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Prisoners of Hope – Br. James Koester

Br. James KoesterThe Great Vigil of Easter

Romans 6: 1 – 13
Psalm 114
Mark 16: 1 – 8

Every once in a while I’ll be minding my own business, and suddenly, in the middle of Morning or Evening Prayer, something is read and my attention is instantly arrested. A word, or a phrase, or an image from Scripture leaps out of the appointed reading at me, and for the next hour, or day, or week, it returns to me over and again. That happened a week ago, on Palm Sunday, at Morning Prayer, and suddenly what we say in our Rule of Life became immediately true. We read there that in our worship the Spirit sometimes touches us immediately through a word, an image or a story; there and then we experience the Lord speaking to us.[1]

Keith had been reading from Zechariah, where the Prophet proclaims that the coming ruler of God’s people will arrive humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.[2] It’s an all-too-familiar passage that I have read, or heard, dozens of times, and because of its association with Palm Sunday, we heard it again last Sunday at Morning Prayer. In spite of having heard that passage countless time before, I have actually never heard it. Or, at least I have been so caught up with the image of the king coming, humble, and riding on a donkey, that I have never heard the rest of the lesson. 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.[3]

It was the phrase prisoners of hope that arrested me. Suddenly, I was no longer thinking about kings and donkeys, palms and processions, but prisoners, freedom, and hope. I was thinking what it might mean to be a prisoner of hope. In a sense, while everyone else was celebrating Palm Sunday, and beginning to enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby [God] has given us life and immortality,[4] I was already at Easter, thinking about the gift of freedom and hope that comes to us through the Resurrection of Jesus. And that is where I have spent this week, living the events of Holy Week through the lens of being a prisoner of hope.

In Scripture, a prison wasn’t necessarily a place of punishment. It could be simply a holding place, where the accused awaited trial. Many innocent people ended up in prison, while they waited for their innocence to be proven. Exiles were also considered to be prisoners, even though they appeared to enjoy complete freedom. What they were not free to do however, was to return home.

There are many different kinds of prisons, and not all of which have iron bars, steel doors, razor wire, and search lights. Some of the most secure prisons are guarded by addiction, racism, poverty, misogyny, gun violence …. The list could go on. Like the biblical exiles, those who are so imprisoned appear to be at liberty, but they are far from free, far from a land that looks remotely like home. Perhaps some of you have firsthand experience of this, of being a prisoner in a strange land, an exile, forced to live in an alien territory. It may appear that you are at liberty, but you are far from free. Perhaps your prison guards are loneliness, anger or fear. Perhaps you are imprisoned by the past, the memory of an experience that happened long ago. Perhaps you are imprisoned by fear of the future, unable to move forward. Perhaps your prison is more immediate, and you are aware of the bars surrounding you even today. Perhaps you are simply aware of not being at home, of being in a land that seems strange, seems foreign. You might appear to be at liberty, but that liberty is certainly not freedom.

In the Scriptures, God’s people knew what it meant to be slaves and exiles, to be imprisoned. They knew the slavery of Egypt and the exile of Babylon, far from the land which God had promised to them. While they appeared to be at liberty, they were in fact prisoners, longing for the moment that they could return home, not simply to their own land, but to the land of promise. Like the innocent cast into prison, who await with eager expectation for the moment they could prove their innocence, and be set free, the enslaved and exiled people of God waited with eager anticipation for their moment of liberation, when they would be free to return home to that land of promise. As such, it could be said that they lived in sure and certain hope, knowing that one day God would fulfill the divine promise of liberation and set them free.

For many in our world today, hope has been reduced to nothing more than wishful thinking. It has become a wish, a desire, a hunch, a dream. We hope to win the lottery; for nice weather on our holiday; that I’ll pass an exam. But we all know the odds against our winning; that weather is unpredictable, even by experienced meteorologists; and, forty years later, I still have nightmares about high school physics. So hope, at least in those cases, really is just wishful thinking. While these things might be nice, we are not counting on them, and we certainly don’t build our life upon the chance of winning; we always pack an umbrella; and if all we do is hope to pass that exam, we will certainly fail.

