Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Sermon for first mid-week Advent service - Gen 12:1-8

 

                                                                                                Mid-Advent 1

                                                                                                Gen 12:1-8

                                                                                                12/2/20

 

            Matthew begins his Gospel by writing, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”  He then proceeds to lay out the genealogy of Jesus which ends with the words, “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.”

            Matthew gives us the family line that led to Jesus – and wow, it is impressive!  I mean, we are talking biblical blue bloods here.  You have Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. You have Judah, and the kings David, Hezekiah, and Josiah. There are the patriarchs of the nation of Israel. There are the kings of Israel beginning with David.

            But what Scripture tells us about some of these individuals reads more like an insider “tell all” book written about some European royal family.  Actually, it’s worse than any book like that could be.  In fact as we dig a little into Jesus’ heritage we find ourselves asking: “A Savior came from this family?!?

            Tonight we look at the patriarch – Abraham.  Things begin very well with Abraham. Abraham’s father had been taking the family from Ur in what is today Iraq in order to go to the land of Canaan – what we now know as Israel. But for some reason they didn’t complete the trip.  Instead, they stopped in Haran, what is now Turkey just north of Syria, and settled there.

            But God had plans for Abraham, and so in our text we hear: Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”

            God told Abraham to leave everything – to leave his home and extended family, and to go to a new land that he would show him. But God also made incredible promises to Abraham.  He promised to make Abraham into a great nation.  He promised to bless Abraham and make his name great. And he promised that in Abraham all families of the earth would be blessed. He promised that the Savior – the seed of the woman who would defeat the devil – would come forth from his family line.

            Abraham believed God. He believed his promises and he headed south into Canaan.  While there the Lord appeared to Abraham and said “To your offspring I will give this land.”  God promised to make Abraham into a great nation, and he promised to give Canaan as the land in which they would live.

            God had identified Abraham as the unique individual through whom he would work to create a nation and bless all people.  He had said, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse.”  Yet immediately after this we learn that a famine in the land of Canaan prompted Abraham to travel to Egypt. When he arrived there Abraham feared that the Egyptians would find Sarah beautiful and kill him in order to have her.  Abraham convinced Sarah to claim that she was his sister.  Pharaoh, the leader of Egypt took an interest in Sarah.  He paid a dowry to Abraham and took Sarah as his own.

            Only after God afflicted Pharaoh with great plagues did he become aware that something was very wrong. Eventually he learned who Sarah really was.  He summoned Abraham and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.”

            You can’t get much worse than this!  Not only had Abraham failed to trust God’s promise, but in order to save himself he had done something absolutely appalling to Sarah. Right out of the gate, after God calls Abraham, this is very next thing we learn about him. Frankly, it is shocking. This guy is going to be the source from whom the Savior of the world will descend?

            God had promised to make Abraham into great nation, but Sarah had not given birth to child.  Later, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Abraham protested that he was in fact childless and said, "Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.”

            But God replied, “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” God brought Abraham outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” We are told that Abraham “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” He believed God’s promise, and because of this faith God considered Abraham to be righteous in his sight.

            Abraham was a sinner, just like you are.  There have been times in your life when you have have failed to trust God. There have been times when you have used and taken advantage of other people.  But the apostle Paul tells us that in his faith Abraham is a model of how God deals with us.  He told the Romans “But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 

who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”

            Abraham had displayed great faith in God’s promise to give him descendants. But then in the very next chapter we learn that Sarah continued to be barren.  So she told Abraham to take her servant Hagar, and to have a child with her.  Sarah ignored God’s promise, and Abraham went right along with it as he ignored the promise too.  Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, and as always happens when you ignore God’s word, there were great hardships for everyone.  If you think back at your life, you will find the same thing is true for you.

            Finally, when Sarah had entered into menopause and was no longer capable of having children God came to Abraham and said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” Sarah was listening from behind the tent and laughed at the idea that she would have a child.  Yahweh said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.”

