The Urban Sprawl of the City of God—Readers’ Choice

Readers’ Choice Bonus:
Today’s post was originally published, on May 20, 2022, based on Zechariah 2.3-11

It was selected by reader, Brian Bakke, Washington DC: 
“Thank you for this reflection. Thanks for sharing about the City of God. Thanks for the gift of sharing about the eternal City where all of us who are called by name will celebrate, worship, and live with our Lord and Savior forever and ever.

My father was a gifted teacher, author, and professor. He will forever be known for calling the Church back into the city. He was co-editor of the Word in Life Study Bible, which has thousands of notes that speak of God’s love for the city and the people who live there. He was an unknown pastor laboring in a small church in Chicago. Someone told someone, who told someone, who told someone, and my father was on the stage at Urbana in 1984. He wrote The Urban Christian, and Theology As Big as the City, and A Biblical Word for an Urban World.”

From John: After corresponding with Brian following the original publication of this devotional, I read Theology As Big as the City and found it to be inspirational and very much still relevant to ministry and the church today—perhaps even more relevant now than when it was first published. I recommend adding it to your reading list. 

Thank you for sending your selections of meaningful and helpful devotionals from the past 12 months. This is a bonus Readers’ Choice post for this week. Remember that you don’t have to wait to send a Readers’ Choice. You can submit them all year long simply by replying back to our emails or filling out the form found at this link.

Scripture Focus: Zechariah 2.3-11
3 While the angel who was speaking to me was leaving, another angel came to meet him 4 and said to him: “Run, tell that young man, ‘Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of people and animals in it. 5 And I myself will be a wall of fire around it,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will be its glory within.’ 

6 “Come! Come! Flee from the land of the north,” declares the Lord, “for I have scattered you to the four winds of heaven,” declares the Lord. 

7 “Come, Zion! Escape, you who live in Daughter Babylon!” 8 For this is what the Lord Almighty says: “After the Glorious One has sent me against the nations that have plundered you—for whoever touches you touches the apple of his eye—9 I will surely raise my hand against them so that their slaves will plunder them. g Then you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me. 

10 “Shout and be glad, Daughter Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,” declares the Lord. 11 “Many nations will be joined with the Lord in that day and will become my people. I will live among you and you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you.

Reflection: The Urban Sprawl of the City of God—Readers’ Choice
By John Tillman

The angel who has been talking to Zechariah leaves him. However, at some distance away, a second angel intercepts the first with an urgent message, sending him back. “Run, tell that young man…” the second angel says.

Zechariah is told that the new Jerusalem will have no walls. This may not seem unusual to us. Most of today’s cities have no walls. The Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, where I live, covers an area larger than the combined areas of Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island. It is over 9,000 square miles of cities grown right into each other…and sprawling more every month out into the surrounding countryside.

In Zechariah’s day, however, cities without walls were defenseless. However, the angel of the Lord says that he, himself, will be a wall of fire around the city and its glory within. This image links to at least two things. 

On Mount Sinai, God appeared in a fiery cloud of glory. The people were too afraid to go near the mountain, but Moses entered this fire and experienced the glory of God.

In John’s Revelation, the City of God, the New Jerusalem, comes down from Heaven and has no need of sun or lamps because the Lord himself will be its light. His glory will fill the city. (Revelation 22.5; Zechariah 14.7; Isaiah 60.19)

The angel tells Zechariah that God will send him to us in this fire-walled, glorious city. He will come and live among us and many nations will become God’s people.

God has sent Jesus to us in this manner and for this purpose. Jesus is the entrance into all that God has for us. He is the gate and the wall and when we enter, he shows us God’s glory closer than Moses ever got to see. This is an “already and not yet” promise. We can experience it now in part, as through a veil like Moses wore, but then we will experience it more fully.

God is writing an Exodus narrative for us today. Jesus calls to us to escape the cities, systems, and empires we now serve. “Escape!”, he cries. “Escape from Babylon!” Jesus calls us to live within the borderless, wall-less, ever-sprawling city of New Jerusalem. As we anticipate the ultimate fulfillment of this promise, may we participate in work God calls us to which fulfills it in part.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
The same stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. — Psalm 118.22

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings*
Ezekiel 6(Listen 3:28)
Romans 9(Listen 5:15)

*We have diverted into 1 Kings and Ephesians for this week. Devotionals on our daily readings will continue next week.

