There is a story, possibly apocryphal, of a man who attends church for the first time, and gets into conversation with the vicar after the service. The vicar asks him what he does, he replies that he is a bit of a musician, so the vicar invites him to bring his guitar along the next Sunday and play for the congregation. When he had finished his solo acoustic account of In the presence of the Lord, the congregation realised that Eric Clapton had moved into their village. Fully knowing who someone is can take a while.
When we read a Bible passage today, we read with at least 2000 years of reading behind us, and more if we are reading from the Hebrew scriptures. Thus, when we hear the extract from Isaiah, it rings various bells in our minds, which set off other trains of thought, and we swiftly move from a 6th BCE prophet to Jesus being mocked by Roman guards before his crucifixion.
But take a step back, and try to put yourself in the shoes of a Jew listening to this text for the first time. Where was it first heard? Who was talking? And to whom? Modern scholarship dates this text to the Babylonian exile, a 70 year period when the majority of the Jewish nation was enslaved by the Babylonians, to work across what is now modern Iraq. The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, their king lead away in chains with his eyes put out. Everything was finished. And then, as they gathered to talk of the old country, and to recite psalms together in a place that was approaching holy – by water, outside the Gentile city – this prophet got up and uttered these words. In the first person. Speaking with God’s authority.
Who is the servant? Why does the servant suffer? Surely the servant is innocent – how can this be? Jewish theology at the time would blame the people themselves for all the catastrophes that had befallen them. They had not kept the law, they had strayed to foreign gods, they had disobeyed God and formed alliances with Gentile nations, they had not trusted in their God to keep them safe. But a new generation is growing up, one which was not part of those who had abandoned their God, and they surely are innocent, yet suffering. They must learn patience, they must find again the ways of their God and walk in them, and they will be justified. So, the first answer to the question, “who is the servant”, is the nation of Israel, reborn in synagogue worship and the rediscovery of the Law and Scripture, in exile.
Scroll forward a few generations, the people are back in their own land, and this passage is read again, in the newly rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. Who is the servant now? Is everything written by Isaiah fulfilled by their return? No, things are still difficult, Israel is not paradise – there must be a different interpretation of this servant text – there must be a servant, an individual, who will fulfil all these words – and a Messiah is born. So, answer number two is, the Messiah.
Scroll forward again to the time of Jesus, and as his followers watch his miracles and hear his words, as they listen to him preach and teach, then watch him suffer innocently, their minds are turned again to this text, and they see in Jesus this Messiah – and when Jesus asks them about what people are saying about him, they can say for themselves that they think he is the Messiah.
Fine and dandy, you think, but then Jesus proceeds to paint a very different picture of what the Messiah is and does. The disciples, nurtured on a messianic theology of deliverance and independence, reject what Jesus is saying, to the extent that Jesus has to use the same language with them that he used in the wilderness as he was being tempted – the disciples have become the tempter, and Jesus must resist them, and teach them the true meaning of Messiahship.
And that meaning is hard. Jesus talks in terms of a life of suffering, carrying around with us the means of our own execution. This isn’t remotely comforting, nor will it drive out the Romans, but it will lead the disciples into the mind of God. As they look back, post Easter, on the terrible things that happened and then look at the resurrected Jesus, sat with them beside Lake Galilee or in the upper room, they see their God in action in the most radical way. A God who loves extremely – they can see the marks of that love, the nail prints in his palms, the gash in his side, the imprint of the thorns on his brow – and this Jesus they thought they knew, this Messiah they thought they understood, has taken them somewhere completely different. And now they must love in the same way, so that the whole world can understand and meet and know the God who loves them to death and beyond.
We still today have to answer the question that Jesus put to his disciples. Who do we say that Jesus is? He is certainly not the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” of our childhood, or the baby who never cries in the Christmas carol. We have heard him today treat his most loyal disciple as the devil incarnate. Last week he used the term “dog” of a Gentile woman in not so friendly banter. According to the Archbishop of Canterbury, he would berate Amazon for not contributing properly to the nation’s wealth in their taxes and condemn the employment practices of modern industry.
