God in the (Un)expected

Justin Thornburgh
North Shore Baptist Church
Sermon Proper 24A
Isaiah 45: 1-7
15 October, 2011

God in the (Un)Expected

(Scene 1: The People Expect God)
“Come, children, listen to the story of our father Abraham and his many children.” The teacher always began his stories with this saying. He would gather all the children around the fire – after supper. Their bellies full. The stars flickering in the sky. The children enjoyed the stories. The liked hearing how Father Abraham went where Adonai sent him. How Adonai promised him a son and Isaac came along. They loved hearing about how Joseph got beat up and then became the ruler of Egypt. They liked how Moses split the sea and Joshua led the priests around Jericho and how on the seventh day they blew the shofars and the walls came down. They liked hearing about how Naomi took in Ruth and they became the grand mother and great-grandmother of the great King. There were the stores of action and adventure with King Saul being spared by the boy David and how David rose to be their great King.

There were stories, though, about how after David things started to change for their people. There was a split between Israel and Judah. They heard how Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, refused to treat the people of the north with a fair hand, and how the people of the north rebelled. The once might land had been split. No longer the kingdom of Israel, but the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. They heard how evil house of Omri took over Israel – Ahab and Jezebel. They brought evil to the children of Abraham. The teacher told them about how Uzziah was a great king, but how his pride brought shame upon the house of David. He dared enter the temple of the LORD and burn incense – only priests could do that. Around the fire heard how the Assyrians had destroyed the kingdom of Israel. They, too, were told of how for a time they – the children of Judah – were saved by King Manasseh’s alliance with Assyria; however Adonai did not approve because the king allowed other gods to be placed in the temple. They heard about how King Josiah brought reforms to the worship of Adonai. How he found the book of the law and said all worship must happen in Jerusalem. How, though, he did not heed Adonai’s warnings and met the Egyptian pharaoh. How he was killed in battle, and how his death began the swift downfall of Judah.

They heard about how eleven years after his death their grandparents were brought here – to the land of Babylon. They heard how Nebuchadnezzar destroyed their grandparents’ homes. About how he destroyed the temple of Adonai. Here they were – gathered around the fire. Exiles. Refugees. Children of a forgotten land. There were some who tried to keep the stories of the land of their parents alive – those like the teacher who would gather them around the fire to tell the stories. But more often than not, stories were being forgotten. Adonai had abandoned the people. They were now under the hand of the Babylonian gods Marduk and Ishtar. The one true God could not be found – other in the stories the teacher told. Stories that told of how – when evil came to their land – Adonai let them be taken captive; rather than let them keep their kingdom. No wonder they preferred to ignore their God.

But, this night, as the fire began to burn out. Shadows growing longer as the jumping flames gave way to glowing embers. The teacher began to tell a new story. A story of a messiah named Cyrus. The story of a great king who would let the children of Judah return to their land. They are told how Adonai will let Cyrus destroy nations. How Adonai will prepare the way for Cyrus, and how he will receive great treasures. They are told how, though Cyrus doesn’t know Adonai, Adonai will do these things. Adonai has anointed him to free Adonai’s children and let them return to Judah.

As the children rush to their tents with the excitement of this news; their parents begin to plot against the teacher. How can Adonai allow a non-Hebrew to free the people – the chosen people? They mock the old teacher as touched in the head. His mind is going in his old age. They say that Adonai has chosen them; therefor it is expect that their messiah should come from their midst. Their God is to do what the expect God to do. If Adonai wants us to be free; we must do it – that is what is expected.

(Scene 2: Doing What is Expected)
The Hebrew people had a right to be skeptical about a foreign king being anointed by God to free them from their captivity in Babylon. Though, if you read the prophets and the books of Samuel and Kings, you see that they were in captivity because of the sins of their leaders; they were being held captive none the less. They were hostage to a foreign leader who denied them the basic rights to worship their God in their homeland. Why would another foreign leader be any different.

The news these past couple of weeks has been all about people being held captive. I have seen story after story about people being forced from their homes because their mortgages have gone underwater – they owe more on the house than what it is worth, and the banks are not working with them to restructure payments. I have heard stories about men and women, who some chastise as being lazy and ineffectual, who have been out of work since 2008 and have given up hope at finding something. I hear stories about companies that make record profits and yet refuse to use that money to expand their companies; instead they expand the billfolds and purses of those who can afford to hold stock in them.

