22 October 2023

The readings this week bring together two powerful and complementary ideas. In the continuous Old Testament reading, we are invited with Moses to seek God’s glory and to rely on God’s presence to empower and guide us as we interact with our world. In the Gospel Jesus challenges us to “render to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s”. In the intersection of these two ideas lies an amazing call – to enter the world in intimate connection with God, such that God’s glory is revealed through us in all times and places, even as we seek to discern as clearly as we can what is “God’s” and what is “Caesar’s” – in other words, maintaining a clear distinction between our role as people of faith, and our role as citizens of the world. The struggle for us is to work out how to maintain an appropriate separation between “church” and “state” while still operating in our world completely as followers of Christ.

May God reveal God’s glory to us and through us as we worship, and may we learn, a little more, to give God what is God’s and Caesar what is Caesar’s this week.

Exodus 33:12-23: Moses pleads with God for God’s presence to go with the Israelites, which is what will distinguish them from other nations, and God promises to do so. Then Moses asks to see God’s glory and God agrees to pass by Moses, speaking God’s name, while hiding Moses in a cleft in the rock, and then to then allow Moses to see God’s back, but not God’s face.
OR Isaiah 45:1-7: A prophecy about Cyrus and how God has prepared his way and given him power and position for the sake of God’s people, though he does not know God, and God has strengthened him so that the whole world will know that God is God.

Psalm 99: A call to honour and worship God, because God is holy and mighty, and has answered Moses, Aaron and  Samuel when they prayed, and has shown that God is forgiving and just.
OR Psalm 96:1-9 (10-13): A call to sing to God and praise God’s name, because God is mighty, majestic and beautiful and God deserves to be worshipped, and God is coming to judge the earth justly with righteousness and truth.

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10: Paul expresses his joy and gratitude for the Thessalonian church, for their faith, hope and love, and for the way they have witnessed to Christ in their part of the world, spreading the word they received in the Holy Spirit’s power, in spite of their suffering.

Matthew 22:15-22: The religious leaders try to trap Jesus by asking him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus responds by asking for a coin, and asking whose inscription is on it. When they reply that it is Caesar’s, Jesus tells them to give Caesar what is Caesar’s and to give God what is God’s.

One of the most important questions we face as we seek to follow Christ and manifest God’s reign in our world in some way, is how we respond to the God we’re seeking to serve. All of the readings this week challenge us to keep God in the place in our lives and thoughts that is rightfully God’s. Moses asks for God’s presence to go with God’s people, and for himself to see God’s glory, revealing a recognition of his and Israel’s need for God to be acknowledged and worshipped and responded to as God. In Isaiah a prophecy of hope for God’s exiled people reveals God’s sovereignty and God’s gracious action, as God, on behalf of God’s people. In both Psalms people of all nations are called to honour and worship God as God deserves, and in the epistle, the Thessalonian Christians are celebrated for their faithful worship and service of God and God’s purposes which reveals their true acknowledgement of God. In the light of all this, Jesus’ response to the attempted entrapment of the religious leaders is a powerful and challenging word. Where they have missed God and God’s new, creative work among them, and have fallen into domesticating God to their purposes, Jesus challenges them to put God into the proper place of sovereignty and majesty in their lives. Essentially Jesus turns their question on its head and bypasses the tax question, confronting the leaders with the insignificance of things like taxation in the face of God’s greater claim on our worship and our lives. In a faith culture in which it is often popular for God to be reduced to simply a divine friend, or “the man up there”, or a “higher” part of ourselves, this call to recognise God’s transcendence is important and life-giving.

