Sunday, November 07, 2021

The Things That are Caesars

 Matthew 22:15-21

Then the Pharisees went and counseled together how they might trap Him in what He said.  And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any.  Tell us therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?"

But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, "Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites?  Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax." And they brought Him a denarius.  And He said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?"  They said to Him, "Caesar's." Then He said to them, "Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's."

Sermon for 23rd Sunday after Trinity                                     11/07/21

 The Things that Are Caesar's

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

The debate is over 2,000 years old.  It rages on today.  It has been going on for as long as men have served the true God, I suspect.  The debate began when God created man and placed him in society.  He tells us in His Word that the government is His, and the authority it exercises is His.  He commands us to good citizens.  Many religious leaders impress on us the need to serve God first – We ought to obey God rather than man.  They often suggest that being a good Christian is at odds with being a good citizen of the state.  And how we divide this up and how we act it out has been the focus of controversy ever since.

I wish I could say that Jesus settled the argument in our text, but things are never settled in the church.  Jesus gave us guidance, but the debate is never settled among men.  It just keeps coming up again and again.  There are answers, but the Old Evil Foe does not permit us to rest long on them – the answers are just contrary to the flesh, and so we tend to travel from one extreme to the other like a pendulum swinging back and forth.  So we need to keep coming back to Jesus and the Word to hear how we might properly deal with the issue of God and Caesar, of Church and State.  Our theme this morning is The Things that are Caesar's.

The setting of the Gospel lesson is late in the ministry of Jesus.  The enemies of Jesus are becoming bolder, and more aggressive.  The Pharisees have decided that it is time to trip up Jesus.  They choose the unresolvable issue (at least for the Jews) of how to deal with the foreign occupation.  If Jesus answers the question that one should pay the Roman taxes and humble themselves to this Gentile domination, then He would multiply His enemies, and probably disappoint the masses because they were fed on a daily diet of ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, and hatred for Rome.

On the other hand, if Jesus answers that they should not pay taxes, He would be guilty of fomenting revolution and the Romans would take care of the Jesus problem.

If Jesus tried to be coy and take a middle ground, or not answer clearly and definitively, they could use that too to damage His reputation, and turn the more aggressive and radical groups against Jesus.  In any case, they figured, they had Jesus caught in a "no-win" situation.  It was politics as usual back then just as much as today.  So they sent their disciples along with the Herodians, government sympathizers and friends of King Herod, and sprung their trap on Jesus.

Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?  Of course, there is the double-edged trap.  Is it morally and religiously lawful?  They expected the answer to be "No."  Is it socially and legally in the sense of Roman law, lawful?  They knew that the answer would have to be "Yes."  So they figured that they had Jesus, with witnesses no matter which error He slid into.  But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, "Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites?"

Then Jesus did the unexpected.  He asked them for the coin with which they would pay the poll-tax.  When they produced it, a denarius, He asked them "Whose likeness and inscription is this?"  In other words, whose coin is this, who issues this money?  And they had to admit that it was Caesar's – and then Jesus said those famous words, "Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's."

Jesus answered the question by implying that there were things that were properly under the regulation and possession of the government, and things that were not.  He also suggested by His answer that the Pharisees were guilty of confusing what belonged to God and what belonged to the state – and apparently were "rendering" to neither one the appropriate things.  They were not giving government its due, and they were withholding from God what truly belongs to Him.

So the question this morning is, which are the things that are Caesar's?  Logically we then also need to consider what are the things that are God's?

First of all, we recognize that everything is the Lord's.  Psalm 24 says, "The earth is the Lord's and all it contains."  Since God has created government, and all the authority which government exercises is from God, generally the things that are Caesar's are what Caesar says they are.  The things that are Caesar's change throughout time.  As the government changes, so do its demands and controls.  In our nation, we have had a great deal of freedom.  We acknowledge as a society the right to certain freedoms that people in the time of Jesus did not enjoy.

