For the folks at Gesu Parish in Miami …
For the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel, my chosen one, I have called you by name, giving you a title, though you knew me not (Isa 45:4).
In its original setting, today’s first reading from the book of Isaiah must have been rather provocative. This prophetic oracle, probably written down during great Exile of Israel, addresses Cyrus, who was King of the Persians, Israel’s master and foreign occupier. This in itself is not surprising. The prophetic books are full of all sorts of oracles of doom against Israel’s enemies.
This, however, is not an oracle of doom.
On the contrary, here God calls Cyrus “his anointed” (the only non-Israelite to be called משיח in the OT). God identifies Cyrus as the one “whose right hand I grasp,” the one whom he has “called by name,” and the one to whom He has given military might. Most provocatively, of course, God claims to have raised up Israel’s foreign occupier “for the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel, my chosen one.” Cyrus, who to all appearances represents Israel’s oppressor, will turn out to be, by God’s design, their servant and instrument. This was the challenge to Israel’s faith.
For the prophecy called Israel to consider two truths about God’s providence that are never easy to believe: first, that God was still seeing to it that world history converged upon his designs for Israel—that God had raised up a world superpower for the sake of an insignificant band of exiles; second, that pain and suffering were not the same as abandonment. On the contrary, the oracle suggests that God permitted Israel’s exile only so as to draw her closer, to make her more profoundly his “servant” and his “chosen one.” Israel must have been so tempted in those dark days to look at this oracle of hope as mere wishful thinking, as special pleading on behalf of a God who didn’t really care, or, if He did care, was not strong enough to do anything for his people.
With the benefit of hindsight, however, Israel came to see that it was precisely in the crucible of the exile that her faith took on its greatest depth. In exile she learned what sort of a God had chosen her: a God who could afford to let the Persians have his land because his sovereignty was not tied to any country; a God so serious about holiness that He would allow his people to taste defeat, if this were the only way to purify their faith; a God whose true servants are called to suffer. These precious insights were all fruits of the exile, and they came into focus only in hindsight.
But such hindsight is hard to come by when faced with our own trials and failures. Is it any less difficult today to believe that God is truly in control of the events in our lives, that He is always looking out for our best interests? Even when we suffer? Even when it seems that the wicked prosper or that God is indifferent to the plight of his faithful ones: their sickness, their poverty, their unemployment, their loneliness? Deep down, don’t our hearts still cling to Israel’s religious dream—a religion whose faithful observance guarantees power, prosperity, and uninterrupted success. I know that mine does.
But Scripture teaches on every page that there is no moment when God is not attempting to draw us closer to Himself, no circumstance that God cannot use to expand our soul to receive Him: “All things work out for the good of those who love him” (Rom 8:28); “The very hairs on your head are numbered. You are worth more than many sparrows” (Lk 12:7); “I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). It belongs to the eyes of faith to see our our lives this way.
Not long ago I talked to a man who went through something like Israel’s experience on a personal level. He was in the home improvement business. After the economic downturn, his monthly sales dropped by about 85%. For the first time, his business failed. He couldn’t pay his bills. He had to lay off workers. Yet, in the midst of it, a strange thing happened. He also began to receive unexpected favors from his friends and from God. His creditors extended his loans. God gave him powerful experiences of consolation in prayer. He actually came to see a sort of meaning in his trial: “I never knew how much I was loved—either by God or by other people–until I went broke. I finally have no other choice but to let them.” This man was seeing with the eyes of faith.
It is quite often in our exile from control, security, and prosperity that we learn what kind of a God has chosen us–a God who will stop at nothing to open our eyes, to shatter our deafness, to bring us to surrender to his love. The prophetic oracle invites us to ask today–is there a Cyrus in my own life? And if so, can I embrace it as God’s anointed instrument?