Second Sunday in Advent December 10, 2000
56, 339, 341, 53
This is what the LORD says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who summons you by name. For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me, so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting men may know there is none besides me. I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.
Dear Friends in Christ, Dear Fellow Redeemed:
When we watch a movie or a television show we are only seeing a small part of what is really going on. We can’t see the cameramen, the director, the make-up artists, and whatever else is going on around the scene being shot. What we are seeing on the screen is not reality but fiction—fantasy, not real life. Behind the scenes there is a whole other world. A world that controls and shapes what we see on the screen. And it is this world which we can’t see which is the real one.
History is in many ways like this. What we see is often not really what is going on. Behind the scenes is where history is really being controlled and made. God is behind the scenes. What He’s doing there is real history. And it is through His divinely inspired Word that we, today, get—
Let me, first of all, give you just a brief overview of what this text is all about. This text is a prophecy given by God through Isaiah about an individual named Cyrus, known in history as Cyrus the Great. Cyrus was the founder of the Persian Empire—an empire which included present day Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, the Middle East, and Egypt, an area roughly equivalent in size to the continental United States. Our text is a poetic description of his conquests. Cyrus, it says, would subdue nations … strip kings of their armor … break down gates of bronze … etc.
“I am the master of my fate, the captain of my destiny.” These are the haughty words of a 19th century poet who believed himself to be in charge of the course of his life. His words, however, also convey a larger assumption that many have, namely, that man is in control of history. That what has happened yesterday, what is happening today, what will happen tomorrow is largely controlled by man. On the surface of things that may seem to be true enough. From a strictly human viewpoint the policies which governments make, the wars men wage against one another, the peace treaties they sign together, the scientific discoveries they make, do seem to shape and govern the course of history.
Certainly Cyrus must have believed himself to be the mover and shaker of world events in his day. He must have thought of himself as one on whom future generations would look back and say: “Things are the way they are today because of what Cyrus did all those years ago.”
People today, and we hear it all the time, will point back to individuals like George Washington, Thomas Edison, Susan B. Anthony, and say that these people certainly helped steer the course that history has now taken. Or they look at, for example, the recent political campaign, and say the outcome of the election will have an effect on how Americans live for generations to come.
Man is seen to be in control of history. But just as what we see on the movie screen only appears to be real, so man only appears to be in charge of history. A behind the scenes look at history reveals that the LORD, the one true God, is in the director’s chair. He is actually in charge of what’s going on all around us.
In the case of Cyrus, the LORD makes this very clear who was really in control. He calls Cyrus His anointed, that is His chosen one, a type of “messiah.” Its interesting that this is the same word that is used elsewhere in Isaiah to describe the coming Christ—to describe Jesus. There are, of course, many major differences between Jesus and Cyrus. For one, Jesus was anointed to be the Savior of the world, while Cyrus was chosen for a far lesser purpose. Also, Jesus was the willing Messiah, while Cyrus was an unwilling “messiah.” What Cyrus did he did not do out of love for the one true God, but only for his personal fame and fortune. Verse 4 says: “I [the LORD] call you [Cyrus] by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me …” Then later in v.5 we are told: “I [the LORD] will strengthen you, though you [Cyrus] have not acknowledged me …”
What Cyrus thought he was accomplishing, God was really doing through him. That doesn’t mean the LORD used Cyrus in the way one would program a robot. Cyrus wanted to be the great ruler he became. He was not forced to do what he did in the way a master might force his slave to do his bidding. Nevertheless he was still God’s instrument led to do just as God wanted. Even this mightiest of men was under God’s supervision.
For the Christian this is a great comfort. Nothing can happen in history, nothing can happen in our personal lives without God letting it.
In the years when sea travel was much more dangerous than today, an ocean liner crowded with passengers was on its way to New York City when it was suddenly overtaken by a violent storm. Passengers and crew were learning once again to pray, as it seemed the ship would never again reach port. But while all were filled with fear, a little girl played and sang songs as if she hadn’t a care in the world. An astonished passenger asked her, “Aren’t you afraid. “Afraid?. Why no!” she said. “My father, you see, is the captain. He will steer us safely home.”
