“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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the ninth chapter of the prophet Zechariah. Dear friends in Christ, even if you have never stepped foot in a prison, you can imagine what it is like to be a prisoner. Prisons are a far cry from a five-star hotel; they are imposing structures, built to look powerful and impregnable. You can see in your mind the high fences, with the razor wire on top; you can imagine the guard towers, filled with men holding guns. And you can imagine the people inside of those fences. Most people spend time in prison to pay for their own crimes, but think also of prisoners of war. We’ve heard their harrowing stories from time spent in German or North Vietnamese camps. Prisoners have no freedom, they spend their days being told by others what to do. They eat when they’re told to eat, they go outside when they’re told to, they have little or no time to themselves. Those in wartime prison camps were subjected to various measures intended to crush the spirits of the soldiers, to drive away any hope, and it often worked. I think I can safely say that being a prisoner is never something we would choose for ourselves.
But yet we are all prisoners. Keep the imagery that I have just described in mind as you hear again the words of Saint Paul in our Epistle lesson. “I delight in the law of God in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” As Paul tries to serve God in this world, he finds that he has been taken captive by the law of sin. “I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” St. Paul, the greatest of Christ’s apostles, finds himself chained to sin. He is imprisoned by his sin, it has him captive, in bonds that he cannot break. And he is hardly alone. You and I are also chained to sin, imprisoned by the corruption that fills us. No matter how much we want to serve God, no matter how much we want to do the right thing, sin has us in its grasp. “I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” Sin holds us captive, and it refuses to let us go. We are utterly unable to do any good; each and every one of our actions is stained with sin. You know the truth of Paul’s words; no matter how hard you work to cast off your sin, it keeps coming back, it has you in bondage, and escape is impossible.
In our Old Testament lesson, Zechariah teaches that we are prisoners in a ‘waterless pit.’ The cisterns in that time were shaped like a bottle, tapering to a narrow opening at the top, making escape impossible on your own. Our jailers, sin and Satan, have cast us into this prison, bound and chained. This is the prison of death. That is where Satan wants us to spend our lives, imprisoned in the pit of death, chained to our sin, estranged from God, until we join him in eternal torment. And we can’t escape. Not only are the guards always awake, the prison is designed to make escape impossible, and even if escape were possible, our sinful nature would prevent it. “I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” Just try to keep yourself from sinning even one hour. Choose your favorite ‘pet sin,’ the one you indulge in when no one is looking. Try to slip those chains off by yourself, by your own power. “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” No matter how much you want to be free from sin, you cannot free yourself. Those chains aren’t coming off, and even if you get one chain off for an hour or a day, you will wake up the next morning finding that they are around your ankles again. And no one, I mean no one, is going to scale the wall of that pit; no one can cheat death. Paul summarizes it perfectly: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
The cry echoes along the hollow walls of the pit, our prison. It is a cry of triumph, of victory. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He; humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Who will release us from the pit, our prison? Our king, the Messiah, the coming one. St. Paul gives Him a name: “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Jesus Christ has come to us in our prison, He has come in righteousness, in humility. He has come not in power and glory, but he comes riding that most humble of beasts. He comes as a helpless baby, He comes as a dusty rabbi, He comes scorned by the world, without wealth or earthly power. But when He arrives, salvation has come. Listen to what your God declares about this humble servant. “I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and He shall speak peace to the nations; His rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” He leads no armies, yet He will rule over all; through His work, peace will come to all nations. Through His work Israel will be disarmed, not to open it up to attack, but because weapons will be unnecessary in a new creation characterized by peace.
What is this work, this work that establishes His universal rule, a rule defined by peace? Listen to the words of the Messiah: “As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.” Jesus has come to do what we couldn’t; He has come as our king to rescue us in our great need. We cannot break our chains, we cannot scale the wall, we cannot defeat the guards, but Jesus can and He did. He freed us from the waterless pit. How did He do this? Through the blood of His covenant with us. Our King didn’t rescue us with an army, He didn’t rescue us with a show of earthly power, but instead He rescued us in humility. He rescued us by suffering, He rescued us by dying. He rescued us by paying the price of freedom with His own blood. He poured out His blood on the cross, the required price paid in humility to set you and me free. Only His blood shatters our bonds, only His blood avails before God. Only His death defeats and destroys the power of our jailers; sin paid for, death defeated, Satan crushed. Because He walked forth victorious from the pit of His grave, so we too are rescued from the pit of death. He gives us that same blood of the covenant this day in the Lord’s Supper to forgive your sins, to break your bonds. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He!”
Having pulled us from the waterless pit, the Messiah then calls to us: “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.” We have exchanged the pit for a stronghold; we have left our prison for the fortress which is the Lord Himself. Remember the words of the Introit for today: “I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’” God is our fortress because of the deliverance of Jesus, the blood of the covenant that He shed for our salvation. We dwell with the Father, we abide in His loving arms because of the work of Jesus, our King. “Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place- the Most High, who is my refuge- no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.” No longer do we dwell in misery, in a prison that could only bring us sin and death, but instead we dwell in safety, in the assurance of God’s favor, grace, and forgiveness for the sake of Christ. In that stronghold, we find rest, we find refreshment, as Jesus promises in the Gospel lesson: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Through Christ’s blood, we have exchanged our prison for the stronghold of God, we have exchanged our jailers for the loving protection of the Father, and we have exchanged the chains of sin for the rest of Christ.
“Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.” We are no longer prisoners of sin in a waterless pit; we are prisoners of hope in the stronghold of the Lord. We are chained to hope, it holds us even more tightly than sin once held us. This is the hope of final deliverance and freedom, the hope of an eternity spent with our God. This hope holds us captive, affecting every aspect of our lives in this world. It gives us assurance when we see our sin, it declares to us the promise of life when all we see is death. This hope declares to you the forgiveness that Christ won for you, that you have been cleansed from the corruption of sin, that you even now dwell in the stronghold of the Lord. You are chained to hope, the hope of eternal life, and nothing can break those chains.
We who bear the chains of hope for the sake of Christ, because of the blood of His covenant with us, have the Lord as our stronghold for eternity. Though with Saint Paul we still struggle with our sinful flesh in this world, we know that we are truly free, that we are prisoners of hope; sin, Satan, and death have no permanent hold upon us. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.” We will abide with Him, and He with us, in the new heavens and the new earth, where Jesus will “speak peace to the nations,” the peace of His resurrection. “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” In the Name of Jesus, who sets the prisoners free by the blood of His covenant with us, Amen.