"Greatness in Humility"
Scripture - Zechariah 9:9-12
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, July 6, 2014

What were they thinking? On April 19, 1775, farmers and merchants, among them, plump old men and lean young boys, confronted imposing British troops in Lexington and Concord. These colonists were not trained in precision drills or military strategy like the British, and they lacked comparable firepower. Anyone would have gladly given long odds against their success, yet failure meant a hasty trip to the gallows to be hanged for treason.

What were they thinking rebelling against the British Empire?

What were they thinking taking on the redcoats?

What on earth were they thinking putting their lives in such jeopardy? Liberty. That's what they were thinking. Liberty.

On this holiday weekend, most Americans take a break from normal routines to commemorate our nation's independence. They celebrate with picnics and parades, baseball and barbecues, flag-waving and fireworks. It is a fitting time for people of faith to remember that the idea of freedom is much older than the Declaration of Independence. Could it be that God creates each of us with a yearning in our soul for freedom?

In the same way that we have a restlessness within us that cannot find peace until we find God; in the same way that we instinctively recoil in the face of injustice, in the same way that we yearn to love and to be loved, perhaps every person is born with a longing for liberty.

Freedom is certainly at the heart of biblical faith. There would be no Christianity, because there would have been no Judaism, if freedom was not at the core of the nature of God. The Hebrew people were slaves in Egypt, and they would have either perished at the hands of their taskmasters or slowly been assimilated into the Egyptian culture, if God had not insisted that Moses lead them to their freedom. That liberating event, when the chains of slavery were broken, forged the Hebrew people's understanding of God as just and forever opposed to powers of oppression.

Over time, the prophets would make it clear that God not only opposed the oppressive power of foreign governments, but any leaders who oppressed their own people. Prophets were bold to criticize the kings of ancient Israel and to demand justice for the poor and those pushed to the margins of society.

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos, one prophet after another, chastised their leaders for failing the test of justice - which was how the poorest and neediest were treated. People should be able to expect more from their leaders than to simply survive; they require opportunities to thrive.

This morning's passage from the Book of Zechariah strikes a familiar chord because the gospel writers tap it to describe the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem at the beginning of the final week of his life. To grasp its meaning in Zechariah, it is important to know that 600 years before the birth of Jesus, Babylon conquered ancient Israel and deported the defeated. And with the passage of time, the Hebrew peoples' hope of returning to their homeland dimmed. Then, when the hour was late and the dream was nearly extinguished, Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon and issued an edict that permitted the Hebrews to return to their devastated homes.

It was at this hour that the prophet Zechariah appeared on the scene and revealed his vision. "Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem. Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem; and the battle-bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations."

His words surely startled his audience. Where is the call to arms? Where are the words of revenge and retribution? A king will rescue them. Good. The enemy's chariots will be removed from the streets of the holy city. Excellent. The bows of battle will be broken. Perfect. But let me get this straight, the king's regal stallion will be replaced with a donkey? And there will be a declaration of peace to the enemy and to all the nations? The prophet's vision is characterized by national humility, not hubris. And rather than being nationalistic or ethnocentric, it encompasses all people and all nations.1

The people of every country are tempted to believe that God is on their side and their nation's values are sanctioned by God. It becomes most apparent when extremists such as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, declare an Islamic state and implement strict Sharia law. Yet, it is not only extremists, who are inclined to claim divine favor on their nation.

Jesus tells parables that admonish arrogance and commend humility. During my teen years when I was brimming with a feeling of self-importance, my father would frequently remind me in his down-home way: "Don't get too big for your britches."

What is true for individuals is true for nations. It's easy to be seduced into believing that you and your country are exceptional - especially when you live in a nation like ours, which has experienced remarkable success and a standard of living that is the envy of many. It is easy to become lulled into a sense of superiority and to think that our beliefs are always right and those who disagree are wrong; our path is the way of truth and other paths miss the mark; our actions are based solely on virtue and the actions of others are based only on expediency.

Jesus counsels that true greatness is found in humility, because a humble person does not need to deceive himself; does not need to insist that all is well when it is not, is not motivated to castigate others in order to shift the spotlight, is not compelled to invent justifications to avoid admitting mistakes.

We are a nation with values that can claim biblical backing - liberty and justice for all, equality for every citizen regardless of race, creed or economic standing. However, we must also confess that we have not always lived up to our values. Our treatment of Native American Indians, people of color, women, people of different sexual orientations and minority religions has too often declared: All people are NOT created equal. Thankfully, the laws of our nation guarantee the freedom to protest and to bring into the light of day the ways we fall short of our ideals so that we can correct our course.

It is a healthy sign, when we can count among our most patriotic songs, "O Beautiful for Spacious Skies." Its poetry celebrates our nation, yet has the humility to recognize our imperfections and to call on God to "mend thine every flaw." Rather than arrogantly boasting of God's favoritism, it beckons God to "shed his grace on thee" and to "crown thy good with brotherhood" a call to treat one another with warmth, equality and respect.

Finally, this song is a call to strive for greater heights: "till all success be nobleness and every gain divine." It sings of a fervent desire to act in ways that are truly noble and to define success in terms of how faithfully we align ourselves with God's will. We are not always at our best, but when we are, we are an inspiration to others.

The Reverend Jim Wallis, writer, activist and founder of Sojourners, recalls being sneaked into South Africa ten years before their first free elections in which Nelson Mandela was elected President. Wallis was there to support persecuted faith leaders, to help them develop new strategies and to form partnerships between South African churches and North American churches. He remembers the night he was in the Soweto Township home of Frank Chicane, the head of the South African Council of Churches. Late that evening, Frank took him into the kitchen where he had papers spread out on the table. He told Wallis that Mandela, though still in prison, had urged a handful of people to begin drafting a new constitution for South Africa.

As Frank showed him some of the drafts, Wallis' eye fell on two familiar documents on the table. One began with these words: "The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America. When in the Course of human events..." The second document began: "We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice..." Although at the time Wallis was in South Africa, our government was supporting the apartheid regime, "inside that small house in a black township, a dissident clergyman was drafting a new constitution based on the documents that announced and continue to serve as the foundation of American freedom.2

As we ponder our nation in light of biblical values, I pray that we will find the humility to confess our shortcomings and the determination to fulfill our guiding principles. May God not only bless America, but use us to bring freedom, justice and peace to our world.


  1. Can Clendenin, "Peace to the Nations," The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself, July 3, 2005.
  2. Jim Wallis, "Why I Love My Country," SoJo Mail, July 3, 2013.