Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Sing to Yahweh a new song! Sing to Yahweh, all the earth. Sing to Yahweh! Bless his name! Proclaim his salvation from day to day!
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.
Our God 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 sent His son Our Lord Jesus Christ into the humility of flesh so that we can know Him intimately. Darkness still reigns in this world, but 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.
I was able to purchase many interesting things when I lived in England. I bought china right from the manufacturer. I was able to get some of my chotchkies signed by the designer. I bought a few pieces of antique furniture. And I bought coins. Along with coins and bills from many nations, we have piles of English coins, a few of older monarchs, but mostly those of the current Queen Elizabeth. I even keep a British pound in my wallet to this day. Nothing I have has any significant value, but each piece is a nice reminder of the time we spent overseas.
One of my best pieces is a Roman denarius. It is from the second century A.D., when Hadrian was emperor, so could not have been in use in the days of Jesus. It was found in England, so it was likely minted there. I like to show it during Bible studies when we talk about a denarius. Coins are coins, but it is fun to have something so closely identified with the text we are studying. Hadrian was emperor at the time of printing, so his picture is on the coin.
United States currency includes statements about foundational beliefs or symbols of our nation. The pictures generally honor the founding fathers, although recent discussions have considered changing the faces. It would be impossible for Jesus to say “Give to George Washington what is George Washington’s” because they never use men and women who are still living, and George Washington has long been dead. The money does not belong to our leaders; it belongs to the people. We choose the pictures and words for our currency because those things are important to our identity as Americans. They are, almost, the things we idealize or even idolize about the place we live.
It is impossible to live in our world without money. It is part of our society, a part of our existence. We no longer barter for the things we need. We need money to survive, but the coinage would have been offensive to the Jews because it had a graven image. It had an image of the Caesar. We understand the commandment less literally than those in Jesus’ day, so it is natural to have a few coins in our pocket. But the Jews should not have had a Roman coin. There was a special coin to use for the Temple tax, which is why the moneychangers were in the Temple court.
The Jews thought they were going to catch Jesus one way or another with their question, that Jesus would upset the Romans by telling the people not to pay taxes or the people by telling them they should pay taxes. He did neither. He told them to give the idol back to the idolized. Then Jesus said, “Give to God the things that are God’s.” This was a brilliant answer because it turned the tables and it says more than it appears on the surface. Everything belongs to God, and while the taxes could be paid, even the government to which it is given belongs to Him. All rulers are divinely appointed servants for a particular time and place given to accomplish God’s will, even if they do not believe in God. 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 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 through anyone. We have to deal with people with whom we disagree and situations outside our comfort zone. Whatever happens today or tomorrow, we can trust that God is in control. We live in hope, not in individuals or the government, but in God’s promises. Good or bad, our life of faith will keep us focused on what is good: only God is good. God is with us wherever we are and whatever we do. Our faith does not keep us separated from the world. We have to follow secular laws, deal with non-Christian people, respect leaders who might not follow the same ideology. We might just discover that the things we think they are doing wrong might just be what God intends for that moment. We don’t see the whole picture, but God does, and sometimes He does the unexpected to accomplish His will.
Cyrus did not believe in the God of the Jews, but he was a pluralistic ruler, willing to tolerate all types of faith even though he claimed no religion of his own. He adopted the local gods of each nation as was necessary to get the support of those people for his rule. He would rather spend the cost of building a new temple for some god to keep his subjects happy. 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 used for His purpose. Cyrus was chosen to be God’s hands in a world that was thrown upside down, to be a savior for the people God loves but whose exile was a lesson to be learned. They turned from Him, followed false gods; they did their own thing. They rejected Him, and 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.
These nations think they do everything with their own strength; rulers are powerful with mighty armies. They often have their own gods, they have their own resources, and they have everything they need 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 calamity. I am Yahweh, who does all these things.” Cyrus was reminded from the beginning that God was in charge. God is God, and there is none like Him. God is able to give Cyrus the power, and God is able to take it away.
A ruler always had a seal of some sort that was used to verify his word. The seal was placed at the end of any formal document, usually with wax that was marked by a ring that had the seal engraved. The seal made it official, but it also made it impossible for the document to be edited after leaving the ruler’s hand. The text ran from edge to edge and the seal was placed at the end. No one could add or take away from what the ruler had said. We still use seals, often embossed on stamped onto official documents to verify its accuracy and trustworthiness.
I always wanted to seal my kids when they walked out the door. Perhaps that sounds strange, but what I mean is that I wanted to ensure that they remembered everything I taught them. As they walked out the door, I wished them a good day and added a message that I hoped would help them make good choices during the day. I told them to be careful, to have fun, to do what is right. When they were headed to a special activity, I added an appropriate word of encouragement. I reminded them of things we had talked about, lessons we had learned. They thought I was a nag, but I really just wanted to put a seal on the things I wanted them to remember when they were on their own. It was my hope that the seal would help them carefully consider the things others wanted to add to what I had taught them. Though my children are grown, I still do this. I make sure they know they are loved and tell them to be careful. they listen? I hope that the lessons they’ve learned are written on their hearts and in their heads and that they will do what is right and good.
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 encouraged by Paul’s words as he 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 to keep all that we do and say firmly grounded in Jesus Christ.
The psalmist writes, “For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but Yahweh made the heavens.” We make so many people in our world idols - sports stars, singers, models - but the definition of the word “idol” is 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. We make our idols; we even idolize ourselves. God’s words to Cyrus remind us that we are far less than our God, especially when we look at all He has done.
Faith in Jesus means leaving the idols of this world behind. Unfortunately, many still live like Cyrus, welcoming and tolerant of all faiths, no matter what god is worshipped. God calls us to share His glory with all people so that they will turn away from their false gods and know the Lord who is God over everything. We may be struggling with circumstances that are confusing and painful, but we can trust that God is in control.
We may experience a Babylonian exile of sorts as God sets us apart for a season, but God’s promises are real and He is faithful. We can trust that He will then send someone like Cyrus who will help to restore us to Him or like Paul who will remind us whose we are. The lessons we learn along the way will turn us back to the God to whom we belong and who has never left our side. He is always faithfully working to do what is right and good. Let us give everything over to the God is so great that the heaven of heavens cannot contain Him and so little that He can dwell our hearts. That’s why we are called to sing His praise. He has done great things. He made the heavens. He has brought salvation to His people. That’s something, and Someone, to sing about. He is worthy to be praised!
A WORD FOR TODAY
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