Sunday, October 19, 2014

Jesus Teaches About Church and State

Matthew 22:15-22 We are blessed by God to live in this great nation.  The United States of America is still a land of freedom and opportunity and prosperity that stands as a beacon of hope for millions of people around the world.  It is a model of what young nations should aspire to become.  This is still the greatest nation on earth and I cannot imagine living anywhere else.
That said, there are things that are not right in our nation, things that burden us as Christians—not just matters of policy about which citizens may legitimately disagree—but moral issues that strike at the heart of what we know to be true from God’s Word. 
Parents are allowed to murder their children.  Businesses are shut down because their Christian owners will not participate in sin.  The basic institutions of marriage and family are becoming almost unrecognizable.  Religious speech by Christians is often impeded or shouted down and our presence in the public square is denied.  And so then…   
How is the person who is both a citizen of the kingdom of God and a citizen of the United States to live out their lives in a way that gives to both God and the state that which is their due?  This is not a new question or a difficulty unique to us—believers have always faced this pull that comes from being part of two different kingdoms.  The Bible says that:
The Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle Jesus in his words.  And they sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians…
            It’s hard to imagine two groups farther removed from one another on the political spectrum as were the Pharisees and the Herodians.  Both groups were Jewish but the Pharisees saw the secular rulers as enemies of God’s people and dreamed of a religious Jewish kingdom. 
The Herodians were essentially secular Jews who (even though they were no fan of the Romans) had made peace with the powers of the day and enjoyed the influence that came with their political support of Herod. 
As far apart as they were politically—what united them was their opposition to Jesus because he pointed the people (not to a political agenda and earthly power which is what both of them were all about) but to the one thing needful:  a life with God. 
The Pharisees wanted to throw off Roman rule.  The Herodians were happy to go along to get along.  Both groups were mistaken because they saw life primarily through the lens of politics and power.  So it still is today among too many Christians.
A few years ago the religious right seized power in the Republican Party using abortion is the catalyst.  These days, we are told by those in the religious left that Christians should support the welfare state and immigration reform because Jesus says to care for the poor and the outcast.
People are still trying to use, and misuse, Jesus Christ for their own political ends just like the Jews did that day.  They said to him:
“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.
            Even if their motive was impure—their words about Jesus were true.  Jesus embodied the truth and he taught the way of God faithfully and did not change with the times or the person that he was speaking to.  He did not adapt himself to a sinful culture.
What that means is that,  if you want to know the truth about:  marriage and the value of all human life--about God’s concern for those on the margins of society—about God’s expectation on how we are to live our life as citizens--listen to Jesus.  Jesus’ guideline that we are to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” is the truth about Christian citizenship because his words ARE God’s Word to us.  The Jews asked him:  Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
When the Jews asked him:  Is it lawful—what they were really asking was:  is it right in God’s sight to pay taxes?  Taxes were already the law of the land.  The Pharisees hated them and saw them as pagan oppression.  The Herodians supported them because it increased their political power.  Both parties had political reasons for their actions and attitudes.  But what was God’s perspective on the whole thing?  That was their question.
Now we know that they didn’t really care one way or the other.  They just wanted to trick Jesus.  If Jesus told the people not to pay their taxes the Herodians would have Jesus arrested.  If Jesus told the people to pay their taxes, the Pharisees would accuse him of siding with Rome.
Both parties wanted to get rid of Jesus because he upset their political ideas and this question about taxes was their way of doing it.  Instead, they received a real answer about what God thought about Christian citizenship.  The Bible says that:
Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 
You will notice that even though they claimed to despise Roman rule they certainly weren’t above benefiting from it.  They had a Roman coin readily available. 
Rome’s currency was a stable, fixed form of economic exchange backed by the greatest power of the day.  Their economic life was built upon it.  They may not have liked seeing that coin come out of their pocket and go to Rome in the form of taxes but they sure weren’t opposed to having it in their pocket.  There’s a lesson here for us.
The state is given to us by God for our temporal benefit and no matter how much we may dislike our government—no matter who much we may kick and scream about our taxes—we all benefit from the government.  We drive on city streets and have clean water in our homes and are protected bands of marauding criminals and countless other blessings that come from God’s good gift of the state. 
