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The Heroes' Journey (Part I)

Why is Star Wars so popular? 

It’s something of a modern mystery, isn’t it? Even in 1977, when the first movie came out, the actors themselves were complaining about the cheezy dialogue and poor writing. Sure, cutting edge special effects and everything, but special effects alone don’t make a movie great — as the prequels proved to all of us. 

So what is the fascination? 

Well, literary people have a theory: George Lucas may be a terrible writer and director, but before he wrote Star Wars, he studied a book called The Man With a Thousand Faces, written by Joseph Campbell. 

In that book, Joseph Campbell argues that there is a universal kind of story that we can find in every culture in the world. He called this universal story “The Hero’s Journey.” In the Hero’s Journey an obscure hero is called to answer some great crisis. Various obstacles stand in his way, but at last he sets out on his journey. Along the way he gains a mentor, makes some friends, fights some enemies, and then, in a climactic battle, he enters into the Underworld and comes back changed, having accomplished his goal and resolved the crisis. Joseph Campbell argued that the reason we find this same story pattern repeated again and again in every culture is because it resonates deeply with us: somehow this story connects with who we are as human beings. 

So George Lucas took what he learned from Joseph Campbell and applied it to Star Wars. Sure, the dialogue is campy, the jokes are corny, the characters rather flat, but in each of the first three films Luke Skywalker travels the Hero’s Journey to the Underworld and back — and the formula worked. The whole world bought tickets. We just sat there eating popcorn and overlooking all the stupidity because the story speaks to us on a visceral level, even if it’s badly told. 

That’s one theory, anyway. 

But there is something to Campbell’s theory: every culture has some sort of Hero’s Journey tradition. We find the pattern even in ancient Jewish scripture. Think of Noah: a hero who passes through the waters of judgement and death and emerges to establish a new world. Or Abraham: a hero who leaves civilization and passes through the Underworld of infertility and uncertainty, only to become the father of a new nation. Think of Jacob: driven into exile by his brother Esau, isolated and alone — but when he returns he is the father of twelve sons, the father of kings. And Joseph: a hero sold into slavery and imprisonment (which is a kind of death), but when he is finally set free he becomes the second most powerful man in the world. 

And that’s just the book of Genesis! The bible is full of these stories: Moses, Samson, David…the list goes on and on. 

But why? Why were the ancient Jews so fascinated with this story arc? Why are we still fascinated with it, all these thousands of years later? Is it because we all wish that we could be heroes, and the idea of the Hero’s Journey gives us hope that anybody can be a hero? Or is it because we are all longing for a hero to come and rescue us? 

For the ancient Jews, it was that second one: written deep into their national culture was this longing for someone to rescue them, first from slavery in Egypt, then later on from oppression by the Canaanites, the Philistines, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans. This is why all their national heroes were redeemers, rescuers, men (or women) chosen by God to be God’s warriors: to enter into darkness and danger and set the prisoners free. 

And of course, for the ancient Jews, each one of these heroes were representatives of God. For the Jews, it was God himself who would one day become the ultimate Divine Warrior. The later prophets are full of this promise that one day God himself will come to rescue his people. 

Chapter 9 of Zechariah is one of those prophecies. This chapter is the Hero’s Journey captured in just 17 verses. This is the journey of the Divine Warrior travelling from north to south through the ancient lands of Syria and arriving in Jerusalem. 

Let’s look at it: 

… 

[1] An Oracle. The word of the Lord is against the land of Hadrach, and will rest upon Damascus---for the eyes of men and all the tribes of Israel are on the Lord--- [2] and upon Hamath too, which borders on it, and upon Tyre and Sidon, though they are very skillful. [3] Tyre has built herself a stronghold; she has heaped up silver like dust, and gold like the dirt of the streets. [4] But the Lord will take away her possessions and destroy her power on the sea, and she will be consumed by fire. [5] Ashkelon will see it and fear; Gaza will writhe in agony, and Ekron too, for her hope will wither. Gaza will lose her king and Ashkelon will be deserted. [6] Foreigners will occupy Ashdod, and I will cut off the pride of the Philistines. 

— it doesn’t stand out to us because we are not familiar with these place names, but the prophet here is saying that when the Divine Warrior comes, he is going to march through the land from north to south, conquering each of these cities in turn — Damascus, Hamath, Tyre, Sidon, Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron, Ashdod. No one will be able to stand against him, no matter how powerful they are. Even if they have “heaped up silver like dust, and gold like the dirt of the streets,” they will fall, and be destroyed — except for a few of the Philistines, the pagan people who were Israel’s main enemy back in the time of King David. 

So what is going to happen to these pagan survivors? 

