Prisoners of Hope

Zechariah 9.9-12

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! 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. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.

 

People of Cokesbury Church: the time has come to rejoice! And I don’t mean the easy-going, carefree, yeah we’re happy kind of joy, but jumping on the pews, putting your hands in the air, shouting to the Lord kind of joy. Glory glory glory!

Behold! Our king comes to us, he is triumphant and mighty and victorious. He comes humbly on the back of a donkey. He will destroy the tanks of armies and the defenses of countries. The missiles and the guns and weapons will be obliterated and peace will reign. Our donkey-riding king will rule from east to west and over the whole earth.

We’ve got reason to celebrate! Our king frees us from the waterless pit of our despair and depression. We prisoners of hope have been delivered.

Or maybe, we don’t feel like celebrating. Perhaps our lives don’t match up with the glory described by Zechariah. Maybe the world is a little too broken for peace to rain down like waters. Perhaps we don’t feel like dancing and shouting because we are stuck in a pit; a pit of anger or bitterness or fear or shame or loneliness.

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There was a man who was walking down the street when all of the sudden he fell into a deep hole. The walls were so steep that he couldn’t climb out and after struggling for a time he began to cry out for help.

A doctor was passing by along the road and he looked down into the pit when the man yelled up, “Hey! Can you help me out?” The doctor thought about it for a moment while stroking the stethoscope around his neck, and then he reached into his pocket, wrote a prescription, dropped it into the hole, and kept walking.

Then a preacher came walking along and the guy shouted up, “Hey Reverend! I’m stuck down here in this hole, can you help me out?” The pastor very slowly and deliberately put his hands together, said a prayer for the man, and kept walking.

Next a sweet older woman from the local church came up to the edge of the hole and the man yelled, “Excuse me! Please help me out of here.” The woman stared right into the man’s eyes and said, “Don’t you know that God helps those who help themselves?” And with that she went on her way.

Finally, a friend walked up and the man shouted, “It’s me, I’m stuck in the hole, can you help me out?” To which the friend jumped right down into the hole. The man said, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both stuck down here!” And the friend said, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”

Today I am forever hearing about how we need to get others to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord in Savior. As if people are wandering around aimlessly looking for something to give meaning to their lives, and so long as they open up their hearts Jesus will be there waiting for them.

The problem with all of that is the fact that Jesus is the king who comes to us, not the other way around. We often get trapped in the pit of believing that we’ve got to go looking for Jesus when he’s the one looking for us.

Our Lord is the one who finds us wandering around the pit of our sorrow and jumps in to show us the way out. Jumping into the pit, after all, is the great story of scripture. God saw what God had made in Genesis and jumped down into the Garden to make humanity in the divine image. God saw Jacob struggling with his relationships and identity and jumped down to wrestle with him by the banks of the river. God saw the suffering of God’s people in Egypt and jumped down to call Moses from the burning bush. God saw the directionless plight of the people and jumped down to anoint David to rule as king. God saw the brokenness of the world and jumped down to take on flesh in the form of a baby born in a manger.

Jesus is the king who jumps down into the pit of our existence and offers us hope.

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I’ve only been here a short while, but I’ve already seen signs of hope in this church and in this community. Complete strangers in my neighborhood have introduced themselves simply because I’m new, employees at particular businesses have gone above and beyond to be kind and welcoming, a certain someone at the church even gave my wife a bouquet of roses last week.

And from where I stand this morning I see hope. I see individuals whose lives have been transformed by the gospel. I don’t even know many of your names but I know God has acted in your lives, I know that God has delivered you from the pit, because otherwise you wouldn’t be here.

From where I stand I see a church not built on demographics and like-mindedness. I don’t see a church consumed by consumption and driven by desire. I don’t see a church fixated on financial matter or obsessed with objectives.

I see a church of different opinions but similar love. I see a church of faith and fellowship. I see a church of love and hope.

This is a church with prisoners of hope.

