Sunday, July 2, 2017

“Whose Image Is This?”

Mark 12:  13-17,  CEB
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
4th Sunday After Pentecost, July 2nd, 2017,    (Series:  Questions Jesus Asked  #3)

A man came to a Presbyterian Church and asked to see the Pastor. “Pastor,” he said, “My dog died and I would like a Christian burial for him.”   The Pastor said, “I’m sorry to hear about your dog, but Presbyterians don’t do funerals for dogs. You might try the Baptist church down the street. Baptists will do most anything.”
The man turned sadly and said, “I’m sorry you won’t do my dog’s funeral, but I understand.   I’ll try the Baptist church.  But would you tell me how much would it be appropriate give the Baptist Church as a memorial if they do the funeral?  I was thinking of a gift of $10,000.  Do you think that is enough?
“Wait a minute,” the Pastor said. “You didn’t tell me that your dog was Presbyterian?” 

With our third question of Jesus, we are considering what Jesus asked about a coin:  “Whose image and inscription is this”  (v. 16)?  It sounds like a very simple and innocent, but it wasn’t.    This question follows another question even more serious:  “Why are you testing me?” (v. 15), or as another translation puts it,  “Why are you trying to trap me” (NIV) or to tempt me (to sin)?” (KJV).  It was an attempt by some of the Pharisees and supporters of King Herod, who were both religious and political leaders, to either publicly implicate Jesus with treason against the state or to discredit him with a public sin against his own.  Even when they approach Jesus saying,  “Teacher,  we know you are a man of integrity…’ (NIV),  you can ‘smell a rat’.   In this kind of volatile and explosive situation, Jesus asked: “Whose Image in on this coin?”

Last year I was running some wires in my basement to link my TV and my computer, so I could view my Computer in the living room a Young Adult Bible Study.   As I was running the wire, suddenly there was a fiery spark and a loud pop.   I looked, and hanging there before me was a live electrical wire, that once ran to the blower on an old oil burning furnace now replaced with a Heat Pump.  But somebody forgot and left the wire and the circuit open.   It was a very dangerous, ‘high voltage’ situation I didn’t see, until it was almost too late.

Jesus’ situation was also ‘high voltage’.   This was an attempt to get Jesus to ‘take hold of a live wire’ and answer a question that could have incriminated him with treason against the state.  As we all know, political issues, can be passionate, divisive, and contentious.   We live in a nation that is free, thank God, but with this wonder gift of freedom, which allows free speech and encourages civil debate of ideas, some of this speech and some of the ideas can be detrimental to our national civility and to freedom itself.  Our nation’s Founders; particularly Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Madison and Franklin, believed that this risk of democratic freedom was far better than the closed, autocratic systems that had long-dominated Europe. 

This week, on July 4th, just 2 days away, we are about to celebrate America’s 241st birthday, commemorating the signing the Declaration of Independence.   But this was a very risky and dangerous proposition too, which we dare not forget.  As we celebrate with picnics and fireworks, the real fireworks was this 'declaration' that was so daring, it launched a Revolution.  Today, this ‘Independence’ they declared and the ‘liberty and justice for all’ they signed into existence, is constantly misunderstood and threatened. Just as there were bad politics surrounding Jesus, there are still bad politics today.

In regard to our wonderful gift of freedom and independence we celebrate, there are at least two primary dangers: One is the constant threat to freedom from the inside.  This threat is self imposed, when we who have freedom, are tempted to misuse or abuse it.  The great Roman Empire, built on strong democratic principles, fell because of decay from within.   It was never overthrown, but it collapsed, morally, spiritually, and economically.  On the other side of the coin of freedom, there are always external threats to our freedom.   Some who don't have freedom and don't understand it, are envious enough to seek its destruction.  And even some who do have freedom, want it all for themselves.  They care nothing about the basic cry for 'liberty and justice for all'.   Perhaps exactly because these have no true freedom within themselves, they can’t see the benefits of freedom and justice for all.  

