A Brand Plucked from the Fire

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I wonder if you, like me, enjoy courtroom dramas. Maybe you have a favourite? According to last year’s list of the ‘50 Greatest Courtroom Dramas Ever’ published by Total Film magazine my favourite A Few Good Men only made only made number 22. That was a travesty of justice if ever there was one! In that film, as with all great courtroom dramas, there are a good number of unforeseen twists and turns as the plot develops. Well, Zechariah’s fourth vision is courtroom drama with a real twist, more than equal to any Hollywood blockbuster. As God’s people listened to Zechariah’s words they must have been gobsmacked by what they heard!

A quick recap as to how we have arrived at this point in our sermon series. Zechariah is communicating to the remnant that have returned to Jerusalem from exile. He is saying that whilst the physical rebuilding of the temple and the wall is important, ultimately God’s main focus is his relationship to, and presence with, his people. But this leaves the remnant with a big question off the back of vision number 3. How can a holy God dwell with an unholy people?

Well, in answer God gives Zechariah this vision of a heavenly courtroom drama. As Ramzi told us a few weeks ago, along with the next vision it forms the pinnacle of all 8 of Zechariah’s visions. Why? Because it gets to the heart of the message of the bible, it gets to the heart of the gospel, it gets to the heart of the wonderful good news that all mankind has needed to hear ever since Adam & Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden. I’ve got 4 points to help us work our way through the intense drama of this vision and its implications for us today.

Firstly then we need to acknowledge that there is

A REAL PROBLEM (v 1&3)

Part of what this vision is depicting is the reinstatement of the High Priest following the return from exile and it appears that Joshua (not ‘Jericho’ Joshua) is the man. But there’s a problem. He has an opponent, Satan, (v1) “standing at his right hand to accuse him”. And for us to fully understand the impact of what comes next we have to appreciate a little bit about what the role of the high priest was and what it symbolised.

The High Priest was the supreme intermediary between God and man; only once a year could he enter the holy of holies in the temple and the acceptability of the people with God rested on the acceptability of the high priest. And so to meet this high standard there were a lot of physical and ceremonial rules for the priest to follow. For example, he couldn’t marry a woman who had had any sexual contact with another man, he couldn’t touch a dead body and he had to follow strict dietary laws. Ceremonially the regime that the High Priest followed was symbolic of the total purity that permitted him annual access to the holy of holies in the temple. So for example when he entered that place a gold plate was placed on his turban inscribed with the words ‘Holy to the Lord’.

Understand that there was no more important or symbolically pure a human being than the high priest. Which is why what came next would have been both unusual and shocking. And this is the real problem – the high priest is not only accused in v1 but is found guilty in v3. 3 Now Joshua was standing before the angel (this is the angel of the Lord acting as Judge in this courtroom drama), clothed with filthy garments. We need to get an idea of how unthinkable and repulsive this image was for the original listeners, because the original language here isn’t just depicting some slightly soiled clothes, it’s way more offensive than that – and the most polite way I can put is to say that Joshua is clothed in garments soiled with excrement. The imagery is clear – Joshua is a guilty sinner and defiled. And that guilt separates him from a pure and holy God.

How on earth can he now be an effective priest?

Well verses 2 and 4 & 5 show us…

…A SURPRISE SOLUTION (v 2, 4-5)

Firstly, it’s a surprise because the judge steps in and rebukes the prosecuting lawyer. v.2 “Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?” In other words ‘have I not plucked and rescued this man (these people) from fire of judgement in exile?’ – rhetorical question – ‘Of course I have!’ And what follows is extraordinary. The soiled clothes are removed and then he is re-clothed with pure clean ones. So real is this vision to Zechariah that he gets involved in verse 5 and effectively says ‘Don’t stop there! – Why not give him a clean turban as well? Crown him with honour!’ And Joshua gets one.