            As we learn about Abraham’s life, we see failure to trust God and shocking sin. We are in the season of Advent preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus the Christ – the Savior.  The truth is that we see in Abraham, the very same thing we see in ourselves – we see the reason that the Son of God had to enter into our world as the Savior. We see sin.

            We see that God worked through sinners as he began to fulfill his promise to bring forth the Savior in whom all nations – all sinners would be blessed.  We also see that God always remained in control, because nothing is impossible for God.  He worked a miracle – he used the barren and dead womb of the elderly Sarah in order to give Abraham a descendent; to give him Isaac.

            And in this action we are reminded that while God worked through the line of Abraham – through a bunch of sinners - to bring forth the Savior, he gave us a sinless Savior.  He did so by another miracle as he used the womb of a young woman, Mary who was a virgin.  When Mary asked how she as a virgin was going to have a child, the angel Gabriel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy--the Son of God.”

            Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, Jesus Chris was the sinless Son of God.  True God and true man, he came to be the Savior of sinners by dying for us.  And this returns us to Abraham one last time. Yes, Abraham was a sinner. But Abraham was also a man of faith.  In Genesis chapter twenty two Yahweh said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

            Abraham was faithful.  He was ready to obey God and sacrifice his only beloved son, when the angel of God stopped him, and in his place a ram was provided as a sacrifice.  Yet this event in the Old Testament points forward to what God has done for us.  Born in Bethlehem, Jesus Christ grew up to be the sinless sacrifice for us. God the Father offered his beloved only begotten Son in our place.  He the sinless Son bore our sins – be became sin for us – in order to win us forgiveness.

            But as Yahweh told Abraham, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” And so on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead as he defeated death. This is what God had done through the line of Abraham.   As the apostle Paul told the Romans, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 

For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” This is how God has fulfilled his promise to Abraham: “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Sermon for Thanksgiving Eve - Phil 4:6-20

 

                                                                                    Thanksgiving Eve

                                                                                    Phil 4:6-20

                                                                                    11/25/20

 

            Two summers ago when my dad, Matthew, my nephew and I were out in Pennsylvania watching trains, we went into a place where we always eat during the trip, and saw something that I had to point out to Matthew and Paul.  There on the wall, as you walked into the restaurant, was an actual pay phone. I had pointed these out to Matthew in the past in movies, but I am pretty sure it was the first time he had ever seen one in person.

            I am fifty years old, and like many of you I have witnessed the incredible advances in technology that have transformed the way we live.  I know how great these changes are.  But then once in awhile you have an experiences\ that makes you truly realize how much things have changed.

            I had another one of those not long ago.  A member of our family had received a very gracious gift.  I emphasized that a thank you note should be sent, to acknowledge the gift and express how much it was appreciated. I gave the address for the individual to the member of our family.  I knew that the thank you note had been had been mailed, but as it turned out the note didn’t arrive as soon as it should have. You see, if you only put the name and street address on the envelope, the U.S. Postal service has a very difficult time delivering it. This member of our family had never addressed something to be sent in the mail, and didn’t realize that you also have to provide the city, state and zip code in order for it to be delivered. With that minor oversight corrected, the thank you note was eventually received by the person who had given the gift.

            Our text for tonight’s Thanksgiving Eve sermon is found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. While Paul does address a number of issues in this letter, one its purpose is to be a thank you note.  As I have mentioned several times over the years, the apostle Paul had a very close relationship with the Philippian church.  They were very generous in supporting his ministry, and in our text he thanks them for yet another gift of money that they had sent.

            He says in our text, “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity.” Then later he goes on to say, “Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again.”

            The Philippians had done it yet again, and Paul thanked them. He also goes on in our text to talk about what the gift meant before God.  He writes, “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”

            Paul gives thanks to the Philippians for their gift. And at the beginning of our text he takes up the theme of giving thanks to God that you expect to hear at Thanksgiving.  He says, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

            The apostle tell us not to be anxious about anything.  Instead we are to turn to God in prayer and supplication. Now that sounds very normal.  Of course, when I have problems and concerns I should turn to God.  Yet notice how Paul adds, “with thanksgiving.”  The apostle reminds us that our life with God is always to be one that includes thanksgiving. This is true even when there are things that cause us worry – things about which we are praying to God.

