October 19, 2014
5 Thus 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: 2 I will go before you and level the mountains, 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 riches hidden in secret places, so 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 surname you, though you do not know me. 5 I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, 6 so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. 7 I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.
For three weeks now, we’ve rooted our weekly readings in the wisdom of the prophet Isaiah. We first encountered God’s story about his vineyard, a parable about the house of Israel and the people of Judah. God had high hopes for his beloved vineyard and yet the vineyard failed to produce good fruit. In his great anger, God abandoned the vineyard. Twenty chapters later, we encountered God rebuilding the broken relationships by creating a great feast and refuge with an invitation to all people. This week, twenty chapters later incidentally, we again encounter the magnificent power of God. God works through King Cyrus to bring the people of Israel out of exile and restore their lost status. This return and restoration is just as awesome as God’s destruction and rebuilding! Consider the nature of the Jewish exile and who Cyrus was.
Recall that the people of Israel were captured after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. The people of Israel were scattered for 50 years before the Persian King Cyrus finally conquered Babylonia and invited the exiled Jews back to help rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. The fact that Cyrus conquered the great and mighty Babylonian empire isn’t what makes the narrative awesome. All empires eventually fall. If the collapse wasn’t at the hand of Cyrus, it would have been at the hand of someone else. No, what made the collapse of the Babylonian empire so awesome was that it was at the hand of a pagan ruler, someone who didn’t even believe in the same god as the people of Israel, didn’t fully understand the suffering of the Jewish people and their relationship with God! And yet, in the eyes of Isaiah and the Jewish people, King Cyrus was considered a ‘messiah,’ an anointed one. He became their great savior, sent to free them from their captivity and restore their lost status. God chose to let His glory be known through an unlikely conqueror, an unknown and unknowing conqueror. Surely there was someone more qualified, with strong Jewish pedigree, who could have risen and delivered the Jewish people out of exile. In spite of his lack of qualifications and pedigree, in spite of his disbelief, God chose Cyrus to lead his people out of the wilderness.
Of course, in some ways, this, too, can be expected of God. God has a habit of choosing people who have little to no qualifications or pedigree to lead his people out of the wilderness. Look at Moses or Abraham or Joseph or Elijah or Jonah or Ezekiel or Jeremiah…they were all probably not the most apparent leaders of the bunch. God chooses unlikely heroes for his story and we are ALL part of God’s unfolding story. We ALL can be chosen by God to reveal God’s steadfast love and mercy. And we are fools if we claim to know exactly who God will choose to reveal his majesty. God’s ways are not our ways. God sees into the hearts of people. God saw into the heart of Cyrus and called him out to be a leader for His people. God knew full well that Cyrus didn’t know Him. There is great hope in hearing that God chooses the unknown and unknowing!
God’s mercy goes beyond simply choosing the unknowing to lead his people. God’s mercy extends to the teaching of his supremacy to the unknowing as well. God chooses Cyrus despite his lack of qualifications or pedigree AND teaches Cyrus that he is the one, true God. Isaiah proclaims, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no God…I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.” God recognizes Cyrus’ ignorance, God recognizes our ignorance, and still reaches out to us to claim lordship in our lives. God refuses to compete with our various gods. God is our one, true God and will firmly and repetitively teach us this despite our desires to claim false gods. Thanks be to such an awesome God!
October 19, 2014
1 O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. 2 Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. 3 Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples. 4 For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods. 5 For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens. 6 Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
7 Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. 8 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts. 9 Worship the Lord in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.
We give thanks and praise to our awesome God who chooses both the knowing and unknowing among us to lead his people through psalms like this one. According to the Lutheran Study Bible, there are 150 psalms in our Bibles that can be divided up into 10 different types: prayers for help, hymns of praise, liturgies, instructional psalms, songs of thanksgiving, royal psalms, trust psalms, acrostic poems, festival psalms, and historical psalms. Within each of the 10 different types of psalms, there are a number of different subtypes as well. I won’t mention the different subtypes but know that Bible scholars have noticed definite patterns and similarities among the Psalms. Our assigned psalm for today, the 96th psalm, is rightly classified as a “Hymn of Praise” and more specifically an “Enthronement” hymn. As the Lutheran Study Bible defines, these hymns “specifically praise God as ‘King.’ Originally they may have been sung at a festival celebrating the Lord as the universal king.” King David lifts up this “enthronement hymn of praise” as a means of celebrating God as the one, true king and lord of all.