I’ve not often been in stinking clothes in quite the same way as Joshua is depicted here (you’ll be relieved to hear!) But I can think of one occasion. As many of you know I used to be in the RAF and during basic training I had to undergo a week long survival exercise. 5 days/5 nights, no food, one set of clothes, no accommodation, deep snow on the ground - ending in a 12hr escape and evasion exercise! I was hungry at the end of that week but what kept me going was the thought of my Mum cooking my favourite meal for me when I returned home that Friday night. But I tell you something, she would not have accepted me in her dining room looking and smelling like I did at the end of the exercise – and quite rightly too! Let’s just say that at the end of that adventure I didn’t so much as remove my clothes but peeled them from my body and not all of them were deemed fit for the washing machine … some were just thrown straight in the bin! I stood in that shower in my barrack block and washed myself more than once in order to rub the dirt and grime away. I was so grateful to be clean and for my food on that Friday!

Joshua’s contrast from his filthy state couldn’t be starker. He is now as he should have been. Just as I was acceptable to my Mum having been made clean so too does Joshua’s transformation make him acceptable in the eyes of God again. But here is where the similarities end. And this is the second element of surprise in how Joshua can be an effective priest because a pronouncement is made by the judge that Joshua’s iniquity has been taken away. And what is clear from v4 is that Joshua has nothing to do with it – it is the judge’s doing – or more accurately, it’s all the work of the Lord: “Behold I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” In my story I cleaned myself. Oh no. Not here. There is nothing that Joshua can do change his predicament except to humbly and gratefully accept what God has done with a repentant heart.

Let’s move on. Next Joshua is given

A SOLEMN ASSURANCE (v 6-7)

And the angel of the Lord solemnly assured Joshua, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here. (v6-7)

This is an assurance because the conditions of v7 assume that God will complete the building of the temple and Joshua will take up his post as the High Priest. Whilst commentators are unsure as to the exact meaning of the second half of v7, what is clear is that for Joshua to rule, to have charge, to have a right of access there must be a temple! The Lord is assuring Joshua that the temple will be completed and he reminds him to walk in his ways and obey him. Look what I have done for you. Look what I am promising. Response? Love me and obey me. Walk in my ways and keep my commandments.

By the end of v7 Zechariah’s hearers have witnessed something incredible. They have witnessed the re-commissioning of Joshua. When he should have been condemned, disqualified and punished they have not only seen him being rescued in a most surprising way but they have seen him being assured that he will serve the Lord in the way he was always meant to. And whilst this is great news for Joshua, for us today looking back and the many observers in this heavenly courtroom, it presents an unexpected dilemma. How on earth could all this be fair? What kind of judge acknowledges the reality of someone’s guilt whilst at the same time refuses to allow the prosecuting lawyer to continue. Doesn’t this all smack of unfairness and corruption? We would be in uproar if this sort of thing happened in our courts. Well this is where we turn to v8-10 and where the spotlight shifts from 519BC through the centuries to the cross and beyond.

And so my final point:

A FUTURE HOPE (v8-10)

Because this vision isn’t just about the reinstatement of the high priest – it says much, much more. v8:

Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men who are a sign: behold, I will bring my servant the Branch.(v8)

What he is saying is that this dramatic scene is symbolic of something that is going to happen in the future when his servant comes. Isaiah had spoken of a day beyond the horror of exile when a shoot from Jesse’s stump would branch out and bear fruit. The prophet Jeremiah developed the image further. Jeremiah 23:5-6 says (page 650): “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’ All of which would have been very familiar to you if you’d been listening to Zechariah in the flesh. It would have been clear that he was talking about the future hope of God’s promised King – the Messiah. God is making an astonishing promise that what has been symbolically revealed in the vision will come to pass in reality and address the very real problem we outlined at the start – how can sinful people live and dwell with a holy God?