Today, where would we find our Jesus? Is there room for him at work? If he did come to your workplace this week, how would he react to what is going on? And how would you explain his radical love to your colleagues? In our homes, where is Jesus? On a shelf, with our other books about religion? And if he wandered in here, what would he make of us? And could we possibly sit down and eat with him?
As the concept of the suffering servant evolved into a Messiah, who then overturned all those preconceptions with his death-defying love, so may our understanding of the Christ, and our image of the living God, inspire us to live and to love as he did, that this world may be transformed into his likeness and all come to see his glory for what it really is – a life lived for others.
We have a new baby in the family – hooray! And she is the sweetest little thing, quite the loveliest baby there has ever been, apart from her big sister, and her mother when she was born, and our other daughter, who is, of course, pushing for parental affection and before you can say “Jack Robinson” you are in a King Lear situation and the world falls apart around you. And that is just within the immediate family.
What happens, asks the writer James, if you do that in church? You betray the God who loved you in Christ Jesus, who showed no favouritism, and redeemed us all through his death and resurrection.
And what is more, James adds, if you favour the rich, you are toadying up to the very people who are making life difficult for the Church and especially for the poor.
Aha, you say, in the Gospel passage today, Jesus does appear to be favouring the Jews over the Gentile woman who comes beseeching him to heal her daughter. Correct, but Jesus does heal the woman’s daughter because she is not prepared to give up, because she is prepared to accept crumbs from the God of love – and those crumbs are sufficient to restore her daughter to fullness of life. Would that we had that much faith – the things we could achieve for God would be astonishing.
And then there is the sign language healing of the profoundly deaf man – an astonishingly gracious act of personalised healing, designed so that he would be involved in the process, understand what Jesus was proposing, and with his faith, bring about the healing that was required and desired.
Plenty to talk about, but it doesn’t really join up. The children this morning are concentrating on the healing of the blind man – they can play seeing and remembering games, blind man’s buff and all sorts, and learn just how precious sight is. But what was wrong with the Gentile woman’s daughter? All we know is that she had an “unclean spirit”, which could mean anything from bipolar to epilepsy, and everything in between. Whatever she was suffering with, it limited her life, and needed to be sorted out. In Jesus, her mother knew she had found the person who could do just that, but race and culture and religion seemed to block the way. Jesus’s first answer is not an outright “no”, just a re-affirmation that his mission is to the Jews first. The mother’s cracking response, spat back at Jesus more in frustration than in anger, demonstrates a parent’s visceral campaign for a child’s wellbeing, as well as playing the game of cross-cultural insult and counter-thrust.
But in the healing of her daughter, the mother gets more than crumbs. Her daughter is healed immediately, at a distance – no need for touch or words, not even for actions to explain what is going on – Jesus simply says that her daughter is better, sends her on her way and returns to the recalcitrant people of Israel – who, for their healing, will need every part of it explained, as Jesus has to for the profoundly deaf man. The Gentile daughter receives the full grace of God in complete healing, everything that the profoundly deaf Jewish man receives – this is radical stuff.
We are not in the business of receiving or handing out children’s crumbs. We worship together in the full grace of God, each one of us a complete recipient of all of God’s incalculable love and generosity. In this feast of bread and wine, God gives us himself, to share with one another, openly and fully. We cannot withhold that from anyone.
As a consequence, we cannot be satisfied with doling out crumbs, but of freely offering the totality of the love of God. This covers everything, from welcome to coffee, from teaching to prayer, to the Peace and to our care for each other through the week. We will not do theology lite: rather, we will dig deep into the Word and stretch our minds and hearts. We will pray with a fervour which goes beyond formulae and into the mind of God. Our welcome will be second to none, gently bringing people across the threshold with love and grace. The Peace will be sincere, the children included in all our endeavours as a unit with their families – there won’t be something for the children, and something for the adults: it will be a sizeable chunk of the presence of God for everyone. Conversation, music, silence, embrace – all will be of the best and the deepest.
We have invited back to church next Sunday all those families who had a child or children baptised over the past 12 months – that’s the start of a season of invitation – everything we do will be suitable to invite anyone along for the first time. Harvest Festival, St Luke’s Patronal Festival, All Saints, Remembrance, Advent, Christmas – it’s all lined up for us. Let’s seize the opportunity, bring people in, and include them from the start in God’s amazing love. This will be fun!
