A few nights ago I was sitting in the living room working on the computer. While checking my email, a pop-up ad for Classmates.com appeared. Classmates.com is an Internet company that stores graduation and reunion information for schools and military units. For some reason I decided to look up information about an overseas Navy unit at which I was stationed while in the Navy. To my surprise, the site contained the name of an old friend who was stationed there at the same time – Eddie Sensat.
Eddie and his family are great people. When we knew them in the late 1970’s, their kids and our kids were very, very young. Eddie and his wife Dee were originally from Louisiana – they were Cajun. Boy could old Eddie turn on the Cajun accent at the drop of a hat: “Howyamomma’an’em?” And the answer in classic Cajun, “Dey fine!” They were also devoted Christians. We went to chapel at the base and particularly enjoyed the Sunday evening worship. I remember one Sunday evening Eddie and Dee put on a puppet show for the kids. The puppet star was a character named Jacques – a Cajun lumberjack – complete with Cajun accent.
After just a bit of hunting on the Internet, I found Eddie’s telephone number. And so I called him and we had a really great conversation. It was wonderful. He shared that, like Sofi and me, he and Dee had become grandparents. And then another neat surprise - Eddie had been called into ministry! He had been a pastor of a fellowship in Arkansas / Memphis area. But, unfortunately, he had resigned the ministry of that church under some duress. He said, “Eloy, please pray for me. I have an interview at a prison tomorrow, where I’ve applied to work as a chaplain.”
Well, on Thursday I got an email from Eddie. Let me read you a part of what he wrote to me. He says: “Good news, I am now the chaplain at a prison here in Arkansas. A real miracle as the guy above me on the list turned it down. Why would someone go to all the trouble to apply & interview, then turn it down? I asked God for a miracle and he gave us one. So no one can tell me God still doesn’t perform miracles.”
Isn’t it incredible how God works? When the lions were making meals out of believers – didn’t it seem like Christianity would go extinct? How often have we said to ourselves, “Why do things happen the way that they do? Doesn’t God care?” How often have we doubted?
I would suppose that this kind of doubt and second-guessing have been around since the inception of the Church. The early Christians must have thought, "Who are we and how can we stand against everything thrown against us?": Caesar and his minions centuries ago; Barbarians in the Dark Ages; Moors in the Middle Ages; Fascists, Nazis, Communists and unbelieving theologians and pastors – how can we possibly stand against all of that? It would seem impossible that the church could survive.
Yes, beloved, – it would seem – it would seem. And yet here we are. And not just those of us in this room - but millions around the world. Our brothers and sisters are gathering in churches that range from cardboard shacks found in the colonias of Mexican border cities, to huge cathedrals in Europe. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ has not only survived - but scripture teaches that it will be triumphant! But why? - How can this be? Well, that’s easy - because the Almighty is our God.
In today’s Old Testament Text from Isaiah, we see how God works. You see, dark days were on the horizon for God’s people. During part of Isaiah’s life, Manasseh, one of Israel’s most wicked rulers was on the throne. He not only sanctioned and promoted idolatry of every kind, but also persecuted the true worshipers. But Isaiah was faithful. He condemned the idolatry and wickedness that the King promoted. And because of this, Isaiah suffered a martyr’s death. Jewish tradition says that Manasseh had Isaiah sawn in two.
And God noticed – He would not be mocked. He had a plan for the restoration of his straying people. You see, God had at his disposal all the nations and principalities of the heavens and the earth. At his bidding, nation after nation would respond and be his instruments to mete out justice.
The first to be called into service were the Assyrians. Eighteen years after Isaiah was commissioned to preach, they invaded Palestine. They carried off the 10 tribes of Israel into exile. But by paying tribute to the Assyrians, those who lived in Judah, along with the capital city of Jerusalem, escaped disaster.
You’d figure that the people of Judah and Jerusalem would learn from what happened to their northern cousins. But the people of Judah did not honor God. And so a new world power arose - the Babylonians. These cruel warriors were called into service by God, and they took Judah into captivity. Times were bad for the Jews. Darkness and loss of hope were the norm. They were slaves in a strange land with strange customs.