Caesar's things include whatever Caesar chooses, except when the government attempts to take the things of God.  And so, to understand Caesar's things, we must recognize what it truly God's.  And God's things are very simple and basic.  God created you, so God has the right to tell you how to live.  You owe Him obedience.  You owe Him thanks for the simple fact of your existence.  Besides all of this, God has created everything you need for life, and daily and richly provides.  For these things you owe God genuine and heartfelt appreciation, great thanksgiving, and your unwavering trust.  You should love God!

That isn't how we feel, or how we behave as a rule.  We take the good for granted and grumble about the difficult or painful.  We disregard God's plans and will for our lives and our behavior, and we serve ourselves and hurt one another.  We sin against God, and by our sins we deserve to be wiped from the face of creation and forgotten by God.  His Word even says that this is what we deserve.  But God does not discard us.  He does not destroy us.  He does not wipe us away, but He has redeemed and rescued us.  When we had set ourselves up as His enemies, He still sent His Son Jesus to face our sins and die our death and receive on the cross all that our sins merit before God.

God has taken our sins out of the way by punishing them in the body of Jesus by sufferings, pain, and death on the cross.  He has demonstrated that our sins are forgiven by raising Jesus from the dead.  And now God declares through the preaching of His Word that anyone who knows what he has accomplished in Jesus Christ, and trusts Him for what He promises because of Jesus Christ, has forgiveness of sins and eternal life, starting right now!

Therefore we owe God thanks and praise, to serve Him and worship Him with holy lives and to give ourselves freely to our neighbors for Him.  The things that are God's are our intellects, and our wills, and our affections and values.  The rest is Caesar's.  

We are to pay taxes cheerfully, for the government is simply a servant of God for the purpose of social order.  We are to obey the laws, even the ones we do not like or agree with, because the state exercises God's own authority – and we owe God obedience.  When we give God what is God's, we end up being good citizens, because serving our neighbor by good citizenship is will of God – it belongs to the things of God which we should give to Him.  We owe Caesar good citizenship, for when we disregard the government, we disregard God.  When we disobey the government, we disobey God.  When we rebel against the government, we are rebelling against God Himself, with the single caveat that when the government command us to do what God forbids, or commands us not to do what God commands us to do, then we must recognize that the government has itself rebelled against God and has no authority, and then we ought to obey God rather than man.

But even then, when we disregard Caesar for the sake of faithfulness to God and for the sake of conscience, we owe it to God to endure whatever standing for the truth costs us in terms of pain, or social pressure, or fines, or prison, or even death.  Those are the things of God.  We owe it to God to bear faithfully the cost of being faithful, whatever that cost might be.  Sometimes the cost is faithfulness to the government when we don't want to be faithful, and sometimes it is bearing government sanctions for being faithful to God by disregarding the government.

We owe God our values.  We owe God our love and our affections (that is, what we choose to value here on earth).  We owe God our intellects – to use them for Him and His purposes, which means for the welfare of our neighbor,  And we owe God our wills – to desire and to will what God desires and wills.  The rest of the stuff, our time, our money, our property, and even sometimes our lives in this world, fall into that category of the things that are Caesar's.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

(Let the people say Amen)

Monday, November 01, 2021

Taking the Kingdom by Force


Matthew 11:12-15

"And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you care to accept it, he himself is Elijah, who was to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

Sermon for the Reformation Day 10/31/21

Taking the Kingdom by Force

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Commentators say that there are two ways to understand the verses before us this morning. One is that men have seized the kingdom of heaven by force. The other is that the kingdom of heaven has come upon us in a mighty way — with great power.

Both interpretations are fitting on Reformation Day. On October 31, 1517 something ordinarily insignificant happened. Luther nailed an invitation for a cordial, academic debate on certain esoteric theological points to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg in the form of 95 theses. Yet, in the next 13 years God did something marvelous and great. We celebrate that great thing, the rediscovery of the Gospel and the freeing of the church of God, on the anniversary of that "little thing."

At the time of Luther, men had seized the kingdom of heaven by force. The church had become rich and politically powerful. It had also become thoroughly corrupt. Many priests were entirely ignorant of the Bible and of Christian doctrine. Offices in the church were commonly sold to the highest bidder. From local parishes, to bishoprics, to the cardinal's cap itself, and even the Papacy could be bought for a price. Greed ruled and indulgences – supposed to be special grants of forgiveness of sins – were sold.

