Sermon for Trinity XXIII
November 19, 2017
The Image of Christ Imprinted On You
We should understand this opening scene here pretty well. It reflects our contemporary culture that isn’t that interested in what the other side has to say except in how it might be twisted in its meaning such to entangle the speaker. It plays out like a battle field where the armies of the Pharisees take positions across from Jesus while their allies, the Herodians, attempt to flank Him. The Pharisees absolutely oppose Roman rule and the tribute that they must pay in taxes, while the Herodians are much more conciliatory towards the Romans and their taxes. They see the Romans as their best bet in keeping a Herod on the throne and a self-ruled Israel that can one day gain its independence. They unite their forces in opposition to a common enemy and they go on the attack.
They begin with flattery and lies: “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully.” If they really believed that then they wouldn’t be trying to entangle Him in his talk. If they believed Him they would be seeking to be His disciples and not trying to find a way to condemn Him. “We know that your teaching is not swayed by man’s opinion. You are not impressed by human position and status. You speak from an authority that has no regard for the way man wishes to see himself.” That’s just a bunch of bull. Here the very people that have been entrusted with the Word of God are doing the devil’s work for him. The seed he planted in ages past has grown mature as the Pharisees and Herodians twist God’s Word and seek for themselves a favorable understanding. In the blindness of their sin and hatred towards Jesus, they have convinced themselves that they are about a holy and God-pleasing work.
We have such factions in the churches still today; those that speak all nicey nicey about love and such yet all that while embracing a twisted word that opposes God’s clear command, taking a position on the field in opposition against Jesus even as they speak words of flattery. It happens when we defend our sin as if it were not sin. We join those ranks as we twist the talk of Jesus to support our desires and actions that are anything but godly. We plot to entangle our Lord as we seek to find a verse that allows our deviant behavior and our unrighteous thoughts. We work hard to justify what we think about others and how we treat the ones we love. We embrace our libertine civil laws when they suit us and even rationalize their superior position to the antiquated thinking of an oppressive and misogynist society of the Middle East. We flatter Jesus with our complements even as we plot our next sin.
“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” They have set the trap. If He says yes, then He opposes the Pharisees and they can label Him a traitor in the eyes of the people. If He says no, then He is in opposition to the Herodians and they can paint Him as insurrectionist that opposes Rome. They don’t really care about what He thinks. They just want Him to commit to one side or the other. They want to involve Him in their petty disputes and distract Him from His righteous purpose in condemning sin and in bringing near the kingdom of God. Jesus recognizes their hypocrisy and calls them on it. They have only one interest despite what they say. They want His undoing because, in their distorted minds, it favors their temporal image.
Here I want to make a distinction. Often the church is accused of being just a bunch of hypocrites. It can certainly happen just as it did among the Pharisees and the Herodians. It can happen among us if we claim to believe God’s Word and then maneuver our way through the pages of Scripture to prove ourselves as being better than we truly are. A hypocrite is one that says one thing and then believes another; one that has a public persona and a private one. Certainly, we all act hypocritical as we hide our sin from one another, but the root of hypocrisy is when we try to justify ourselves and hide that sin from God.
We don’t gather here because we are so good. We gather because we are so bad and we have need of a good that doesn’t come from us. We didn’t say the words today, but in settings one and two of the Divine Service, we quote from John’s first epistle that, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Hypocrisy is self-deceit. It is not believing what God tells us about ourselves and then not receiving the righteousness that He offers us in His Son. It is offering of flattery to Jesus in an effort to hide our true motives and intents. But, if we acknowledge our ill intents and our desire to justify ourselves and we plead our case as ones guilty, then we are not hypocrites but sinners. And sinners are the ones Jesus has come to save. Sinners gathered here and confessing their sins are the ones that receive forgiveness, that are removed from the battlefield, given healing elixir, bandaged, and pensioned in a comfortable retirement.
As we read through the rest of the text and grapple with the answer that Jesus does give, we can’t help but think of what a good American Jesus is. He really understands that separation of church and state concept. Don’t mix the two kingdoms. And as we think this, we are falling right into that trap once again of shaping the Scriptures to meet our needs and our corrupted way of seeing things. Jesus is not separating church and state. He is asking the deeper question: “In whose image are you to be found?”
Are you so wrapped up in the power struggles of this world where empire fights against empire in order to rule for a few years or decades? Are you so worried about losing face among those around you that you forget in whose image you were created? The point is not that Caesar’s authority is illegitimate for we know that all earthly authority is established by God and that we are to obey it even in paying taxes. But, while we are in the world, we are not to be of the world. Are we going to cling to the image of the fallen Adam for our identity and allegiance or are we going to cling to the image of our Savior that has been given to us as a free gift through faith.
It is not a matter of submitting to the earthly authority appointed over us and paying taxes for no government or ruler would have authority over us had it not been given from above (Jn 19:11). Jesus will answer their question as He submits in a sham trial to the earthly authority of Pontius Pilate and is unjustly condemned and crucified according to God’s just plan. For in so doing, Jesus is rending unto God what is God’s. He renders His fear and love, His faith and trust, His active and passive obedience, His body and His soul. Jesus renders Himself in His entirety as the ransom for all of us that are confused about our own image and to whom it is that we owe allegiance.
Jesus tells us that if we have seen Him, we have seen the Father (Jn 14:9) and Paul reminds us that in Jesus the fullness of God dwells bodily (Col 2:9). And Jesus does not hesitate from taking upon Himself even our image as He who knew no sin became sin for us (2 Cor 5:21) and renders unto God the life of man, the life of the Man, for the payment of sin, even our sin.
Paul also reminds us that we do bear the sinful image of our ancient ancestor Adam (Ro 5:12) but we who have been baptized into Christ, bear the image of Christ. We have died to sin and now live to righteousness. We are to render unto God our fear, love, and trust just as our Savior did. This means we do not create for ourselves an image that we like but we accept the image that is ours and the image that is given to us. We render our sins unto God in confession and He gives us the righteous image of His Son. We render our goods and possessions to Him in service and He renders unto us a mansion and an estate that supplies our every need. We render unto God ourselves, our very being in faithfulness and He faithfully renders unto us Himself in the life, death, and resurrection of His Son.
There is a saying attributed to one of our country’s founders, that is that there are two things certain in this world: death and taxes. There is a third. That is that God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
May He so grant us the faith render unto Him what is His. In the name of Jesus. Amen