Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 41:1-10) transports me to a new empire in the making, as God takes credit for raising up a liberating conquistador from the east to scorch the earth and make dust of kingpin after kingpin. While the prophet does not name this new conqueror, many biblical commentaries point to Cyrus the Persian, who hit the scene around the time of Isaiah’s prophecies, and who made short work of the powerful Medes and the Babylonians as well as every two-bit banana republic he came across as he built up the great Persian Empire, which lasted until a great Macedonian conqueror named Alexander started his own dynasty 300 years later.
If Cyrus is the hero in question, it is a questionable prophecy indeed, for Isaiah refers to him as “righteous.” So does that mean this righteous man was a convert to the Hebrew faith? Hardly. He was a practitioner of the ancient Persian religion known as Zoroastrianism. It’s an interesting faith, sharing a lot of common characteristics with Judaism and Christianity, such as a belief in one God, a messiah figure, a devil figure, a final battle of good over evil at the end of time, and resurrection of the dead to reunite with God in an afterlife. But at the end of the day, these Zoros are not part of the covenant community. And yet the prophet has the radical gall to believe something new, that God works salvation history out through all sorts of instruments, and influences covenant people and pagans alike to move that history along. This was a time when the Jewish people, suffering under the captivity of Babylon, needed a dramatic rescue. And so the great Zoroastrian masked man, crafty as a fox, came riding in on his big stallion, black cape blowing in the wind, gaucho hat resting on his head, and he started brandishing his sword, cutting some serious Z’s throughout the Babylonian house, freeing the Jews, aiding the oppressed and avenging the helpless. And just like Don Diego, this hero finished the job and moved on unscathed.
The prophet then pokes some fun at the trembling islands and the horrified idolaters who are in young Cy’s path. He mocks their feigned encouragement, as the craftsmen try to keep chin up in the face of the onslaught. Good job, smithy! as hammer hits anvil. Now there’s a good looking weld if ever I saw one. Maybe we better nail this Baal down good, don’t want him toppling over in a storm. Israel, on the other hand, had no need to fear as they made their way back home from a long exile. They were in God’s hands. I can imagine them working to believe that. It must have been a scary journey to go back home after almost 50 years away. What would await them? Would they even recognize it after the Babylonian destruction of so much that was sacred to them? They needed courage to do what Thomas Wolfe couldn’t do, to go home again. Their guardian angels looked homeward for them, and guided them on their trip to bountiful, back to the land they called Promise. I believe there are times in all of our lives when we find ourselves captive, either physically or spiritually, far off and away from home, whether through exile or escape, and God calls on instruments of liberation. These rescuers might be among the faith community we are familiar with or they might be outside the family; either way they do God’s bidding, setting us free to go home again. Returning home can be a scary prospect. Trusting God’s capacity to work through people outside the borders of our faith tradition can be an even scarier prospect. We need the courage of angels, we need the assurance of God’s hand, as strangers’ hands lead us back to our roots. An old hymn reassures us: Fear not, I am with thee, oh, be not dismayed, For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid; I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My gracious, omnipotent hand. Or maybe another tune. . . Every stranger’s face I see reminds me that I long to be homeward bound, I wish I was.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith?