Sunday, October 30, 2011

Always Being Reformed According to the Word of God

Texts:    Nehemiah 7:73b-12; Matthew 23:1-12

TODAY WE OBSERVE Reformation Day.  It was October 31, 1517, when the issues that'd been fermenting for decades  in the Church of Jesus Christ came to a head and nothing would ever be the same.  Reformation Day marks the official beginning of the Protestant Church, for when Martin Luther hammered his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, he was protesting against the evils and degeneracies that were rife in the church he loved.

    Luther was followed by Calvin, and Melanchthon, and Knox, and all the other great Protestant Reformers who lived and died by this confession: That we are saved not by our works, but by Christ alone by God's grace alone through faith alone to God's glory alone, this truth being revealed to us in Scripture alone.  In the life of the people of God, reformation is not a one-time thing; it's required again and again, as often as we go astray from the truth of the grace of God and as often as He sends His Spirit to bring us back to Him again.

    In our Scripture passages this morning we read of two occasions in Israel's history when God's people were in desperate need of reformation.  In Nehemiah, the reformation is underway.  In Matthew, it appears to be too late.

    The assembly in Nehemiah 8 takes place about a hundred years after the Jews were first given permission to return to the land of Israel after the exile to Babylon.  The exile shook to the foundations everything the Jews understood about their covenant with God.  But as they studied the Law and the Prophets, they came to realize that even in this terrible situation the Lord was still with them and still had a purpose for them.  They saw that it was their sins that had caused the Lord to drive them out of the land, and they returned to Judea with a heart of repentance and reformation.

    But as we read in the twin books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and in the book of the prophet Haggai, after awhile the returned exiles became complacent and lazy towards God.  They erected their own houses and didn't restore the Temple.  They feared the opposition of their non-Jewish neighbors and didn't trust God to protect them.  So they didn't rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  Worse, they began to fall back into the same sins that had gotten them thrown out of the Promised Land in the first place: Marrying foreign wives and adopting their religious practices.  Desecrating the Sabbath.  Oppressing the poor, not supporting the worship of the Temple as prescribed by the Law of Moses, and so on.  Spurred on by Ezra and Nehemiah, they put in the effort and the Temple and walls were rebuilt.  But spiritually, they needed reformation.  How was it to come about?  Would it be enough if all the heads of households simply pledged to keep God's covenant?  They did do that.  But how were they to know what God's covenant will was?

    Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest and scribe knew:  True reform would come to the people only if they were brought back to the written Word of God, delivered to Moses in the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  So in Nehemiah 8 we see the people, men, women, and all children who were old enough to understand, standing in the square beside the Jerusalem Water Gate, listening to Ezra read the Word of God to them. 

    How could they know God's will unless they knew God's Word?  God's people could be remade and remolded only according to the original plan and pattern He set for them.  The people listened to the Word of God read to them in Hebrew.  Most of them no longer understood their ancestral language, so the Levites went through the crowd and translated the Word into Aramaic for them, so, as it says in verse 8, the meaning would be clear.

    And the message of the Word became clear, painfully clear.  These spiritual ancestors of ours were devastated.  They were cut to the quick by the enormity of their sin.  They mourned and wept, as we read in verse 9. 

    Any true reformation born of God's Word and Spirit first convicts us of our sin.  The Scripture confronts us with how far short we fall of God's will for us.  It exposes how we have gone wrong, and God's Spirit moves us to grieve at how we have offended against the Lord who saved us once and loves us still.

    But after grief, the Word brings hope.  Its message of salvation does not leave us in our distress.  It doesn't stomp us into the ground and tell us how worthless and meaningless we are.  No, God's Word calls us to lift up our heads and rejoice in the Lord, for He has saved and forgiven us.  Through His power we can amend our lives and our practices and be the church He intends for us to be.  This is cause to celebrate!  As Nehemiah says to the people in verse 10, "Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."

    "The joy of the Lord is your strength"!  True reformation according to the Word of God brings joy!  Joy in the Lord who is our salvation, and strength, because God Himself is joyful when His people return to Him in faith and humility.

    God's people the Jews needed to be reformed by the Word of God.  And again and again up to the coming of Jesus Christ, their Lord and Messiah, they needed reformation. 

    The Pharisees began as a reform movement.  They started out well, in the days of the Maccabean kings, about two hundred years before Jesus was born.  They worked hard to call their Jewish brethren back to the Law of God and away from Greek and secular innovations.  But so zealous were they, that over the years they began to see themselves as the only true interpreters of the Word.  They were so anxious that everyone should keep all the laws of worship and ritual just-exactly, that they came up with all sorts of additional guidelines and rules setting out their ideas of what God in His Word had really meant.  This oral law took on the same force as the original Law that the Lord delivered to Moses, whether it was faithful to the original meaning or not.

    By Jesus' day, things had gotten very bad with the Pharisees, but they didn't realize it.  They didn't see they'd missed the whole reason that God had given the Law to Moses in the first place-- to prepare a holy people through whom the Savior of the world should come.  They were like a bride who's so concerned with getting the pearl decorations on her headdress just right that she forgets to show up at the altar to meet her groom.  The Word of God no longer had power to bring repentance and joy in their lives.  Or, should I say, the Lord had withdrawn His Spirit from them so that they could not and would not hear the truth of the Word, and repent and be saved.

    In chapter 23 of the gospel according to St. Matthew Jesus pronounces woe and condemnation on the Pharisees.  They were beyond being reformed and they sought to keep others from being reformed, too.

    Yes (as He says in verse 2), "The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat."  They were like college professors with multiple doctorates.  By training they were qualified to teach what God had given through Moses.  They were the only sect in 1st century Judaism who made any effort to instruct the common people in the word of God.  So, as they taught according to the Torah, the people should obey them and do as they say.  But do not do as they do, Jesus warns us.  Do not follow the way they show off their outward obedience and inwardly are full of impurity, meanness, and unbelief.  Do not follow the way they claim to love God, but reject His Messiah, Jesus Himself.  Do not make the teaching of the Word of God all about ourselves and our greatness, instead of us being all about what God has done.  Do not be like them and make the voice of Scripture a burden and a trial to one another, instead of a light bringing repentance and the joy of the Lord.

    The Pharisees thought they didn't need to be reformed.  They thought the way they were doing things was a reformation in itself. In Matthew 23 Jesus tells His disciples and the crowds that God was finished with the Pharisees and their pretensions.  So do not aspire to be called "Rabbi," which literally means, "My great one."  Do not look to any human being as your spiritual master or teacher, for Christ alone is your supreme teacher.  In the life of the spirit, do not adorn any man with the title "father," for God in heaven alone is the Father of all the faithful.  No, for "whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted."

    As Presbyterians, we celebrate the Protestant Reformation.  We proudly stand in the tradition of Luther and Calvin.  So is it enough for us to look back five hundred years to a reformation that is finished, accomplished, complete?  Or are we, in our own time and place, in need of reformation so we will be a church pleasing to our Lord Jesus Christ, the Head and Cornerstone of the church?

    Considering what's been going on in our denomination lately, I think most of us would give that question a resounding "YES!!"  As a church body, we do need reformation in our time.  But let's not deceive ourselves.  Yes, it's harmful for us to celebrate open transgression.  It's distressing when we who call ourselves "Reformed" don't extend the redeeming grace of Jesus to those who tragically identify with their besetting sin.  But it's worse when we fall away from the faith of Jesus Christ in ways that seem innocent, even helpful, and don't even notice how faithless we've become and don't realize how much in need of reformation we really are.

    How many of us would agree to the following tenets:
1) "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth."
2) "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions."
3) "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself."
4). "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when He is needed to resolve a problem."
5) "Good people go to heaven when they die."

    Does this sound like Christianity to you, let alone Reformed Christianity?  It is not.  It's a counterfeit, false religion called moralistic therapeutic deism.  There is no room here for the sovereign Lord of the Bible.  It says nothing about our sin and our desperate need for a Savior.  It has no real need of the Son of God who hung on a cross to purchase forgiveness for us.  It does not acknowledge that our sovereign God has a claim on every part of our lives, nor does it bow the knee in awe and thanksgiving at His grace that alone will allow us into His presence when we die.

    But this is the creed many of us live by, a false creed we must reject.  The watchword of the Reformed churches is that we are "Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei"-- "The Church Reformed, always to be reformed according to the word of God."  Without close knowledge of God's Holy Scriptures, without the Holy Spirit confirming their truth to our hearts and conforming us to the image of Jesus Christ the living Word, our attempts at self-reformation will be worse than useless. 

    God's good news to us is that we are saved by Christ alone by God's grace alone through faith alone to God's glory alone.  This truth is revealed to us in Scripture alone, the Word of God that is as close as the Bible on our shelf.  Take up, read; repent, rejoice, and be reformed, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Higher Than the Angels

Texts:   Hebrews 2:5-18; Matthew 22:15-33
IS THE RESURRECTION OF THE dead and the life of the world to come essential to Christianity?  Would following Christ be any less worthwhile if we had no hope of personally rising again at all?

    The Scripture teaches us absolutely, yes, without this hope, our faith would have no worth at all.  As St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:19, "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men."  And in verse 32 of that same chapter he says, "If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'" Isaiah, St. Peter, St. John, St. Jude, and many more of the inspired writers of God's word also agree that we are meant for a life in God that does not end with our last breath, but continues in the power of the risen Christ forever more. 

