Saturday, October 25, 2008

Does God Really Care Who's Right or Left?

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I'm fine with God...but I can't stand Christians who think God is Right or Left!

* Read Matthew 22:15-22; and 7:1-5

This is the last straw! I am so fed up with business as usual in this country. I am tired of politicians telling lies and spreading misinformation. We are just three weeks and two days away from electing new leaders, and a new government…and hopefully it’s going to be someone that agrees with what I believe is right and wrong.

Or…or…perhaps you feel this way? Oh, No! Can you believe the nerve of that guy? Can you believe he wants things to change in this country? What for? As far as I’m concerned, everything is just fine! Sure food, gas and everything is more expensive and my 401k is in the toilet, but at least I don’t live in one of those poor countries. Okay, people seem a bit more stretched and stressed out than usual…but I’m okay! Who needs change?

A-hem! Have you found yourself in front of the T.V. over the past few weeks saying one of those statements? Well, now you know exactly what the Pharisees were feeling…and what Jesus was so fired up about in our text today. Let me give you the specifics: Jesus had stepped on the last nerve of the Pharisees and religious officials by telling a series of parables in which he clearly pointed a finger at them. Jesus told them in clear terms that they were totally off the mark with God and that all those people they considered spiritual rejects, you know…the prostitutes, tax collectors and beggars, were about to inherit the kingdom of God before them. Now because of Jesus' popularity with the crowds, the Pharisees and their allies decided to set a trap for him that would hopefully result in discrediting him and weakening his credibility. And then, they could swoop in and arrest him for treason, and then force Caesar to judge and execute him. This was an ambush by every means. Now talk about “Gotcha Journalism!” This was the ultimate scheme to trick Jesus and make him slip up.

One of the interesting elements to this story is that those who came to entrap Jesus were strange allies indeed. The Pharisees sent their disciples "along with the Herodians". Normally the Pharisees and the Herodians would have absolutely nothing to do with each other and certainly had nothing in common. The Pharisees were purists and separatists who did not like paying the Roman tax, but did so reluctantly. The Herodians who were wealthy and more influential Jews cooperated with the family of Herod and had no problem with paying the tax. These taxes, in fact, were helping to keep the Herod dynasty in power. Then there were the "Zealots" who openly resisted paying the tax and rebelled against Rome at every opportunity.

What the Pharisees and Herodians do have in common is a desire to see Jesus eliminated. Forcing Jesus to answer a question about paying taxes would insure that he would incur someone's wrath. If he says "yes" to the tax, he will anger those who oppose and struggle against submission to Rome. If he says "no" to the tax, he will be subject to a charge of treason. Now these political and religious men were so certain of their position that they had no room for doubt; no idea that they might make fools of themselves.

Have you ever been that way? So overconfident and sure of yourself that it eventually led you to humiliation? Not too long after I got my driver’s license, in fact just a few months, I remember we got our first snowfall of the season. Until I could purchase my own car, Mom and Dad let me drive their 1974 Chevy Nova. Aw…she was beautiful; copper colored with a loud engine. I mean she was built to drag race. Okay…back to the story. So on the morning of this first snowfall I was running late for school. I jumped out of bed, got dressed, gathered my books and ran outside to the car. Six inches of soft snow blanketed my copper beauty…but there was no time. I thought to myself, I’ll just let the wind blow the snow off my car! Nobody will be the wiser. So…like most teenagers at that age, I was convinced that whatever ideas I came up with my own head were the right ideas…sound familiar? So I jump into the driver’s seat, start the engine, and peel out onto the street. Once I got passed through the first stop light I let my baby roar. Ignoring the 35 mph speed limit I pushed her way over 55…and enjoyed the snow flying off of my windows just like I predicted. Well, what I didn’t predict was the sound of a siren growing louder and louder behind. And, you guessed it. I got a ticket for speeding, creating visibility problems for other drivers, and not to mention being really late for school. Once my parents found out, I had to turn over my license and break up with my metal girlfriend for a few months.

Well, it was with that kind of arrogance that Pharisees approached Jesus. And once he answered with those famous words, “Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Render to God what is God’s” they scampered home with their heads bowed and tail between their legs. Jesus was above their petty squabbles. He understood that earthly government had turned the worship of God into a means of control, defining who was right, both morally and politically…and therefore creating an environment where the citizens competed with each other for political favor. Sound familiar?

