Sermon on Isaiah 45:1-8, for Lent 4 Midweek, "Breaking Down the Gates"

 Part 4 of series "Singing with the Exiles" by Rev. Reed Lessing

“This is what the Lord says to His messiah, to Cyrus …I will break down the gates of bronze.”

Isaiah 45:1-2.

On the afternoon of August 5, 2010 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, Estamos bien en el refugio, los treinta y tres. In English: We are fine in the shelter, the 33 of us. But they were in survival mode. They ate two spoonful’s 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 grief; 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.” Gates, gates and more gates!  Stuck in Babylon Israel is surrounded by bronze gates!  Oh, sure, there are ziggurats and canals and they could never forget that detestable statue of the god Marduk.  But it’s the gates and especially the now famous Ishtar gate – dismantled by archaeologists and reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin – gates that locked them in with no way out.

The gates were the brain-child of Nabopolassar – the founder of the neo-Babylonian empire – and his son Nebuchadnezzar.  Herodotus and Xenophon – ancient Greek historians – write that in late 7th and early 6th century B.C. hundreds and hundreds of bronze gates were erected in and around Babylon, making it the world’s most fortified city.  And these bronze gates have Israel locked in with no way out. 

Trapped, tortured and tormented by these gates, Israel has no access to the Judean hills, the Jordan River, or to the city of the great King … Jerusalem.  Israel can only dream of the land promised to their patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They will never again smell the sacrifices and sing the psalms … nor celebrate Passover, the Day of Atonement, or the Feast of Booths. Israel appears forever locked in by these gates with absolutely no way out.

But … “This is what Yahweh says to his Messiah to Cyrus – I will go before you and break down the gates of bronze.”

Meet Cyrus – Yahweh’s Messiah. God’s Gate Breaker. In Isaiah 44:28 Yahweh even calls him, “my Shepherd.”  Cyrus the Second – to be exact – in 550 B.C. gained the devotion of all the Persian tribes with singular ease.  But now its 539 and this Cyrus must go up against Babylon and her gates!  The city begins bracing for an all-out clash of empires. Lowly Jewish exiles and other inhabitants locked behind the gates are prepping their shelves with food and water for the long siege.  The military is getting armed up, revved up, psyched up and pumped up. 

But when Cyrus surrounds the city, its citizens – rather than fight to the last man – rather than attempt a “Custer’s Last Stand” – open up the gates.  Cyrus walks in and takes the city with singular ease.  In Isaiah 45:13 Yahweh says:  I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: He will set my exiles free.”  

All this explains why – in Isaiah 22:22 – the prophet celebrates that what Yahweh (quote) “opens no one can shut.”  So, when guilt stands in the way, Yahweh promises, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” When gloom and doom stand in the way, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.”  When huge obstacles stand in the way, “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.” When dryness and deadness stand in the way Yahweh opens, “the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs.”  When blindness and captivity and bondage stand in the way Yahweh’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.”

            Oh my!  But this is just Isaiah. God has been breaking gates and locked doors, getting His people “unstuck” from all kinds of grief and trouble all through salvation history. For a man locked into his past –Jacob – Yahweh opens up heaven at Bethel.  For a nation surrounded by the enemy Yahweh opens the Red Sea.  For the exiles who lament – “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone,” Yahweh opens graves in Babylon.  And in Malachi 3:10 with a loving gleam in his eye Yahweh promises, “I will open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.”

Do you feel as though the enemy has locked the gate to your future and thrown away the key?  Do you feel possessed by your past, mired by your malaise, trapped by your transgressions and sins with no way out?  Oh my! Stuck in Babylon forever?! All I can see are gates, gates and more gates!  There is so much more I want to be but, “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.”  There is so much more I want to say but, “I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.”  There is so much more I want our church to become but, “I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.”

Hear the word of Yahweh from Isaiah 43, “Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past.  See I am doing a new thing.” In these last days Yahweh has raised up his greatest Messiah to break down the gates of bronze.” Jesus is God’s Ultimate Gate Breaker.

Opening day was at his baptism where one witness writes, “… as he was praying, heaven was opened.”  Spirit-empowered this Messiah then 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, Rev. 1:18 – “I was dead, and behold I am alive forevermore! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” Oh my! John outruns Peter to the tomb.  Mary cries out “Rabboni!”  The Emmaus disciples feel their hearts burn.  Thomas sees the scars and exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”  

“The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah and he will reign forever and ever!”  It is our duty and delight to shout to the world that in his Son the Father has broken “down the gates of bronze” … so the tomb is open.  His arms are open.  And the loving heart of Jesus is open wide just for you!  Jesus the Nazarene 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!  “If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed!”

            But, but, but, there is one more gate that Jesus longs to break down, just here, just now and all the days of our lives. What “gate” could that be? “O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth will show forth thy praise!” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. 

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