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The Highest Power

20th Sunday after Pentecost (A)    October 22, 2017     Text:  Matthew 22:15-22  Rev. Jon Nack

            Dear friends in Christ, when I hear someone say, “I believe in a higher power,” I tend not to be impressed.  There are many “higher powers” in this world.  But there is only one “highest power.”  And if you mix those two things up (whether in your words, or in your deeds), then you are guilty of idolatry.

            The Pharisees in our text wanted to entrap Jesus.  And what they wanted to do was to use the highest power in the world at the time, the Roman government – Caesar in particular.  At the time, there was no greater power than Rome.  Caesar ruled his empire with military and economic might.  The military might took the form of 25 legions of soldiers, which was an immense fighting force of around 125,000 trained and well equipped fighting men.  These soldiers were used to enforce Roman rule and conquer foreign lands subjugate its populations.  Obviously, this meant heavy burdens of taxation not only for the support of Rome’s military might, but for the monthly bread and circus handouts to citizens and slaves in Rome that would have required approximately 300,000 tons of imported grain a year!  [i]  “In addition to the grain toll, there were also taxes on produce, sales taxes, temple taxes, occupational taxes, custom taxes, transit taxes, and many others.”

            Clearly, this heavy burden of taxation was an ongoing source of bitterness and anger because it was plundering a people that often couldn’t afford it, and handing it over to those who kept getting richer and richer.  (Though to be fair, Herod had reinvested Roman money in some magnificent public works projects throughout Israel, including the enlargement of the temple in Jerusalem.) 

            But another objection to the tax was the very fact that the coins used to pay the taxes bore the image of Caesar along with the inscription, “Son of God.”  Such a statement would have been blasphemous to a Jew, but widely accepted just about everywhere else in the empire.

            And it was quite simple, really.  If you refused to pay, you were going to pay.  You were going to feel the full weight and power of the Roman Empire with all that it had at its disposal to enforce it laws, collect its taxes, and rule its subjects.

            And that is exactly what the Pharisees wanted to see happen to Jesus.  That is why they pit Him against the highest power in the land.  They wanted to see Jesus crushed by that power as they came to arrest Him and execute Him as a rebel.

            The Pharisees were showing that they believed in a higher power.  Oh, they might have said their higher power was God, but when it came right down to it, the higher power they appealed to wasn’t God.  They were going to use the government to make things right, to help them keep their own positions and authority and way of life. 

            There are “higher authorities” and then there is the highest authority.  When you get the two confused, you are guilty of committing idolatry.  Luther explained that we should fear, love and trust in God above all things.

            The Pharisees wanted to trust in the power of Rome.  We want to trust in the power of the dollar.  We want to trust in our candidates and their efforts in office to make things right for us.  We want to trust in our own resourcefulness and cleverness to get ahead, and sometimes to get around other people.  We want to trust in the power of science and medicine and technology.  We want to trust in our own feelings to guide us into the right thinking and the right decisions. 

            There are higher powers that we trust in.  There are also higher powers that we fear.  We may fear the disapproval of a husband or wife and not want to upset him or her.  We may fear a boss who expects us to do dishonest things.  We may fear the powers of the government that seems to be more and more hostile to Christianity.  We may fear the power of society as it too stands ready to punish with ridicule and worse, those who stand for Christ, and Christian values.  Or, we may simply fear that we are losing out in life if we don’t spend our days, hours, and dollars and what we think will bring us happiness and fulfillment at the expense of our spiritual lives.  That is an awful powerful force for far too many today that have so many excuses why they do not frequent the Lord’s house or honor the Sabbath.  There may be lots of higher powers.  But there is only one highest power.       

            But Jesus showed how foolish it is when you mix these two things up.  The Pharisees trusted in the power of the Roman government and their own cleverness to set the trap for Jesus.  But there is a power much higher than that!  There is the highest power that they are neither fearing, nor trusting – and that is God Himself.

