Twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity, November 10th, Year of Our + Lord 2013
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Two Governments, Two Lies, Two Promises – Matthew 22:15-22
This morning we have a nice confluence of events and Scripture. It’s Sunday, a good day to be gathered in the presence of God. And, it’s November 10th, Martin Luther’s birthday, an added bonus. And, did you know Martin Luther had the good sense to be born on the same day as the Marine Corps? Yes, on November 10th, 1775, in Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, the United States Marine Corps began. One might even think today a good day for regulation hair cut, although if my drill instructors were here they would no doubt ask why a regulation shave didn’t come with the high and tight. Well, no need to get too crazy.
The intrepid Reformer Martin Luther and those intrepid Jarheads share more than a little in common, Luther being all about boldly protecting and serving the Church, while Marines are all about boldly protecting and serving the nation, these United States. Speaking of the United States, last Tuesday was Election Day. And, tomorrow is when we Americans honor all our Veterans, most especially those who have sacrificed their lives in service to these United States.
So, with all of this going on, when I saw today’s assigned readings, I thought “Perfect!” O.K., full disclosure: I thought I was looking at today’s assigned readings, but after celebrating the Reformation and All Saints Day the last two Sundays, I miscounted. Today is the 24th Sunday after Trinity, but the readings before you are actually for last Sunday, the 23rd. By the time I realized my error, I was too far down the path of this sermon to turn back. So, it’s only due to my mistake that we have this helpful confluence of birthdays, and Election Day, and Veterans Day, a helpful confluence because our readings, especially our Epistle and Gospel, are all about the distinctions between worldly things and churchly things, between the earthly and the heavenly, readings which offer a good bit of counsel on how we Christians are to navigate our lives, which are lived in both realms.
We get pretty bound up, sometimes, trying to sort out how Christians are to act in regards to the government and the nation, all too often confusing and mixing up the things of Caesar and the things of God, misusing both in the process. Lord willing, we will leave here this morning with a clearer understanding, and joyful hearts, looking forward to our heavenly homes, and also ready to live out our earthly lives in God-pleasing ways.
Two governments. One of Luther’s most helpful rediscoveries in the Reformation is Scripture’s teaching about the two governments by which the Lord rules things on the earth in this age. Jesus makes reference to these two governments when He says: "Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." Jesus did not come to establish a kingdom, or government, of this world, but rather to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, a spiritual government whose capitol is literally the heavenly throne of God. However, earthly governments are not outside God’s concern or control. Just a few days after the encounter we heard in today’s Gospel, a bound, suffering, and about to be crucified Jesus would teach Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, that he would have no authority at all if it had not been given him from above.
As Luther rediscovered and taught, God rules the affairs of this world, but indirectly, through earthly authorities, kings and queens, presidents and legislatures, to whom God has given authority on earth. Luther called this God’s left-hand government. Not to insult the lefties out there, but what Luther meant was that this Left Hand Government was important, but not as important, as God’s Right Hand Government, which is the spiritual rule of God in His Church, a rule that God exercises purely by His Word. God through His Left Hand Government provides for peace in the earthly lives of men. But God through His Right Hand Government provides the peace that passes all understanding, the peace with God won for us by the blood of Christ, the peace of knowing that your sins are forgiven and you are a citizen of God’s heavenly kingdom, where God will eventually bring you, and all believers.
Earthly rulers may think they are pretty important and powerful, but their power can disappear in a moment, and their purpose, from God’s perspective, is simply to keep a lid on the wickedness of the world, to maintain enough order and justice and peace on earth so that the Church can gather and preach and serve one another and the world, as she awaits the return of Christ. Good government, from a Biblical perspective, is one that keeps order and allows Christians to gather, preach, teach and love their neighbors. This might be through a republic, a monarchy, a dictatorship, or a democracy, through a government filled with Christians, or a government that is completely atheistic. Through various forms of government, God provides the order and peace His Church needs to live.
