On Memorial Day – Render Unto Caesar What is Caesar’s

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In the Gospel of Matthew 22:21 the words, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” are some of the most famous words in the bible.  But what does it mean?

Let’s go back and look at the situation.  A spy is trying to trap Jesus by asking him – “Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  Let me ask you, is this a theological question?  Jesus is in the Temple teaching the Torah and he gets asked this very odd question.

Jesus knows they’re trying to trick him – and they ask a political question.  If Jesus answers, yes, that they should pay taxes, he would be a traitor to his people. If he said no, they should not pay the tax, he would be called a rebel and reported to the Roman authorities.   In fact, later in his trial before the Sanhedrin they accuse Jesus of telling people to not pay taxes to the emperor (Luke 23:2). But that is not true, is it.

But here is where I want to go with this story from Luke’s Gospel.  Many people look to this verse and suggest that Jesus is saying – there should be a separation between government and God.  Two forms of authority.  Many people think that Jesus is dividing life into two spheres, the secular and the sacred.  But if you think that’s what Jesus’ is teaching, you’re incorrect

The coin presented to Jesus is called a Tribute Penney (or Denarius) and it had a picture of Tiberius on the front and his mother as a goddess on the back.  The inscription says – Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus. The inscription is clearly calling Caesar the Son of God.   But who is the real Son of God?  Not Caesar – Jesus!

When Jesus asks them “Whose image and inscription are on it?” The spies answer “Caesar.”  Jesus’ words here are very specific for a reason – Jesus knows whose likeness is on the coin.  Yet, notice he calls it an “Image.”  For those with ears to hear,  the image is of Caesar Tiberius – a man.  God’s image cannot be put on a coin and Caesar cannot be God.

He tells them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”  He is talking about Money, taxes, human stuff.  And “to God what is God’s.”  What does Jesus mean here?  What belongs to God?  Everything!  In this short sentence Jesus demonstrates that they cannot worship an Idol as Caesar represents, and God at the same time.   In legalese – see the Second Commandment.

What we learn is that Jesus is teaching us, there are not two spheres of authority – everything belongs to God.  Even Caesar and everything in his empire.

Jesus is not saying that we have a separation of the sacred and the secular.  But rather the role of the secular is subordinate to God to be administrators.  The secular is to manage the safety of our water, our food, the general welfare of our citizens.  To serve as the administrative stewards of all his creation.  More importantly, Jesus is teaching us that anyone who would idolize the government, government organizations, or Government power is violating which commandment?  The First, ” You shall have no other gods before me,” (Exodus 20:3).

For many of you – you might be scratching your head and thinking to yourselves, why in the world is David talking about this on Memorial Day.  My answer is, because we ARE celebrating Memorial Day.  What I am asking each of you to do for a moment is to stop and consider a simple question; How close are we to creating Idols of our patriotism?

Celebrating our flag and our nation in church is something I’ve done since I was a very young boy.  I am a disabled Military veteran – I love the flag and all it represents.  But there is nothing theological about it being in a house that worships God.  To make matters worse – The flag is placed to the right of the Pastor so that it is given a place of honor – even over the Christian flag.  And guess what – if you wanted to switch their places – you would be violating United States Code of law.  By choosing to display the flag you are also allowing the U.S. Government to tell you how your place of worship must be arranged.

Some of you are squirming in your seats now – some of you may be getting angry.  Because some of you think I said we should not be honoring the flag.  Let me be clear – all I said is there is nothing biblical or theological about the flag in the pulpit.  In other words, the presence of the flag is not endorsed by God.  I am not proposing that it should be removed.  The Methodist church has zero doctrine about the flag church.  None – because there is no theology.

This flag is here today because of tradition.  The Methodist Book of Discipline and John Wesley both tell us that when we cannot find support for our action in scripture, we are to look to reason, experience, and tradition.   When it comes to tradition we have to ask –  does this tradition serve as a witness of development and allow us to growth in faith?  In this example, does pledging to the flag in church bring us closer to God?

