Sunday, April 1, 2012
Sermon for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion (April 1, 2012)
"Return to Your Stronghold, O Prisoners of Hope" (Zechariah 9:9-12)
Is this some kind of an April Fool’s Day trick? What’s this with a king riding on the back of a donkey? We like our kings to ride on horses … strong, muscular steeds with well-groomed manes. We also expect our kings to exercise their power and authority efficiently. Instead, this king prances in to town and ends up getting himself killed without even putting up a fight. Some king, this one. This has got to be a cruel joke.
No, this wasn’t a joke. The prophet Zechariah described this coming king over 500 years before the triumphal entry of our Lord into Jerusalem. “Humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” His words were first directed to the exiles in Babylon. Remember how the Lord punished the people of Judah for their unfaithfulness. His instrument of discipline was the Babylonian army with its chariots and war horses and battle bows. The Babylonians swept in and destroyed the city and the temple. The people of the land were taken captive and hauled off as prisoners of war, only the poorest of the poor remaining.
Prisoners. Held captive hundreds of miles from home. Removed from the land God had promised their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. Far away from the place where Yahweh promised to meet them. And that really didn’t matter anymore since it was destroyed. No more temple meant no more sacrifices. No more sacrifices meant no more forgiveness. Perhaps it was time to give up hope. This must be the way Joseph felt when he was thrown down a “waterless pit” by his brothers. Death stared Joseph straight in the eye in that deep, dark, dry hole in the ground.
You don’t have to be inside a prison in order to feel like a prisoner. You don’t have to be an exile in a foreign land to feel like you are in captivity. What imprisons you today? What holds you captive? Is there some unconfessed sin from your past that is eating away at your conscience? Is there some sin or addiction with which you have been perpetually struggling and has a real hold on you? Has someone hurt you or caused you pain that you have been unable to let go of? Do you hear the accusing voice of Satan tell you that you are surely unworthy of God’s love and forgiveness? What daily pressures and expectations are pressing in on you? Does the fear of death and eternal punishment keep you from experiencing daily joy? Perhaps, at times, you feel like giving up hope. All of this and more makes your life a “waterless pit.” Whether we recognize it or not, death is staring each of us straight in the eye because we are sinners living in a sinful world.
To the people of Judah in their Babylonian Captivity, the Lord sent prophets to preach his Word. In the midst of a seemingly hopeless situation, the Lord sent prophets to proclaim a message of hope. First, they called the people to repentance … to turn back in faith and trust to the Lord. And then, they held out the hope of deliverance, salvation, rescue.
“Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope,” Zechariah declares to the exiles from his vantage point in Judea. But there is no stronghold. There is no fortress. No city. No hope. How can Zechariah say such a thing?
Yahweh has revealed to Zechariah that a king is coming who would bring hope. A king is coming in whom the people could rejoice. He is righteous and having salvation. His rule would be marked by humility, poverty, and meekness. His weapons of battle would not be earthly weapons, because his kingdom is not built by force of arms, but rather by his Word working in the hearts of all people. He will speak peace to the nations, Jew and Gentile alike. This will be his Word of Absolution, that their sins are forgiven through the blood of his covenant. His rule and reign will not be limited to one piece of land. It will be worldwide … “from sea to sea, and from the River (meaning the Euphrates … the easternmost boundary of the known world at that time) to the ends of the earth.” The stronghold to which Zechariah calls the people to return is the Lord himself and his sure Word of promise. He will be their mighty fortress. He is their everlasting city. All who trust in him are “the prisoners of hope.” They are the ones who have despaired of their own goodness (or more properly, the lack thereof as sinners) and who look to the promised Messiah as their only hope of deliverance and salvation.
Jesus came riding on a donkey to fulfill Zechariah’s prophecy. He came as our righteous Savior, having kept the Law perfectly in our place. His entrance into Jerusalem was a demonstration of his humility and meekness, a prelude to the humility and meekness he showed later that week when, in “the form of a servant … in the likeness of men … he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-8). Christ’s death speaks peace to the nations … peace between God and mankind because he bore the sins of the world. This is his Word of Absolution, spoken to all … spoken to you … which says, “Because of the blood of my covenant, shed for you on the cross, I will set you prisoners free from the waterless pit of sin, death, and hopelessness. I will take you out of the waterless pit and place you beneath a waterfall of grace in Holy Baptism. I will wash you clean with my blood and I will pour it into the chalice upon your altar to assure you personally of my love and presence and forgiveness.”
“Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.” Set free from the prison of guilt and shame because of our sin, we now become “prisoners of hope” … bound in the love of Christ, living in trust and the sure and certain hope of everlasting life in the Promised Land of heaven. And regarding this “double restoration,” I can’t say it much better than Dr. Luther. He says that it’s as if the Lord Jesus says, “I will give you double comfort and blessings for all your sorrow (such as the Law and sin), namely, a double redemption, from both the Law and sin, so that the Law and your conscience may not depress or frighten you. Sin shall not frighten you with death or condemn you. For both of these shall be completely abolished through My blood; that is, the Law is to be fulfilled so that you may become righteous, and sin is to be destroyed so that instead of dying you may live” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 20, p. 29)
“Today,” the Lord says. Today. Don’t look for another time. For the initial hearers of Zechariah, it was as good as done for them. They were to believe God’s promise of the coming Messiah, and they would be forgiven and saved by that belief. For us, it’s not as good as done. It’s done! “It is finished.” Believe God’s promise of the Messiah who has already come and receive his gifts of life and salvation.
St. Paul was a “prisoner of hope.” In Ephesians 4, he calls himself a “prisoner for the Lord.” Paul was imprisoned many times during his missionary journeys. But he never lost hope. He kept his eyes on the cross of Christ. Forgiven and freed from his prison of sin and shame, Paul followed his Lord’s example of humble service, and calls us to do so, too, as he writes, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call-- one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:1-6).
Today, you can tell your friends, “I’m a prisoner.” And that’s no April Fool’s Joke. You are a “prisoner of hope.” There is much in this life that may hold you down and hold you captive, but in Christ, you are set free. “Return to your stronghold” … the blood of Jesus, shed for you. Amen.