Sunday, October 19, 2008

Twenty-third Sunday in Pentecost
Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Oh sing unto Jehovah a new song: Sing unto Jehovah, all the earth.

I have been writing MIDWEEK OASIS for almost six years. I began using the lectionary for A WORD FOR TODAY, my daily devotional, almost three years agp. In those years I have managed to get through most of the three year lectionary texts. There are a few weeks that I’ve missed, but I can often go back and see how I understood the texts a few years ago, to get ideas for how to focus on them this time. Sometimes the message makes sense today; sometimes I see things very differently.

When I went to check MIDWEEK OASIS for this upcoming Sunday three years ago, I realized that this was the period of time when I was in Pennsylvania dealing with my father’s funeral and his estate. I didn’t have any devotionals for these past few Sunday because I’d had my mind on other things three years ago. I also missed worship those weeks, so I hadn’t paid much attention to the lectionary. Would I have seen the same thing in those texts? I don’t know. This year I have seen a focus on our relationship with our government. This may be because of our upcoming election and the political process.

I was thinking about that time three years ago, when I had to take care of the business of my father’s estate. I had to stay in Pennsylvania a few days longer than my family because the offices I needed to visit were not open over the holiday weekend. I was nervous about filing those papers that made me legally responsible for the business of my father’s will. I was frustrated about some of the hoops I had to jump through to pay his bills, take care of his bank accounts and divide the leftovers equitably between my siblings. My father had very little and the process was actually rather simple. A friend of mine lost her mother just weeks after my dad died and it took her years to settle the estate. Hard or easy, it is still amazing how much our lives are connected to our government. Whether we like it or not, we have a relationship with the secular world and we have to learn how to live with it.

The Jews were gathered as a national and for a time they were separated from the world. God set them apart in the years of the patriarchs so that they could develop as a nation, build wealth and learn to trust in Him. Throughout the relationship between God and His people, they often turned from Him and leaned on allies in war, finding comfort in their gods and intermarrying with their people. When Israel failed to be faithful, God found a way to bring them back, but as time passed and the nation grew, they became more and more a part of the world in which they lived. In Jesus’ day, Israel was living as conquered people in and occupied land with people who were generally tolerant of their way of life. But even though they could live as Jews in the Roman world, they were also part of that Roman world. They had to buy and sell using Roman money, give taxes and obey Roman laws. They could worship according to their faith, but they also had to deal in the secular world.

Most money, if not all money, includes a picture of someone special. British money has a portrait of the reigning monarch. It is interesting to see how Queen Elizabeth’s portrait has changed over the more than fifty years she has served. Other monarchies also use pictures of their ruler. United States currency generally honors former U.S. presidents, although there is a one dollar coin with the picture of Native American Sacagawea. The coins also include statements about foundational beliefs about the nation and symbols of things important to its people. In America it would be impossible for Jesus to say “Give to George Washington what is George Washington’s” because George Washington is no longer alive. I suppose that is why we do not put pictures of living men and women on the currency and coins. The money does not belong to our leaders; it belongs to the people.

We choose those pictures because those men and women were important to our history. The State Quarters Program has offered quarters with has pictures of those things that are identified with each state along with the date of statehood. These items mean something to the people of those states. They are, almost, the things we idealize or even idolize about the place we live. We don’t take the literal understanding of the commandment that says “no graven images” as seriously as they did in Jesus’ day. As a matter of fact, we make images of everything these days in every type of medium imaginable, including some beyond our imaginations.

It is impossible for us to live in a world without money. Money is part of our society, a part of our existence. We no longer barter for the things we need. We need money to survive. So, we don’t pay attention to the fact that it has a graven image on the face. But for those Pharisees and their counselors in today’s Old Testament lesson, the coinage would have been offensive because it had a graven image. It had an image of the Caesar. The Caesar was not only a political power, but was also seen as divine. In this story, we don’t pay much attention to the moment Jesus asked the Pharisees and their counselors for a coin because it is natural for us to have a few coins in our pocket. The Jews should not have had a Roman coin.

We tend to view this scripture 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. They thought they were going to catch Him one way or another: either He would upset the Romans by telling the people not to pay taxes, or He would upset the people by telling them they should pay taxes. He did neither. 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 everything that is good and right and true. For 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 have a relationship with the secular world and we have to learn how to live with it.

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 today, tomorrow 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 let us remember to join together as we sing to the Lord that new song, the song of thanksgiving that He is with us through it all. He binds us together not on our hope for the world, but on the hope that He brings through faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.