But worst of all was the false doctrine. No one heard or knew of salvation or forgiveness. Oh, they heard the words, but the truths of Scripture behind those words were unknown and untaught. Works were exalted. Men were taught that they still had to pay for their own sins. The monastic orders, often little more than slavery for the church and frequently houses of debauchery, were declared holier than the keeping of the whole Law of God.

God was pictured as utterly holy, distant from man, essentially unknowable, angry, and judging. Men were taught that they could not pray to God. They were told instead to rely on the intercession of the saints. Mary took her place at the throne of heaven as Queen, in command even over the Son of God Himself, and the Sacrament of the Altar became a twisted thing which was believed to sacrifice the Lord Jesus for the sins of the people again, each time they celebrated it.

The faith of many fell somewhere between a desperate, urgent desire to earn righteousness and appease the ever-angry Judge, and those who winked at the silly superstition of religion gone mad and simply used the system of their society for their own ends.
Satan ruled. He had shut up the hopes of men, chained men to idolatry and pagan sacrifice again, and the kingdom of heaven – at least as it was visible on earth and open to mankind — had been seized by force, taken captive, and doors to the kingdom of heaven were closed to man.

Then came the Reformation. Luther unlocked the kingdom of heaven with the keys of the Reformation doctrine — the great "Solas" of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura - by Scripture alone, Sola Fide -through faith alone, Sola Gratia- by grace alone, and Solo Christo -in Jesus Christ alone.

Luther answered the darkness and ignorance of his age with the revealed truth of the Word of God. No longer did anyone need to wonder, the Scriptures answered! The darkness of human values, opinions, superstitions, and attitudes were swept aside by the light of the authority of Scripture.

God had spoken to man. He had revealed Himself, His will, His justice, His love, and His grace. Suddenly, one man standing with Scripture could stand alone against the whole world. Scripture was right. Let every man be proven to be a liar, God's Word is still true!
And it is clear! No man needs to wait upon the wisdom of another. God's Word is clear for the child — and still deep and challenging enough for the greatest scholar. Every man could read and see for himself what is the gracious will of God.
And what is the will of God for us? [our salvation]

God's will is that all men should come to faith and know the goodness and love of the Lord. God has taken the Law out of the way. Faith, not obedience to rules – but faith, is now known to be how God has appointed for us to receive His love and grace. Faith is now revealed to be that obedience which God seeks. Faith — which trusts the promises of God, which takes God at His Word when He tells us that He loves us, that He wants only good for us, that He will never fail us or abandon us, that He will never allow us to be destroyed - that faith lays hold of the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. Works of holiness, sacrifices, intercessory prayer, and penances of great price are of no value to salvation. That is not to say that they are all bad things to do, or without their uses, but they have no power or worth before God to earn or to grasp salvation.

But faith, which looks only to the promise of God for Christ's sake, is the channel through which God has chosen to pour forgiveness, salvation, resurrection. Such faith trusts God, often in spite of what the believer sees, hears, and feels, simply because it is God who has promised. It is the trust of the heart that forms and shapes every attitude and deed in the light of its confident expectation of God's goodness, love, providing, and protection at every moment.
This faith can receive the blessings of salvation because Jesus has earned them for us already and because God has chosen to give eternal life to all who believe. His choice in this matter is called "Grace." Grace is the third key of the Reformation. It sets man utterly free from the slavery of the Law. Man is saved by Grace Alone.

The answer to the "why?" of salvation rests not with the social status of the individual, nor with the piety and the good works of the individual, or the attitudes of the individual, but with the goodness of God. It is God's good pleasure to forgive us for Jesus' sake. It is God's kindness and grace that causes Him to choose from among all men to save and rescue us.

Before Luther, the answer to why some are saved and others are not was thought to rest in the efforts and attitudes of man. But Luther taught that anyone who is saved is saved from himself and in spite of his works and value, rather than because of those factors. We are saved by God's free, gracious choice. Every man, woman, and, yes, even child has earned death and hell, and it is grace alone which accounted for salvation.

