God Works Through the Unexpected

“There is a story about three farmers whose fields were adjoined. One was Jewish, one Muslim, and one Christian. Each observed the Sabbath on a different day of the week. One harvest season, bad weather limited the days available for work, and skipping a day for Sabbath observance risked financial ruin. Nevertheless, [during the harvest week], all three farmers in turn observed their faith, making the choice to stay home on their respective Sabbath [day]. Upon waking the day [after they had observed their sabbath], each farmer found a barn filled with harvested crops. They gave thanks and praise to God, assuming angels had been sent to do the work. In fact, it was the neighbors of differing faith who did the work in secret.” (FotW, 175)

God works through the unexpected.

Let’s hear our Scripture for today, Isaiah 45:1-8

Scripture

God works through the unexpected.

God will restore the people and bring them home from exile. This scripture, along with many others surrounding it, proclaim that in no uncertain terms. God will work though their circumstances to right the wrongs, to fix them back in the land, and to make them prosperous once again. God will because God has.

This is the promise for the exiled population of Jerusalem. After the destruction of Jerusalem, there were two different groupings of Israelites: the remnant left there in Jerusalem and those in exile, held in captivity in Babylon. Last week, we looked at the remnant, those left behind in Jerusalem, who are looking around at the destruction of their city; a destruction they brought upon themselves. These are the people who believe, who declare, that God will because God has. 

God will restore their fortunes because God has restored them in the past. 

All this out of God’s abundant love for God’s people. All this because it’s in God’s very character to save, to restore, to provide. 

We, like them, can declare with all boldness that God will because God has. 

And now, this week, we look at the story through the eyes of those in exile. And through their eyes, we see how God will bring about that restoration. 

When Babylon destroyed Jerusalem, they took the best and brightest off to live in Babylon. This was typical practice for a conquering nation back in their day. The idea was simple. Take the royal court, the prophets and priests, the educated and skilled, and the merchants, and bring them to your capital city. There, make them as comfortable as possible, teach them your language and customs, with the hope that they will choose to assimilate and become one of you. Then, you’ve made yourself stronger as a country by including the best and brightest of your vanquished foes. 

That shouldn’t sound foreign to us. After World War II, we did the same with German scientists. Those same scientists who were developing rocket powered missiles for the Nazis developed the rockets that carried our astronauts to the moon. That being just one example of how we have done the same as nations like Babylon. 

The difference is, while those German scientists assimilated into life in America in places like Huntsville, Alabama, the refugees from Jerusalem refused to. They kept their own customs, their own religion, and kept to themselves. They would not eat at the court, they would not celebrate the high holy days of Babylon, they would not worship Marduke, the chief god of the Babylonians. 

They cannot stop seeing the Babylonians as their enemy. 

And when the Persians come and conquer the Babylonians, not much changes in the mindset of those in exile. The Persians, although they are a different people, and although they have defeated the hated Babylonians, are still their captors, for they will not let the people of God go. They will not let them leave Babylon. The Persians, like the Babylonians before them, want the people of God to assimilate and join their society. 

And yet, they refuse to assimilate. The people in exile can’t stop seeing the Persians as their enemy. 

God works through the unexpected. 

Through the prophet Isaiah, the people receive good news. They’re going home! They will be restored. Here, in chapter 45, we find out that God will subdue nations, strip kings of their thrones, shatter doors and bars made of strong metals, and shatter mountains, all to deliver the exiles back to Jerusalem. God will destroy whatever stands in the way of their return to the land, of their restoration. God will do this. God will because God has. 

The people have hope! Their exile is not forever. Their captivity in Babylon is not forever. God will restore them. 

And how will God do this?

Through the enemy king of Persia, Cyrus.

God works through the unexpected.

This is no ordinary king. This is the king of their captors. This is the man who sits atop the enemy nation. This is the man who holds them in their current captivity. 

God has chosen the enemy king to bring them home. How does that make any sense?