Unlike King Cyrus, a pagan unknowing king, King David proved to always be a faithful, knowing king. Though there were many times in his life when David questioned God’s presence and ways, there was never a time when he didn’t know the awesome glory of God. Even when his enemies were upon him, even when he felt like God had abandoned him, even when he couldn’t understand why he had to suffer, David had faith that God was somewhere and that his suffering would serve some greater good that only God knew about. David knew the God had chosen him to lead God’s people. David hadn’t chosen God. God does the choosing. This is an important distinction to make. King Cyrus and all other pagans believed that a relationship with a god, any god, was something that one chooses on their own. Typically the god that a pagan chooses is one he or she can relate to, one with common interests. For example, if a person likes to kill and murder, then he or she could best relate to a god renown in the art of killing and murdering. Pagan gods, in essence, help support certain lifestyles and/or beliefs. King David’s hymn of praise, recognizing the Lord as “greatly to be praised…to be revered above all gods,” is clearly in direct opposition to whatever hymn Cyrus and other pagans would lift up.
David may have started with humble beginnings but he grew to understand the riches and power of kingship. David grew to understand how to lead many people and they, in turn, came to regard him as a great and compassionate savior. As with any king or leader, the temptation must have been strong to consider himself a supreme king, perhaps a god. Or, similar to Cyrus, David could have chosen to worship multiple gods depending on whatever trial or fortune befell him. But David chooses not to claim supreme kingship, not to claim god status. Nor does he proclaim loyalty to a variety of gods. David lifts up his praise and thanksgiving to our one, true God.
David knew that God reigned supreme over all of creation. David also knew that God doesn’t need his worship and praise. God is perfectly fine going about destroying and creating without David’s praise and thanksgiving…without our praise and thanksgiving. The love of our God is not conditional. God doesn’t stop providing for us if we don’t praise him. God’s love is unconditional. God’s love is steadfast. God’s love is unending. We lift up our praise and thanksgiving because we have joyous hearts. We know that we don’t deserve all that God provides and yet God still provides, day in and day out. We, like David, can’t help but sing out in praise of such a merciful and loving God!! God’s ways are not our ways. Thanks be to God that he doesn’t provide according to what we think we deserve. Thanks be to God for seeing into the heart of a young David and for guiding him through a life of great triumphs and struggles. Thanks be to God for seeing into our hearts and being unlike any other god for us!
October 19, 2014
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.
2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 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 persons we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 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, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9 For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul also gives praise and thanksgiving for the steady and faithful ministry of his Christian converts there. We know from the book of Acts that Paul was an ardent persecutor of the Christian church before his conversion on the road to Damascus. His confrontation with Jesus on that road was so powerful and life-changing that he dedicated the rest of his life to mission work for Christ. Similar to Cyrus, Paul was an unlikely candidate for receiving such a radical conversion. Paul not only didn’t know our God but he was committed to persecuting those who did know our God. Certainly not the most qualified candidate indeed! If he was qualified for anything, it would have been for the judgment and condemnation of our Lord. But again, God’s ways are not our ways. God sees into the heart of men and chooses unlikely people to reveal his glory. Paul was yet another unlikely candidate.
Nonetheless, Paul became a fervent Christian, eager to spread the good news to all the world. It was on his second major mission trip between 49 and 52 AD that Paul stopped in the important Macedonian port of Thessalonica. He stayed in the house of Jason and converted many Jewish people to Christianity. Jealousy arose among the converted and non-converted Jews and Paul was forced to make a quick exit as we read in Acts 17:5-9. Paul later sent Timothy back to Thessalonica with this letter of continued instruction for his new converts to Christianity. This letter would go on to become the first written book of the Greek New Testament.
It is an important letter because it is a letter of both instruction and encouragement. Paul was proud of his converts. He writes, “we always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul had heard from other people in the area of the “full conviction” of the Thessalonians. The jealousy that arose when he had been with them had not affected their zeal for Christ. They had proven to be committed followers of Christ and this pleased Paul.
