8/29/2022 10:29:47 AM
Prisoners of Hope
Pastor Joel Leyrer - The Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost - Sunday, August 28, 2022
Dear Friends in Christ, If you happen to be an American Civil War buff, you may be familiar with a small town in central Georgia by the name of Andersonville. If it doesn’t ring a bell, let me tell you about it.
During the Civil War it was the closest village to the site of an infamous Confederate prisoner of war camp named Camp Sumpter – but better known just as “Andersonville.” My family knows about it because once upon a time we lived not far from there, and it was a place we visited several times during our years there.
Today the land is healed, and visitors will find Andersonville to be a registered National Historic site in a park-like setting. But during the Civil War it was a terrible place. A horrid place. Originally it was a stockade designed (in theory) to humanely house a maximum of 10,000 Union prisoners. At its peak capacity it actually held over 32,000. Each prisoner had a plot of about 6 feet by 6 feet and a ragged tent to call their own. Eventually one out of every three prisoners died from exposure, disease, or hunger. Again, just a horrid place.
On the neatly manicured grounds of this once horrid place is a large, striking, granite sculpture of three soldiers – probably Union prisoners. They look tired and gaunt and hollowed out and are holding each other up. You look at them and can visualize the horrific conditions they lived under. And you wonder what kept them going. Was it perhaps their faith that sustained them?
I’m wondering if whoever created that monument thought so. Because – this is what I remember and the reason I’m sharing this story with you – inscribed in the base of that statue is part of a single verse from today’s featured minor prophet Zechariah. Taken from the King James version of the Bible, it reads: “Turn ye to the stronghold, ye prisoners of hope.”
At first the idea of “prisoner” and “hope” don’t seem to go together. Prisoners are restricted and constrained. Hope is expansive and optimistic. Yet, when God pairs these two words up, which he does through the inspired pen of Zechariah, this coupling makes total sense. We’ll talk about this in just a bit.
And what’s the “stronghold” that “prisoners of hope” can turn to? The stronghold of faith. The stronghold of God. The fortress of his promises. It is in him and in them we have our hope.
I am not suggesting that what we endure in our lives is anything remotely close to what those Civil War soldiers went through. What I would suggest is that this inscription and description is worthy of our further contemplation. In fact, it’s a label we can gratefully accept and attach to ourselves. We are
PRISONERS OF HOPE
And, in the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 5, “Hope does not disappoint us…” because it always holds out before us something better.
Last week’s featured prophet, Haggai, and this week’s prophet, Zechariah, were contemporaries. Both of them fall into the category of post-exile prophets, meaning they ministered to God’s people when they had returned to their homeland (present day Israel) after 70 years in Babylon. And both of them had a similar message that combined rebuke and encouragement for the people to rebuild the Temple. That was the immediate need that had to be addressed.
But there was a far bigger spiritual message, and a far bigger spiritual picture Zechariah wanted his people to set their sight on – one that painted a portrait of the glorious future that awaits the people of God.
Reestablishing themselves in their homeland was hard and there were obstacles. Important as it was, God didn’t want his people to be mired down only in the present; he also wanted his people to look forward and find strength in what was to come. He assures them that no matter what the external circumstances of God’s people may be, they will never be overrun spiritually, because they have a powerful leader. When this leader comes he will make all things right. He’ll bring peace to the hearts of those who know him and eventually, at the conclusion of all things, that peace will extend throughout eternity. This is reason for God’s people to rejoice.
So, in words that are familiar to us and transport us to the opening day of each Holy Week, Zechariah writes: “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.”
Zechariah calls him a king. We know him to be Jesus Christ. And on Palm Sunday, in direct fulfillment of this Old Testament prophecy, and in a decidedly unassuming manner, he rides into Jerusalem. Notice how he is described.
First, as a righteous king. When we hear the word “righteous” attached to someone we think of a person who is just, fair, morally upright, and above corruption. For humans, this is always a qualified general statement, because even the most “righteous” among us is still a sinner.