The Pharisees, who came with their clever and deceitful question about paying taxes to Caesar, were trying to trap Jesus by mixing heavenly things, the things of God, into our understanding and actions in the earthly realm. If God is our king, the Pharisees imply, then how can any self-respecting Jew pay taxes to Caesar, a question they ask with the Herodians, that is, the lackeys of King Herod, Caesar’s local enforcer, standing by, just in case Jesus might actually suggest that Jews should rebel, and refuse to pay Roman taxes. Jesus, teaching us to keep heavenly things out of earthly government, easily avoids their trap, just as He had done moments before, with another group of foes.
If you look just after this encounter in Matthew 22, you will read about the Sadducees, another religious faction, trying just the opposite trick to Jesus. The Sadducees tried to make Jesus look ridiculous by applying earthly rules to the heavenly realm, asking about the woman who, following the law of Moses, had married seven brothers, who died one after the other, each unsuccessfully seeking an heir for the first. Whose wife would she be in heaven? Jesus casts off their feeble attempt to trick Him just as easily as He did that of the Pharisees, teaching us to keep earthly things out of the heavenly realm, for as Jesus taught, marriage and bearing children are of this life. In heaven, the faithful are not married. But they are very much alive, since the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of the living, not the dead.
In these two passages then, Jesus distinguishes between God’s Left Hand Government on earth, the order He maintains through kings and presidents and congresses, and God’s Right Hand Government, which has only the Law and Gospel to use. God’s Spiritual rule over His Church is effected by His Word, by which He delivers eternal life and peace to all who trust in Christ. So far so good, a neat and fairly simple explanation of our simultaneous life in this world, and life in Christ’s Church. Give honor to the king. But put your faith only in Christ. However, satan, whom God has defeated but not yet completely caged, still tries to confuse our understanding, so that we mix up these two governments, like the Pharisees and Sadducees did. The devil uses the same trick that he originally used to drag down Adam and Eve, whispering sweet sounding lies into our ears, lies which, sad to say, engage and attract us.
Two Lies. satan spews forth a dizzying array of reasonable and attractive sounding lies, helped along by the world and our own sinful nature, which both prefer his lies over the Truth of God. But in the area of rightly understanding the Two Governments, we can narrow our focus down to just two major lies from the devil. The first lie is this: The Left Hand, earthly Government and the life we lead under it is the most important thing there is, much more important than God and His Word, so important that you should be dedicating all your efforts to succeeding in this world. Now, when you hear this lie plainly stated, it’s easy to reject. We all know faith in Christ, which leads to eternal life and saves from eternal suffering, is clearly more important than a good life on earth. We know this, or at least we say we know this. But, oh, how we act just the opposite. I could demonstrate this a hundred different ways, but since we’re talking about governments, let’s just consider the love-hate relationship we have with the Presidency.
Democrats have long looked at President Obama as the one who will fix everything. Recent struggles have shaken faith in the man, but no worries, we just need to get to Hillary, because she’s the one, really. She will finally make everything better. On the other side of the aisle, Republicans, who once thought the world of George W. Bush, slowly became disenchanted with him, and hoped for a new Reagan. Look, Mitt Romney, he’s the one. No? Well, look, Marco Rubio. No, Ted Cruz. No, Chris Christie. Americans of every stripe, Christians and unbelievers alike, have a very strong habit of thinking fixing the government is the most important thing we can hope and work for. I mean, doesn't it just seem like if we could get the right people in place, America could be great again, maybe greater than ever before? satan smiles, encouraging us to think this way, because every moment we spend worrying and fretting about finding a political savior is another moment we don’t hear the Word about the One True Savior.
The second lie satan tells about God’s Left and Right Hand Governments is for those who don’t get caught up in seeking heaven on earth, those who still make Church a priority. This second lie goes like this: If you must concern yourself with God’s Right Hand Government, if you insist on considering spiritual matters, just remember that success in the Church, being worthy of God’s favor, works pretty much the same way as things do in the Left Hand, earthly realm. So, continues satan, you better get busy and make your way in God’s Kingdom, earn your place, so that you can be sure you have that heavenly citizenship you think is so important.
