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Overlooked: King Cyrus (Ezra 1:1-4)

July 7, 2019

So, this past week, I celebrated my one year anniversary as the pastor here at Beaver Memorial. And, for those of you that were around you might remember that in my very first sermon, I admitted to you all that I’m not “perfect;” that I don’t “use air quotes” correctly. And I think you all probably learned pretty quickly that I just have no idea what I’m doing here. I fully endorse the “fake it til you make it” philosophy. As long as I’m walking around the office, looking busy, opening up filing cabinet drawers and pulling stuff out, I’m good, right? No one would ever suspect that I have no clue what I’m doing.


But we’ve all been on the receiving end of this kind of experience. Starting a new job or new school; coming into a new situation that was foreign to you prior and being so intimidated because of your perceived lack off qualification or expertise. But sometimes we just need to rest assured that we’re being led in the right direction, and to do the right things. It can be hard to trust that sometimes, but our story this morning is an awesome example of faithfulness and trust by someone who, on paper, didn’t really belong, but was actually the perfect person for the job at the time. 


Now, we’re only really looking at four verses this morning, but there’s so much history and context packed around them that we need to do some of that legwork first before we can really understand what’s happening in this particular text. So, key to understanding what’s happening here is to know that, up until this point, the Israelites have been in exile in Babylon this whole time. For the past 70 years, the Israelites have been enslaved to the Babylonians. And, in Jeremiah 25, we see this prophecy: “This whole land [meaning Jerusalem] shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.” So, in the first verse of our passage this morning, when it says “In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia…”, we now know what this is in reference to. God is stirring the heart of King Cyrus so that the 70 year decree might be fulfilled.


Now, who is this King Cyrus character? I’m so glad you asked. King Cyrus was the king of Persia, as is mentioned above, and he reigned from 558/59BCE (depending on who you ask) through 530BCE when he was killed in a battle in Asia. So, he reigned nearly 30 years. And his kingdom is really established when he conquers the Babylonians — the nation that was enslaving the Israelites. So, now, the Israelites are no longer under Babylonian rule, but under Persian rule. And Cyrus had a reputation for being a very generous and magnanimous ruler. He did not impose specific cultural or religious restrictions onto people. He let people worship whatever god they wanted to worship and live however they wanted to live.  


But we’re told in the next verse that a written edict was released throughout the kingdom that said, “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah.” Now, you may not realize it, but it JUST GOT REAL. Cyrus is claiming that YHWH has spoken to him and has directed him to build the Lord a “house” or temple. Now, David’s son, Solomon, already built a temple in Jerusalem for the Lord in 966BCE. And, you probably don’t need me to tell you that that temple was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar II during the Siege of Jerusalem in 587BCE. And it was after this event that the Israelites became enslaved by the Babylonians. 


So, now that Cyrus is in charge, he’s heard from the Lord to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. And notice this little detail: Cyrus is Persian. And what were Persians? Gentiles. So, in this passage, we’re put in the precarious position of God directing a Gentile king to build him a temple. And this points us to an extremely important underlying theological truth: God is not exclusively interested in those who claim to follow him and him alone. Sure, God’s chosen people might be Christians, or in this case Jews, but that’s not necessarily the case. And this was groundbreaking at the time because we’re starting to see religious understanding evolve. At this time, deities were understood to operate from state-to-state. In other words, it would be like America having its own god, the UK having their own god, and so on. But here, we’re seeing a move away from that system of thought to one in which there’s only a single God who’s sovereign over the entire world. 


And, at the end of the day, that’s a message of hope. That’s a message of love. We far too often get bogged down in this idea that God only cares about Christians and, if he cares at all about non-Christians, it’s only to serve the end of them becoming Christians. But this doesn’t fit into our narrative this morning. And, what’s even more shocking is what is written about this Gentile king in the book of Isaiah. We just saw the prophecy Cyrus fulfills in the book of Jeremiah, but Cyrus is talked about explicitly in the book of Isaiah. At the beginning of chapter 45, we see this: “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him…”


Now, remember earlier when I said it just got real? Well, it just got real-er. More real. CRAZY. It just got CRAZY. And it all has to do with this little word right here: anointed. Now, this is the Hebrew word “mashiyach.” This means anointed, or consecrated. But it also has another meaning; a meaning which is very special for us as Christians, and that is “MESSIAH.”  This is the title we assign to Jesus in the New Testament, but it’s also assigned to Cyrus here, by YHWH himself, in Isaiah. I’m so glad you all are sitting down, because this is heavy stuff. Yes — there are multiple messiahs attested in the bible. Now, I’m not going to try and explain this for you. I’m just pointing out a problem. You all are just going to have to go home today and deal with this. 


