Zechariah 9:9-13 ~ Prisoners of Hope
Today I want to focus on just one phrase from this prophecy: “PRISONERS OF HOPE.”
What is this scripture talking about when it says “prisoners of hope?”
Now if it had said “prisoners of despair,” many of us could understand that. How easy it can be to become a prisoner of despair. How easy it is to become disillusioned and disappointed with life and to see only more of the same ahead. We know “prisoner of despair” well. Many of us have done time in the dark cell of despair. But the word here in Zechariah is “prisoner of hope.” How can one be a prisoner of hope?
ZECHARIAH AND JERUSALEM: From Prisoners of Despair to Prisoners of Hope
The prophet Zechariah lived five centuries before Jesus during a time when his people were prisoners of despair. Theirs was the particular despair of having started something great, only to see it grind down to a halt. They had gotten their hopes up, only to have them crumble back into ruin.
They had gotten their hopes up when Cyrus the Emperor of Persia released them from a fifty-year captivity in Babylon. He let them go home to Jerusalem and encouraged them to rebuild their city and their temple. The Jews went home in waves of migration. Soon they made a great beginning in Jerusalem and began repairing the city walls and rebuilding the temple.
But the effort succumbed to a death of a thousand cuts. One bitter cut was the realization that “home” would never again be the home they once knew. The destruction from the war was so great that no matter how much they worked to rebuild Jerusalem, it would never match their childhood memories. The people were also cut by the hostility of the strangers who now lived around the ruined city. And then Cyrus, the emperor who had released them, died. Life under the new emperor Darius was not so certain. Gradually the work of rebuilding ground down to a halt. For ten years, nothing much was accomplished. The once great city of Jerusalem, with a population of maybe only 500 former exiles, languished.
Enter the prophet Zechariah. He preached that they could have hope again. He blew on the dying ember of hope until it burned bright again. People who had been prisoners of despair were captivated by a nobler spirit; they became prisoners of hope. The rebuilding resumed. In five years, the city walls stood secure again and the temple rang again with the sounds of worship.
FBC: From Prisoners of Hope to Prisoners of Despair
That old story sounds strangely familiar. Eleven years ago our church made a beginning of phased improvements to these buildings: sprucing up with new carpet and paint, new columns on the sanctuary, a new youth ministries suite, an improved dining room and library, an extension to the narthex, a columbarium. We completed Phase I and then Phase II. The plan was to culminate with a third phase, so that when all was done, these church buildings would contain plenty of accessible and welcoming space for the ministries of this church. Then the Great Recession came, and what had been such a great beginning spluttered to a wimpy halt. For four years, there’s been a lot of talking but not much happening. It’s been frustrating. It’s been easy to despair.
But this year, there has come a new spirit among us, a movement from despair to hope again. Our hope now is not just for accessible space. Our hope is for a kingdom dream of a place of welcome and a base for missions that will share hope to both our immediate neighborhood and to our greater Wilson community. Our hope is for a place of Christ-like welcome, even refuge. Our hope is for a mission station that will change lives.
There has been a lot of prayer undergirding that new hope. I’ve noticed that the more we pray together, the more we are set free from our prisons of despair, and the more we become prisoners of hope.
MEANWHILE, MANY OF OUR NEIGHBORS ARE LOCKED IN THEIR OWN PRISONS OF DESPAIR
We’ve learned that in a five mile radius of this spot, half of the households are single parent homes. We’ve also learned that in that same radius, there is a great hunger for God. We know of the poverty of the poor around us. We know of the drugs and the violence around us, not just among the poor but also among the well-off in Wilson. We still remember Steve Martinez, who was shot to death last year. It’s easy to despair. There are so many locked in prisons of despair.
Would that there might be a place where children can come and have hope. Would that there were some oasis, some lighthouse, in the midst of so much despair.
Actually, there are places like that in Wilson, including here, including our Wednesday night ministry of Reaching Out to Children with Kindness, called ROCK. Wednesdays have become our mission night for the community. Years ago we used to say, “We ought to do more backyard Bible clubs” in the neighborhood.” We don’t say that anymore. We do all of that and more now every Wednesday night during the school year.
Did you hear about the child who embraced Miss Gay one day in the parking lot and said, “I feel safe here?” Did you hear about the child who told us, “This is the one place where I’m not invisible”? Have you heard Daniel tell about the youth who asked to take a Bible home and is actually reading it? Many of these children now call this church their church. And when new children come on Wednesday nights, I get a kick out of watching the “veteran” children tell the newbies in no uncertain terms what kind of behavior is OK here and what is not. These are just some of the stories. Prisoners of despair are becoming prisoners of hope.
MAYA ANGELOU WAS A PRISONER OF DESPAIR
Last month about two hours west of here, Maya Angelou died. As a child, she was locked in her own prison of despair; she knew suffering that no child should know. At age eight, she was raped. She identified her assailant. Other men took justice into their hands and kicked the assailant to death. Maya did not speak again for almost five years: “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.” She was a prisoner of her own despair. But last month at her funeral in Winston-Salem, the nation gathered to give thanks for a woman who had risen from a prisoner of despair to a woman who was completely captivated by hope. Maya Angelou, poet and professor and member of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, was a prisoner of hope:
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
By the grace of God, by the love of Jesus, Maya Angelou rose from despair to hope.
JESUS: NOT DESPAIR BUT HOPE
Jesus came to set free every prisoner to rise from despair to hope. He came preaching,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives …
Jesus knew how captivating despair could be. He could so easily have been captured by despair himself. Three years of teaching and ministering was plenty of time to become jaded by the suffering of humanity, plenty of time to be disillusioned by the failings of institutional religion. The longer Jesus taught and healed, the more opposition he faced. He truly was, as Isaiah said, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53:3) When he was crucified, cried out in the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus had as much reason as anybody to become a prisoner of despair.
But he was captivated by hope instead. Although he knew that Jerusalem would kill him, he rode into that city on a donkey like a king, reenacting the very words of Zechariah:
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey… (Zechariah 9:9)
It was no coincidence. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. He was the prince of peace, reclaiming and restoring the city and the temple. He was the embodiment of hope, that God could do something new, that God’s peace would come to pass through Jesus.
A few days later, as the plotters of his death closed in around him, Jesus served his followers a meal that proclaimed the new covenant with God. With every reason to feel like a prisoner of despair, Jesus gave his followers hope.
What gives you hope for the future? What do you have to live for? What is the purpose in your life? We say that a human being needs water and air and food to survive. But I’m convinced that most of all we need hope to survive.
Come to the table here. It was set by Jesus in the midst of danger and despair. Come receive the Lord’s Supper, for it gives us the hope of the new covenant: hope for an ever-new relationship with God, hope for a future in which God will do a new thing in you.
If you fear that you have become a prisoner of despair, come and share this meal, and become a prisoner of hope.
– Douglas E. Murray