Monday, November 26, 2012

Be Encouraged, the End Is Near!

Last Sunday of the Church Year, November 25th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Be Encouraged, The End Is Near!  - Matthew 25:1-13

     Be encouraged, the End is near!  Eight times in his first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, Paul encourages them, or calls them to encourage one another, including specific instructions to encourage one another with his teaching about the End Times, about the Return of Christ.  The return of Jesus is Good News for Christians.  Throughout Scripture the Spirit encourages us to look forward with eager anticipation to the End, when God will wipe away every tear, and the new heavens and the new earth will be revealed. The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox,  and dust shall be the serpent's food.  They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain," says the Lord.  So be encouraged, the End is near, coming like a thief in the night.
     Are you?  Are you encouraged, eager, happily thinking about the return of the Lord?  Or is it too strange, too scary, something that you simply prefer to ignore?  It’s pretty hard to ignore of course, with Christian talkers on TV and radio seemingly always discussing the End, what they think it will be like, what you need to be doing to prepare, and of course why you need to send them a donation so they can keep on talking, mostly about their very scary version of the Return of Christ.  And of course, the Bible speaks of the new heavens and the new earth, of the Last Day, quite a lot.  And it can be very confusing, especially if you make the Book of Revelation your primary guide, which does teach us about the End, but not as exclusively as you might think.  We may know in our heads that Jesus’ teaching during the first Holy Week is the place to start if we want to understand the End Times, but strange passages from Revelation about Babylon and beasts and bowls containing the wrath of God capture our imagination, and get us worrying.  The long and short of it is that all too often, we are anything but encouraged when we consider the End, the Return of Christ. 
     Take heart, be encouraged, Jesus today has given us a very helpful parable, the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, which, Lord willing, will leave us well instructed and encouraged on this Last Sunday of the Church Year. 
     For the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Jesus’ previous parable, which is just before today’s, at the end of Matthew chapter 24, is especially for the apostles, and the pastors who follow them in ministry.  Ministers are the slaves put in charge by the Master, put in charge of caring for the other slaves while the Master is gone.  These minister- slaves are warned not to doubt the Master’s return and start mistreating their fellow slaves.  This is how ministers are to live, faithfully loving and serving the Church, as they await Christ’s return. 
     The parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, on the other hand, is applicable to all Christians; to you, and you, and me.  We collectively and individually are the virgins waiting for the bridegroom.  That is, every Christian is to be alert, eagerly awaiting and looking forward to the Return of Christ, who is the Bridegroom of His Church.  In this parable, Jesus lays out for us what our lives are to be like, as we await His return.  And it’s pretty simple.
     First, while both the wise and the foolish virgins appear similar, Jesus teaches the sad reality that there are and will be merely outward Christians, people who appear and claim to be Christians, but who are not.  However, telling the foolish from the wise is difficult, for all are called to stay awake and await the return of the Bridegroom, yet all fall asleep.  Neither the wise nor the foolish can keep themselves perpetually awake, ready for His return. 
     So, while we know there is a difference between the wise and foolish, that is the true and false Christian, a difference we will consider shortly, the difference is not that the wise are perfect and sinless.  Every Christian has a calling to live righteously, to flee from sin and seek to serve the neighbors God has given us, but being a true Christian, ready for Christ’s return, does not depend on us accomplishing things.  Which is good news for us sleepy ones, so prone to nod off into sin and complacency.  
     However, from this parable we can see that one thing is required:  When the Bridegroom returns, your lamp must be lit.  Here  is the crux of the teaching.  All the virgins, wise and foolish, fall asleep, all must be called from slumber to meet their returning Master, the Lord who alone can usher them into the heavenly feast.  Because they have plenty of oil, the wise can easily trim their lamps and get a light to see, and be seen by.  They hear the cry, and light their lamps, in order to recognize and greet and be recognized by the Bridegroom.  This is no problem for the wise, they have plenty of oil. 
     The foolish are in a panic, as their lamps are going out and they have no oil.  The time to greet the returning Master is now, there is no time for the wise to share their oil, and no time to go to the dealers and buy more.  So the foolish virgins are shut out, the door is closed.  Without a light in their lamps, the Bridegroom truly does not recognize them.  The Lord has returned, but the foolish are shut out of the heavenly banquet, because their lamps were not lit when the time came. Your lamp must be lit.  