When Jesus asked the Pharisees for the coin he made an important point about Christian citizenship:  that we ought to be thankful to God for all of the temporal blessings we receive in the gift of government-- even when there are hardships that come with living under the rule of imperfect men like Caesar.  The Bible says that:  Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar's.”
Can you imagine the pain that answer caused?!  Here was the face:   of the man who was their conqueror—a man who despised their religion—a man who looked upon them with contempt.  We can understand what that answer cost them.
We live in one of the politically divided, acrimonious times in our nation’s history.  American citizens on opposite sides of the political spectrum do not trust one another.  The growing hatred for political opponents in our country is visceral and sinful.  When Christians engage in hateful rhetoric against the government they show that they do not understand God’s word about the state:  that those who govern are God’s ministers for our good. 
This does not mean, and God has never promised, that we will be ruled by those we like- or those who share our faith- or even by those who are admirable.  Nevertheless, God expects Christian citizens to give them that which is their due.  Jesus says:  Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's.
And so what are those things that we are to render to Caesar?  What do we owe the state as Christian citizens?  First of all, we pray for our leaders and those in authority over us.  We do that every Sunday here in this place.  We want God’s blessing upon our nation and her leaders and our fellow citizens.
Second of all, we give our obedience.  There are limits to that—but unless the government commands us to do something that God plainly forbids, we are to obey our government—and not just because we fear its punishment but because we know that those who resist the governing authorities resist what God has appointed.
Thirdly, we pay the taxes and revenues and fees required of us.  In our nation we are blessed to be able to vote for leaders who will work for tax policies and spending measures we support, but whether or not our candidate is elected, Christians pay their taxes. 
Finally, we give the honor and respect that is due to those who serve as God’s servants for our temporal good.  The president’s marine honor guard serves as an excellent example.  They saluted Pres. Clinton despite his moral failures.  They saluted Pres. Bush despite the fact that he sent them to Iraq and Afghanistan.  They salute Pres. Obama even if he doesn’t return their salute or does it with a cup of coffee in his hand.  A salute is due the president of the United States and these marines give it no matter what they think about the man personally. 
So it is for the Christian citizen who gives he state the respect and honor and revenue that is due those who serve in the government even while we refuse to give them that which is due to God alone.  Jesus says: Render to God the things that are God's.”
Christian citizens cannot give the state that which belongs to God.  We are to fear, love, and trust in him above all things—even above the country we love. 
Our American and Lutheran forefathers understood this.  The Pilgrims who settled this country fled the Christian nation of England which wanted to impose its own form of Christianity upon them.  Our Missouri Synod forefathers fled the Christian nation of Prussia for the same reason. 
The state has no right to say anything about spiritual matters—that belongs to God alone—and so, ultimately, does the state itself belong to God.
Jesus’s command to Christian citizens that we “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” DOES NOT make God and the state two co-equal sources of authority.  The state is always subservient to God and it only has the right to govern the temporal affairs of men using God’s gifts of a mind guided by reason and a conscience informed by God’s law that is revealed in nature and written in the hearts of all men. 
And so when the state tells Christians that they cannot witness to Jesus Christ we must refuse to keep silent. 
When the state tells Christians that they must abort their children to meet population guidelines we must refuse to kill the defenseless. 
When the state tells churches and pastors that they must marry homosexuals we must refuse ask God’s blessing on a sin. 
When the state and its officials portrays itself as our savior and provider and protector we must turn a deaf ear to this idolatry for these things are true of God alone who saved us by the sacrifice of his Son on the cross and claimed us as his own children in the waters of Holy Baptism. 
The Bible says that:  When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.  They marveled because they knew they had heard God’s truth about Christian citizenship from Jesus’ lips and it was simplicity itself:  “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. 
In just a few weeks we will have an opportunity to act as Christian citizens by voting in the upcoming election.  I hope and pray that you will exercise this right and privilege and cast your vote as a citizen whose heart and mind has been transformed by Jesus Christ and as a child of God who bears his image. Amen.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Parable of the Wedding Feast