            In fact, every powerful government is under the authority and rule of the almighty God.  King Cyrus from the Old Testament reading (Isaiah 45) is a perfect example.  Even though he may have trusted in himself and viewed himself as his own highest power, God reminded him that it was because God empowered him to conquer as part of His divine plan to bring Israel to repentance.  It is Yahweh who says, “I am Yahweh, and there is no other.  I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am Yahweh who does all these things.”  (Isaiah 45:7)

            When Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar what is His and to God the things that are God’s,” He is reminding them and us, who the highest power is.

            It is a clear call to repent of the sin of mixing up higher powers with the highest of all.  It is call to repent of the sin of idolatry and turn to the own who has the power to kill and the power to make alive.  It is a call to return to the true God because there is no other. 

            It is time to stop taking comfort in our own works and wisdom and simply cling to Jesus Christ who has been given all power and authority and in whom the fullness of God dwells. 

            I want you to understand today, that there is no higher power than Jesus Christ.  When our own powers seem to be failing us, when the powers of this world seem to stand against us, when the powers that be seem to turn a blind eye, or the evil eye, we have a Savior in Christ Jesus.

            By our baptism, we bear the inscription, “Sons and daughters of God.”  For the Word of God proclaims to you:  You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus,  for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” [1]

            Jesus says, “Fear not, your sins are forgiven.”  That is from the highest authority of all.  In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

[1] The Holy Bible : New International Version. Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1984, S. Ga 3:26

 

[i] https://theologycurator.com/roman-empire-during-time-jesus/

Chosen For the Feast

19th Sunday after Pentecost (A)    October 15, 2017    Text:  Matthew 22:1-14  Seminarian Christopher Antonetti

Today’s gospel reading from Matthew is about a wedding feast. First, let me talk about another feast. It’s several hundred years before the time of Christ and the Jews, who are exiled in Persia, are having a great feast because a man has been hanged. That man was named Haman. Haman was basically the number-two guy in Persia and thought very highly of himself. When he went down the street he expected everyone to bow down. One day a man did not bow down. His name was Mordechai and he was a Jew. This really ticked off Haman. So Haman tricked the king into making a decree that all Jews be killed for treason. Unfortunately for Haman, Mordechai was connected. His cousin, Esther, had been chosen to be one of the king’s wives, and through Esther he had informed the king of a plot against the king’s life. Now the king didn’t know Esther was a Jew. She had the courage to invite the king and Haman to her own banquet. The servants went to Haman to invite him, and he was sure it was going to be a great honor. Esther instead exposed Haman at the banquet, begging the king’s mercy for her people. Haman was thrown out of the banquet and hung, and Mordechai sat at the king’s table in the king’s finest robes. The entire Jewish nation threw a celebration feast for their salvation from the hands of Haman. In today’s parable from the gospel of Matthew a greater feast is given in which MANY ARE CALLED, BUT FEW ARE CHOSEN.

The reading begins with Jesus describing all of salvation history through a parable, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.” God truly calls all to believe in Christ through his servants. In the first invitation, the king is God and he sends his servants, the prophets, to those invited to the wedding feast. The Jews are the ones invited here because God promised Abraham that the Christ would come through them. Yet those invited ignored the servants in the same way the Jews ignored the prophets and turned away from God.

So God sends other servants, not the prophets anymore, but the apostles. How do we know they are the apostles? The dinner is prepared and everything is ready. Before the marriage feast for God’s son was not complete, but now it is complete. That completion came when Jesus Christ died as a sacrifice for our sins and rose on the third day. The church is the bride of Christ, and we are now able to be joined with Christ through faith in him. This is the message that the apostles are proclaiming as they are still inviting the invited ones – the Jews – to the wedding feast.

