Texts: Isaiah 45:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
A youngl boy came home from church one day and said to his mother that he intended to become a minister. When she asked why, he replied that since he had to go to church on Sunday anyway, he figured it would be more fun to stand up and yell, than to sit and listen. Whether the story is true or apocryphal, it should challenge us to think about the form of our witness to God.
Isaiah, as a matter of witnessing, recast all the conquests of King Cyrus of Persia into acts of Israel’s God. In effect Isaiah said that Cyrus was victorious because of the agency of God. It didn’t require Cyrus’s assent or belief. As God said: “I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.”
As it happens, Isaiah’s witness was for the ears of Israel anyway. His prophecy gave credibility to the otherwise incomprehensible notion that God would choose, and work through, a person who was not a part of the ancient covenant between Israel and God. It also reminded Israel that all the powers we humans claim are rightfully God’s.
Isaiah offers reassurance too - whatever happens, it is known to God. This however does not give anyone permission to weaponize Isaiah’s prophecy. It’s not a commentary on the outcome of any particular conflict. As though we can say, “It’s God’s will that we won, and they lost.”
Better we should understand Isaiah as inviting Israel (and therefore us, as inheritors of the same faith in God) to look at the circumstances and events of our lives in terms of the question, “What is God trying to teach us in this moment? Therefore the prophecy does not remain a snapshot of faith in a long-ago time, or a commentary on a particular event in history. Rather, it is the prophet’s witness about the living God’s lively activity in our lives.
Israel, twenty-five centuries ago might have concluded many things. God is teaching us something about humility. God is teaching us to place our highest trust beyond human governance. God is teaching us about the limits of our power. God is teaching us that though we cannot fully understand the purposes of God, we can believe in God’s intention to save and restore us and creation. By any and all of these realizations, God works in us and through us.
This brings us to the character of the community of Jesus Christ in Thessalonica. After seeing the servant lifestyle of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, and after hearing the story of Jesus, the people had joyfully received the news of the Son of God who had been killed and whom God raised from death to set captives free. In choosing this faith they were undeterred - even by various persecutions that landed on anyone who opted out of the commonly accepted religious and sacrificial systems of the day.
Not only did these people believe, they also become joyful imitators of Christ and the Apostles. Paul’s letter shows us a picture of a community of vibrant and living faith. They embraced this radical story as a blueprint for their lives, not a set of doctrines. They changed their devotional life.
Instead of sacrificing to small gods, hoping for good, the Christians of Thessalonica devoted themselves to the good of loving service in Christ’s name. And found there a sense of confidence, and liberation from all the want and worry they’d never known. This should make us ask, whatever happened to such faith?
It’s not at all the same as the boy whose only knowledge of God came through the emphatic sermons of the minister. The child believed that the work of ministry is to be God’s professional scolder. For anyone who experiences God this way, how can worship and our Christian faith be anything more than a dreary Sabbath duty?
This is not the living and true God that the Christians of Thessalonica came to know through the Apostles. And because their embrace of the story of Jesus and God was so joyful and genuine, it was infectious. The word spread because of the liberation they wanted to share and the kindnesses they did. Paul said so, right? “For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you now only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known. So that we have no need to speak about it.”
To put it as plainly as possible, in worship we hear, celebrate, and thank God for divine love that fills us with good gifts and sets us free. Yet our devotion is not only in our prayers and songs. Our devotion is also the way we live for God and witness to God. So that every day, in multiple ways we are speaking the God of Jesus our Lord into the world.
Don’t let your faith become lip service. That’s what some enemies of Jesus were doing when they tried to entrap him. They thought their question would force Jesus to choose between serving God and serving the Roman emperor.
It was such a straightforward question: “Tell us then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” The word “lawful” was deliberate. Jewish law forbade handling coins with the image of the emperor or any living creature for that matter. Roman law required people to pay taxes. You have to pay Roman taxes with Roman coins.
In actual practice, some devout Jews hired gentiles to pay their taxes for them. But the question put to Jesus was a philosophical one. If Jesus chose one side, the other side could accuse him of breaking the law. The danger was that Jesus the radical teacher would be turned on by whichever side he betrayed.
But Jesus didn’t go there. Without raising his voice he called out his opponents as bad actors. He was as sincere as a prophet, asking them to show him a coin and identify the image on it. It was the emperor of course. And so Jesus taught them, who had not come to him for a lesson. He said, things that humans make belong to humans. Things that God makes belong to God. Wait! God doesn’t make money in any form. Ah, but, God does make humans, and all creatures.
So, if we are to give to God the things that are God’s, it means that we give ourselves to God. And according to the experience of God’s people in Thessalonica, as you embrace and enact this devotion with joy, God’s living word becomes in you a great witness of love. As we live more into God, all else…from taxes to persecutions, becomes something we can rise above. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.