The Unexpected Servants of God
Scriptures: Isaiah 45:1-13; Acts 22:3-16
In the movie Gran Torino Clint Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a crusty embittered old Korean War veteran who harbors a deep revulsion toward Asians, maybe because of his Korean War experience. As a result, Walt is not happy when a Cambodian family moves in next door. It gets worse when their teenage son of Thao joins a gang and tries to steal Walt’s prize 1972 Gran Torino sports car. Walt catches Thao in the act, calls him a string of racist names, and threatens to blow off his head with a rifle. When the Cambodian family hears about what their son has done, they are so embarrassed they order Thao to make amends by doing chores for Walt, which Walt is not excited about. Walt does not relish the idea of Thao coming over to his house to do chores, and he repeatedly mocks Thao’s ignorance about anything mechanical. But as the movie unfolds, Thao proves to be a bright willing student, and Walt discovers he enjoys mentoring this young Cambodian teenager, teaching him about mechanics and even giving him a little advice about dating.
While all this is going on, a priest is trying to help Walt reconcile his relationship to God, a separate story line that eventually gets entangled in Walt’s relationship to Thao. It is quite a film. In the end—and here is a spoiler alert—Walt gives his life to save Thao from the very gang that had tried to recruit him, and in his will leaves Thao the 1972 Gran Torino.
Believe it or not, this is actually relevant to our scripture reading for today. Isaiah 45 begins with one of the most stunning statements in the Old Testament, verse 1: “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus.” Up to this point the term “anointed” had always referred to an Israelite—first to Israel’s high priests and later to Israel’s anointed king. In Hebrew it is the word Messiah, which later came to be used for the future king that God would send to save the people of Israel. But here God uses the term for Cyrus, a Persian emperor: “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes.” God takes this foreign dictator, who doesn’t even believe in the Lord, and offers to help him conquer other nations so as to extend his empire.
Why does God do that? The first hint is given in verse 4. God says to Cyrus, “For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.”
One nation whom Cyrus defeated is the Babylonians. As I have mentioned before, the Babylonians were the ones who conquered Israel, destroyed the city of Jerusalem, and took many of its people into exile in Babylon. God intended to use Cyrus the Persian to conquer the Babylonians and set free the Israelites. Verse 13: “I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make all his paths straight; he shall build my city and set my exiles free.”
At this point I want to make three observations. There are, I think, three crucial lessons in this story. Lesson #1:
1. God not only works in creation; God works in human history.
I have talked to numerous people over the years who believe in a God who created the world, but who see no particular relevance of this God for their lives today. They figure there is a God is out there somewhere who got things started, but they don’t pray, they don’t worship, and they don’t seem particularly concerned about what God might be doing in the world now.
But the Bible is. Notice what God says in the last two verses of our scripture reading. Verse 12: “I made the earth, and created humankind upon it.” That is creation. But then verse 13: “I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make all his paths straight.” That is history. God not only created the world but intends to straighten it out. God not only created people but intends to redeem them—to set the captives free, to put an end to all the evil in the world, all the exploitation, all the lying, cheating, and destruction that people wreck on each other. God not only created the world but intends to save it, bringing to this world the peace and healing and right relationships that God intended for us when we were created.
Don’t think God created the world and then left the rest up to us. God is not finished with the world or with us, and we ignore that to our detriment. God not only works in creation; God works in human history.
2. God not only works through believers; sometimes God works through unbelievers without them knowing it.
Verse 4 is particularly striking. God says to Cyrus, “For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.” In Cyrus, God chooses to work through a person who does not even know God.
Apparently the people of Israel were shocked by this. Verse 11: “Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker: Will you question me about my children, or command me concerning the work of my hands?” Or as Isaiah says in verse 9: “Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, ‘What are you making’?”
Those words are directed not to Cyrus but to the Israelites. The Israelites are thinking, “God, what are you doing? Promising victory to a pagan emperor? Offering to help a ruthless dictator conquer the world? This is crazy.”
But God wants the people of Israel to understand something. God does not work only through religious people. God does not work only through pastors and church committees. Sometimes God works through crusty old bigots like Walt Kowalski.
Which brings me to my final observation:
3. God not only works through unexpected people but changes them in the process.
Notice verse 3. God says to Cyrus, “I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.”
Did that ever happen? Did Cyrus the Persian ever come to know the Lord?
We know from archeological records that in 538 BC Cyrus did indeed conquer the Babylonians, and in that same year issued an edict allowing the Israelite captives to go home and rebuild their city. Why did he do that? What did he hope to gain? It’s not like the Israelites were a powerful nation with whom he might build an alliance.
Archeology does not answer that question, but the Bible does. Ezra 1:2-3:
“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. 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.”
Can God use unexpected people to do God’s work? Yes, and like a Walt Kowalski, God can change them in the process.
The poster child for this in the New Testament is the apostle Paul. Talk about an unexpected servant of God. Not only did Paul reject any faith in Jesus, he hunted down and arrested those who believed in Jesus. Paul was as anti-Jesus as they come, but he became one of God’s most remarkable servants for sharing Jesus with others.
Can God work in the hearts of unbelievers? You bet. And in the process even the Walt Kowalskis of this world can discover a new life.