Leading Questions - Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?

Zechariah 3:1-5 Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. 2 The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?” 3 Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. 4 The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.” 5 Then I said, “Put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the Lord stood by.

In one of the most incredibly callous articles I’ve ever read and in an attempt to make all of us no more than her personal marionettes, a researcher at the University of South Carolina began her paper with the following words: “This paper presents a review of past research on the topic of guilt and it describes how guilt can be used in a persuasion context.”[1] It was a paper that could’ve been titled How to Become a Puppeteer of Humans. It was a marketing paper all about how to use guilt to get a purchase. Apparently, it’s very, very effective methodology. Here’s a little snippet from the paper’s conclusion: “Considerable research shows that guilt inducement could have favorable effects in directing consumer purchase.”[2]

How effective is this? Well – just ask Excedrin. It wasn’t all that long ago when they came out with a commercial picturing a mother dancing with her small daughter while this voiceover played: “Don’t let your migraine become someone else’s pain.” In other words, are you one of the good moms? If you are, you’ll get Excedrin. If not, you’re guilty of being a bad mom. Or you could also ask Pedigree the makers of Jumbones. While playing heartwarming videos of really nice, beautiful dogs, we heard this voiceover: “Dogs want to be with us more than anything in the world. Because they are dogs and that’s what they do. And when we can’t be with them, we give them Jumbones. Because we’re dog lovers and that’s what we do.” Subtext? Then again maybe you’re a nasty, unfeeling person who is guilty of not loving your dog.

It’s not just Excedrin or Pedigree who do this. It’s marketers spanning all the way from Sears Roebuck to Juicy Juice. They have all attempted to make us marionettes through the subtle use of guilt. If it makes us grab a juice off the store shelves or roll a Craftsman mower out the door, they’re happy. That’s why it shouldn’t surprise us that the world’s most masterful marketer is defined by his use of guilt. It’s not only what he’s named, it’s also his primary occupation. It’s not as easy to notice in English, but that’s exactly what Zechariah says he sees, “Satan standing at his right side to accuse him.” (v. 1) The Hebrew is actually quite repetitive here. It literally reads, “the accuser,” (That’s what Satan means.) was prepped and ready, “to accuse.”

Not surprising, right? Finding Satan prepped and ready to make us feel guilt. What’s surprising and maybe even horrifying for us to find out is where he stands ready to do that. It’s a high, high place. The accuser is not off in TV land somewhere, or even stuck down down deep in someone’s conscience. The accuser is, “standing before the angel of the Lord.” (v. 1) Please understand that doesn’t actually make this angel of the Lord an angel. He’s not. The Hebrew word for angel here is just describing the chief job of this person. He’s God’s messenger to people and as such the buck stops with him. In other words, this isn’t district court. This isn’t even circuit court. This is the supreme court of supreme courts. This is the highest place of the highest places.

And off in this highest of highest places stands Satan in a position of authority. Yes, you did hear me right. Satan is pictured here standing in the highest of highest places in a position of authority. Zechariah explicitly tells us that Satan was standing at the, “right side,” (v. 1) of the angel of the Lord. Satan’s relegated to some kind of heavenly upper deck. He’s not even forced to yell from the courtroom peanut gallery. He’s pictured at the right hand of the angel of the Lord – a position of power and authority. Here’s the scary reason why: the accuser stands in a position of authority because whatever he is prepped to say comes from a place of great legitimacy, great credibility, and even great truth.

You know what makes this scene even scarier for the defendant? Inexplicably he shows up to his big day in court, dressed in filthy clothes.” (v. 3) There’s no nice suit or big smile. He literally wears his moral record right into court. And, for the record, in this case let it be known that the Bible is unapologetically not PC. If you’re a Hebrew reader reading this account of Zechariah’s vision, you’d not only know that this man showed up in dirty clothes, you’d also understand what made them dirty: human excrement. Not to editorialize too much, but that truly is a disgusting level of filth that he hauls into court. He’s basically the human embodiment of guilt. He looks and smells like he just climbed out of a port-a-potty.

But Joshua, the High Priestly defendant, here isn’t climbing out of anything. He’s not speaking either. Frankly, he’s doing nothing. Well, that’s probably not completely accurate either. He’s probably sweating. He’s probably turning shades of green, white, or maybe grey. And he’s most certainly feeling weight. That’s what guilt feels like. It’s spiritual and emotional weight that slows us way, way down and can even paralyze us. How this comes about in Joshua’s case is interesting to think about. There is no big sin mentioned. There’s no flagrant idolatry that we know of. No mention of him sleeping around or some murder case he was involved in. Not even a case of embezzlement from the temple treasury. In fact, there’s no specific sin mentioned at all.

Only guilt in general. Even non-Christians struggle with it. One article from The Guardian pointed out, “Type ‘guilt’ into an Amazon book search and you’ll be confronted with almost a thousand titles. Around a quarter of these are crime thrillers, but the remainder are largely self-help books about how to live without guilt, and these fall into three obvious categories – food, parenting, sex.”[3] What makes it even more difficult for Christians is that our categories for potential guilt are a whole lot more plentiful than the world’s big three. For us, it’s not just that we maybe fed our kids Cheetos and Mountain Dew for lunch, it’s also that I didn’t pray with my wife this morning. It’s not just that I’m 20 pounds’ overweight, it’s also that I don’t spend more time for charity. It’s not just that I failed to change the channel when that sex scene came on, it’s also that I’ve missed church too much lately.

