The Twenty-second Sunday After Pentecost October 12, 2008
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5
19, 743 [TLH alt. 43], 341, 784 [TLH alt. 410]
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Thus says the Lord to His anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have held—to subdue nations before him and loose the armor of kings, to open before him the double doors, so that the gates will not be shut: “I will go before you and make the crooked places straight; I will break in pieces the gates of bronze and cut the bars of iron. I will give you the treasures of darkness and hidden riches of secret places, that you may know that I, the Lord, who call you by your name, am the God of Israel. For Jacob My servant’s sake, and Israel My elect, I have even called you by your name; I have named you, though you have not known Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; there is no God besides Me. I will gird you, though you have not known Me, that they may know from the rising of the sun to its setting that there is none besides Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the Lord, do all these things.”
Dear friends in Christ:
Let’s say you are flying to Florida for a winter break. You check in at the airport, board the plane, and settle into seat 5B for the three-hour flight. You pull a paperback novel out of your carry-on, or you might grab a pillow and take a nap. You don’t concern yourself with getting clearance from the control tower for takeoff. You don’t punch numbers into your calculator to determine the rate of fuel consumption or figure out the optimum cruising altitude. You relax because the pilot knows about all of that and will get you safely to Tampa.
The plane takes off, but as the flight progresses, it seems a little erratic. You notice frequent changes in altitude and unusual banks and turns. You glance down the aisle in time to see the cockpit door swing open and to your horror the pilot’s chair is empty! In fact, there is no one at all on the flight deck. There is no one at the controls!
Fighting breaks out among the passengers over who should take control. The first class passengers feel they should be in charge since they paid more for their tickets, but none of them is a pilot. Another group tries to force its way forward with sheer numbers. In the back is a terrorist who wants to blow up the plane and kill everyone on board. What a harrowing experience to be a passenger on a flight without control and direction! What chance would there be of ever arriving at your destination?
If it would be terrifying on the small scale of a plane flight, how much worse it would be if the entire world were like a plane without a pilot! Many fear that is the case. They don’t see a pilot. They don’t understand what is happening in the world. and they imagine that the cockpit is empty and that they are flying out of control toward an inevitable fiery crash. They see individuals, armies, or nations in history taking control over a smaller or larger portion of the world, but none of them lasts. They appear for a brief moment and then someone else takes over.
Have you had some of those same thoughts? It is hard not to think that way when we see and hear about all of the trouble and suffering in the world. Are we buckled into our seats and destined for a bumpy, disastrous trip? It might seem that way, but then listen to what the Lord God says through the prophet Isaiah. He tells us that He Himself is in charge in a powerful, loving way.
“I am the Lord , and there is no other! I am in charge,” God says repeatedly. But it didn’t appear that way to the people of Judah who were faced with losing their land, their king, and their pride and joy, which was the temple, to an invading army. If the Lord were the powerful, loving God, why would He do this to His people? The Old Testament believer, Job, had similar questions about God’s workings in his life after losing his possessions and entire family within the space of just a few hours. When there are bumps and turbulence in our lives, things like sickness or money problems, when nothing goes right and everything is hard, when our best intentions crash and burn, where is God? It can seem as though He isn’t there or that He doesn’t care.
But then look around. Look at creation. Mankind can build houses and even hundred-story skyscrapers, but who designed and made us? Who made the earth itself and all the raw materials which we use? Evolutionists claim that it was all by a random process of trial and error, mutations, and survival of the fittest. But the order, complexity, and variety of the universe testify to an all-wise, all-powerful Creator. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1 NIV). “Every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God” (Hebrews 3:4 NIV).
The Lord did not just make the world and then take his hands off the controls and leave the cockpit. He is still in charge. He preserves all that He made. “He sustains all things by His powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3 NIV). He foreknows all of history. He sees the end before the beginning. But He not only foreknows, He Himself works out all things by His sovereign, almighty will. He is in complete control, even in the affairs of the unbelieving world.
The case of Cyrus is an example. The Lord God called him by name more than 100 years before his birth. God anointed him, that is, He set him apart for a special purpose. God would use Cyrus and the Persians to defeat Babylon and free the captive Israelites. It would be God’s power, not Cyrus’ battle strategy or the number of troops which would ultimately win the victory. God could have done it with just Cyrus and a pellet gun if He had so chosen. The Lord said, “I will go before you….I will break in pieces the gates of bronze….I will give you the treasures and hidden riches.” [vv.1-3]
The Lord is still just as firmly in charge today. Whether nations acknowledge it or not, they exist by His power, not their own. Paul wrote the Romans: “There is no authority except that which God has established” (Romans 13:1 NIV). The prosperity and strength of the United States are by God’s working. If He were to withdraw His providence our nation would collapse. The elections of presidents, the course of the economy, the outcome of wars, the whole ebb and flow of history are in His hands. No one can stand in the Lord’s way. The psalmist says: “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One…The One enthroned in Heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them” (Psalm 2:1ff.).
