SERMON: Prisoners of Hope

SERMON: Prisoners of Hope

Andrew McKearney’s Sermon for Sunday 6-July 2014

In the spiritual tradition of the Church, ‘hope’ is thought to be one of the three key strengths of character alongside ‘faith ‘ and ‘love’ that Saint Paul extols so beautifully in his famous passage to the Corinthian church. They are the stones from which we build our Christian lives – faith, hope and love – and today’s readings, I think, invite us to reflect on ‘hope’.

Now of the three ‘hope’ often comes last in significance – ‘faith’ and ‘love’ are more often referred to and preached about, capturing our attention more readily. In religious art, hope is depicted as an anchor, because elsewhere in scripture hope is referred to: “as an anchor for our lives, safe and secure.” (Hebrews 6.19)

You don’t have to know anything about ships and boats to know the importance of an anchor holding, particularly during a storm; that, scripture suggests, is how important hope is, that’s something of what hope gives to us: “an anchor for our lives, safe and secure.”

So we are called to be people of faith and love, ‘Yes’; but also ‘people of hope’.

Take our first reading from a little prophet, referred to as one of the minor prophets, a prophet so minor that we may never have heard of him before – Zechariah! And he has a hope that one day there will be a new king; and what this new king will bring will be peace to the nations: “and his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”

That’s an ambitious hope! The Jewish people at the time didn’t even have a king! Many of them were still in prison in exile! But Zechariah’s confidence in God is such that he doesn’t see the Jewish people in prison as a sign of despair, but instead says to them:

“Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.”

 

We are ‘people of hope’, working for a better world; there’ll be times when this seems a pointless task; no doubt the Jewish prisoners in exile felt much the same; but Zechariah says to them:

“Return to your strongholds, O prisoners of hope.”

 

We are not just ‘people of hope’ but ‘prisoners of hope’!

 

This hope that we have as Christians has both an external and an internal face. The external face is referred to by Zechariah – the battle bow cut off – the chariot destroyed – the warhorse no more.

 

The internal face is referred to by Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans. The battle Paul refers to is not an external war, but a battle with ourselves! For Paul too we are prisoners, but held captive by sin rather than Babylonian guards. It’s a profound and moving passage that we had from Saint Paul as our second reading, in which Paul wrestles with himself:

“I do not understand my own actions”,

the passage began,

“for I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing

I hate.”

 

There can be few of us here who have not experienced this battle with ourselves; and like Saint Paul we too will have discovered “a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand”. So the battle referred to in our first reading from the prophet Zechariah as an external one has now become for Saint Paul an internal one. This internal battle too can reduce us to despair, just as much as the intractable problems around us. Towards the end of that second reading we heard Paul’s cry from the heart:

“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

We can feel trapped, imprisoned, held captive. But Saint Paul too knows himself to be a ‘prisoner of hope’. And so when he asks himself:

“Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

His reply is unequivocal: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

We are ‘people of hope’; God’s kingdom has been established in Christ. We are ‘prisoners of hope’; Christ has made us so.

But how?

The one bit from the prophet Zechariah that we will have heard before is probably the bit about the donkey: “Lo, your king comes to you;…..humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

It’s a passage of scripture that’s read every year on Palm Sunday, referred to by all the four gospels when Jesus enters Jerusalem at the beginning of his last week. The image is of a king, riding not on a commanding horse, but on a donkey; and the key word is “humble”.

That same word we heard used by Jesus when he called out: “Come to me….take my yoke upon you….. learn from me….I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Christ’s kingdom has been established not by force, but by humility. Christ has made us his own gently, that’s how we’ve come to be ‘people of hope’, ‘prisoners of hope’. Christ’s gentleness comes from his own willingness to walk humbly with God. Gentleness not a sign of weakness but rather of an inner strength, rooted in God – only the strong can be gentle, patient, and long-suffering. That’s how God has established his kingdom in Christ; not by force, not by violence, not by sitting on a horse towering over people; but sitting on a donkey and taking the path of gentleness and humility.

That’s Christ’s way. It’s his way with us, as we wrestle with ourselves and the battles within us. It’s his way with the world, as we struggle to establish his kingdom of justice and peace.

“Come to me”, Jesus invites. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me”, Jesus offers. “I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls”, Jesus promises.

 Christ captivates us and makes us ‘prisoners of hope’!