Three is the hardest number. I have two sisters, one older, one younger. When the little one was born, my big sister and I first ignored her, then ran away from her, because she was hopeless at playing (she was 6 years younger than us, it must be said). I’m sure we loved her dearly, but she just couldn’t run fast enough, play tracking properly in the woods, or teach snails how to dance the maypole. My big sister and I were fine, just the two of us. Things are different now. My little sister developed the ability to organise tea parties for worms and a desire to make rose petal perfume, and could make a half-decent sandcastle by the time I stopped going on holiday with my parents and her.
Maintaining a good relationship between three people, at home, at work, as friends, is much harder than between two or four. There is always one on the edge, waiting to break in on what is going on between the other two. Ancient Rome was governed on several occasions by a triumvirate of politicians – they never ended well, as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar aptly demonstrates. I look around at the way I work now – trinities surround me – area dean, assistant area dean & lay co chair – me and two Readers – me and two parish administrators – hmmmmm, I need to beware the Ides of March.
Fancy says that God is Trinity to show us the way that relationships can work, that God chooses the hardest combination to reveal to humanity that love can flow from one to the other to the third, equally and powerfully, for the good of the world. Jurgen Moltmann in his book, Creating a Just Future, talks of the creative power of the Trinity of love, which would be absent from a single individual or from a couple – the sparks fly between Father, Son & Holy Spirit, Moltmann states, and so creation abounds in multiplicity and seemingly infinite variety – bees with short tongues feed from plants with small flowers, bees with long tongues leave those plants for other bees and head for the depths of bluebells and foxgloves. A third type of bee has a short tongue but a serrated jaw, so takes a short cut to the nectar by biting through the side of the flower, straight to the source of sweetness. Such is the wildness of the Trinity’s imagination, and we are the beneficiaries of that creativity and love. What in human terms can appear hard work, the relationship between three individuals, becomes lovingly creative and outward-looking in the divine Trinity.
The person who tried to teach me New Testament at theological college, Stephen Barton by name, (the most Anglican Methodist I have ever encountered) always insisted on treating the Trinity as a story, a way of talking about God, which is why the word “Trinity” does not exist in the Bible – its writers are always coming up with other ways of talking about God. So, combining this view with Moltmann’s loving creativity, we get a God who reveals himself first as one, in a world of multiple deities, who then reveals himself as human, in a world where the human had lost track of its worth in the sight of a loving God, and who then fills his people with his very self, forever, so that we, the glorious results of the Trinity’s extraordinary creativity, may live to worship and to care, to share and to heal, as Christ did when he was here, showing us God, as God did, when he was the one true God, as the Spirit always has, from the beginning of created time. Our existence as the Church, the family of God, the newborn Israel, is evidence of the Trinity, of the loving creativity from which this and all worlds spring – God in us, God before us, God with us.
Now all that is fine and dandy, but does it get us anywhere other than a description of God? Is it of any help to us in our daily lives, other than a bedrock of reassurance? The answer, naturally, is yes, but it is to be found in the idea of the creative love of the Trinity. Creative love goes outward, beyond itself, to a wider orbit of operation. Love that looks outward finds reasons to love practically, reasons to demonstrate love in real ways that make a difference, that make whole, that bring healing and reconciliation. Creative love lays on hostels for the homeless, foodbanks for those whose entitled money has not come through. Creative love welcomes all, as each visitor is a reflection of the creative love of God, each neighbour, each stranger is no stranger within the creative love of God. Difference becomes an indicator of divine love in creativity, not a reason for separation. Compassion reflects this creative love by fostering inclusivity. There must be a place for everyone within God’s love and worship, because he created them, so who are we to try to keep them out? We can only love, welcome, include, celebrate everyone and anyone. Not to do so is to deny the love of God, to deny the Trinity of creative love.
So, as good Trinitarian Anglicans, we will love, we will welcome, we will include everyone and anyone who comes our way. Some will be more problematic than others, but that is just the way things are. We all have our rough edges, and those were God-given and are God-proving. And as good Trinitarian Anglicans, we need to make sure that everybody is invited, everybody knows that they are welcome, at home with the God who loves them and has provided everything they will ever need, which, gloriously, includes us.