Read more about Christ our Temple, River, and City
Christ is our city. He is our refuge and rest—our strong tower and protected place…

Read more about Hope Among the Traumatized
From our lives may there flow trickles of hope, which combine into a river that brings to life…

The End of Evil

Scripture Focus: Zechariah 14.6-9
6 On that day there will be neither sunlight nor cold, frosty darkness. 7 It will be a unique day—a day known only to the Lord—with no distinction between day and night. When evening comes, there will be light.
8 On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half of it east to the Dead Sea and half of it west to the Mediterranean Sea, in summer and in winter.
9 The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.

Reflection: The End of Evil
By Erin Newton

In times of great tragedy, the weight of evil is unbearable. Hope can be elusive. Each new day feels darker. Sometimes, evil is inflicted upon us and other times it comes from our corrupted hearts.

Israel lost her way and became a community that abused power over foreigners and the poor. They indulged in sexual immorality and killed their children. They only cared about satiating their greed, lust, or power. This degradation of morality and breach of the covenant led them into exile.

Zechariah recalled how the people had sinned and God’s judgment as the consequence. They had already started rebuilding the city, the temple, and reinstating proper justice. Yet, it was still met with struggles from outside (Nehemiah 4) and from within the community (Ezra 9). In the depths of their grief, we can imagine their desire for a glimmer of hope. God tells them of the future restoration.

The final prophetic vision is a land of never-fading light that never grows cold. The preceding verses are harsh and jarring—possessions are stolen, women are violated. The message of this future hope feels out of place, maybe a little impossible.

Recurring tragedies can leave us with an endless sense of dread. We ask ourselves, Will this evil ever stop? Can we learn to love one another? Ourselves? Pain has a way of stealing hope. The weight of grief can drown out any optimistic thought of better days.

The last few weeks have been incredibly painful. Adults and children have been murdered at the hand of evil. Clergy sexual abuse had been covered up and victims shamed. Countless other tragedies in local communities and personal lives never reach the headlines. It is an act of faith that makes a sense of hope possible. We need to know things will be made right.

God gave us these glimpses into a brighter future because he knew our souls would grow weary. Like the Israelites, we are called to repent and return to the Lord. We can begin to reform our community, to enact justice, to seek peace, to create environments that cherish the lives of every human being. But in the end, it’ll never fix every wrong.

As we read through the prophets, let us remember that while it feels like our world is “always winter and never spring” God is coming to make an end of evil.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; let the whole earth tremble before him. — Psalm 96.9

Today’s Readings

Zechariah 14 (Listen – 3:52)
Matthew 11 (Listen – 4:06)

Read more about Revelation of Love
Ultimately, fear is not what Revelation is about. It is about love.

Read more about The Urban Sprawl of the City of God
As we anticipate the ultimate fulfillment of this promise, may we participate in work God calls us to which fulfills it in part.

Cut and Run from False Prophets

Scripture Focus: Zechariah 13.3
3 And if anyone still prophesies, their father and mother, to whom they were born, will say to them, “You must die, because you have told lies in the Lord’s name…”

Jeremiah 6.13-14
13 “From the least to the greatest, 
all are greedy for gain; 
prophets and priests alike, 
all practice deceit. 
14 They dress the wound of my people 
as though it were not serious. 
‘Peace, peace,’ they say, 
when there is no peace.

Reflection: Cut and Run from False Prophets
By John Tillman

This tiny chapter of Zechariah contains a difficult to read, strange vision of the death of “prophets” who tell lies in the name of the Lord.

Stabbing false prophets to death is out of the question today. Even in Zechariah’s day this was a vision and probably not intended for literal interpretation. However, Zechariah’s audience knew that lying prophets were deadly. Their lies killed.

The previous generation of prophets enriched themselves through politically popular messages. Jeremiah called them “greedy for gain” and repeated this description of them twice:  “They say, ‘Peace, peace” when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6.13-14; 8.11) These prophets had the ears of the kings and most of the people. “We are God’s special nation,” they said. “God loves us too much to allow us to suffer,” they said. These lies led people to their deaths. 

