Sermon for the Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

There has been a TikTok trend which has not only taken social media by storm in recent weeks but which has received some coverage in traditional media, with articles in the New York Times and the the Washington Post. Women have been asking men in their lives (husbands, boyfriends, brothers, &c.) how frequently they think about the Roman Empire, and the answer is usually “every day.” Now I think this trend, funny as it may be, unnecessarily plays into gender stereotypes. Perhaps because I am married to a classics major, but I think there are plenty of women who think about the Roman Empire just as frequently as men. What’s more, if you asked me the question, I would give the following answer: I think about the Roman Empire pretty frequently. But I think about the Achaemenid Empire even more frequently.

As it happens, our lessons this morning have made us consider both of these Empires. It is the Caesar, the Roman Emperor (namely Tiberius), who would have been on the coin with which the pharisees are trying to trap Jesus and this event, while proving that Jesus was very clever, might leave us with more questions than answers about the nature of the state, the secular authority, in terms of our obligations and God’s provision of a different sort of Kingdom.

That said, perhaps because of what I said earlier, I find the question raised by this morning’s Old Testament lesson even more fascinating, as it makes us think about the Achaemenid Empire of ancient Persia and its founding emperor, Cyrus the Great. For one thing, and to oversimplify to some extent, biblical history while generally seeing the Romans as “the baddies” (St. Paul’s insistence that all authority is established by God and that the church should pray for the emperor, notwithstanding), the Persians are generally seen as the “good guys” in the biblical story. I think I might have said from this pupit before that the Achaemenid Empire should get more credit in both history classes and pop culture, particularly the latter, in response to the very stupid film about the Battle of Thermopylae–Three Hundred–which got the baddies and the goodies flipped.

Anywayn Isaiah’s prophecy in this morning’s lesson comes at the climax of a fascinating period of history which I think interesting to enough to rehearse briefly, because it makes this morning’s Old Testament lesson all the more surprising. So, on with a bit of a history lesson, and apologies if it seems dry to some. I for one find it to be a really enthralling story.

If you follow the daily office lectionary, you’ve been hearing a great deal of the background of this morning’s Old Testament over the past couple of weeks in morning prayer. To bring you up to speed, the last great king of Judah, Josiah, had done what none of his predecessors had managed- namely, large scale religious and political reform. Though Judah was a client state of Assyria, Josiah managed to tear down the altars of foreign gods and encourage the worship of Israel’s god alone. He used tax revenue not to underwrite the monarchy’s expenses but to undertake a significant renovation of the Temple. Sadly, when Josiah died in the year 609 B.C. a whole series of bad kings followed. Josiah’s son, Jehoahaz, ignored his father’s reforms and was captured only three months into his reign after an ill-advised war with Egypt. Jehoahaz’s brother Jehoiakim was installed in his place by the Egyptian conquerors, but his eleven year reign was defined by his apparently constantly shifting allegiance between Egypt and Babylon who were at war with each other, and, worst of all, after facing criticism by the prophet Jeremiah, he undertook a policy of burning the prophet’s writings. Finally, Jehoiakim’s son, Jeconiah, only managed to rule for three months and ten days before he allowed Jerusalem to fall to the Babylonians and the best and brightest of Judah to be sent into exile throughout the Babylonian Empire on 16 March in the year 597 B.C.

Now, skip forward almost sixty years. Jerusalem had fallen, leaving only a puppet monarchy and the poorest of the poor remaining in Judah. Educated and wealthy Jews had established communities throughout Babylon, leading to an increased nationalistic and religious fervor which the Empire had sought to quash by its program of forced exile. This was a period in which the Jews learned how to maintain their Judaism, their connection to the God of Israel, outside the land given to their forefathers and without the benefit of temple worship. For the common Jew, this meant an increased attention to kashrut, faithfulness in observing the laws of purity and morality found in the Torah. For scholars, it meant not only an increased attention to studying the Law (the beginnings of modern, Rabbinical Judaism) but also an explosion of creativity. It is not in Israel but in Babylon that much of what we call the Old Testament was finally written down.

It should be noted that the Jews were unique in the ancient world in being able to maintain their culture and religion and stave off assimilation after deportation. Ancient empires did this frequently because it always worked, except for this one exception. The northern kingdom of Samaria had experienced the same thing a hundred and fifty years earlier than Judah (in Samaria’s case, at the hands of the Assyrian Empire) and despite what conspiracy theorists and Mormons might tell you, the ten lost tribes of Israel were actually lost, assimilating into the empire of their conquerors. The Babylonian Jews, then, remain the one notable exception, and I’m perfectly comfortable in attributing this to Divine Providence.

More and more, while in Babylon, the Jews realized that they could only follow the God of Israel in the manner they desired by returning to the land and rebuilding the temple. The only problem was, they had no army and a couple generations of life in exile had made repatriation seem little more than wishful thinking.

But then, something unexpected happened. The Word of the Lord came not just to the prophet but to one identified in this morning’s lesson as God’s “anointed”. Indeed, considering that Isaiah himself was holed up in Babylon, we might assume that this prophecy was not even mediated through the prophet to this “anointed one” but went directly from God to him, 500 miles away from Babylon in the Persian city of Susa.

And who was this “anointed one”? Cyrus, the Zoroastrian king of Persia. God says to Cyrus that He has “called [him] by name. I surname you,” God says, “though you do not know me… I gird you, though you do not know me.” God chose not one of His own chosen people, but a king following a foreign religion (though, arguably the only monotheistic religion at the time aside from Judaism) to bring deliverance to the Jews.

We Christians often miss this part of the story because we read Isaiah on one level when there are at least two levels on which the prophecies function. Isaiah most certainly points to Jesus Himself as his people’s redeemer, but on another level he also point’s to King Cyrus. It’s not a matter of figuring out when the prophet speaks about one or the other; he can be understood as speaking of both in the same breath, a difficult thing for us literal-thinking modern people to get our minds around.

Anyhow, there is more in this than a history lesson with a twist at the end, because I think the twist-ending itself gives us an important lesson about who God is. We talk so much about coming to know God more fully, but we miss what is arguably more important- namely, that God knows us fully. To Cyrus, the God of Israel, if he had even heard of him, would have been a minor tribal god. He probably wouldn’t have seen this strange religion of displaced Jews as being particularly interesting. But God knew Cyrus, just as he knows each of us: completely. Because God knew Cyrus before Cyrus knew Him, this foreign king was made an instrument of the one true God.

The fact is we can never fully know God. We project all sorts of cultural and personal biases onto Him, and getting an even slightly clearer image of Him is a life’s work. I believe that even those who reject God most vociferously are often rejecting not God Himself but some inaccurate image which they’ve conjured up in their minds or which has been created by poor catechesis—some white-bearded chap who lives in the clouds who has less to do with the God of Israel and of Jesus than it does with our own hang-ups.

That being the case, the Good News is that however skewed our image of God is, God’s image of us is perfect. God knows us fully and can employ the greater angels of our nature, made perfect in Christ Jesus, to do His Will even when we don’t realize He’s doing it. It is a great God who can take some pagan Persian king to be a channel of his peace and deliverance. It is a great God who can take us, confused and sinful as we are, to be instruments of the Gospel in our old world. May our ignorance of God be overshadowed by God’s perfect knowledge of us, and may His perfect love find a home in the hearts who as yet do not know Him at all.

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.