Friday, October 17, 2014

October 19, Proper 24, Transformations 8: Your Sovereign

Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

When you live in Canada you get used to seeing a portrait of Queen Elizabeth displayed in every public building. Even in local the hockey arenas, even in the Blue Line Club where you go to drink your beer between the periods, there on the wall her face looks out, the image of serenity and sovereignty. It’s not the same in the USA. The face of the president is not the image of sovereignty.

Who has sovereignty over you? Who has dominion over your life? Who holds eminent domain? The answer is not difficult. You can tell by who takes the first cut of your paycheck. Who takes the first part of your income? Have you noticed that the IRS does not have to do pledge-drives and fund-raisers? The government does not do Consecration Sunday. Your taxes come out before your tithes and offerings. Your taxes come out before anything you spend on yourself.

The ideology of America is that you have total freedom, and the ideology is reinforced in the mythology of advertising: if you are free to spend as you please then you must be free in general. Ah.

Just sit down some time and examine your spending, and measure the proportions of how much you spend on this and that, and those proportions will indicate not only what you value but also what has power over you. What happens to your money tells you not only how much freedom you can exercise but also what dominates you and what demands your certain choices.

You can tell in your own life how eminent is the domain of Caesar and how eminent is the domain of God. You highly value God, but comparatively speaking, the effective sovereignty God in your life is rather weak. You have to wonder why God allows it, coming across so weak, like such an underachiever.

The taxes to Caesar were especially hateful to the Jews. Their taxes supported a government they considered illegitimate. Worse, Roman money was sinful, because the coins broke the second commandment by bearing the graven image of Caesar. Worse yet, Caesar was being worshiped as a god, so their taxes supported the violation of the first commandment. So Roman taxation forced the Jews continually to break the first and second commandments.

Well then, if Jesus claims to be the Messiah, that is, the candidate to be the true King of the Jews, the question they ask him is a legitimate matter of public policy which you’d ask any candidate for office. And then Jesus does not answer them directly. Is this a typical politician’s dodge? He does not say if it’s right or wrong. He leaves that up to his listeners. He turns it back on them.

He asks them to produce a coin. Notice they are able to. Right there is the indicator that they participate in the Roman economy. It means they accept the benefits of Roman rule, no matter how much they rail against it. That’s why he calls them hypocrites. He’s saying, “Oh cut it out.” Get real, stop being so self-righteous, like Caesar is really the problem here. He turns it back on them. He calls them to self-examination. That’s the impact of his response. Examine yourselves: How much in your life belongs to God, and how much in your life belongs to Caesar? Then, act accordingly.

What if they overlap? What if they conflict? What if they both claim the same, the whole field — what if they both claim everything? Caesar did claim everything. Caesar had power over them of life and death, he had eminent domain, he could enforce his sovereignty. The Jews were not citizens, they had no civil rights in their own land, and a Roman soldier could punish any Jew with impunity. The Jews had their Temple only because the Romans had found it politically expedient, and a few decades later when the Temple became a problem the Romans destroyed it.

In our own day it’s not so much that Caesar claims everything, it’s that Caesar gets to determine how much God gets. In the separation of church and state, it is the state which gets to set the boundary, and the church has to accept it. Notice that the IRS demands to know how much you give in tithes and offerings, but the church never asks you how much your taxes are.

But God claims everything as well. Psalm 24: The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and they that dwell therein. That’s a problem for us in America. We have relegated religion to the private spheres of life, and done our best to keep God out of the public square. We have separated church and state, which was a very good idea. But we blended that legal separation with the philosophical bias of the European Enlightenment, which says that religion is tolerable only when it’s compartmentalized as a private thing, and that a modern democratic state requires absolute secularism in the public affairs.

But religion keeps leaking out of its compartment, for better or worse. Religion keeps leaking from the private into the public. And it will do so unless your God is very small. You can’t stop God from going public, you can’t keep a lid on the sovereignty of God. When Jesus tells his fellow Jews to “Give to God what is God’s,” they must know from their own scriptures that “what is God’s” means everything, even what Caesar has claimed.

The kingdom of God is the sovereignty of God and that means eminent domain. The whole of your life belongs to God. You can’t say: This here is God’s and this here is not. If it’s true that even what belongs to Caesar first belongs to God, then what’s called for is not compartmentalization or even separation but dynamic interaction, that you pay what you pay to Caesar because you’re really paying it to God. Even when those taxes are heavy and unfair, you can be cheerful in paying them, because you’re really paying them to God.

That’s the transformation we are dealing with this weak. It’s the transformation of your loyalties, which means a transformation of your worldview, of how you see the world and whom the world belongs to, and how you divvy it up in order to behave in it. The gospel speaks not just to private behavior and private morality, it also speaks to how you view the world, to your worldview.

How much of the world belongs to God? How much of your day today belongs to God? How much of your life belongs to God? Can you see this problem of sovereignty as life-giving and even liberating? It relativizes every other claim on you, it makes every other claim on you just temporary and expedient. It means the benefit that your life is not compartmentalized, it means the wholeness to your life, it means you don’t have different sets of rules for different relationships. You are integrated, you are unified, you are in unity with yourself, no matter what claims the public powers may demand of you, your nation or boss or family or whatever. You belong to God, and you serve them all as serving God.

You may be thinking I’m sounding like a fundamentalist. They’re the ones who keep imposing their religion on the public, who try to make public law out of their private convictions. So let me say that in a very narrow sense, compared to the Enlightenment, some fundamentalists are right.

But let me tell you they are wrong. While the God that Jesus speaks for does claim everything, we see in Jesus that it is not in the defensive or aggressive way of claiming things. This God is a god who does not push his power or defend her dominion or enforce his sovereignty, except through appealing to your heart.

Of course we’d sometimes prefer it if God would act a bit more powerful, especially in helping us out with some convenient miracles or maybe some extra money for our churches, but that is not the way of God. The face on this God’s coinage is the face of Jesus Christ. And that makes all the difference in God’s approach to power.

The face of Jesus represents a God who does claim everything, but who claims it in the way of servanthood and sacrificial love. That’s not very thrilling or heroic or exciting. Not unless you’re thrilled to offer hospitality, and you’re heroic in reconciliation, and you’re excited by such love and understanding that you even sit down with the Romans and pray for Caesar, as awful as he is. That seems to be the way that Jesus establishes his sovereignty, by preparing a table in the presence of his enemies, and inviting them to eat with him. There is no sovereignty of God which is not expressed in love. And that means that your worldview, your viewing of the world, must always be a looking out for the love of God.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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