Well. Just when you were thinking that Lent had some pretty serious texts, and deep things to think about, along comes an action-filled story, with Jesus whipping up some direct action in more ways than one, scattering livestock around the Temple precinct and casting coins left, right and centre before a crowd that watched with open mouths. Who was this person? Why did he do this? Why take to himself the phrase “my Father’s house” when referring to the Temple? The questions just keep coming, even from the outraged Temple authorities – “what sign can you show us for doing this” – that is, what Messianic miracle will prove to us who you claim to be – and Jesus answers in the most runic fashion – “destroy this temple and in three days raise it up.”
Messiahs are not supposed to tear things down. They are not supposed to chase stallholders out of the Temple courts. They are supposed to be loving and kind, gentle and meek. This Jesus is most certainly none of these, at this moment. But in the long run, what he says and what he does make perfect sense, after the resurrection, for no Temple is needed, no special place where God is to be found through arcane structures and dark mysteries. The Temple is walking around in their midst, the Temple, where God’s glory dwells and is to be met, is talking to them, touching them to make them whole, listening to them and teaching them directly.
Temples, churches, synagogues, mosques, tabernacles, chapels, cathedrals, gurdwaras and all the other holy places where worship is offered and the deity met, are all temporary, transitory places. They cannot restrict the presence of the God of the universe to such a small space. But we are finite, and need to deal with finite matters as we try to grasp the infinite. We need a place, a centre, through which we can encounter the transcendent. We have a deep-seated need for that place to be impressive, special, slightly mysterious. Better still is if that place has areas which are forbidden, off-limits, as that reinforces our belief that God can only be accessed in a formal way, through the mediation of others – experts, holy people, those who have a special connection with the divine.
Jesus demonstrates that that is not true. God can be met anywhere, through anything or anybody. This is especially true for the baptised. They have Jesus Christ as close to them as their clothing – why do they need some half-explained venue to get closer to God? The baptised cannot get any closer to God than their breath – God is that close to us.
And Jesus takes direct action against those who would make it more difficult to get close to God, rather than easier. The Temple authorities, in a well-intentioned attempt to keep the place holy, had decreed that only Temple money could be used in its courts, so ordinary shekels had to be exchanged for special shekels. The Temple authorities had decreed that only specially approved animals and produce could be brought to the Temple as an offering for sin, for thanksgiving, for intercession – hence the large livestock market and provender stalls that filled the outer courtyard. Jesus reacts violently to this – making a whip, driving people out – because prayer is to be made in the Temple, not profits. Anything that keeps people away from God, that makes it harder for them to get through to the God who loves them and welcomes them is anathema to Jesus. He is fired up with zeal for access to God, because he himself is that access and he wants people to recognise that. The fact that it takes his death and resurrection for his disciples to reach that understanding shows just how difficult that is for us, weak mortals that we are.
So, do we, in some grand Lenten gesture, get rid of our buildings and our finery, our pomp and our traditions, for simple, direct one to one worship of Almighty God? No, for that was not what Jesus was doing. He didn’t want to destroy the physical Temple in Jerusalem, he just wanted people to use it properly, to be able to access it fully and freely. So our Lenten gesture is not to pull our buildings down, but to open them up, to make them more welcoming, more accessible, more understandable, so that access can be easy and understanding of what we do can be complete.
How easy is it to get our minds around what we do this morning? How much of what we do is habit? How much of what we do is simply mouthing words and going along with the flow? Look carefully at the words we say together – they are profound, powerful, God-filled. Even the hymns we sing, the parts of the service we sing, are as God-filled as the spoken parts – they are all drawn from Scripture, no one made them up – they just took them as a unit and put them together as there were no better words to express our love of God, our worship of God, utter dependence on his mercy and grace, our amazing access to a holy God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Look at the objects we surround ourselves with on a Sunday. Candles to show the presence of God, bread on a plate, wine in a cup – because Jesus told us to share them like that – simple, ordinary elements of everyday life transformed into objects that take us beyond ourselves and into the very presence of God. And we do it together, because we are not created for solo living. God made us who we are so that we can live and worship and share together – that is the purpose of the creation, that is our purpose as we worship together.
