Sermons

By Pastor John Johnson

October 18 Worship and Sermon on Following God's will and not "Caesar or Caesar Wanna-be's"

Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Lesson:
NJB Exodus 33:12 Moses said to Yahweh, 'Look, you say to me, "Make the people move on," but you have not told me whom you are going to send with me, although you have said, "I know you by name and you enjoy my favour." 13 If indeed I enjoy your favour, please show me your ways, so that I understand you and continue to enjoy your favour; consider too that this nation is your people.' 14 Yahweh then said, 'I myself shall go with you and I shall give you rest.' 15 To which he said, 'If you do not come yourself, do not make us move on from here, 16 for how can it be known that I and my people enjoy your favour, if not by your coming with us? By this we shall be marked out, I and your people, from all the peoples on the face of the earth.' 17 Yahweh then said to Moses, 'Again I shall do what you have asked, because you enjoy my favour and because I know you by name.' 18 He then said, 'Please show me your glory.' 19 Yahweh said, 'I shall make all my goodness pass before you, and before you I shall pronounce the name Yahweh; and I am gracious to those to whom I am gracious and I take pity on those on whom I take pity. 20 But my face', he said, 'you cannot see, for no human being can see me and survive.' 21 Then Yahweh said, 'Here is a place near me. You will stand on the rock, 22 and when my glory passes by, I shall put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with my hand until I have gone past. 23 Then I shall take my hand away and you will see my back; but my face will not be seen.’ [New Jerusalem Bible]

Gospel Lesson:
NRS Matthew 22:15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" 21 They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

One of my laments, though it frequently morphs into criticism, is what I consider as the superficial way in which many people cherry-pick what they think they read in the Bible to suit their needs — or wants. This does them no real favors and can even lead not only themselves but others who listen to them astray, and it certainly under- and even miss-uses the Bible.

Today we have what is absolutely one of the most frequently mis-used items of cherry-picking: Jesus’ celebrated response to a “have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife” question: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” A few years ago, I almost drove off the road when I heard Bill O’Reilly, who whatever you might think of him was highly entertaining, but also very open in expressing his understanding of his Christian Catholic faith, say that Jesus’ words were about separation of Church and State.

But Jesus’ words were not about separation of Church and State, and for two reasons. The first of which is that the idea that they might be separate was not part of the discussion two thousand years ago. But the other and more important reason’s being that Jesus was making a profound point and in fact posing a question: “What does not come from God? — Does not everything come from God? And what appears to come from Caesar that Caesar did not take first from someone else?” Everything we value comes from God, that is what Jesus was trying to say as he brilliantly side-stepped a question that risked either alienating His anti-Roman followers — or finding Himself under arrest before he was prepared for that.

But I have made that point before and will make it again; still, I want to pause for a moment on the idea of the image on the coin. At the time of Jesus’ death, “Caesar” was Tiberius Caesar, the stepson of Augustus Caesar. Augustus himself was the first emperor of what thus became the “Roman Empire” — it had been a republic and then a dictatorship; Augustus was the nephew of Julius Caesar. But the imperial, that is, the emperor’s title of “Caesar,” from which the Russian “Czar” or “Tsar” is derived, indeed begins with Augustus who had himself declared not merely “emperor,” but a . . . god! While Tiberius was sufficiently unpopular that he was not deified as had been Augustus, his next several successors, Caligula and Nero, far more dictatorial than he, did declare themselves to be gods. (By the way, you might enjoy rewatching the fictionalized but historically based, “I, Claudius.”) Not that there was an actual idea of Church, but the state was headed by a “god,” and so, while not the exact case for the story of Jesus we just read, citizens carried images of a — not the —citizens carried images of a god around with them, and though it was the time of Tiberius, it might have been Augustus on the coin to which Jesus referred — just a possibility.

Which might be an advantage that those whom we we would call pagan Roman citizens had over Jews and, later, over Christians. Forget for a moment how two weeks ago we talked about the slight difference in numbering Ten Commandments, such that idolatry and graven images are a separate commandment from “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” for Jews and us Reformed Protestants, and that a coin with an image posed a problem for the Jews of Jesus’ time, and let us look instead to our reading moments ago, from the Book of Exodus, where Moses, the last human so to encounter God, is dealing with “seeing the glory of God.”