    In the same way, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews  wants us to realize that Jesus Christ in His own body made the ultimate, perfect sacrifice in order that we might be raised with Him and live forever in the very presence of God.  Jesus' whole purpose on this earth was to live and die so He could destroy death for us, His brothers and sisters, and bring all of us together with Him into the glory of the kingdom of heaven.

     The Sadducees knew that the resurrection of the dead was key to our Lord's teaching, though they didn't believe in it at all.  If they could undermine Jesus' doctrine of bodily resurrection, they could demolish Him and His entire ministry.  St. Matthew records the encounter between Jesus and the Sadducees in chapter 22 of his gospel.

    You'll remember that Jesus is teaching in the Temple the day after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem And that the Sadducees weren't the first to come at Him that day with what they thought were sure-fire "gotcha" questions.  The Pharisees and the Herodians had failed, but the Sadducees thought they could do better.  Again, this Jewish sect didn't believe in life after death.  They denied the existence of angels and demons.  They maintained that only the five books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy:; that is, the Torah, were authoritative for God's people Israel.  They claimed to be more faithful to the exact words of Moses than the Pharisees were with their oral law.

    So that same day at the Temple, Matthew tells us, the Sadducees came to Jesus to challenge Him on the resurrection of the dead.  Their question was designed to make the doctrine-- and Jesus-- look so ridiculous and even so immoral as to blow Him and it away like chaff in the wind.  The question is based on the Mosaic law about levirate marriage.

    Briefly, levirate marriage (from the Latin word levir, meaning "husband's brother) was instituted by God to make sure that no Hebrew line would die out or lose their inheritance in the Promised Land.  Remember, under the old covenant given at Sinai, the promises of God were centered around possession of the land.  Here's how the command reads in Deuteronomy 25:5-6:

    If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband's brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.

    Usually, marrying your brother's widow could count as incest, but in this case, the need to maintain the family line took priority in the sight of God.

    Given all this, the Sadducees raised a hypothetical question concerning a whole family of seven brothers, none of whom can manage to beget children.  All of them in turn try to do their levirate duty towards one wife and widow, and all die childless.  Hey, Jesus, what about that?  "At the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?"

    They think they've got Him.  Jesus will have to deny the law of levirate marriage as given by God to Moses.  Or He'll have to overturn the principle that God makes marriages, as written in Genesis.  Or He'll condemn Himself by approving a vile incestuous arrangement where one woman has relations forever with seven husbands at once.

    Jesus confounds this immediately:  "You are in error, because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God!"

    Where were the Sadducees so wrong?  They were assuming that people who believed in life after death were looking forward to a mere continuation of this earthly existence, but without the disease, deprivations, and troubles.  The Sadducees claimed to be ever so exact and careful about the word of God as recorded by Moses, but they really didn't understand it at all.  If they'd really known the Scriptures, they would have seen God's wondrous power recorded there and recognised His ability to bless and favor His chosen people in ways they could never have imagined ahead of time.  They would even have discovered hints that man made in the image of God does not end when his body is consigned to the dust.

    No, responds Jesus, the life of the world to come will be wonderful, new, and different.  "At the resurrection," He says, "people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven."  Moreover, the same Torah that the Sadducees accept and claim to defend itself testifies that God's saints live on after physical death.  Had they not read what God said to them in Exodus 3:6?  The Lord testified to Moses at the burning bush, "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob."  Not, "I was," but "I am now and ever shall be their God," How?  Because by God's power His saints yet live.  So, declares our Lord Jesus, "He is not the God of the dead, but of the living!"

    Isn't it satisfying to see Jesus defeat His enemies?  May it satisfy us even more to hear Him uphold our hope for eternal life and blessing with Him.  When Jesus extinguished the argument of the Sadducees, He did it for us, and for all who believe in His name.  As Hebrews tells us, Christ was born and died to bring many sons to glory; that is, to resurrection life.  He claims you and me and all who believe as His brothers and sisters, and makes us holy like Himself.  We will be raised again in perfectly renewed bodies like His own, and then He will proudly present us to His Father and ours:   "‘Here am I,'" He will say, "‘and the children God has given me.'"

    Hebrews 2:14 says that by His death on the cross Jesus destroyed our fear of death.  Not as if to say, "Don't worry, death's nothing to be afraid of, it's only like a dreamless sleep." Rather, He gives us a firm and certain hope of new life with Him in glory.  How?  By Jesus' sacrifice of Himself, wherein He made perfect atonement for the sins of God's people.  Sin handed us over to the devil.  Sin brought upon us the wrath of God and condemned us to die.  But like a faithful high priest Jesus has ministered the sacrifice of His own body to God in our behalf, that our sins might be taken away and we might share in His life that nothing can destroy.