When those Twin Towers fell on 911, many were asking: “What do these people have against us?”  This is a question we continue to ask, not just here in the U.S, but everywhere in the West; in England, Germany, France, Spain, all over Europe and in the Middle East too.   Why do ‘they’ want to bite off the hand that could help to feed them such modern wonders such as democracy, freedom, benevolence, and opportunity?  Why are they so opposed and blind to what could be so good?   Just as it can be hard for us to grasp why the politics of Jerusalem were so opposed to the religious ‘freedom’ Jesus offered (and wanted him dead), we still struggle to understand why so many people in our world hate freedom today.    

Do you remember that wonderful, 26 year old American girl, human rights activists, and humanitarian worker, Kayla Mueller?   Back in 2013, she was taken captive by ISIS when she was leaving a meeting with Doctors Without Borders.  After she had assisted and helped Syrian Refugees, her car headed back to Turkey was ambushed.   The US Military and Mueller family attempted unsuccessfully to rescue her.   Some who did escape, reported Mueller’s strength and compassion, even when they tried to get her to deny her Christian faith.   Finally, while being held hostage, it was claimed by her captives that she been accidently killed by Jordanian airstrikes.   Now, such a wonderful, dedicated young person, full of so much compassion and energy to care, was dead.   And the hate against us, the hate against the west, and the hate against the Christian faith, in particular, continues. 

So, today, in the world in which we find ourselves, surrounded by opposition, dangerous passions, and misunderstood freedom, how can Jesus’ response to their attempt to trap and destroy him, guide us in how we should celebrate and continue to dare to live out this wonderful gift of independence, democracy, and freedom, not just for ourselves, but 'for all'?   

The first part of Jesus’ answer to his own question to refer to the image of ‘Caesar’ on the coin.  “Who image is on the coin?”   Of course, the answer is simple and clear:  “Render to Caesar, the things that are Caesars!”

Much of the Bible agrees with Jesus on this.   Paul did too.   So, did Peter too (2 Peter 2:18ff).   Even when the government around them was not Christian nor Jewish, did questionable things, made unfair demands, Jesus, Paul and Peter agreed, that we ought to ‘submit, (NIBO)’ or ‘subject ourselves’ (KJV) and ‘obey’ (NJB) the governing authorities, because, as Paul says, ‘there is no authority unless it comes from God… who ‘have been put in place by God (Rom. 13:1).  

Those are some very strong words, and they still have something to say to us.  Paul goes on to say that we should ‘obey’ the authorities because it is ‘God’s servant’ to punish wrong doers (13:4) and put in place ‘for (y)our benefit’.   We always have a need for government because we never lack for  criminals, murderer, and evildoers who have a proclivity toward violence.

We can, of course, appreciate what Jesus and Paul were both saying, commanding us to ‘render to Caesar’ or to ‘obey’ the government.   No matter how human and flawed our government is, it can still be ‘God’s servant’ for good, for justice, and for freedom, can’t it?  Besides the burden of paying taxes, there is also the blessing or privilege of paying taxes, so that we can have roads, bridges, local safety, national security, political stability and social civility through laws and legislation.  Our national identity as Americans still affords us some wonderful benefits.  Paul or Jesus could have hardly imagined then, the greatest benefit we now have as a wonderful gift of freedom that is both political and religious.  In that world, and in much of the world still today, freedom is only a dream or it is deemed a threat.  Only a few nations enjoy freedom as a treasured national and individual reality.  WE should and must celebrate, honor, protect, and should never ever take this freedom for granted because it is ‘America, the Beautiful’ who has been the country that is blessed to lead the way.

So, it light of great blessing of freedom, how should Christians render to Caesar still today?  We can ‘pay the taxes’ and fulfill the ‘duties’ we owe’, Paul says.   We can also give ‘respect and honor’ to ‘whom respect and honor is due’ and of course we can be good citizenspray for our leaders, and get involved in the political process while we fulfill our civic and community duties to serve and to care, even when we don’t agree, or don’t like or approve of what’s going on in this very moment.  Yes, we can endure the bad with the good of freedom and government, because as long as we are free, we still have hope, because sooner or later, 'we the people can have our say' because we have our vote.  

