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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 07/05/2020

The first time I was ever in the Peterson Auditorium was back I think in 1998 to see Arlo Guthrie. It was during my years in L’Anse anyway and it must have been in the Marquette Monthly that I saw he was performing in Ishpeming of all places and both Kathy and I like him so I thought that’s too good to pass up. So, we drove over here, we must have driven right down Third Street with no clue that we’d pass by the house we’d call home in a few years and the concert was good, Alice’s Restaurant, City of New Orleans, some of Arlo’s greatest hits as it were. But I remember when he first came out on stage he said, “When you’ve been on the road for 30 years, it’s hard to find new places to play.”

For me, what I find in my 25th year of full-time ministry, is that it’s hard to find a book of the Bible that I haven’t preached on, studied or taught. Zechariah however, falls into that category, at least I think it does. I might have touched on it in a Lay School class, but if I did it was a pretty light touch. I’m pretty sure I’ve never preached on it. What got my attention though, and what prompted me to preach on it this week, was the phrase “prisoners of hope” in verse 12. “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope.” I’d never noticed it before or at least I’d never paid any attention do it.

The first part of today’s reading is more familiar, “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.” That verse is either quoted directly in the gospel reading for Palm Sunday or it’s alluded to so the image as applied to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is familiar. But it was the “prisoners of hope” phrase that made me want to dig a little deeper into Zechariah.

Zechariah is classified as one of the minor prophets; you’ve got the big 3, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and then the rest, minor not so much in significance, but more in length. Prophets also get classified according to when they prophesied and Zechariah gets classified as post-exilic. The choices are pre-exilic, exilic or post-exilic.

Pre-exilic prophets cautioned people that if they didn’t change their ways and return to the way of the Lord, they would be conquered by enemies and in those days being conquered meant that many were taken away from their homeland to live in exile. Exilic prophets spoke during the times of exile, sometimes with additional cautionary words calling for repentance, sometimes with words and images of hope and encouragement. Post-exilic prophets like Zechariah mostly commented on the problems the exiles faced when they were allowed to return.

Zechariah is thought to be one of the latest of the Old Testament prophets, part of the community that returned from exile in Babylon when Persia conquered Babylon and Cyrus, the emperor of Persia, said the exiles could go home. It was not however, an easy, triumphant return. After many years of neglect, things weren’t what they once were. The temple was in disrepair; destruction, decay and disorder had done their thing creating a bleak landscape and cityscape. The political and economic situation was unstable at best.

Faced with this situation, Zechariah called for continued repentance and obedience similar to many other prophets. More than that though, he was a prophet of hope. His hope centered on reconstruction of the temple, reconstruction that would symbolize a more general restoration not just of Jerusalem, but of the entire area around it. His vision included the return of the Lord, that’s what “Lo, your king comes to you triumphant and victorious,” is about. At the time however, there wasn’t much evidence to support this vision or its promise of joy and truth and peace but that didn’t stop Zechariah as he re-imagined the world in ways that radically reflected the way of the Lord, the Lord whose dominion would be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.

Addressing the people with his vision, he used that phrase, prisoners of hope which did get my attention in large part because it connects something we think of as bad, prison, with something we think of as good, hope. We generally think of prison as something you want to avoid and if you wind up there you want to be released from it or escape from it. Hope, on the other hand, is something you don’t want to lose. A phrase like prisoner of despair wouldn’t get my attention, in today’s second reading Paul talking about being captive to the law of sin doesn’t get my attention; but prisoner of hope does and it did even before I knew the reality into which Zechariah prophesied. Digging deeper and knowing more about the bleak nature of that reality made it even more attention getting and timely in light of the rather bleak reality in which we currently live.

We’re not exiles returning to a devastated homeland after many years, but we have been living a different kind of exile since the middle of March, a coronavirus exile. It’s Fourth of July weekend which is normally a time for parades and picnics and fireworks and reunions but not this year; the celebration has been much more subdued. Pretty much all summer activities have been cancelled, the UP State Fair being the most recent casualty.

Some things have opened up a little bit since the initial lockdown in March but challenges continue around reopening businesses and churches and schools and sports and anything else you can think of that involves larger gatherings of people. As things do re-open there’s worry about a spike in cases not to mention concern about another wave of the virus late in the year, a wave that most of the experts think will happen. There’s fear that everything will shut down again and we’ll be back to shelter in place mode.

On top of that, even before the coronavirus, even before the killing of George Floyd, the country as a whole has felt more divided on just about everything than it has in my lifetime anyway. It seems that the United States that we celebrated yesterday aren’t united at all as we can’t agree on anything; it seems that everything becomes political and divisive. I don’t mean to dwell on all this because I don’t think you tune into these services to hear a news report; you already know what I’m talking about. The point is, like those returning exiles we too are living in a rather dark and depressing time, a time when it’s difficult to be optimistic about the future.

It’s at such times that we need prophets like Zechariah. He was blessed, inspired we would say, with vision that could see beyond the headlines of his day and the possibilities or lack thereof that they seemed to hold. He was able to glimpse God’s future and to help those returning exiles to imagine and inhabit a different reality, to encourage them to rejoice at a time when that would have appeared to be silly and naive. Zechariah persisted though; rather than the people being prisoners of the waterless pit to use his words,b he encouraged them to be prisoners of hope.

It’s actually a pretty good way to describe who we should be as followers of Jesus. As Christians, we see Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. As I said, his words are used to describe Jesus’ Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. A week after Palm Sunday though, we celebrate Easter and the resurrection. The other events of Holy Week are important, especially the cross of Good Friday but Easter reveals to us not just who Jesus is as the Son of God, it reveals to us who we are and importantly, it defines us as people of hope. The resurrection takes the brokenness and death of Friday, brokenness and death that did imprison us, and transforms it into new life. It brings us into the realm of God’s future, the kind of future that Zechariah envisioned for those exiles returning from Babylon. It is a future of hope, hope in which we become prisoners.

In faith we trust in God’s future as revealed in Jesus or at least we want to. Times like the present do make it difficult though. We can wind up breaking out of the bars and walls of hope’s prison and to use Paul’s words, we become prisoners of something else, captive to the law of sin, sin being those forces that say that there is no hope, that what you see is what you get and what happened on Easter doesn’t make any difference.

Every Sunday though, is an Easter celebration, when, if the preacher is doing his or her job, you should be reminded that Easter does make a difference, that despite whatever else is going on in the world, in Christ there is always hope. There is a place for and a call for the church to be active in the reality of the issues of the day even if that reality is rather bleak, but it begins with and is centered on the proclamation of the gospel. Otherwise we become just another social justice agency or political action group. That work is important but centering it on the defining truth of Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed is our motivation and what makes us different and it’s not silly and naïve. Proclamation of that truth does what the words of Zechariah did which is to create an image of hope in difficult times.

Prisoners of hope; hang on to that image because…that’s who and what we want to be.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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