    The Sadducees erred with their limited, distorted view of what resurrection life would be.  But frequently, sincere Christians also carry around a mistaken view of the life of the world to come.  Again, in Matthew 22:30 Jesus told the Sadducees, "At the resurrection, people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven."  And from this many people mistakenly conclude that human beings are transformed into angels when they die.

    Should a preacher say anything against this?  After all, if it gives someone comfort to believe that his or her deceased loved one is an angel in heaven, why disturb it?

    But I must disturb that belief, because God's promises to us in the resurrection of the dead are so much greater, so much more marvellous, so much more comforting, that I would fail both God and you if I didn't tell you about them, if I caused you to miss out on the peace the Lord has for you, or robbed Him of the praise He is due.

    When Jesus says the resurrected saints will be like the angels in heaven, He is telling us that in the world to come, there will be no need of marriage.  The joy and communion happy married couples experience is only a foretaste of the holy union of spirit that all of us will know with God and one another when our bodies are raised and made new.  This is the joy the angels know now, and we will know then.

    But the writer to the Hebrews says even more about human beings and angels.  In 2:5 he reminds us that it wasn't to angels that God subjected the world to come.  No, it was to Man, to the Man Jesus and to all the human beings who like you and me are included in Him.  In verses 6 through 8 he quotes Psalm 8, which we used as our Call to Worship.  This psalm reminds us that at creation we were made a little lower than the angels-- which is to say we were different from angels, but still ranked very high in God's estimation indeed.  Everything was put under the feet of our first parents-- but as we know, they sinned.  So our Lord came from heaven and was born as the Son of Man.  He who was the King of angels was found in human flesh and became a little lower than they.  And now through His obedience unto death He is highly exalted, higher than all angels, archangels, principalities, and powers, crowned with honor and glory.

  Jesus has regained for mankind the rank we had at the beginning, and brought us higher still.  Jesus our Lord did not become an angel when He rose again, and neither shall we.  No, we become something better: glorified and honored human beings, whom Jesus the Son of God is not ashamed to call brothers and sisters, members of His holy family.

    And see what it says in verse 16 of this chapter: "For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham's descendants."  Remember, all who receive the promise of God in faith are children of Abraham, and by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that includes us.  Again, "It is not angels [Jesus] helps." Knowing that, is there anyone who would still wish to become an angel when they die?  Do they not want to be helped by Jesus who died for them?  Do they not want to live forever in a renewed and glorified human body like His own?  The blood of Christ was never intended for the fallen angels, the demons, and them it cannot save.  The holy angels are without sin, and don't need a Savior.  But we are frail and fallen human beings, born in sin and doomed to die.  We do need His sacrifice and for us-- for you!-- He shed His blood that you might be raised to new and eternal human life in Him. 

    Claim your humanity!  Wear it proudly, for your risen Lord sits in heaven forever as the glorified Son of Man, and you are His flesh and blood, a member of His own family.  Honor the holy angels and accept with thankfulness their ministry to you, but do not worship them or desire to take their place.  No, the place you have in Christ is so much better, so much higher, so much closer to the heart of God.  For you are His redeemed, born again to give Him eternal praise and glory, and in the resurrection His power will create for you a new life more wonderful, blessed, and truly human than anything we can think, conceive, or imagine.

    To Christ who sits on the throne be all honor, glory and majesty, with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and forever.  Amen.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

What Do We Owe?

Texts:    2 Chronicles 26:3-5; 16-21; Romans 13:1-7; Matthew 22:1-14
    UP WHERE I LIVE, WE HAVE A SCHOOL district per capita tax.  A poll tax.  Everyone has to pay it simply because they live in the school district.  It's $15.00 a year, no big deal.  I pay it and forget about it until the bill comes in the mail the following July.

    In occupied Israel in the days when Jesus walked this earth, paying one's poll tax was a big deal.   It raised passions and questions of freedom and worship, of bondage and loyalty.  For Jesus' enemies, it was a way to try to destroy Him and His ministry.  But for us, the events of Matthew 22:15-22 should lead us better to understand who we are under God and what we owe to the kingdom of God and to the kingdoms of this world.

     It is Monday, the day after our Lord's triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Jesus is in the Temple.  He'd been teaching the people that morning, until He was interrupted by a delegation of chief priests and elders, many of them Pharisees.  They challenged His right to do what He was doing: His royal procession into Jerusalem, His driving out the moneychangers, all of it.  In answer, Jesus confronted them with three parables, all of them passing judgement on these Jewish leaders for their failure to be ready to welcome Him as Messiah when He came.  Did that humble them and send them home to search the Scriptures and pray the Father to open their eyes to welcome their King?

    Of course not.  It made them all the more determined to find a way to get rid of Jesus, to kill Him.