Now I want to tell you the real motivation for this crazy blog today.  To remind you that you should be questioning all your traditions.  That is why I challenged one of the sacred cows typically only found in the white, southern, Christian tradition.  You need to take an inventory of everything you do in God’s house to make sure they serve God’s mission.  Doing things because we always do it that way may not be glorifying God.  And that’s a question worth asking.

May the God Grace and the Lord Christ Jesus be with you.  Amen.

Ascension – Not Just Another Day

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Readings – Psalm 68:15-18, Acts 1:1-11

Today I want to chat about Acts 1:1-11.  This is the Story of Christ’s Ascension. This is such a wonderful section of scripture that is so loaded with information people often miss it.  In fact, most are not even aware of the significance of the day being discussed. But I don’t know that it’s anyone’s fault.  If you were Catholic you would be very aware of the Day of Ascension. But for the rest of us, this is a day that seems to slip right on by us.  We have Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection.  Christmas, Good Friday and Easter.  Most of us are thinking ahead to the Pentecost – maybe.  Many also do not know how important that day is as well.

If I went to Walgreens to buy a greeting card for Ascension, do you think they would have any?  Hmm – I’m not so sure.  When is Ascension Day? A Thursday!  What is Ascension Day?  Let me start there.  It’s the day that Jesus literally lifted-up off the planet earth and went into Heaven.  But, before we dive into the reading from Acts, I want to go back to the very last chapter and verses from Luke and read the verses there to help you get ready for what the Ascension really means!

We have only four verses that describe what happens that day.  Now here is a warning.  If all you ever read was the Gospel of Luke then it would seem like Ascension Day happens on Easter day.  In the Gospel Luke puts the short story right after the Road to Emmaus and Jesus in the Upper Room.  We only know about the forty days after Easter because of what we read in Acts.  Confusing.  Sorry.  Here is Luke 25:50-53:

50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

The four verses here are packed with so much stuff it needs its own blog.  I’ll walk through them quickly.  Verse 50 – Jesus leads the disciples out of Jerusalem and near Bethany.  Where is Bethany – at the Base of the Mount of Olives.  Anyone remember the last time we heard about Bethany?  On Palm Sunday when Jesus did what?  He DESCENDED into Jerusalem and the Temple.  Like I said there is so much here.  Let’s go to the next verse.

Verse 51, Jesus “Blesses” them.  If we look at the Old Testament and we look for all the places where someone is Blessed we see that this is a really big deal.  Raised hands mean this is more than a word. Jesus gives his disciples a gift as he is about to leave. He will soon be absent but will be everywhere.  In a few chapters (Acts 3:25-26), Peter will compare this moment to Abraham declaring his sons as prophets.  Jesus is blessing the disciples as his new voice.  Big deal, right?

In verse 52, we see that the disciples Worship him.  There is only one place in all the Gospels where one human worships another;  In Matthew, the Magi adore baby Jesus. In this verse, Luke is making a point, Christ is no longer a man, he is now God. And they worship him.  Then they get up off the ground and are super happy and head back to Jerusalem.

The very last verse says they stayed continuously at the Temple.  That is a metaphor as only the Jewish priests could literally sleep over in the Temple for an extended time.  But get this, the Greek word for Temple in this last verse suggest only the Temple compound, not the sanctuary where one normally prayed.  But what did Luke say they were doing there? Praising God.  What we are learning is that they were praying in an area not normally where one prayed to YHWH.  To whom do you think they were praying?  Boom. That is my lift-off explosion sound.  They were worshiping Christ as God!  Christianity was literally starting its roots right there on the Temple grounds.  Why did the Jewish people go to the temple for in the first place?  Because that is where God lived.

Let’s recap now – The end of the Gospel of Luke is all about Christ blessing the disciples, and them returning to the Temple to where God lives.

How many of you have read books that had a sequel?  The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were both written by the same person.  Acts is a sequel – same characters but there is something different going on here.  Now we just read the end of Luke.  Let’s see how this sequel starts.