We are captivated more by the optimism of “what if” than the pessimism of “it’s too late.” We are held in bondage to the belief that we are more than the mistakes of the past, more that the pain of the present, and more than the unknown of the future. We are prisoners of hope.

And our hope is in Jesus Christ, the one who finds us in the pit and shows us the way out. To be clear: the way out is a way out. It’s not a simple affirmation or secret sentence that fixes everything. Jesus invites us to follow him on the way that leads to life.

The church, as the body of Christ, as the gathering of disciples on the Way, is not a building or a program or an institution. It is neither stuck nor static. The church is a living, breathing, and moving thing.

Institutions care about maintaining the institution, keeping the doors open from week to week, working to keep it working like the past. Movements, however, care about the people, about keeping them from falling into pits of despair and jumping in when someone falls in regardless.

We move on the way out of the pit by following our king. And our king is not like worldly leaders. Our king doesn’t live in a white house or control the gathering of nations. He’s not waking up with Wall Street or guiding troops into battle. Our king comes to us humble on a donkey.

Christ is victorious against the powers of this world, the powers of nations and economics and militaristic might. And even more Jesus is victorious over our greatest enemy, death. But this doesn’t mean that death no longer stings, it does. Without the sting of death there would be no need for hope.

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And we are prisoners of that hope. We look out at this broken and shattered world around us as an opportunity to be put back together. We don’t limit our vision of the man on the corner to his economic situation, we don’t see the young teen loitering as a criminal, we don’t see the loud neighbors as a threat to our security. We are prisoners of hope, we believe in the goodness of all people even when they try to prove the contrary.

This was my first full week at the church and I was wrong about what to expect. I figured that you all knew that I would be overwhelmed by having to unpack my office and adjust to a new community. I assumed that you all would leave me alone for a couple weeks until I got settled. But you all just kept showing up everyday as if I was your pastor.

And you’ve had your questions and I tried to field them as best as I could. I listened to your thoughts and reflections. But if you came by the office this week you know that I won’t let you leave without asking a question of my own: Why Cokesbury Church?

There is a plethora of churches in the Woodbridge community, churches of all shapes and sizes and worship styles. So of all the churches here in this place, why do you choose to gather at this place?

“I’ve been going here as long as I can remember…”

            “The people are just so friendly…”

            “Someone signed me up for the Flea Market and I’ve been coming ever since.”

I’ve enjoyed hearing the answers because they’ve provided a slice of the identity of this place, but one particular answer has really stuck with me.

I won’t say who it was, but someone from this church came by this week and I asked him or her why he or she came to this church. The person thought about it for a good amount of time before answering. “I was lost and Jesus found me in this place.”

Notice: the answer wasn’t I found Jesus here, but that Jesus found me in this place.

All of us have been lost at one point or another. We have fallen into pits that we simply could not escape on our own. We’ve been burdened by financial fear, relationship woes, or employment uncertainty. We’ve felt suffocated by limited direction, unending loneliness, or deep despair. We’ve been bullied, belittled, or berated. But Jesus found us and guided us out.

Thanks be to God that we are shackled as prisoners of hope. Thanks be to God that the Lord has delivered us from a faulty and limited vision of what can be. Thanks be to God that the Lord made a way where there was no way.

The promise of our hope, the hope that we are held captive by, is the restoration of all people and of all things. There is victory in Jesus, victory over the powers and the principalities bent on holding us down, victory over the steeps walls that feel inescapable, even victory over the chains of death.

I don’t know what most of you are going through right now. I don’t know what’s keeping you awake at night, what’s driving you crazy whenever you turn on the television, what causes your fists to clench up whenever you hear it. I don’t know what you’re afraid of, what you’re missing, or what you need. I don’t know where you’ve been, where you are, or where you’re going.

But I do know that Jesus does not leave us abandoned. Jesus jumps down into the miry bog of our lives and says, “Follow me, I’ve been here before, and I know the way out.” Amen.