The reaction to the second invitation is even worse than the first. The words use in scripture here show that the first set of invitees ignore the invitation or treat it lightly and then go about their business. This isn’t even saying that they had serious business to attend. It would be like being invited to a party of a co-worker or acquaintance who you don’t really care for. You feel kind of obligated to go, but you will take any excuse you can to avoid it. “Yeah, I may totally go to that…unless I have to balance my checkbook, or there are some good reruns on.” This is how they treat Christ’s work – like a joke. Do we ever do this? Do we not treat Christ’s work like it is the lowest priority when we ignore coming to hear his servants?

The second group of invitees goes even beyond this, treating them shamefully and killing them. The way these servants, the apostles, are treated is the way we must expect to be treated by the world in this Christian life. The words used for how the servants are treated in the parable are also used throughout the New Testament to describe how Jesus and the apostles were often treated. This is spiteful treatment. We saw in the reading that God avenges his mistreated servants. The city destroyed would be a real city as God allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed about 40 years later. We should fear ignoring or mistreating those who preach God’s word. As the writer to the Hebrews says, “how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation.

God’s servants are attacked in bad faith because mankind hates God. At the seminary a week ago we had a lady florist come speak who is currently being sued for not making floral arrangements for a same-sex wedding ceremony. Her case is in the supreme court and is national news, so she receives constant harassment and death threats through phone, online, and in the mail. She told us she was looking at a card sent to her by a lesbian couple with a picture of them and more profane language than she had ever seen. At first she was taken aback…but then she laughed, because she knew that if the world hates her, it hated Christ first. We should take comfort in the fact that God will answer our prayers in persecution.

So Jesus’ description continues, “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.” The original invitees were not found worthy so now the call goes out to all. Peter says in Acts 13 that the Jews were not found worthy since they rejected the Word of God, so the call goes out to the Gentiles. The worthiness does not come from anything they do, but on whether they accept and believe the invitation, that is, the Word of God. Still, the call is now out to all people, and that still includes the Jews. The call goes to both bad and good as well. God in his mercy calls all through his servants with the gospel. All need to hear the gospel of Christ and we hope that all will believe, but like Haman, some will come to the banquet and not be prepared for what they get there.

We heard earlier how rejection of the call brings death, but seemingly listening without faith in Christ also brings destruction. Jesus says, “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” The king sees a man without a wedding garment. What is a wedding garment? In Jesus’ time people were given party clothes to match the celebratory nature of the occasion. Think of this as being at a restaurant where you are severely underdressed. Or being on the shop floor at work without a uniform and protective equipment. Or the only one not wearing a costume at a party. The partygoer has answered the call, but now rejects the very reason for being there. In his mercy the king invited the man, but now in his justice he must throw him out for rejecting the reason for being there.

What is the wedding garment really? What is Jesus talking about? Does the wedding garment symbolize the good works of the man? No. The garments were given to everyone; they didn’t bring their own. Everyone who was called to the party could have a garment, it did not have to be earned. Also, when questioned, what does the man say? Nothing. The man is speechless because he has nothing to offer. As Paul says in Romans, “whatever the law says to those under the law so that every mouth may be stopped.” You want to bring your works as your garment? Examine yourself by the Ten Commandments. God says, “Tell me that you have never broken one.” Will you be able to answer that you have kept all?

The wedding garment really is faith in Christ. The robes are given by the king with no merit on the part of the guests, just like we may freely believe in Christ and in baptism freely receive Christ by faith. In fact, Revelation says that the bride of Christ, the Church, will be clothed on the last day in clean white garments. There is a common baptismal practice of clothing the one to be baptized in white to symbolize visually this very real washing in water with the Word. As we remember all saints day coming soon, many churches will sing “Behold a Host Arrayed In White” based on that text from Revelation as we remember those fellow believers who are now with Christ. The wedding garment is given to you at your baptism and remains with you your whole life – it is Christ’s righteousness.

