the poor, and do not secretly plan evil against one another.”
The temple is no longer still. People cough and clear their throats and a few are so rude as to get up and leave the room. Zechariah does not pause. He continues: “They would not listen. They made their hearts adamant rather than listen to the teaching and the words that the Lord God had sent . . . and so, since when he called they would not listen . . . the Lord God . . . scattered them among all the nations unknown to them . . . They had turned the land of delights into a desert.” He paused and it seems as if he looked at each one of us individually and then sat down.
On the way out of the temple, most people uttered a polite, “Nice sermon.” “Wonderful message,” but you could tell that they did not believe a word of it. A few people left by the side exit avoiding Zechariah altogether while others walked right by his extended hand, gave him a stone-cold gaze and kept their hands at their sides. I shook his hand but I did not know what to say. We had come to Sabbath services not to have someone tell us that we had brought the exile upon ourselves by neglecting the law of love and ignoring those in greatest need. We wanted him to comfort us. He had none to give.
To be fair to the congregation, and I am not telling you anything that you have not seen for yourself, but ten years after returning home Jerusalem is still a mess. The poor are on every corner begging for work or asking for a piece of bread. Most of us are too busy trying to rebuild our homes and our lives. Who has spare time or spare change to care for orphans and widows? And, my God, there are so many of them anyway. They seem to grow in number every day.
And I worry about the hateful speech I hear in our streets. People harp about immigrants coming here taking our jobs. I do not want to worry you, but hate crimes are also on the rise and even priests are calling for the ethnic cleansing of our land. As for me, I still cringe whenever I think of the prophet’s last words, “They had turned a land of delights into a desert.” I can’t get those words out of my mind.
Years ago, I learned that people hear sermons in different ways. So, I can only tell you what I heard him say that night. What I heard from the old prophet is that God wants us to ask bigger questions and to stop debating whether to keep three rather than four fasts or to keep no fasts at all. God wants us to answer: “What are you doing about those who are hungry and will not eat today, those who are sick and cannot afford the care, those who are living on the streets and have no house to rebuild? While you worry about your fasts and the evening candle colors in the sanctuary, the forgotten in Jerusalem worry if they will remain forgotten by you.”
Though Zechariah never used these exact words, the most important question I heard him ask was: “My people, where is your gratitude?” Maybe that was an unfair question to ask us amid our economic strife and sitting in a makeshift temple with a leaking roof and huddling for warmth in our unfinished homes. Or, maybe that was the exact question we needed to hear to move us beyond worrying only about our own troubles?
Thinking more about it, my daughter, Zechariah’s sermon, was less about economic recovery and more about recovering our faith. “Until you can give thanks for God’s law, a law built on grace and gratitude,” said the old prophet, “including care of the neglected and welcome of strangers, you will continue to live in the desert whether the temple is finished and reaches to the stars and sparkles with gold or whether it remains a half-finished mess.”
It was clear on that Sabbath night that Zechariah had no use for desert thinking and desert talk, because desert thinking and desert talk lead you from freedom into captivity. His sermon asked if we are ready to return to “the land of delights” where our worship matches our words and our good intentions match our good deeds, where we spend far more time giving thanks for God’s grace than complaining about how God has failed us.
My daughter, I will close this letter by reminding you that when I think of you, I am filled with thanksgiving and gratitude to God, and in those moments, I am dance “in the land of delights.”
I pray that your life will be filled with thanksgiving to God, the surest path I know from the desert into the land of delights.
With great love,
[This letter is not found anywhere in the Bible, but it is found whenever we pause and give deep thanks to God for each other. May this week ahead be a time of such deep thanks for each of us.]