Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sermon on October 16, 2011

“Church and State” (Psalm 9:1-9; Matthew 22:15-22)
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Rev. John B. Erthein

How providential that these lectionary readings, which are set without regard to current events, sometimes coincide with relevant current events. I am thinking specifically of a controversy that arose when a minister who supports Governor Rick Perry for President said one should support a born-again Christian for President, such as Governor Perry, even if another candidate (meaning Mitt Romney) was a good person. The minister later said Mormonism (Romney's faith) was not Christian and was a cult.

Quite aside from whoever should be President, and quite aside from whether the Mormon faith is Christian or not, some important questions were raised in my mind as a result of this controversy. What should Christians look for in a political leader? How much can or should our political system reflect Christianity? What is the proper relationship between church and state?

I am not going to spend a lot of time on Psalm 9 this morning, except to say that it affirms the whole Word of God affirms … the God is sovereign over his creation. Nations rise and fall, but God stands forever. Everything in creation, including every government, exists under the judgment of God.

So what does that mean? For a time, it meant that God's chosen people were to live under a theocracy, where God's laws would be the law of the land. That was Israel. And it was not wrong for Israel to be a theocracy. But I have two observations to make about that. First, the theocracy frequently did not operate as God desired. There were frequent outbreaks of corruption, of abuse of power, of heresy in high places, and social unrighteousness, in which the poor and widows were not aided and where God's moral laws were transgressed. Second, the language in Psalm 9 does not, I believe, refer only to Israel, but to all nations. In other words, all nations even then were under God's ultimate authority and judgment. The people of Israel understood God as the great liberator, the One who had freed them from Egyptian oppression. God exercised his authority and judgment over Egypt. And, I would further say that, while God ordained a theocracy in the past (Israel) and will do so in the future (meaning when Jesus Christ comes again in glory to reign over us, that will be the perfected theocracy), God does not ordain a theocracy for every nation in every time. God does, however, always have the nations under observation. And no matter what kind of government exists, and no matter how powerful the country, God is the ultimate authority.

By the time Jesus walked the earth, Israel was no longer a free nation. It was under the domination of the Roman Empire. The Romans were actually religiously tolerant to a point: Jews could practice their faith, for instance. But obviously the Roman Empire was not a Jewish theocracy. Indeed, at the time of Christ the Romans were exalting their Emperors so highly that they were being seen as virtual gods. Rome was proudly pagan. It must have been incredibly galling to be a Jew living under the yoke of pagan Rome. Many Jews were hoping for a Messiah who would throw off the Roman occupiers and restore Israel as an independent kingdom. Some saw Jesus as this kind of savior.
But not everyone looked to Jesus as a political or a spiritual savior. He threatened many people, including many members of the religious establishment. We are looking at the 22nd chapter of Matthew today, which takes place after Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his highly controversial cleansing of the Temple of the moneychangers. There has been constant back and forth between Jesus and his detractors, giving Jesus the occasion to share some of his parables which have since become famous. Jesus' opponents have not yet been able to trap him into making any damaging statements, but that does not stop them from trying. The Pharisees send one of their number to question Jesus on the sensitive matter of taxation. I don't know of anyone who likes to pay taxes, but at least we are paying taxes to our own elected government. But the people in Israel had to pay taxes to the Roman occupiers, a source of enormous (and understandable) resentment. Notice that the Pharisee ludicrously tries to soften up Jesus by flattering him, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful person and take no notice of anyone, since you are not impressed by people's status.” Ironically, that was a true statement: Jesus really is like that. But this Pharisee does not believe so, so he is knowingly saying something he considers dishonest.

Jesus, of course, is not someone prone to false flattery, and he calls the Pharisees “hypocrites.” One reason he says this is because of the false flattery: if the Pharisees said what they thought they would yell at Jesus being an arrogant blasphemer. But there may be another reason for the charge of hypocrisy. I am indebted to R.T France's excellent commentary on Matthew for this information. Jesus asked the Pharisees to give him a denarius coin. And as we know he pointed to the inscribed portrait of Caesar on the coin and told his listeners to give to Caesar what is due Caesar, and give to God what is due God. But Jesus is not merely using the denarius as a visual aid. Pious Jews considered the denarius an “idolatrous” coin because it carried a human portrait (thus violating the second commandment). And worse than that, it had an inscription referring to the Roman Emperor as Divi Filiuis, or “son of a god” (violating the first commandment). On the other side of the coin was the inscribed phrase “pontifex maximus,” or “high priest.” The denarius could hardly have been better designed to offend pious Jews.

