The 21st Sunday after Pentecost October 17, 2010
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
277, 371 (1-5), 371 (6-7), 385 (1-4,10)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
May the love of God the Father fill you with wonder and awe, may the sacrifice of God the Son fill you with gratitude and humility, and may the indwelling of God the Holy Spirit fill you with faith, zeal, and wisdom. Amen.
You have undoubtedly heard it from little on—your parents gently (or not so gently) correcting you with that universal parental prohibition, “No, nooo…” Usually the potential mischief was something relatively minor, like trying to tear the pretty bows off of the presents under the Christmas tree, or the ears off of the family cat. As you got older, the “No, no” was shortened into just plain old “No!”
Then, interestingly enough, “No, no” finds its way back into our vocabulary when we are old, only now instead of a prohibition it is turned into a noun—a “no-no.” Even more interesting is that “a no-no” now very often refers to things not so minor. The last time I remember hearing it was when I mentioned to someone that I wanted to go down into one of those abandoned nuclear missile silos scattered across North Dakota. I was told that in many cases the United States Marine Corps considers that “a big no-no.”
Today’s text deals with an infinitely more serious sort of a “no-no,” only this one is a “know no” and its importance is based on the fact that it involves the spiritual and eternal. Our text will help to clarify as we are instructed by the Word of God recorded by Isaiah the prophet in the 45th chapter:
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.”
These are the very words of our God, written and preserved down through the centuries for our instruction and growth. That each one of us, personally, might gain such gifts and countless others, we pray: “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth.” Amen.
How carefully were you paying attention to the text when you read it? Without looking back at it, can you outline what it was about? A bit disturbing, isn’t it, when we read a sermon and find ourselves paying the least attention to that part which is the most important—God’s Word?
I’m guessing that everyone missed something critical in this text. Take just a moment and reread it. See if anything jumps out at you the second or third time through. Nothing, right? That’s why we don't just read God’s Word. We study it, explore it, dissect it, and apply it.
So what is the basic message of the text? Cyrus was the name of the king under whose leadership the Persian Empire was established. In size it rivaled the Roman Empire, extending from India to Greece and from North Africa to the Caucasus Mountains near the border of present-day Russia. It swallowed up the Median Empire, followed by the mighty Assyrian Empire together with its capital Babylon—the city many historians believe to have been the most formidable and luxurious city in ancient times.
This was the Cyrus named in our text, but that isn’t the most interesting part. The most interesting part is that when Isaiah wrote these words there was no Persian Empire. In fact there was no Babylonian Empire. There was only the rising Assyrian Empire and the man named Cyrus would not even be born for another 100 years. Put into an American perspective, this would be like George Washington writing about Abraham Lincoln, or Abraham Lincoln (as a boy) writing about the rise of Adolph Hitler.
There is more. About 100 years before he was even born, God through Isaiah prophesied that Cyrus would subdue a mighty city that hadn’t yet been built, and he would free a people who had not yet been defeated nor led into exile. In verse preceding our text (Isaiah 44:28), God spoke of rebuilding both a city that was still very much intact and formidable (Jerusalem) and a temple that was still standing in all of the splendor with which Solomon built it. In that verse we read God saying of Cyrus: “He is My shepherd, and he shall perform all My pleasure, saying to Jerusalem, ‘You shall be built,’ and to the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’”
History gives us some even more remarkable insights. The Greek historian, Herodotus, recorded that Cyrus’ own grandfather, Astyages (then king of the Median Empire), ordered Cyrus killed at birth because he feared that the child would one day overthrow him (which he eventually did). The baby Cyrus was said to have been left to die in the country, but was rescued by a peasant family and raised as a shepherd. Note the words in Isaiah: “He is My shepherd, and he shall perform all My pleasure.”
Some will no doubt recall from Bible History how Cyrus eventually captured mighty Babylon by diverting the Euphrates River that ran under the city’s impenetrable walls. Even then the invading Medes and Persians could have been easily destroyed had not the arrogant Babylonians been feasting that night. We read a description of this feast in Daniel 5:1-4: “Belshazzar the king made a great feast for a thousand of his lords, and drank wine in the presence of the thousand. While he tasted the wine, Belshazzar gave the command to bring the gold and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple which had been in Jerusalem, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them…They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze and iron, wood and stone.”
