During October we have been thinking about gratitude and generosity — grateful for all that God has given us, and the generosity that springs from such gratitude, mindful that all we have is not ours but comes from God. We simply have stewardship of it.
This outlook is woven deep in the Christian tradition and can have, when we incorporate it into our own way of living, a profound impact on how we choose to use our time, talents and money.
The idea that everything is ultimately in God’s hands is a theme that not only runs through scripture but also in Christian Spirituality during the two millennia since the time of Christ. And it is present in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah.
The book of Isaiah was not, in fact, written by a single author. Rather it is a collection of writings that are set over quite a wide time period. In our reading today, the author is writing about a period of Biblical history known as the exile, which we’ve explored before. The nation of Judah, having been invaded by the Babylonians, has lost many of its leaders and elite to captivity in Babylon — perhaps as many as 10,000 people.
I had initially thought that I might inject a bit of congregational participation into today’s sermon by asking you to cheer when the Judeans are mentioned, boo for the Babylonians and hiss for their king, Cyrus the Great. I changed my mind about that after getting my hair cut this week...
While the barber was at work he asked me where I came from. I told him, ‘Scotland,’ and asked about him. ‘Iraq,’ he said, ‘from the city of Basra.’ And then he launched into an extraordinary diatribe about Iraq’s long and noble history, its rich culture and ancient mathematical and scientific achievements. ‘For you people, history means the Second World War. You have a very tiny history, it is nothing!’
It’s hard to argue with a man when he’s holding a pair of scissors to your head while simultaneously raging and laughing manically.
The site of the ancient kingdom of Babylon is in modern day Iraq. And my barber (probably now my ex-barber...) does have a point. At a time when the British Isles was still pretty primitive and feudal, the Babylonian empire was far more developed and cultured.
So I’ve gone off the idea of booing for the Babylonians. But if you were Jewish 500-600 years before Christ you would have been all too quick to join in. The invasion of Judah and the city of Jerusalem was a catastrophe for people who understood themselves to be specially blessed by God.
Isaiah 45.1-7 is an extract from a poem hailing Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who was also ruler of the Babylonian empire, as God’s anointed. Bit of pub quiz trivia for you here: Cyrus is the only non-Jewish person in scripture to be described as ‘God’s anointed’, and it would have been scandalous to those Jews being held captive to hear him described in such terms.
Bear with me for a bit more history. In these days every nation had its own set of gods. Wars between countries were seen as a reflection of the battles between deities in the heavens. When you conquered another country, your gods were believed to have defeated the gods of the losing side. After all, what use is a god if it lets your enemy triumph over you?
And that’s certainly a question some of the captured Jews in Babylon would have been asking. In response, the writer of this poem asserts three things:
Firstly, there are not multiple gods battling it out with each other. There is only one God, and that God is the God of everybody, regardless of race, creed or nationality. For anyone other than the Jews that was a mind-blowing idea, because ancient near eastern mythology made their gods in the image of humanity. The trials and tribulations that people experienced on earth were seen to be a reflection of the struggles of their deities.
What sets the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob apart was the assertion that there is just one God. ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God’ (v5). We are made in the image of that God (not vice versa), called to grow into holiness by becoming more godly, reflecting the divine characteristics of love, justice, peace, mercy and grace.
Secondly, the poem tells us that not only does this one God hold the world in the palm of his hand but is able to work through other people, regardless of their race, creed or nationality. When the poet says that Cyrus is anointed by God and will be an agent for good in the world, it turns upside down the expectation of every Jew that Cyrus the Great would somehow be destroyed. In actual fact, his reign was to become stronger and even more powerful, as he enlarged his kingdom to become the biggest empire ever seen in history up to that time.
And then he does the most amazing thing of all: he lets the captured Jews go home.
This is the moment of surprise, where God works through a pagan king to save his people. The message is clear: God does not abandon us. Whatever challenging situations we find ourselves in we are reminded to look for signs that God is at work. And not just to look for the obvious, but to be vigilant and prepared to be surprised by God working in ways we could never imagine.
How do we do this? The question ‘Where is God at work?’ can be a bit overwhelming to think about. But if you replace the word God with ‘goodness’, or ‘love’, it may be easier to find clues. Where is goodness at work in your life today? What are the signs that love is present to you in this moment? When you find the answer to such questions such, there you will find God.
Thirdly, there is another message in this extract of poetry. The writer is effectively saying to Cyrus, ‘God says I will give you many things (subduing kings, opening doors and gates, treasure and riches) so that you may know who I am.’
How much, I wonder, do we seek to know who God really is? In what ways do we give credit to God for all the ways our lives are blessed? You may not be a conquering king, but look at what you do have.
There is no evidence that Cyrus the Great ever acknowledged or understood his success was a gift from God. And that may be the point: if we’re not looking for God then no matter how much is given to us — even the kingdoms, power, and wealth of an emperor — the human ego still easily fails to see God at work. Even sending his son to die at the hands of humanity is not enough to convince many of the love and grace of God.
What additional wonders should we reasonably expect to see from God if we take for granted all that has already been given to us, which we perhaps too easily put down to luck, circumstance, or our own hard work or cleverness?
Julian of Norwich was a 14th century English mystic, who left a much loved written account of her spiritual insights. In one of her writings she reflects on a spiritual experience while contemplating a hazelnut in her hand.
I’m going to finish by reading to you from her great work Revelations of Divine Love. You should have been given a hazelnut when you arrived at church today. I invite to pick it up now and place it in the palm of your hand. Study it for a moment: it’s shape, texture, colour and weight. Does it feel cool or warm, heavy or light?
I saw that [our Lord] is to us everything which is good and comforting for our help. He is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us. And so in this sight I saw that he is everything which is good, as I understand.
And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand….
In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it. But what did I see in it? It is that God is the creator and protector and the lover. For until I am substantially united to him, I can never have perfect rest or true happiness, until, that is, I am so attached to him that there can be no created thing between my God and me.
Mother Julian recognised that cultivating an ability to see God at work in our lives need not come from great success or wealth, nor even an absence of problems. It is when we open up our souls to the divine, that even the smallest and simplest of things, such as a tiny nut, can be a gateway to the eternal, to the truth that God holds us in the palm of his hand.
Such are the treasures of spiritual insight, not found by seeing in the way that the world looks, but by putting our attention in a different place so that we, like Mother Julian, can understand that perfect rest and true happiness comes from prayerful union with God.
Acknowledgement: Revd Dr Callie Plunket-Brewton, workingpreacher.com, for commentary on Isaiah 45.1-7