“Well,” the prophet tells us, speaking with the voice of the Divine Warrior: 

[7] I will take the blood from their mouths, the forbidden food from between their teeth. Those who are left will belong to our God and become leaders in Judah, and Ekron will be like the Jebusites. 

The Divine Warrior is going to “take the blood from their mouths, the forbidden food from between their teeth”. He is going to rescue them from their pagan worship practices and make them part of God’s people. Ancient pagan religions often involved drinking blood and eating repulsive things in order to impress the gods. The Divine Warrior is saying, “I am going to rescue them from all that. They won’t have to drink blood and eat gross things to impress me. I’m going to make them part of my people!” 

— which is pretty incredible, because — as I already mentioned — the Philistines and the Israelites were mortal enemies. For the ancient Israelites, bringing Philistines in to be part of the Jewish nation would have been a terrible idea! Think of the racism that is part of our experience in this age. Now multiply that feeling by ten! Imagine: this is the country next door that has been killing the men of our country and enslaving the women, and now God says, “oh, by the way, some of them are now going to be part of us”! That could be a little hard to accept, right? “That enemy warrior killed my father in battle; now his son could potentially marry my daughter? I don’t think so!” 

Oh, but what if they came in as slaves, prisoners of war, forced to do all our dirty jobs? That would be okay, wouldn’t it! We could get used to that! — 

But, “no,” the Divine Warrior says, “Those who are left will belong to our God and become leaders in Judah, and Ekron will be like the Jebusites.” So in other words, these repulsive pagan enemies won’t be slaves of the Jews; they will nobility in the Jewish nation! The people of Ekron — a Philistine city — will be like the Jebusites, who were the people of Jerusalem before King David captured it. And if you read the history of David’s reign, you will see that the Jebusites of Jerusalem, who had been David’s mortal enemy, gradually became part of David’s kingdom, and some of the Jebusite nobility became key members of David’s ruling coalition. 

So the Divine Warrior is saying, “this has already happened once, back in King David’s time. And it is going to happen again!” 

— well, okay. None of us really like foreigners coming in and becoming part of us — we can admit that seems to be a general human attitude. We’re all that way, at least a little bit. 

But we can get used to it. After a few generations of intermarriage no one can tell the difference between a Jew and a Jebusite, a Jew and a Philistine. As long as we are all worshiping the same God, it should be okay — and this, too, is something of a general human attitude: we can get used to almost anything. 

And this little rabbit trail about pagans converting and becoming rulers in Judah is not really the main point of this prophecy. Here’s the main point — 

[8] But I will defend my house against marauding forces. Never again will an oppressor overrun my people, for now I am keeping watch. 

So here the Divine Warrior completes his journey. He has travelled from north to south, conquering all of Israel’s enemies along the way. And now he arrives at Jerusalem, so that the great age of perfect peace can begin: 

[9] Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! (Zion is another name for Jerusalem) Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. [10] I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses 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. 

— notice how the prophet changes voices here? Until now the Divine Warrior himself has been speaking to his people. But at this point the prophet becomes the herald of the Warrior: he runs ahead into the city to announce the King’s return. 

And he addresses Jerusalem as a woman. He is speaking primarily to the women of Jerusalem. Why? Because war is especially hard on women. Men die in battle, or are imprisoned. Captured women suffer far more terribly, as the news reports out of Syria today can attest. 

So the image here is of a city full of women waiting anxiously for news of how the battle has gone. They are waiting for news of their fathers, husbands, sons, who have all marched off to war. If word comes that their men are all dead, their army defeated, the enemy on its way to take the city, the women will all grab their children and flee into the mountains to hide. My wife’s own grandmother did this in the Philippines during World War II, carrying her baby into the mountains to escape the invading army. Probably many of your grandparents have similar stories of what happened here in Malaya during the war. For men, defeat usually means death: their troubles are over. For women, defeat means that their troubles are only beginning. 

But here comes the prophet Zechariah, like a herald, saying, “Rejoice greatly, daughters of Jerusalem! The war is over, and our king has won! He is not riding in his war chariot — which in those days was like our modern day tank or fighter jet — he is riding on a donkey, just an ordinary vehicle. His victory is so complete he has thrown away all his weapons, and he is telling everyone else to throw away their weapons too: “you won’t need them anymore!” 

Why not? Because he has conquered the whole world: he rules “from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.” 

And then the Divine Warrior, the victorious King, speaks to the women with his own voice in verse 11: 

“[11] As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.” 

The King is saying, “don’t worry ladies, you will get your men back! I am going to ransom all the prisoners of war from their dungeons.” 

