There’s an app called Trivia Crack that claims to offer “mentally stimulating diversions” that pits you in a contest with other online users around the world. Answer a question right, and you get to keep answering questions in an effort to collect crowns in six categories. Once you achieve all six crowns, you win the match.
The game keeps your stats of wins and losses, questions answered, even your over all percentage of correct answers in the six categories. I am both proud, and embarrassed, to admit that I am a level 95 with a record of 214 and 63, with my highest category performance being sports.
These questions against a clock and an opponent can range to the ridiculously easy to the quite challenging. The ones that seem to get me are in the history category involving peace treaties. For example: What’s the 1721 treaty that ended the Great Northern War between Sweden and Russia?
The answer is the Treaty of Nystad. I’m sure you all already knew that, right?
Peace treaties. How many of us know more than…one?! But that’s perhaps not surprising, for if you wanted to know the names of the world’s peace treaties, there’d be a lot of them to remember.
Wikipedia has a list of the known historic agreements, pacts, peace accords and major treaties between states, armies, governments and tribal groups since 1283 B.C., and it requires more than sixty sheets of paper to print out. The 20th century alone has 271 treaties.
What all of this says is that peace, for millennia now, has been the world’s desire—but it also says that the world hasn’t done a very good job at maintaining peace. The desire for elusive peace goes back all through antiquity and the reading from Zechariah is among its annals. It’s an account of a king coming into Jerusalem riding “on a colt, the foal of a donkey” who will “proclaim peace to the nations.”
It is a prophecy the world held and embraced then, and still today—one we Christians recollect each Palm Sunday. It is a prophecy of not just peace someday, but hope for peace in all times.
Zechariah is writing in the post-exilic period, that time when the remaining Jews were back in Judah, having been released from captivity in Babylon. But they were now a subject people in the Persian Empire, which had incorporated Judah.
Yet even Persia’s might was no guarantee of security, and the Jews lived under the possibility of being scattered once again due to the threat of attack by other nations. And though many still had dreams of someday living in a kingdom of their own under a messianic leader, right now that seemed unlikely and maybe even impossible.
So in steps the prophet Zechariah, stepping into the dimness of “doom and gloom” mindsets and attitudes of the Jewish nation, with a word of God intent to erase the worry and anxiety that peace is impossible.
Chapter 9 begins with a prophetic word against various foreign nations, telling of God’s coming judgment passing through those lands, moving from north to south. Some of the cities named in these verses have great wealth and military might, yet they are all powerless when God’s judgment comes, saying “no oppressor shall again overrun Judah.”
It’s in that context of “battle over … mission accomplished” that the reading for today calls Jerusalem to “rejoice greatly” because of the messianic king’s entry into the city. But there is, as is often the case with God, a twist.
This messiah arrives “triumphant and victorious,” yet also “humble,” for he’s the proclaimer not of his own accomplishment, but of peace to the nations, a peace that God’s judgment and power and covenant has made possible.
The NRSV says this king will “command peace,” which lends itself to the idea of dictating terms of a peace treaty, but the NIV’s “proclaim peace” and even the KJV’s “speak peace” lends itself better to the mission of the messiah.
Zechariah is announcing the treaty God has already imposed on the nations—a peace that is unlike any peace the world could create. It is a peace that starts with God, and flows into and from the people of God. But it only flows, Zechariah knows, when the people are freed from their despair, and free to hope for true lasting peace.
So how does this text speak to us today? Since in its own time it was prophecy and not news, this word form Zechariah functioned to reinforce and reestablish hope.
Remember, the people of God had just barely come through a time of exile, oppression, and displacement. Their lives and their land had been taken from them, and the threat of it happening again still hung heavy. But now God was saying, “One day all your enemies will be subdued and a new king from David’s line will reestablish us in security and peace. And because I say this, you can have hope.”
Now this is a great thing to hear from God, but we can imagine others who said, “The prophets have been saying that forever, but where’s the progress? There’s always war somewhere, and we have no reason to think human nature is going to suddenly change.”
Such a voice then can be such a voice today. Again, just look at the fact that there’ve been so many peace treaties over the years, right down to the present time which reminds us that the pursuit of peace and the hope for peace is all still elusive. And if it is so elusive, then what’s the point of this text from Zechariah today?
Well the point is—like he was giving to God’s people then, Zechariah is giving to us today—a choice. He’s giving us a choice. We have a choice between being a prisoner of despair or, as Zechariah says, we can choose to be a prisoner of hope.