But the Romans, who were often brutal but not usually irrationally brutal, actually tried to honor Jewish sensibilities (or they did not want to cause unrest for no good reason), so they allowed the Jews to coin their own, non-idolatrous copper money, which was fine for normal, everyday business; there was no need for a Jew to possess the denarius. Jesus apparently did not have one … but the Pharisees did, and within the temple at that! Since the Pharisees were using the coins with the Emperor's image on it, they could hardly object to paying tax to the Emperor. Indeed, one way of translating the Greek phrase in verse 21 is “to give back to the Emperor.” In saying this, Jesus is affirming that one can respect the pagan Emperor, but continue to worship the one true God.

Now, why would the pagan Emperor even merit respect? Certainly, among the Jews were a group called the Zealots (a word that carries meaning to this very day). They favored violent revolution. The last thing they would advocate would be respect for Rome. And yet, there were some things that the Roman Empire did that benefited people, including the Jews. The Romans provided peace and predictable laws; they built amazing infrastructure. So the tax was not just an imperial imposition, but a logical payment for services rendered.
Much of the New Testament advocated that Christians respect the ruling authorities. Paul famously wrote in Romans 13:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God … Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment … For [the authority] is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer … For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God … Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed (Romans 13, selected verses. ESV).

Peter wrote similarly in 1 Peter 2:

Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and praise those who do good … Honor everyone. Honor the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor (1 Peter 2, selected verses. ESV).

Remember, Paul and Peter were talking about a pagan Emperor in charge of a pagan Empire. They were talking about a government that frequently did not reflect Christian values. The Romans had slavery and gladiatorial games; they were militaristic and imperialistic. And yet Christians were called upon to pay taxes to Rome, obey the Roman laws, and honor the Roman Emperor.

There are areas of the New Testament that give a much different picture of Rome, such as Revelation, during a period of persecution against the church. Christians would honor the emperor, but they certainly would not worship him. In that instance, the state was demanding too much allegiance. And in Acts, there were examples of disciples disobeying laws that prohibited them from sharing the Gospel.

So how can the Scriptural teachings be applied today? Well, I think most issues before us as Christians living in the United States of America are primarily prudential, meaning one can reach different conclusions without violating the Gospels. In other words, whoever is our President, and whatever his (or her!) program might be, we can certainly disagree if we feel the policies are wrong, but we should not assume “the church” can reflect what Jesus would have definitely said on, for example, what kind of health care reform we should have; or what our tax rates should be; or how we should reduce debts and deficits; or how we can best help the poor. There are many ways in which to do all of these things. I think the church has a better chance of influencing debate if it chooses its causes carefully. I personally dislike the hyperactivity of our denominational officials and assemblies that feel the need to address every issue that occurs to someone. My personal favorite example of this occurred at a past General Assembly (it might have been in 2004 or 2006). The Assembly actually spent time considering an overture from a Presbytery (meaning the Presbytery had spent time considering it) addressing an aspect of global warming caused by an excess number of cows … excess because we eat too much beef. Because we have so many cows, they release a disturbing amount of methane gas into the atmosphere, thus contributing to global warming. Yes, friends, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) took up the issue of cow flatulence.

That's a funny example, but what is less funny is that most overtures to General Assembly seem to concern every aspect of politics and public policy … far more so than spreading the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. So, what are we known for as Presbyterians? Are we known for the Gospel, or for political and social pronouncements? Now, surely politics and policy have their place, and the church should speak on some issues … but is it too much to ask for some reserve, some discernment, some recognition that when we talk about politics we are generally not talking about essentials of the faith? I mean, surely we can spend more time and effort talking about how to reach the unsaved with the message of eternal life through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ!