In Isaiah we read, “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil. I am Jehovah, that doeth all these things.” We are terribly bothered by this idea that God creates evil. There are many who would claim that they can not believe in a God that would create evil, that He is only capable of goodness and love. That’s why so many people are bothered by the Old Testament and the revelation of God that is found there. They are bothered by war and suffering, which fill the pages of the Old Testament, often as ways which God is communicating with His people. The exile was given by God’s hand to His disobedient people. How could the God of love found in the New Testament stories be the same God we hear about in this passage?

How could God choose a foreigner to be His anointed one? The word used here is Messiah or Christ, and Cyrus plays the role of the deliverer of God’s people. Though he does not even know the God of Israel, God has called him to gain salvation for His people. This doesn’t make sense to us because we want to define God according to our own needs and expectations. We want Him to be all light and no darkness, compassion and no discipline, mercy and justice as we characterize it.

We sometimes forget that God can speak through people who do not agree with us. If He can speak His word to someone through a donkey (Numbers 20) then He can speak to us through people who do not believe as we do. Cyrus was not a Jew. He was a pagan whom God chose to serve His will. Cyrus delivered the Jews out of exile; he was for God’s purposes their messiah at that time and place. God was in control and God chose a foreigner to do what His people could not, or would not, do. Jesus did not tell the people to pay or not pay taxes; He reminded them that everything belongs to God. This is something we should remember, also. We live in a society where our religious and faith beliefs do not keep us separated from the world. So, how do we manage to remain faithful in such a world? We begin by keeping our eyes on God. He is with us. We begin by remembering that God is not something or someone we keep in a box, only for those moments we need Him. He is bigger, and smaller, than we can every imagine.

A well-known English deist, Anthony Collins of the seventeenth century, was walking one day when he crossed paths with a commoner. “Where are you going?” asked Collins. The man answered that he was going to church to worship God. Collins wondered whether the man’s God was a great or a little God. The man answered, “Both.” Collins did not understand how that could be. The man answered, “He is so great, sir, that the heaven of heavens cannot contain Him; and so little that He can dwell in my heart.” Collins later declared that this simple answer had more effect on his mind than all the volumes he had ever read about God, and all the lectures he had ever heard.

How do you describe God? In today’s society, there are many different ideas about the nature of God. So many people are looking to fill the hole in their souls, a hole that can only be filled by the One, True and living God. Yet, if you visit the spiritual section of any secular bookstore, you will find large displays of books that teach different ideas about God, even the belief in many gods. There are religions that make the things of creation – nature, materials or man himself – to be gods. The limited ability of human beings to understand the vast truth about the LORD causes us to look for explanations in the things we can see. But God tells us the Truth in His Word.

There is a difference between the idea of God that is revealed in the Old Testament and that which we see in the New Testament. That difference is Jesus Christ. He came to reconcile God and His creation, giving those who believe in Him the gift of the Holy Spirit so we can seek His face and understand His nature. He is both big and small: bigger than creation, but small enough to live in our hearts. He is so big that everything must submit to His authority, but He humbled Himself and became flesh in Jesus Christ so that we can know Him intimately. And while there is still darkness amongst the light, we have the promise that the Light has won the victory and that one day we will see, know and experience God fully and completely. God is big enough to do so, but also small enough for us to know intimately. That’s good to know. Especially when we are surrounded by so many conflicting ideas.

Paul had taken the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the people of Thessalonica and they received that message. They gathered together as a community of believers and 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 and sent word to Paul wherever he was staying. The Thessalonians were doing well. Timothy had sent a good report to Paul and Paul was pleased to hear the good news. There wasn’t good news in every community. Some people preaching another Gospel were following Paul, speaking against Paul and telling the people something completely different. There was a similar threat in Thessalonica.

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 him 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.

So, too, we are encouraged by these words as Paul lifts all those who have heard the Gospel and received God’s grace to a place where we will stand firm in what is right no matter the circumstances we face. Our hope is in Jesus Christ and we are called to live the life of faith that rests in His promise and His forgiveness. Paul calls the people of Thessalonica ‘imitators’ of the apostle and of the Lord. We saw that continued through generations of Christians, into those who were our mentors. We are now the next generation, sharing the Gospel with our children and our neighbors, imitating what Paul first lived so that the world might see God’s grace. We, too, are sealed so that all we do and say are firmly founded in Jesus Christ.

The psalmist writes, “For all the gods of the peoples are idols; But Jehovah made the heavens.” We make so many people in our world idols – sports stars, singers, models – but the definitions of the word ‘idol’ are less than flattering. 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 Caesar was an idol and even though he ruled the Roman Empire, he was not God. We make our idols; sometimes even make ourselves an idol. And we are far less than our God. Especially when we look at all He has done. So, to get through our good times and bad, we sing to the Lord a new song, a song that tells of His glory and strength. And we live in that faith and trust that reminds us that God is near. Always.

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