This week’s readings seem to speak about assumptions. We live in diverse communities, with a lot of mistrust, and we naturally make lots of assumptions about “them” and what they really want. This week we’ll hear about Cyrus the King of Iran (especially interesting considering Middle East politics and the face of Islam), successful churches, and the tax. I find myself being warned that things are not necessarily what they seem to be.
This says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him – and the gates shall not be closed. – Isaiah 45:1
It would be a real shame to engage this passage from Isaiah without knowing a little bit about Cyrus. He’s not a Jew – who is this person and what does he want with us? First, consider that Isaiah began his ministry in Jerusalem (the southern kingdom of Judea) sometime after the year 740 and continued working to at least the year 700.War, war, war! The northern kingdom of Israel and Damascus wanted to enlist Judea to assert their independence from Assyria, but declared war on Judea when it refused to play along. Against Isaiah’s warnings, Judea aligned with Assyria to survive, and thus became an Assyrian vassal. “I told you so!” Judea later tried in vain to assert its own independence from Assyria. Let this be our backstory.
Fast forward about a hundred years or so, and we find Assyris collapsing and Egypt and Babylon rising up against each other, with Judea in the middle. Isaiah is dead and buried well before now. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquers Judea, exiles prominent Jews, and leaves a pitiful remnant to fend for itself in the ruins of Jerusalem. The Babylonian exile. The book of Ezekiel. Persia (Iran) surges in power and under King Cyrus conquers Babylonia later in the same century. And, now our stage is set for this week’s passage from Isaiah. I just ran fast and loose through the history, but I think it’s enough to help us better appreciate this reading.
The book of Isaiah is thought to have three distinct parts, and this Second Isaiah spans chapters 40 through 55. While First Isaiah is thought of as originating out of Isaiah’s own ministry, this author is not Isaiah, but a later disciple of Isaiah’s thought, living within the Babylonian exile. Cyrus was apparently a super awesome guy. He had a reputation for mercy toward defeated rulers and people, and had a policy of allowing exiles to return to their native lands. So with hopes of an end to the Babylonian exile, of course Cyrus is chosen by God to shepherd the people of Israel. I’m not saying that’s absolutely the situation of God’s hand in that history, but rather, as Israel captures its historical imagination, they make Cyrus into one chosen by God.
Now, reading further, things get very interesting:
For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me. – Isaiah 45:4-6
Wow! You don’t know Me, and yet I’ll work through you anyway. What a message! Our own Lutheran theology teaches us that we are all marked as children of God in our baptism, and will forever remain God’s precious and chosen children. So what does that say about the jerk in the third pew? Or the frenemy that you’d like to punch in the neck? God love ’em! And in fact, even though we claim to believe it, and usually ignore it – God does love them, just as much as He loves you or me. And not just that He loves them (But they don’t deserve it! Waaaaaa!), but He’s ready to do a new thing with and through them! Brownnose all you want, but they’re just as much a part of God’s vision as us. Kind of throws our judgementalism out the window, to be sure.
So, this reading is a pretty big proclamation for us, because our assumptions are pretty much all wrong. I’m not implying universalism, but we owe it to ourselves to see God in all people around us, whether Christian or not. Because while we dream of God’s vision, and think we kinda know what it is, it totally exceeds anything we could ever fully imagine or understand. This is a reminder to us, to open our minds to God acting through the people we least expect. And wouldn’t we be crazy to not want that? Instead of thinking of being “God’s elect” as some kind of privileged honor, that we really don’t deserve (hello grace!), why wouldn’t we instead rejoice in the exciting faith that God is acting through everyone everywhere – we don’t have to own or contain that role. Certainly lightens our load!
With that, I want to offer a prayer for the local community, especially in light of the growing diversity of the Indianapolis and Zionsville community, that we might find ways to reach out in faith to those least like us, for God is about to do great things through them as they are, and how else will we get to experience it?
Spirit of Surprise, we praise You for Your mysterious ways that we do not understand, for You give us hope that You will work amazing things in our world that we cannot yet imagine. Help us to reach out to others in faith, whether or not they share our own, and to open our minds to perceive the amazing things that You are about to do with them and us in our midst.
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Ever since I began blogging the lectionary, I’ve been amazed how common themes between each week’s readings seem to jump out at me. If I’d never started doing this, I’d be missing so much of the richness of scripture. Until….. this week.
For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of people we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit. – 1 Thessalonians 1:4-6
Tricky. This feels like a love letter from the faithful to the faithful. It sounds like the Thessalonians are a growing and thriving bunch. And I guess you’d expect to read much like that in scripture. But then, why pair this reading with the Isaiah reading? Slowly, I found myself extracting “our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in the Holy Spirit.” You know, the Good News exists regardless of ourselves. God in Jesus Christ sacrificed Himself for the sake of the world. In the Transfiguration, Jesus informs us that He leaves in order that the Advocate might come to us. And we understand faith to be a gift of God, impossible for us to choose or manufacture. So, just where does the Holy Spirit reside right this minute?