Devotional – Zechariah 9.9

Devotional:

Zechariah 9.9

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! 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.

Weekly Devotional Image

I just entered into my fifth year of ministry and one of the things that has sustained me the most throughout my vocation is the weekly reading of sermons that have nothing to do with the sermon I’m working on. I quickly learned that when you make the jump from receiving sermons to preaching sermons, you lose the important part of worship that is hearing the Word afresh and anew.

Some of my favorite preachers come from a variety of backgrounds and denominational affiliations, but perhaps my favorite preacher is Stanley Hauerwas. What makes Hauerwas’ sermons so powerful is the fact that he’s not a preacher. Though deeply involved in the work of ethics and theology, Hauerwas is still a lay-person and when he proclaims the Word from the pulpit it hits me more than from a lot of long time clergy.

Another reason I love Hauerwas’ preaching, perhaps the most important reason, is that he can get away with saying a lot more from the pulpit than most pastors precisely because he’s not a pastor. There’s a delicate balance the preacher has to find between saying what God wants to be said, and doing it in such a way that it doesn’t alienate everyone such that they won’t be back the next Sunday. But Hauerwas, as a layperson, can say just about whatever he wants.

His sermon on the Fourth of July is one that he stuck with me ever since the first time I read it, and particularly the last few paragraphs. Hauerwas again and again makes the claim that we are so entrenched in the worship of America that we can no longer recognize it for the idolatry that it is. He says that this is evident in the way that the political arena has overshadowed the reality of the church and in how we no longer question if the country has done anything wrong. Instead, we assume that if something is done in the name of America, it is for the greater good.

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Try saying that from the pulpit in a church during the fourth of July weekend and you might not have a church to come back to the following Sunday.

But at the end of the sermon Hauerwas makes one final claim that is worthy of repetition. If the fireworks that burst in the sky and the red, white, and blue on our clothing are more captivating than the bread and wine at the table, then we are not the church. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t join together with neighbors to celebrate our country’s independence, or that we can’t sing patriotic songs or eat hot dogs or light off fireworks. But if all of those things are more important to us, if they speak a greater narrative in and to our lives, then we have to ask ourselves whom we really worship.

The prophet Zechariah proclaims that our King comes to us humble and riding on a donkey. As Christians, our King is not in the fireworks and the festivities and the food of the fourth of July. Our King is with the marginalized, the fearful, and the lonely.

Our King is not of this world. Our King rules the world.

Our King is not in a flag or in a pledge of allegiance. Our King is crucified and calls for our allegiance.

And so rejoice, Christians, sing aloud, for our King is triumphant and victorious. But he is not the same thing as our country.

On This Generation

But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed and you did not mourn.”

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I was left to record by myself as half of the team from Crackers & Grape Juice were moving to new appointments in the United Methodist Church and we couldn’t get our act together. It is easily our worst episode because we thrive on dialogues and not monologues, so have mercy. The readings include Genesis 24, Zechariah 9, Romans 7, and Matthew 11. If you want to learn more about worshipping the Lord in marriage, humility in leadership, sin, and our selfish generation you can check out the episode here: Like Children In The Marketplace.

As always, if you enjoy the podcast please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, it helps us and it helps others discover the podcast. You can find out more about both of our podcasts at our website.

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Greatness – Sermon on Luke 1.5-23

Luke 1.5-23

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order off Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn their hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

 

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for you prayer has been heard.”

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And so it came to pass in the days when King Herod ruled Judea, that a priest named Zechariah had his life turned upside down. Now Herod was a terrible king, responsible for countless atrocities, murders, and high levels of corruption. A man with frightening power ruled over a land and a people with such chaos that he dominated the attention of the masses. During his rule, a nobody priest married to a woman named Elizabeth, made his way through life.

Zechariah belonged to the priestly order of Abijah and was regularly responsible for activities around the Temple in Jerusalem. Though Zechariah and Elizabeth lived righteous lives, they had no children and were getting on in years.