And here is the point I want to make: That glory is something we see only in God, not in any human being — definitely not in a politician — nor in any image of a human being. Especially at a time when we are about to go to the polls as a nation — and some of you most surely have already voted, — it is important to remember that whatever our preferences, God has yet to run for political office; only human beings, imperfect human beings, sinners such as you and I, have ever run for political office. Indeed, much as we would like at times to believe so, Satan has never run for political office. As I have said so often, Satan is our creation, not God’s, but we do not have the authority to declare anyone as the actual devil . . . even when we are tempted to say that he or she is doing the devil’s work, which in this country can only be done with the help of an accepting people.

Which is to say, let’s not let our feelings about the modern substitutes for Caesar or any of the various Caesar-wanna-be’s lead us to seek to follow them; let us instead always seek to pursue, to follow,  that “glory of God” of which we read in Exodus.

And how do we see in order to follow that “glory of God”? It will not be by ourselves being hidden by God and then being able to look at “God’s back,” as our reading suggests was the case for Moses, but rather by our sensing, by our sensing that we are indeed following, not God’s back, but God’s will!

And it is a will that is fairly easy to know, but not always so easy to follow — especially when we owe too much loyalty to these earthly very human, very imperfect, Caesar’s and wanna-be Caesar’s. That will, God’s will, is powerfully and clearly expressed by some of the prophets who preceded Caesar by centuries, and from two of whom I regularly take specific quotations. I take them fairly repeatedly, because they are so important.

The first of these is from the prophet Amos, a real trouble maker during the eighth century before Christ, certainly not the most diplomatic of individuals, who among other things offered these words, which he understood as coming from God:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

The other, that I in fact use more often, are the familiar words of Micah, the prophet whose statement about Bethlehem is that taken as predicting from where Jesus would come:

“With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Please notice two things about these: First, both express values or qualities that I believe all of  us respect and hold dear: justice, righteousness, humility, terms that, to put it simply, “we know them when we see them,” — and we also know that they are terms that are too lightly tossed around by Caesar’s and wanna-be Caesar’s, most of whom could probably not tell us what they might mean by them.

But note also that both of these prophets were juxtaposing these qualities with what we religious people like to point to as making us special, our adherence to ritual — in these instances, sacrificial or “burnt” offerings, — our adherence to ritual, which includes if it means nothing more to us than the ritual of attending, Sunday worship.

But these prophets point us in the right direction. Moses wanted God to accompany him, which in a way God did, and I would be wrong if I failed to note that God accompanies us in the form of The Holy Spirit, but, more importantly, God talks about Moses’ observing God as God’s glory passes by, and I want us not to let it merely “pass by,” but for us to be led by it, to seek to follow it.

So if we want to glimpse God’s glory, let us follow the advice of those two prophets: Let us love justice and righteousness and humility. Let us in fact do more than love them but seek them and practice them, and then we might not only sense God’s glory from knowing that we are doing God’s will, but maybe, just maybe, the Caesar’s and wanna-be Caesar’s, politicians and office holders, will realize they need to follow us and not us follow them.

For we will be going where God wants us to go, which is a good place for any Caesar to want to go as well.

I have an admission. For whatever reason, I always want to attribute those words of Amos to the prophet Joel, whose poetic words we read most commonly as Peter recited them on the first Christian Pentecost:

Then afterward, I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

“Your young men shall see visions.”

I remember a particular of the later day “Caesar’s,” President George H.W.Bush, a war hero and all-around decent human being. President Bush was somewhat derided about and even joked about “the vision thing.” But maybe it is time that we do not look to the Caesar’s and wanna-be Caesar’s for “the vision thing,” but look to what Amos and Micah understood as God’s vision, and then lead others to look to God, from whom all blessings flow, and not to Caesar, who helps maintain, perhaps, but who has not and cannot create anything.

So to the glory of God, may we heed the prophets He has sent, and most of all, the Son whom He sent to save us from worldly errors. Let the image of Him on the cross be something we carry with us in our hearts and minds.

And in the name of that Son, Jesus Himself. Amen.

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