In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the United States, we like to keep our gods and our rulers separate. And for good reason. History shows us that when the Church and the State get mixed up together, bad things happen; tyranny and, often, terror follow. Whenever the State starts acting like the Church and pretending that it has an absolute mandate from God to do whatever it is doing, then no one can question its actions without questioning God. Then the State can do whatever it wants and its rule is absolute. And when the State starts using words like mercy, forgiveness, salvation, and “what would Jesus do,” you can bet that it is using those words differently than the Church would use them. It doesn’t really matter what the religion is: whether Christianity, or Islam, or the religion of the State, bad things happen when the State is the religion. Likewise, when the Church acts like the State and uses force, coercion, the sword, to compel belief or improve behavior, then it is no longer the Church. Then things happen such as capital punishment for heretics. So we keep our gods and our rulers separate. And Lutherans teach a similar thing, which is often misunderstood as the separation between Church and State. In the U.S., often the separation of Church and State means that God should stay over there in the “Church” area, and out of the “State” area. You are free to worship in your churches on Sunday morning, but all that religion stuff should stay over there and out of the State realm. We do believe they have their separate roles, but there is a significant difference. The difference is that while they have different roles, they are not separated, in the sense that God has nothing to do with the State. No, God rules both, only He rules differently in each realm. He is behind both the Church and the State; in the State, He rules by law and order, by upholding the good and punishing evil, by justice, by reason, by things that can be known by anyone, no matter what their belief. But in the Church, He rules by mercy, by the forgiveness of sins, by His Son Christ, by His Sacraments. These are things that can be known only by faith given by the Holy Spirit. They are revealed, not naturally known.
We have a perfect example of how God does this and why in Isaiah 45. This whole story is unique in the Scriptures, and it is one of the most striking things that God does. I don’t know how much you know about Cyrus—the king Cyrus—but he is not a believer or a worshiper of Yahweh, the God of Israel. He may be a worshiper in some Persian religion, or a worshiper of no god in particular. But around 200 years before Cyrus, God prophesies through the mouth of Isaiah that He would grasp Cyrus’ right hand, and God calls him His anointed, which is meshiach, Messiah, in Hebrew. God calls this pagan king, king of the largest empire that has ever existed, His Messiah, His anointed one. And He says that He will open gates before him, that He will conquer nations for him, that He would break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron, that He would give him treasures hidden in darkness. All of this happened. In fact, when Cyrus came to the gates of Babylon, the Babylonian priests of Marduk said Cyrus was the chosen one of Marduk, and they opened the gates of Babylon without a fight. And why did God do this? Why did He use this pagan king? For three reasons, He says: first, so that Cyrus would know that Yahweh was the only God there is; second, so that everyone, from east to west, would know that He is God and that there is no other; and third, right in the middle, the most important reason: for the sake of Jacob His servant and Israel His chosen one.
God uses Cyrus to conquer Babylon and send His people back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. They had been there 70 years, and about 40 years since the temple was destroyed. Lamentations and Ezekiel were written during this time, but God keeps His promises, and He uses Cyrus to do it. Sometimes we can get so focused in on our own lives, our own faith, our own congregation, that we forget that our God is the God of all the nations. He is behind every government, every ruler, and He does not cease to rule when the king or president or dictator does not know Him. And He does all of this because He wants a people for Himself. He will have a people, and nothing can stop Him. He will have a royal, priestly, chosen people. And for the sake of this people He will work all things—including unbelief, idolatry, and sin—together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. Those whom He has called, whom He justifies, glorifies, and makes holy. So He causes His people to go back to the Land of Promise, so that He can continue the genealogy that will lead to His Son. He brings about the conception and birth of the true Messiah in this creation, this world, this history. He is born in a particular time and place, in a particular body that is born from the genealogy of His mother. And His Father takes up into this story Herod, and another Herod, and Pilate, and the leaders of Israel. Whatever they do, whatever they try to do, God will cause it all to be for the good of His people through His Son. And this story that began in the Garden and continued after the sin of Adam and Eve, the story that the whole Scriptures is telling, is brought to its climax in Christ, and continues even today. This story, this history, is being told here and now. He called you and me by name, though we did not know Him—all so that we would know Him. He named us by His own name in baptism, and He reigns in both His Church and in this State for your sake, for this holy, priestly, royal people.
So when you see the news, when you see what is happening in various states, various governments, what various tyrants and terrorists are doing, remember Cyrus: your God is not absent, not distant, not ignorant of what is happening. He still cries out in all these places: “Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth.” “Learn of Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart.” I name you, though you do not know Me. He is Yahweh, and there is no other god. And even now, He is bringing this history, this creation to its completion, its conclusion, its consummation in the revelation of a new creation, begun in His Son. He is God, and there is none beside Him.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/18/14