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The text for our consideration this morning is the Old Testament reading from Isaiah 45 that begins like this:
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:
“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,
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 calls you by your name.” (Isaiah 45:1-3)
It is said that politics and religion make for strange bedfellows, but here you have it. God is directing the course of human history, not through His Church and its theologians, but through Cyrus, the King of Assyria.
Cyrus is still the FUTURE king of Assyria. Isaiah writes what the Lord spoke to him, 200 years before Cyrus is born.
A lot of people have a problem with this. Predicting world events and the rise and fall of nations is something that political scientists and economists are trained for. And with a lot of skill and little luck, their predictions may be amazingly accurate.
But to identify the name of a king 200 years before he’s born? And to spell out in such detail what will happen during his reign? That’s too much. God may be OMNISCIENT, but He’s not that ALL-KNOWING.
And if you don’t believe that the Scriptures are really the INSPIRED, INERRENT Word of God, but are only the speeches and stories of wise and clever men passed down from generation to generation, added to and subtracted from along the way, then its easy enough to assume that some clever scribe added Cyrus’ name into the record after it all happened.
Which defeats the whole purpose of PROPHESY. God broadcasts His FOREKNOWLEDGE so that when things actually happens the way He said they would, we might say, ‘aha, His Word really is true and worthy of my trust.’
Why do you think Jesus was so deliberate in telling His disciples ahead of time, in such explicit detail, that “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31) He does it so that when it happens JUST AS HE SAID IT WOULD, we would believe that His Word is trustworthy.
And if the things that He predicted would happen, actually did happen just as He said they would, then maybe we can believe that the things that He says are still yet to happen, will also come to pass just as He says they will.
Like, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come again in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11).
And like, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” (1 Cor. 15:51-52)
Secular history tells us that Cyrus, became king of Assyria waged war against the king of Babylon and won. Which all sounds like some obscure historical fact, until we realize that this happened when ISRAEL was in captivity in Babylon.
When Cyrus defeated Nebuchadnezzer, the first thing he did was set the Israelites free to return to Israel. And He gave them all the money and support that they needed to rebuild the city and the wall and the Temple.
Cyrus was truly the servant of the Lord, whether he realized it or not. “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… I equip you, THOUGH YOU DO NOT KNOW ME…”
This is the way God works. He works through rulers and politics and history, all for the sake of His people. And it really doesn’t depend on their faith or their goodness or the god they worship. GOD IS NOT DEPENDANT ON US.
He works through pagan rulers like Pharaoh of Egypt and Cyrus of Assyria to accomplish His holy will. It’s nice if they know that they are the Lord’s servants and carry out their calling AS TO THE LORD. But God is not limited by our faith.
In a strange and mysterious way, as men and women, boys and girls, carry out their particular vocation in life, whether they do so with evil intent or good, for selfish gain or unselfishly, justly or unjustly, God is in control. He is working all things according to His holy will.
In ancient times, all the other nations EXCEPT FOR ISRAEL, believed that there were many gods, some good and some bad. Some gods liked to cause trouble. Others gods were good and like to cause well-being. Some nations had strong gods who protected their people. Other nations had weak gods who couldn’t protect their people. So if good things happened, it was because the good gods had the upper hand. And if bad things happened, it was because the bad gods were stronger.
But Israel was a MONOTHEISTIC in a world of POLYTHEISM. Israel’s creed was the “Shema.” “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is ONE.” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
Or as we heard it from Isaiah earlier, “…there IS NONE BESIDES ME; I am the LORD, and THERE IS NO OTHER..” (Isaiah 45:4-6).
Which means that unlike all of their polytheistic neighbors, THERE’S NO BAD GOD TO BLAME WHEN BAD THINGS THAT HAPPEN, because there is only ONE GOD. And He says, “I form light AND create darkness, I make well-being AND create calamity, I am the Lord, who does ALL THESE THINGS.”
Much earlier, God spoke through His prophet Moses in similarly strong, and hard to swallow language. “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” (Deuteronomy 32:29)
So, we need to work things backwards just a bit here. If God is the One who called Cyrus to be His servant to conquer Babylon and set His people free, then WAS HE ALSO the One who called Nebuchnezzar, king of Babylon, to be His servant to destroy Jerusalem and take Israel into captivity. “I am the Lord, who does ALL THESE THINGS.”