    So, our passage begins, the Pharisees left His presence.  But they didn't go far.  They huddled together to make plans to trap Jesus in His words.  They'd ask Him one little question about paying the per capita tax to Rome.  However Jesus answered, they'd have grounds to arrest Him and have Him tried for  sedition, or He'd rile up the crowd so they'd spontaneously stone Him.  Cleverly, these same men didn't return to the Temple themselves.  No, they sent disciples of theirs, men they thought Jesus wouldn't know, to pretend to be earnest seekers after knowledge.  These men would flatter Jesus and then, when He was off His guard, they'd spring a question that was sure to land Him in disaster, no matter which answer He gave.

    Why is that?  Because, unlike the poll tax I pay to my area school district, the poll tax levied by Rome signified subjection to Caesar.  To a good religious Jew, that meant that Caesar was usurping the place of God.  In Exodus 30 the Israelites were each commanded to pay into the Tabernacle treasury a half-shekel "atonement money," as the NIV puts it.  The Scripture calls this a ransom for each Israelite's life, the price on his or her head, so to speak, and it symbolized that they belonged to the Lord their God and lived or died at His sovereign pleasure.  The Jews of Jesus' day still paid the Temple poll tax, but Caesar had imposed a head tax of his own, as if they belonged to him instead.

    To make things worse, Rome required that every citizen and subject of its vast empire must pay the poll tax with the imperial Roman denarius.  This was a silver coin minted out of Caesar's personal treasury.  Therefore, it belonged to him.  With it he paid his soldiers, officials, and high-ranking local collaborators, and through them, it got into circulation in the occupied territories. Most Jews were anxious to obey the Second Commandment, the one forbidding graven images, and they ordinarily used copper coins with no images of humans or beasts on them.  But the imperial denarius always bore the portrait of the reigning Caesar.  And to make things worse, it was also stamped with a motto.  The imperial denarius of Jesus' day read, "Tiberius Caesar, Worshipful Son of the God, Augustus."  There was this man's blasphemous claim to divinity, on the very tribute coin they were forced to use.

    What a galling affront this would be to most Jews!  The Pharisees, as the official defenders of the faith, would be opposed to Rome and all it stood for.  So would the super-patriot Zealots and their supporters.  So would the crowds that followed Jesus and wanted to make Him be their earthly king.  They wouldn't be happy if Jesus said paying the tribute money was right.  But Matthew tells us that some Herodians came along with the Pharisees to set the trap for our Lord.  These men supported the Herod family and its ties to Rome.  They favored Roman rule; after all, the Herods were kings only through Caesar's gift, not because they were proper Jewish royalty in the line of David.  The Herodians would make sure Pilate heard if this rabble-rousing rabbi from Nazareth said the Jews should refuse to pay.

    So here they all come to Jesus, talking Him up and pretending to esteem Him and His reputation.  Ironic, isn't it?  Everything they said about His character was absolutely true.  He was and is a true man, a man of integrity.  He did and does teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.  Our Lord was not influenced in His judgement by who people were or what positions they held.  But the Pharisees and the Herodians don't actually believe that.  They think Jesus is a dangerous imposter who can be maneuvered into condemning Himself with His own words.  By reminding Him of who He has set Himself up to be (as they saw it), they think they'll compromise His credibility as a rabbi if He refuses to answer, or make Him go against Scripture, if He does.

    With this in their hearts, they spring the question: "Tell us then, what is your opinion?  Is it right to pay the poll tax to Caesar or not?"

    They don't understand that they're dealing with the Font of all Wisdom, the divine Son of God.  His Spirit sees clearly into their evil hearts and He retorts, "You hypocrites!  Why are you trying to trap me?" 

    Yes, they are hypocrites.  Hypocrites for coming to Him with their flattery, pretending to be eager to learn.  And hypocrites for another crucial reason, which Jesus is about to reveal.  He commands them, "Show me the coin used for paying the tax."

    Ah, yes.  The hated silver denarius, bearing the image of the blasphemous emperor and his claim to be the son of a god.  One of these Pharisees, at least, has such a coin.  In his possession.  On the sacred ground of the Lord's Temple.  So shocked they would have acted, had Jesus said outright, "Pay Caesar's poll tax."  Why, that'd mean agreeing with Caesar's claims!  But here they are, carrying and using Caesar's money, even for their everyday business.

    Like the discerning rabbi He is, Jesus asks them a question in return: "Whose portrait is this?  And whose inscription?"

    They answer, "Caesar's."

    To us, this may seem to be a simple question and a simple answer.  But to Jesus' opponents, His words couldn't help but remind them of the words of Holy Scripture.  The Greek word the NIV translates "portrait" is εικών, icon.  It's the how their Greek Bible translated the Hebrew word meaning "likeness," as in "image and likeness."  Ah! what does that remind us of?  First, the fact that people are not to make images or likenesses of God or anything alleged to be a god.  But it also reminds us, and Jesus' challengers, of Genesis, of creation, and of mankind being made in the image and likeness of God.  Whatever is made in the image and likeness of its maker, belongs to its maker.  So this coin belongs to Caesar who made it and whose image it bears.