     O.k., I admit, about now it’s pretty normal to start worrying about the return of Christ, after hearing the fate of these foolish virgins.  There seems to be precious little difference between the foolish and the wise virgins.  You might look at yourself and ask, “Is my lamp burning?”  “Where do I buy this oil?”  “Does this mean that I have to buy my way into heaven?”  “Am I a fool for thinking that salvation is a free gift?”     
     Fear not, take heart, be encouraged.  Jesus is not, with this parable, turning His way of salvation upside down.  You are worried by this cautionary parable, worried that you might be foolish.  Good, that’s a sign that your lamp is still burning.  Maybe it’s smoldering a bit, but remember, the smoldering wick Jesus will not put out; your struggling faith is precious in His eyes.  This parable is good news for you, and also good, useful, practical instruction about how to live as you await the End.  But before we can rejoice with eager expectation for the return of Jesus, we need to clear up a few details in this parable. 
     So, what is it, to have your lamp burning?  In a passage that echoes with our parable, Proverbs 13:9 tells us the light of the righteous rejoices, but the lamp of the wicked goes out.  So, who is righteous?  None of us are righteous; by our thoughts, words and deeds, each one of us deserves to be called wicked.  But, in a miracle of grace, God by faith in Christ declares sinners righteous, holy, pure, worthy of His kingdom.  The righteousness of God, the righteousness that rejoices at the coming of Jesus, is the righteousness of faith, faith that believes God forgives and claims as His own all who trust in the blood of Jesus, which washes away all sin. 

     The burning lamp is a living faith in Christ crucified and resurrected.  Remember that Jesus taught this lesson during Holy Week, as He was preparing His disciples for His imminent suffering, death and third day resurrection.  The burning lamp you must have is faith in Christ, who died and rose for you.   

     And so then, what is the oil?  What is the fuel of faith?  Faith of course comes by hearing the Word of Christ.  The faith that God requires, faith in the Cross of Jesus, God also delivers, through His creative, powerful Word. 

     The fools are told to go and buy oil, which might seem to contradict free salvation.  But, don’t be alarmed.  Like Isaiah, Jesus in this parable is speaking of the purchasing that happens without money or price, by the reception of God’s gracious Word, which is more precious than the finest gold and gems, but for which God charges nothing.  Indeed, the only thing Christ asks of you when you gather to hear Him is your sins.  The wise virgins were wise because, daily confessing and turning over their sins to Jesus, they filled up on the Word, not neglecting or ignoring it, but filling their flasks.  Knowing their own weakness, knowing that only by the Word of Christ will their lamps continue to burn, the wise prepare by hearing. 

     This is the first calling of Christians, to hear the Word continually, to daily and weekly fill your flask.  You are not saving yourself by coming to hear the Word, but rather, since you know God has saved and continues to save you only by the Word of the Gospel, you are wise to come and hear.  Indeed, you rejoice to hear the Word. 

     Except when you don’t.  It seems simple, and in a way it is, but really, there is nothing easy about continually coming to fill your flask with the oil of God’s Word.  It is hard for sinners like you and me, because God’s Word is always a word of Law and Gospel.  Every time we hear God’s good Law, His instructions, His prohibitions, it hurts, it cuts, it kills, because like willful fools we do just the opposite, more than we care to confess.  And, on top of our own sin, which wants to keep us from God’s Word, the world is busy mocking God’s truth, asking us if it can really be true, encouraging us to celebrate the short-term thrills that disobedience offers, distracting us with other things, even things that are good, unless they prevent us from filling our flasks with the oil of the Gospel.  Faith comes by hearing, simple enough, but not easy, not for sinners like you, and me. 

