First Reading: Isaiah 45:1-7
1Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
and the gates shall not be closed:
2I will go before you
and level the mountains,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
3I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
5I am the Lord, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
6so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
7I form light and create darkness,
I make wealth and create woe;
I the Lord do all these things.
Psalm: Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]
1Sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth.
2Sing to the Lord, bless the name of the Lord;
proclaim God’s salvation from day to day.
3Declare God’s glory among the nations
and God’s wonders among all peoples.
4For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised,
more to be feared than all gods.
5As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols;
but you, O Lord, have made the heavens.
6Majesty and magnificence are in your presence;
power and splendor are in your sanctuary.
7Ascribe to the Lord, you families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord honor and power.
8Ascribe to the Lord the honor due the holy name;
bring offerings and enter the courts of the Lord.
9Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness;
tremble before the Lord, all the earth.
10Tell it out among the nations: “The Lord is king!
The one who made the world so firm that it cannot be moved will judge the peoples with equity.”
11Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;
let the sea thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that | is therein.
12Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy at your coming, O Lord, for you come to judge the earth.
13You will judge the world with righteousness
and the peoples with your truth.
Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
.1Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.
2We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. 6And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22
15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said. 16So 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. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They 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.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
CHILDREN’S SERMON: Today I am going to share one of my favorite poems by Robert Frost. The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Let us pray: Lord, may the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart glorify you, my rock and redeemer. Help us as we ponder the roads we choose.
As I write this sermon, one of the questions dominating the news in the US this week has been whether Judge Amy Coney Barrett will make a good US Supreme Court Justice. I have periodically tuned in to the questioning and answers. The back and forth is worse than a tennis match and requires a depth of legal awareness that is beyond me. But as I write this sermon, it seems to me the questioning of Jesus in the text is not dissimilar to our modern day situation. Jesus is in Jerusalem, the Washington DC of the Jewish world. He is at the Temple, the center of government, and he is before leaders. He is in the public eye. I’m guessing CNN would have loved to be there covering that interview. Instead we have Matthew’s report. He is the middle of reporting about that last week of Christ’s life. Can you feel the tension in the air of this story? The last couple of Sundays we have reflected on Jesus’ parables given about the kingdom of heaven, comparing Judaism to God’s vineyard, and the leaders seem to be the bad guys. Accountability is coming and the leader’s feathers are ruffled. The Jewish leaders are “plotting.”
“Then” is the starting word of our text. We have switched from parables shared by Jesus to the response by those threatened. Pharisees and Herodians unite to question Jesus. Both are groups within the Jewish system but Pharisees are defenders of Mosaic law (Pharisees want to be fair, you see), defending Jewish spiritual tradition, and Herodians are defenders of the Herod dynasty, involving Jewish political tradition. It feels to me similar to the debate now among leaders with differing opinions on how the law is interpreted (I hear the word “originalists”) verses the side that pleas for impact on society by the law (how many might loose coverage if a law is reversed). Leaders representing the application of law are in debate with ones referring to the meaning of those who wrote the law. One thread running through the interview is the difference between meaning and impact.
In today’s text, the two sides, Pharisees and Herodians, come together to ask Jesus a question designed to trap. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” Caesar represents the hated Roman empire that abuses all of them. To what extent must the Jews obey a repressive, abusive regime? This is a moral, ethical question but it is also a legal question. We stand at the intersection of the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of this world. Twice in the text we are told the intent of the question is “to entrap” and asked with “malice.” Jesus even went to far as to call the questioners “hypocrits.” Ouch!
“Then.” Faith lives out its reality in a world of often-murky forces and in response to difficult choices. Our civil responses occur within the context of our religious beliefs. Both systems bear weight on us. I am compelled to obey the speed laws but I am also told by faith to forgive the guy who cuts me off in traffic and not give him the finger. Hmmm. I am compelled to pay taxes but the honesty with which I respond is a matter of conscience. Today leaders ask us to wear masks but our response is a personal choice. Clear but not so clear. Our faith is lived in a context, in the response of “then.” Those responses often reveal the intent of our heart. The leaders were trying to entrap Jesus and were malicious in their question. The answer was obvious. We must obey the law…but…. I suspect some of the question going on to day may also come from a motive to entrap. We are so human! As we respond to situations, we must always check the motives of our heart and then act.
Jesus responds, “18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” Jesus does not avoid the question because it is malicious or murky, designed to trap him. He stands firm in the midst of the mess. For most it is difficult to find God in the midst of situations that challenge faith. In the face of death, war, poverty and disease, we often throw up our hands and ponder, where is God. How can a God of love allow the civil reality of injustice? Our pain and discomfort blinds us to a bigger reality and we forget that we live in this civil world that is fallen and we live by a spiritual reality that is eternal. God is working and answering our question and not afraid of our dilemmas. Jesus does not zap the Pharisees and the Herodians but uses their duplicity as a teaching moment.
Jesus answers. We live in two realities. We must give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and give to God that which is God’s. When we burn the candle at two ends, we must not be surprised if we burn out. If we dabble with pornography, is it a surprise there are marital problems? If we play with fire, we get burned. Disease kills people and our lives are in God’s hands. The kingdom of the world has truth and consequences. We live in a civil reality.
But we must also give to God, that which is God’s. Now here comes the bind. Our civil responsibilities are measured by works but our spiritual responsibilities are issues of loyalty and allegiance and are open to debate about our heart’s intent. Next week we will focus on Reformation and the truth that we are saved by grace, by faith to do good works. Our good works do not save us but are an expression of our love of God. Giving to God is loving God with our whole heart, our whole mind, and with all our strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Justice is tempered with mercy. Hate is answered with love. Sin is met with forgiveness. Civil rules and spiritual rules are different.
So. Let’s go back to our original scenario, the debates we are living with today in our culture. I would not want to end this sermon leaving the impression that there is only one way, one candidate, one perspective that speaks into our quandaries today. The answer is not Republican or Democrat, choose a judge now or wait til after the election Fortunately good, godly people stand on both sides of the isles on these issues and we have the freedom to engage them in public debate even as Jesus engaged people who questioned him, in the Temple.
The last line to the text today comforts me, “2When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” As these people engaged with Jesus, “’they were amazed; and they left him and went away. Coming to Jesus diffuses some of the malice and drive to entrap the other. Engaging with God and not just arguing our case defuses arguments and anger. His wisdom goes beyond our reasoning. As we go to the polls in a few days, we submit to our civil system of choosing leaders. But as we ponder our choices we submit to a God who sees our hearts and sees what malice may be lying therein. May we never forget “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)” Our enemy is not our neighbor. Our prayer, people will be awed and political unrest will be avoided. Lord have mercy on us!