If God is going to work through a foreign king, it would make more sense if God had said that Amasis II, Pharaoh of Egypt, would come and conquer and provide. That would make much more sense. Egypt wasn’t their enemy and was the other superpower of their day. God would use Egypt to conquer the Persians, who so far seemed to be no better than the Babylonians. God would raise up a great army and, before Amasis II, shatter doors of bronze, strip kings of their robes, level mountains, and provide, just as chapter 45 says. Then, when Amasis II had captured Persia and killed King Cyrus, the people would be free to return to their land. 

It would certainly make more sense for God to move through another foreign country than through the king of their enemy. Moving through Amasis rather than Cyrus would make much more sense. 

But no, that’s not how God declares that God will operate. 

No, God declares that God will work through his messiah, King Cyrus. 

So not only is God going to work through the enemy king, God has used the special term messiah to describe that same enemy king.

The word messiah means “anointed one,” and that’s how God, through Isaiah, describes Cyrus. God says at the very beginning of our scripture, “Thus says the LORD to his messiah, King Cyrus.” 

Now that language should make us uncomfortable. We have but one messiah, Jesus Christ. And it made the people in exile uncomfortable, too. For them, a people who lived over five hundred years before Christ, the word messiah referred to their kings in general and specifically to very special Israelites like King David. It never would have applied to a foreign king, much less the king of their enemy; the great Persian Empire. 

And in fact, this is the only place in scripture where the word messiah refers to a foreigner.

This makes no sense. God will pave the way for them to go home by anointing as his chosen one, his messiah, the king of their enemy, King Cyrus of Persia?

Cyrus, a messiah? 

It makes no sense. It’s unbelievable. 

Like the farmers who couldn’t fathom that their neighbor of a different faith had harvested their fields for them, the Israelites cannot fathom that God would anoint, make his messiah, the enemy king. 

It’s unbelievable. 

God works through the unexpected. 

I can hear the Israelites, this exiled population, questioning this prophecy. How can this be true? There was simply no way that God could work through Cyrus. There was no way God would move through their enemy. There was no way that God would choose to provide for them through their hated oppressors and captors.

It would be natural to think that way. Let’s put ourselves in their shoes. Call to mind, wherever you are right now, your enemies. That might be someone who has betrayed you and the wound has never healed. It might be someone who caused you harm and there’s never been reconciliation. It might be someone whom you feel is oppressing you, just like the people of God felt oppressed by Cyrus. It might be a family member who has wronged you and the rift has remained over years, even decades. 

We all have enemies. Call them to mind. 

Now, imagine that you hear from God and God says that there will be provision for your needs right now. God is going to restore, provide, and make it all right again. Whatever barriers you’re experiencing, whatever stands in the way, God will level those like the mountains, like the doors of bronze; God will be moving in powerful ways for you and those you love. 

And God will do this through your enemy. For your enemy is God’s anointed. 

God’s anointed to provide for you is that family member who ruined things, that colleague who stole from you, that friend who betrayed you, your sister who refuses to love you. 

God will be doing great and wonderful things through his messiah, your sister, family member, friend, or colleague. 

That’s hard to swallow, isn’t it? But that’s exactly where the people of God are, trying to swallow a message from God that, through their hated enemy, God will provide for all their longings and needs.

Imagine with me that’s the word you get, for that’s the word the Israelites received through this prophecy. God has anointed the person you hate the most in the whole world. God has chosen as his messiah the person you despise the most in the world. And through that person, through that messiah, God will be delivering you from what ails you. That’s a tough pill to swallow. 

Just as it was difficult for the farmers of the different faiths to swallow. They could not imagine their fellow farmer was responsible for helping them out. The chasm was too great. The distrust and disgust too big. There was no way someone who was opposed to them could have provided, could have been so nice. There was no way a member of an enemy faith could have been God’s way of rewarding them for their sabbath practice.

It’s not hard to imagine this scene on land in modern day Israel. Imagine that the farms of an Israeli, a Palestinian, and a Coptic Christian abut somewhere in modern-day Israel. Now imagine our story from the start there. It’s unfathomable to think that an Israeli could believe that their Palestinian neighbor harvested their crops for them. Or that the Palestinian would believe that their Coptic neighbor harvested for them. 

