Sermon in a Sentence: God seeks patiently endlessly to draw us back to himself and remake us in his image.
The Problem: A Question of Authority
You know the gospel text well enough. The series of challenges that start here develop the question that the Jewish leaders ask Jesus in chapter 21: “23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked. ‘And who gave you this authority?’” Jesus would not answer him, but replied with his own question and with parables, which the leaders recognized would undermine their authority; and they ramp up their campaign against him.
So they ask him whether or not they should pay tax to the Roman Empire. Taxes were no more popular in Jesus’ day than they are now. If Jesus says, “Yes”, the crowd will object; if Jesus says, “No”, the Roman government will object.
Instead Jesus asks to see the coin used to pay the tax. When they observe Caesar’s image and inscription on the coin, he defuses their question with the saying: “Give back to Caesar’s what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” Rather than speaking about taxes—which he relativizes with this saying: pay taxes because they really are not that important—rather than speaking about taxes, he shifts the question to a new question: “What belongs to God?”
I note in passing that we could use this question to explore a two kingdoms theology: We live in the realm of God’s reign, and we live in the realm of human authorities. So we ask what activities belong in which realm. Such explorations are interesting, but irrelevant to Jesus’ words here. Jesus’ concern is with the reign of God.
This question, as in all the exchanges throughout Matthew 21 and 22, reveals the essential problem with the Jewish leaders: Their authority had come to replace God’s authority, and Jesus is calling them back to God. To see how he does so with this epigram, turn to the two Scriptures that preceded the Gospel reading in our service this morning.
To hear these verses from Exodus 33, we need to review briefly the life of Moses to this point.
Chapter 2: Born to a “Levite woman”; hidden at home for three months, then placed in a papyrus basket [ark] in the Nile River, where Pharaoh’s daughter found him. She raised him as her own, with his birth mother caring for him, and adopted him as her son (v. 10). When he grew to manhood, he killed an Egyptian who was whipping a Hebrew slave, and ended up fleeing into the desert, where he lived with Jethro and married J’s daughter, Zipporah. They had a son, Gershom [“a stranger here”].
Chapter 3: While he is tending Jethro’s flocks, he comes to Mount Horeb—the mountain of God, where he sees a burning bush. There he encounters Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who sends him back to Egypt as a reluctant saviour for the Children of Israel.
In the chapters that follow we have the delivery from Egypt, led by Moses and Aaron—the plagues; the crossing of the Sea; Wanderings in the Sinai Wilderness; Manna and Quail and water from the rock; and finally they return to the mountain of God, here called Mount Sinai.
In chapters 20 to 31 Moses and Joshua ascend the mountain, and Moses receives the Law—the Ten Words (20) and various laws to help the people live as God’s holy and priestly kingdom (20-31). Finally we come to the present scene.
In chapter 32 Moses comes down from the mountain and finds the Children of Israel worshipping the golden calf, which Aaron had made for them. Punishment falls on them and God threatens first to destroy them, and then to abandon them. Our chapter contains Moses’ intercession for the rebels.
Verses 1-10: Go with us! No! Please!
Verse 11: The Lord spoke with Moses face to face, as a man speaks with a friend.
Verse 13: “Teach me your ways.”
Verses 14-18: Go with us! I will (17). Show me your glory! (18)
Verses 19-23: Agreed, but only my back.
You see, Moses knew that life without God is impossible. Without God we die. If you had said to him, “Give to God what belongs to God”, he would have said, “That is everything! That is life itself!”
1 Thessalonians 1
Look now at Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians with me.
Verse 1: Greeting—Paul’s standard greeting to fellow believers.
Verses 2-3: Thanksgiving—Again, Paul’s standard expression of gratitude for God’s work in their lives.
Verses 4-11: Paul recalls the way that the gospel came to the Thessalonians (see Acts 17)—in persecution, centred on Jesus the Messiah, crucified and risen.
For us this morning, especially verses 6 and 7: You imitated us and the Lord, and so became a model for all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.
Who did Paul imitate? Christ! (1 Corinthians 11:1, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”)
Who did Paul want to know and be like? Christ! (Philippians 3:10-11)
Who do we imitate? Christ! We want to know Christ and be like Christ.
Bring this to bear on the question: What belongs to God? God, who comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ, is the centre of our lives. Everything comes to us from him and belongs to him. What do we “render” to God? Our very lives. Our self-identity. All that makes you and me who and what we are.
Like Moses, like Paul, like the Thessalonians, we seek to see God and know God and become like him. Guess what! God wants the same for us. We desire God because God draws us to himself. Moses sought to see God’s glory because God drew him to himself. One of my deepest beliefs is that God works endlessly, patiently to draw us to himself and make us like Christ.
Let me tell you a story. Two years ago an OM worker named Mike came into my class on Missions Strategies and talked about the kinds of ministries that he does in various parts of the world. At the end of the class he asked us to pray for his father, who was near the end of his life but still did not know the Lord. Mike had been visiting him and wanted to encourage him again to turn to God before the end.
Two weeks ago Mike came into my class again and told us more stories about his work in various parts of the world. It was good, exciting stuff, but I had a more important question. At the end of the class, I asked him about his father. Mike lit up. “He died a few months ago, but the last 30 days of his life he was a changed man. An old minister finally got through to him, and that old minister reaped where so many others had planted and watered. So Dad knew a joy in his final days that he had never known through his life.”
I think that story about Mike’s father tells us all about God’s love and patience and care. God loves us, and God works in our lives until the day we die drawing us to himself.
My Own Experience
I have told my story before and will repeat it only briefly now. I remember clearly a deep encounter with God when I was 24, and then God’s presence working within over the next 30+ years. Then about five and a half years ago through a time of personal darkness, and in a series of dreams, I found that God had been waiting for a little over 34 years to finish what he began in me back in 1974. You see, God is patient and loving and kind, and God waited for the right moment to finish that piece of work. Truth: God’s not done working in me yet!
This is not a theodicy—an explanation for the hard things that come in our lives. Last week, as I visited my father in Pennsylvania, I visited also a High School friend who is slowly dying of ALS. I don’t know and cannot explain why Jeff’s life should end in this way. My reflections on these Scriptures are not meant to answer the mysteries of life and death.
Rather they are a simple affirmation that God is good, that God loves us, that God works patiently, endlessly, to draw us back to himself and remake us in his image. I think of the Russian Mennonites, singing “In the rifted rock I’m resting”, as they experienced bitter persecution leading up to their emigration to North and South America. They sang of God’s love and care while they suffered, not because all was pleasant in their lives.
So when Jesus tells us to return to God what belongs to God, we give him ourselves and rejoice. Hear the way that the writer of Chronicles tells it, in 2 Chronicles 7, when Solomon dedicates the temple:
1 When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. 2 The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it. 3 When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshipped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, “He is good; his love endures for ever.”
I wish I could see God’s glory so clearly, so that as the old hymn has it, “May they forget the channel [you and me], seeing only him.”
You see, without God, life is impossible. Without God, there is no life. And with God, death itself will die.