Admit it. This is an odd thing to be doing on a weekend morning in the 21st century: gathering around a text as old as the Parthenon to see what it has to teach us about our relationship with the Divine all these years later. Apparently fewer and fewer people are spending their Sunday mornings like this, and even those who do are usually content with skimming a cup of meaning off the top—a takeaway that will help them be better parents, or people, or friends--along with a reminder that God loves them no matter what.
If it works, it doesn’t need fixing. The problem is that most of our problems aren’t easy fixes, just like most Bible passages aren’t as simple as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Some are as dense as “Where the corpse is, there the eagles will gather” (Luke 17:37 NRSVUE) or “ For those who have will receive more and they will have more than enough. But as for those who don’t have, even the little they have will be taken away from them” (Matthew 13:12 CEB).
When Peter Wallace invited me to be here today, I took one look at the assigned readings and slapped my hand on Isaiah 45. I’ve loved it forever, not because it’s easy but because it’s hard, with its war language, its treasures of darkness, its clear assertion that God has no wicked rival lurking in the shadows. There’s just one God out there, who forms light and creates darkness, who makes weal and creates woe. If you want to hold someone responsible for either one, look no further. “I am the LORD, and there is no other.”
There are other views of God in the Bible—it’s a whole library of books, after all—and this one has roots in a certain time and place just like all the others do. It has riches hidden in secret places, which it can’t reveal to 21st century people in a hurry. It needs more time than that—time like this—for lingering at the well a while, dropping a bucket instead of a cup, to discover what’s deeper down than our own reflections on the surface of a text that still has life in it after 2500 years.
The first line is key. “Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus…”. Once you find out who Cyrus was and what God chose him to do, the rest rolls out from there: Isaiah 45 marked a sea change in our ancestors’ understanding of who God was and how God worked—that God was their God, but not only their God; that God worked through them but not only through them. Without voiding a single clause of the covenant that bound them to God forever, God chose Cyrus to remind our forebears that the God they belonged to did not belong to them, though God would move heaven and earth to care for them come weal or come woe. There’s still plenty of life left in that.
If you remember a psalm that begins by the rivers of Babylon—or a song from Godspell that starts there too—then you already know the time and place of Isaiah’s prophecy. Tens of thousands of exiles from Jerusalem were camped by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with their harps hung in the willows. Their captors wanted songs from them, but they couldn’t sing. They had lost everything that had made them who they were—their land, their homes, their kingdom, their king, the temple they had built to the God who protected them. You and I both know people who are already having panic attacks over losing the next election. This was much bigger than that. The exiles were deeply into the woe part.
The prophets said it was because they had failed to serve God’s purpose for them. Set apart to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth, they had failed to bless anything but their own self-interest. So when Babylon’s fist came down on them, it came down hard and God did nothing to stop it. Foreign soldiers looted Solomon’s four-hundred-year-old Temple like it was a convenience store and when they had emptied Jerusalem of everything they wanted, they burned it to the ground. Then they rounded up the city’s elites before they could buy their ways out and added them to the long, long line of captives headed to exile in Babylon more than 1600 miles away. And that was the end of the Kingdom of Judah.
Depending on whose math you follow, the exile lasted at least forty-eight years, maybe as long as seventy; in either case, long enough for some who remembered the smell of rain in the streets of Jerusalem to die of old age and children of their children to be born who had no memories of home at all.
I don’t know how Isaiah’s prophecy landed in their midst--the one that began with “Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus…” —except it was around the time it all started coming true. In the fall of 539 BCE, a Persian king named Cyrus advanced on the capital city of Babylon. Since he had already put together the other pieces of a new world empire, his reputation preceded him. Cyrus was known as a benevolent ruler who let conquered people keep their own traditions and gave them back the images of their gods that had been seized in battle. So when he and his soldiers closed in on the capital, the Babylonians (who were fed up with their own king) swung open the gates and welcomed the Persians in. [Kristin Baird Rattini, “Who Was Cyrus the Great?” (National Geographic, May 6, 2019). https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/cyrus-the-great] According to Isaiah, God recognized Cyrus too. This was someone God could work with. This was someone who could free the captives and send them home at last. So God called Cyrus by his name and anointed him, though never in the history of Israel had God done such a thing.
“Anointed” was and is a big word in Hebrew: mashiach, translated as “messiah”—and just as big in Greek, where it is translated as christos, or “christ.’” Take either term down to its roots and you get someone anointed by God for a salvific purpose, to deliver people from wherever they would have been headed if God had not chosen such a person to step in.
In the first testament of the Bible, kings, priests, and prophets were messiahs in this sense. In the second testament, Jesus was the only one. Maybe that’s because “Messiah” had become capitalized by then, salvation had come to mean something very specific, and that something could only be accessed through one Christ. By any measure, all of these messiahs were Jewish--but Cyrus? What’s a gentile doing on the list of God’s anointed? He was not a partner in God’s covenant with Israel. He had never heard of Abraham. He had never been to Jerusalem. He couldn’t speak Hebrew, much less read what Isaiah said about him. Since Cyrus was Persian, he might have been Zoroastrian. He might have worshipped Ahura Mazda, or Marduk. He might have been a polytheist. He might have been spiritual but not religious! What’s interesting is that this didn’t seem to interest God, any more than Cyrus’ nationality, parentage, or profession did. God was in fact very clear that Cyrus didn’t even know who was talking to him.