The one who rejects this call receives death. The outer darkness mentioned is not a parable or a figure of speech. Christ said many other times that those without faith will be thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. We should not take this as a fable or a joke, nor treat it lightly. Christ tells us this future so that we will refrain from sin.

Then what do we say about the last verse, “for many are called, but few are chosen.”? In Christ, we are chosen for eternal life. Through his workers God calls all people and wishes for all to come to salvation. We should not fear the fact that few are chosen. God does not call all people and then wish in secret to choose only certain people. Everyone hearing my voice can be sure that Christ died for you to forgive your sins. It is those who persist in their rejection of this fact who show that they are not chosen. In the death of Christ, God shows that he chooses us. The Jews saw Haman hanging and knew that God chose to save them. The Father had to send his Son to hang on a cross for us so he could call all of us to salvation. Christ’s death and resurrection is an even greater sign that God chose to save you and me.

Mordechai knew he had been delivered when he was wearing the king’s robes in the palace and the evil Haman was hanging on the gallows. We are robed in Christ’s righteousness through baptism as we believe that Jesus was hung on the cross for us and rose again. So we see God’s love right there before us and we can know we are both called and chosen. Amen.

Totally Unexpected!

18th Sunday after Pentecost (A)          October 8, 2017        Text:  Isaiah 5:1-7         Rev. Jon Nack

            Dear friends in Christ, as a transplanted Hoosier, I’m starting to absorb some of the culture.  It is interesting the way we express our appreciation and love for our heritage and home in the way of poetry and songs.  I haven’t been born in Indiana or raised here.  But when I listen to the natives sing, “Back Home Again in Indiana,” I can feel the strong tie and love for the place that is home.  I can imagine the candlelight gleaming bright through the sycamores for me.  I can smell the new mown hay in all its fragrance.  I can almost see the moonlight on the Wabash.  Such a wonderful place described with memories that cause you to long for home, no matter where in this world you might be.

            Our text for today, from Isaiah chapter 5, is very much like a sentimental poem or song about a wonderful place that has a deep meaning and connection for the author.  By all accounts a beautiful place.  A place that should evoke wonderful memories, lovely times, joyful celebrations, and rewarding effort.

            This place was to be the author’s prime jewel, his favorite place to be.  A place of peace and beauty and happiness.  This was to be his Disney – his happiest place on earth.

            And interestingly enough, this author loved this place well before it even existed.  In fact, you might say that this wonderful place – his vineyard - was to be a creation of and reflection of his love.

            You can imagine how beautiful a place it would have been.  This vineyard was located on a fertile hill.  He plowed it and cleared it of stones.  He planted the choicest grapevines in it.  He built a watchtower in it.  He was going to dwell there in the midst of that vineyard and guard it and tend it.  He hewed out a wine vat for the production of wine at the time of the harvest and the celebration that would follow. 

            But what happened there was totally unexpected.  With all that was done, with no expenses or efforts spared, with everything done correctly, you would expect the love song to finish with  a description of beautiful, full clusters of grapes, running with juice.  You would have expected to hear the poem culminate in the wonderful memories, lovely times, and rewarding efforts that came to pass.

            But this was not to be!  For when the vinedresser came to look for the grapes, all he found was rotten, stinking stench.  No fresh fragrance that would linger in the nose and in the memory.  Rather the pungent, gag inducing stench which brings a violent and immediate reaction which is far from happy or pleasant.

            When you first start listening to this love song, you don’t expect what happens.  Nor did the hearers expect the final zinger that the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting. 

            The message is clear.  There was no excuse for the stench of their ungodly sin.  God looked for justice but found bloodshed.  He looked for righteousness, but found the outcry of those who had been treated most unrighteously.

            Instead of bringing pleasant memories, this song suddenly confronts God’s people with the truth that they have no excuse for their sins.  God has done everything necessary for His people and yet, they produce rotten fruit that stinks to high heaven.

