Have you ever felt totally and utterly alone? Have you ever felt totally and utterly abandoned? Have you ever felt this way knowing that it was completely your fault for finding yourself that way? Have you ever done something to cause a relationship to severe and cease entirely?
In the events leading up to our Old Testament text today from Isaiah, Israel, the Old Testament people of God, certainly felt that way. At this point in their story, they have found themselves to essentially be divorced from God. Historians and theologians have given this event and period of divorce a name; it is referred to as the exile. What makes Israel’s exile and her perceived divorce from her God even more filled with heartbreak and despair was the fact that it was entirely their fault. All the blame for the broken relationship rests upon this rabble of people we know of as the Israelites.
Long ago, when God spoke to Moses and gave the people the Law, the 10 commandments, Israel entered into a covenant with God. This covenant or relational contract was such that if the people obeyed God’s commandments and be faithful to him things would go well with them. They would be protected and would have a land of their own. God would fight their battles. He would be their God and they would be his people and they would be a light to all the nations.
So when the people were about to end their long journey and exodus out of Egypt and stood on the precipice of the Promised Land, Moses reminded them of the covenant they had made with God. “If you abandon this covenant, if you break this vow you made with God and turn away from the Lord your God by giving your worship to some other thing then you will be in violation of this covenant and be cast out of this land of promise.”
Of course, the entire story of the people of Israel as told to us in the Old Testament is almost nothing but the story of them turning away from God towards other things. Over and over and over again, the people disregarded the one who brought them out of slavery in Egypt into the land of promise, into freedom. They were consistently disobedient, rebellious, and faithless though God remained steadfast and true; faithful and patient. This rabble of people had the audacity to spit in the face of the God who chose them out of so many others to be his favored people; to be a people who would truly know the God of the universe. Eventually, God decreed that he would honor their disregard for their covenant and send the people into exile. It was as though the people’s relationship with God had been divorced.
Now, it’s easy to point fingers and to read this history from a distance and to be critical of and over it, but the sad fact is that we are as human as they were. Our depravity and rebellion and fallen nature are no better than theirs. The reality is that our sin and fallen natures distance us from God as though we were in exile. We too have been divorced from God, from life, from salvation.
What can we do about that? Can we hope to become better people and somehow draw ourselves out of exile? Can we approach God in all his holiness and righteousness on our own merit or good works and say, “look at this, surely this merits your forgiveness? Surely this makes me deserving of your grace and mercy?” Our Lutheran theology and interpretation of Scripture tells us that this simply isn’t so. We absolutely cannot hope to draw ourselves out of exile and reunite that which was severed. You and I are despicable, selfish and self-centered beings who think we know what is right and better. As Rod Quanbeck, the former Director at Park River Bible Camp used to say, we are all of us dirty rotten scoundrels from birth!
So what is one to do about exile? What can one do about exile? In the case of the people of God in their very real and physical exile, they were a leaderless people. Everything they cared about was destroyed and taken away from them. They were a people dispersed amongst a land not their own. And God, who at one time had their back, is the one who sent them away to begin with.
The hope was that God, in his benevolence, would raise a leader up among them. Legend had it that a king would arise from the great line of David and spark a revolution and a return from exile to the glory of a new nation. But instead, this prophet named Isaiah comes along and delivers hope to the people in a completely different and somewhat shocking way. He tells the people that God has decided to accomplish deliverance to the exiles and bring them back to their land, which is good news. The shocking part of this is that the deliverance would come through a pagan king named Cyrus.
When Israel was sent into exile, God used the ruthless nation of Babylon to accomplish his will. The Babylonians came in and broke the nation. They sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple and then they dispersed the Israelites among their empire. Not long after, the Babylonians were conquered by another great empire called the Persian Empire. Cyrus is the king of the Persians. So in a sense, he is the new landlord over the exiled people of God.
