The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24, 19 October 2014

Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 99
Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96

I Thessalonians 1:1-10
St. Matthew 22:15-22

Background: Cyrus
Second Isaiah extols the virtues of Cyrus II of Persia, also known as Cyrus the Great. It is not vain praise, for Cyrus the Mede, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, and author of the Cyrus Cylinder that outlined perhaps the oldest declaration of human rights.  He strikes this latter Isaiah as a gift from God for his so-called Edict of Restoration, which allowed Jews to return to the Levant, rebuild city walls and temple, and resume the life of their ancestors.  This largess was not only visited upon the Jews but also seemed to be a personal and national policy in Persia.  Other national groups enjoyed these provisions as well.  The lands under his suasion encompassed the ancient lands of Mesopotamian culture, Sumer and Akkad, Babylon and Media along with most of Southwest Asia, along with sections of Central Asia, and the Caucasus. His empire stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus River in India. He reigned for thirty years.

Track 1:

Exodus 33:12-23

Moses said to the LORD, "See, you have said to me, `Bring up this people'; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, `I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.' Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people." He said, "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest." And he said to him, "If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth."

The LORD said to Moses, "I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name." Moses said, "Show me your glory, I pray." And he said, "I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, `The LORD'; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But," he said, "you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live." And the LORD continued, "See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen."

This text is bound up in the Hebrew vocables for “presence”, “face”. “knowing”, “glory” and “goodness.” All play a role, as Moses pleads with God that God would continue to be present with the people, God’s nation. Perhaps it is Moses’ weariness that makes for this request on his part. Given the pattern of mumbling, and unfaithfulness that have been evident to us in these last weeks, Moses may wonder if God might leave them to their own devices in the wilderness.  Thus he makes his request, “whom will you send with me?” Moses knew God’s presence and mission in the vision of the burning bush, and now he needs a deeper knowledge of (perhaps even relationship with) God.  Receiving God’s assurances about God’s continuing presence, Moses then wants to deepen his knowledge or relationship with God. “Show me your glory, I pray.” The resulting theophany, like the experience that Elijah has in the wilderness, is profound yet humbling.  It is not God’s glory that is hidden from Moses as God passes by Moses, hidden in the cleft of the rock and shielded by God’s palm.  God wants Moses to understand that such a vision would be impossible for a human to bear, “I shall make all my goodness pass in front of you.” Thus it is not the kavod (the glory or weightiness) that passes by but rather the tuv – the goodness of God that Moses glimpses.

Breaking open Exodus:
  1. In what way might God’s goodness be too much for a human to comprehend or see?
  2. How is your relationship with God like Moses’, in what ways is it not?
  3. How does God accompany you in life?

Psalm 99 Dominus regnavit

The LORD is King;
let the people tremble; *
he is enthroned upon the cherubim;
let the earth shake.

The LORD is great in Zion; *
he is high above all peoples.

Let them confess his Name, which is great and awesome; *
he is the Holy One.

"O mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity; *
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob."

Proclaim the greatness of the LORD our God
and fall down before his footstool; *
he is the Holy One.

Moses and Aaron among his priests,
and Samuel among those who call upon his Name, *
they called upon the LORD, and he answered them.

He spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud; *
they kept his testimonies and the decree that he gave them.

O LORD our God, you answered them indeed; *
you were a God who forgave them,
yet punished them for their evil deeds.

Proclaim the greatness of the LORD our God
and worship him upon his holy hill; *
for the LORD our God is the Holy One.

Suitably connected to Moses’ vision in the first reading, this vision of God as God of the nations, enthroned upon the cherubim, gives a greater physicality to God’s presence than the subtle vision that Moses is given.  Up until the sixth verse we are in awe of a God who is over all the nations, images that are tied up with ancient near eastern kingship and power.  At the sixth verse this cosmic view abruptly changes to a more national aspect.  The prototypical prophets and priests are recalled – Moses and Aaron, and Samuel. The journey through the wilderness is recalled, “he spoke to them out of the pillar of cloud,” and a hoped for faithfulness is declaimed. Here the vision is one of a people gathered to worship YHWH the God of Israel, who meets God’s people with reproof and with forgiveness.

Breaking open Psalm 99:
  1. How do you envision God?
  2. How does God envision you?
  3. How does God speak to you?


Track 2:

Isaiah 45:1-7

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,
to open doors before him--
and the gates shall not be closed:
I will go before you
and level the mountains,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the LORD,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
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.
I am the LORD, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
I am the LORD, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I the LORD do all these things.

Just as a point of comparison, read lines 9-15 of the Cyrus Cylinder, which describes Cyrus’ relationship with Marduk, the god of Babylon:

Enlil-of-the-gods became extremely angry at their complaints, and […] their territory. The gods who lived within them left their shrines, angry that he had made (them) enter into Shuanna (Babylon). Ex[alted Marduk, Enlil-of-the-Go]ds, relented. He changed his mind about all the settlements whose sanctuaries were in ruins, and the population of the land of Sumer and Akkad who had become like corpses, and took pity on them. He inspected and checked all the countries, seeking for the upright king of his choice. He took the hand of Cyrus, king of the city of Anshan, and called him by his name, proclaiming him aloud for the kingship over all of everything. He made the land of Guti and all the Median troops prostrate themselves at his feet, while he shepherded in justice and righteousness the black-headed people whom he had put under his care. Marduk, the great lord, who nurtures his people, saw with pleasure his fine deeds and true heart, and ordered that he should go to Babylon. He had him take the road to Tintir (Babylon), and, like a friend and companion, he walked at his side.[1]