People, we ourselves, may be out of control, but not the LORD. We may have no clue as to what God is trying to accomplish by some of what we hear reported on the news or by what we see taking place within our own families or among our friends. Yet we simply trust that our Father is steering the ship. Despite what things may look like, God’s Word assures us that this is the greater reality. His children by faith in Christ Jesus can live with the happy confidence that God will get us home yet.
But the LORD takes us even further behind the scenes of history, showing us that not only is He in absolute control, but that there is a definite plan—a solid purpose behind all history—behind everything that happens from the beginning to the end of time.
The LORD’s purpose in making Cyrus a powerful world conquer is spelled out in v.4: “For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I call you by name and bestow on you a title of honor …” To understand what this all means, we need to know a little history. The terms “Jacob my servant” and “Israel my chosen” are names for God’s chosen people, the people of Judah, also known as the Jews. The Jews were that special people from whom the Savior would eventually come. Many years before Cyrus arrived on the scene the Jews were conquered by the Babylonians and taken into captivity. But God beforehand had promised that after seventy years his people would be set free and allowed to return to their homeland. This God brought to pass through Cyrus. Cyrus defeated the Babylonians, and a very short time afterward he issued a proclamation which allowed the Jews to resettle their homeland. Understand the implications: without Cyrus there would have been no deliverance of the Jews out of Babylon. Without the deliverance of the Jews out of Babylon the Jews would have been absorbed into that heathen culture. And if that happened there would have been no Christ. No Christ would mean no salvation for sinners.
This then is the LORD’s overriding purpose in all of history: the rescue of man from sin and its damning consequences. Behind all the names, the dates, and events of history, this is what is really going on. Behind it all the LORD is working and shaping events so that the Gospel of Jesus Christ can be brought to lost sinners everywhere so that they may one day enter into His eternal glory. History is truly HIS STORY!
Of course, at the time when Cyrus was toppling empires and kingdoms left and right, how many saw behind the scenes to what was really going on? Probably no more than a handful of believing Jews. All people saw was this great and powerful man, completely changing the political and social landscape. You thought the O.J. trial was big news, imagine what today’s media would have done with this story!
But over 25 centuries later how many today even know that Cyrus ever lived? Now he is dead, and his empire is no more than a heap of dust. Men strut and fret upon the stage of history for their one brief hour, trying to make a name for themselves. What they do may look very important and grand at the time, but soon they, and the things they did, are forgotten. How many generations will it be before names like George W. Bush or Al Gore are lost from the memories of most?
Real history—history that really matters—happens where most people least expect it: in a stable with a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes; on a lonely hill during the routine crucifixion of an innocent young Jew; or at a quiet Sunday morning grave-site where a body now missing.
Real history happens when the sweet sound of the Gospel is preached and a sinner is brought to faith in Jesus. What does the Bible say? “There is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.” It happens at the baptismal fount when a little child is received into God’s kingdom and brought under the protection of the Triune God. It’ll happen today when the communicants come to the Lord’s altar to receive his body and blood so that their souls are kept safe unto life everlasting. (What war, what act of congress, what trade agreement can do any of these things?) It happens as you go about your daily business, teaching God’s Word to your children, sharing God’s love with friends, and doing all that you do to the best of your ability so that Christ may be glorified in your life. This is history that will be remembered and celebrated for all eternity.
Some of us need to have plenty of Kleenex handy when we watch certain movies. We can get pretty involved with a story, even though we well know that what we’re watching isn’t real. Sometimes we’re effected by the shocking news that comes over the airwaves. Often the trials which touch our own lives bring us sorrow. But let us remember that there is more going on than we may be able to see. There are deeper, grander, more wonderful things taking place. God is behind the scenes: controlling history, working out his saving purposes—loving us, forgiving us, getting heaven ready for us! In Jesus’ name. AMEN!
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.