1 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach

Let’s stop here.  The Gospel of Luke was all we need to know about what Jesus did and taught.  The Rev. Billy Graham was asked towards the end of his life about any regrets.  He said his only one was that he didn’t get to know Jesus better.   I’m sure he knew about him pretty well.   If you want to know Jesus – read the Luke’s Gospel, over and over.

2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.

This is the last day that Jesus teaches his disciples anything. What is this part about After giving instructions through the Holy Spirit stuff?  Who is Luke talking about here?

Jesus! There is only one person in all the Gospels has the Holy Spirit.  And that is Christ.  That means Christ in human form had the Holy Spirit.  That is what made him different from all the other mortals.  And when did Jesus get the Spirit?  After John the Baptist baptized him and he came out of the wilderness.  Luke 4:14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.

Evidently this Holy Spirit is pretty important!  Wouldn’t you say.  Even Jesus needed the Spirit inside him while on Earth.  Think about that – and then about all those that don’t know the Holy Ghost.

3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.

Ok – now we find out that the ascension was not on Easter Sunday.  It was forty-days later.  This is the only place in all the Gospels you will find this.  In fact, the early church did not even consider the ascension as important for two-hundred years.  It was not until the Book of Acts was finally accepted into the Canon.   I guess they did not have Ascension Day cards for the first few hundred years either.  Now this next verse is important but easy to overlook.

4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.

Remember earlier I asked why would the go to Jerusalem and the temple.  And we said it was because that is where God lives.  Jesus tells them, get there and stay there!  I apologize that I don’t have time today to bring in the Old Testament into Acts but for those that are interested – look up Jerimiah 31:31-34 and see if you see the OT prophecy that Jesus was fulfilling here.  We can save that for another day.

5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”   6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Wait – let’s stop here!  I’ve talked about this before.  These knuckle heads still think Jesus is a Messiah that going to bring in the tanks and wipe out the Romans.  He answers them rather curtly.

7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.

I’m amazed he has the patience but listen to what he says next.   This is the most important verse in this entire section.

8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

When YOU get the Holy Spirit, YOU will be my witness to the entire world.  Jesus just let them know, I’m done.  You all have been fully trained and briefed.  Soon you will have all the tools you need by the Holy Spirit.  See ya!  YOU are now responsible.  I’m out of here!

9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

Poof, Jesus lifts off and he is no longer in sight.  Anyone here ever watch a rocket launch.  You can see the rocket climbing and climbing and the finally it just a tiny speck that disappears.  I suspect all the disciples were doing just that.    I love how Luke starts the book of Acts.  In these last two verses we discover just exactly what this sequel is going to be all about.

10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Those angels just told them, Yo, let’s get moving.  YOU have work to do.

In the last verse of Luke’s Gospel, we learned they go back to Jerusalem and go to the Temple and stay there.  I want to discuss two quick points before we leave today.  One – Why was the ascension important, and Two – let’s why did Christ mention John the Baptist.

So – why is it important?  Some of you may remember the story of when Mary Magdalene was outside the tomb and Jesus approached her.  At first, she thought it was the gardener but when she heard his voice she grabbed on to Jesus.  He said, John 20:17 “Do not cling to Me, Jesus said, “for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go and tell My brothers, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.’”   Jesus was explaining to Mary that he is for everyone.  If he stayed there with her, or with anyone else, he was always in just one place.  By ascending Jesus returns to the right hand of God – fully as man in human flesh, with the scars and memories of joy and pain of love and torture, and the temptation of sin.  Once he ascends he can be everywhere for everyone.

Heaven is not like the strict confines of our three-dimensional world.  And Heaven is not some resort on the other side of Mars.  Heaven is nowhere but everywhere at the same time.  Once he ascends Jesus can be sitting right beside you and you and you and me, all at the same time.  That is why this day is important.  If Christ had not ascended, well, he would still be flesh among flesh.