— and he makes it clear that he is doing this “because of the blood of my covenant with you”. In those days, kings were “married” to their people: the king was the husband, the nation his wife. God is no different: he thought of himself as married to Israel, bound by a marriage covenant. And as the Jewish prophets make clear, God’s marriage to his people was a love-match, not a marriage of convenience or arrangement. So this Divine Warrior, as God’s representative, is saying, “I love you, ladies! That’s why I’m going to redeem your fathers, your husbands, your sons!”

Then the King speaks to the fathers, husbands and sons directly in verse 12: 

“[12] Return to your fortress, O prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.“ 

He says, “guys! You’re free! Come home to Jerusalem! However much you think you’ve lost, I will set you up with even more!” 

And that is the end of the Hero’s Journey. The end of the story. 

… 

And at this point Zechariah the Prophet steps back, out of the story. He made his voice a part of the story — the herald for the arriving King — but now he steps back out into his real role as a prophet. Here, in closing, he makes a brief summary of that battle that is to come, when God’s Divine Warrior will rescue his people: 

[13] I will bend Judah as I bend my bow and fill it with Ephraim. I will rouse your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and make you like a warrior's sword. [14] Then the Lord will appear over them; his arrow will flash like lightning. The Sovereign Lord will sound the trumpet; he will march in the storms of the south, [15] and the Lord Almighty will shield them. They will destroy and overcome with slingstones. They will drink and roar as with wine; they will be full like a bowl used for sprinkling the corners of the altar. 

Zechariah is prophesying a great war between Israel and Greece, a war that the army of Israel will win, led by God himself. 

— and this is an interesting prophecy because, at the time Zechariah wrote this prophecy, the Persian Empire ruled the world; Greece was just a small collection of annoying cities on the edge of the Empire, no threat at all to anybody. (In fact, many of you have watched the movie 300. “Thish ish Shpartaaaa!” That battle between Sparta and the Persian Empire took place just a few decades after Zechariah wrote this prophecy.) Even so — 

Zechariah prophesies that one day, Greece will be a threat to Israel, and that on that day (verse 16): 

[16] The Lord their God will save them…as the flock of his people. They will sparkle in his land like jewels in a crown. [17] How attractive and beautiful they will be! Grain will make the young men thrive, and new wine the young women. 

Zechariah is talking about a new Golden Age that will follow this battle between Greece and Israel: an age of peace, and plenty; an age of grain for the young men, and new wine for the young women. 

Grain and new wine. 

Bread…and wine. 

… 

And you know what’s really cool? This prophecy came true. More than 150 years after Zechariah wrote this prophecy, a great king arose among the Greeks and changed the whole world: Alexander the Great. 

Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us that Alexander attacked the Persian Empire, and marched from north to south down through the lands of what is now Syria. He took Damascus, then Tyre and Sidon, Gaza, each city in order as Zechariah described. Alexander was God’s Divine Warrior, sent to bring God’s judgement upon the Persians, who had enslaved Israel. He was unbeatable! 

And then he came to Jerusalem — to conquer, and destroy. But God was protecting his city, just as he said he would in verse 8 here: “But I will defend my house against marauding forces.“ In fact, Jerusalem won that battle without firing a shot. This is the story as Josephus tells it: 

When Alexander’s army arrived at Jerusalem, the city didn’t have a chance: they had no army to speak of, no ability to defend themselves. So the High Priest went out to meet Alexander dressed in his priestly robes of blue and gold, wearing a turban with a golden plate on it on which was inscribed the name of God. 

And Alexander, seeing him dressed like that, fell on his face at the High Priest’s feet. It turns out that years before, a god dressed exactly like the priest had come to Alexander in a dream and told him he would destroy the Persian Empire and take over the world. 

Then the High Priest showed Alexander the Book of the Prophet Daniel, written more than two hundred years before, which in Chapters 8 and 11 specifically predicts the rise of a great Greek conquerer who will destroy the Persian Empire and take over the world. (If you have a bible, those chapters are still there. You can read them for yourself; they are freakishly accurate.) 

Needless to say: Alexander was very pleased. He left Jerusalem alone, and he did go on to destroy the Persian Empire and take over the world — just as the prophets Daniel and Zechariah predicted. And in fact there was a sort of Greek Golden Age that followed, an age that continued into the time of the Roman Empire, because if you remember, Greek was the language of the Roman Empire too. It was the language of culture, business, and worship. 

So: pretty cool, right? Alexander the Great was the Divine Warrior — and the defeated Greek! — of this prophecy. He marched from north to south through Syria, he entered Jerusalem peacefully, he brought on a Golden Age! 

