Proper 24 (16th of October)
The prophet Isaiah is not known to have had a problem of needing people’s approval. He was not a people-pleaser. Individuals who do have such a problem are not generally called to the vocation of prophet. And if they are, they have to get over the problem quickly. The prophets certainly have positive messages to relate from time to time, but even those messages are usually delivered with implications that are far from comfortable for the people. Such is the message we have read from Isaiah today.
Remember that Isaiah is prophesying in the southern kingdom of Judah, before it is conquered and before the people are all carted away to Babylon for about 70 years. We’re about two centuries before Cyrus the Persian then conquers Babylon and allows the Judeans to go home. Cyrus won’t be born probably for about another century and a half. And here, through the prophet, God is sending him an open letter.
And in the very first line, in the very first clause, we have an affront to the devout Jew. “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, … Cyrus”. Now “the Lord’s anointed” means a prophet, a priest, a king of Israel, and that’s it. “Messiah” also means “anointed one”. And here Isaiah says that this pagan gentile, this king from the Goyim is the Lord’s anointed. In fact, the Lord says that he has “grasped him by the right hand,” signifying a special choosing and intimate fellowship.
But wait. Ought not God to call someone from his chosen people to accomplish his will? This is the way we usually think, isn’t it? Even we, who are the inheritors of such a long history of God’s sovereign activity, think that God works only through those people who already are submitted to him. He works through us, not them. And so God needs us and we’re OK.
But that’s not the message here. Certainly, God desires desperately that we submit ourselves to him, that we be reconciled with him, for our own sake as well as for the sake of others. But does he really need us in that way? Evidently not. For here is Cyrus the Persian, the Lord’s anointed.
God will carve out a monumental path through the world for Cyrus. It’s as if Cyrus just has to show up. God will do the rest. He will subdue nations and turn kings into quivering craven jellies. He will open, or break down, doors and gates. He will throw open hidden treasures and hoards. All so that Cyrus will have to acknowledge that it is Yahweh, the God of Israel, who has done all these things.
Our God is not only the God of Israel. He is the Lord of the whole creation. Though Cyrus does not know him, he is Lord over Cyrus. He says, “I surname you [I give you your title], though you do not know me. … I gird you [I arm you], though you do not know me.” He does not need the permission of Cyrus’ faith in order to make of him what he wishes. Remember that when this prophecy was delivered, Cyrus wasn’t even going to exist yet for over a century. He says, “I am Yahweh, and there is no other, besides me there is no God.” There is nothing that can or will keep him from achieving his purposes. And he will achieve them in his own way with his own methods, whether we like it or not.
And yet there is something that limits God. And that something is God himself. He never uses his complete freedom and sovereignty to annul the promises he has already made. Thus, it is “for the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen” that God calls Cyrus. He has promises of faithfulness to Abraham, to Jacob, and to David to fulfill, even if his people are not cooperating.
And there is another reason that God calls Cyrus. Those of you who remember your Abrahamic covenant will see what it must be. For God’s relationship with the patriarchs and with the nation of Israel was never ever without its missiological aspect. God blessed Abraham so that by him “all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” So God called Cyrus, “that men may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west,” that Yahweh is the Lord, the only God.
This isn’t because God is jealous in the way we are jealous. He isn’t throwing a temper tantrum at not getting what he deserves. It is for our sake that he is making such a big deal about who he is. Why do you think that the human race is in the mess it’s in? Because we will not submit ourselves to the truth. As one commentator I read puts it, “So long as we continue to make God in our image, so long as we continue to believe that we can insure our own security and comfort by manipulating the psycho-social-physical world without the surrender of our own autonomy, just so long we will continue in darkness, destruction, and despair.”
But the converse is true as well. God may “form light and create darkness.” He may “make weal and create woe.” But he is always aiming at the former. He may have to chasten or instruct us at times with things that to us are calamities. He may have to allow evil things to occur for reasons we could not possibly understand. But at the heart of reality is a vision for us, a vision so glorious and joyous, and yet so profound and unfrivolous, that we can hardly fathom it.
And here our lectionary has done us a disservice. It has left out the vision. It’s in the final verse, right after our reading ended. “Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may sprout forth, and let it cause righteousness to spring up also; I the Lord have created it.” You see, all of God’s actions are driving toward this goal. I almost said “ultimate goal”, but that would have been wrong. This vision of righteousness pouring from the sky, and salvation and righteousness sprouting from the ground, this is who God is. The heavens and the earth symbolize the whole creation. This is his goal for every thing, even the least of things, not just for the end of things. This is how God is treating each one of us and all of us together. It is us who cannot see beyond the pain of growth as we spring from the soil of creation.
God is in control. That means that he is ultimately responsible for the things that we don’t like, as well as the things we do. It also means that he will almost certainly accomplish his goals in ways that we do not expect and of which we may not even approve. He certainly takes a much longer view of his historical goals than I do. But his goal for us is to live with him in that righteousness and deliverance he is pouring out on us and on every thing at every moment.
To Him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.