Sermon: Prisoners of Hope

Wednesday, March 2, 2016
“Encountering the Living Word” preaching course
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC)

Zechariah 9:9-12
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.
10 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.
11 As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
    I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
12 Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
    today I declare that I will restore to you double.


Visual AIDSIt’s election year in America, and maybe you’re “feeling the Bern” or you want “change we can believe in” or maybe you just want to “make America great again.” On the other hand, maybe you’re already fed up with an election that sometimes feels more like a three ring circus. Wherever you may be with this election, I imagine that on some level, like me, you feel a sense of incompleteness about our political system. Our politics have become so polarized and dysfunctional that it often seems like politicians are more intent on beating one another than on meeting the needs of the people.

The community Zechariah was writing for probably also felt some ambivalence about the political systems of their time. They had gone through quite a bit of political upheaval. First, the sovereign Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians, who destroyed the temple and deported many of the people to Babylon. Then the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians, and the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, allowed the Israelites to return to Judea and rebuild the temple. By the time Zechariah writes, the Israelites were working on the temple under another Persian king, Darius the Great.  Man, everyone was Great back then!  I suppose they wanted to “Make Persia great again” or something.  At any rate, these people had been through a lot!

Zechariah addresses his people as “prisoners of hope.” I think this is a really key term: prisoners of hope. The Israelites have returned to their homeland, but they’re still under the thumb of empire, so they’re not really free. At the same time, they’ve been allowed to rebuild their temple – the religious and spiritual heart of the people – which gives them a reason for hope. For them, the rebuilding of the temple is a sign God’s faithfulness, a visible sign that they can trust the promises that God, their true king, has made them.

In fact, we can pull some of these promises out of this very text from Zechariah. We could even think of them like God’s “campaign promises.”

God says:

  • “I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit!”
  • “I will cut off the war machine and bring peace!”
  • “And I promise that I will restore everything to you double!”

That sounds pretty good!  I think God’s got my vote.

And in fact, several hundred years later, when this same temple was destroyed by the Roman empire, the first-century Christians reached for this same text. The temple had stood for centuries as a symbol of their hope in the faithfulness of God. So they needed some good news from Zechariah to remind them of the promises that the temple had embodied.

And we know they used this same text, because it shows up in the gospels, which were written around this time. Both Matthew and John quoted this exact text in writing about Jesus’ dramatic entry into Jerusalem. They wanted to make it absolutely clear that Jesus – the Word of God made flesh – was the king foretold by Zechariah.

Through the story of Jesus’ humble entry into Jerusalem, riding on a lowly donkey, the early Christians recognized that here indeed was the king they had been waiting for. He came exactly as Zechariah said he would. He was destroyed by the powers of empire, just like the temple. But then he rose from the dead and showed the world that the kingdom of God is far greater than the kingdoms of this earth. And through his text, Zechariah reminded the early Christians of this. He reminded them that their true hope isn’t in the Temple or the church, or in any earthly government. The true hope is the kingdom of God.

The kingdom is still our hope. And like Zechariah’s people, we too, are prisoners of hope. We are not yet free from the bonds of empire – we live in political systems that divide us and often fail to meet our needs. Our lives are scarred by racism and poverty, violence and corruption, climate change and unbridled greed. Our elected leaders often seem deaf to the voices of the people, and so we are forced to shout to make them listen. But we too live in the hope of the coming of our king. We too live in the hope that the one who conquered death will also conquer our daily dying and raise us to new life.

So rejoice and sing, O daughter Chicago!
Shout aloud, O prisoners of hope!
Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious!
He will cut off the chariot and the war-horse,
He will shatter the police baton and the AK-47,
And he will command peace to the nations.
His dominion shall be from sea to sea,
And from Lake Michigan to the ends of the earth.
He will set your prisoners free from the jail cell and the detention center,
And he will return to you double all that you have lost.
So take heart, O prisoners of hope;
Your king is coming.

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