Isaiah 45:1-8 (Lent Midweek 3—Singing with the Exiles)
“Breaking Down the Gates”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
March 7, 2018
“This is what the Lord says to His messiah, to Cyrus, . . . ‘I will go before you and break down the gates of bronze’” (Isaiah 45:1–2).
It was the afternoon of August 5, 2010, when the 121-year-old San José copper-gold mine in Chile, South America, caved in. Thirty-three men were trapped underneath 2,300 feet of solid rock.
Seventeen days after the accident, a note written in bold red letters appeared taped to a drill bit when it was pulled to the surface after penetrating an area believed to be accessible to the trapped workers. It read simply, “We are fine in the shelter, the 33 of us.” But they were in survival mode. They ate two spoonfuls of tuna, a sip of milk, and a morsel of peaches—every other day. They heard the voice that said, “You are locked in with no way out.”
The Chilean miners knew; O God, they knew. But once the people at the top found out that the men were alive, they spared no effort to rescue them. Soon the skill, knowledge, and efforts from around the world were in Chile: three large international drilling rig teams, NASA, and more than a dozen multi-national corporations. After sixty-nine days trapped underground, all thirty-three men were brought safely to the surface on October 13, 2010.
We know, O God, we know. Sure, we’ve been stuck in traffic, stuck in winter, stuck in snow. But that’s just on the surface. Deep down, we all know what it is like to be stuck in the past; stuck in relationships; stuck in a diseased and dying body; stuck in debt; stuck in a dead-end job.
Israel knows; O God, they know. Babylon said, “You are locked in with no way out.” In the sixth century BC, God’s people were surrounded by bronze gates! Oh, sure, there were ziggurats and canals, and God’s people were never far away from detestable statues of the Babylonian god Marduk. But it was the gates and especially the now world-renowned Ishtar Gate that locked them in with no way out.
The gates were the brain-child of Nabopolassar—the founder of the Babylonian empire—and his son Nebuchadnezzar. Herodotus and Xenophon—ancient Greek historians—write that in late seventh and early sixth century BC, hundreds and hundreds of bronze gates were erected in and around Babylon, making it the world’s most fortified city. Israel was locked in with absolutely no way out.
Yet, Yahweh said, “I will raise up [Cyrus] in My righteousness . . . He will set My exiles free” (Isaiah 45:13). In 539 BC, Cyrus had to go up against Babylon and her gates. The city began bracing for an all-out battle. Inhabitants stocked their shelves with food and water to prepare for the long siege. The military got armed up, revved up, psyched up, and pumped up. But when Cyrus surrounded the city, its citizens—rather than fight to the last man and attempt a “Custer’s Last Stand”—opened up the gates. Cyrus walked in and took the city with singular ease.
God’s rescue is greater than we imagine, more than we deserve. That’s what Isaiah says throughout his book. When we are stuck in guilt, God promises, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18). When we feel buried in gloom and doom, He reminds us, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light” (9:2). When dryness and deadness stand in the way, the Lord turns “the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs” (35:7). When we are surrounded by obstacles, “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain” (40:4). When blindness and captivity and bondage stand in the way, God’s Servant comes to “open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison, and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness” (42:7).
Several years ago, Pastor Lessing was teaching in Moscow, Russia, for a couple of weeks. After that, the plan was for him to take a train to St. Petersburg and teach there for a few more weeks. It all looked good . . . on paper. His Russian friends failed to tell him that it was an all-night train. They also failed to tell him that this all-night train would be full of Russians who would be up all night. And, for the record, they failed to tell him that these late-night-loving Russians would sing and carouse and drink vodka . . . all night!!! He was locked in with absolutely no way out, save jumping off the train!
You know, O God, you know. You know what it is like for the enemy to lock the gate to your future and throw away the key. You know what it feels like to be possessed by your past, mired by your malaise, and trapped by your transgressions and sins.
Paul knows, O God, Paul knows. “I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (Romans 7:23). There is so much more I want to say, but “I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” (v. 14). “I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (v. 21). That’s us—locked in habits we cannot beat and bound in a bondage we cannot break.
But Jesus is God’s ultimate Gate Breaker. Opening day was at His Baptism where one witness writes, “As He was praying, heaven was opened” (Matthew 3:16). Spirit-empowered, this Messiah ministers in Palestine to open eyes and ears and mouths and hearts; He even opens graves.
But the grandest opening was yet to come; after the betrayal, beating, bruising and burning of the sun, Revelation 1:18 makes His victory crystal clear. “I was dead, and behold I am alive forevermore! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”
You are not locked in with no way out! Jesus breaks down gates of guilt and shame, hurt and pain. He breaks down gates that trap and torture and torment us. And the gates of hell will never prevail against the shed blood, the baptismal power, or the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ! GOD’S RESCUE: GREATER THAN WE IMAGINE, MORE THAN WE COULD EVER DESERVE. “If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed” (John 8:36). Amen.
© 2014 Concordia Publishing House. Sermon by Rev. Dr. R. Reed Lessing