     But be encouraged: You are here today, hearing the Word, twisting off the cap of your flask so that the Spirit can fill you with His light bearing Word.  And He does.  The Spirit of God, His presence symbolized by burning lamps and candles, is present to serve and save wherever Christ is proclaimed.  I speak, but He gives you the faith to know your sins truly are forgiven.  You eat, but He prepares you to worthily receive the Body and Blood of Christ for the forgiveness of all your sins, making you worthy by creating and sustaining your faith. 

     As we consider these dark and latter days and wonder about the Return of Christ, we get confused and doubt.  But the Spirit of Christ again encourages you, “Rejoice, show forth your light, the light I give you, the light of faith in Christ.  Be encouraged, Christ your Savior is coming, the End is near.  Rise and meet your Master, who welcomes you into His joy, forever and ever, Amen. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Heavenly Courtroom

Second Last Sunday, November 19th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
The Heavenly Courtroom Where Judgments Are Given
Matthew 25:31-46                         Vicar Jason Toombs

“As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took His seat ... a thousand thousands served Him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him; the court sat in judgement, and the books were opened.”  We are looking at the heavenly courtroom where the Ancient of Days, where God, takes His seat to preside in judgement.  Courtrooms can be a scary place for all people.  They are scary for the plaintiff as they have to show how they are the injured party.  They are scary for the witnesses who have to testify and are scared to tell the truth.  Courtrooms are scary for the jury who have to wade through the facts and reach a verdict.  They are scary for the defendant as they have to prove their innocence or deny responsibility for the facts brought forward.  There are judgments being handed out every day in courtrooms.  But courtrooms aren’t the only place where judgments are handed out on earth. 

We are judged everyday by our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers, the school kids, and the list goes on.  We have all judged people in our lives, no matter how much we try to deny it.  We are judged by our friends for the clothes that we wear, the other friends that we have, the habits we have which are annoying: he’s always correcting me, he never listens to anything I say, she is constantly talking.  And we are also judging them for the same things.  We judge our neighbors all the time.  Their dog can’t seem to stay in the backyard, they never mow their lawn when they’re supposed to, or, as the season may be, they didn’t shovel the sidewalk last week, they can’t seem to park in the same spot.  At work we are no better.  Backstabbing, cover-ups, and information leaks are rampant in the workplace these days.  Maybe you aren’t the one doing these things, but do you know about this happening and haven’t acted to correct the situation?  If this information is later found out and it comes before a trial, or your boss, you could be charged with being an accessory to the crime and punished.  At school we’ve heard the rumor mill and even helped to spread rumors.  “I can’t believe she slept with him.  He cheated on her?!?” Shock and outrage, rumors and lies constantly spreading in the halls without talking to the parties involved to find out if these rumors are even true.  You’re judged for not going to that party, or for going to that party.  It seems that no matter where we go, the judging of people is there.

As scary as earthly judging is, it is nothing compared to the heavenly courtroom.  We all stand convicted before the Father knowing that we are poor, miserable sinners because we haven’t done the things that are required by Him.  Which things are required by God?  Perfectly keeping the Ten Commandments: “Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? ... Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds?”  In these two questions Dr. Luther summarizes the Ten Commandments in a way that we can see: Do you love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself?  Oftentimes we like to brush these aside by saying, “Who can do these? I know I have sinned, but I’m better than my neighbor.”  We think that God grades on a curve, “As long as I’m better than my neighbor I have nothing to fear.”  The Ten Commandments are not a sliding judgment where if we are better than our neighbor we will pass.  It is only a perfect keeping of them that counts.  We are all guilty, no one can stand before the heavenly judge and declare their own innocence.

We are called as the defendant in the heavenly courtroom.  The Ancient of Days is sitting on His throne.  We look over to see the prosecuting attorney.  Who is that guy dressed in a nice suit with that perfect hair?  It is none other than the devil, the one who constantly accuses the saints before the throne of God.  That’s what the adversary, Satan, does; he constantly points out all of our sin before God.  He shows God just how utterly wicked and depraved that we are: all the times when we’ve given into temptation, all of the times when we’ve slipped while walking along the narrow way, all of the times when we’ve cared more about our wants, our desires, ourselves than God and our neighbor. 