All of this can accumulate so that instead of feeling like God’s greatest salvation project we feel like God’s greatest disappointment. All of this can add up so that instead of brimming with the confidence and the energy and the joy of the saved, we end up feeling like we just crawled out of the port-a-potty. Underlying it all, Satan, the world’s master puppeteer is trying to pull the strings on us, the sad marionettes. He tugs saying, “This eternal port-a-potty is the only one you’re worthy to swim in.” That’s his big puppeteer play. If the accuser can convince us we’re clothed in filth, he can also convince us we’ll wear it forever. If he can make us own our failures, he knows he will also own our fate.

So Joshua stands there in front the angel of the Lord. Standing next to him with great credibility, great legitimacy, and great truth is Satan, the Accuser. And before Satan can ever get his first prosecutorial offensive launched. Before Satan can ever even think to try to get Joshua thrown into contempt of court for showing up in those icky, putrid clothes. Before any word of any accusation could ever see the light of day, the angel of the Lord (who by the way is only called the Lord here) said, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?” (v. 2)

The angel of the Lord just slams him. There’s no other way to put it. He just slams him. This is no calm judge only interested in getting the right ruling. This judge is anything but that. This judge gets emotional and powerful from the bench. Call it whatever you want to call it. Call it censure. Call it shutting Satan down. Call it rebuke. Call it whatever you want to call it. This is not a calm judge only interested in delivering blind justice. In fact, it becomes immediately clear that this judge is interested only in saving justice for another day and for another person. That’s what the big rhetorical question is actually saying, isn’t it? Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire? He’s not denying Joshua’s guilt. He’s not even denying that fire exists. What he’s denying is that Joshua is going there.

I suppose though it’s really time for me to stop dropping the bread crumbs. I suppose it’s really time for me to stop trying to lead you to it. It’s time to come out with it. Have you figured out why this high and final trial happens in front of the angel of the Lord, God’s chief and primary messenger to people? Have you understood why this chief messenger in the very next verse is called the Lord himself? Have you gathered why the angel of the Lord gets so emotional and so powerful about the fact that Joshua’s never headed for the fire? Have you ever thought about that fact that before the hay and the manger the second person of the Trinity didn’t just hang out in heaven playing cribbage with the Holy Spirit?

Do you see it? The angel of the Lord is the pre-incarnate – the before he was born –  Jesus. This is Jesus in the Old Testament. This is Jesus who is not just a calm judge interested only in delivering to us blind justice. This is Jesus who is so emotional and so powerful and so adamant about our salvation. This is Jesus who will never let a single word or charge ever even leave the mouth of our accuser or see the light of day. This is Jesus who is only interested in saving justice for another person on another day that’s not us: himself. This is Jesus who has great plans to make sure the only stick that gets burned down in the fire is his cross. This is Jesus, the chief and the primary messenger of God, who not only is coming to Joshua, but also to us to say these amazing words: “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.” (v. 4)

You know what happens next? It’s just awesome. All along there’s been this bystander watching this all unfold. All along there’s been this on-looker. But now all of a sudden, the onlooker breaks into the scene. And now all of a sudden, the bystander leaps into action. And this happens: I said, ‘Put a clean turban on his head.’” (v. 5) “I said.” Those are two tiny little words, but they couldn’t be more important or more instructive for unlocking this narrative. What’s happening is that Zechariah, the on-looker, speaks up. Do you see why? After seeing Jesus’ grace, Zechariah has so much joy and so much confidence and so much power that he speaks up not only in the presence of Satan, but also even steps in on Jesus himself.

And that was the point. That was his job. He was a prophet. He was supposed to step in and speak for God. And now not only was he a prophet who was supposed to be doing that, he was also a prophet who was doing that so powerfully, so joyfully, and so excitedly that he even commands what must’ve been angels standing around to get Joshua, the High Priest gussied up. And for what? So Joshua could do his job. So he could put on that High Priest’s turban that read, “Holy to the Lord,” and really believe he was. So he could teach the people and sacrifice those sacrifices and lead that temple building campaign that never seemed to end. Marionettes through guilt no longer. Zechariah and Joshua were back.

You know, Zechariah wasn’t the only on-looker of that scene. By his prophecy, you are too. And that’s the point. This gospel is meant to accumulate in our souls so that instead of feeling like God’s greatest disappointments we believe we’re God’s greatest salvation projects. It’s meant to add up so that instead of feeling like we just crawled out of the port-a-potty we brim with the confidence and the energy and the joy of the saved. Because this Jesus owned our failures, he also owns our fates. And because he clothes us with his righteousness, we can trust we’ll wear it forever.

No puppeteer can make you a marionette anymore. Not Juicy Juice. Not Excedrin. Not Sears Roebuck. And certainly not Satan. That’s why Zechariah piped up again. And it’s why Joshua got back after that temple project. It’s why the pastor here preaches. It’s why members here attend. It’s why husbands here sacrifice. It’s why workers here work. It’s why moms here parent. For joy. For Jesus. For the righteousness we have by faith. Amen.

[1] http://www.acrwebsite.org/search/view-conference-proceedings.aspx?Id=7175

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2006/aug/06/healthandwellbeing.features1

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