Speaking of bad politics, perhaps you’ve heard the story about a certain Senator Strange who ordered that his tombstone not state his name but bear only a five-word inscription: Here Lies an Honest Politician. The stonemason objected, “But, Senator Strange, how are passersby going to know it’s your grave?” “Well,” explained the senator, “when they read those five words, the first thing they’re going to say is, “Now, that’s strange!”
(Day, J. Daniel. If Jesus Isn’t the Answer…: He Sure Asks the Right Questions! (Kindle Locations 1404-1408). Smyth & Helwys Publishing. Kindle Edition.)

But even with our votes against bad politics, democracy still isn’t easy.  It wasn’t easy when Clinton, or Bush were president.  It wasn’t easy when Obama was in office, and it can be very challenging as we watch as President Trump tweets his way through the day.   But Scripture still calls us, as Christians, to ‘honor’ and ‘respect’, even the ‘authorities’ we don’t like or always agree with, because in most cases, as it was most often with Rome too, normally, at least, the benefits outweighed the flaws, the failures, and the negatives.  As someone has rightly said, “Democracy is messy, but necessary.”   Churchhill said it best: Democracy is the worst form of government except (for) all the others that have been tried."   I would add, yes she gets messy, but when she cleans up, she cleans up very, very nicely.”

Isn’t this why we celebrate today?  The Country we have surely isn’t perfect, by any means, but she is good.  All the way down to her soul, her heartlands, up in her hills and on her mountains, down in her valleys and by her seashores, America has been great, because she has been good.  And American can still be wonderfully good, generous, courageous, and compassionate too.   This is why I love America.   But it is up to us to keep calling out, and supporting her goodness.  This is why I pray for America.  And this is why I sometimes am critical or challenge what our government says or does.  I say it because I can, I must, and I should, because I want this country to continue to be, as it has been called, ‘a city shining on a hill’ for the hope of freedom and justice in the whole world.   Without such freedom and justice, the gospel has lesser hope of taking root in the hardened soils of the earth.

But I also think it is important for us to hear the second part of the answer Jesus gave to his own question.   And this is not just for a Christian or believer.   It is just as important for all citizens, not just to keep their hand over his heart when they pledge their allegiance, but to also to keep our heads over our hearts too.   This is why Jesus not only says, ‘render to Caesar’, but Jesus also says, ‘Render (or give) to God, the things that are God’s.’  These ‘things that are God’s’ are just as important to our freedoms and our allegiance, as are our celebrations and our patriotism, and our respect and honor to give Caesar what Caesar is due.   Do you know why, it is so important that we keep our heads over our hearts, while pledge our allegiance to the flag?  It is important because only God can show us our government’s boundaries and limits.   Only when we ‘give to God the things’ that are God’s, like worship, faith, and ultimate reverence, can we continue to keep our freedom our founding father’s acknowledged, was not something conjured up in smoked filled room in Williamsburg, or in Philadelphia, the city of ‘brotherly love’, but had to be admitted that this gift of freedom, is a gift from the Creator.   For when this gift is no longer acknowledged, it soon ceases to be practiced, and will soon cease to be present, as God’s gift through Jesus Christ: “It is for freedom, that Christ has set your free….so stand firm and do not submit again to a yoke of bondage”  Paul wrote to the Galatians (5:1).  As someone dramatically, suggested, we should render to Caesar, but we are not to ‘surrender’ to Caesar, because our ultimate allegiance remains to God, who is over everything, including Caesar, Country and all Government, no matter how good, or great it has been or still is.

I need to tell you again, the personal story I have about the man who once ran a copy shop next door to our apartment in eastern Germany.   When I once asked him whether or not he ever went to church, he shocked me when he said he loved to go into churches and admire the architecture and art, but that he would never ever enter a church to worship again.  When I asked him why he was so much against attending church, he told me the horrifying story, of how his father had opposed Hitler.  He did not agree with the rise of the Nazi’s and their misuse of the German identity and all the nationalism that claimed Germany was better than any other nation and had the right to rule all the nations, and could torture and kill, whom ever it wanted.   My Father did not agree with this, nor Hitler’s war machine, and when the draft came, he went into hiding. 