            We have a tendency to focus on the things that are not the way we want them to be.  Yet in doing so, it is so easy to ignore all the blessing that are already there – all the blessings that God has given to us out of his fatherly divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in us.  We forget about the fact that we don’t have to wonder about where we will stay tonight or where our next meal will come from. We don’t have to worry about basic issues of peace and security. We don’t have to worry about being able to come to church to hear God’s Word and receive his Sacraments.

            Most importantly we don’t have to worry about our standing before God.  We don’t have to worry what happens if I or a loved one dies, as my aunt did last night. As Paul says in our text, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” 

            Through the Gospel, we know that Jesus Christ died on the cross for us.  In the previous chapter Paul spoke about what Jesus Christ meant to him – that it meant “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”  Jesus the sinless one died in our place, and because of him we are forgiven – we are righteous in God’s eyes.

            But death that ended in death could never bring victory over sin that produces death.  And so on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ God has defeated death.  And Philippians is unique because in this letter the apostle explicitly talks about what that means for us now if we die and what it will mean on the Last Day. 

            In the first chapter Paul says, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  He says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”  Because Jesus has risen from the dead and ascended, for the Christian to die is to be with Christ.  It is to continue living in a way that is far better than what we now have.

            And then in the third chapter, Paul tells us that the best is yet to come.  He says that “we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”  As we heard this past Sunday, we are looking for the return of Jesus Christ on the Last Day when he will raise and transform our bodies to be like his perfect resurrected body that can never die again.

            These are causes for thanksgiving! They are reasons to give thanks and praise to God. And in particular it is the forgiveness and life that we have in Christ that enables us to be content and give thanks in the midst of all circumstances.

            In our text, as Paul thanks the Philippians for their gift, he acknowledges that for a time they had not been able to help him.  He writes, “You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 

I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

            Now that word “content” was used by the Stoics to mean self-sufficient and free from dependence on anything. But Paul uses it in a completely different way, and we see this in the last verse I quoted.  You are no doubt very familiar with the verse, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” But this text has been completely misunderstood.

            First the statement “all things” refers to the things Paul has just been talking about: being brought low and abounding; being in plenty and hunger; being in abundance and need.  It is has nothing to do with the claim that “I can do anything.”

            And secondly, that statement more literally is “I have strength with respect to all things through him who strengthens me.” Paul says that because of Christ who strengthens him, he has the ability deal with all circumstances. He is able to be content not because he is self-sufficient, but because he is Christ dependent. Completely dependent on Christ the risen Lord, Paul had strength through Christ’s Spirit to deal with all circumstances. 

            He could face them all in faith. And he could face them all with thanksgiving because the ultimate gift of God for which he was thankful was Jesus Christ – the crucified and risen Lord. That was why Paul could say in the previous chapter about his former life in Judaism, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

            On this Thanksgiving Eve, we are reminded of the many blessings that God has given to us. He has richly blessed us in so many ways that are related to the support of our body and life.  Yet the greatest blessing is our Lord Jesus Christ in whom we have forgiveness and life.  Jesus Christ the risen Lord is the One who strengthens us through his Spirit so that we are able to be content and give thanks in all circumstances.

 

 

             

 

 

               

 

 

             

 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Sermon for the Last Sunday of the Church Year - Mt 25:1-13

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Last Sunday

                                                                                    Mt 25:1-13

                                                                                    11/22/20

 

            When will it be over?  Isn’t that the question we are all asking? When will this whole COVID thing finally be over? Back in the spring we had the big lock down – the shelter in place order. Of course, we learned that what that really meant was that lots of people went shopping at Home Depot, Menards and Lowes to get the stuff they needed to do all of those projects they now had time to do at home.

