Pentecost, Year A, October 18, 2014
Isaiah 45.1-7; Psalm 96.1-9 [10-13]; 1 Thess. 1.1-10; Matt. 22.15-22
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the One who is the source of all life, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
About three years ago I was asked by Miss Shannon to lead a large group session on campus with those in addiction treatment. At that time, treatment was the 12-step program, not CIBISA like it is now. Since the concept of a “higher power” is the foundation of the 12-step program she wanted me to come in and talk to the group about a higher power and also forgiveness.
There were about 12 people in the group and I wanted to know how each person thought of his or her higher power (boys and girls were together for treatment then). We started out by talking about words for the “higher power” or God or Creator, or however each person thought about the One who brought all things into being. I wrote all people thoughts on the white board.
The topic of the devil, or evil, or darkness, or whatever we want to call it inevitably came up. We started to talk about words and images for this reality in the world that takes and destroys life. Each person had plenty of words and examples of this reality.
When we finished talking about the two I asked the question: “Which has more power…God or evil? If you think God does, raise your hand.” Just one person raised his hand and one other shyly put her hand half way in the air.
“If you think evil or the devil has more power, raise your hand.” Eight people confidently raised their hands.
“How many of you are not sure?” The last two raised their hands.
I certainly understood why most everyone in the group thought evil had more power. Evil had been such a strong reality in their lives through the power of addiction, abuse in the home while growing up, abandonment by people who were supposed to care for them, and their own decisions and actions that led them to YCC and addiction treatment.
What our conversation led me to understand is that from their prospective they saw two powers at work in the world, the power of good and the power of evil, and they didn’t know which one was going to win out in the end or many already believed that evil is and was already winning.
Some of you may feel the same way today or even wonder about it. This of course makes it quite hard to trust a higher power, or God, when one does not know or believe that ultimately God is more powerful and has the capacity to help one overcome addiction.
It is not just on the subject of addiction in which we wonder about the power and presence of God in the world. We wonder about it when we or someone else gets sick, when children die of hunger, when epidemics like Ebola takes thousands of lives and manifests fear in our hearts, when tornadoes, hurricanes, or earthquakes wipe out whole towns, and when wars claim the lives of so many innocent people.
Our faith in Jesus should cause us to wonder about the power and presence of God in the face of such realities in our world.
The Israelites exiled in Babylon, the people for whom the book of Isaiah was written, wondered about God’s power too. It seemed to them that the gods of the ones who destroyed their homes and place of worship and forced them to leave the land they knew and be slaves in another, had more power. It seemed as if evil was winning. They felt as if God abandoned them.
It was in the midst of this wondering and uncertainty that they hear the voice of God through the prophet Isaiah: “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.” As if saying it once were not enough, God says it again in various ways at least 10 more times just in chapter 45.
What God is saying to the people and to us here today is that nothing and no one else has more power than God. God is the beginning and the end. The source from which all things come and all things return. No matter how much power evil seems to have in the world and in our lives, God reminds us again and again in Scripture that evil doesn’t win and its power comes nowhere close to God’s power.
Nothing is clearer than this than in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God in the flesh. In Jesus’ death on the cross, evil and death seem to win, but only for three days. On the third day the Spirit of God raised Jesus up from the grave in the resurrection of his body, conquering evil and death forever. This is the heart of the Christian faith, giving example and substance to God’s words in Isaiah 45.5: “I am the Lord, and there is no other.”
We see this same concept over the question of power in our Gospel reading today. Jewish leaders try and trap Jesus when they asked the question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” This seems like an innocent question, but with some digging we find out that taxes to the emperor had to be paid with a certain coin.
This particular coin, called a denarius, bore the image of Caesar Augustus, along with these words: “Tiberias Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” Essentially, it said that Caesar was God’s representative on earth, or really God in the flesh. For a Jewish person to carry around and use one of these coins was to break the first commandment of “Thou shall have no other gods before me.”
If Jesus answered, “yes,” to their question he would discredit all his teaching and God whom he served. If he said, “no,” then the Roman soldiers would think him to be an insurrectionist and seek to kill him and his followers as soon as possible.
The Jewish leaders thought they couldn’t lose, but they did not realize that Jesus was the exact imprint of the One who spoke in Isaiah, “I am the Lord, and there is no other.”
Notice that Jesus does not even have a coin on him. He asks for one and says, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answer, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Who has more power on earth: the emperor or God? Without saying it directly, Jesus affirms God’s power, even though the emperor has the ability to kill Jesus.
Jesus’ words beg the question: “What things are God’s?” The coin bears the image of Caesar. What or who bears the image of God?
For this we go way back to the creation story in Genesis: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
Amazingly enough, you and I bear the image of God and belong to God. Each of us is to give to God that which bears God’s image, our very selves.
And if all things have their beginning and end in God, then is there anything really that doesn’t belong to God?…even Caesar and his coin? Money we may think is ours, even our lives that we think are our own.
Both of our Scripture readings today speak of God’s power and presence in the world, God’s involvement and care in all our lives in all things that happen. So what are we to think when in our lives evil seems to have more of a presence than God, when we are hurting, or addiction gets the best of us, or someone we love disappoints us again? How are we to think of this One who is the Lord?
We are to think of this One, who forms light and creates darkness, as the one made flesh in Jesus…the One who gives up his power on the cross for the sake of your life and the whole world.
It is in this knowing, in this statement of faith, that we find our power and our strength to do incredible things like give our lives back to God, overcome addiction, change, forgive when we didn’t think it possible, love people we consider to be enemies, and even have courage in the face of death.
This is the power of God that overcomes and destroys evil and it is a force in this world that is making all things new, including you and me. Thanks be to God.