There are many, many important issues that perhaps deserve comment, as well as theories about church and state, but that is not really the purpose of this particular sermon … and I don't think that is the purpose of the Scriptures, either. The Bible tells us how God will grant us salvation if we come to him in faith through Jesus Christ. THAT must be the primary calling of the church … not to run the government or demand a policy to address every conceivable issue.

Now, if the government were to demand that we stop worshiping Christ and spreading the Gospel, and that we instead worship the government, then we would have cause to resist its authority. But otherwise, whatever we think of the President, whether or not we think the President is a Christian, however much we like or dislike what he is doing, his authority still comes from God, and we are called upon as followers of Jesus Christ to respect and honor the Presidency … and all other institutions of authority in our nation. Is it important to have a born-again Christian as President? Well, it would be nice … but being a born-again Christian is no guarantee that a person will make a good President. Who has the best mixture of character and qualifications to be President? That is, again, a prudential judgment.

Whoever is elected President next year, do be in prayer for that person, and for our nation, as we continue to live under God's ultimate authority. And be confident in God's providence and care for his creation, including our great country, while remembering that we also stand under his ultimate judgment. Amen.

Sermon on October 9, 2011

“Dare You Refuse the Gift?” (Exodus 32:1-14; Matthew 21:33-46)
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Rev. John B. Erthein

I would like you to imagine an attempt to reach someone you love. You have often had a difficult relationship. The one you love acts frequently distantly to you, and spurns your gestures of affection. But you love this person so much that you will do anything to show your love. You are, perhaps, a brilliant artist, and you paint or sculpt the greatest masterpiece the world has ever seen. If you tried to put a monetary value on this masterpiece, the amount would be incalculable … infinitely greater than all of the works of Michaelangelo, and Rembrandt, and van Gogh combined. You will have labored and put everything into this gift for your beloved. Finally, the day arrives when you present your gift to your beloved. And the beloved one looks at it ... and spits on it, and throws it in the dirt, and tramples it underfoot, defacing it. And then your beloved one turns his back on you, and goes and buys something that he thinks will satisfy him … maybe it's a bottle of cheap booze, or a pack of cigarettes, or maybe a porno magazine.

Can you imagine the pain of that rejection, of having your priceless best ground into the dirt, rejected by the one you love, who instead prefers to have trash? Well, God the Father has offered his people his best, both in the time of the Exodus and the time of Christ, and in fact today … and many of his people spurn his best so that they can possess something lower, and meaner, and uglier, something that reflects the lowness and meanness and ugliness of their souls.

We see that illustrated in the lesson from Exodus 32:1-14. It is helpful to remember what has so far occurred in the Exodus. The Israelites, God's chosen people, had lived in Egypt for hundreds of years. For a time they were a privileged people, but the rise of a xenophobic dynasty made their situation oppressive. They were treated with indignity, as slaves. God knew of their misery … he heard their cries. And he raised up Moses to lead them out of Egypt. God rained plagues upon the Egyptians so they would let his people go. Acting through Moses, God parted the sea and delivered his people from slavery. God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness. And God gave them his law … the sublime, perfect law, truly God's greatest gift to that time.

But it seems from the Exodus accounts that the people were frequently ungrateful. They often grumbled. They lacked trust in their great God and liberator and law giver. God did not stoke his wrath against his ungrateful people but showed them mercy. And how did the people respond to God? In this instance, we witness the people turning away from him, to worship an idol made by their own hands, the golden calf. Even Aaron, the greatest leader next to Moses, went along with this descent into idolatry.