One day, a day like any other, Zechariah made his way to the temple in order to perform his regular duties. As was the custom, lots were cast to decide who would enter the sanctuary and offer incense to the Most High God. While countless people gathered outside the walls, Zechariah made his way in to perform a simple task that had been done for as long as he could remember.

This is where the story gets interesting.

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While standing within the closed room, an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah. We receive no description of this heavenly messenger in the biblical narrative, but the sight was enough to overwhelm and terrify Zechariah. Let your imaginations conjure up the confrontation with an angel to the degree that you would cower in fear and trembling.

Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will be filled with joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. Take care to make sure that he never drinks wine or other strong substances, even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. In time, he will turn the people of Israel back to the Lord their God. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

And how does Zechariah react to this momentous declaration? How does he respond to the heavenly messenger carrying news of great joy?

“How will I know this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”

It’s moments like these in the scriptures that I wish I could jump into the story and smack some sense into the lives of the people experiencing the glory of God. How will you know this is so Zechariah? You fool! Don’t you know that with God all things are possible? Have you forgotten how he delivered your people from slavery and captivity in Egypt through the Red Sea to the Holy Land? Have you forgotten how the Lord provided a ram in the bushes for Abraham to sacrifice instead of his son? Have you forgotten how David was able to triumph over Goliath because the Lord was with him? Moreover, have you forgotten how many barren women the Lord has provided for? Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah. Come on Zechariah, have a little faith. 

The angel responds to Zechariah: I am Gabriel and I stand in the presence of God. I was sent to bring you this good news, but now, because you did not believe my words, you will become mute and unable to speak until these things occur.

So Zechariah made his way out of the temple, stood before the crowds unable to speak, and eventually returned home.

Of course, thats not the end of the story, but we’ll save that for later.

What are we to make of this remarkable episode recorded at the beginning of the Gospel according to St. Luke?

God is at work here in ways familiar to us from the Old Testament: the story contains a casting of lots to make a decision, there is a vision in God’s holy Temple, a divine being appears to pass along a message, there is a promised sign, and a childless couple is given new life.

It is clear that God works in and through the normal avenues of life in the believing and faithful community. The community of faith can fall under the temptation to make God into whatever they desire for worship, but there is an important conviction present at the beginning of this New Testament: the stories of Israel are important, vital, and necessary for understanding how to be used for God’s purposes in the world.

Though this is a story from the past, doesn’t it sound familiar? Just as it is today, some horrible and frightening situation has gripped the people, a power reigns from above in order to control a community. Evil has taken root at the center of life and dominates the attention of the populace. This past week marked the one year anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school and another shooting took place at a school in Colorado. You need only turn on the news or read a newspaper to be reminded how much fear and violence demands ALL of our attention.

However, in spite of all this fear and damage in the world, just as during the time of Herod, there is another sort of person, quiet, removed, and yet, more important than the powers that rule, men and women who are the core of society and give it the depth of its reality. Then and always there were and are the humble and brilliant men and women in whom the strength of the present and promise of the future lie.

Gabriel tells Zechariah that his son, John, will be great in the sight of the Lord. Sadly, according to the ways of the world, greatness has had its definition confused and reshaped. We have been told that greatness is measured in terms of selfishness rather than service, in terms of material rather than spiritual wealth, in terms of instant gratification rather than hard work and perseverance. But greatness as God sees it, the greatness that John will live into, is about being linked with the eternal purposes of redemption, about being an obedient instrument of God’s peace, and helping others to know and feel love in their lives.

But notice: the greater John will become for God, the more hostility he will arouse in those around him. Doing the will of the Lord, reaching out in love according to discipleship sends ripples through the fabric of what the world deems as “greatness.”

John is to be like the prophets from old: in light of their direct contact and experience of the divine, they drew the messages which burned within them like fire and would not rest until the decrees of God were delivered.