    And Jesus confronts them about the inscription, the επιγραφή, on the coin.  Remember, it says "Tiberius Caesar, Worshipful Son of the God, Augustus."  It was a confession of faith in Tiberius and his adoptive father Augustus as gods.  But Israel had its own inscription, its own confession of faith, which the Lord had commanded the people to write, not on coins, but on scrolls to be affixed to their doorposts and bound onto their foreheads and hands.  It's found in Deuteronomy chapter 6, and it says,

    Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

    Whose inscription shall be heeded and obeyed?

    Jesus' opponents have presented and seen the coin.  They have admitted that the likeness and inscription on it are Caesar's.  Jesus has evoked the authority of Scripture.  With this, He delivers His response, and it utterly confounds the Pharisees and the Herodians alike.  He says, "Give--" literally, "give back"-- "to Caesar what is Caesar's, and give back to God, what is God's."

    Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report that these men were amazed and astonished.  They had failed in their purpose.  Jesus had somehow evaded their trap with a riddle of an answer, and they had to admit defeat and go away. 

    Brothers and sisters, the Pharisees and Herodians didn't approach Jesus because they cared deeply how a servant of the one true God should relate to a pagan civil authority.  But we do care.  And because we do, it's frustrating that this text doesn't actually give us clear guidance on how we are to relate to the civil government, especially to a government that seems to be growing more and more hostile to the free exercise of our Christian faith.

    What did Jesus actually say?  Many scholars write that by reminding the Pharisees that mankind is made in the image of God, by evoking the confession of "Hear, O Israel," Jesus was saying that faithful Jews-- and faithful Christians-- should not pay taxes to godless governments.  For everything belongs to God, which leaves nothing left over for Caesar.  And in fact, the chief priests made this very accusation against Jesus in His trial before Pilate (see Luke 23:2).

    But according to other scholars, Jesus has effectually said to us, "This paltry silver coin made in the image and likeness of Tiberius?  It's his, he made it, let him have it back.  Pay your earthly taxes.  Meanwhile, you, child of God, give yourself and your devotion back to your Maker who owns you."  And, as for Caesar's claims to be a god and the son of a god, God Most High Himself refers to the human rulers of the earth as "gods," as we read in Psalm 82.  Fine, says Jesus, Caesar can call himself a "god" all he wants-- as long as he administers justice and defends the right as his own High King and Emperor, the God of Israel, has given him the authority and responsibility to do.

    Which of these has Jesus said?  We can't be one hundred percent sure.  But God has not left us to go away astonished and amazed.  He has given us sure guidance in His Scriptures on how we are to relate to the civil authority.  I'll summarize these quickly, then I'll conclude.

    First of all, in Matthew Jesus shows us that the kingdom of this world is not to be confused with the kingdom of God, not in ancient Israel, not even in these United States of America.  We have duties and responsibilities we owe to both, but those duties are not the same. 

    Second, our epistle reading from Romans 13 shows us that all civil authority is under the power of Almighty God, even when that government is pagan and doesn't acknowledge the Lord God at all.  Earthly authorities are established by God to uphold the right and to put down the wrong, according to the law of human nature that our Creator has put into every one of us, believer or unbeliever.  Because earthly rulers are representatives of God, we Christians are to obey their laws and pay the duly-legislated taxes they levy, for to refuse to do so is to rebel against God.

    In our American republic, being obedient to God in the kingdom of this world means fulfilling our responsibilities under the Constitution and voting and being involved to the extent of our ability, for our rulers, under God, are responsible to us, and we get the government we deserve.

    But third, the rights of the civil authority are not absolute.  In 2 Chronicles 26 we read of King Uzziah, a ruler who started out well.  But he lost his kingly honor and authority when he went beyond what God delegated to him.  He tried to usurp the honor and duties of the priests as well, to extend his influence into the affairs of the kingdom of heaven.  When Uzziah did that, God and God's priests put him down immediately and permanently.  As a leper, he could no longer enter the Temple, he could no longer rule, and his son had to take over the government in his stead.

    It's the same with our government today.  When they presume to legislate against the clear commands of God, we must confront them, and we cannot obey.  As the apostles Peter and John said to the ruling council in Acts 4:19,

    Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God.  For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.

What they had seen and heard was Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Son of God.  The Pharisees and Herodians could not entrap Him in His words, and we cannot escape His authoritative claim on our lives.  Through Him we were made, and through His blood He has remade us anew.  Let us give back to our earthly governments what we owe them under God.  But always and for eternity, let us render back to God our hearts, our souls, our strength, and everything we are, for we bear the image and likeness of His Son, and we are His.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Kingdom Manners, Kingdom Rules

Text:    Matthew 22:1-14

     I MISSED A WEDDING YESTERDAY.  THE groom is the only son of some friends of mine from way back, and I wish I could have gone.