But regardless, when we dig into this stuff, isn’t it amazing how God has no boundaries. And it can definitely be scary; there’s no doubt. But we’re forced to confront the fact that God is not a Christian. We can’t fit God into this box that religion tries to build for it. All religious traditions fall under God’s judgement — Christianity included. The whole world belongs to God and it’s all under his judgement. One of the reasons the church is such a train-wreck today is because it has assumed for a long time that it’s exempt from this judgement merely by virtue of existing, and that’s just not the case. If God’s only cares out his immediate followers, then why did he call upon a gentile king? If God only cares about his immediate followers, why didn’t God just do away with Cyrus and appoint a Jewish king? When Jesus came to the earth, why didn’t he just stay in the synagogue, and work to reorient Jewish theology instead of walking around and being friends with sinners and tax collectors and sex workers? I’m just looking for a little consistency. But as long as we maintain this position, there isn’t any. We have to be okay with the fact that God loves others of different faiths or no faith the same way he loves us. And as long as we continue to follow where he leads and continue to welcome the stranger in our midst, we will always find our way back to God, even when we wander off and get lost. 


This is what happens next in our text: “Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.” No matter how far you've wandered or how long you've been away, God will never forget about you. Or maybe you couldn’t have wandered because you were never really “in” in the first place. It’s very likely that a lot of the Israelites being called back to Jerusalem weren’t alive when the Israelites were defeated by the Babylonians in the first place. This life of exile is the only life they’ve ever known, and now they’re being thrust into this new thing. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with being an outsider who comes in with a fresh set of eyes and sees things others don’t see and has solutions that others don’t have. That’s can be a good thing, but not necessarily so. 


In the past couple years, especially in the more conservative expressions of our faith, there have been a lot comparisons between King Cyrus and Trump. Some crafty televangelists are even selling a Trump/Cyrus prayer coin for the low, low price of $45. But wait! There’s more! If you’re really looking for a deal, you can get the “Trump/Cyrus Bundle” which includes 13 prayer coins for the low, low price of $450. Pretty substantial savings there. Don’t worry — It’s all in good fun. I kid the evangelicals because I have no respect for their conception of Christianity. But really — we have to call this out for what it is, and that’s idolatry. Remember — the Israelites couldn’t worship without a temple. So, Cyrus was an instrument of God’s work in the world to reestablish the temple so that the Jews could be freed from exile and continue worshipping. That is absolutely in NO WAY comparable to what Trump has done. We need to resist this kind of idolatry at all costs, and we need to resist this conflation of faith and nationalism at all costs. Those two things were conflated when the OT was written because deities were understood as belonging exclusively to particular political states. That’s not where we are anymore and that’s not how we understand divinity anymore. 


But we have an opportunity right now. We need to be honest about the fact that the church has a long history of supporting these kinds of fascist regimes. A large faction of the church supported Hitler and conservative evangelicals almost single-handedly elected Trump. And for many people who might have been on the fence about this faith in the past, are no longer on the fence. They’ve abandoned all hope for it. Outsiders to the Christian faith are watching right now. They’re watching us as individuals and they’re watching us as a church. And this is especially pointed for those of us who don’t fit the conservative evangelical mold. Much of the church in the United States right now is exclusivist and discriminatory and dark. We have an opportunity to be the light. To stand up and use our voices and use our privilege to proclaim that this world is not the only possible world. And that this world which is so dark and painful is not the world the Christian God has ever wanted. 


Cyrus’s actions stood up for the oppressed and persecuted Israelites when they found themselves in that space. We need to do the same. When you hear the racist chatter at work; when someone makes a comment which is exclusively meant to dehumanize; put that crap down. Don’t let anyone get away with that, and that includes you. The world desperately needs a beacon of light, and I’m convinced that we, here at Beaver Memorial, are meant to be that Beacon. Let’s pray that we might have opportunities to do so. 

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