And it’s right about here that a lot of monotheists decide to become polytheists. To think that the God could possibly be that responsible for bringing DARKNESS and CALAMITY onto people makes us uncomfortable. That God is not only the One who HEALS AND MAKES ALIVE but is also the One who WOUNDS AND KILLS, just seems wrong.
Not too long ago, a Jewish Rabbi named Harold Kushner wrote a book that became popular called “When Bad Things Happen To Good People.” His basic premise was that you can’t blame God for the bad things that happen because God’s not really in control of all things. Certain forces have been set into motion that even God can’t change.
Sometimes we too may find it too unbearable to think that the Lord our God is complicit in the bad things that happen, either on the grand scale of international and national events like wars and natural disasters and diseases, all the way down to very local and personal things like an overturned hay-wagon or the illness that I am suffering from.
We would like think that you couldn’t possibly find God’s fingerprints on the bad stuff that happens. But then we hear God’s Word and it’s like crashing into a brick wall. “I am the Lord, who does ALL THESE THINGS.”
Why do you think it is that we want to keep our God removed from suffering and pain and death? Is it because we want to protect His reputation as a LOVING GOD and we can’t imagine that God could actually LOVE through suffering and death?
OR do we honestly believe that He is a kind and grand-fatherly god who would like to defend us from darkness and calamity, if only He could?
OR could it be that we cannot stomach the thought that we have sinned against God, and He is at work through the darkness and calamity that we may see our sin and repent that He may heal us?
If Israel had refused to acknowledge that it was by the hand of the Lord that they were in captivity in Babylon, they would never have connected their condition to their sin against God. And they would have remained dead in their sin.
When Israel was making their way through the desert to the Promised Land, they began to complain about the food. Moses writes, “Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” The wounding and the death of God’s own people is clearly attributed to the hand of God.
And to their credit the people didn’t say, “God would never have anything to do with this. This is too messy a thing for God to be mixed up in.” Or, “I don’t want anything to do with a God who wounds and kills.”
They said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” (Numbers 21) They repented and confessed their sin and asked for forgiveness. And the same God who wounded and killed, healed and made alive.
We dare not make the mistake here that many make, of trying to connect particular tragedy and death to particular sins in order to justify God. It doesn’t work that way. And God doesn’t need to be justified.
And dare not make the mistake of making God the author of evil. The bible makes it perfectly clear that God created the world AND EVERYTHING IN IT, and it was ALL “very good.” No evil.
It’s man, Adam and Eve and you and me, who are the authors of evil and we author it anew every day. It’s our doing that turned the world from ‘very good’ to a place of darkness and calamity, wounding and killing.
But God is in control, and is He is even evil’s Lord. He holds the devil on a leash. Nothing happens without God’s consent and command. He allows evil to befall us for His own good purposes, which is to bring sinners like you and me to repentance and receive from the Lord’s hand His forgiveness and life. He intends to make this world ‘very good’ again, and He desires that all would repent and come to faith and live.
This is why Christians have always had the audacity to confess that even the WORST EVIL IN HUMAN HISTORY was carried out by God, who called Pontius Pilate by name, to be His servant, and crucify His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
If we CANNOT believe that the one, true God could be involved in darkness and calamity, wounding and killing, then we will fail to see the holy hand of God in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, just as He foretold it throughout the Old Testament.
But if we believe that God is good and He is love, AS HE SAYS HE IS, then we who say that there are no other gods, may even see His goodness and love in the darkness and calamity, the suffering and death of Jesus. At the death of Jesus many must have been confused about God’s goodness and love. But then came the 3rd day.
God, the ONLY GOD, brought the darkness and the calamity, the suffering and death onto Jesus,
• to bring light into the darkness that our sin has caused;
• to bring well-being into the calamity that our sin has created;
• to bring life into the death that our sin brought into His creation.
This is the way God works:
• He brings calamity to give us well-being.
• He makes us captives to set us free.
• He sends darkness to bring us into His light.
• He kills us to raise us up from the dead.
“I am the Lord, who does ALL THESE THINGS.”
If we will see the holy hand of God even in the darkness of the cross of Christ, working the greatest good for all mankind, then maybe we can see his hand even in the darkness that surrounds us and believe what we prayed in the Collect for today, “that with You as our ruler and guide we may so pass through things temporal that we lose not the things eternal.”