Anticipating the spiritual needs of the exiles, God had much to say to them. Through Isaiah, God had told his people that He would use the kingdoms of this world to chastise and purify them. And also through Isaiah, God gave his people hope. He told them that yet another foreign power would restore them. A king that hadn’t even been born – Cyrus would free them. Cyrus was to become the king of the Medes and Persians. This prophecy was written two centuries before Isaiah’s words came true.
You see, in Isaiah’s day no political observer would have guessed that the Persians would become a world empire. But they did. They conquered not only Assyria and Babylonia, but also all the lands along the Mediterranean coast from Asia Minor down through Palestine into Egypt. Unforeseeable too, was Cyrus’ humane and tolerant treatment of conquered peoples, such as the Jews. And history shows that Cyrus did let the Jews return to Palestine. He gave them the resources to rebuild the ruined cities.
You see, Isaiah’s prophecy must have come as a shock to the Israelites. “Even though you don’t know me,” God says about the pagan king Cyrus, “I will subdue nations. I will strengthen you. I will break down the strongholds and make you mighty.” Why would God do all of this for a pagan king? Why would God empower someone who wasn’t of the chosen people? - Because God would free his people through this king. Cyrus would provide the military might and the financial resources needed for the Israelites to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. God would be honored through Cyrus.
Now what does that mean to you and to me, beloved? Simply this, my brothers and sisters: Just as God used Cyrus for his holy purpose, He will work out the most difficult circumstances in our lives to bring us his blessing. Even that intolerable person who is your boss, can be used by God to bless you. That terrible neighbor who let’s his dogs run free can bless you. All circumstances you face – even the ones that you cannot began to comprehend or endure – can be used by God to enrich you and bless you.
Did you catch that, beloved? God uses powers and authorities of this world to accomplish his purposes. Our problems as individuals and as a church will find their solution in God. God’s ‘yes’ – his comforting hand, his uplifting Spirit - is just behind his ‘no’ – the trial, the difficulty, even the tragedy through which we are living.
You see, our lives are not our own – they belong to God. This Church is not ours – its Gods. And God will use incredible and amazing means to bless us. Jesus said as much when He answered those who tried to trick Him in today’s Gospel lesson. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s." Governments and powers exist because God has permitted them. They are there to serve God’s purposes and his ends. God will be glorified even when it seems that only evil can come from them.
Listen to this story: A Baptist congregation that was financially strapped took a risk. They decided to sacrifice and scrimp and do all that they could to buy a new church organ. But it was touch and go, because money was tight. In order to install the organ, they had to rebuild the whole front of the church. So the workmen began to tear apart the platform at the front. And when they did, they found something very curious - a very un-Baptist six-pack of beer, unopened and undamaged. Apparently the original workmen had hidden it under the platform when the building had been built! And guess what? Have you ever seen the TV program, ’Antiques Road Show?’ That six-pack was now a collector’s item, worth hundreds of dollars.
Goodness gracious! Doesn’t God know how to turn what we think is evil into a blessing for us? When Judas betrayed Jesus and innocent blood was spilled, that blood, beloved, washed us and made us sons and daughters of the living God. When Caiahpas the high priest who wanted to kill Jesus said, “It is better for one man to die than for the whole nation to perish,” – He was right! But what he intended for evil, God used for our salvation. – And here we are a new nation of believers. Jesus body and blood sacrificed on the cross, have become the instruments of peace and forgiveness that we have shared at the Lord’s Table.
Wow! Does God ever know how to turn evil into a blessing for his people! Even Jesus’ followers could not imagine what would happen after the crucifixion. But God knew - on Sunday morning came the Resurrection! Wow! Even the cross and martyred prophets and ’chance’ meetings with Cajuns become blessings to us!
Beloved, the most trying and difficult times that you will face – in God’s hands – are converted into rich blessings. So I say to you, trust his promise. Trust in his salvation and his deliverance. “I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God.” (Isaiah 45:5a) Amen.