The phrase “prisoners of hope” is right out of the Zechariah text, with the prophet speaking for God, who says, “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.”
Zechariah was not speaking about literal prisoners. As I said, Zechariah addressed the people of Judah after they had been released from exile in Babylon and had returned to their homeland. But they had become prisoners in another sense. The destruction to which they had returned was overwhelming, and it required great energy just to cobble together the things needed for a subsistence-level existence. As a result, many had become prisoners of despair.
Through Zechariah, however, God called them to fresh hope based on God’s covenant made with them.
Rather than being prisoners of despair, they now were “prisoners of hope.” That phrase is a literal translation of the Hebrew, but its meaning, as made clear by the context, is “prisoners who now have hope.”
It is like a person who is still incarcerated but who has a parole hearing scheduled and reason to expect the ruling will be favorable. Living as we do in a world where ongoing peace remains elusive, we’re in a sense like those who are still incarcerated. But if that’s so, then aren’t we better to have the hope of parole than the despair of a life sentence?
Peace in our world is an elusive entity. We lack peace in many, if not most aspects of our lives. Our country has been embroiled in wars for a majority of our history. The world has had two World Wars. There are ongoing wars still happening around the world—many of which are now described as “conflicts” so as to down play them even though people are still dying and peace is nowhere to be found.
Peace is, as biblical commentator Peter Craigie calls it, “a different world—an alien world—a world we do not know. It is unreal.” Craigie goes on to note that the Christian interpretation of this Zechariah passage identifies Jesus with this king who comes proclaiming peace, and that we have come to understand that the peace Jesus brings is in the realm of the spiritual. “But”, he adds, “gradually, as men and women find peace with God, they can, bit by bit, establish the kingdom of peace on earth.”
As those who struggle to find peace, those who even struggle to have hope for peace, this is good news because even though war remains a perpetual companion of civilization, we must live from and share with the world, the hope Zechariah proclaims, that one day peace will prevail.
Now we do this at Christmas and Easter—but a remembrance and celebration of peace is not enough. To truly be those who believe in peace, and those who strive for peace, we must be free to hope for peace. We must be those who see wars and conflict, the failed peace treaties of history, and say the ways of this world are not the ways of God, and one day God will command peace, God will proclaim peace, God will speak peace.
But there’s a twist again. What we must further realize, and believe is that that “one day” can actually be today; and that “command” and “proclaiming”, and “speaking” can be done by God today…through us.
Being prisoners of hope rather than prisoners of despair makes it important that we should hope for peace and work for peace.
So on this weekend when we celebrate the great freedoms of our country, let us also seek to celebrate and proclaim the great freedom of God who has set us free—free in a world of war and conflict to hope.
For God has set us all free through the hope that one day there will be peace. And that day can be today. Amen.
God of liberty, we rejoice in the blessed abundance you have bestowed on our cherished land. We praise you for the freedom of religious expression which allows us to gather the way we have today. We praise you for the freedom to say what we think without fear of the governing authorities. We praise you for the benefits of education made available to all. We praise you for the freedom to dream our own dreams and to strive to make them come true. We praise you for the gift of living in a land untorn by war.
We rejoice in the bounty of this fruitful land, which provides us with plentiful food, beautiful places to work and play, and the freedom to be whoever you call us to be. For in freedom we are strong, yet we know that freedom is a fragile thing.
So we pray you help us protect our freedoms through the practice of peace. Give us as citizens the wisdom to realize that poverty and violence anywhere weakens the nation everywhere, just as illness in one part of a body weakens the whole.
Help us choose leaders who will do what is necessary for the well-being of the nation and beyond, who will not simply promise to grant our selfish wishes in exchange for election.
Help the citizens of this land to achieve consensus on our most pressing issues, so that united we can help our elected leaders lead with clarity, consistency and decisiveness.
God of peace, as people who have been freed forever through the blood of Jesus Christ, help us defeat in ourselves the impulse to slavishly submit to the tyranny of self-interest and greed, violence and war. Help us, whom you are preparing for eternity, to take the long-range view of what would be best for all, not merely what is expedient for those who presently enjoy political and economic advantage. Inspire us to be advocates for people whose voices cannot be heard in the public debate, that all your people may have a share in honor, prosperity.
So was we celebrate independence, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness, make it more than a freedom we celebrate, but a freedom we live and share.
Hear now we ask the prayers of our hearts as we offer them to you in this time of Holy Silence.
All this we pray in the name of Jesus our Savior, who taught us to pray saying, “Our…”