Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lectionary 29A
Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

I am Jehovah, and there is none else; besides me there is no God.

I began my research for today’s writing by searching for information about Cyrus. Cyrus is mentioned in today’s Old Testament lesson and elsewhere in the scriptures, as one whom God chose to do His work in the world. He is remembered as a liberator, as a man who restored people to their homes, particularly the Jews. Though Jerusalem had been destroyed and the Jews exiled by the Babylonians, Cyrus came as a rescuer. He’s named “Messiah,” one anointed by God to carry out His purpose in the world.

There is a cylinder that was discovered which is generally regarded as a declaration of human rights, put out by Cyrus during his conquest of the world. This cylinder has been translated to say that Cyrus orders that all people no matter their race, linguists or religion would be treated as equals, slaves and deported people were given the freedom to go home and all destroyed temples would be rebuilt. This certainly sounds like it fits into the man we’ve come to know in the Biblical story.

As I continued my research, I discovered another website that claims the translation of the cylinder is fake, or at the very least improperly regarded as describing the Jewish return to Jerusalem. The information suggests that the cylinder is describing Cyrus’s work in other nations, but that translations including references to Israel and Judah are mistaken, that there is no mention of the Jews on the cylinder. The claim is that it has been misunderstood to give credibility to the biblical account where there is none.

Does it matter? We often celebrate the discoveries that prove our understanding of God is true, like archeological findings and personal experiences, but do those things really make God real? Do we need to have our hands on the Arc of the Covenant to know that God gave us the Ten Commandments? Do we need pieces of a cross to know Jesus died on one? Do we need written proof on an ossuary to know that the people in the scriptures existed? Do we need corroborating evidence to prove that God exists? God proves Himself day in and day out, although many refuse to see the reality that is in front of them. Nothing we do will change their minds, especially if we rely on questionable sources for our proofs. Now, I don’t know which is true, the source that claims the cylinder proves the scriptures or the source that says the opposite. I can’t rely on one source over the other because I have no way of verifying the information. I have to rely on what I read, and since I’ve found conflicting information, I have to let it go. I either trust the scriptures or I don’t. I can’t prove them by this discovery.

Whether the cylinder referred to the Jews or not, it appears as though Cyrus was the type of ruler who would have seen to it that the displaced Jews were returned to their homeland and their temple restored. He had an attitude of tolerance for any religion, perhaps because he claimed no religion of his own. He adopted the local gods of each nation, at as much as was necessary to get the support of those people for his rule. What’s the cost of building a new temple for some god against the benefit of happy citizens?

This sounds like the type of ruler that God would rather eliminate because he has no foundation on which to stand, and yet we discover that this is exactly the man God will use for His purpose. Cyrus is chosen to be God’s hands in a world that was thrown upside down, to be a savior for the people God loves but who had to be taught a lesson. They turned from Him, followed false gods, did their own thing. They rejected Him. So, God gave the Babylonians the strength to destroy Jerusalem and take the people into captivity. When the time was right, God gave the strength to Cyrus to destroy the Babylonians and restore His people to their homeland.

We might think that these nations have the strength to do this on their own; after all, the kings were powerful men with mighty armies. They had their own gods, they had their own resources, and they had everything they needed to win the victories that are recorded throughout history. It seems to us that conquest and captivity, destruction and exile are unnecessary in a world where God is in control. Yet, in today’s scripture, Isaiah writes, “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil. I am Jehovah, that doeth all these things.” These are the words of God to Cyrus, words that tell Cyrus of his power and control over everything in the world.

However, it is difficult for us to accept that God creates darkness and evil. There are many who would claim that they cannot believe in a God that would create evil, that He is only capable of goodness and love. That’s why so many people would rather ignore the Old Testament and the God that is found there. They are bothered by war and suffering. They are bothered by the idea that God would use death and destruction for His purpose. They are afraid of a God who can create evil, so they prefer to ignore those aspects of His character. The exile was given by God’s hand to His disobedient people. How could the God of love who takes our sin onto His own shoulders be the same one found in the Old Testament?

The answer to our problems is not always as we might expect or desire. We might pray for healing, but find death is the answer. We might pray for a financial windfall, but experience poverty. We might want love and friendship, but discover that God is giving us a moment of exile and loneliness, to help us to see Him more clearly. The world might see this as evil and claim God is not good, but we know that God is able to do miraculous things in the midst of hardship. He can bring great things out of tragedy. He can even save people by using an unbeliever.

