Sermon of the Week: Prisoners of hope

By REV. PAUL R. HINLICKY  |  July 12, 2002 at 3:40 PM
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(In this 67th installment of the United Press International series of sermons, the Rev. Dr. Paul R. Hinlicky, professor of religion at Roanoke Colle in Salem, Va., reflects on the battle between good and evil within everyone -- including believers).

This sermon is based on Zechariah 9:9-12; Romans 7:15-25; Matthew 11:25-30.

In today's Old Testament lesson, the prophet Zechariah draws a marvelous image. He calls God's people "prisoners of hope," in contrast to prisoners of despair, who have no future.

As Christians, we are such prisoners of hope, transforming our situation of oppression by trusting in the promise of God to deliver them. Our hope is focused on the Messiah.

He comes to serve his people, seated, so to say, upon the humble elements of bread and wine to strengthen wavering faith and imprison us anew to hope in his final victory.

Why do we still need that? We Americans of all people know that the freedom of this world can be hopelessness before God. One can be politically free, but still a slave to sin, and this applies to believers as well.

Therefore Paul thanks God in today's epistle that he gives us Jesus' victory over sin and death in full. This is the hope for those who long for the real freedom to love God above all and love others as themselves.

It is hope therefore for those who know of the enslaving compulsion to exclude God and use others as mere instruments of a desperate and lonely and faithless self, whose final destiny is death.

"Wretched man that I am!" Paul exclaimed. "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" What troubles him so? What shakes him like this?

When I was child my father and mother had a terrible fight. We children gathered around our weeping mother to console her, a young pastor's wife. She sobbed, "Oh, if we are Christians and we act like this, the shame, the shame."

This was her way of paraphrasing Paul. In a sense, she cried, "Wretched woman that I am! Who will deliver us from this painful contradiction that we are to our new lives in Christ?"

My mother, like Paul, found herself caught between two powers: the power of hope because of Christ's victory, and still the ancient power of sin raging within her as it is raging within all of us -- the furiously harmful power that makes us resist God.

The battle line between good and evil runs right down the middle of every believer's breast. "I do not understand my own actions," Paul says. "The good that I would I do not, and that which I would not, that I do."

What a spectacle! Christ's apostle to the nations acknowledges that he is in bondage to sin and cannot free himself. Neither can we, as we confess at the beginning of the liturgy every Sunday.

When the Gospel teaches us that we cannot save ourselves, but need a Savior, it really means it. We need him every day. Let's not kid ourselves into believing that we can fix ourselves and then impress God with the good taste he has shown in making us his people.

If we say that we have no sin, the truth is not in us and our religion is a deception, no matter what we think or feel.

The Spirit of Christ burns away such illusions. Slowly and awkwardly we learn to admit those painful truths about ourselves; he teaches us to confess our sins and not wickedly suppress the truth any longer.

We do this not to torture ourselves, however. Rather, we do it to be freed so that the Lamb of God, whom we greet with loud Hosannas at this holy meal, may bear all sin away into an oblivion that God will never again remember.

We do it so that we may make restitution to those whom we have injured; so that we attain to a real reconciliation with God, with others, with all of nature built on the solid rock of a genuine repentance and sorrow over sin.

"Come to me, all you that are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest," Jesus tells us as we are caught in the battle of our Christian lives. "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

These are words of unfathomable mercy, addressed to each and every battle-weary prisoner of hope, who is saddened by his failures, flagging in zeal, and as yet far short of the victory.

Christ seeks out just those who are worn-out. He doesn't command us: "Shape up, straighten out, try harder, do this, do that!" Instead, he orders us to rest. On what grounds? None other than: "I am gentle and humble in heart."

Christ will not shame you truth-tellers bemoaning your painful failures. He won't disgrace you prisoners of hope. Instead he will honor and embrace you.

He will never take advantage of your vulnerability in order to lord over you. Rather he comes joyfully as the servant lord, to begin your healing now by mercy and at last to give you his victory forever.

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