Then, all of a sudden, there is lots of commotion going on as the doors swing open in the back of the courtroom.  Someone new enters with lots of pomp and circumstance.  “Behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a Son of Man, and He came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him.”  The Son of Man comes with the full power and authority of heaven and presents Himself before the Ancient of Days on His throne.  The Ancient of Days looks at the evidence provided by the Son of Man: the prints of the crown of thorns upon His head, the torn flesh of His back, the mark of nail and spear, and the dried blood and sweat everywhere.  The Ancient of Days has seen enough; He is ready to render a verdict.  We wait to hear: Guilty or Not Guilty.  Silence.  Then the Ancient of Days opens His mouth and the verdict is read: “And to the Son of Man was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him; His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”  Shockingly the Ancient of Days has dismissed the case without rendering a verdict and we are free to leave the courtroom and enter into the heavenly banquet.  This is the heavenly courtroom where the Ancient of Days sits on the throne.  The Son of Man will also sit on His glorious throne and judge all people, separating them one from another.

On the last day, “the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.”  The Son of Man, Jesus Christ, will come again in judgment.  Jesus has promised that He will come and usher in the Last Day.  On that day the earth will see the wrath of God being poured out upon it.  When He comes in His glory every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, some in their fear, love, and trust, others only in fear.  Jesus will gather “all the nations, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And He will place the sheep on His right, but the goats on the left.”  How will we know which people we will be gathered with?  Will we be with the sheep or the goats?

Jesus gives the answer to the question of which people we will be gathered.  Have you given Him food when He was hungry, a drink when He was thirsty?  Did you welcome Him when He was a stranger, clothe Him when He was naked?  Did you visit Him when He was sick or in prison?  Sheep or Goats, which are you?  Silence.  You can’t provide Jesus with an answer because you haven’t done any of these things to Him.  Or have you?  Jesus says to you, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”  You have done all of these things to Jesus because you have done it for His brothers.  The brothers of Jesus are you and all the saints.  God places His name upon you and calls you His own child.  He seals you on your forehead and your heart as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.  He claims you as His children.  He calls you son or daughter and you are a sibling of Jesus.  This is the reason why Jesus says to pray, “Our Father.”  We can only call God “Our Father” through Jesus.  He gave this prayer to us and we pray as He has taught us.  Jesus covers you in His blood in the waters of your baptism.  You bring other people to be covered in the same baptismal waters and to be claimed as a fellow child of God.  In those same baptismal waters you are brought to a new life, a life in Christ.  And you are clothed by God in the white robe of Christ’s righteousness.  The white robe of innocence is given to you and God declares Christ guilty of all of your sins.  Christ takes your sin from you and pays the full price for all of them, shedding His innocent blood in your guilty place.  Take heart my child, your sins are forgiven.  And you share the great love that God has toward you with your neighbors.  You feed the hungry when you give of yourself.  You give drink to the thirsty.  You welcome the stranger, the visitor, and made them feel like family.  You visit the sick, the hospitalized, and those who need help.  You do all of these things for your children and Christ says that you do them to Him.

You are constantly doing these things for your neighbor without realizing that you are doing them.  When your children were sick and need to be cared for, did you try to make them feel comfortable and care for them or did you let them fend for themselves?  You care for them because you love them.  When they’re cold you find more blankets to cover them.  If they’re hot you find a washcloth, soak it in cool water, and put it on their forehead.  You make sure the chicken noodle soup isn’t too cold or too hot.  You cut off the crusts on their grilled cheese sandwiches.  Do you think about these things when you do them or do you naturally do them out of love for your children?  It is the same with your neighbors.  Sometimes when a new family moves into the neighborhood you give them a gift basket to welcome them.  You might bake them some cookies, invite them over for dinner, and try to get to know them.  When the food bank says that they are needing items to restock the pantry you help them out because you know that nobody should go hungry.  You care for the neighbors that you don’t meet or even know who they are when you give to the food bank.  You do all of these things for your neighbors and Christ says that you do them to Him.