The mighty bronze gates in the interior walls that lined the Euphrates River to defend against just such an attack were left open. These were undoubtedly the very gates mentioned in the text from Isaiah: “to open before him the double doors, so that the gates will not be shut.” [v.1]
Remember how Daniel, a Jewish captive in Babylon at that time, had foretold the fall of Babylon that night to Belshazzar by interpreting what a hand had written on the wall: “And this is the inscription that was written: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. This is the interpretation of each word. MENE: God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it; TEKEL: You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting; PERES: Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians” (Daniel 5:25-28). The Medes and the Persians took Babylon without a struggle exactly 2,549 years ago, last Tuesday (October 12, 539 BC). Our text accurately predicted these very events 100 years before they ever took place.
Remarkable? Certainly. But there is more here for you and me who live all these centuries later. While the Lord God raised up Cyrus to accomplish His divine purposes, there is no evidence that Cyrus adopted the God of Israel as his God. History tells us that he worshipped idols named Bel, Nebo, and Marduk. All of that fame, all of that success, wealth, and power—his very birth and rise to power prophesied on the pages of the Holy Bible—and yet Cyrus will spend an eternity in Hell if he did not come to faith in the one true God and in His promise of the Messiah. The tremendous kindness that he once showed to the Jews by allowing them to return and rebuild their city and their temple will not save him. His mention in the Bible will not save him, nor will the earthly favors that God lavished upon him. Man is saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ—the Promise of the Savior in the Old Testament, the reality of the Savior in the New Testament.
The simple, irrefutable fact is that God ordained and established Cyrus for His own purposes as Isaiah explained in today’s text: “For Jacob My servant's sake, and Israel My elect, I have even called you (Cyrus) 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.” [vv.4-6]
Cyrus was guilty of the granddaddy of all know-no’s—he failed to recognize and acknowledge that there is no God but the Triune God. In this matter each one of you is infinitely more blessed than the great King Cyrus. Each one of you possesses immeasurably more wealth, for your riches are eternal. Each one of you knows the one true God and believes that He sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to be your Savior. Through this faith, given to you as a gift from God the Holy Spirit, your sins are forgiven and you have been declared heirs of the glory and riches of Heaven itself.
All of history points to Jesus Christ and for good reason. In the end, nothing else matters. Come what may in this life, this life will one day give way to the existence that does not end—Heaven or Hell. Satan’s sole purpose in this world is to remove you from the path to eternal life where you currently walk. To accomplish his goals, know that he will offer you whatever he finds to be most effective in accomplishing your spiritual death. Remember how he offered Jesus Himself all of the wealth and glories of all of the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would only bow down and worship him? What will he offer you? What has he already offered you?
Understand the implications here. This struggle will never end on this earth. It will continue until your God ends your time of grace. Life here is more like a walk through a mine field than a stroll through the park. Each step needs to be taken with care. The Devil will tempt you with friends who do not share your Christian faith. He will tempt you with temporal glory and fame—from the schools of your youth to the boardrooms and associations of your adult life. He will tempt you with money, with lust, with pleasure, with pain—with whatever proves most effective with you.
Yet what a tremendous comfort to know that you do not struggle alone. Your God works for you. The Creator of heaven and earth is on your side and He loves you. As our God knew Cyrus long before he was born, so also he knew you before you were born; and even now He knows you intimately and cares for you immeasurably. He knows when your heart is breaking as you struggle to do the right thing, and He will continue to supply you with the wisdom and the strength to do that right thing.
History tells us of another king that God favored—King David, a man who knew both hardship and joy. At one point in his life he wrote: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills.” What he probably saw there on the hilltops were the pagan high places constructed in a vain attempt to gain the favor of idols. He saw what the unbelievers regarded as their source of strength and comfort.
David then went on to ask the right question, “From whence comes my help?” By God’s grace the answer that he received is also our answer: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to be moved; He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; He shall preserve your soul. The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in from this time forth, and even forevermore.” (Psalm 121).
The God who has forgiven your sins in Jesus Christ will continue to escort you into the very doors of his paradise. What a blessing to know no other God. Amen.
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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.