            We’ve worn masks and done social distancing, and only gradually seen a return of some elements of normal life as the Governor and the State of Illinois give us permission.  Yet after all of that, what has it gotten us?  On Tuesday this past week Gov. Pritzker announced that due to “exponential growth” in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, Illinois would be moving back to “Tier 3” Restrictions on Friday. The Governor said that, “This is not a stay-at-home order,” but he did add that he was not ruling out that possibility down the line if the second surge isn’t tamed.  Good times.

            Of course there has been some encouraging news recently about a vaccine.  We’ve heard reports about a vaccine that is safe and 90% effective. I certainly pray that that this is all true.  But I have to say, while I am not a doctor, and I have never played one on TV, I just don’t feel super comfortable with idea of a vaccine that we all know has been rushed as quickly as possible.  I mean, do you really want to be the first people they actually use this thing on?

            When will the pandemic be done?  We can’t say for sure. And what will things look like when we conclude that it is “done”? We don’t know about that one either. How much of life will be normal again?  How much of life will be different? We just don’t know.

            Today is the Last Sunday of the Church Year.  The church year and the lectionary – the assigned Scripture readings – are meant to teach us the faith.  And so every year at the end of the church year we hear about the end – about the Last Day and the return of Jesus Christ.  Certainly we hear about this during the rest of the year as well, because you cannot read God’s Word without constantly encountering it. But on this Sunday all of the Scripture readings deal with the Last Day, and all of the hymns do as well.

            As we consider our Gospel lesson for today, we learn three things that I want to focus upon.  First, we learn that we don’t know when our Lord Jesus will return.  Second, we learn that we do know what things will be like when he does.  And third, we learn about what we are to be doing in the present.

            This morning our Lord Jesus teaches about his return using a parable.  He begins by saying, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.”  The parable describes the practice of young women waiting to escort the bridegroom into the wedding feast.  They needed lamps that would be lit to accompany him in to the great celebration.

            We learn in the parable that the bridegroom was delayed, and it became late in the evening. The ten virgins all became drowsy and fell asleep. Now to many of us that may sound strange.  After all, who gets drowsy and falls asleep at 10:00 or 11:00 in the evening?  But remember, in the ancient world, for the most part, the sun determined when you were up and doing things.  At dawn – when the sun first came up and there was light – the work day started.  It basically continued all day until the sun went down and there was no more light. Yes there were lamps that burned olive oil and gave off light.  But they didn’t provide that much illumination, and olive oil cost money.  In a world before electric lights, you got up at dawn and you went to bed not long after sundown.

            The arrival of the bridegroom had delayed long beyond when he was expected, and the virgins had fallen asleep. But then we learn that at midnight there was a cry, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”  Suddenly, unexpectedly he was there!  When the bridegroom came, the virgins who were ready – more on that a little later - went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.

            Jesus teaches us this morning that his return will be sudden and unexpected. As the Lord says at the end of our text: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” But in this parable he also teaches, what we have found to be true – it may take longer for it to occur that we think or want. Our Lord teaches us to be ready for the long haul. And after two thousand years, that is what it has turned out to be.

            However, we know that Christ’s return will happen.  We know it will happen because God the Father sent his Son into this world as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.  We know it will happen because on Good Friday, Jesus Christ the Son of God, died in our place on the cross as he received the judgment – the damnation we deserve.  We know it will happen because on the third day – on Easter – God raised Jesus from the dead. It is the risen Lord Jesus who made the New Testament Church come into existence. We know that it will happen because Jesus was exalted when he ascended.  Peter tells us that Jesus Christ is the One “who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” And we know it will happen because our risen and exalted Lord has declared that he will return.  He says it this morning.

            And we also know what things will be like when our Lord returns. By his death Jesus has redeemed you – he has freed you from sin. By his resurrection he has defeated death, and has begun the resurrection that will be yours when he returns on the Last Day. He will raise and transform your body so that it can never die again. And he will transform creation itself.  God says through Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson this morning, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.”  He says, “The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.” It will be a life of joy in God’s presence, for after all, in the parable Jesus describes the future salvation as a wedding feast.