In every age we need the passion of people on fire for God to shout out in prophetic fervor. Our lives are so often filled with the dry wood of dull possibilities that desperately need to be rekindled by the divine spark that often comes through the words and actions of the prophets. We need to have our lives turned around and back to God in order to discover the passion that is waiting for us in our discipleship. The communion between God and the prophet allows for a divine condition to be present and the purposes of God can be realized in the world.

I love the juxtaposition of the story of Zechariah in the temple with Gabriel. It is precisely at the moment when John is being prepared to speak for God, Zechariah is struck mute for his unbelief. The typical, traditional, and tired voice of the priest, is being replaced by the fervent, fantastic, and faithful voice of the prophet.

 

Worship is at the center of the story. I’ve read it countless times, and heard it discussed and preached on during numerous advent services, but something fresh and new struck me this week about Zechariah’s encounter. I wondered: why was he so surprised and scared? Think about it for just a moment; Zechariah was a priest, well-versed in the stories from old about how God interacted with God’s people, a man who often found himself in the holiest of places performing the works of the Lord. What did he think would happen to him inside that holy space?

Being overwhelmed by the presence of an angel in the sanctuary of the temple is like going to McDonalds, ordering a Big Mac, and being surprised to discover beef between the bread… I mean this is how God works! God shows up, confronts us in the midst of a moment, and calls us to something. It does not need to be grand, and more often than not it occurs in the small silence in a moment we least suspect, but for Zechariah it came in a big way. He was in God’s holy temple confronted by an angelic messenger bringing the good news. So why was he so surprised? And more importantly, why did he doubt the validity of the message?

Our expectations about worship have major impacts on the way we live our lives.

What we believe shapes how we behave.

What to we think will happen to us when we gather in this space? Are we prepared to be confronted by the God who called John to greatness? Are we willing to let God dwell in our hearts and change the way we live in the world? Are we ready to take up our own crosses to follow Jesus. Are we prepared for God to show up in our lives in ways that we cannot expect or anticipate?

Unless we recognize the definitive need for real experiences and methods of discipleship which wake the whole depth of our experience, then what we do in worship will remain, as it did for Zechariah, thin and lacking. Until we prepare ourselves to be surprised by God’s desire to find us where we are, then this holy place will remain, as it did for Zechariah, boring and repetitive. Until we dare to step out into new forms of life and love, hearing the word of the Lord, and letting it become incarnate in the ways we live our lives, then faith will remain, as it did for Zechariah, dwindling and fruitless.

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What do we expect will happen when we gather together at Christ’s table? Are we repetitively entering the holy space to burn incense unaware that we are meeting God in all of his holiness? Or are we excited and nervous about the prospect of being welcomed to a table that we have no right to join? Are we so rooted in our habitual worship that we can no longer remember why we join at this table? Or are we prepared to be called forth toward greatness in the world through the redemptive and life-giving properties of God’s presence at his table?

Just as it happened with Zechariah, a heavenly voice might be trying to break out into the world. Perhaps God’s good news is striving to strike forth through the closed circle of our expectations of church, faith, and discipleship. Important for us this morning is to remember that God is always on the move, reaching out to find us and change our lives, that there is always a new message for those with ears to hear. The great need for us is to realize, as Zechariah eventually did, to not be caught up in the limited imagination of what God can do in the world which assumes that the present must always be governed by the past.

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Nine months after Zechariah was struck mute in the temple by Gabriel, his wife Elizabeth gave birth to a baby boy. When it came time to name the child, the family wanted to name him Zechariah after his father, but Elizabeth insisted that it was to be John, and after Zechariah confirmed this with writing on a tablet his mouth was freed. The plague of his disbelief had been wiped away by the miracle of his son’s birth. Now filled with the Holy Spirit Zechariah spoke these great words to his infant son: And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

This is one of the many places that God confronts us in our lives. Through the bread and the wine let us all be moved to live lives worthy of the greatness that God is calling us toward.

Amen.