Thus says the Lord of hosts: Let your hands be strong—you that have recently been hearing these words from the mouths of the prophets who were present when the foundation was laid for the rebuilding of the temple, the house of the Lord of hosts. For before those days there were no wages for people or for animals, nor was there any safety from the foe for those who went out or came in, and I set them all against one another. But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as in the former days, says the Lord of hosts. For there shall be a sowing of peace; the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground shall give its produce, and the skies shall give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things. Just as you have been a cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so I will save you and you shall be a blessing. Do not be afraid, but let your hands be strong.
For thus says the Lord of hosts: Just as I purposed to bring disaster upon you, when your ancestors provoked me to wrath, and I did not relent, says the Lord of hosts, so again I have purposed in these days to do good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah; do not be afraid. These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgements that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath; for all these are things that I hate, says the Lord. - Zechariah 8:9-17
I wonder what it would be like to feel as if I were in captivity like the Hebrews. Not necessarily someone in jail, but rather the part of a group relocated forcibly to another location far from home and far from familiar things. I've lived in a small compound in a country far from here that was very different, and it felt rather strange in some ways but yet looking back on it, there was still a sense of "we" and " them." We happened to be light-skinned and light-eyed in a world full of people with darker skin, brown eyes, and black hair. We lived in our little compound, we went shopping at other military bases in the area, and much did everything we could do like movies, bowling and the like surrounded by mostly people like us. It was a bit confining, but we learn to live with it and to take trips away just to see even more different things.
I can look back and see that living in another country, even when an American compound, was a good thing, perhaps even a blessing. I learned what it felt like to be in a minority and very easily picked out of the crowd. I learned what it felt like to be considered rich when in actuality in the United States we would be perhaps at best lower middle-class. We learned to get by without a lot of the things that we do and have here in the States, but, all in all, we learned about the country and the people in which we found ourselves. That was a good thing, yes, a blessing.
The captives to whom Zachariah repeated the words of God were upper-class people professional people, who had a lot more freedom then the perhaps we had. Most of them could go about their daily business ,they could worship in their synagogues, they could shop in their markets, and they can live much like they did at home. It was a punishment to be sent into exile, but even exile does not have to be uncomfortable.
Zachariah reminded them that God has said that they had been accursed because they didn't follow God's law and not good examples of what God intended for people to be. They really didn't love each other, they didn't speak truth, they didn't make wise judgments, and they kind of pointed fingers at each other and blamed each other for what ever happened.
We run into the same thing today. We are afraid and sometimes distort the truth to suit our particular beliefs and convictions. Judgments can be bought rather than adjudicated fairly, and we figure out ways to out-do our neighbors in any way we can to make our lives better even at the cost of making matters worse. Most of all, we are a bit slowly on being honest; we may swear to tell the truth or say we believe a certain thing, but behind our backs we have our fingers crossed. All of those things go against what God wants for us but we keep on doing them just as the captives did.
God promised, though, that Judah and the house of Israel would become a blessing to the world, that they no longer had to be afraid, and that they would be returned to a land that was good and fertile. Now whether the rest of us would be able to achieve such a thing is questionable. We are where we are, at home, and in places familiar and settled. When something good happens we consider it a blessing; when something bad happens it's a curse. We seem to have a lot of curses these days — wars, famine, natural disasters, mass shootings, you name it. What about blessings?
Maybe it's not where we find them but where we create them. We accept blessings in church at baptism, confirmation, Sunday liturgy, get our animals blessed on Saint Francis' Day, we get houses, cars, boats, and be bless just about anything that could possibly be blessed be blessed (with the exception of committed relationships between people of the same sex). We're working on that one, though, and we're seeing success in increasing numbers. We can't pat ourselves on the back, though. There's still a long way to go.
God promises that we would be a blessing, but that doesn't mean just standing there making the sign of the cross over a bunch of people, putting a couple of dollars in a tin can or a handing a check to a specific charity. We create blessings by loving our neighbors, being honest, judging wisely and fairly, and speaking the truth. That's not that hard, but as we look about us today, it's beginning to seem less and less apparent. Maybe it's time we had a turnaround.
Advent is a good time to make such a turnaround. Like the captives, we need to serve our time in captivity, so that we actually understand the blessings of living in freedom, in a pleasant land, and in peace and harmony with our neighbors far and near. Sometimes it seems like an impossible dream, but it's what we can do rather than what we can't is important.
Be awake, be alert, be kind, light a candle, bless your neighbor, and become a blessing. It's that simple.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 19, 2015. l