And sometimes direct action is required to bring people closer to the God who loves them. That is why there is an emergency winter night shelter every night in the borough until Easter, because God does not want people sleeping on the streets, and the structures that were in place in our borough were not enough for the large number of rough sleepers we have. And so we knit, and we donate, to take that direct action. There will be a challenge to direct action on Tuesday night, when two eminent theologians come to the Barn to talk about climate change from a Christian perspective. Our consciences call us to direct action every day, when we are confronted with need, of whatever sort, in our daily life – it is part of our redeemed humanity.
So let us be bold in tearing down that which prevents people from meeting easily with the God who loves them, and may we rejoice together in all that our loving heavenly Father has done for us.
Mark, in his hurry-along Gospel, does not spell out the temptations that Christ overcame in the wilderness, after his baptism. But today, we read of a very specific temptation, that makes Jesus turn on a praised disciple and suddenly identify him as a source of base human thinking rather than a fully worked through divine course of action. What is the problem?
The problem is, if we read the text of Mark exactly as the lays the story out, this morning’s passage comes immediately after Peter has publicly acclaimed Jesus as the Messiah. All this is going on in Caeserea Philipi, a long way from Jerusalem, safe from Pharisees and Sadducees, Herod’s spies and Roman troops. Jesus can speak freely with his friends, and they can speak freely with him. In this place of security and openness, Jesus extracts from his disciples just what conclusions they have come to about him, hence Peter’s declaration, and then proceeds to enlighten them on the consequences of that knowledge.
With information comes responsibility, with freedom comes responsibility. The disciples now know for certain that they are living in the presence of God’s Messiah, which explains everything that has happened up to this point, and they do not want to loose any of it. Life with the Messiah is amazing – healings, confounding the Pharisees, great stories, mystical encounters on mountains and lakes – and nothing is going to take that away from them. Suffering and death do not feature on their agenda, and Peter tells Jesus that in no uncertain terms.
That is where Jesus cracks. That is what makes Jesus turn to this fine friend, this man who has publicly acknowledged Christ’s Messiahship, and address him as Satan, the great deceiver, the Father of Lies, he who would have taken the throne of heaven for himself. Peter has not yet had his mind transformed, he is still thinking in human terms, and has not yet grasped the full extent of the divine plan. And what is that divine plan? To suffer, to die and to rise again. To take divine love to the very edge of human understanding, and transform it into redeeming love. To take creative love into new spheres of joining the eternal and the finite, the uncreated and the created, so that death has no power, and only unconditional divine love is revealed and known.
Now I can quite see that Peter hadn’t got his mind round that, but did Jesus really have to be that brutal? Could he not have let him down gently? Would that not have been the path of love?
What we see in that moment when Jesus turns to Peter and calls him Satan is a revelation of the divine and the human operating hand in hand. The human reacts sharply and aggressively, the divine counteracts the temptation with power and insight. Self-centred human patterns of thought have to be replaced with divine, outward-facing love, and that is a hard lesson for Peter and all the disciples to learn.
It is worth wondering how much of the following discourse the crowd understands, let alone the disciples. They know what Jesus means by “take up your cross”, as they had no doubt seen the condemned being lead out to a place of crucifixion, bearing the cross piece on their shoulders. That would be sufficient to make them shudder, but for that to be their daily reality, while following this Messiah – that is even harder.
“Take up your cross” remains one of the hardest sayings of Jesus. Down through the centuries, people have struggled with it, tried to make sense of it, even taking it literally for one bearded American in the 70’s, who walked around with a cross on his back for several years to try to get to the heart of what Jesus was saying. I’m not sure how far he got, though, because the cross he was carrying was never going to be the cause of his death, in the way that it would be for Jesus on that first Good Friday.
We can spiritualise it – “it’s all about spiritual life and death, not an actual cross” – we can rule it out as irrelevant after 20 centuries – “no one is crucified any more, and most countries have outlawed the death penalty” – we can take a psychological approach – “ the death-inducing weight of guilt and shame” – we could even go with Albert Camus, from his Mythe de Sisyphe, and claim that there is joy in carrying the means of our death, as it affirms that we are currently alive and free. (Sisyphus, founder of Corinth and one of the most scandalous rogues of Ancient Greece, was condemned by the Gods to push a heavy stone up a hill, only for that stone to hurtle back down to the bottom as soon as Sisyphus got it to the summit. Camus argues that Sisyphus was happy in the moment that he reached the top of the hill with his boulder, before it cascaded down again.)