We don’t know all that is happening in the world around us, and what we do see can leave us wondering where the world is heading and whether anyone is really in charge. But then listen to the One who does know all things, not only in the present, but from eternity to eternity. He assures us there is someone at the controls. “I am the Lord. There is no God beside Me!”
If God is in charge, why does He use His power as He does? Is He like a pilot who pulls his plane into a vertical climb or pushes it into a steep dive just to terrify his passengers and hear their screams? Is He fickle and arbitrary in crushing some and blessing others one day, and then doing just the opposite the next day? It may appear that way to our human reason if we try to understand everything God does. The Lord warns us not to attempt figuring everything out. He is God and we are not. His ways and thoughts are much higher than ours. A two-year-old is not going to understand everything his parents do for him, so how can we expect to grasp all of God’s ways? If we could, He wouldn’t be much of a God would He?
However, He has revealed certain truths about His workings in human history. He tells us why He anointed Cyrus to conquer the Babylonians. First of all, Cyrus was to learn that his power and success were from the one true God, the covenant Lord of promise. An even greater purpose of God’s plan was that through Cyrus, He would rescue the remnant of Israel and bring them back to their homeland. This, in turn, was part of an even broader, breathtaking master plan: “that they may know from the rising of the sun to its setting that I am the Lord, and there is no other.” [v.6]
God wanted everyone from Cyrus to His people Israel to all people on earth to know His saving name. You can’t really understand history without recognizing that, because God would use history as His tool to accomplish His goal. He told Adam and Eve in the garden that He would send the Seed of the woman to crush the serpent’s head. He called Abraham to move to the land which He would show him and promised that through Abraham all families of the earth would be blessed since the Savior would come from his line. The Lord led Jacob and his family to Egypt and provided for them during a famine by having Joseph pre-positioned there as the prime minister of the entire land. 400 years later a Pharaoh came to the throne who was hostile to Israel and tried to exterminate them. God was in charge even then. He tells us that He put this Pharaoh into power so that He, the Lord, could show His glory in crushing Pharaoh’s resistance and in freeing His people. Centuries later God used Cyrus to bring His people back to the Promised Land after their captivity in order to keep His promise on track; and when the fullness of time was come, God used the heathen Roman government to bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem so that His Son would be born in the very town prophesied nearly 1,000 years before.
As Cyrus was God’s anointed for a specific purpose, so Jesus came as the Servant of the Lord to set captives free. Cyrus broke down the walls of Babylon. Jesus would break down the fortress of sin which held all mankind as prisoners. Cyrus would use the army the Lord provided in order to win. Jesus would single-handedly win the victory at the cost of His own holy life sacrificed on the cross. Here again God would use an unbelieving earthly ruler for His purposes. When the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, bragged to Jesus that he had power to release Him or to crucify Him, Jesus replied: “You would have no power at all if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11). God has directed all history for His saving purposes and the blessing of all who trust in Him.
That is mind boggling, but there is still more! God is so powerful and loving that He has coordinated all of the gazillions of events in time for your personal good. From eternity God loved you. He decided that He wanted you to be His own. He chose you. All the days of your life were recorded in His book before your birth. He sent Jesus to live and die for you 2,000 years ago. He chose the precise time in history for you to be born and He caused world events, your family history, and everything else to come together in just the right way so that you would be spiritually reborn through water and the Spirit and that your faith would be nurtured and preserved ever since. He continues to break down the mountains of our pride, fill in the valleys of despair, straighten out the crookedness of our sin, and fill our lives with the riches of forgiveness, peace, and eternal life.
Just as He knew Cyrus by name, so He knows our names. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isaiah 43:1-3 NIV).
Day by day the Lord is working in all things for our good: in the weather, in our jobs, in government, in wartime and peacetime, and in all the details we have no knowledge of. “In all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28 NIV). That is incredible! How can it possibly be? Because God is the omnipotent Lord! He is in charge. There is no other God.
When I board a plane and pass by the cockpit door, I don’t poke my head in and offer my advice to the captain. I have no clue what it takes to fly a huge plane. I trust that the pilot knows what I do not and that he has the ability to get his passengers safely to their destination. When something unexpected happens or when I have questions, I trust that he can answer them and reassure me. On one flight the plane hit a particularly large bump of turbulence. Everyone glanced up, silently wondering whether we should be concerned. Within seconds the pilot’s calm western twang came over the speakers: “Nothing to worry about, folks. We just hit a deer.”
As you travel through life, trust the Lord. When you watch the news and hear of world events, see God’s hand in them. When you look back over your life, thank the Lord for His providence which is evident in so many ways. When you look ahead, listen to the Lord’s reassuring voice saying, “Don’t be afraid. I am the Lord. There is no other God. I do all things.” With Him in charge, we can sit back and relax, safe and sound in Him! Amen.
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.
Most blessed, most glorious, O Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Your great name we praise.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.