But who reported where his Father was?   It was the Church--a that was no longer ‘separated’ from the state.  This is why this man would never enter a German Church again to worship.   Instead of surrendering and worshiping God’s truth, separating itself from the governments wicked ways,  the German Church had absolutely surrendered its heart the state and its head to the state.  The Church began to pledged allegiance to the fever of nationalism and to patriotism, forgetting the very God who had given them to heart and the head with which to see the truth.  But they chose to look the other way.  And by failing to ‘render to God the things that are Gods’, the people and the church lost it’s divinely given spiritual power that could have limited the the power of Hitler’s wrongly-headed government.   When the people began to idolized the state’s power, it failed to render worship to God, and it lost its way.    

How can we make sure that we don’t lose our way, as we celebrate our freedom?   We must continue to give the same answer with our own lives; we must render to Caesar, but we must also render and give worship to God, because God’s truth is greater than the truth of any humanly, established state. Render to Caesar, but never surrender all to Caesar.

This is why Thomas Jefferson, seeing what had happened in Europe, long before Hilter’s rise,  made sure that in American there was not only freedom and a declaration of Independence, but that there was also religious freedom, and the separation of Church and State.   Unfortunately, just like many in the Muslim world don’t understand of value freedom, too many in the Christian also don’t understand the nature or how this freedom is best practiced.   The separation of Church and State is not to keep churches from obeying the state nor from influencing the state, but the separation of Church and State is to keep the State separated from the Church, so the Church can keep being the Church free from the powers of the state.   This can also be, like freedom and democracy, a very messy and complicated dance, but it is also very necessary one.   If the Church in Germany, had been a Confessing Church before it was an absolutely compliant one to the state, and if it had been separated from the government rather than a part that surrendered and survived through it,  then Hitler would have not had a chance, as long as the people were still worshiping God.  

And this is exactly my worry today, what happens when we become a people who cease to ‘render to God the things that are God’s?   Can we maintain our freedom when we lose our faith?   I think this is what a preacher in Texas meant to be saying when he made a big mistake.   When he became pastor of a certain church in eastern Texas, he noticed the American flag flying alongside of the Christian flag, and not just on equal ground, but sometimes the Christian Church and Flag was swallowed up in the patriotism and the nationalism of his members.  So, what did the pastor do?   One day when his congregation came to worship, they noticed that the American flag was missing.   The deacons questioned the pastor, and when they found that he had removed the American flag from their sanctuary, they proceeded to removed their pastor from their congregation.   He eventually moved to Virginia, where he left the Baptist denomination and became a Mennonite Pastor, where they don’t allow flags to fly in the their sanctuary.   It’s isn’t because they don’t respect and love their country, that they don’t fly the flag,’  he explained,  ‘but it’s because they want to keep their head, not just their hearts.’

While I understand the Amish or Mennonite position, I don’t think this is what the separation of church and state has to always mean.  I think we too, as Baptist, as long as we keep our hearts and heads right,  can honor, respect, and fly our flag, even in our sanctuary.   We do this by following Jesus, as we ‘render to Caesar, and as we also ‘render to God’ what is God’s.   We we know, that everything belongs to God, and this must include our country and our patriotism too.  For God is not just the God of this country, but God is also to be the God over all nations, as he is already the judge over the world.   This is not bad news, but it is the good news that keeps us flying the flag for the freedom and for justice for all, which the what the prophets long dreamed of, and for which the flag and the country, must continue to stand.   How this ‘nation stands’ depends upon how we stand, what we stand for and to whom we ultimately surrender.  For only when render to country, but we only surrender to the God who demands liberty and justice for all, will the gospel stand to have a chance, and will our nation continue to have a prayer.   Amen.

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