The text for this sermon is Isaiah 45:1-7.
I want to look at the last verse of our Old Testament text this morning, Isaiah 45:7. This is God speaking through the prophet, I form light and create darkness, I will make weal and create woe. I the Lord do all these things. I will make weal and create woe. Weal is an Old English word that is related to our present day words well and wealth. It is a noun that describes a content or prosperous state of being. So weal is a good thing. Through the prophet God is saying that I am the same God behind lives that are content and prosperous and lives that are full of woe, despair, chaos and difficulties.
I don’t know if I like that. If I were writing the bible, my God wouldn’t say something like this. Yet, here it is. Now, I am not beyond shrugging my shoulders and dismissing such lines as crazy, Old Testament sort of language. The Old Testament is the same place that brought us the disturbing story in the book of Judges about a heroic woman nailing a spike in the forehead of a sleeping general. Even in the first chapters of Isaiah, God is described as using the really bad country of Assyria, think Nazi Germany, to punish Israel like a hammer. So, sometimes I read the Old Testament and honestly don’t know what to make of it. I can’t find Christ, so I shrug my shoulders and move on.
For reasons I grew to regret as I wrestled with this text all weekend, I decided not to shrug this line away. This part of Isaiah is a prophecy telling Israel that God will use the Persian King Cyrus to conquer Babylon. At this point in the 6th century BCE, Israel was enslaved by Babylon and Jerusalem was in ruins. A victory for Cyrus in Babylon will mean freedom for God’s people and a return to Jerusalem. The crazy thing is that this Persian King does not know he is called by God to do this and God has no intention of revealing this to him.
Cyrus had his own gods who he believed in. His religion was dualistic. The world was a battleground with gods of good and evil duking it out. Evil gods caused evil things to happen and good gods caused good things to happen. Not only did Cyrus not know this God of Israel the prophet said was anointing and leading him, he did not believe in a god that caused both good things and bad things to happen.
Maybe more importantly, neither did most Jewish people hearing the prophet’s words for the first time. In the Old Testament, it was understood that God caused problems for people who misbehaved. Remember the general who literally woke up with a splitting headache. He wasn’t a savory character. God brought woe to bad guys, but God brought weal to good guys.
In the Genesis creation stories God clearly creates everything, but there seems a tiny asterisk in the text. In chapter one, God creates the world out of the chaos that was already there. There is no mention where that chaos came from. In Genesis three, God’s perfect creation is corrupted by evil that attacks within the garden in a created creature, a snake that seems to be an interloper, an uninvited guest to the garden. Not mentioned is where or why that snake was slithering in that beautiful garden.
So how did the prophet get to this radical statement that not only challenged Persia and most other pagan religions of his time, but also tweaked the nose of his own Jewish faith and honestly, makes all of us 21st century Lutherans a little uncomfortable, too? I believe it starts with the crazy idea that God would use a foreigner for good. Not just use Cyrus, but use him without even letting him know that he had been part of God’s greater plan for good. Not just use Cyrus, but call him anointed and shepherd in the text; titles in the Old Testament that are only used for kings; titles that are later given to the King of Kings, Jesus.
If God uses Cyrus in this way, this means that God is not just the God of Israel, but the God of everything and everyone, the only God in town. This means that not only good Jewish people are made in God’s image, but even bad Persian, Babylonian or Assyrian people are made in God’s image, too. Israel knew this already of course, up here in their head. Yet, they really never had to confront what it meant, down here, in the world. God isn’t simply their God. God is the God.
If God is the God of everyone, and not just a God tied to the state of Israel, this means God is truly the creator of everything, even that chaos that just showed up on day one of the universe or that snake that just slithered in to that beautiful garden. It also means that God’s purpose in creation is not to protect the state of Israel. It is to finish the work of creation, replacing chaos with order, freeing his greatest creation of all, us, from that slithering snake.
God doesn’t use Cyrus so Israel could return to the glory days of nationhood under David. God uses Cyrus so that Jerusalem and the temple could be rebuilt and the entire world, even Cyrus, will be drawn to this light shining on the hill. Cyrus wins and the temple is rebuilt, but the light doesn’t shine bright enough. The state of Israel is bullied by great powers like Rome. The temple priests are corrupted.
God continues the pursuit of ridding the world of evil and does something really radical. God doesn’t anoint another pagan ruler. The Father anoints the Son to come, tear down the temple and create a new light to draw all nations. God replaces that temple with Jesus. Jesus said, “I will tear down this temple and in three days, build it back up.” From Cyrus to Jesus is all part of the same plan, to reveal God to us, to fix creation, to kill the slithering snake that has taken a bite out of each of us.
The prophet reveals though the theological conundrum all people of faith face at one time or another. If God is not bigger than evil than how can we trust God to conquer it; but if God is bigger than the evil, than God must be responsible for it, too, the God of light and darkness, the God of weal and woe? The prophet can’t answer this and neither can I. We can both declare confidently that whatever the reason evil is here, it seems clear that God is out to get rid of it. God is willing to do crazy things like anoint an outsider and make him an insider, or even come to earth in Jesus to be rid of it for good. Getting to God’s goal of a world without evil will ironically require darkness and woe, think Good Friday, but that day was followed by Easter. Even our darkest days of woe carry the hope of weal to come.
There is only one God and that God works through the forces of creation and the human gifts of all people, even outsiders like Cyrus. Finally, this is why Respect is one of our most cherished values here at Messiah. Like Israel in the 6th Century BCE, we need to be reminded that all of humanity contains God’s image. Israel never thought a Gentile like Cyrus could be the hero, the anointed shepherd they were waiting for. Rome never thought their savior would be a Jewish rabbi from a colony in the boondocks. We never know what special and gifted way God is using the people we met. Each of us, everyone, carries the spark of God and thus should be respected as if it were God, God’s self, standing before us.
And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. All people, men, women and children, smart and the cognitively challenged, wonderfully charming and horribly obnoxious, grumpy curmudgeons and perky Pollys, saints and sinners, divorced, widowed, pitiful philanderers, happily married and blessed singles, drunkards and tea totalers, introverts and extroverts, straight and gay, thieves and police officers, Mao Tse Tung and Mother Theresa, all people are equally loved, uniquely gifted, bearers of God’s image in our world. There are no Persians and Israelites, Greek nor Jew, neither male nor female, slave nor free. Protestant nor Catholic nor Buddhist, Moslem or Hindu either in the creation God is working towards in Jesus. In Christ there are no insiders and outsiders, only outsiders that don’t know yet they have been made insiders.
Why woe exists in our life, I do not know. I do know God is working to be rid of it for all of us and using us to carry out this plan. If God can do great things with a rough and tumble pagan like Cyrus who didn’t even know such a God existed, just think what God could do with people like us. God is so bent on reconciling all of creation, chasing that snake out of our lives, that this God of darkness and light, weal and woe is willing to use any and all tools to do it, even a tool like me. Amen