            Isaiah goes on in this chapter to speak of those who have oppressing the have nots.  Those whose days and nights revolve around “letting the good times roll” eating, drinking and being merry, but having no regard for the works or words of the Lord.  He especially confronts those who call evil good and good evil.

            Oh what examples we could give today!  Empty religious worship and rituals were considered good by the people.  Accumulating possessions and wealth (even at the expense of others) is considered to be good.  Not making anyone uncomfortable by talking about sin or guilt, minimizing or explaining away what God says about the adulterer, sexually impure, thieves, etc. is considered good.

            But not only do we have no excuse, we also know better.  For the poem starts by asking the hearer to judge between the Lord and his vineyard.  When it is abstract, it is easy to see that something is terribly wrong, even what we would say today is an “epic fail.”

            But when the mirror is turned around, suddenly it becomes less clear to us.  When we are the ones being held accountable for our foul smelling, ruinous results, we are more likely to either fault the vinedresser and blame him, or to deny the severity of our sin.

            But we know better, and we have no excuse.  And the LORD in his righteous wrath is going to execute his judgment by breaking down the hedge and wall, letting the vineyard go to waste until it is overgrown with weeds and thorns – dried up from lack of rain.  A place that resembles no paradise, but a wild wilderness devoid of hope.  Abandoned and forsaken.

            And yet, the story will not end there.  For as we hear in the Gospel for today, the owner sends not just servants back to the vineyard, but His very Son.  The stench of festering evil is still strong, for the tenants conclude that they shall kill the son.

            But in the sacrifice of the Son, is the giving of the one last thing that can remove the stench of sin and our epic failure.  It is what will bring life back into the vineyard.  It is God Himself come to dwell in our midst.  And He allows Himself to be trampled and broken down.  He allows Himself to be pierced by the thorns of that vineyard.  And upon the cross, He experiences the mighty thirst of one condemned to bear the entire wrath of God.  But He does it for us.

            And He does it that there might be a vine, that we can be grafted into – Jesus Christ Himself.  And because we are attached to the good vine, He remains in us, and we will and do produce good fruit. 

            And the result is totally unexpected.  We receive His life.  And He comes to dwell in our midst here to guard and protect us.  And there is for us now a paradise, that we have a part of and in.  And the end of the song has been rewritten.  Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem! 15 The LORD has taken away your punishment,  he has turned back your enemy. The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. 16 On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, O Zion;  do not let your hands hang limp. 17 The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save.  He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you withsinging.” [1]

            God with His people in Christ Jesus – sounds like paradise!

          

 

[1] The Holy Bible : New International Version. Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1984, S. Zep 3:14

The Blessing of Divine Authority

17th Sunday after Pentecost (A)     October 1st, 2017     Text:  Matthew 21:23-27     Rev. Jon Nack

            Dear friends in Christ, when I was in the seminary, one of my professors,  Ronald R. Feuerhahn, was observing the shift in attitude toward authority that took place especially during the 60’s.  Following a deeply embedded vein of distrust towards the government and other social institutions, the saying of the day became “Question Authority.” 

            The implied message was that it was “everyman’s” responsibility to not blindly accept the authority of government, social institutions, even churches, but to be the fly in the ointment that forced these institutions towards transparency and their engagement with society for the highest and better good.  Trust was going to have to be earned instead of blindly given.

            But as you might expect, the idea of questioning authority is just a short step away from rejecting any authority but your own.  And professor Feuerhahn’s point was that if all authority is established by God as it says in Romans 13:1 when Paul writes:  (Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.)  Then authority is not something to be rejected but rather respected.  In fact, Christians have a God given responsibility to do so.

            After all, isn’t this what Martin Luther taught in regard to the 4th commandment in which God commands us to honor mother and father?  We should fear and love God so that we do not despise our parents or other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.

