O prisoners of hope
For virtually our entire marriage Alaine and I have made it our practice to end our day with devotions. For two decades or so we used Today’s Light to help us read the Bible, from cover to cover, every two years. For almost the past decade we’ve used a one-year Bible, Seasons of Reflection.
I wish I could tell you that I’m always eager for our evening reading (and praying). But this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, all I’ve wanted to do is get ready for bed. I wish that I could tell you that I always pay close attention to the Word of God, but this also isn’t true. At times, it’s a real struggle to concentrate. (Does this ever happen to you?)
Recently, Seasons of Reflections woke me up with a jolt. For the past ten days, I’ve been reflecting on a mysterious passage from the Old Testament prophet, Zechariah: Return to your fortress, O prisoners of hope.
What a strange thing to say, don’t you think? Then again, Zechariah makes a number of odd statements. He writes of flying scrolls and a woman in a basket. He tells of myrtle trees, a gold lampstand, and a man with a measuring line. No doubt about it, Zechariah is a most unusual book. (Jerome, an early church father, called it the most obscure book of the Hebrew Bible, and for good reason.)
In the days of Zechariah, God’s people had returned from their Babylonian captivity. Although Israel was back in the promised land, they were not free. They were still ruled over by foreign powers. This would be the case for centuries to come.
Zechariah didn’t work alone. God had raised up another prophet for His people—Haggai. Like Haggai, part of Zechariah’s message involved the rebuilding of the temple of the Lord. But Zechariah had much, much more to say. A large part of Zechariah’s message involved the coming Messiah, and the end of time.
Zechariah begins with this stirring reminder of what had befallen God’s people and why:
The Lord was very angry with your ancestors. This is what the Lord Almighty says: Return to me, and I will return to you. Don’t be like your forefathers, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.” But they would not listen to me, declares the Lord.
Where are your ancestors now? And the prophets, do they live forever? But didn’t My words and my decrees, which I commanded My servants the prophets, overtake your forefathers?
Then they repented and said, “The Lord Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as He determined to do.”
Zechariah was a classic Law and Gospel preacher. His words are as sharp as a scalpel. Like a surgeon, he cuts in order to heal.
And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah. This is what the Lord Almighty says, “Administer true justice, show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts, do not think evil of each other.”
But they refused to pay attention. Stubbornly, they turned their backs and closed their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by His Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry.
When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen, says the Lord Almighty. I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations, where they were strangers.
As stinging as is the Law that Zechariah proclaims, sweeter still is the Gospel: Again the word of the Lord Almighty came to me. This is what the Lord Almighty says: “I am very jealous for Zion; I am burning with jealousy for her.” (Note how intense is the love God has for His people. He loves us with the same red-hot passion.)
This is what the Lord says: “I will return to Zion and dwell in Jerusalem. Then Jerusalem will be called The City of Truth, and the mountain of the Lord Almighty will be called the Holy Mountain.
In a world filled with lies, do we long to live in The City of Truth? Advent reminds us that this is where we are headed.
This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with a cane in his hand because of his age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.”
How I long for that day? I pray you do, too.
This is what the Lord Almighty says: “It may seem marvelous to the remnant of this people at that time, but will it seem marvelous to me?” declares the Lord Almighty.
I can’t help but wonder what the people of Zechariah’s day thought of his message. I wonder how many of us are paying close attention today. If not, perhaps we need to start over from the beginning?
It’s high time for me to return to the sermon text for today: Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.
With Him, wonders never cease, beginning with the virgin’s womb and Bethlehem’s stable, all the way to bitter, yet glorious, end.
Did you catch what Zechariah said? We hear these words every Palm Sunday as watch Jesus make His way into the holy city for the final time. But there is more to come, which is what Advent is designed to remind us of:
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.
Zechariah isn’t the only one to proclaim a day like no other, when peace will finally rule once again on earth. Centuries earlier, Isaiah had this to say:
In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains. It will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob." He will teach us His ways, so that we may walk in His paths. The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many people. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
Imagine how good this promise sounds in Ukraine and Russia today? What about us?
To be perfectly honest, as centuries have come and gone since the time of Zechariah—and given the fact that two thousand years have passed since Christmas morn—the Last Day foretold by the prophets seems a million miles away.
In the meantime, all around us we see sin and its affects. We don’t have to look overseas for evidence of this. What about the two young men gunned down in Saint Paul on Monday evening?
All around us we see sin and its affects. We see it every time we pass by a cemetery.
And what about COVID, which just won’t go away. It’s a constant reminder to our sin-sickened planet how desperate we are for the Great Physician of body and soul to return.
This leads me back to where I started. Earlier this month, in the parsonage on Saturday, December 3rd, Alaine and I were having our end-of-the-evening devotions. Alaine had Seasons of Reflection in her hands. I tried to concentrate as she read. I struggled to until I heard these words: Return to your fortress, O prisoners of hope.
RETURN TO YOUR FORTRESS, O PRISONERS OF HOPE?
This is a great Advent image.
It’s the perfect depiction of what this season is all about.
RETURN TO YOUR FORTRESS, O PRISONERS OF HOPE!
What does this mean? What does it mean for you, and for me?
It's easy in our day and age to become prisoners to sadness and despair. Sometimes, loneliness and grief take us captive. Sin and Satan want us in their grips. The same goes for anxiety or apathy. Which is why we need to hear, and heed, the invitation of Zechariah:
Return to your fortress, O prisoners of hope.
I can think of no better Advent sermon to preach to you right now, for it's a message that I desperately need, too.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer. My God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
Christ is our fortress in life, in death, and for all eternity.
All our hopes ride on the babe of Bethlehem who is coming again to make all wrong things right.
May the God of hope fill you will all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.