The Reformation principles — the "solas" — changed the world. Human effort did not save: it could only serve the Savior. Man could not sell what God alone could give. Faith replaced works. Scripture replaced the authority of the church and her various leaders. Grace made each person important and every station in life holy. And it was all in connection with Jesus Christ — and Him alone!

The Reformation fostered the political idea of individual personal worth — or personality. The Reformation encouraged the idea of personal, human rights. The Reformation was the driving force behind the development of public education, for every man needed to be able to read God's Word for himself. The Reformation taught mankind the concept of vocation — a calling from God — that every man in every type of employment was called by God — placed in his work and family to do holy service to God by serving those closest to him. The ordinary work-a-day duties and tasks of life were properly identified at last as truly God-pleasing good works. Luther himself championed the freedom of religion, the concept of self-determination, and that God meant life to be enjoyed, not merely endured, all to His glory.

Without the Reformation, the American Revolution — and even the principles upon which our nation was founded — might never have happened. Look at the French revolution, with its excesses and instability for so many years. They tried to do it without God and in defiance of God and His existence and failed. By grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone, as taught in Scripture alone, are the keys of the Reformation which set the kingdom of heaven among men again, and opened her gates to all who believe.
But today the kingdom of heaven is being taken by force again.

Men deny Scripture again. Men in the church! They deny the divine Author, and therefore the divine authority. They teach that it is just the word of men, and would make us dependent again upon professional scholars and exegetes to tell us what the "word of God" really means.

Men deny the power and value of faith once again. They lay before us social agendas – and works – and attitudes to which, they say, we must conform to be saved. They sell salvation on television with ‘magic cloths', anointing oils, and all manner of deception. They say you have to experience a certain experience or feel a certain feeling in order to have any assurance of heaven.

The Church is being used again for political power - look at politicians who use the pulpits of churches from which to campaign. Just as the Humanists said in their manifestoes should happen, the service of earthly human need and the glory of human endeavor have become the primary mission of many church bodies. But the worst thing is that false doctrine is rising again, even within our own Synod.

Church Growth Principles replace the power of the Word of God for many. Novelty and variety - which is to say "entertainment' — have replaced faithfulness and confession in the hearts of many. Many focus on feelings, and the emphasis on the "experience of faith" has taken the focus away from the content of the faith, the very Word of God which is to be believed. The living of the Christian life — often referred to as the "Christian Walk"— has replaced trust in the grace of God, and made faith a human work, rather than the work of God within us in many hearts. The prayer, the decision, the obedience, and the pragmatic reign. Nowadays God is not only the angry Judge, but His "opinion" hardly matters as homosexuality and LGBTQ2+ commands increasing acceptance in the church, and so-called Christian leaders rush to dialog with — and pray with – Jews and Moslems, and the rush to approve such things divides churches.

We need to turn once again to the keys of Luther's Reformation. We need to reclaim the centrality of the doctrine of Justification of the sinner by the marvelous grace of God, through faith in Jesus Christ. We Lutherans need to celebrate God's gifts to us and give thanks. Romans one, verse twenty-one, begins a catalog of sin and the first sin in the catalog is, "For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened."
We want to rejoice and give thanks for the treasures He has poured out on us.

In Luther's day, the kingdom of heaven came among men with great power by the preaching of God's Word by Luther and those Lutherans. It seized men, making powerful disciples of the truth of men such as Philip Melancthon, Martin Chemnitz, John Gerhardt, and later C.F.W. Walther. The whole world needs to hear that same word of God's loving and gracious gift of forgiveness and salvation purchased and won by Jesus Christ by his death on the cross in our place, and His resurrection, which boldly proclaims our forgiveness. We need to apply Holy Scripture to our faith and our lives, and let God guide our hearts, our minds, and our deeds. We need to rest in that firm confidence of God's promises of forgiveness, of resurrection to life eternal, of salvation as His sure gift of grace through faith. We can do that only by the power of God's Holy Spirit working in us through the hearing of the Word of God. Then the kingdom of heaven will come powerfully among us, seizing us with power and making of this generation mighty witnesses to His eternal truth and glory.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)