Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 32:35 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If you were standing on the edge of this battle field looking out, you could be forgiven for thinking that the battle wouldn’t be long, or drawn-out, or hard-fought. Listen to how Zechariah pictures this battle: on the one side are chariots, and horses used to warfare, and archers with bows for battle. They have soldiers, and armies, and weapons. And on the other side is one man on a donkey riding out to meet them on the field of battle. It doesn’t look like a fair fight.
The one on a donkey is said to be a king, who is coming to deliver and save His people. He’s supposed to destroy the chariots and get rid of the horses and break the bows. He’s supposed to reign over the whole earth. He’s going to speak peace to the nations. But this looks like it’s already over. We naturally and reasonably think that if you want to have a good chance to defeat your enemies, you should have similar numbers of soldiers, or at least the strength to compete even if you have fewer forces. You should have equal fire-power, maybe a nuclear deterrent to keep others from attacking you.
But if we’ve heard anything over the weeks of Lent; if we’ve heard anything from the Gospel according to Mark; if we’ve heard anything from the mouth of Jesus, it is that God does not do things the way that people expect Him to. When Jesus tells Peter what He’s going to do, Peter rebukes Him. He can’t see that suffering and dying have anything to do with how Jesus ought to be King. But Peter is thinking in the natural and reasonable way that humans think, rather than according to God’s ways. As God says through Isaiah, My thoughts are not your thoughts and My ways are not your ways.
And so the battle is, in fact, short. The King rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, starts stirring things up, is arrested in a garden, tried, convicted, and crucified. And what will that mean for the claims of this King? How will He do the things He says He will do if He is defeated? It looks like His reign as King is over before it begins. And who is going to follow, or bow down before, a dead king? But that is exactly what Mark claims. In the reading from Mark on the back of your bulletin, Mark has people call Jesus “the King of the Jews” five times, and one time “the King of Israel.” Six times He is called King. Mark does not want us to miss that He is King, but that He’s a different kind of King from the one everyone expected. Look at the strange ornaments of the King: a purple robe, a crown of thorns, and nails in His hands. He is lifted up on the cross, enthroned there, in order to draw all people to Himself.
As God says through the mouth of the prophet, it is by His “covenant of blood” that He is going to deliver and save His people; it is by His covenant of blood that He’s going to destroy the enemies of His people; by the covenant of blood that He’s going to return the prisoners, the captives, the exiles to their stronghold, to their fortress, to their safety and security. Which is exactly what Jesus tells His disciples before He dies: this cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you, for the forgiveness of your sins. This new covenant is made in the blood of the King, sealed by His death, and proven by His resurrection.
And it is that living King, who not only suffered and died, but was also raised from the dead, who says, “Return, prisoners of hope.” That’s a Hebrew way of saying that the prisoners, the exiles, should have hope. They should be hopeful in the midst of their captivity. But they are also prisoners of hope, prisoners bound to hope, prisoners captive and chained to hope. The word for hope actually is connected to words for rope or cords. It is, perhaps, the twisting anxiety of having to wait, but more than that, it is what connects us to the one for whom we are waiting. It is the cord that binds us to our King, who is risen from the dead. He has passed over from death to life, no longer subject to death. But He has joined us to His death and resurrection in baptism, so that we are bound to follow Him wherever He goes. So when we pass through death, we are tied to the one who is the resurrection and the life. And where He is, we will be also.
Prisoners of hope! Rejoice and shout aloud and sing to the Lord, who is our King! He who humbled Himself, who confined Himself to flesh and blood and bone in order to be humbled even to the point of death on a cross, because it is He, the eternal Son of God, the Father exalted Him above all His enemies, over sin and death and the devil. And He gave to Him in His flesh the Name that is above every name, so that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
We will see that glory because we are bound to Him by the unbreakable cord of His resurrection. But we also find ourselves in pits and prisons and dungeons, like Joseph and Jeremiah. We cannot find our way out, and we cannot free ourselves. Maybe we can’t see the good, and it doesn’t look like we are ever going to be released. But we are prisoners of hope, and our David—David’s greater Son—has gone out on to the battle field for us, and He has taken down the Goliath who would otherwise taunt and mock us forever. He has put death to death and cut off its head, so that even though it claims to tower over us, we have a King who has been raised from the dead. Return, O prisoners of hope! Rejoice! Your King promises to return to you double: not only does He forgive your sins and take your death on Himself, but no eye has seen nor ear heard nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love Him.
Look, our King rides on in majesty, in lowly pomp to die, to win the victory forever. Look, your King comes to you, righteous and having salvation, humble as He gives you the cup of His new covenant to drink for the forgiveness of your sins. Rejoice and shout aloud, O prisoners of hope!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/27/21