Applied to Jesus, however, this is not a general statement. It’s a simple statement of fact. Jesus is perfectly righteous. The writer to the Hebrews declares that Jesus was like us in every way but with one exception: he never sinned. Living out this sinless righteousness is part of what he came to do as our substitute. Try as we might, we’re not, nor ever will be, perfectly righteous on our own. What God asks us to do, and we can’t, Jesus could and did.
But it didn’t stop there. God declared the soul that sins is the soul that shall die. Again, that’s us. So after living perfectly as our substitute, Jesus then died as our substitute. That is the sole reason Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. By week’s end he is going to be on a cross. But no one took Jesus’ life. He gave it.
Zechariah clues us in on what this righteous life and death translate into when he tells us our King comes to us “victorious.” Victory is what Jesus Christ is all about. Victory means the power of sin to damn us eternally has been conquered. Victory means we are in a right relationship with God. Victory means the wall of our own sinfulness that once barred our entrance into heaven has been dismantled.
No earthly king or authority could do this for us. Only Jesus. King Jesus may not have conquered any foreign nations. He may not have ushered in the golden age of the Jewish nation as many in his day mistakenly hoped he would. And he may not have left behind instructions for constructing self-aggrandizing memorials or monuments like earthly kings often do.
What he did do makes all those things insignificant in comparison. Because he took on stronger enemies like death and the devil – and he conquered them with his sinless life and death. He then proved his victory by his resurrection.
And that is why he is truly the King above all kings.
Zechariah’s prophecy continues with an explanation of what this King above all kings would achieve. “I (God) 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.”
Christ came to proclaim and provide peace. Haggai talked about this last week in his prophetic message. Now Zechariah talks about it today in his. This is a subject we never grow tired of hearing about or exploring the way it plays out in our life.
First, a definition. We’re talking a higher form of peace than the simple absence of conflict or war. The original Hebrew word used here is one you’ve probably heard before: “shalom.” It is a rich word. Embedded within it is the concept of wholeness, completeness, soundness, health, safety, and prosperity, carrying with it the implication of permanence.
The night before his enemies nailed him to the cross Jesus said to his disciples and followers of all time: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
The kind of peace our Lord gives us is the inner peace and tranquility of knowing that our sins are forgiven and that we are loved and cared for by a God who promises to never leave or forsake us.
Using vivid imagery, Zechariah describes it as a liberating force in our lives: “As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.” That pit is a representative pit of whatever incarcerates us. Such as needless cares. Worries. Personal insecurities. The chronic “what ifs” that enter our minds in uncertain times. Each of us can add our own customized areas of struggle.
So what do we do when we are faced with health problems or financial setbacks or personal tragedies or concern over national and world events or whatever it is that uninvitingly comes into our lives? Here’s what we do: “Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.” Meaning, God always gives us more than we deserve.
And what is our fortress? Our stronghold? What is it that we are to return to? A mighty fortress is our God, a trusty shield and weapon. He helps us free from every need that hath us now oer’taken.
God’s Word. God’s promises. God’s love which is demonstrated for us in Jesus Christ. That’s our fortress. That’s our stronghold. That’s what we return to again and again.
People want peace and happiness. They chase after it and seek it in various ways: wealth, fame, professional security, etc. But the bottom line is that peace is not something we attain. Rather it is a state that God in his grace through Christ bestows upon us. And once we have it, like the air we breathe, peace is a condition in which we live.
We might go as far as to say it’s a peace that surrounds us, encloses us, and in a sense (and without any negative implications), imprisons us. Which makes us prisoners of hope; a hope, in the words of the hymnist, “that is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness…” – and everything that means.
We’re coming to the end of this series on the minor prophets. We’ve got one more to go. But what we have found – as is demonstrated once again today – that far from being Old Testament fly-over country, God has much to say to us through these ancient spokesmen from a different land and time.
And what we learned today through Zechariah is, once again, how God is unchanging in his love and care and his provision for his children, now and eternally. Amen.