Cyrus did not believe in God, but Cyrus did God’s bidding. He restored God’s people to Israel, rebuilt the Temple and established a government that allowed the Jews to worship the God of their forefathers. The time in Babylon had given them perspective, they remembered Him and all that He had done for His people. The people who returned to Jerusalem by Cyrus were dedicated to Him, and ready to serve Him. The evil of the exile brought the greatness of God’s people again, their faith.

Now, in our world today is seems as though many have the same attitude as Cyrus. He didn’t believe in any gods but welcomed and tolerated every god. Perhaps most people will say they believe in something, but they are willing to allow all people to worship whatever god they please. There are even those who believe that we all worship the same god. After all, there is only one God and the God we know has many aspects and characteristics. Who are we to judge our neighbor’s understanding of the divine? Some false gods are easy to recognize, like money or sex or power. But is the god of my new age or pagan neighbor a false god or some aspect of the God we worship that is just different than the God we know from the bible? What about the understandings of God found in faiths found in religions claiming a foundation in the God of the patriarchs?

The question of faith has become part of our daily dialogue, in politics and other forums. What role should faith have in our decisions about leaders? What role should faith have in the public square? What role should faith have in our life outside the church? Should we sing the song of the psalmist and lift the God we know above all other gods? Or should we live in the world like Cyrus, welcoming and tolerant of all faiths, no matter what god they worship? God was able to use Cyrus in a way that restored His people to Him. Might the same be true of those in our world who accept any faith as faith in the same God?

We will find, as we live our faith in the world, that there will be those who will try to exploit faith for the sake of their own desires. Cyrus didn’t treat the Jews kindly because he respected them. He wanted them to live peaceably under his rule. Happy people will not rebel. God used this to His purpose, but there was nothing tolerant or charitable about Cyrus’ work. It was for his own benefit.

The psalmist writes, “For all the gods of the peoples are idols; But Jehovah made the heavens.” Any god that is not the God we know from the scriptures is no god at all. Merriam-Webster says an ‘idol’ is “a representation or symbol of an object of worship, a false god, a likeness of something, a form or appearance visible but without substance, an object of extreme devotion, a false conception.” Not only are the gods of the nations less than our God Jehovah, they are nothing.

The Romans had made Caesar a god. They worshipped him. The Pharisees did not worship Caesar, but they willingly lived in the world that Israel had become, using the money available to do the business of life. We all have to do that. We can’t live without money. We have to use coins to buy our food, pay our rent, and clothe our children. We are paid for our work and pay others for theirs. Money is a part of life. And, apparently, so are taxes.

We’ve seen over the past few weeks Jesus using parables to attack the religious leaders. Last week’s lesson sent them over the edge; they decided that Jesus must be destroyed. But there was no easy way to do so. They knew that the people loved Him. They also knew that though the Romans tolerated their faith and practices, they tolerated everyone’s. His words could not be used against Him in the Roman courts and the Jews could not destroy Him under their own laws. They had to find a way to make Jesus a rebel in Roman eyes.

So, they asked Him a question about taxes. Now, the coins would have been offensive to the Jews because it bore an image of a person. It was an idol, a graven image. It was necessary to change the coins into something acceptable for Temple use, which is why there were money changes in the court of the Temple. Foreign money was exchanged for Jewish currency. A Roman coin with Caesar’s picture could not be used for religious offerings.

Now, the Pharisees asked Jesus, “What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?” They knew this question would trap Him because if He answered yes, it would turn the Jewish people against Him, but if He answered no, they could set the Romans on Him. Jesus found another answer. “Why make ye trial of me, ye hypocrites? Show me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a denarius.”

We don’t pay attention to the graven images on the face of our money, but for those Pharisees and their counselors in today’s Gospel lesson, the coinage was offensive. The Caesar was not only a political power, but was also seen as divine. We don’t pay much attention to the fact that Jesus asked the Pharisees and their counselors for a coin because it is natural for us to have a few coins in our pocket, but the Jews should not have had a Roman coin. They were hypocrites because while they wanted to use the trap to discredit Jesus with their fellow Jews, they lived in the Roman world and used the money, too.

