Lectionary 29 / Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost
A reading from Isaiah …
1 Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped,
to subdue nations before him
and to loose the belts of kings,
to open doors before him
that gates may not be closed:
2 “I will go before you
and level the exalted places,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
3 I will give you the treasures of darkness
and the hoards in secret places,
that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I name you, though you do not know me.
5 I am the Lord, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God;
I equip you, though you do not know me,
6 that people may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
7 I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the Lord, who does all these things.
(Isaiah 45:1-7 ESV)
I have not written here about any scriptural for a long time. I have not blogged here for a long time. Partly it is because I have had nothing to say. Partly it is because I am in a difficult place, spiritually. Partly it is because I write every day, and am also nearly 50,000 words into a novel. And partly, it is because I am a public person of sorts where I am and am not sure I want to create trouble for my employer.
I don’t seem to be able to create much public trouble for myself. I only get yelled and thrown out by bishops and pastors and committees of church people, but why chance it? (Which is perhaps another reason I have not blogged here much.)
So why today, then, as we creep up on Reformation Sunday? I don’t know. It still feels like a part of me is missing when I can’t do this. When I don’t do this.
I love this passage. I love the confident proclamation of the Lord to a man who likely isn’t even listening. “Thus says the Lord to his anointed” — כֹּה־אָמַר יְהוָה לִמְשִׁיחוֹ֮ li-meshihu to The Messiah. God has chosen this man, Cyrus, the shahanshah of Persia, a king who very likely knows little or nothing of The Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to rule, and to conquer.
I call you by name, the Lord says, and I equip you, the Lord adds, saying twice to this foreign king, “Though you do not know me.” (וְלֹא יְדַעְתָּֽנִי)
God does these things, names and equips Cyrus the King of Persia (much as he named and blessed Jacob), goes before Cyrus letting us know that the work of Cyrus — subduing nations, loosening belts, opening doors and gates, leveling exalted places, breaking down doors of bronze and cutting through bars of iron, and the giving over of treasures and hoards — is God’s work, and the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does this for no one’s sake but ours, his called and named and redeemed people.
Cyrus does not know the Lord, and does not know that when he conquers he does so because the Lord has grasped his hand, leads Cyrus and guides Cyrus.
So that we may be saved.
Does Cyrus need to know who calls him, and whose he is, to do the work he has been given? Does he need to believe to be part of God’s plan? Clearly not here. “Though you do not know me.” Said twice. Probably never said to him. But rather, said to Israel, as it languished in hopeless exile, wondering when salvation would come. The Lord’s anointed is here, in the form of a foreign king, who has put an end to Babylon, and will set us free. Chronicles ends, and Ezra begins, with a proclamation from Cyrus that “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth” and commanding the exiles to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the House of the Lord. Perhaps Cyrus believes, but I doubt it. This is a formula that the leader of great multi-ethnic empire would have given. He pronounces to the people he has conquered in the name of their god(s). Israel’s is just one more god of a people he rules over. His work is likely accidental, at least to him.
But not to us. This accident of history … is our redemption.
So how, then, are we to look upon the political world? The church, especially as it inherited empire and became Christendom, worked out the moral and ethical responsibility of Christians in a Christian polity. The teaching of the church assumes a Christian polity, and can generally conceive of the world no other way. Even liberal/progressive Christians, with their demand that some version of the beatitudes, need a version of Christendom, because they need the moral responsibility that comes with the presumption of rule.
But as Israel’s kingdoms failed, Israel also learned that, while it is called to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:7), Israel is also now something of a free rider politically. Israel as a people is no longer sovereign. They are conquered, and subject to the whim of the Babylonians, then the Persians, and then the Greeks — those who rule them. This loss of sovereignty is also the work of the Lord, who says “I make well-being and create calamity.” This sitting on the banks of the Euphrates singing songs of lament and mourning is also God’s work. While in scripture there are times and places where the people of God order the world according to the commands and teaching of God, there are other times in which we are cast about, leaves on the wind, in which we have no control, and can expect none.
Sometimes we are free riders on the order created and imposed by others, always mindful that order too is God’s. Not always, but when we’re hauled off into exile, it is enough to plant and build and beget, teach our children and all who come, rather than assume the empire must always adhere to our notions of right and wrong, of good order and justice.
The work of redeeming us is God’s, and sometimes God will find the strangest means — a foreign king who barely knows who we are — to fulfill God’s promises.
Because God knows us. And has not forgotten us.