Matthew 22:1-14 Imagine with me that you went out to the mail box expecting to find the day’s depressing delivery of bills and junk-mail and instead found an ornate envelope addressed to you.  You turned it over, wondering who could have sent it, and on the back it reads Buckingham Palace.  When you open the envelope you discover inside an invitation to a royal wedding.  It seems that Prince Harry has decided to settle down and get married.  It’s not a mistake.  It’s not a scam.  The monarch really does want you to attend the wedding. 
Who among us wouldn’t attend?!  Which of us could even come close to containing our excitement?! To see inside the palace.  To rub shoulders with royalty.  To be in the presence of greatness and grandeur.  It’s a dream come true!  That’s the image Jesus wants us to keep in the forefront of our mind’s eye as he teaches us about what our life with God is like.  He says:
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son
            Several years ago there was a program on PBS called “A Year in the Life of Buckingham Palace” and it was absolutely fascinating!  The royal residence of the British monarchs is incredibly beautiful and ornate and even more so when there is a royal feast.  The food and drink is chosen with care.  The china and crystal stagger the imagination.  The care and concern of the staff makes every guest feel like they are royalty too. 
And it doesn’t cost the guests one red cent.  The monarch pays for it all and simply invites his guests to come and enjoy his generosity.  That’s the way Jesus describes our life with God. 
God has showered us with the riches of his grace.  He has forgiven our sins.  He has given us peace for our hearts.  He has bestowed upon our lives a divine purpose and plan and promised to bless us and prosper us all our days and then take us to heaven when those days are over.
Life with God is a royal feast that takes place, not in the presence of an earthly king, but in the presence of the King of kings and Lord of lords, the living God of the universe.  And he has invited each of us to come and take an honored place at his table.  Jesus says that:
The King sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast…
Every time God’s servants preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments, there God’s invitation is extended to come and take our place at his feast of goodness and grace and simply receive the bountiful fruits of his generous love for us.   Again I ask:  who in their right mind wouldn’t accept that invitation to come to the king’s feast?  But Jesus says that:
they would not come.  Again the king sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’
            Can you imagine?  Can you imagine turning down an invitation to Prince Harry’s wedding when he gets married?!  Can you imagine turning down an invitation to the next president’s inaugural ball?!  Who would do that!
            And yet that is just exactly what so many people do when it comes to the invitation of God to come and take their place in his kingdom. 
I want you to take careful note of the humility of this king.  Despite the rejection of those invited he keeps right on inviting them.  He truly wants them there.  He will be honored by their presence.  He has done everything necessary to make it a feast they will never forget.  There is an abundance and plenty in his presence that is overflowing.
So it is with our life with God.  Again and again and again—every time the Gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered-- the invitation of God goes out to the world for us to come and take our place in his kingdom. 
There is an abundance and richness and plenty that is there with our king that is unlike anything else on earth.  It is a feast of grace and mercy and love.  Why would anyone turn that down!?  And yet they do-- and for much the same reason as the people in Jesus’ story.  Jesus says that:
They paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.
The people in Jesus’ story ignored the invitation of the king because they thought they had better, more important things to do.  Can you imagine that kind of blindness to your own life compared to the king’s feast?  These people actually thought that their farm and their businesses and their day-to-day life was more important than feasting with the king!
Now let’s reflect on that for a moment.  If you were thinking about the year to come, what would there be on your calendar that would be more important, more interesting, more memorable than attending a feast in Buckingham Palace or the inaugural ball of the next president? 
If you told someone, “you know I think I’ll skip Prince Harry’s wedding so I don’t miss a day of work” they would think that you had lost your mind.
And yet that is exactly the kind of crazy trade that people make all the time when it comes to God’s invitation to them to come and take their place in his kingdom.  “No thanks!  I think I’ll just keep on doing what I’m doing-living the same old life I’ve always led”. 
But it goes beyond that.  It wasn’t just that people had other things to do.  It wasn’t just that they said, “thanks but no thanks”.  They actually beat and killed the king’s servants who issued the king’s invitation!
So it is all over our world today that pastors and missionaries and evangelists are ridiculed and beaten and put to death for the “terrible crime” of inviting people to come and partake of God’s goodness and generosity. 
Even in our own country people get furious with their pastors who call their flocks to come to church on Sunday so that they can receive the riches of God’s grace.  “Who are you to tell me that my priorities and my choices and my day-to-day life are not more important than the feast of forgiveness in this place each Lord’s Day?”  But the servants of God have no choice but to do their king’s bidding and issue his invitation. 
And so what is God’s attitude towards those who reject his invitation, turn their back on his son, and misuse his servants?  Jesus said that:  The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
These words were fulfilled 40 years later when the Roman army attacked Jerusalem, burned it to the ground, destroyed the temple, and killed over a million of its inhabitants.  Emperor Titus who carried out this task, refused to accept the traditional wreath of victory and said that he was simply an instrument of wrath.  And so he was!  Now please understand…
The love of God for the world is sincere.  He earnestly invites everyone to come and have a place at his feast of love and forgiveness.  We do not have to provide a thing!  It is rich and abundant beyond anything we can imagine.  But to reject his invitation is to reject his mercy and forgiveness and stand under his terrible wrath in time and eternity. 
The great tragedy of what befell the Jews of Jesus’ day and what has befallen so many people since is that there is absolutely no need to suffer God’s judgment because he wants everyone to come and take their place in the great feast of forgiveness and life and peace that is celebrated in his kingdom.  The king said to his servants:
Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’  And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.
The king’s command to go and invite everyone to his feast is nothing other than the Great Commission of Jesus:  “Go and make disciples of all nations…”  Throughout the Roman world and then to Asia and India and Africa and finally to the new world, God’s servants have been inviting people to come to the king’s feast for the last two thousand years.  
Now, you and I are not going to be invited to be invited to Prince Harry’s wedding—we are simply not in that circle.  Neither are the rest of the 7 billion people on the planet.  But God invites everyone to come to his feast.  No matter our skin color or sex or social status.  No matter what we have done in the past.  No matter what other people think of us, God loves us and has a special place for us in his kingdom. 
Billions of people over the last two thousand years have received that invitation with joy and taken their place in the kingdom and feasted on forgiveness and peace and hope that has no end.  But there are others who reject it—either by ignoring the invitation of by thinking that they can make their own way.  Jesus said that:
“When the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless.
            If we received an invitation to a royal wedding you can bet that we would make doubly sure that we are appropriately dressed for the occasion and the invitation itself would tell us what was expected.  We know that in the ancient world the king himself would provide garments for his guests so that they could be appropriately attired.
In the concluding section of this story Jesus tells us about a man who rejected the clothing the king provided for him and thought that he could enter the king’s presence and feast at this table in the clothing he provided for himself.
The king caught it immediately because all the rest of the guests were dressed like the king except for this one man dressed in his every-day clothes.  Now, all of us understand what would happen if we showed up at Buckingham Palace for a royal feast dressed in overalls.  Out we would go on our ear.  So it is here.
But we also know from the words of Jesus that this is much more than an earthly story for the man is not only kicked out, he is cast into hell.  Jesus said that:
The king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
These verses describe all of those who hear the king’s invitation to come to his feast but reject the way that he has graciously appointed in Jesus. They think that God should be pleased with them on account of who they are and what they have done.  It is all of those who think that they can clothe themselves with their own works and still take a place at the King’s feast.
But God says that even our best deeds are like filthy rags in his sight and that to take our place in his kingdom we need to be clothed with the righteousness of Christ that is given to us as a gift through faith. 
The man in the parable rejected this God-given robe of righteousness and was cast into hell along with all those who rejected the king’s invitation outright. 
But the good news for us today is that when we hear the invitation of God to come into his kingdom and when we humble ourselves to be clothed by him with the righteousness of Jesus Christ, we can be confident that we have been chosen by God from eternity to feast with him forever in the kingdom of his Son.  Amen.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