            We know what will happen.  We don’t know when it will happen, and yes, as Jesus describes in the parable today we find ourselves waiting for it. So it is important to listen to our Lord as he teaches us about what we are to do as we wait.  There are ten virgins in the parable this morning. They are all waiting for the bridegroom. This is an important detail that we often overlook.  The people around us in the world who do not believe in Christ are not expecting his return.  They think the idea is silly and could care less.  So all ten virgins in this parable describe believers.

            We learn that five were wise and five were foolish. The foolish were not prepared. The did not bring flasks with oil. When the bridegroom arrived their lamps were going out, and they did not have enough oil.  The foolish asked the wise to share, but this was simply not possible.  There wasn’t enough to go around. While the foolish virgins were away buying more oil, the the bridegroom came, and those who were ready – those who were wise - went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Later the other virgins came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.”  Notice that they are calling Jesus, “Lord.”  They are people who had at some point and in some way claimed to be Christian.  Yet the Lord replied, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.”

            Five virgins were wise. Five were ready.  How is one ready for the Lord’s return?  How does one keep watch?  It is by keeping our life focused on Jesus Christ.  We do this first by repenting and confessing our sins. We must listen to God’s law as it reveals the sin that is present. The world does not want to hear this, but because you are God’s child you know that you need to. And as the law reveals your sin – the ways you love other things more than God; the ways you love yourself more than your neighbor – you confess before God that yes, you are sinner who has sinned in this way. You confess and ask for forgiveness for Jesus’ sake.

            Because the old Adam will always be causing sin, to be focused on Christ is to receive our Lords Means of Grace continually.  We need to hear his Word. We need to believe God’s promises about our baptism.  We need to hear his words of forgiveness in Holy Absolution.  And we need our Lord who locates himself bodily in our midst in the Sacrament of the Altar where he gives you his true body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.  You are ready for the Lord’s second coming on the Last Day by weekly receiving his body and blood as he comes to us in the Sacrament. Through these means we receive forgiveness. Through these means Christ’s Spirit strengthens us in faith to face the challenges of living as God’s children in a sinful, fallen world.

            Remember that in the parable of the sower, the seeds that fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, immediately sprang up but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. The seed that fell among the thorns grew, until the thorns choked them. 

            When Jesus explained this, he said, “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.”  Only as we are focused on Jesus – only as we receive his Means of Grace continually are we able remain believers in the face of tribulation and persecution caused by faith in Jesus and the life God’s Word teaches. 

            Our Lord went on to add: “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”  Only as we are focused on Christ, recognizing our sin and our need for his forgiveness, can we find protection from the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches. It is not enough to begin as a Christian.  We must live in Christ – we must live focused on Christ – so that we finish as a Christian.  Only in that way are we wise.  Only in that way are we ready.

            When we are focused on Jesus Christ, then we are ready.  We confess our sin. We receive Christ’s Word as he gives it to us in his various ways through the Means of Grace.  When we are doing this, Christ’s Spirit will cause us to stand in faith against the persecution and tribulation; against the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches.  We will be regularly hearing about our Lord’s return – just like you are this morning!  We will be prepared, ready and keeping watch so that when our Lord returns we will rejoice and say, “Blessed his he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

 

 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity - Mt 22:15-22

 

                                                                                                Trinity 23

                                                                                                Mt 22:15-22

                                                                                                11/15/20

 

            At the beginning of the sermon this morning, let me ask you to engage in a little thought experiment with me.  What would happen if next week, President Donald Trump announced that by executive order he had directed the U.S. Mint and the U.S Bureau of Engraving and Printing to put his image on every single coin and currency produced by the United States?

            Well, it’s really not much of an experiment. I think we all know what would happen. Based on four years of evidence, we can be pretty sure that the media would go completely crazy in condemning the action.  Certainly the people who voted for Joe Biden would be outraged.  And then, a very large portion of the people who voted for President Trump would be shocked and ask: “What in the world is he thinking?”