Amid the platitudes of this reading, I think there’s an important emphasis here on the Holy Spirit, bringing the Gospel into our hearts and minds. The implication is that even when we don’t perceive it, or understand the message of the Gospel, it lives within us in spite of our blindness. Here, Paul celebrates how the Holy Spirit has led the Thessalonians to great ministry – not just due to a conscious choice or aspiration. I think this ties to the reading from Isaiah, in that the Holy Spirit resides wherever it resides, regardless where we think it should, and easily brings the Gospel to life in the people and places we least expect. Perhaps the Thessalonians were an easy example, but you or me in our own lifetime, not so much.
I find myself wanting to offer a prayer for the Church of Christ. These days, many congregations are hungry to grow in membership. They advertise themselves as “relevant” and “authentic” – but you know, you honestly don’t have the right to say that. You’re just trying to woo my Gen-X, pre-Millenial butt into your pew, because you think those words are some kind of magical incantation. But, no matter how badly you want to be “authentic”, I don’t think it’s within your power to do so. You either are or you aren’t, and hopefully someday you’ll become authentic if you’re not now. But, if you’re seeking to be authentic for authentic’s sake, you woudn’t be thinking of advertising it. Perhaps we need to pray for inspiration, to nurture the Gospel in our midst, for our own sake, and let all things grow from that as they will.
God of Good News, we thank You for bringing us together to hear about and to celebrate Your real grace, mercy, and salvation that transforms our lives now, today. Bless our hearts and our minds to take this in, and to help Your Church to pour it back out as a message of hope for all people of the world.
And now, we have one of the snappiest comebacks in all of scripture. I was privileged to be in a couple of productions of Godspell, which does wonders for helping you internalize a lot of these parables, especially this one.
‘Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Show me the coin used for the tax. Whose head is this, and whose title? Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ – Matthew 22:17-21 (paraphrased)
Who’s head is on the coin? Caesar’s? Then give him what’s his. A pretty sassy retort for the Pharisees. But don’t forget that Jesus really was a part of the Pharisaic tradition, so don’t paint them with the broad brush of just being a nameless, connaiving enemy. Maybe just these particular examples of the Pharisees. Again, this reading is difficult for me to align with the other readings for the week. Another challenge.
But the more I re-read this passage, I find myself noticing an earlier part:
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth.’ – Matthew 22:15-16
The Thessalonians were filled with the Holy Spirit, which led them into great ministry. Cyrus didn’t know God, and yet we imagine how he might have been chosen by God to liberate Israel from Babylon. They grew into what may have been God’s vision for them, without any grounding in their own self-conception or desires. Who were the Pharisees? The Pharisees were part of the beginning of the modern-day Jewish synagogue tradition – teachers and students studying the Torah, the “teaching”, in local houses of worship. People keeping tradition and history alive and fluent, through which they seek to know who God is and who they are, whereever they might be. Like I said, it’s important to look past the setting of the story, to not see “The Pharisees” as some kind of generic enemy. But here we have a few malevolent people here who claim themselves as a part of the Pharisaic movement.
Sometimes, the people we look to as the leaders of our Church, our spiritual authorities, are not what they would have us believe. Evil is evil, and can thrive in any human heart. These gadflies perfectly understood the letter of the law. But would they honestly proclaim the spirit of any of it? I think this reading ends up being a counter-example to the other two readings for the week. The scriptures have proclaimed that God works through all people, in mysterious ways, and that the Holy Spirit brings the Gospel to life within us. And to challenge our assumptions, some of the people we have convinced ourselves must be Spirit-filled by all outward appearances, are most assuredly not!
So, appearances are everything and nothing. What do the true fruits of the Spirit look or sound like? Is the Gospel about learning and following laws, or is the Gospel about becoming aware of God’s abundant grace flowing into us, and celebrating that promise and new reality? Law and Gospel – two kingdoms. Perhaps this reading serves to warn us, to exhort us to rethink what we assume is the Gospel. Does a Church owe its success to proclaiming the Gospel, or to enslaving its members to a law that abuses and manipulates? How do we tell the difference? These accusers of Jesus sound like they might very well have been up-and-comers in the local Pharisaic community, but for whose ends? I say, their own socio-political ends, and hence they must discredit and set up Jesus for betrayal, for He is a threat to their deepest desires. This reading warns us – don’t be taken in! Learn about law and Gospel, learn how to tell them apart, for then the Gospel stands a greater chance of blooming in your own life.
And so, I want to offer a prayer for the civil servants who represent our leaders and government to us. When you go to the BMV, wait in the line for hours, get to a nameless bureaucrat at a computer who tells you that you don’t have the papers you need, it’s disheartening and disillusioning. Of course, the spirit of these systems may be to establish order and safety, but when we run against people mindlessly enforcing laws, without compassion, I can’t help but feel like there’s a subtext of punishment and abuse of power. That’s not Gospel. And in turn, when I call the Mayor’s Action Line and meet with someone who hears me, who empathizes with me and my trouble, that’s Gospel from the places of power. So, I want to pray for civil servants in all places.
Lord of Redemption, we pray for our leaders and civil servants at all levels of government who work to enforce laws and regulations. Bless them to craft policies out of concern and care for society, to carry them out with compassion and understanding, and that they might be a part of bringing your vision of shared life into being.
And so, hopefully this week you might be led to question your own assumptions about what you think is Godly and holy. The Gospel comes to life in the least likely people and places, and isn’t that fortunate and hopeful for us? May your own mind be opened this week to the possibility of what might be with God, and not just what seems to be as-is. Because there’s another story out there.