Prisoners of Hope – Sermon on Zechariah 9:9-12

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
July 5, 2020
Watch on Vimeo.

It’s been good to visit with a few of you this week, to learn what is on your heart as we begin the work of interim ministry together. You may remember a video that appeared on the church website a few months ago, where I explained the developmental tasks this congregation will need to address during this season.

Over the next several weeks, I will be explaining each of these tasks in greater detail, so that we can begin this important and urgent work with full understanding. The first task is to come to terms with your past. This might be the most difficult task of all, but the other steps of the process depend on getting this one right, so it’s a good place to begin.

Coming to terms with the past is hard, because it means facing the pain of that past, and most of us try to avoid pain as much as possible. But ignoring the pain, or trying to avoid it, doesn’t heal the hurt that is causing the pain. Just as physical pain is a signal that something is wrong in the body, emotional and spiritual pain signals that something needs to be made right in the spirit and soul.

So we have to acknowledge our pain. We have to pay attention to it, and probe to discover what is causing it. And that brings us to the next uncomfortable step: We have to accept responsibility for the part we’ve had in causing that pain in the first place.

It’s easy to point fingers at other people or circumstances and blame them for what’s wrong with us. One of my favorite teachers taught me that whenever I point a finger at someone else, three more are pointing back at me. In every disagreement, in every conflict, there are at least two sides. And each of the people involved in that disagreement must accept responsibility for their part in creating it, and maintaining it.

To make the pain go away, to begin to heal what is hurt, we not only have to acknowledge the pain and accept responsibility for causing at least some of it, we need to ask forgiveness, and offer forgiveness to others. This whole process can be summed up in one word: repentance.

Last week, we heard Jesus describe a prophet’s welcome and a prophet’s reward. We saw how Jesus changes places with us when we welcome him into our lives, and he becomes our host, welcoming us into his kingdom. This change of direction is another way of thinking about repentance. After all, whenever a prophet speaks God’s words to people, it is usually a call to repent.

In this week’s Old Testament reading, the prophet Zechariah does just that, but it’s an unusual call to repentance. You see, the people of Israel had been in captivity for nearly 70 years, and that was the timeframe the prophet Jeremiah had given them before they would return to Jerusalem and be freed from Babylon’s rule (Jer 25:11, 29:10).

Now that the seventy years were nearly over, the people wanted to know if it was time for them to stop grieving the destruction of the temple. They wanted to know if they could stop weeping over their exile from Jerusalem. “Is God’s messianic kingdom coming soon?” they wanted to know. “Is there any hope?”

Zechariah reminds them of their past. Remember how your ancestors rejected the prophets, and that’s how you got into this predicament in the first place, he tells them. But yes, there is hope – only IF you will pursue justice and peace and are faithful to the covenant God made with you. Then Zechariah tells them to repent … of their lament.

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 war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double. (Zechariah 9:9-12)

What does it mean to be a prisoner of hope? In the midst of all this language about war and peace, horses and donkeys, triumph in humility, this one question jumps out and begs to be answered: what does it mean to be hope’s prisoner?

Remember that the people of Israel had been in the habit of lamenting their captivity. They were used to whining about the fact they had been exiled from Jerusalem, from everything they had held near and dear, particularly the temple.

But some of them had been allowed to return, to begin the process of rebuilding. Some of them had started to engage in the difficult work of restoration. And some had stayed behind in Babylon. They were still stuck in their grief, grief that had become a habit.

They clung to the idea Jeremiah and other prophets had proclaimed: Messiah would put everything right. Messiah would restore them to their rightful place in Jerusalem. Messiah would bring them back to the life they remembered. They were prisoners of hope, but what kind of hope?

Zechariah calls the people to face the fact their hopes had been dashed, because their hope had been misplaced. It was a false hope that, once messiah showed up on his war horse, everything could go back to the way it was. But the way it was meant idolatry, turning away from God, rejecting God’s prophets and God’s promises. Did they really want to go back to that?

As we consider what it might look like to worship together under the cloud of COVID-19, I hear this same lament – when can we go back? But we aren’t going back. God calls us forward into new life. God calls us forward into a new way of being and living and worshiping as Christ’s church. If we dream of going back, we are prisoners of false hope.

Like the Israelites in Babylon, we have to face the fact that our hopes for returning to what we knew before have been dashed. Those hopes simply aren’t realistic in our current reality. But this is not cause for despair. Look at what Zechariah calls the people to do right off the bat – Rejoice!

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!” You have been prisoners of hope because you’ve been hoping for the wrong thing. Your hope is not in a building like the temple, or a place like Jerusalem. Your hope is in the Lord your God. Repent of your sorrow and lament, and get busy rejoicing!

The king who comes is not a military warrior on a white horse, coming to conquer your enemies for you. This king comes in humility, riding on a donkey. “Donkeys don’t go to war, horses do,” Margaret O’Dell writes.[1] She adds, “Hope remains grounded in the conviction of God’s presence; but once the people are released from the prison of old expectations, they are free to discover God at work in new and unexpected ways.”

Zechariah hears the questions the people are asking: “Is it time to return? Should we stop grieving? Is God’s rule ready to begin?” And Zechariah the prophet answers them by turning their questions around.

“Remember what got you exiled in the first place? IF you are ready to pursue justice and peace, IF you are ready to honor God’s covenant promises, it is time to stop grieving, and get to work building God’s kingdom. But the real question is this: Will you become the kind of people who are ready to participate in that kingdom?”

The prophet calls to us today and asks us the same question. Will we become the kind of people who are ready to participate in God’s kingdom? May it be so.

So I invite you, today, to set aside some time for prayer. Have a pen and some paper ready. Write down your laments, your grievances, your questions about the future of this congregation. Acknowledge your pain, and accept responsibility for the part you have had in causing that pain. Then write down the names of people whose forgiveness you need to ask, and write down the names of the people you need to forgive.

Then reach out to each person you have named. You may not be able to talk with them in person, but you can call them.

Lament what is lost and cannot be restored, then repent of sorrow, and rejoice in the Lord’s steadfast goodness to you. This is the beginning. It is the hardest work you will do. Let’s do it together.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4505

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