It may be hard for us to understand how prevalent these false prophets were because the Bible contains the writings of the good prophets. However, we need to remember that the voices we hear from scripture are the voices of the remnant—the faithful minority. The voices of the majority looked at sin and corruption in Judah or Israel and said, “Nothing to see here. Cost of doing business.”

The exile and suffering Israel and Judah endured is due to their choice to believe and trust in false prophets. The faithful suffered along with the guilty, however, God used this suffering to refine his faithful ones. Zechariah speaks of the remnant as being purified like fine metals.

There are few who dare to call themselves “prophets” today but there are many making false promises or claims in the name of God. Part of the crisis of abuse within the church is that powerful leaders, in God’s name, shamed their victims into silence. Part of the idolization of politics in the church involves leaders, in God’s name, demanding followers vote for a particular party or person. By this, they make God a liar.

Rather than stabbing false prophets (which is out of the question and antithetical to everything Jesus taught), it would be wise for us to cut their influence out of our lives.

Listen carefully to “prophets” in your life. When leaders say something that makes God a liar, it is a red flag. When they consistently do so, cut and run. Shake the dust from your feet and leave them to God’s wrath.

Divine Hours Prayer: A Reading
Jesus taught us saying: “Beware of false prophets who come to you disguised as sheep but underneath are ravenous wolves. You will be able to tell them by their fruits. Can people pick grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, a sound tree produces good fruit but a rotten tree bad fruit. A sound tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor a rotten tree bear good fruit. Any tree that does not produce good fruit is cut down and thrown on the fire. I repeat, you will be able to tell them by their fruits.” — Matthew 7.15-20

Today’s Readings
Zechariah 13:2-9 (Listen – 1:40)
Matthew 10 (Listen – 5:07)

Read more about The Losers Who Write History
Not one of those glowingly positive, king-praising prophets’ writings are in our Bible. Instead we have the writings of the losers. The cries of the oppressed.

Read more about Balaams and Balaks
These modern Balaams do their best to put words in God’s mouth that are pleasing to the powerful.

The King We Want

Scripture Focus: Zechariah 9.9-10
9 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! 
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! 
See, your king comes to you, 
righteous and victorious, 
lowly and riding on a donkey, 
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 
10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim 
and the warhorses from Jerusalem, 
and the battle bow will be broken. 
He will proclaim peace to the nations. 
His rule will extend from sea to sea 
and from the River to the ends of the earth. 

1 Samuel 8.6-7
6 But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. 7 And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.

John 19.15
15 But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked. “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.

From John: This post and poem were written several days before the shootings at Robb Elementary in Uvalde. We mourn and cry in anger and grief this week. We long ever and ever more for Jesus, the breaker of battle bows, to come. May our bows be broken and our stiff necks be bent. May our hearts of destruction become hearts of cultivation, our swords be melted to plowshares. May his peace come soon. Even now, Lord Jesus. Even now.

Reflection: The King We Want
By John Tillman

Zechariah’s vision of a coming king riding on a donkey is very familiar to New Testament readers. All the gospel writers include this detail. John and Matthew specifically quote Zechariah 9.9 and point out that Jesus fulfills this prophecy. However, this humble king wasn’t what many wanted. Many rejected Jesus then. And many still reject him now.

The King We Want
We want a king, we say
A king like other nations
With Solomon’s glitz and glamor
With Goliath’s sword and armor

I’ve sent a king, God says
Unlike any you’ve seen
Son of the Giant Killer
Yet rejected as your ruler

We want a king, we say
Exalted and victorious
We’ll hear his saber rattle
We’ll follow him to battle

I’ve sent a king, God says
A king not of this realm
Your lust for worldly power
Shows you mistake the hour

We want a king, we say
To make our city great
To make for ourselves a name
To not be scattered from this plain

I’ve sent a king, God says
You had no eyes to see him
He wept over your city
That the outcasts gained no pity

We want a king, we say
We’ll even take a bad one
Let him speak like a serpent coiled
Long as we can share the spoils