Jesus, knowing their malice, pointed to the picture on the coin. “Who is this?” He asked. They answered that it was Caesar. Jesus answered their question, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s.” We might view this as a statement about separating Church and State, and yet there is something deeper and much more important about what Jesus is saying here. The phrase that stands out is “Give to God what is God’s.” Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and their council was brilliant because it turned the tables. He told them to give Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God. In other words, they were to give the idol back to the idolized and give God what is God’s. And, everything belongs to God. When we remember that, we see that even the government is given by God, not as a divine representative of what He wants to accomplish, but as a divinely appointed servant for a particular time and place. Good and bad, God is in control of our world and we can live in trust knowing that in the end everything will be as He intends.

We live in a world that requires that we deal with people and situations we might not want to experience. We are called as Christians to live in trust and hope. Whatever happens, we can trust that God is in control. We live in hope, not in individuals or even the government, but in God’s promises. Good or bad, our life of faith will keep us focused on what is good and that is God. We may be nervous, frustrated, anxious and possibly angry, and we won’t agree with our neighbors what is good and bad in our world. But we can sing to the Lord that new song, the song of thanksgiving that He is with us through it all.

Paul was an apostle of God, sharing the Gospel of Christ with the world. His work took him many places, and he planted church after church. The people of Thessalonica received that message and gathered together as a community of faith. They were growing in grace and hope and faith. Paul could not stay with all the communities he began, but he kept in touch with them through letters and through helpers who visited the congregations. Through one of these helpers, Paul heard that the Thessalonians were doing well. Timothy had sent a good report to Paul and Paul was pleased to hear the good news. This wasn’t true everywhere. Other preachers were sharing their own understanding of God and Jesus Christ. They were claiming to be apostles, but they were sharing a false god.

Though the people in Thessalonica were doing well, they were under a similar threat. They were holding strong, but Paul did not know how long they could last. Would they remember the lessons he taught them? Would they keep the Gospel of grace or turn to another gospel message? Would they believe the lies being told about Paul by those opposed to his message? Paul did not know what might happen next, so he wrote a message of thanksgiving and encouragement to the congregation. He put a seal on the people so that they would not fall from grace and turn to a faith built on works and self-righteousness.

We are also encouraged by these words. We live in a world where many, even those in the church, are preaching a Gospel that is not what God intends. They have twisted His word to fit their own idea of faith; they have turned it upside down to fit their own desires. Like the hypocrites who were willing to use the Roman coin for their own benefit while trying to defeat the purposes of God, there are many who are sharing a false faith for their own purposes. Like the Jews who were taken into captivity by the Babylonians, and the Pharisees who were willingly living according to Roman ways, they’ve lost touch with the God forms the light, and creates the darkness; makes peace, and creates evil. God said, “I am Jehovah, that doeth all these things.” There are those who would rather believe in a god that does only what they want Him to do.

Our hope rests in Jesus Christ and we are called to live the life of faith that rests in His promise and His forgiveness. When we sing the praise of God, it is not enough to share only those aspects of His character that suits our desires. God is; there is no other. All others are false gods, and false gods are nothing but idols: nothing. When we fall for the preaching of those who would turn us another way, we follow the false gods that are nothing.

But we are reminded by these stories that God can use anyone, even those whose faith is false. God can use someone like Cyrus to bring His people home, to be a savior to them. He can use the Pharisees to teach us a lesson about idols, and about the true God. He can use the false preachers to point us to the truth about Jesus Christ. He will use the earthly aspects of our world to give us a glimpse of Himself. The problem with accepting and tolerating all faiths is that we remain silent about the reality of God.

He calls us to share His glory with all people so that they will know and will turn to Him. We’ve left those idols behind: may they stay there forever. So, will you sing the song of thanksgiving for all God has done, or will you live like Cyrus, welcoming and tolerant of all faiths, no matter what god they worship, silent to the reality of their false gods? God can and will use anyone or anything to bring His people home. We might be facing circumstances that are confusing and painful, but we can trust that God is in control. Perhaps He will send Babylonians our way to set us apart for a season. But we can trust that He will then send a Cyrus who will help to restore us to Him. The lessons we learn along the way will turn us back to our God and we’ll be ready to do His work again.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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