But this is Lent, and we should not be playing around with “human things” but diving deeply into the divine. As he speaks these words, Jesus has already taken up his cross. For him, it may be several years before he physically does that, but in his mind, in his attitudes, in his knowledge of God’s love, he is already carrying the means of his death, so that the whole created order may have new life in him. During his life, during his ministry, he carries his cross. When he feeds the multitudes, he carries his cross. When he heals the sick, he carries his cross. When he challenges the Pharisees, he carries his cross, and no one, especially not Peter, is going to tell him to put it down.
That is where we are today – seeing the cross for the first time in Jesus’s ministry – and understandably the immediate human reaction is to say “no, never!” But the divine reaction is “yes, always” and for that we bow at Jesus’s feet and worship.
Having done that, we are called to look at ourselves and admit to all the things that we know we ought to do, but our humanity backs away from. We may not be as defiant as Peter, we may simply tuck things away at the bottom of the “to do” list, but do them we must, or talk to that person we must, or share that burden we must, or take on that responsibility we must. Christ was able to carry his cross because he was confident in his Father’s love and in the good purpose of his Father’s plan. Christ also shared his cross with his Father, praying ceaselessly to align himself completely with the will of his Father. Our prayer needs to be as fervent as Christ’s, our watching needs to be as intense as Christ’s, so that we are fully aligned with our heavenly Father’s intentions for us and for his creation.
Our Lent Appeal for the work of Glass Door with rough sleepers is still open – donate, knit, make a difference.
Our Lent groups are challenging our basic Christian assumptions – get involved.
Our Holy Week journey is planned – get on board, with your cross on your back and your sights set on Jerusalem where we will find the joy, the acclamation, the betrayal, the denial, the suffering, the death and ultimately the joy of resurrection, once again.
Another sermon, another history lesson – that’s why you value Patronal Festivals so highly – visiting preachers never indulge in history.
We have got used to alternative coins and notes being in circulation at the same time, as new ones are introduced and the old ones phased out. Thus, circular pound coins are now only accepted at banks – which is why the Church will still accept them – and the new Janes (£10) are gradually populating our wallets, as the cash machines are stuffed full of them.
Consider, then, the complications of living in Jesus’s time, when there were three currencies, actively and legitimately being used in Israel.
There was the standard shekel, for every day use, but if you needed to buy a pair of doves for a sacrifice at the Temple, those shekel had to be exchanged for Temple money – money that was deemed holy, so never left the Temple precinct. We know this from the Palm Sunday accounts of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers when he entered the Temple after his donkey ride into Jerusalem. The third coinage was a specially minted Roman piece, that had to be used to pay the Emperor’s tax, or tribute.
It is this third coin which is under debate in our Gospel passage, it is this specific imperial tax which is being discussed, and which the Chief Priests, Pharisees and supporters of Herod – who probably hated each other deeply in normal circumstances – get together to try to trap Jesus. They think that they have him on the horns of a dilemma. If he says, “Don’t pay the tax”, they can legitimately turn him over to the Romans as a revolutionary. If he says, “Pay the tax”, then they can turn the people against him, and accuse him of being a Roman quisling. They are so proud of themselves, as they march up to Jesus in one of the Temple courtyards, and lay their trap in front of him.
Jesus’s answer is masterful, from many standpoints. It begins by throwing the spotlight back on his hunters, because Jesus hasn’t got one of these special tax coins in his pocket. The Pharisees have to fish around in their money bags to get hold of one to show him. Now, many have taken this to mean that Jesus didn’t have any money at any time, and that we too should eschew all cash and wander this world, living on other people’s generosity, as he did. This is a false conclusion. Jesus and the disciples did have money – they kept it in a bag which Judas Iscariot looked after – they just didn’t have a Roman tax coin in there. Why not? Because they had already paid the tax? No, because they were good Jews, and they would not have about their person a coin which broke one of the commandments. Not only was it a Gentile coin, but it had a picture on it – that of Tiberius Caesar, and a Latin inscription to that effect. Now, by asking his accusers to show him one of these coins, Jesus gently points out that these heroes of the Law were quietly breaking it by having such an object in their purse. First hypocrisy exposed!