The chasm is too great. The distrust and disgust too wide. They are enemies. How in the world could God work through their enemies?

And yet, that’s what God declares here. We know that God moves in mysterious ways. You’ve probably heard that phrase all of your life. We know that this is true. But when those mysterious ways include using our enemies, using those who are oppressing us, using those who are causing us grief and trouble; that seems like too much. 

It seemed like too much to the Israelites, who had trouble grasping this word from God. It seems like too much for us today, as we consider our enemies and imagine God providing for our needs through them.

But now, imagine with me that the Israelites had rejected this prophecy. Imagine they had decided that there was no way God was going to work through their enemies. There was no way that God would anoint as messiah Cyrus, the king of the Persians, the one who was currently oppressing them. Imagine they had decided this was a false prophecy and rejected it. 

They would have missed going back to their land, going back to their homes, rebuilding their society, seeing God’s manifold provision for them and the generations to come. They would have missed a huge blessing. 

God works through the unexpected. 

And when we fail to embrace that, we miss the blessings God has for us.

When we categorize others as enemies and see them only in that way, we limit our vision to see how God is moving active around us. When we decide that others in our lives are just opposed to us and there’s no undoing it, there’s no reconciliation possible, we limit our vision of how God is moving and active around us. When we determine that our sister, brother, uncle, colleague, former business partner, or former friend, is just a terrible person and will always be set against us, we limit our vision to see how God is moving and active around us.

We need to enlarge our vision.

That’s the point here. We need to expand our vision, our understanding, to know that God is behind all things, moving and active, working all things together for good. That means that sometimes God will act through people that we hate. Sometimes, God will use powers that be, powers who seem opposed to God’s ways, to accomplish God’s purposes. That means that sometimes righteousness will come from the place we least expect, like a Muslim farmer reaping the field of his Jewish neighbor during the Jewish sabbath. Like the king of the enemy, Cyrus, delivering the people back to Jerusalem. Like your despised sister or brother providing for your family.

In so many sermons recently, we have talked about the Kingdom of God, about God bringing about peace and justice. Isaiah’s word for that is righteousness. God will bring about righteousness. God will cause righteousness to be known, no matter what. God will provide abundantly. God will. We just have to have eyes to see it, even to see it in our enemies or those who oppress us. 

For that’s what God is constantly doing: bringing about righteousness on earth, especially through the unexpected. 

And we gain those eyes, we gain the vision to see how God is moving through our enemies, when we recognize that all of us, even our enemies, are God’s creation, beloved of the Father. 

And if we’re all God’s creation, we can all be put to use for the greater good, for God’s movement behind the scenes to bring about righteousness. 

We just need to see each other first as children of God. We need to see our sister, colleague, brother, former friend, or any other enemy we’ve called to mind first and foremost as a child of God.

So think of those enemies you called to mind earlier. Can you see them as a child of God? Can you see God saying even to them, “I love you. I created you. You are mine”?

If you can’t see it, look harder. That’s how we gain a more expansive vision: forcing ourselves to see others, even our enemies, even those we despise and distrust, as children of God.

God works through the unexpected.

All we need is a larger vision to see it.

The Israelites grasped it. They embraced King Cyrus as God’s messiah. And Cyrus delivered, just as God said he would. 

God, today, is doing the same, moving through your enemies. And consider this: you are an enemy to someone. Perhaps even someone listening to this sermon. Someone in your life right now thinks of you as their enemy. If you believe that God can work through you, then God can work through your enemies, too. If you believe that you are a child of God, then your enemies are children of God, too. For we, each of us, is an enemy. So if we are all enemies, we are all loved by God. 

God will provide. God will redeem and restore. God will bring about justice and peace. There will be righteousness on this earth. 

God will do this, even through our enemies. 

We just need vision to see it. 

For God works through the unexpected.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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