Zechariah 9:9-12, Mark 11:1-11, Mark 14:1-9
What a beautiful thing this woman did! The text doesn’t tell us why she anointed Jesus, but we can assume that she had been moved by his ministry. Perhaps it was his care and concern for those in need—exemplified by his presence that day in the house of Simon the leper. Maybe it was the way he valued and engaged women. Maybe it was the way he courageously kept going with his work, despite the rumors that those in power wanted to kill him. Whatever it was, this woman was moved to make an extraordinarily beautiful gesture—anointing Jesus with very expensive perfume, in a household of people, while Jesus reclined for a meal.
Jesus, in turn, defends her in this beautiful gesture, telling those who scolded her that she had truly understood the importance of the moment, and that she had, in effect, anointed his body for its burial.
This episode in the life of Jesus serves to begin Mark’s telling of Jesus’ passion. We next hear of Judas arranging his betrayal and the disciples gathering in the Upper Room for the Last Supper. It will only be a matter of hours before Jesus is tried, sentenced and crucified. Jesus’ beautiful self-giving is now underway.
But today we concentrate on his glorious entrance into the city earlier in the week. We recall how the great crowds welcomed him with a make-shift parade and shouts of joy.
The Old Testament reading paired with this account comes from the prophet Zechariah. The connections between the two texts are many. Most obvious is the joyful shouting of the people and the king riding upon a donkey. When Matthew gives his account of the story, he quotes these verses from the prophet.
But there are more connections in this text from Zechariah than just those in the first verses. This is much more than just a donkey and parade text. Zechariah is describing something beautiful—a beautiful peace.
The beautiful peace described by the prophet will come some day in the future. Zechariah’s words convey a promise from God. “I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off.” No longer will God’s people be taking up arms to defend themselves. Instead, the king that God installs shall “speak peace to the nations.” “His rule” shall be over the whole world.
Israel would certainly have welcomed that peace. And so would we. Whether the war is between nations or ideologies or individuals; whether it utilizes weapons that attack the body or weapons that attack the soul, people of all times and ages have known far too much war. War is everywhere. Violence is everywhere. People long for peace. Just look at the demonstration that took place yesterday.
Israel at that time had known decades of war. A generation earlier their capital and their temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians. Now they were back trying to rebuild, but they were threatened by other powerful and aggressive neighbors. So much so that in many ways, Israel would have felt like prisoners in their own land. Because of this, God continues his care by speaking very direct words of promise. “As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.”
The reference to a waterless pit is meant to evoke the memory of their earlier prophet Jeremiah, who was thrown down into a waterless cistern and kept there captive for a time. The reference also hearkens back to their ancient ancestor Joseph, whose jealous brothers threw him into a waterless pit before selling him into slavery.
Israel may feel like it is a prisoner in a waterless pit due to the powerful enemies that surround them, but God has promised to set them free. He will bring peace among the nations. He will bring an end to their war.
Included in this promise of peace is also a peace among the people of Israel themselves. God mentions the cutting off of weapons from Ephraim and Jerusalem. Those are references to the Northern Kingdom and the Southern. Israel will no longer be at war with itself. There will be peace among brothers.
This peace will come because of the “blood of his covenant.” Last week we heard Jeremiah talk about covenants. Zechariah reminds us that God’s covenant with his people is a blood covenant. Blood symbolizes the essence of life. God had his people shed the blood of sacrificial animals on an altar as a sign of both their sinfulness and God’s demand for payment. In the new covenant—that of Jesus—Jesus sheds his own blood on the cross in order to make payment for sins.
We today remember the blood of Christ most vividly when we drink the cup of Holy Communion, where Christ has promised to give us his blood for the forgiveness of our sins. Through the actions of Jesus, God’s promise through Zechariah is fulfilled in your life. You are set free from the waterless pit of your sin because of Christ’s blood of his covenant with you.
The beautiful picture of peace given by the prophet Zechariah has not yet been completely fulfilled among the nations and among brothers because in this life there is still sin. But, the promise is completely fulfilled for you when you turn to Christ in faith.
It is to that turning that we now direct our attention.
In this beautiful prophecy of Zechariah, we also hear God’s call to return. This is a call to faith.
If you have been at our midweek Lenten services this year you know that God issued this call through many different prophets. “Return to me” was the theme of our Lenten series and we noted how God issued this call with great urgency, imploring his people through threats, promises, emotional appeals and reason.
Zechariah actually begins his prophecy with such a call from God. “Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you” (v.3). That word is very similar to our text in chapter nine, where God says, “Return to your stronghold.” The language is not just similar but sure. The name “Lord of hosts” is like saying “Lord of armies.” God is the one who will bring peace by defeating the forces of evil with his armies. He may do it as he brings illness and natural disaster upon those forces of evil, or as he turns those forces against one another.
Once God defeats evil, he then maintains our security by being our “stronghold.” He is our Rock—one whom we can hold on to when being blown around by the storms of life or the winds of change. Even more, God is our fortress, like in Psalm 46. He gives us refuge and is an ever-present help in trouble.
God protects us. He grounds us. He is our stronghold. We should return to him.
As God calls us to return, note that he does so by giving us an interesting name. “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope.” Earlier God had said we were “freed from the waterless pit.” Now he says we are prisoners again. What gives?
As free as we are, God knows that in this life we will still struggle. There is not yet perfect peace among nations. There is not yet perfect peace between brothers. The beautiful peace that God promises may be perfect in our forgiveness, but that doesn’t mean we perfectly forgive others, or that life is easy.
Our struggle indicates that we are still prisoners. We are prisoners because we live in a world where freedoms must be curtailed. We are prisoners because we live in a world where people can’t fully trust one another. Most of all, we are prisoners because we cannot get free of our own sinful thoughts and desires. Our lives and relationships never work as well as we want, because we are prisoners to our sinful ways. Even when we grow and improve, we never reach the place of knowing no heartache and frustration.
That being said, we are not prisoners of despair. Rather, we are prisoners of hope. We have hope for a better day to come. We have hope not just for improvement but for perfection, someday. Through the prophets, we have been called to a living hope, in a living Lord. We have seen our Savior, Jesus Christ, march into our world to deal with our sin. We have seen him nailed to the cross to pay its penalty. And we have seen him risen from the dead, triumphant over despair and offering hope to all believers.
We prisoners of hope are the ones who can now see beauty in things such as the extravagant anointing of Jesus by an inspired woman. We are the ones who see beauty in things such as the parade held to honor his entry into the city. We know that these point to the beautiful peace of the forgiven heart, and the perfect peace soon to come.
Prisoners of despair don’t see the beauty. They are caught in their suspicions. They are trapped in their cynicism. Many of them think of us believers as “prisoners of hope,” but in a different way—as if hope was all that we had. They see us as being caught and trapped by our hope. They look down on those of us who believe, thinking we are imprisoned by a hope in hope itself. These are the ones who see an extravagant anointing and label it waste. These are the ones who see expressions of joy and label them misguided.
The critics will criticize. The scoffers will scoff. We believers will continue to believe. We will be prisoners of hope—people who understand the painful realities of this world but who refuse to be defeated by them. We have hope not simply in ourselves or in fate or in a generic optimism but in Jesus, who shed his blood to be in covenant with us. We may sometimes find ourselves in pits of frustration or pits of suffering, but we have been set free from the waterless pit of despair—for we were baptized into Christ.
Jesus Christ will speak peace to the nations because he has spoken peace to our hearts. He is the stronghold that we can always return to. He is the king who always comes to us, righteous and having salvation.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem. This world may be like a prison, but you are a prisoner of hope. Amen!