The phraseology and vocabulary should seem familiar to us, as Cyrus and his relationship with the deity are described for us.  Similar phrases appear in our text for this morning:
            Cyrus is YHWH’s anointed (verse 1)
            YHWH holds Cyrus by the right hand (verse 1)
            YHWH calls Cyrus by name (verses 3b and 4b)
            YHWH gives Cyrus a name of honor (verse 4b)
            YHWH binds him (verse 5b)

Thus, in many ways the second of the Isaiah’s mirrors the honorifics and relationships described in the Cylinder – only here the agency is through YHWH and not the god of Babylon. There is a distinct difference here that creates problems with the limits of what we can say about God. In Genesis God separates the dark from the light, but does not create the dark.  In second Isaiah, however, we have a different perspective, “I am the LORD, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.” This all-powerful God also makes for salvation, and therein lays the difference. In his descriptions of YHWH and Cyrus, this Isaiah tests the limits of human language to describe the role that God plays in life and creation.  Cyrus is anointed for God’s purposes and for the good of God’s people.  The implicit universalism is limited by this intent. The weal and woe that God creates is distinctly limited to the situation at hand (Israel and Babylon), and the dualism of the Persians is set aside.

Breaking open the Isaiah:
  1. Can you think of any contemporary rulers who might be called “messiah” or “anointed”?
  2. In this reading is God, just the God of Israel, or something more?  How?
  3. What do you find unutterable about God?

Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13) Cantate Domino

Sing to the LORD a new song; *
sing to the LORD, all the whole earth.

Sing to the LORD and bless his Name; *
proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.

Declare his glory among the nations *
and his wonders among all peoples.

For great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; *
he is more to be feared than all gods.

As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; *
but it is the LORD who made the heavens.

Oh, the majesty and magnificence of his presence! *
Oh, the power and the splendor of his sanctuary!

Ascribe to the LORD, you families of the peoples; *
ascribe to the LORD honor and power.

Ascribe to the LORD the honor due his Name; *
bring offerings and come into his courts.

Worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness; *
let the whole earth tremble before him.

Tell it out among the nations: "The LORD is King! *
he has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity."

Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;
let the sea thunder and all that is in it; *
let the field be joyful and all that is therein.

Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy
before the LORD when he comes, *
when he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world with righteousness *
and the peoples with his truth.]

This psalm is, I suppose, a corrective for any confusion entertained by the first reading from Isaiah.  Here we have a pastiche of lines from other psalms meant to praise the majesty of God.  The familiarity of these lines would make for a memorable psalm, one kept easily in the heart.  The sentiments here are not limited to Israel alone, but to the whole of the earth.  In the fourth and fifth verses we have a curious relationship. “he is more to be feared than all gods” is met with “as for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols (literally ‘ungods’.” The former seems to acknowledge a period of time where YHWH was primary among the gods, while the later seems to come from a more monotheistic time.  None-the-less, it is God, the creator of heaven and earth who is lifted up here. The whole of creation including “the peoples” offer praise, thanksgiving, and tribute to the God who is above all Gods.

Breaking open the Psalm 96:
  1. What is your favorite psalm?  Why?
  2. Can your find parts of it in this psalm? What?
  3. What are the “ungods” of our time?

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

Grace to you and peace.

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead-- Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

Having completed our lectio continua through Philippians, we now begin a reading through Thessalonians.  Thessalonica, a free city due to its support of Octavian (Augustus) at the battle of Philippi, was a Roman provincial capital, and the home to many Jews, and a plethora of religious cults. Paul and the Christian communities found enemies here, and the subsequent letter focuses on what is to come in the face of what was happening to them in the present.

Paul begins by reminding the Thessalonians that it was God who founded and who continues to care for the Christians of Thessalonica.  Paul sees the word that was committed to them as being especially blessed by the Holy Spirit as well, and thus they became imitators of not only Paul, but of Jesus as well.  The connection with Jesus is telling, for it is not only Jesus’ relationship to the Father and the Spirit that is important here, but also the people’s relationship to the suffering of Jesus as well.  Jesus is seen as the one who will rescue them from “the wrath that is coming.” Thus Paul describes the consequences of their presence in Thessalonica, and the enmity with which they were and are being met. Paul pictures repentance, a turning from the idols so prevalent in the environment, to the “true and living God.”

Breaking open Thessalonians:
  1. How is your life in faith threatened by our times?
  2. Who are the “enemies” of your belief?
  3. How are the difficulties in your life connected to the suffering of Jesus?

St. Matthew 22:15-22

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

The parables of the kingdom which we have enjoyed for the past few weeks now give way to a period of questions on the part of others, and warnings on the part of Jesus.  Jesus is met by a tendentious situation.  The Pharisees who would not have supported any taxation by the Roman authorities are present with the Herodians, supporters of Herod (and his puppet status vis a vis the Roman occupation) and Roman taxation. The intent by the parties was to place Jesus in a tenuous situation that might lead to legal charges. Jesus sidesteps the issue by commenting on the nature of “paying” tax. The images of the emperor provide ample evidence that the tax is a “paying something that is due” rather than providing “a gift.” Both emperor and God have given, and now must receive there due is Jesus’ reasoning.  It was an unarguable point.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What do you think is due to the government (Caesar?)
  2. What do you think is due to God?
  3. Do you think that your stewardship is adequate?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Finkel, I , translator, Assistant Keeper, Department of the Middle East, Cyrus Cylinder, The British Museum, lines 9-15.


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