For the sake of my servant Jacob
and Israel my chosen [God said],
I call you by your name;
I give you a title, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
So that’s what else this passage is about: not just God’s readiness to grasp the right hand of a gentile messiah, but also God’s readiness to be known as the God of all people, able to partner with anyone willing to embrace God’s cause. If you’re familiar with the term “supersession,” this is not that. I’m not talking about God breaking the covenant with Israel in order to set up a new one with the Church. God doesn’t break God’s word. Instead, I’m recognizing what Judaism has recognized for thousands of years: namely, that no one religion has a monopoly on God. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks famously said that’s what makes Judaism unique: its teaching that “…wisdom, righteousness and the possibility of a true relationship with God [Sacks wrote] are all available in non-Jewish cultures and religions as an on-going heritage from the covenant that God made with Noah and all his descendants, so the tradition teaches that one does not need to be Jewish to know God or truth or to attain salvation.” [Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference, 2nd edition (Bloomsbury Academic, 2003), vii, 52-65.]
That’s huge. You don’t have to be Jewish to be saved, or to be a savior. After Cyrus the Great became the new ruler of Babylon, he freed the captives to go home and start rebuilding Jerusalem. He did what he had been anointed to do, becoming what is known in Jewish teaching to this day as a “righteous gentile”—someone who entered into redemptive relationship with Jews though he was not a Jew, who looked beyond the self-interest of his own people to serve a higher purpose for another people, both learning God’s name in the process and making it known to all who learned his story. If you Google “righteous gentiles” today, you’ll be led straight to the website of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, which keeps track of the Righteous of the Nations in its database. There are more than 28,000 names on the list now, from 51 countries—righteous gentiles who protected their Jewish neighbors at great risk during the Second World War.
Oskar Schindler’s name jumps out thanks to Stephen Spielberg’s movie about him. He was a member of the Nazi party, so he was no paragon of virtue, but that was not a requirement. What mattered was that when he saw a way to prevent more than a thousand Jewish workers in his factories from being sent to concentration camps, he did it. But not everyone on the list Yad Vashem keeps is that famous.
Feng Shan-Ho was the Chinese Consul-General in Vienna in 1938, when Austria was annexed to Nazi Germany and Jews needed to show visas or boat tickets to other countries to leave. Ho issued hundreds of visas to Shanghai for anyone who asked for them, over the direct orders of the Chinese ambassador to Berlin.
Adolf and Maria Althoff ran a circus that traveled all over Europe during the war, which made it possible for them to shelter an illegal family of four for years without getting caught. When Gestapo officers showed up for routine inspections, the whole circus—over ninety artists and their families—kept the secret.
Vesel and Fatima Veseli were Albanian Muslims who took one Jewish family into their small home in the mountains—then another—five adults and two children, who stayed with them until the end of the war in 1944. Afterwards, their son Refik went to live with one of the families in Yugoslavia until they were able to emigrate to Israel.
None of these people set out to be righteous gentiles. Most of them didn’t plan to be saviors at all. They were just ordinary people—more like you and me than Cyrus—who lived in a world of deep division and serious danger, with about twenty minutes to think when someone they barely knew needed help they knew they could give, though it would require them to step over a deadly red line. Some surely decided on the basis of their religion or their politics, but that, clearly, could go either way. So there was something else at work that made them do the right thing when they could, for as long as they could, though there was great, great risk in it for everyone involved.
What I love is that Yad Vashem’s keeping a list of them—a list of people-not-like-us who have helped people-like-us. I wish every religion kept a list like that. I wish the Freedom from Religion Foundation kept a list like that, along with every political party: a list of people who have entered into redemptive relationship with each other though they don’t read the same books, believe the same things, follow the same teachings, or look up to the same teachers.
You know it happens. We’re all saved in big and little ways by people we don’t agree with. It’s hard to check everyone’s credentials before you decide whether to let them fix your flat on the freeway, or find a wheelchair for your mother at the airport, or bring you a pot of soup when your dog dies, or help you look for your phone in the grocery store where you’re pretty sure you left it. It’s also nice that no one stops to check your boxes before they dive into the water to pull you out, or whack you on the back when they see you choking on a chicken nugget at a wedding reception, or just sit with you while you both wait for the cops to come though the accident was all your fault.
It happens. We just don’t talk about it much—about how grateful we are for the people-not-like-us who crossed over a line to help us and how they don’t seem like the enemy to us—because when we’re with our own crowd that can come across as… I don’t know… traitorous, unprincipled, weak. Are you soft in the head? You know what they’re like when you’re not around, right? Are you changing sides? Talk like that is what turns us all into exiles—from each other—and there’s a lot of it going on right now.
The best part of the Cyrus story is how it opens the possibility that God’s not as discriminating as we are, or at least not about the same things. Religion, nationality, gender, education, profession, social class, political party: meh. When God looks around for partners, something else tops the list—whatever it is that makes people likely to do the right thing in difficult circumstances—to make things better instead of worse in our own times and places, with our own coordinates and skill sets. That’s what makes us anointable, and there’s no algorithm for getting there. There’s just the readiness, the desire, and a tank full of courage, which you might also call freedom from prudent restraint.
I hope that gives you something to think about later, after you’ve done something more culturally appropriate with the rest of your day. Then, when it’s time to open the treasures of darkness later tonight I hope you at least fool around with this sentence, inserting your name in the right spot: “Thus says the LORD to his anointed (your name goes here), whose right hand I have grasped…”. God knows what could happen if you believed that.