But Christian hope is not simply wishful thinking. It’s not simply a wish, a desire, a hunch, or a dream. Christian hope is not simply an idea that would be nice IF it came true. Christian hope is rooted in the faithfulness of God who says if in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.[5] Throughout Scripture God promises over and over again: Remember this and consider, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My purpose shall stand, and I will fulfil my intention’…. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have planned, and I will do it.[6]

It is God’s faithful and eternal promise to act, not chance, or luck, or wishful thinking that is the ground of our hope as Christians. And we know that this hope, which is ours, is sure and certain, because it is rooted in God who is love. God is love,[7] St. John tells us, and the psalmist reminds us: O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures for ever![8]

It was with hope in God who acts, not in wishful thinking, that Noah built his ark. And God acted, and Noah and his family were saved.[9] It was with hope in God who acts, not in wishful thinking, that Abraham and Sarah ventured into the unknown, believing that they would be parents of a multitude of nations. And God acted, and Isaac was born.[10] It was with hope in God who acts, not in wishful thinking, that God’s people lived in slavery in Egypt. And God acted and they were freed.[11]

It was with hope in God who acts, not in wishful thinking, that Jesus faced his death upon the cross that first Good Friday. And God acted, and Jesus rose from the dead, thereby trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life.[12]

Scripture is full of stories of people who lived in hope. They lived in hope in a God who acts and the blind [received] their sight, the lame [walked], the lepers [were] cleansed, the deaf [heard], the dead [were] raised, the poor [had] good news brought to them.[13] It was in this hope that Jesus laid down his life.

As Christians we are a people of hope, not because we believe in idle tales told by fools,[14] but because our hope and confidence is in God, who not only promises, but acts on those promises, giving sight to the blind, health to the sick, freedom to the imprisoned, and life to the dead.

I don’t know if you are in prison, but if you are not, I am sure you know someone who is. If so, today is for you. If so, today is for them. Because Easter is a feast of hope, not of wishful thinking. We’re not here, we’re certainly not here at 4:30 AM, because we are wishful thinkers, hoping to win the lottery, even though we haven’t bought a ticket. We are here because we hope in a God who said I will do it. We’re not here hoping for fair weather for our holiday, and not bothering to pack an umbrella. We are here because we hope in a God who said I will do it. We’re not here hoping to pass that exam, even though we have not studied. We are here because we hope in a God who said I will do it.

On that first Easter Day by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, God fulfilled the Divine Promise, and life and immortality burst forth from the Tomb, releasing all who have ever lived in the prison of death.

Scripture, and the scripture of your life, is full of stories of how God brings healing, wholeness, freedom and life to those who live in hope. Easter is a feast of hope, not because the resurrection is a nice idea for wishful thinkers, but because God’s promise of life and liberty to all who believe is real, and we know it even as Noah, Abraham and Moses knew it. Because like them we know that God will keep the Divine Promise and grant us life, liberty and healing, even as we live in the shadow of death.[15]

This is the promise of Easter. This is the promise of the resurrection. This is the promise of Jesus. This is what is means to be a prisoner, not imprisoned by hope, but a prisoner full of hope, trusting in God’s promise of life, and that knowing God who has spoken the word of life, will do it.

While you, or someone you know, may be in prison, guarded by the doors of violence, or bitterness, of hatred, the promise of Easter, is that the life and love of God, through the resurrection of Jesus, can shatter those chains, and set you free.


[1] SSJE, Rule of Life, Holy Scripture, Chapter 20, page 40

[2] Zechariah 9: 9c

[3] Zechariah 9: 11, 12

[4] Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 270

[5] John 14: 14

[6] Isaiah 46: 8 – 11

[7] 1 John 4: 16

[8] Psalm 118: 1

[9] Genesis 7: 1 -5, 11 – 18, 8: 6 – 18, 9: 8 – 13

[10] Genesis 22: 1 – 18

[11] Exodus 14: 10 – 15: 1

[12] Paschal Troparion

[13] Luke 7: 22b

[14] Luke 24: 11

[15] BCP 1979, Psalm 23: 4a. page 613

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