He is not one of them, never will be one of them. He is a pagan ruler who knows nothing about the remarkable history between Israel and the God of all Creation. He is an uncircumcised outsider. And this uncircumcised, unfamiliar, pagan outsider is the one that the God of Israel will bless and use for the deliverance of Israel? Really?
As far as I can tell, Cyrus is like Brett Favre, the long time quarterback of the Green Bay Packers.
I have been a football fan all my life and my team has always been the Minnesota Vikings. Cut me open and I bleed purple and gold. In fact, when I found out I was going to have a son my first dream was of him playing football professionally in a Vikings uniform.
Now as a Vikings fan, it goes without saying that I despise and hate the Green Bay Packers. When Pastor Matt asked me to stand in for him today so that he could go to a Packer’s game I almost lost it.
Now, for the majority of my life as a football fan the Packers have had one person in particular who has irked me more than any other and upon whom my wrath and great displeasure has settled. Brett Favre. For years, Brett Favre was the face of the Green Bay Packers. For years, the Green Bay quarterback, Brett Favre, represented everything I loathed about the Packers. Brett Favre. Seeing him trot onto the sacred field of play caused the bile in my liver to boil. Brett Favre. His very name was poison to my lips. Brett Favre.
So you can imagine my consternation when my beloved Minnesota Vikings wrangled Brett Favre out of retirement and invited He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to play quarterback for them! How could they do this to me? How could they bring in our mortal enemy to lead the team to victory? Brett Favre, the very bane of my existence as a fan of the Minnesota Vikings, now became one of us. Oh, the heartache!
Cyrus is Israel’s Brett Favre. He is the enemy brought in to be the hero. When Brett Favre led the Vikings, any success they had was for me corrupted success at best. Any good done by him was done by the hands of an imposter, an outsider. But Isaiah tells us that the difference between the leadership imposed upon Viking’s fans as opposed to that of Cyrus upon Israel is the fact that it is God who is the active agent towards the Israelites. God is the one in control and at work, not Cyrus. Cyrus is simply the means through which God is enacting his plan for deliverance.
God is the active agent in this story, no one else. Read the text again and you will see almost every sentence begin with “I”, the “I” being God. “I will go before you,” “I have grasped,” “I will give,” “I call you,” “I name you,” “I equip you,” I form” and “I make.” They are all there. And why does God take action through this man named Cyrus; for the sake of his servant, Israel his chosen people. All of God’s actions are done for the sake of his people who he has not abandoned or forgotten.
God could have raised one of Israel’s own up to do what needed to be done, but instead he chose an outsider. God does this to show that he is the LORD, no one else. Besides him there is no other God. There is no other deliverer. There is no other way out of exile. Through God’s magnificent power, he was able to orchestrate and weave a plan to bring the people out of exile in a way that was completely surprising; in a way in which there would be no doubt about who was in control. God’s plan served to show that the deliverance of the exiles was brought about only through God’s hand. Salvation, as is said, truly belongs to the Lord.
God’s orchestration in this episode of Israel’s history shows the limitless and boundless nature of God’s grace. The surprise and shocking nature of God’s grace and deliverance in this story was repeated in grand and ultimate fashion of the cross.
Just as there was nothing that the Israelites could do to merit or bring their own deliverance from exile, there is nothing we can do about our own state of wretchedness as humans. We did nothing good to merit Christ’s journey to the cross, rather it was his desire and love for us that placed him there taking our sins and God’s wrath upon himself to free us from our self imposed exile and divorce from God.
We were a stuck and depraved people cast off into exile, but God being rich in mercy sent his son into the world to take on our wretched humanity, to die for it, to redeem it and to present it to God the Father as holy and blameless.
God, in his bountiful grace and love for you, is and always has been faithful to us despite our unfaithfulness to him. Christ’s word to you and to me is “I love you. And even though you tried to take yourself away from my presence and imposed upon yourself the curse of exile, I suffered for you. I was crucified for you. I endured exile for you. You are mine. I deliver you. I chose you. I elect you and clothe you with life and salvation through the waters of baptism.”