            The fact of the matter is that we just don’t do this in the United States.  American Presidents don’t produce coins and currency with their own picture on it.  Instead, we have pictures of past respected and influential presidents who have died. So on our most used coins there is Abraham Lincoln on the penny; Thomas Jefferson on the nickel; Dwight Eisenhower on the dime; and George Washington on the quarter.

            Beyond that these coins all have statements that are meant to express beliefs and values of our country.  Each of these coins has “Liberty” and “In God we trust” on the face side of the coin.  They have the Latin phrase “e pluribus unum” – “one from many” on the reverse side.  Our coins and currency are not used to promote the living President.

            Things were completely different in the first century Roman world.  Even though emperors during the first century did travel, most people in the massive Roman empire would never see the emperor in person.  However, that did not mean they wouldn’t see the emperor.  Instead, the emperor’s presence was made to be felt everywhere by putting his image – his likeness -in every conceivable location and form where people lived.

            And of course, what better way to do this than to put the image of the emperor on something that people had to use on a regular basis – by putting it on the money in their hand.  And so the denarius at the time of Jesus had the image of Emperor Tiberius on it.  It also had the inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus and High Priest.”  At his death, Augustus had been acknowledge as being a god.  According to this inscription, Tiberius was the son of a god. And of course, especially in the eastern part of the empire, Tiberius received worship as a god in the cult of the emperor.

            This denarius with the image of Emperor Tiberius and the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus and High Priest,” stands at the center our text this morning.  We hear about events that took place during Holy Week.   Matthew tells us, “Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words.”  More literally, the Greek says that they sought “to trap him in a word.” The Pharisees were out to get Jesus.  He had been a thorn in their side for some three years, and they were desperate to catch him saying something that they could use against him.

            Now you have to give the Pharisees credit. They had devised a really brilliant plan. They sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians – people who supported the rule of Herod Antipas in Galilee and Perea - saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.”

            Of course their description of Jesus was completely fake and disingenuous.  It was meant to set Jesus up so that he would inclined to say something that opposed the emperor. The irony was that while they didn’t mean a word of what they said, every word they said about Jesus was true.

            And then they laid the trap for Jesus by asking: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”  In this question they had Jesus perfectly set up.  If he said that the Jews should play taxes, it would discredit Jesus in the eyes of the people who hated Roman rule. 

            The tax on individual subjects of a Roman province was the most direct way that people experienced the impact of Roman rule.  When the Romans took over a province, the first thing they did was to take a census and implement a tax.  In 6 A.D. Rome had made Judea a province, and the census and tax caused an uprising that was serious enough that a senior Roman official had to bring legionary troops down from Syria in order to suppress it.

            On the other hand, if Jesus said that Jews shouldn’t pay taxes to the emperor, they would immediately have evidence against Jesus that they could take to the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate.  You did not mess with the Romans when it came to taxes and revenue, and they could be sure that Pilate would take care of their “Jesus problem.”

            But the Pharisees had no idea with whom they were dealing.  Jesus knew their intent and said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” They brought him the denarius I described earlier in the sermon.  Then Jesus asked: “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” The Pharisees gave the obvious answer: “Caesar’s.”  Jesus replied, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.

            The Lord had escaped their trap.  The coin had the emperor’s image and inscription on it, so Jesus said, give it to him. But Jesus also said, give to God the things that are God’s.  Of course, everything belongs to God, the Creator of all things. And that included as well that little piece of silver which bore the image and inscription of a mere human being.

            There are two sides to Jesus’ statement, and it is the second one that runs everything.  Render to God that things’ that are God’s.  You belong to God. He created you.  Everything you have belongs to God. He gave it to you.  Our Lord Jesus would have us live all of our life directed towards God.

            The problem is that is not how sinful people work.  As I have mentioned before, Martin Luther described sinful man as being “curved in on himself.”  At our core, as fallen people we are focused inward.  We are focused on ourselves.  We are interested in serving a trinity – the trinity of me, myself and I.