But these are not the only times and places when you do these things.  You bring the thirsty to the living water of baptism.  There they are filled with the living water that bubbles up within.  This water is the water that brings life to the thirsty.  Your also bring the hungry to the Lord’s table where He feeds them.  He feeds them with His body and blood.  His body and blood are true food and provide sustenance for the weary traveller in this life.  You welcome the stranger, the visitor, that walks through the doors of this congregation and invite them to sit at the feet of the Lord and hear the good news of their salvation in Him.  Like Mary, we all sit at His feet and hear as He teaches us.  Though we were strangers before baptism, we come together as a heavenly family, as brothers and sisters of Christ, and are united with God the good Father as our head.  You go to the hospital when a loved one goes in for a scheduled surgery or an emergency.  You visit them and check in on them.  You see if they need anything and read or talk to them to make the day go by a little faster.  If they are in a shared room their neighbor overhears what you are talking about and listens in.  You read a Bible lesson or a devotion and bring a little cheer to their day as the word of God comforts them.  Their neighbor, possibly not a Christian, sees the love that you have toward them and asks why you do these things for them.  You answer, “I do these things because I love and cherish the friendship that we have.”  You talk about the things that you have in common including the Savior Jesus Christ.  You share Jesus with them without noticing that you are doing it.  You pray that the Lord will strengthen them and make them better.  You care for the people who God brings into your life.

You are counted with the sheep because you do all of these things, and so many more, for your neighbors.  And Jesus says that you don’t do them for your neighbor alone, you do them for Him.  You do all of these things because you love Him.  And He loves you.  Jesus loves you so much that He came down from heaven and lived the perfect life for you.  He died in your place upon the cross where the innocent one laid down His life in your guilty place.  And He rose again on the third day.  And He raises you to live a new life in Him.  You live your life in Him and do good things for your neighbors.  You hear as the Son of Man says to you, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” as you leave the heavenly courtroom and enter the heavenly banquet where the Son of Man and the Ancient of Days sit on their thrones in glory.  Amen.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Rendering What God Wants

Twenty-third Sunday after Trinity, November 11, Year of Our + Lord 2012
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Rendering What God Wants – Matthew 22:15-22

     So, how are you, this Sunday after Election Day?  Did your candidates win?  Did your party do well, or are you in mourning? 

     I was hiding out in the hills on Election Day.  Having completed my ballot at the Courthouse the Friday prior, I was blissfully free from the last minute barrage of personal attacks, lies and destruction which pass for political advertising these days.  Five days of listening only for elk and reading only the freshest sign will do wonders for your equilibrium.  So I’m feeling pretty good, and would be regardless of the electoral outcomes.  Our nation may soon be careening over a fiscal cliff that could have real negative impact on all of us, but I at least have come away from this election week refreshed through four wheeling and mountain beauty, and with a great story to boot.  Who else do you know who can say that his very first round fired through his brand new pistol took down a little muley buck?  I may never shoot it again. 

     So, I’m doing o.k.  You may be too, simply because the election is over, or if you think the election outcome was good.  On the other hand, you may be despondent, wishing you could move to a better country, if you could find one.  Either way, God has served us very well through the appointed Gospel text for this day.  Responding to the attempt by the Pharisees to trap Jesus into saying something that will either get Him into trouble with the government, or discredit Him among His followers, Jesus answers their question about the appropriateness of paying taxes to Caesar this way:  "Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax." And they brought him a denarius.  And Jesus said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?"  They said, "Caesar's." Then he said to them, "Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."

          I’m very happy to have this reading before us this Sunday after Election Day, but not because this text gives us a good lesson on our Christian duties as citizens of earthly nations.  It does do that, for sure.  “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” does give us important guidance for our earthly lives.  Be a good citizen.  Vote, if you are fortunate enough to live in a democratic system.  Pay your taxes.  Be obedient to the laws of the state.  Pray for the king, or the president, as the case may be, whether you like him or not.  These are all true and important rules for us.  Even when you think the government is a mess, Christians are to be law-abiding citizens, perhaps even to suffer under bad government.  Only if the government commands us to sin are we to disobey.  If the government does command us to sin, and especially if the government seeks to make us deny Jesus Christ as the one and only Savior sent from God the Father, then we are to resist, peacefully though, gladly suffering for the Name of Jesus, if it comes to that. 

          Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.  That’s all fine and good, and appropriate enough for this day.  But this text is not primarily about what God wants you to give to the government.  No, this text is really all about what God wants, from you.  Render unto God the things that are God’s.  Our text this morning is about what God wants, and how He’s going to get it back, regardless of the scheming and striving of men and women to avoid His levies.  Render unto God, that’s what this text is all about.  Render means to turn over, to give back to the proper owner something you have received from him by his authority.  The Israelites of Jesus’ day, living under the earthly authority of Rome, are to render to Caesar the tax that is payable with a coin that bears Caesar’s likeness and inscription.  The coin came from Rome.  The Israelites use the coins.  So when Rome demands some of them back in taxes, Jesus tells people to pay. 

          Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.  Caesar, the emperor, wants back his denarius, his money with his picture and name on it.  Fine.  Pay your taxes.  But Jesus is really using the reality of Roman taxes to suggest a greater question:  What does God want back?  What bears His likeness and inscription that He might want to get back from us?  

          The Pharisees, sending their disciples to trap Jesus in His words, hope that the never popular subject of taxes will give them opportunity to accuse our Lord.  They bring along some Herodians, Jews who were supporters of King Herod, who governed a region of Israel that included Jesus’ home area of Galilee.  Herod governed in the same fashion that Pontius Pilate governed Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside of Judea.  Although Herod was allowed to call himself king, in reality he was just a puppet for Rome, for Caesar.  The Herodians were Jews who had thrown in their lot with the Romans, supporting the rule of Herod and so receiving great benefits.  Most Israelites, however, despised living under a Roman puppet, and wanted nothing so much as to be free.  So, thought the Pharisees, their question put Jesus in a political pickle.  If He endorsed paying taxes to Rome, Jesus would be alienating the people who so far had been wildly supportive of Him.  But if He rejected Roman authority to tax the Jews, the Herodians would immediately turn Him in to Herod, or Pilate, or both. 

          The Word of God made flesh would not be tripped up in words, of course.  Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.  God’s concern is not with whether your taxes are too high or too low.  God’s concern is that humanity render to Him the things He has given them.  Render to God the things that are God’s.  And God wants His image back.

          God wants His image back, from those with whom He has shared it.  God’s wants to be rendered, to receive back, His own likeness and the inscription that He has shared.  On whom has God put His image and inscription?  “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.”  So spoke Father, Son and Holy Spirit, at the beginning, sharing His own perfect and glorious image with Adam and Eve.  Later, God put His Name on His special people Israel, and desires that all people become part of His people.  God wants His image and inscription back, which means you are to render yourself to Him.

          But what does this mean, that we children of Adam and Eve are to render ourselves, give ourselves back to God?  Does this mean that for six days of the week we are free to feed the bellies of all our desires, living as if we owned ourselves, just so long as we give an hour and fifteen minutes to God on Sunday?  Or, if we give ten percent of our income to support the Church, does this sufficiently pay off our tax man God?  What about five, or maybe three percent?  Is this what Jesus means by rendering to God? 

I’m afraid that we all think this way, even though as soon as I said it out loud, we all knew that such a rendering falls far short.  The cattle on a thousand hills belong to God.  In Him we all live and move and have our being.  God is God.  He doesn’t need our money, or our time, as if He was struggling to make budget and just needed everyone to share in the pain so that all His programs can remain funded.  

The light and heat bill, my salary, and the office supplies all need to be paid for, true enough, but such rendering by us is not what Jesus is talking about.  No, God wants His image back, in the same condition He shared it: unblemished, unbroken, unstained, possessed of all the holiness, glory and beauty that God shared with Adam and Even in the Garden.  God put His inscription, His own Name, on Israel.  And He has put His inscription, His own Name on you, blessing you with inscriptions made with Words, including one chiseled into your thick skull with a water drill.  Simply to receive back in holy and righteous condition the gifts He has first given to us, this is what God wants.  Jesus commands the Pharisees, and the Herodians, all the people of His day, as well as you and I, to render unto God the image He first shared with us, to reflect back to Him the holy, righteous, loving likeness in which He first created us.  Anything less will not do.