What good did a golden calf do anyone? Did a golden calf bring the people out of Egypt? Did a golden calf feed them? Did a golden calf give them the law? No, the golden calf just stays where it is placed. And it was this thing of metal that the Israelites chose to worship. What perversity. And with what sorrow may we contemplate the futility of this people's actions.
God seems to be finally ready to strike at them, to wipe out these ungrateful, idolatrous, stiff-necked people. “Leave me alone,” he says to Moses. And God even promises to start over with Moses as the new Abraham, a replacement head of a great nation. But … Moses begs God to have mercy on them. Moses is confident enough of his relationship with God to approach him in this way. And he makes three arguments in his plea for mercy. He asks God to consider what it would mean for him to have exercised his power over the Egyptians for the sake of the Israelites, only to nullify his power by destroying his people in the wilderness. Moses builds on that by pointing out that the Egyptians would be delighted to see the Israelites destroyed, and by their own God. And finally, Moses points to God's covenantal promises to the patriarchs … to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I have promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.” God would not violate his own promise to his own people, however much they provoked him. However, God did teach the Israelites a fearful lesson, recounted in verses 34 and 35 of this chapter. He sent them a plague … a lesser punishment than destruction, but certainly not an acquittal.

You may recall that I preached on this subject some months ago. God will not foresake those whom he has chosen, but he still can chastise them. That happened to the Israelites, and it can happen to us. And this brings me to our second reading, from Matthew's Gospel. Jesus has been telling some very pointed parables to his listeners, primarily the chief priests and Pharisees. Jesus has come into Jerusalem with a lot of commotion (on the occasion we remember as Palm Sunday). He has disrupted the temple activities and challenged the authorities. And in the parable of the tenants, he implicitly compared the religious leaders to the evil tenants who threw out the owner's messengers and eventually killed the owner's son! Jesus, of course, would be the owner's son … God's greatest gift to his people.

Now, this is not a perfect analogy … God did not “create” Jesus. Jesus has existed eternally with the Father. But consider this: Jesus is the very Son of God, who was for a time clothed in flesh like ours, vulnerable like us, someone who never used his great power for himself, but only for others. The Father sent him to bring the greatest message ever heard to the people … that sins could be forgiven and salvation and eternal life received. What an incredible gift. But look at how many people spurned the gift. Consider those religious leaders (not all of them, to be sure. There were those like Nicodemus who did come to accept the Savior) who thought they would gain for themselves by killing the messenger of everlasting life, the son of the vineyard “owner.”

Again, how perverse … how tragic. Their behavior reminds me of something I read in the book “That Hideous Strength,” by C.S. Lewis, one of the “Space” trilogy. The protagonist, Mark Studdock, is on the edge of deciding to follow good or evil. He is put to a test … and he is informed it will be at the cost of his life if he fails test. A giant crucifix is placed on the floor in front of him. The body of Christ is represented in its awful agony on the cross … the body is nailed there … helpless. It is made of wood. It cannot move. It cannot speak. It can do nothing but be there. And Mark Studdock has only to lift up his foot and smash it into the helpless figure of Christ. But even though Studdock is not a committed Christian, something in that helpless figure causes him to stay his foot. How can he do it? How can he bring himself to violate that helpless figure in that way?

And the novel continues until its end, after a climatic battle between good and evil.

How many people stamp their foot on the crucifix? How many people reject the gift that is in front of them? How many people, in their pride, in their perversity, perhaps in their rage against God, do what so many people have done over the ages? How many build their golden calves and dance around them in a frenzy? How many of them kill the messenger of eternal life, the very Son of the Vineyard owner? How many of them take the precious gift of God and spit on it, and tear at it, and stamp it into the dirt? How many people turn away from the gift of hope, of peace, of life itself and settle for the filth and trash of life, thinking themselves rich when they are so desperately poor?

What are your idols? What makes you turn away from the infinitely precious gift of God? Is it pride? Is it materialism? Is it shame? Is it indifference? Is it arrogance? Is it sensuality? How often, friends, will you spurn God's outstretched hand? How much longer will you delay receiving the gift of God, which is both his perfect law and perfect grace, revealed to Moses and personified in Jesus Christ?

We learn from the Scriptures that our God is a patient God. He gives many chances to those whom he has called. But the Scriptures, particularly in Revelation, also point to an end of history, to the very end of existence as we know. We cannot know when that time will come for the world. We cannot know when this life will burn away like a morning mist before the rising sun. But the day is coming. And it is coming for each one of us. Your personal day of judgment is nearly upon you. For you will not live forever. There will come a time when your life here is completed, and you will face God.