Now, aside from the obvious similarities to our modern day political environment, there is a crucial issue in today's story that applies directly to our personal lives and our life together as a church. Jesus' response to those who came to entrap him takes us to two essential spiritual concepts. Now I really encourage to write these down…or at least burn them into your brain, because they are central to our spiritual lives!
* There is no such thing as a "Black & White" world.
* The image of God is the center of our identity and our community.
There is no such thing as a "Black - White" world.
The students of the Pharisees and the Herodians who came to Jesus had a rigid mindset. Things had to be black or white. They had no middle ground. They were of the, "My way or the highway" mentality. Theirs was a rigid judgmental attitude.

They came to Jesus with their minds made up. But it was this inflexibility of spirit and rigid attitude that made them so vulnerable to spiritual disaster. There was no honest exchange of who they were and what they were all about with Jesus. It was simply a set up deal. They came to entrap but they ended up being trapped by their own rigidity. The basic spiritual lesson for us is this: In order to receive, we need to be open. There is no such thing as a black - white world. Jesus' detractors had no room for questions or reflection. They were not open in the least to self-examination. There were "good guys" and "bad guys" and Jesus and his followers were the "bad guys."

Now how can you tell when a person is operating with this rigid, black - white view of the world? The key is in our scripture. You and I have met these people. It’s hard to know whether these folks are interested in genuine give and take -- or are they simply waiting to pounce upon you with their predetermined attitude. A good way to diagnose the condition is with these questions. Are the questions they ask genuine questions? Or are they simply a "set-up"? They are not really asking a question, but launching a probe which intends to open up an opportunity to instruct you, correct you or pontificate about what they believe. Do you know any of these folks? The church is especially vulnerable to them.

It is relatively easy to hide rigidity in religious terms. Here are a few examples of predetermined attitudes and judgments disguised as questions:
* "Don't you think we should have more traditional songs in worship?" Meaning: "I don't like these new songs we're singing."
* "Shouldn't we be a little more selective in our requirements for membership?" Meaning: "I don't care for some of the people who are joining our church."
* "Do you think it's wise to let Mary serve on our church council?"
Meaning: "I don't want Mary to serve on our church council."

You can probably make a long list of similar questions you've heard. And you can do some personal spiritual work by examining whether you use questions to make statements. Trust me. Eliminating these inauthentic questions in our personal and group conversations can change our lives and our life together. When we realize that there is no such thing as a black-white world, we are more fully able to give each other the respect every child of God deserves.

The image of God is the center of our identity and our community. The coin Jesus asks for would seem to be almost incidental to the main theme of the text. Yet, there is a major issue that emerges once the issue of the image on the coin is mentioned. Jesus answer to the phony question is stunning.

"That which bears the image and likeness of the emperor belongs to the emperor. Therefore give the emperors what is the emperor's and give God the things that are God's!"
That which bears the image and likeness of God's should be given to God. They are stunned by his answer and they are seemingly unaware that they themselves demonstrate the point. They are so intently in defining God by their image. Making God in their image is not giving anything to God at all. They are in fact opposing the message and messenger of God. You and I have the image and likeness of God imprinted on our spirit. We belong to God. But God has given us the choice to do the rendering. We may choose to give ourselves to anything we want. And we do, sometimes in ways that are extremely unhealthy. However -- at the end of the day -- when all is said and done, there is a basic principle here. If we wish to avoid the kind of spiritual disaster that befell the Pharisees in the text, there is something we must stay in touch with.

God is always in the conversation. And our own private conversations and public policies should seek to keep that door of dialogue open so that we can continue keeping God in it voluntarily…not by legislating the answers. Does God really care if our beliefs lean to the left or the right? Don’t you think God wants more than anything else to have a relationship with us, regardless of what we think of him or her? When we set ourselves up as the moral authority in our culture, we are acting like the Pharisees. We relate to other much better when we remember that we all are sinners saved by grace. We’re no better than any other person. The only difference between those of us who embrace the person and work of Christ and those who don’t is that we have the power of the Christ consciousness within us, and that gives us the potential to live a life that pleases God.

In the heat of this campaign season, news of a failing economy and rumors of more war in our future, remember that Jesus said he would come back. And Jesus comes back into our lives and our world when we live like Christ; when the consciousness that he came to raise becomes raised in us. How does that happen? By consistently practicing an inward search of your own life and its priorities to regularly renew and refresh the "rendering" of your spirit. Instead of posing the questions to yourself or others, “Am I right or are you wrong?” we need to constantly renew the inner commitment which says, "I am God’s." When we can answer that question, then the choice to lean right or left becomes insignificant. Give to the government what is due the government. But give to God your very self. Then you will become the image of God as shown to us in Christ. Amen!

(Excerpts from “Anatomy of a Spiritual Disaster: III. How to Shoot Yourself in the Foot” from – October 17, 1999)
and Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz's awesome book, "I'm fine with God...It's Christians I Can't Stand" (2008: Harvest House Publishers)