… 

Or that’s how it seemed, anyway. So for hundreds of years no one paid any attention to this prophecy. Fulfilled a’eady mah! So they put Zechariah back on the shelf and forgot all about it — 

Until one day a man comes from the north, from Galilee, and travels south to Jerusalem. And this man claims to be God’s Messiah, God’s Anointed King: the Divine Warrior of prophecy. He claims that he has come to save Israel from her enemies. And he arrives at Jerusalem deliberately riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 

All four of the gospel accounts emphasize this fact, and the Gospel of John tells us (chapter 12, verse 16) that “at first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him.” Nobody remembered this prophecy from Zechariah. They thought it was done. Fulfilled. So they totally missed the significance of Jesus’ action here: he was their victorious King. The war was already over! All they had to do was accept him and the Golden Age would have begun. 

But as all four gospels make clear: Jerusalem rejected him. Oh, there was some excitement as Jesus entered. A lot of the common people really believed he was the Divine Warrior, the Messiah, come to conquer the whole world. 

But as the days went past and Jesus did not start the War at the End of the Age, the people turned against him. They could not understand that the war Jesus had come to fight was not a military war: it was a spiritual war. It was a war for the souls of mankind, fought against the ancient serpent who had enslaved Adam in the War at the Beginning of the Age. 

They could not see it; and so, in their disappointment, they betrayed him, and crucified him. 

They thought that by this they could destroy him. 

But they had forgotten something: the Hero’s Journey always involves a descent into death. 

They should have remembered that every great Jewish hero of the Old Testament — all of God’s Divine Warriors — passed through the valley of the shadow of defeat before they were lifted up to victory. They should have known, from their own history, that Jesus would come back stronger than ever! 

They should have known that by killing him they were actually giving him the throne: their own scriptures told them it would happen. 

The prophecy of the Divine Warrior’s death can even be found here, in Zechariah 9. It’s a very subtle hint, so it’s easy to miss. But look again, at verse 11, as the King speaks to the women of Jerusalem. He says, “As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.” 

“Because of the blood of my covenant with you.” The ancient Jews would have read this and thought he was talking about the blood of Moses’ covenant: the blood of bulls and goats, the blood of the lamb on the Day of Atonement. But the Divine Warrior is not talking about the blood of animals; he is talking about his own blood, shed in battle to protect his people. 

Remember, this King is talking to his beloved, his bride, the love-match of his youth. Brothers, what would you spend to rescue your wife from slavery? Sisters, what would spend to redeem your children from captivity? Would you exchange your life for theirs? 

Do you really think God would spend anything less than himself to redeem us? 

Friends, this is what sets the Christian faith apart from every other faith: approximately one thousand, nine hundred, and eighty-seven years ago an unexpected Hero entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, and embarked on a path that he knew would lead to his own torture and death. He saw it coming, but his love for us was so great he did not turn aside to the right or to the left. No other god, in any other scripture, has loved his people so much that he laid down his life for them. 

… 

There’s a lot of debate in literary circles about what makes for a good story. There’s a lot of discussion in psychological circles about why the Hero’s Journey of death and resurrection seems to speak so deeply to the human heart. Is it because we wish we were heroes? or because we wish we had a hero? 

Maybe it’s a little of both. Who knows? 

But this I am sure of: as Christians, we have a Hero; a King who passed through the darkness of death for our sake. And having a Hero makes us just a little more heroic ourselves. Having a King who would die to redeem his beloved makes us just a little more willing to die to ourselves, to our ambitions, to our desires; we are just a little more willing to give more of ourselves for the sake of someone else — even for the sake of an enemy: a Philistine, or a Greek. 

Friends, Jesus is the fulfillment of Zechariah chapter 9. And so are we. As it says in verse 13: “I will rouse your sons, O Zion” — that’s us, the sons and daughters of the new Jerusalem — “against your sons, O Greece” — that’s the rest of the world. But our war is not a military war. Our task is to welcome the pagan Philistine survivors into God’s Kingdom. In fact, unless I miss my guess, none of us here today have any kind of Jewish heritage; which means that we are the pagan Philistine survivors that have been given a place in God’s Kingdom. The Divine Warrior has taken the blood from our mouths, the forbidden food from between our teeth; we have been set free from trying to purchase his love with our grotesque and bloody sacrifices. Instead, he purchased our love. 

So, what does this mean for us? 

Friends, this week, as we contemplate the last week of Jesus’ earthly life, let us make up our minds to be just a little more heroic. Let’s give a little more. Let’s fear a little less. Let us love even those who would despise us and destroy us. Let us take up our cross, and walk in the footsteps of our King, knowing that on the other side of death lies victory: “grain will make the young men thrive, and new wine the young women”. And I know we’re all looking forward to that! 

Amen. 

The Heroes' Journey (Part II)

Jesus, the Pharisee, and the Woman