    But they live all the way over on the far side of Illinois, and the drive was too far. So I followed custom and returned the RSVP card with my regrets.

     It's good to exercise good manners and follow the rules, especially on important occasions like weddings.  On this Worldwide Communion Sunday and every day of our Christian lives, Jesus wants us to know that when it comes to the marriage supper of the Son of God, we're both bound and set free by Kingdom manners and Kingdom rules.

    "The kingdom of heaven," Jesus begins in Matthew 22, "is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son."  Jesus told this parable in the Temple courts the day after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  A delegation of chief priests and elders of the people had marched up to Him to challenge His right to teach and act the way He did.  In response, He taxes them with their failure to carry out the responsibility God gave them as leaders over His people Israel.  Even now, when they should be the ones getting the people ready to receive God's Messiah and take their places at the great feast that will usher in the kingdom of heaven, these very leaders are deliberately ignoring the gracious call of God their King.   Will this parable wake them up, or will it make them more hardhearted still?

    This is no ordinary wedding Jesus is speaking of, it's the marriage for the son and heir of a mighty king.  Some of the customs will seem strange to us, and we may think that Jesus made them up for the purposes of His parable.  In fact, the manners and rules Jesus describes were expected behavior in ancient royal and aristocratic society.  The ancient Jewish Bible commentary called the Babylonian Talmud tells one parable of
    . . .  a king . . . who distributed royal garments to his servants.  The attentive among them folded them and deposited them in a chest.  The foolish among them went and did their work in them.  Days later the king asked for his garments.  The attentive among them returned them to him all sparkling; the foolish among them returned them to him all soiled.  The king was pleased with the attentive, but angry with the foolish.1

And the king gives orders that the foolish should be locked in the prison house.  Another parable tells of

    . . . a king who summoned his servants to a banquet but he did not set a time for them.  The attentive got themselves dressed and sat at the door of the king's house.  They said:  "Is anything missing at the king's house?"  The foolish went on with their work.  They said:  "Is there any banquet without toil?"  Suddenly the king summoned his servants.  The attentive gathered before him all dressed up while the foolish gathered before him all soiled.  The king was pleased with the attentive, but angry with the foolish.2

    Both these rabbinical stories and Jesus' parable of the wedding banquet reflected the customs of ancient Jewish society.  The priests and elders could never say, "That's impossible, Jesus!  You're just making that up to be mean!"  What the king did and what he expected from his guests exactly matched what everyone knew about good manners and obeying the rules.

    The two-part invitation, to begin with.  It took a long time to prepare a royal feast, and the king would give notice of it well in advance.  He'd invite his princes, his noblemen, and the head men and chief elders of all the towns under his rule.  As we saw from the Jewish writings, the king would send a beautiful festal garment, often made of shining white linen, to each guest.  They were expected to keep it safe and clean until the day they were summoned.  When you accepted the garment, you were committed to go.

    Then, when everything was ready, the king would send his servants around to his invited guests, saying, "Come to the feast!  Put on the wedding clothes I sent you and celebrate the marriage of my son!"

    The king in the parable is Almighty God.  The invited guests were the nation of Israel, especially their kings, priests, and rabbis.  These leaders claimed to love the Lord their God and to be waiting for His Christ.  And now, God the king has sent His servants the prophets to say, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand!"  And what do you think?  These guests refuse to come!

    Still, God didn't give up on His people Israel.  He sent more prophets to plead with them to get ready.  In that very time He sent John the Baptist and Jesus' disciples to announce the good news that the wedding feast was prepared.  You can hear the pleading in the king's voice in verse 4, as he says, "My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready.  Come to the wedding banquet."  Come, please, come!

    But, Jesus says, the invited guests pay no attention and go on about their business.  This was not something these men had a right to do.  These noblemen owed their positions to the king, and to disregard the wedding of the royal son for the sake of their everyday activities was an insult to their lord.

    But this is what the leaders of the Jewish people were doing.  Do you realize that if they had obeyed and welcomed Jesus, God could have brought in His kingdom in all its fullness, then and there?  But the priests and elders of His chosen nation thought their business, their speculations, their rules and manners, were more important than Almighty God's.

    And see how some of the other invited guests respond!  Jesus says in verse 6, "The rest seized his servants, mistreated them, and killed them."  Just so, the Jewish authorities from time immemorial had arrested, abused, and murdered the prophets God had sent; John the Baptist was only the latest to meet that fate.

    How ought a king of that time deal with this injury?  Could he just brush it off?  Absolutely not..  You harm a messenger of the king, you've harmed the king himself.  It's an act of open rebellion. No sovereign could let such a crime pass unpunished and expect to remain on his throne for any time at all.  So Jesus says, "The king was enraged.  He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city." 