Then comes the killer line – “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” “Pay the hated tax”, says Jesus, “get it out of your system, out of your money bag, because then you can get on with giving yourself fully over to God.” In paying our taxes, we are merely contributing to the common good, which is only right and proper. But there is much more to be done in this world than to pay our tax. One coin, Jesus suggests, is all that belongs to Caesar. Everything else belongs to God, and we must give him back our tribute, our participation in his generosity.
So, where do we go now? We agree to pay our taxes, and we set out on the road to give back to God everything that he has given to us. Where do we start? God has given us everything – our life, our world, our families, our skills, our money, our time, our church – what can we possibly give back to him who supplies everything to us? What would God do with it? We can see that our taxes go towards the NHS, education, roads, social care etc etc. What about what we give back to God? Where does that go?
Well, how about a trip back in time? To the time of the prophet who calls himself Isaiah, during the Jewish exile in Babylon. It is his words that we read first this morning, and they are astonishing. This Jewish prophet is delivering words from God to the new King of Babylon, one Cyrus, King of Persia. How did this happen? Did the prophet nip round to the palace, and sound off in the inner courtyard? Unlikely. Did he stand up on a street corner, and launch into these extraordinary words? Probably not. This would have been uttered during synagogue worship, late in the evening, after work, and only Jews would have been present.
And what does the prophet say? That Almighty God, the one true God (or, as the Jewish exiles would have called him, the God of Israel) was going to use this new king to bring about his purposes in the world. It has been hard enough to come to terms with exile. Hard enough to learn that they can still pray to their God, in a foreign country, with their Temple and religious system lying in ruins back home. But to discover that their God is going to use a Gentile ruler to perform his will on earth must have been mind-blowing. Their God is getting bigger and bigger by the day. He is now the God of the whole world, of the universe, and he is able to use anyone, Jew or Gentile, to bring about anything that he wants.
We can usefully learn that lesson all over again, today. We are not the only people that God can and will use in this world, in this community, to bring about what he desires. God would love it if the Church were at the forefront of everything, but the world is bigger than us, and our broken, separated state enfeebles us to intervene, sometimes. But we are called to explore what it means that the things of God are to be given back to him. King Cyrus, back in the 6th century BC, was called to restore the people of Israel to their own land, and to allow them to take all the treasures of their Temple with them. And he did! We today are called on to look not just at what we would call our own, but at everything around us, as a source of worship, prayer, generosity and challenge. God can, and will, use anything at our disposal, for his good purposes. Thus, God gave us brains and tongues and hands and eyebrows to communicate, to work through problems, to share what we know with those who do not yet know it. God gave us hearts of love and eyes to see other people and other things, so that love can pour forth from us to them. God gave us time, time to work, time to sleep, time to eat, time to do whatever we want, while also having time to spend with others, to help others, to support others, to encourage others. God gave us skills – different ones to each one of us – so that we can put up shelves or grow plants, or paint walls or organise events. And God combines that love, that time, those skills, that awareness of the world together with his Holy Spirit to send us out to bring about his purposes – that people will live together well, that people who have little will have so much more, that people who are excluded will be brought into the whole, that people who are weak are made strong. It is so much more than money. In fact, Jesus only talks about money for Caesar, not for God. Everything, including money, is to be given back to God.
Jesus passes through this potential trap with grace and a bigger picture of God than the Pharisees and supporters of Herod had ever considered. Their God had just got a whole lot bigger.
May we, as we give back to God this morning our worship and our prayer, our cash and our time, discover just how amazingly huge our God is, and just how much he demands of us. We cannot be half-hearted in response to the God who has put us in this amazing world. We cannot begrudge anything to the God who has redeemed us by the life, death, and resurrection of his own Son. We cannot skimp on our generous response, when God has poured his Spirit into our hearts, to enable us and provoke us to use our brains, our skills, our time, to fulfil his good purposes on this earth. May we know joy, day by day, as our God gets bigger before our eyes, and may we respond with ever greater gratitude in all the multitudinous ways that God has put at our disposal.