O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good, His mercy endures forever (1 Chr 16:34). Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church - Winnipeg, MB
Based on Mt. 22:15-22
Preached on October 19, 2014
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Fellow baptized saints, it was night. It was icy, and I was driving on a highway that would be going downhill for at least two kilometers. My senses were buzzing. I was on full alert, but when the traffic hit the black ice, there was nothing anyone could do. My car began angling toward the guardrail as I fought the urge to make a bold correction. The cars in front of me had already hit it, and had bounced off across the all the lanes into the ditch on the other side. We werenít going fast, perhaps 20, but I did not want my car to hit a thing! I softly touched the brakes, hoping to get a feel on where the road surface was at. It actually helped. My car was decelerating slowly. In front of me was a car facing the wrong way, sliding backwards down the guardrail. Light flashing, metal screeching. But I was not prepared to turn my steering wheel. I figured I could stop if I had to - until I looked in the rear view mirror. Bearing down on top of me, turned completely sideways, was a transport truck - its driver keeping the vehicle from hitting the guardrail. But he could not stop. He was coming, and I was going to have to move. I let my foot off the brake, and actually touched the gas to pull myself away from the backwards car and the sideways transport. With cars in the ditch on both sides now, I pulled away from the traffic and slowly rolled down the hill in silence. I still marvel that I didnít end up in the ditch that night.
You know, people have been getting stuck in "ditches" for centuries, so much so that it has become a metaphor for missing the mark. Whether you go off the road to the right or to the left, a comfy ditch awaits your mistake. In fact, in our Gospel reading this morning the Pharisees and the Herodians hoped to get Jesus stuck in one of these proverbial ditches.
Now, we've met the Pharisees before, but the Herodians don't get all that much ink in the New Testament. The Herodians, as their name implies, were supporters of the Herod family dynasty, a dynasty not known for being kind to Jews. They were in power because they were aligned with the Romans - so normally the Pharisees and the Herodians hated each other. Obviously, the Pharisees were desperate to get rid of Jesus, so desperate, that they were even working with their sworn enemies.
And so, this new found alliance hoped to present Jesus with two ditches and no road in between. They asked this question, "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" If Jesus said no, then the Herodians would have the evidence they needed to arrest Jesus. If Jesus said yes, then He would instantly become unpopular with the people who hated the Roman occupation. Either way, Jesus would be out of the picture and life could return to the way it was before.
But Jesus knew their plan. He walked the narrow road leaving both of His opponents in the ditch, because He understood something they did not. Our Lord understood that both civil authority and religious authority are from God. God authorizes and is in control of both types of authority. The physical kingdoms of power and the spiritual kingdom of grace are not an "either / or," but a "both / and" situation. In the Old Testament Reading for today, Isaiah said that Cyrus, the pagan king of Persia, in spite of all his evil outward appearances, was God's instrument. The Lord used this pagan king to work out history for the ultimate good of his people. Likewise, when Pilate boasts of his authority either to punish Jesus or to let Him go, Jesus answered him, "You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above."
And when Jesus said, "Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's," he was telling us that Caesar and in our case, the government is God's instrument at work in the physical world. The government is one of the ways God maintains order amidst the chaos of our sinful rebellion. Obeying the laws of the land and participating in our democracy, as we will this week, are all a part of our obedience to God.
Now, as interesting as this little run-in was, and as nice as it is to know that faithful Christians are also faithful citizens of the civil authorities, surely there is more to learn from today's Gospel reading.
Here is where context comes to our aid. This little run-in took place in the temple on the Tuesday before Jesus was crucified. In a few days He would die. In a few days He would render unto God the things that are Godís. His life. His blood. His perfect righteousness. In a few days, Jesus would pull mankind out of the ditches into which we have fallen. Because that was why He was there - in Jerusalem - in the temple.
The devil, the world, and your old sinful self are constantly dragging you into one of two ditches.
An investigation of the people in one of the ditches finds people who look at God's Law in a superficial way, like its easy and to be understood in whatever way makes it simple to keep. In this ditch are people who say things such as: "I lead a pretty good life. I've never murdered anyone or robbed a bank or anything like that. I'm faithful to my wife. I spend time with my kids. Yeah, I think there's a pretty good chance that I'll end up in heaven." This is the ditch of self-righteousness. Old Adamís ditch. Nevermind the reality that we have to keep changing the meaning of Godís Law so we donít break it - Nevermind the lie we have to keep telling ourselves to remain comfortable being in the ditch. "I am a good person, and I will say as much to Godís face."
An investigation of the people in the ditch on the other side of the road finds people who are really depressed. In this ditch it is understood that the Law cannot be kept. That it condemns you. An interview with these people would find thoughts such as, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks. I am just too old to be saved." "No matter how hard I try, it just isn't good enough." "After all I have done, there is no way that God will let me into heaven." This is the ditch of despair. Judasí ditch. This ditch is full of people who believe that their sin is more powerful than God's forgiveness. "Maybe God forgives me, but I just canít forgive myself. What I say of myself is more important than what God says of me."
These two ditches actually have something pretty important in common. They both depend on self. The people in the one ditch say, "I am good enough to get into heaven." The people in the other ditch say, "I am not good enough to get into heaven." Every time we look to self, look to me, look to I, we get pulled into one of these two ditches. Even those who say, "I will do my best and God will do the rest," are in the self-righteous ditch. If any part of it is up to me, I am in a ditch. For I am fallen. I am a child of the fall, and the ditch is my home.
But fear not! In fact, Repent. Turn and look! For your Savior enters the ditch to retrieve you. Your Redeemer, who calls Himself the way, has brought that way, that road, right down into the ditch so that He can carry you out. Jesus came all the way down from heaven. He came from His perfect place to this fallen world so He could take you up out of it. He does not drive by, like your pastor did, leaving everyone in the ditch in order to get away safe - but gets in your sin, and in your death on His cross. Jesus knows youíre in the ditch, so He puts His life, His blood, His perfect righteousness in there with you so He can raise you up.
Jesus paid the price. Give Caesar his silver coins, Christ has rendered to God the things that are Godís. He has bought back His people. Purchased and won them from sin and death and from the power of the devil, and not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death. Jesus paid the price for you.
It may be night. It may be icy. It doesnít matter which way youíre facing, or which way youíre sliding - in Jesus you are safe. Leave your old self in the ditch, and rise to walk a new life in Christ, for He is the way and the truth and the life, and no comes to the Father except through Him. In His Holy Name, Amen.
Rev. Cameron Schnarr