Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sermon: 19 October 2008

Sermon: 23 Pentecost (19 October 2008)
(Exodus 33:12-23/Psalm 99/1 Thessalonians 1:1-10/Matthew 22:15-22)
Whose Image and Whose Inscription

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Politicians rarely answers questions – at least not directly, and generally not the ones posed them. I once heard a political strategist say that politicians never answer the question you ask, only the question they wish you had asked. They train for this; they practice it. And that training leads to exchanges like this hypothetical one – hypothetical but only just – in a debate between candidates A and B.

Moderator: Candidate A, do you support the Supreme Court’s ruling Roe v. Wade guaranteeing a woman the constitutional right to an abortion?

Candidate A: That is an excellent question and I welcome the opportunity to clarify my position on this important issue. The heart of the matter is access to quality health care and appropriate insurance coverage. In my health care plan, if you are currently covered by insurance and are pleased with that coverage, you may keep your plan and your doctors. If you are not covered, or are not satisfied with you coverage, you may opt to select any of the plans available to the U. S. Congress – high quality plans thoroughly vetted by the government. Health care is a fundamental right for all citizens.

Moderator: Well, moving along, Candidate B, do you support federal legislation legalizing same-sex marriage?

Candidate B: As my record clearly shows, I am, and always have been, a staunch supporter of marriage, unlike my opponent – that one. Over thirty-seven times he has voted in favor of legislation that would actually increase the tax burden on married couples making a combined annual salary of $25,000 or less. But under my tax plan, couples in that salary range would be exempt from federal income tax. I believe that the middle class is the engine that drives our economy and that good working folks – married couples trying to make ends meet – deserve our support.

If you’ve heard the presidential and vice-presidential debates lately, you recognize these kinds of non-answers as standard political babble.

Why can’t or won’t the politicians simply answer a yes or no question with a simple yes or no? Straightforward, clear, direct answers – in short, honesty – will cost them votes and they know it. If an answer satisfies one element of their constituency, it alienates another. Say no to same-sex unions and there goes the liberal vote. Say yes to a woman’s right to choose an abortion and kiss the conservatives goodbye. So, politicians hedge; they dissemble, they avoid – especially on the hot-button issues.

In first-century Israel there were few, if any, issues more hot-button than Roman taxes. The Romans invade and occupy the land, install their own government, impose a form of martial law, and then charge the Jews heavy taxes for the privilege of such oppression. Is it any wonder that Roman taxes and Jewish tax collectors were despised? During Jesus’ early childhood, another Galilean – this one named Judas, a good rebel name – led a band of Jews in a tax revolt against Rome. These Zealots were crushed and the crosses that held Judas and his followers splattered the landscape with the message: This is what happens to those who oppose Roman taxation. Judas was very dead, but very much alive in the hearts of the Jewish populace.

So, come the Pharisees to Jesus with a pointed question – a trap, as Matthew notes.

Teacher, we know you are good, and in truth teach the way of God. You are not concerned what others think and you show no deference to anyone. So tell us what seems right: Is it permissible to pay the poll tax to Caesar or not (Mt 22:15-17, paraphrase)?

Here, the Pharisees have devised – or so they think – a foolproof divide-and-conquer strategy. If Jesus answers, “Yes, it is appropriate to pay the poll tax to Caesar,” he will alienate a major segment of his supporters, the Jewish nationalists. If, to the contrary, he says, “No, the poll tax is a pagan infringement upon the rights and sovereignty of Israel,” he may well end up like Judas. This is a powder keg of a question. Most savvy politicians would simply sidestep with a non-answer; but, not Jesus.

“Show me the coin used to pay the tax,” Jesus responds to the Pharisees. (And isn’t it telling that Jesus doesn’t have one himself? Is that a comment on his poverty or on his dismissal of Roman sovereignty? Matthew slyly leaves that ambiguous: “You figure it out,” Matthew says to his readers and to us.)

“Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” There is no indication that Jesus took the coin from them; he just asks them to inspect it. “Whose icon is on the coin, and whose epigraph? Whose image does the coin bear, and whose inscription?” he asks them. I wonder if the Pharisees pause long enough actually to look at the coin before answering, or if they just automatically respond, “Caesar’s.” If they did look at it – these righteous, Jewish nationalists – they were confronted with an image of the emperor Tiberius surrounded by the inscription: Tiberius, Son of the Divine Augustus, high priest. These Pharisees know well God’s ban on graven images, yet they carry with them an image of Caesar who claims to be the son of God and the high priest of the divine Augustus. This scene drips with irony. They hold in their hands a graven image of a pagan god and use it to confront the living image – the exact likeness – of YHWH, God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. They hold in their hands an inscription honoring Tiberius as the son and high priest of divine Augustus and use it to test the one who bears the inscription, This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.

Jesus responds: “That which bears Caesar’s image and inscription belongs to him and should be given to him. But, that which bears God’s image and inscription belongs to God and should be given to him.”

Matthew comments that the Pharisees were amazed at this answer. I wonder if it was merely Jesus’ rhetorical skill that impressed them, or if they really “got it.” The Pharisees were just wading in the shallow waters with their question, just throwing their nets on the wrong side of the boat hoping in vain to catch something. Jesus forced them to cast out into the depths, had them throw their nets on the other side – and they hauled in the great Leviathan, something powerful and beyond their control. Jesus’ answer was really a dual question to them: Whose image and inscription do you bear, and to whom will you give yourself? And that question comes down powerfully to us: Whose image and inscription do you bear, and to whom will you give yourself?

It’s impossible to miss the echoes of the creation story, here.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Gen 1:26-27, NIV).

By nature and vocation – how God made us to be and what God made us to do – we are the image bearers of God. When the world looks at us and when we look at each other, we are to see the divine image and likeness – the icons of God. Orthodox churches are noted for their icons, and we, too have many – several beautifully handwritten. None of them contains an image of God, however. Why not? Ask a knowledgeable Orthodox Christian and he/she will remind you that God is invisible, that God lives in light unapproachable, that no eye has seen or can see God, so that no image is possible. This is all true; but, there is another, perhaps more fundamental, reason that we do not create icons of God: God created his own icons, in his own image and likeness, not with paint and brush, but with earth and breath – So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God’s icons are living, breathing, image bearers.

Of course, some icons are better than others; those of our resident iconographer, Susan, are sublime, and working with her, our girls produced beautiful first efforts, also. Others I’ve seen, while written with equal piety and faithfulness, simply do not bear the image well; they lack grace and symmetry and proportion. There is a metaphor here for the human condition. While man was created to bear the divine image, not all do so equally well, and none do so perfectly – save one. Sin has distorted and marred the image of God in all human icons – save one. All human icons need the hand and brush of the Divine Iconographer to perfectly restore the image – all save one. That one, perfect icon – that one, perfect image bearer – is Jesus, the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through whom God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (cf. Col 1:15 ff).

Through Christ, through the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the divine image is being restored in these sinful human icons.

[Girls, I want you to imagine something with me. If I were an artist I would paint a picture so you could see it; but, I have only words, so we’ll have to use our imaginations. Just because we are imagining the scene, don’t think for a moment that it is not real; it is the most real thing in the world. Imagine yourselves sitting at the dining room table with Ms. Susan, writing an icon of Jesus – like you actually did not so long ago. With each brush stroke the image of Jesus becomes clearer and more detailed. Now, imagine that standing behind you is God, and that God, too, has a brush: the Holy Spirit. With each of your brush strokes God moves his brush, writing an icon in your life. With every stroke of the Holy Spirit the image of Jesus in your life becomes clearer and more detailed. As you are writing an icon, you are becoming an icon. The Divine Iconographer is writing you. This isn’t just imagination; this is truly happening. Each time you worship, pray, read Scripture, walk in the ways of love and humility and joy and service, the brush strokes of the Holy Spirit make the icon of Christ clearer in your life. Remarkably, you don’t become less yourself in the process. The more you resemble Jesus, the more truly yourself you become. The kingdom of God is populated with living, breathing, flesh-and-blood icons of Jesus – all bearing his image, yet all remaining uniquely themselves – their best selves. You may not see or feel this happening, but don’t worry about that. We have God’s promise that it is, indeed, happening.]