            And so, all earthly authority is derived from God.  Jesus receives authority from the Father.  He gives authority to his disciples to forgive and to heal.  God gives authority to parents and government officials, and to pastors.  This authority is real and powerful, but it is God’s authority given to us to use according to His will and purpose.  Any exercise of authority out of that structure is a form of idolatry and a sin against God Himself.  And any rejection of any portion of God’s structure of authority, or chain of command, is a rejection of God Himself.  Back to Romans 13, Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  (Romans 13:20)

            So how are we doing today when it comes to authority?  When we look into the homes of families today, what do we see?  In far too many cases we see homes that are marked by children who are disobedient and have no respect for the authority of their parents.  What about when we look into our schools?  Far too often, we see students (and parents) who display a lack of respect for the authority of the teachers and administrators.  What about when we look into the places of work?  There you might see a begrudging bending to authority, but it is often not willing, but rather given out of fear for being let go.  When we look into the criminal justice system, we see a lack of respect for the authority of the law and law enforcement.  And even in the church in more places than I would care to admit, we see a lack of respect for the authority of the pastor as someone who is speaking the very word of God.  (Some of that disrespect may be, in fact, earned if the preacher is not preaching the authoritative Word of God.)

            Someone wisely said that if you are not convinced of the authority of Scripture, than you will be a slave to what sounds right.  Pretty shaky ground when you think about it.  Solomon has something to say about that too:  There is a way that seems right to man, but in the end leads to death (Proverbs 14:12).

            You can clearly see the difference between true divine authority and human authority in the text from Matthew chapter 21.  The chief priests and the elders of the people were men of authority.  In fact, they could have exercised their God given authority.  But they had rejected the Word of Jesus.  They did not accept Jesus’ claim as the Son of God and Savior.         

            The rejected Jesus’ authority over them.  So once they had stepped out from God’s structure of divine authority, what did they have left?  Upon what did their authority depend?

            You can see that it depended in large part on what the people would say.  When Jesus asked them to answer His question about whether John’s baptism was from God or men, they quickly realized they could not say it was from man, because they were afraid of the crowd.  If they said from John, then they would have to own up to their rejection of the authoritative Word of God through the prophetic word of John who pointed to this very Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  (John 1:29)

            I think we really need to think about where we look for authority today.  For if our authority comes from what sounds right, or from what the crowds (or majority of society is saying today, or that we may be keeping silent for fear of what the crowds will say) then it is time for us to repent of loosing confidence in the authority of the Word of God.  It is time to draw some links between the lack of respect we see in our own lives and families to the place that God’s Word has in our lives.  It is time to repent of the sins of stepping outside of God’s authority structure and trying to claim His authority as our own.  And it is time to admit that like the chief priest and elders of the people, these sins leave us with really nothing to say and no real authority anyway.

            But there is a much better way.  That is to live under the authority that God has established.  That starts with Christ’s authority on earth to forgive sins.  What got these people so riled up was Jesus daring to exercise His authority and drive the money changers out of the temple and so purify the very house of God from this kind of impurity.  But that isn’t the only authority Jesus has been given to purify.  Jesus also said that the Son of Man had been given authority an earth to forgive sins.  And to show that this authority was from God, he performed the miracle of telling the lame man to get up, take up his mat, and go home.  (Mark 2:10).

            You may not realize the authority that you have as you have been given the gift of God’s inspired Word.  Martin Luther said that “A simple man with Scripture has more authority than the pope or a council.” 

            You may be simple men and women, but you have been given the gift of the Gospel to read in your homes and share with your families, neighbors and friends.  It carries with it the authority of God Himself and Jesus Christ.  Speak it with boldness and confidence.  Encourage one another.  Use the gifts of the sacraments and the office of the keys which is the special authority on earth which God gives to the church to forgive sins.

            For those who receive God’s kingdom, receive Christ’s authority.  Then there is no need for Him to keep silent.  (There is also no need to ask by whose authority Jesus forgives your sins and gives you life and salvation.)  You already know the answer.  And that authority is something to be honored and respected.  In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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