GLOBAL APPLICATION: As we attempt to engage with some of the challenging issues of our time, the question of where we place God in our lives and priorities may seem insignificant, even self-indulgent. The quest to “see God’s glory” may, likewise, appear to be far too “otherworldly” to have any practical relevance for us. However, as we begin to dig a little deeper, we discover that it may well be one of the most important questions for us to engage. To begin with, the ability to discern what is God’s and what is Caesar’s, and to ensure that the two don’t get mixed up or intertwined, is crucial. This may be one of the few dualisms that it is important to maintain. When we allow Caesar into the place of God (allowing faith/religion and politics/government to become enmeshed for example) we always end up with weak religion and over-reaching human institutions. When we allow God into the place of Caesar, we find ourselves on a misguided attempt to create a theocracy on earth, with inquisitions and witch-hunts (of various kinds) the inevitable result. As we work in the world as people of faith, and as we bring our faith with us into human institutions and organisations, it is important that we learn to keep both God and Caesar in their “rightful” places. The paradox, though, is that it is as we journey in the world that we seek and discover God’s glory – even in Caesar’s territory, or Caesar’s very person. In practical terms, this means that we must be careful never to lose our identity as people of God as we work for justice, peace and the well-being of the most vulnerable. We must never allow ourselves to become nothing more than just another welfare organisation. And we must seek to avoid the temptation to cynicism, expediency and cold pragmatism that comes from losing sight of God’s glory in both those we seek to serve and those we may be called to confront. When we remember that we are those who live and act out of relationship with God (out of having seen God’s glory), we are able to engage in the world’s challenges with hope, energy and creativity, trusting in God’s Spirit to empower and guide us. When we remember that everywhere we live and act we do so in Christ’s name and in God’s presence, we no longer need to “impose God” on situations where religious practice, ethics or control is inappropriate. When we remember our faith, hope and love (as the Thessalonians did) we are able to render to God what is God’s – our lives, our devotion and our commitment to reflect the character and purpose of Christ – and we are able to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s – our commitment to live as good citizens, to pay our “dues” whatever they may be, in service of the country where we live, and our voice to challenge what is unjust and to support and strengthen what is good, and just and peaceful. While at times these ways of being will overlap, in our hearts and minds we do well to keep the distinction clear, and to seek to act and interact appropriately according to the “realm” in which we find ourselves.

LOCAL APPLICATION: It is unfortunate, but all too common that the presence of the Church in many communities is one in which “what is God’s” and “what is Caesar’s” is confused. When we allow ourselves to believe that we must impose our standards of morality, organisation, belief and behaviour on our neighbourhoods, cities and societies, we have confused “what is God’s” and “what is Caesar’s”. When we believe it is God’s will for us to denigrate, exclude or judge those who believe or behave differently from us, we have confused “what is God’s” and “what is Caesar’s”. When we believe that we deserve some sort of privileged treatment in society because of our faith, we have confused “what is God’s” and “what is Caesar’s”. Unfortunately, we do this all too often, and the result is that we alienate people, and turn them away from the Gospel which could bring them life and joy. There is no question that followers of Christ have a calling to be “salt and light” to “witness to Christ” in the power of the Holy Spirit, as the Thessalonians did. There is no question that we are to be distinguished from others by the presence of God in our lives and the practices of following Christ that define how we live. However, this witnessing, this distinguishing, is best done by living in ways that are attractive, serving, contributing and just, not by pointing fingers, “Bible-bashing” or demanding our way. In addition, as we work for justice, we must be careful not to allow our work to fall into a religious oppression of others, but must rather be driven by commonly-held values of human rights, human dignity and justice. This means that it is not only appropriate, but necessary, that we align with other organisations, communities and people that hold to the same values of justice and peace, even though they may differ from us theologically or religiously. It means that we hold ourselves to the high standard of Christ’s character and purpose (“what is God’s”) but hold others to the standards of law and justice that all people agree on (“what is Caesar’s”). In this way we can champion those who are marginalised, oppressed or vulnerable without seeking to impose our belief on society. In our own churches and families, similar principles can also be applied. Rather than seek to force those we associate with to take on our beliefs and standards, we can live the gracious and just life of Christ (“what is God’s), and call others to live in ways that honour one another and are just, peaceful, respectful and equitable (“what is Caesar’s”). Finally, we can also learn to recognise God’s glory in those with whom we live, worship and even disagree. and we can seek to allow God’s glory, grace and compassion to be revealed to them through us.

Quiet Proclamation
Seeing Glory
The Subversive Kingdom
May Your Kingdom Come

Hymn Suggestions:
Praise To The Lord, The Almighty
O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing
Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise
All Hail The Power Of Jesu’s Name
How Great Is Our God (Link to YouTube video)
What Can I Do (Link to YouTube video)
Living For Your Glory (Link to YouTube video)
Show Me Your Glory (Link to YouTube video)

A Liturgy For The Foretaste Of The Heavenly Banquet

Video Suggestions:
Exodus 33
Domesticated Jesus