Paul says it this way about all of us: When we turn to Jesus, a veil is lifted from our faces and we behold the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, and we are transformed into that same image, from one degree of glory to another (cf. 2 Cor 3:15 ff). The divine image is restored in us through our union with Christ. Whose image and inscription do you bear? We bear the image of our Lord Jesus Christ and of his Father and our Father.

Not that this image bearing is an easy thing, or a simple thing: the world continually tries to squeeze us into its own mold, to stamp its own image upon us. Paul urges us

in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:1-2a, NIV).

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world. Do not render to Caesar that which belongs to God. Do not become the image bearer, the inscription bearer of Caesar. This lies near the heart of Jesus’ second, implied question: To whom will you give yourself: to Caesar – the world and its powers – or to God?

We give ourselves to Caesar – we render unto Caesar that which belongs only to God – when we surrender our hopes and dreams and future to the politicians, the military, the stock market, the latest economic bailout plan – to any power or device of man. Let’s be clear. There is no Christian government, no Christian military, no Christian free market economy: all of these bear the image and inscription of Caesar. But the children of God, those bearing the Imago Dei – the image of God – those rendering unto God what belongs to God, proclaim Jesus as Lord and God the Father as King of kings; they beat their swords into plowshares and study war no more; they celebrate an economy of Jubilee generosity every day, sharing what God has given them with open hands and glad hearts; they sing Psalm 33, for they know it to be true.

12 Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord! *
happy the people he has chosen to be his own!

13 The Lord looks down from heaven, *
and beholds all the people in the world.

14 From where he sits enthroned he turns his gaze *
on all who dwell on the earth.

15 He fashions all the hearts of them *
and understands all their works.

16 There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army; *
a strong man is not delivered by his great strength.

17 The horse is a vain hope for deliverance; *
for all its strength it cannot save.

18 Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him, *
on those who wait upon his love,

19 To pluck their lives from death, *
and to feed them in time of famine.

20 Our soul waits for the Lord; *
he is our help and our shield.

21 Indeed, our heart rejoices in him, *
for in his holy Name we put our trust.

22 Let your loving‑kindness, O Lord, be upon us, *
as we have put our trust in you (Ps 33:12-22, BCP).

We give ourselves to Caesar – we render unto Caesar that which belongs only to God – when we yield ourselves to the cultural values of the day. Caesar has no real cultural values, just cheap imitations and perversions of God’s design for creation. Caesar doesn’t know love –neither the love of God nor the genuine love of the image bearers of God – love that is patient and kind, humble and gentle, faithful and eternal. No, Caesar knows only lust – impersonal, selfish – a cheap imitation of true love. Caesar doesn’t know strength – neither the strength of God that trampled down death by dying nor the strength of the image bearers of God – strength manifest in meekness, submission, peace-making. No, Caesar knows only power – dominating, coercive – a cheap imitation of strength. Caesar doesn’t know wealth, just gain. Caesar doesn’t know joy, just distraction. Caesar doesn’t know sacrifice, just manipulation. Caesar has no real values, just cheap imitations and perversions of God’s design for creation.

We give ourselves to Caesar – we render unto Caesar that which belongs only to God – when we make love and service and unity contingent upon anything other than Christ. Caesar tells us that we can’t accept Juan and Rosario – meet their needs, welcome them, serve them, love them – because they are illegals. Caesar tells us that we must build fences and establish quotas because there are not enough good things to go around for everyone and we must get ours. Caesar tells us that we cannot forgive the debt of the third world or eliminate HIV/AIDS in Haiti and Africa. Caesar invites us to build our economic strength and standard of living on the backs of the world’s poor and underdeveloped countries, whose labor we exploit and whose natural resources we monopolize. Oh, but we render to God that which belongs to God when we proclaim that in Christ there is no Jew or gentile, no slave or free, no citizen or illegal, no first world or third world, no problem beyond resolution, no need too great, no love withheld. This is the way of the image bearers of God.

Whose image do you bear, and whose inscription? Through our union with Jesus Christ we bear the image of God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth and the inscription, This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.

To whom will you give yourself? We will render to Caesar only that which belongs to him – our prayers, our submission – as far as possible – our taxes, our work for the common welfare, our witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. But we will give ourselves – heart and soul and mind and strength – only to the one whose image we bear: the one, true God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to whom be glory and honor in this age and the age to come. Amen.

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