            This is a basic issue of the First Commandment: “You shall have no other Gods.”  As the Small Catechism says, this means that we are to fear, love and trust in God above all things. And of course, we can’t overlook the fact that our text deals with money. As we live life, two things that hold the greatest value for us are our money and our time.  Look at how you apportion those – consider how much God gets in relation to all the other things we like and want, and you will soon find false gods all over the place.

            Yet remember where and when Jesus has this interaction with the Pharisees.  It is in Jerusalem and it is during Holy Week.  Just before our Lord entered into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus told the disciples: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”

            Jesus was in Jerusalem because we don’t render to God the things that are God’s.  Just after predicting his passion he went on to say, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  Jesus was nailed to the cross in order to receive the wrath of God against our sin.  He cried out, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” as he experienced the judgment of God that should be ours.

            But this was the will of the Father because of his incredible love for us. It was his will to give us the forgiveness of sins through the suffering and death of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  But for sin and death to be defeated, there must be life. And so on the third day, just as Jesus had said, God raised Christ from the dead.  God vindicated him as the One who had passed through judgment and death for us in order to give us forgiveness and resurrection life.

            Through baptism you have received this forgiveness.  Your sins have been washed away.  But your baptism is about more than the absence of something.  Through the work of the Spirit you have also received regeneration – you have been born again of water and the Spirit.  The Spirit of the risen Lord now leads and enables you to live in the ways that please God – to do the things God has given us to do.

            Things God has given you to do are your vocations – your callings in life where he has placed you. And this particular text in this particular month when we have had an election leads us to think about our vocation as citizens.   The verse from our text, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's,” is the first verse in the Small Catechism’s Table of Duties for the topic “Of Citizens.”          

            Everything does belong to God, and the government itself is part of his ordering.  Paul told the Romans, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

            God has provided the government to restrain evil.  He has given you resources to support the operation of the government, and he tells us to pay taxes.  Jesus says it. The apostle Paul says it.  He has told us to pray for our government – to pray for our leaders.  He has told us to obey the government, up unto the point it tells us to do things that are against God’s will.

            The government may be God’s ordinance, but the people who run the government are sinners. Some will do a better job than others.  Some will have better plans and policies than others. Some will do things are that immoral – things that are sinful. And let us be clear that any politician who promotes the murder of unborn children through abortion is doing something that is sinful and evil. 

            Things have not changed in this regard during the last five hundred years, because people have not changed.  Martin Luther was not blind to the reality of bad and even evil leaders. When he preached on this text, he said: “We, however, should retain this passage as a teaching for ourselves about how we are to act toward both kingdoms – God’s and Caesar’s – so that we give each its honor and due, since both of them are God’s ordinance and work.  We are not to look at the fact that, in both, the people to whom it has been entrusted are not righteous but abuse their office, especially against Christians, and blame and persecute us as disobedient and rebellious.  We should and must tolerate this, but only so far that we retain the right to rebuke them with our mouths and tell them the truth, and not let the blame imposed on us remain on us.  When we do this, we have done and accomplished what was ours to do. We commit the other part to God: how he will punish them and avenge us.”

            God has made us his people through faith and baptism.  He has given us forgiveness, and he has given us his Spirit who helps us live in ways that are true to his will.  We are true to God’s will when we live in our vocation as citizen: when we obey the government; when we pay taxes; and when we pray for the leaders of our government.  If the government tells us to do things that are against God’s will, then we are true to God when we disobey the government and tell it that we must obey God and not man.  When the government does things that are wrong, we use the opportunities we have to speak the truth and rebuke it.

            This may not change the outcome of what the government does.  It may even bring suffering and hardship to us.  We are able to live with both of these because as those who are in Christ we seek to render to God the things that are God’s.  We can trust God when either occurs because we know that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead.  And in the resurrection of our Lord we find the assurance that the justice of God will prevail and that eternal victory with Christ will be ours.