I’ve sent a king, God says
You had no ears to hear him
Of sin’s sting you must repent
Then my King will crush the serpent

We want a king, we say
A conqueror, triumphant
Crush our enemies who slight us
Crush the governments above us

I’ve sent a king, God says
He rode in on a donkey
My servants prophesied him
You rebels crucified him

We want a king, we say
To cast out the unworthy
Keep away those we despise and fear
Isolate us with those we hold dear

I’ve sent a king, God says.
Accepting any and all subjects
No repentant sinner he’ll exclude
And that, my child, includes you

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
You are the Lord, most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods. — Psalm 64.9

Today’s Readings
Zechariah 9 (Listen – 3:01)
Matthew 6 (Listen – 4:35)

This Weekend’s Readings
Zechariah 10 (Listen – 2:11Matthew 7 (Listen – 3:31)
Zechariah 11 (Listen – 2:40Matthew 8 (Listen – 4:09)

Read more about The Ram and the Cornerstone
Jesus entered Jerusalem like Isaac’s ram on the mountain top. He rammed his head into the thorns…Jesus knew he would be rejected. His final actions ensured it.

Read more about Truth Unwanted
Jesus, you are the king, the gift, and the truth that the world does not want.

From a Curse to a Blessing

Scripture Focus: Zechariah 8.12-13
12 “The seed will grow well, the vine will yield its fruit, the ground will produce its crops, and the heavens will drop their dew. I will give all these things as an inheritance to the remnant of this people. 13 Just as you, Judah and Israel, have been a curse among the nations, so I will save you, and you will be a blessing. Do not be afraid, but let your hands be strong.” 

Reflection: From a Curse to a Blessing

By John Tillman

God promised to bless the nations through Abraham. (Genesis 12.1-3; 22.17-18) The purpose of Israel and Judah was to be a blessing to the whole world. But they became a curse. God said to Adam and Eve in the garden, “Cursed is the ground because of you.” (Genesis 3.17) His words to Israel and Judah as they went into exile in Assyria and Babylon were similar. 

Their sin cursed the ground. Their selfishness, greed, and idolatry poisoned the land. The blood of the poor ran in the streets because of greed. Orphans and widows found no justice or help. Governments sought alliances and greater worldly power rather than seeking the Lord. (Jeremiah 2.34, 2 Kings 21.16, Ezekiel 9.8-10; Hosea 6.8-9)

The practices of human empires overwhelmed leaders’ character and they led the people to death and destruction. The mildew of the world grew on the vines and the whole field had to be burned to prevent its spread.

God’s nature as a cultivator, a gardener, is seen in this passage. He has cleansed the ground and given it rest from the abuses of the previous generation. Prior generations looked at a gold-covered Temple and presumed God’s presence would never allow them to be harmed. This generation was attuned to God’s returning presence and prioritized the building of a Temple. The complacency of the past has been replaced with thrilling anticipation and appreciation for God’s presence.

This people’s faith is a seed ready to be planted. God promises that a healthy vine will grow, and fruit will swell the branches. The blessings of this produce will be shared not only with God’s people but with all the nations.

Zechariah challenged the people to prioritize the Temple, to speak the truth to each other, and to ensure justice for the oppressed in their courts. They are warned against planning evil against one another and against swearing falsely.

These are not just principles for rebuilding ancient Jerusalem. They are for us. Here in our cities and countries, we must prioritize Jesus, who is our Temple, our access to God. We must be people devoted to truth and upholders of justice. In all we do, we must work good in the world for others and speak truthfully not just about the gospel but about everything else.

These principles will serve us well as we build little outposts (or branches) of the Kingdom of God right where we live and work.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations and his wonders among all peoples.
For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; he is more to be feared than all gods. — Psalm 96.2-4

Today’s Readings

Zechariah 8 (Listen – 3:33)
Matthew 5 (Listen – 6:03)

Read more about Defilement, Deconstruction, and Reconstruction
If the mold spread, the first step was to remove only the affected stones. But if the mold returned, the entire house had to be deconstructed

Read more about The Branch and the Branches
Christ’s righteousness flows into us and we are able to create holy space, shade under the limbs of God’s tree.