    You may be thinking, "That's no fair!  Why not just arrest the murderers?"  But think of an ancient walled town, with the people inside of it loyal to the nobleman who is in rebellion against the king.  All become guilty together, all must be put down.

    In the same way, at the end of the age, God will send His angels to punish and destroy all those who remain in rebellion against Him, all those who killed His prophets or approve of those who did, those who hate His name and despise His word.  By God's grace, let us examine ourselves, that that crowd may that never include you and me. 

    Meanwhile, in the parable, the marriage banquet is ready.  In ancient Jewish tradition, the feasting together of the bride and groom and their guests, was the wedding ceremony.  The royal son cannot be wed until the guests have sat down.  Says the king, in verse 8, "‘[T]hose I invited did not deserve to come.'" What will he do for guests?

    The king does the unthinkable.  He commands his servants to "‘Go to the street corners and invite anyone you can find.'" Common, ordinary people.  Non-chosen people.  Whosoever will must come.  "So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests."

    By saying this Jesus departs from every rule and custom of His day.  How could a great king dishonor his son by filling his wedding hall with the dirty, stinking rabble?  It was bad enough that the servants bring in the respectable common people, "the good," but they also gather the low-down, disgusting, "bad" people, like tax collectors and prostitutes and even-- heaven help us!-- Gentiles!

    But this is exactly what our amazing, loving Lord did.  God willed that when His people Israel rejected and crucified His Son, that His death should open up a wonderful avenue of mercy to you and me.  Few if any of us here have Jewish blood.  We were not His princes and noblemen, originally invited to the wedding feast of His royal Son.  No, we were foreigners to his promise, disobedient to God and lacking His law.  But now through Jesus Christ the crucified and risen Son of God, we, too, are invited to sit down at His feast with His faithful people in all times and places.  As St. Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, "This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus."

    This promise is for you!  You and I had no right to the kingdom of God, yet the mercy of Christ extends to us and bids us come in to the feast.

    In the parable, then, the king comes in to view the guests.  And he notices a man sitting there in his ordinary street clothes, not wearing a wedding garment.  That tells us that all the other guests had shining wedding garments on.  Where did they get them?  The king hadn't sent wedding clothes to their homes; there hadn't been time.  Clearly, they got them at the door to the banqueting hall.  They put them on in accordance with the rules of the kingdom and made themselves ready to celebrate the feast.

    Isn't it the same way with us?  Here in this holy sacrament we participate in the wedding supper of the Lamb.  The church is the King's banqueting hall, and we enter through the door of baptism.  At our baptism the filthiness of our sin is washed away by the blood of Christ, and we put on the new robes of His righteousness, shining with His purity and brilliant with His truth.  As Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, "all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ." Solely because of the finished work of Christ both the so-called good and the truly bad are made clean and fit to celebrate the marriage feast of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

    But here is a man who somehow has slipped in without a wedding garment.  There he sat in his own clothes, violating the rules, not fit, not ready-- as so many people try to come into the presence of God today.  They say they don't have to repent of their sins and believe in Jesus Christ for God to accept them.  They think they can sit down and enjoy the good things of heaven in their own human righteousness.  The king challenges the man on his lack of wedding clothes, and the man is speechless.  And speechless everyone shall be who refuses to be covered by the righteousness of Christ that He won for us on Calvary.

    The king orders that the man be bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness, where, Jesus says, "there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." 

    What kind of rule is this?  Aww, Jesus, he only showed up in the wrong clothes!  Can't you cut him some slack?

    No.  Brothers and sisters, the marriage feast of the Son of God is not a casual dress affair.  We're worthy to sit down at His table only if Christ has dressed us up in His righteousness alone.  He is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him.  To insist there is any other way is to insult God our King and call Him a liar.

    By His Spirit and His grace, may we know better.  Jesus concludes the parable by saying, "For many are invited, but few are chosen."  Don't be afraid of this teaching, brothers and sisters.  Those who were invited but not ultimately chosen-- who were they?  The ones who despised their invitations.  The ones who hated and rebelled against the King who gave it.  The one who wouldn't mind his kingdom manners and refused to submit to the king's rules, who tried to get in by his own way instead.

    But you who acknowledge your unworthiness and have been cleansed by the blood of Christ your Saviour, come.  You who despise your own good deeds as filthy rags and have clothed yourself with the obedience of Christ, come.  You who realize that it's all the overwhelming love and grace of God your Father and King that brings you to this Table, come.  The feast is spread, the wine is poured, it is time to sit down.  With Christians around the world today; with the faithful in all times and places, let us celebrate the wedding feast of the Son of God.  In His name, come.
1.  Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 152b
2.  Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 153aB