People are being held captive by forces that are sucking away their very humanity. In the struggle to be heard – voices are raising in anger and hatred. Both sides are starting to paint the other as the evil oligarch or the lazy good for nothing. The systems in place are keeping people captive, and blinding us to the realization that on both sides of the fight there are human beings. Not only are people being held captive by debt and foreclosure and joblessness; people are being held captive a sense of powerlessness that forces them to exert what power they have over others. People are being held captive to a fear of loss that they fill their storehouses for that day when they will need it. People are being held captive by the need to win at all costs that they forget they could just as easily be the one on the curb.

The news is not good. We have a Tea Party movement that says that all of our ills can be solved by cutting budgets; especially in services that help the most vulnerable. We have an #occupy movement that is filled with so much grief and is bound on so many sides it is having a hard time articulating what its needs are. There are a myriad of voices all calling out for Adonai to do something – for we are being held captive. Like the Hebrews in Babylon – we cry out. We are doing what we can to survive. We are doing what is expected. We fight. We scrap. We take stands. We forget God. We do what is expected. WE do what is expected.

(Scene 3: God in the Unexpected)
What we forget, though, in our angst and anger. What the Hebrew people forgot in their exile. Is that in the end God is the one in control. They did not have the military might to defeat Babylon. They were an occupied and exiled people. God was working on their behalf, though.

God called and anointed Cyrus, the king of Persia, to bring them release. God chose an unexpected ally. God chose someone who did not even know the God of Israel existed, and yet Cyrus was named by that God – surnamed even; brought into the family. God promises Cyrus riches and land; victory and power. This could not have pleased the people. How could our God side with someone who worships another god?

God works in the unexpected though. God chose a liberator who would release the Hebrews and allow them to return to Judah and Jerusalem. God knew Cyrus would release them in a bloodless way. God knew this leader would want God’s people to rebuild the temple. God works in the unexpected. Though Cyrus did not know Adonai; God worked through him.

Within 18 years of their release the foundation was laid for the second temple. A restoration of God’s chosen people to God’s chosen land. The temple once again became the center of the Hebrew world. This is the temple that saw the people through the sacrilege of Antiochus IV – when he placed a statue of Zeus in the Holy of Holys. This is the temple that was restored under Harrod. This is the temple that a young Jesus sat at the feet of rabbis and listened and discussed. This is the temple that say the rage of that boy grown into a man when he heard about the unfair treatment of the poor going on in it. This is the temple that had its veil torn with that man died upon a cross – an enemy of the state.

God worked in an unexpected way when God chose to use Cyrus to release God’s people.The children around the campfire were used to hearing how God worked in the unexpected: the knew how the bound boy Isaac would become the father of Israel; they knew how the youngest son of Jacob became the saviour to his family; they knew how a murderer was reformed and turned into the leader of released slaves; they knew how a prostitute insured safe passage and helped prepare for the take over of Jericho; they knew how the youngest of Jesse’s sons would become the king who would unify the land. So it was not surprise to learn that God was once again using unexpected means to save them.

(Scene 4: God working in the (Un)expected)
We have seen how God works in the unexpected. We are here today because of the unexpected child – born of a teenaged girl and her fiancee. We have seen how God works in the unexpected with that baby growing into a preacher and teacher – totally unexpected from a hick carpenter from a Podunk town. We have seen the unexpected in that man who calmed the seas and fed the 5,000. We have seen the unexpected in when that man took upon his shoulders the weight of the world – dying for living as God expects. We are witnesses to the unexpected when Jesus left the grave that Sunday morning. We are part of the unexpected in a church that has survived torture; persecution; resistance. God works in the unexpected.

Through working in the unexpected God has freed us to work as God expects in unexpected ways. Because Jesus took on the cross; we, too, are expected to. Because Jesus rose from the grave we have the power to change what is expected; God freed us.

God worked in an unexpected monk, and he gave the world an example of peace. God worked in yet another monk, and unexpectedly revitalized the church. God worked in a refugee pastor who began a movement of freedom of which we are the legacy. God worked in a short kid from Atlanta, and gained freedom for an oppressed people. God is working in a woman raised in the red-light district of Norfolk, VA in the 1940s; a woman who leaned about the oppressed and followed Jesus to South Africa and was instrumental in the release of an imprisoned leader – Nelson Mandela. God is working in the unexpected place of protest; where many are gathered there is Jesus – found in the unexpected form of protest chaplains. People who have felt God calling them to the unexpected.

Friends; God is working in the unexpected places with unexpected people. We are not alone as we gather to change expectations. We can expect God to work in Unexpected ways.

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