But this is precisely the image we have broken; our likeness to God is impossible to see, shattered as we are by sin.  ‘Render to God the things that are God's’ seems like a simple enough requirement.  But we are utterly incapable of complying, for in our sinfulness we smear and mar and make ugly the good things God has given us.  We bring shame on the Name God has shared with us each time we sin, in thought, word or deed.  We can shine things up as best we can, and put on a pretty good show for one another.  ‘That Joe, he’s such a good man, and a good citizen, don’t you agree?’  But when God comes calling, when God inspects our likeness to see if we still reflect Him, when God checks our record to see if we have brought honor to His Name, well, we all know how far short we fall. 

But the requirement stands.  God demands His image back, or we will be declared eternal tax cheats, sentenced to suffer in debtors prison forever.  How can it be possible for sinful people like you and me to render to God the likeness and inscription He has placed on us? 

In a word, the answer is ‘Jesus.’  Adam and Eve were created in God’s image and likeness, Israel received the Name of God on them as a blessing.  But Jesus is the very image of God, the eternal Son of the Father, who eternally posesses the Name of the Almighty, rightly and properly in His own person.  Only Jesus, God’s Son born of the Virgin Mary, true God and also true man, only Jesus, the Righteous One, can render to God the unblemished, pure, righteous image and inscription which God requires.  This is why He came, to render to God the righteous image which He rightfully requires. 

But not for Himself.  Jesus had no reason to render to God anything at all.  All that the Father has belongs to Jesus.  All that Jesus has belongs to the Father, along with the Holy Spirit, the eternal Creator and Sustainer of all things.  Jesus came to render unto God an perfect, unblemished image and likeness, not for Himself, but for us broken-imaged sinners, even for the Pharisees who are trying to trap Jesus.  In fact, Jesus uses this very confrontation to arrange for the payback, the image rendering, that He came to complete.  In a mystery of God’s undeniable will to save, Jesus is using the hatred of the Pharisees to pour out the love of God.  Indeed, when Jesus commands the Pharisees to render unto God the things that bear God’s likeness and inscription, He is truly speaking of Himself.  Jesus is in essence telling them render unto God the things that are God’s, by crucifying Me.  Sacrifice me, Jesus commands, and the Pharisees in their blind hatred are unknowingly caught up in God’s plan of salvation.  Their sinfulness and hatred are real, and truly deserve God’s punishment.  But Jesus bears their sins on His Cross, yes, even the sins of those who falsely accused and arrested and tortured and killed Him, all in order to render to God the perfect likeness and inscription God gave to humanity in the Garden. 

Your sinfulness, your hatred, your selfishness, your preference to find salvation in your favorite candidate or party, these are all real as well.  We are all guilty of putting our trust in our favorite politicians, if only we could get them elected.  We look for salvation from so-called powerful men and women, instead of trusting God in Christ.  You, and I, truly deserve God’s punishment, for continually despising and ruining the likeness and inscription God has place on us.  But Jesus has borne your sin.  His rendering, His giving back to God for your sake, has been accepted.  Your sins are forgiven, the image of God in you has been restored, completely perfect, in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. 

You and I will not stop worrying about the government and taxes.  That’s o.k.  As we speak up for life and justice with our words and votes, perhaps in an increasingly hostile and anti-Christian environment, we will have opportunity to confess Christ before the world.  God will use our confession in His mission.  As you go, as you live out your life as a Christian citizen, never forget that nothing the government can do or fail to do can take away what Christ has rendered for you.  Covered in Christ Jesus, who is the image of God, with His Name written on you, you are free to live joyfully, generously, and truthfully, even when the world seems to be falling apart, for your King has rendered all you owe, and He will bring you through to His perfect Kingdom, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.