So are you ready to face God? Do you recognize the gift of infinite value that he gives you in Jesus Christ? Will you accept the gift while there is still time? Dare you reject the gift?

Let us pray.

“Father, you present us with the gift of forgiveness and eternal life through Jesus Christ. Help us this day to accept it, the most precious gift in the world. Turn us away from our sinfulness, our arrogance and our stubborn pride. We are broken people. Accept us in our brokenness, in our humility, in our repentance. And help us, before it is too late. Amen.”

Sermon on October 2, 2011

“Saved by the Law?” (Exodus 20:1-20; Phil 3:4a-11)
Sunday, October 2, 2011
Rev. John B. Erthein

Why do we have laws at all? Essentially, because we have to. Human beings have shown that they need laws in order to live with one another. But that does not mean we really welcome the law, even the Law of God! I am going to give you a lengthy quote from the sermon titled “Grace and Law,” given by G. Campbell Morgan, because I think he really understands our attitude towards the Law:

Innately man is an anarchist; experientially, that is as a result of observation, he admits the necessity of law, and he is always anxious that the other man should submit to it. But for himself he desires freedom from it. Restraint is irksome. We would fain go our own way without any reference to law. This attitude of mind colors our thinking of the law of God, and strangely persists even in the life and experience of Christian men and women. Unconsciously to ourselves, we think of the law of God as hard and severe, the opposite of love and of grace … in so doing we prove we understand neither the law which came by Moses nor the grace and truth which came through Jesus Christ. The law of God is the expression of the love of God, and its giving, even in the midst of the old economy, was as certainly an activity of the grace of His heart as was the coming into the world of His Son.

We see the grace of God's law in its inspiration. When God gave the law at Mount Sinai, God's first words were “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” So, the law is not coming from a tyrant. The law is coming from the great liberator of his people. These words would remind the people of the great miracles God had performed on their behalf … his raising up of Moses as their leader; his raining of plagues down upon the Egyptian oppressors; the Passover; the parting of the sea; and the frequent provision of food and water in the desert. Now, when I say that God is a liberator, the first thing that may come to mind is that God liberated the Hebrews, his chosen people, from slavery in Egypt. That is true. But it is not the whole truth. God offers to liberate all of us from the power of sin that has enslaved us since the fall of mankind. His law is a reflection of his perfect will. If we kept every part of God's law, the world would be perfect.

It was an incredible privilege for the Israelites that God had selected them, among all the people of the earth, to be the keepers of the law. Most of the world languished in spiritual and moral chaos. Polytheism was the typical religious practice … hence the prohibition in the law of worshiping other gods. People were not governed by fairness towards one another, but rather by force. Whoever was stronger would rule. God set out a different path for his chosen people … a path of right worship of him, the only true God, and the right relationship of God's people with one another.

Again, the law is a wonderful and beautiful thing, God's perfect handiwork. And again, it was an extraordinary honor that God would choose the Hebrews to preserve his law. But over time, some of God's people began to misunderstand and misuse the law. Fulfilling the law became an end in itself. But the very foundations of the law … the justice, righteousness, grace, mercy and love of God … were often forgotten. Some of the people made an idol out of the law. This was the reputation of the Pharisees … zealous advocates of the law who forgot the character of the God who made the law.

The Apostle Paul had been one of the most zealous Pharisees. As he says, if anyone had the right to boast, it was he! He was the A student. He had the perfect conduct grades on his rabbinical report cards. He burned with a righteous fire to uphold the perfect law of God. You know, when he was still Saul, he, like many other Pharisees, was actually a pretty admirable man. He was serious in personality and purpose. He was energetic. He was honest. He was hard-driving and hard-working. He could probably argue any of us under the table. If Saul lived today, can you imagine him going along with our celebrity-driven culture … with the narcissism, the selfishness, the greed, the materialism, and overall lack of seriousness of our society? No. Saul was a intellectual and moral heavyweight.

