Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 2018.
Jesus taught that if we keep His word, that we will abide in the love between Him and the Father. As mysterious as that may sound, Jesus appears to have intended that to be accomplished through relatively simple means. The means that the disciples were given amounts to what is called the “Rule of the Church” (or Regula): the Eucharist, their daily prayer life flowing out of their Jewish tradition, and fellowship of service toward each other reflecting on their experiences of Jesus in the light of the Sacred Scriptures—all to find the way to do a new thing: abide in the love of God through Christ crucified.
This is why it is fitting for us to spend significant time in our Eastertide reflections on the Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ: to see how the Old Testament shed light on the Paschal mystery of Christ for the infant Christian Church grappling with the paradoxes abounding in the death of Jesus and His rising to new life. For Christians, although we usefully separate out the books of the Bible into Old Testament and New Testament, it is also important to remember, perhaps in a more fundamental sense, the profound continuity between the two testaments. For it, it is really one testament of God’s mighty acts of creation, reconciliation, and consummation from creation of history itself through the age of Jesus and his early followers.
How tightly bound together the Old and New Testaments are—semantically, thematically, and theologically—can never be overstated. In the words of one prominent theologian and bishop of our day, “The whole New Testament is rooted in the Old and wants simply to be a rereading of the Old Testament in light of what occurred with and through Jesus of Nazareth.” It was this rereading of the Old Testament by the infant Christian Church through liturgical and eucharistic worship, and through prayerful meditation and contemplation that the scales fell from the eyes of the first Christians that they could the abundant love God had shown forth to them, and to us: good things as surpass our understanding.
In our passage from Isaiah this week, we hear God speaking through the prophet in these words: “I have aroused him in righteousness, and I will make straight all his ways; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward.” The first thing to say about this passage is to clarify to whom the personal pronouns refer. The person who is “him,” “his,” and “he” is Cyrus, the king of Persia. Cyrus is mentioned earlier in Isaiah, but here (not only in the we heard, but in the verses before this passage in Isaiah) Cyrus is named explicitly. And he is named as the person through whom the liberation of Jerusalem and the rebuilding the region of Judah, both of which had been demolished—had been made heaps in an open country—by the Babylonian conquest. Isaiah’s prophesies came during this period of exile. And amid this torturous exile comes Isaiah’s word that it is not through a Hebrew leader, but through a Persian king, that God will work.
Throughout scripture, we see God working out His divine plan through a human instrument. Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David and the prophets have all served as divinely chosen means by which God’s will for Israel achieved its ends. And here, in words undoubtedly shocking to his contemporaries, Isaiah sees a non-Hebrew as the instrument for the eventual rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. God, who made the earth and created man upon it, whose hands stretched out the heavens, and commanded its host of angels—God will use Cyrus to restore order.
Furthermore, Isaiah himself rereads the recent history of the Hebrew people in light of this revelation about Cyrus. The nations surrounding them had long been enemies of Judah bent upon its destruction. Isaiah is saying that by contributing to the defeat of Judah, these nations served God’s purposes without knowing it—and, through the actions of Cyrus to come, it would be possible for them to recognize Israel’s God as the only God.
In other words, to speak plainly, God has chosen to be a “hidden God” to accomplish His purposes for the redemption of Israel. And it was this insight which became profoundly demonstrated through the Paschal mystery of Christ—His passover from death to eternal life. The Church in its first days after the crucifixion was devastated, scattered, deeply confused—her whole sense of identity lost and seemingly buried forever behind the large boulder rolled in front of the tomb. Like Israel had felt, the Church felt in exile, their temple, Jesus the Messiah, had been destroyed, everything lost.
But the Light of the world shone through and penetrated their blindness. Through Regula, through the Eucharist, daily prayer morning and evening, and through fellowship with each other and the Apostles—for these are the instruments used by God to reveal the Holy Spirit—the love of God poured into their hearts: the loving-kindness of the Lord filling the whole earth. The recognized that God had been at work the whole time. He was using the transgressions and sins against Him by the people—historically and present day, for all the people yelled “Crucify Him” and the apostles denied knowing Him—and even using the occupying leaders, Herod, Pontius Pilate, and others including the chief priests of the Temple who had sold out the Jewish faith for political favors—these all were means for liberation and salvation once for all. God had not abandoned them. He was hidden—miraculously, shockingly, and perfectly—He was hidden all this time.
And so ought our joy be in the faith and knowledge that this pattern of a hidden God transforming difficulty to glory is our story as well—that we can always rest in the Christian Hope of newness of life through Christ Crucified and Resurrected, that despite how tough things can get, whether for us personally or for our congregations in Tazewell County, that God is never far away, but that He is hidden amidst our difficulties, and wants to transform tough times into times of joy and light.
Let us pray again the words of our Collect for the week: O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.