The answer? v9b (He) will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day. One commentator describes it as the good news of the Christian message in a single sentence! As God had removed the filthy stench of sin from the high priest he will do the same for his people (“sin of the land” = metaphor for ‘sin of the people of this land’) and he will do it in a single day. Now this part may well have sounded like some poetic exaggeration to Zechariah, but fast forward to Good Friday and we know that God did indeed wonderfully remove the sin of his people in a single day. That one event – when Jesus died on the cross and cried out “It is finished!” is the pivot point of all human history. On that day justice is done, because sin, the sin of the land, our sin is punished. The wrath of God is satisfied – but not on you and me – on the perfect, spotless Jesus. The only one who is qualified to condemn us – he it is who takes our punishment and saves us. He HAS removed the iniquity of the land in a single day! Praise God for the cross!

If this vision were ever transferred to the big screen, I think this would be the moment of silence where you could hear a pin drop. This would be the moment of silence because this is the big reveal – the part where the truth needs to sink in. Praise God for the cross – where mercy, wrath and love all meet!

So what does this vision mean for us today?

Well, firstly we need to understand the truth of v1 that we too, like Joshua stand opposed. Satan stands ready to whisper accusations against us all the time. Have you heard him whispering in your ear? You’re a sinner. You’re no good. Who are you trying to kid? You’ll never live up to what God requires of you.

How do you respond?

Maybe you are here this morning and your response is just to ignore Satan’s accusations. Maybe you have been unwilling to face the truth - of just how sinful and filthy you are before a pure and holy God. If that is you I plead with you, the eternal reality of leaving your sin unacknowledged, unconfessed and undealt with before God is too terrifying to ignore. You are in a perilous state because your sin will condemn you. Don’t ignore the truth – don’t pretend that you are good enough for God by what you do. The Bible says that all have sinned, all fall short of the glory of God. Turn to God in repentance, and have faith in the sacrifice of his son Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the branch who has taken away the sins of the world.

But maybe that’s not you – maybe you are here this morning and you have heard Satan’s accusation and you’re thinking ‘Yes, I am a sinner, but at least there are people who are worse than me. Look at him over there – thank you Lord that I am not like him – that I don’t struggle with pornography or being aggressive and violent! Thank you that I am not like her – my goodness if people really knew how she behaved during the week they’d be shocked!’ Well maybe morally you are better than they are (only God really knows that) but the thing is you are comparing yourself with the wrong people. The only comparison that counts is with Jesus and I’m pretty sure none of us measure up to his perfection.

But maybe you’re at the other end of the spectrum and you’re accepting the whispering accusation that you’re just not good enough. You’ve succumbed to that particular sin time and time again. You can’t believe that no one else has found out what an epic failure you are, or why are God’s standards so impossibly high anyway – I can’t reach them? But you know what – you don’t have to. This vision shows us that it’s not our efforts that save us, it’s not how well or poorly we do - but God acting in grace.

Or maybe you are more like me - maybe you are prone to respond by defending your sin or blaming someone else. ‘What I did isn’t really my fault…if my son hadn’t provoked me, I wouldn’t have reacted in that manner…if she hadn’t said that horrible thing I wouldn’t have needed to bad mouth her behind her back.’ You know, these things may explain why we chose to sin, but they don’t absolve us of our guilt before God.

Did you notice how Joshua is silent throughout the vision? There is nothing he can say in his own defence. He stands there guilty as charged. He is not righteous and neither are we! My friends if you identify with any of these responses, as I do, then may I humbly suggest that we have an inadequate grasp of God’s truth and his remedy to our problem. We need to understand his surprise solution and believe his solemn assurance. Look at what he’s done – remember what he is promising!

The great news for us is that what was symbolic then – is a reality now!

If we come to God in repentance and faith he has promised that we are no longer under judgement. As that wonderful first verse of Romans 8 says, “there is no longer any condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.” Jesus has washed us clean from our sin - not with soap and water, but with his very blood - and re-clothed us in his very own righteousness, so that when God looks at us he see Jesus’ perfection and not our sin.

Friends, there is only one right response to the accuser, as we proclaimed in song earlier:

When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see him there
Who made an end of all my sin.

Because the sinless Saviour died,
My sinful soul is counted free;
For God, the just, is satisfied
To look on him and pardon me.

Charitie L de Chenez (1841-1923) © Jubilate Hymns CCL No 2054

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