General Prayer Proper 23 Pentecost 18

Lord God heavenly Father, we sing Your praises and exult in Your goodness for clothing us with the garments of salvation.  Hear the prayers of Your people as we come to You in Jesus’ name:

Grant us Your grace to believe that there is coming a day when death will be swallowed up forever and we will feast in Your presence with those we love who have died in the faith.  Comfort all who mourn with this Good News that You are greater than death. 

When we worried and anxious remind us that You are with us on the journey through life so that we would be filled with joy and peace no matter where that journey leads.  We especially remember Terry and Kacie who have been granted another year of life, that You would be with them and bless them all their days.

Help us to be people of prayer, always ready to take our requests to You with the confidence that You hear us and answer us for Jesus’ sake.  We give You thanks and praise for all of the prayers You have graciously answered this week.  Let Your faithfulness deepen our faith in You.

Give us the spiritual gift of discernment so that we would fill our hearts and minds with things that are true and honorable and lovely and pure.  Bless Your people with writers and artists and musicians who can convey Your beauty and goodness to us through what they create. 

Surround us with fellow Christians who are worthy of our imitation and help us to be worthy of the imitation of others.   

Open our eyes to see the needs of those around us, our hearts to have compassion upon them, and our hands to meet those needs.  Whatever the circumstances of our own life, whether we are brought low or abound, help us to be content with what You provide, and give us the confidence that we can do all things in Your strength.  We especially pray for Keyla and Evan and all who are ill, that You would grant them healing according to Your will.  We also pray for expectant mothers, that You would grant them safe deliveries and healthy children.

We thank You Lord that Jesus Christ has made a place for us in Your kingdom and that the Holy Spirit has invited us to take our place there.  We pray that You would empower Your servants who take that invitation to the world, that all who hear it would respond in faith.  As we come to Holy Communion and partake of a foretaste of the feast to come, help us to repent of our sins, amend our lives, and renew our faith in Jesus Christ.   

Heavenly Father, we look forward to the return of Your Son Jesus Christ and we pray that You would clothe us in His righteousness so that we can live forever with You in the kingdom of Your Son.  It is in His name that we pray.  Amen.