And yet … he was wrong. Can you imagine what he went through after his conversion? Imagine that you are totally convinced you are doing what is right and following God's perfect will. And then, one day, without warning, God himself tells you … you were wrong. Grievously wrong. Horribly wrong. Murderously wrong. The cause to which you devoted your entire life actually contradicted God's desires. You are confronted with the shocking, terrifying reality that you have not been advancing the plan and purpose of God, but instead, the plan and purpose of Satan. Can you imagine Saul's self-reproach that threatened to become self-loathing? This formerly proud, righteous and upright man was driven to his knees, and then his face was in the dirt, and he was ashamed.

But it was then, when Saul was in the depth of despair, that salvation drew near to him. Saul became a new man, renamed Paul. Just as Abram was renamed Abraham. Paul was now God's man, and like father Abraham, he would follow God by faith. And so Paul became the great Apostle to the Gentiles. Next to Jesus himself, no man had such an impact on Christ's church. Paul became a truly great man of God out of his brokenness.

What then, does the law mean today? It means what it has always meant. The law reflects the perfection of God. But we cannot perfectly follow the law. The law comes from an infinite, perfect Creator, but we are finite and imperfect. The law is like a massive, mile high fortress of solid gold, with beautiful rubies and sapphires and diamonds encrusting its surface. But we cannot enter that fortress by own strength. We cannot storm the gates; they are impregnable. We cannot even pry a gemstone from the wall … it is fused into the wall. We also cannot replicate that fortress. We could spend our whole lives trying; but next to the beautiful fortress of God's law, the greatest works of our hands are nothing better than mud huts, or even more accurately, huts made out of dung. And when we gaze upon the sublime law of God, and compare that law to the lives we actually lead, we see how pathetic are the works of our hands, and for that matter our hearts.

Because, friends, we violate the law of God every day. We commit idolatry … not that we build statues of wood or stone, but we find other things more important than our walk with God. There are indeed other gods that command our attention … the gods of materialism, of pride, or advancement, of substance abuse, of relationships, of immorality … the list goes on and on. Our thoughts are not pure and righteous. Whenever we covet our neighbor's goods, we commit theft. Whenever we look with lust upon another person, we commit sexual immorality. Whenever we hold hatred in our hearts towards another, we commit murder.

The great mercy of God is that he sends his Holy Spirit upon his elect, and we can truly see our reality. Without the Holy Spirit, we would imagine our huts of dung to be solid homes, maybe even castles. If we were religious, but not saved, we might even think we were building the fortress of God's law, seeing walls of gold reach to the heavens. But the Holy Spirit is like the most accurate mirror held up to our faces. And instead of beauty, we see ugliness. Instead of goodness, we see evil. Instead of righteousness, we see sin. Instead of life, we see death. We realize that we are nothing better than the walking dead. That is a painful reality, like the burning sun shining in our eyes. Is it any wonder that the law can inspire dread? Isn't the darkness better? Who wants to know they are dead and decaying, after all?

But it is at precisely that moment that life draws near. The reflection of the law indicts us. And the righteous judgment of God convicts us. There is nothing left for us but to ask for God's forgiveness. And it is then that we are filled by God's glorious and gracious presence. It is then that Jesus Christ comes to us, when he enters our hearts and walks with us for the remainder of our lives. When we walk with Jesus Christ, we will see our glorious destiny ahead. And if we were to look back at our former lives, we may shudder inwardly at what we had considered to be right and true. And the other side of that abhorrence of sin and wickedness is the blazing gratitude for God's presence with us.

Walking with Jesus Christ means that we approach the great law of God, that great towering fortress of gold, soaring up to the heavens, where rubies and sapphires and diamonds sparkle in the sun. And as we approach the gate, formerly closed to us, Jesus will speak but a word, and the gate will open for us. We will no longer even desire to do those things that offend God. Won't that be amazing? Right now, as I write these words, I cannot bring myself to imagine what it would be like to live a sinless life. Sin is so deeply ingrained in me, it exists at the atomic level. How could I exist without it? And how can I heal myself of it?

Well … I cannot exist without it, and I cannot heal myself. And neither can any of you. Do you understand that? If you do, then salvation is at hand. Are you ready to turn away from sin? Jesus Christ is waiting to walk with you. And you will never need fear the law again. Amen.