The conversion of the Thessalonians was no small feat either! Before coming to believe in Christ, these were a paganous people. They were like most people in the region at the time. They believed in many gods, fit for whatever trial or tribulation one faced from day to day. But our God is a supreme God, above all other gods. Conversion to Christianity expects a believer to give up false gods. Paul writes, “for the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.” The Thessalonians had gone against the trend of the time; the trend of having many gods or idols. How easy do we think this conversion was for the Thessalonians? How easy do we find conversion is for people in our own time? Do people of today readily claim Jesus as their Lord and Savior? Are people of today eager to claim God as the one “living and true God?” No, for many people today this is a difficult conversion. It was no doubt just as difficult, if not more difficult, for the conversion of the Thessalonians.
Our God realizes how difficult it is and yet he persists in reaching out to us. God knows the powers of sin are strong in this world. God knows how easy it is to claim false gods and idols in our daily living. There is great temptation to abandon God in our lives, in this world. Yet God still reaches out to us. God still searches out the hearts of men like Paul to reveal his glory and majesty to all the world. God still wants to be in relationship with you and me whether we know God or not. God doesn’t let us get by on ignorance. God seeks us out and finds ways to draw out our love and praise. Whether we know or don’t know God is irrelevant. We will ALL come to know God eventually!
October 19, 2014
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 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, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
What better way is there to come to know God than through His Son?! Today’s gospel reading helps us get to know God a little bit better. Cyrus, David, and Paul, each in their own way helped bring about the kingdom of God in our world. Cyrus empowered God’s chosen people, David sung praise and thanksgiving to our God, and Paul converted people and instructed them of the ways of our God. All three servants of God contributed to building God’s kingdom here in our broken world. But none of them were the actual building materials. The actual building materials, the actual foundation of God’s kingdom come from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. This is why we dedicate our gospel reading each week to the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ words are the bread and butter of our faith. Jesus teaches us about the kingdom of God in ways unlike any other person in the Bible. This is because Jesus embodies the kingdom of God. Jesus IS the kingdom of God!
We see this no more evident than in Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in today’s reading. Once again the Pharisees tried to catch Jesus in either treason or blasphemy. Once again the Pharisees tried to discredit Jesus’ teachings and question his authority. And once again Jesus proved who he was and used the opportunity to bring about God’s kingdom. This is important to keep in mind when approaching texts like these. Jesus was all about revealing God’s kingdom. Everything he said and did was for the purpose of revealing God’s kingdom. This week’s interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees fulfills this purpose.
But not in the most apparent way. The Pharisees asked Jesus a question: is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? It’s a tricky question. If he answered simply ‘yes’ then Jesus would have angered the Israelites who didn’t believe the taxes were justified as well as the religious leaders who felt paying taxes was somehow worshipping Rome’s emperor. If he answered simply ‘no’ then Jesus would have angered the Roman authorities by encouraging insurrection. Instead, Jesus responds in a way that manages to appease both parties: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Both God and emperor receive something and neither is slighted by the other’s offerings. But is God’s kingdom revealed in Jesus’ response? How does giving “to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s” reveal God’s kingdom?
In order to answer these questions, we have to first recognize a couple things. First, the Pharisees are asking the question out of malice, meaning they don’t really want an answer but instead only want Jesus to suffer. Second, God doesn’t want from us the same as what the world wants from us. If the Pharisees understood this, they would have never asked the question. If the Pharisees weren’t so eager to persecute Jesus, they would have more easily received God’s steadfast love and mercy. As David reminded us in the psalm, God doesn’t need anything from us. God wants our love and praise but God will give his love to us whether we give it in return or not. Indeed, God gave love to the Pharisees by answering their malicious question. Jesus didn’t need to respond but chose to disarm the Pharisees’ malice with a loving response. God’s love and mercy was poured out on even the malicious Pharisees!
God gives to us differently than the world gives to us. It’s only fitting that we should give to God differently than what we give the world. God gives radically through unlikely people. God’s kingdom becomes known through God’s giving. God does the choosing and God does the giving. We should want to give our praise and thanksgiving as David so faithfully gave in psalm after psalm. What a blessing it is to have a radically giving God!