Again, when this lie, that we must earn our place in God’s Spiritual Kingdom, just as we must earn our place in the world, is stated bluntly, we know to reject it. And yet, this notion creeps into our hearts and our thinking, yours and mine and every Christian’s. Pastors think, oh, there is so much work to do, I must get busier, or else… Elderly Christians, robbed by disease and frailty from serving others like they always used to, begin to question their faith, because they can’t do anything, and they have always associated being a Christian with doing things. Newly baptized and newly confirmed Christians are drawn away from pure grace and free salvation to “Christian” churches who say Baptism and the Supper are fine, but if you really want to be sure, you need to master sin, or go door to door, or scurry off to Africa, or wear special clothes, or something. You must, they say, do something more than simply believe in the forgiveness Christ gives. And when whatever list of things they give you, or whatever list you think up yourself, when that list ends, another one soon comes along. These lists of things you must do will keep coming, for just as long as you keep believing satan’s lie that you must earn salvation, just like you must earn a living in this world.
Two Promises. Jesus responds to these two lies about earthly and spiritual matters with two promises. First, Jesus promises, in this world you will have troubles. God is not making the New Heavens and New Earth by reforming this sin soaked world, He’s going to burn it up and start over. But for now, God keeps a lid on things, not trying to perfect the world, but making sure His Church has just enough peace and opportunity to gather, and proclaim, and serve the neighbor. It is fine to try and live a decent life, and thank God for the earthly blessings you receive, including the blessing of good government. And it is fine to participate in government, as long as that participation does not require you to deny Christ. But regardless of how you make your way in this world, do not be fooled into thinking that you are going to find your best life now.
In this world you will have trouble, says Jesus, because the world, along with satan, hates Me, hates the Gospel, hates the notion that everything depends on a God who died on a Cross. Even if your government isn’t actively persecuting Christians, (and, by the way, God often uses persecutions to cause great growth in His Spiritual Kingdom), even if the government favors the Church, don’t expect too much from earthly authorities. For they are all shot through with sin and error. They are only temporary, passing away. The poor you will have with you always in this life, says Jesus. Sickness and crime and drought and famine and earthquake and fire and flood are all consequences of living in this fallen world, and will continue, until the End.
Remembering that Jesus has promised life in this world is never going to be all peaches and cream is important. Knowing not to put your hope in the potential of earthly heroes will keep you from seeing your hopes dashed into pieces. Ironically, a lowered expectation about how great this life is going to be will help you more fully enjoy the good things you do receive. Even more, it will keep you from transferring your faith from God to those earthly goods, which is idolatry.
Jesus second promise is concerning His Spiritual, Right Hand Government, that is, concerning His Church. The gates of hell will not prevail against it. The Church, created and sustained by the Word of Christ, will like that Word, endure forever. No matter how bad things might look on earth, the Church wins in the end, and so by faith in Christ you are a winner already, today, and every day. Jesus, the only begotten Son of the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, is Almighty, all Wise, all Just and all Loving. And He has promised to maintain His Church, to do everything needed to deliver her to His Father in heaven, spotless and radiant, a joyous and countless multitude gathered around God in all His glory. Jesus will do it, everything, working through His Word, even working through His Word when it is spoken and sung and explained by sinners, like me, and like you. Jesus, who has already completely received and swallowed up the entire wrath of God against all human sin, will go with His Word, will give His Spirit to all the baptized, will pursue the wandering, and will comfort the downtrodden and those who mourn. Jesus has promised. He will do it.
The source of every problem in the Church is sin. And so, in order to fulfill His promise to
build and maintain and give the final victory to His Church, Jesus keeps one thing at the center
of the life of the Church on earth. Since it’s his birthday, I’ll say it the way Luther did:
“Therefore everything in the Christian church is so ordered that we may daily obtain full
forgiveness of sins through the Word and through signs.”
The world sees only weakness in forgiveness, but then the world sees only death and defeat in the Crucifixion. But God, and satan, and you also know better. By the forgiveness Christ
delivers to us, through Word, Water, Wheat and Wine, we are already citizens of heaven, free to live our lives without fear, loving our neighbors, in the Church and the world, because we have
been perfectly loved by Jesus, Amen.