My last point is to respond to why did Jesus mentioned John the Baptist in his last words to the disciples.  Some may find that odd.  I mean, he could have told them anything.  But you need to know that, in those days, John was considered a prophet.  And he baptized with water.  Jesus is telling the disciples that they are about to become more powerful and more anointed than even John the Baptist.

We all know that the disciples were not very good listeners.  They had a hard time fully comprehending what was happening.  A few verse ago Jesus reminded them that he already told them about the Holy spirit coming.  If we go all the way back to – Luke 7:27: This is the one about whom it is written: ‘Behold, I will send My messenger ahead of You, who will prepare Your way before You.’ 28 I tell you, among those born of women, there is no one greater than John, yet even the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

There are billions of Christians in the world.  And some of them are pretty lousy!  Somewhere in God’s Kingdom there is the worst of all worst Christians.  But, get this… even the least in God’s Kingdom that lousy Christian will be greater than John.  Imagine that!  Jesus told them, you are about to receive the Holy Spirit.   You see, having the Holy Spirit is not something that is given to everyone freely.  We have to accept Christ as our savior and we are gifted with by God’s Grace with the Holy Spirit.  We are given the same gift from God that Jesus Christ was given in the river Jordan.  Think about that!

John the Baptist didn’t have it.  King Herod didn’t have it.  Pontius Pilate certainly didn’t have it. Every Jewish Leader in the Second Temple did not have it.  But the disciples got it.  And then they started preparing others to receive it.

Here is the best part of this whole ascension story.  Christ ascended to make way for the Holy Spirit to descend on us.  In John 16:7 it is very clear.  7 But I tell you the truth, it is for your benefit that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.  If Christ had not ascended the Holy Ghost would not have been delivered to us.

I think Ascension Thursday is a really big deal!  I apologize I don’t have cards to send out – don’t look for them in your mailbox.  But at least now you all know that Ascension Day is every bit as important for us as Christians as all the other days we recognize.  If you have accepted Christ as your Lord – your King, your Priest, your savior – Just think about this one thing as you leave here today.  You share the same Spirit that Christ was given when he walked the earth.  Christ is fully in you!  How wonderful is that!  Amen!

What if God Was One of Us    

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Readings: Numbers 22:21-34, Mark 6:7-13

I want to start by retelling a little story I heard a few years ago.  I’m sure some of you have probably heard this story or some variant of it.  I don’t doubt the story’s true – at least in part as something similar to what happened in Clarksville TN a few years ago.  It goes like this:

A Pastor transformed himself into a homeless person and went inside a giant mega church.  He walked around for 30 minutes while it was filling with people for service, and only 3 people out of the thousands entering said hello to him. He asked people for change to buy food – no one in the church gave him change.

He went into the sanctuary and sat down in the front of the church and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit in the back.  When he greeted people they stared at him, made dirty looks, and were obviously looking down on him.  As he sat in the back of the church, he listened to the church announcements and such. When all that was done, the elders went up and were excited to introduce the new pastor of the church to the congregation. The congregation looked around and started clapping with joy excited to meet this new pastor they had heard about. They were all excited.

About this time the homeless dude stood up and walked down the aisle. The clapping stopped and everybody was staring at him. He walked up the altar and took the microphone from one of the elders who him.  He walked up behind the pulpit and paused for a moment, then introduced himself as the new Pastor they were all so kind to clap for.  Then he recited some verses from Matthew 25 many of you have heard.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Many of you know this passage.  How does it end?  ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”   The pastor ended the service and sent the congregation home.

In the Gospel of Mark this morning we’re going to talk about what happened to Jesus when he went home to Nazareth.  Jesus had been away from home a long time and just prior to our reading in Mark 6, he was casting out demons and bringing the dead back to life.   He was certainly on his A game – Baseball has restarted so I’ll say he was batting a 1000%.  When he got to Nazareth he went into the synagogue and amazed everyone with his knowledge.

But then something strange happens.  Mark 6:3 says they started talking about him.  They said:     3 Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

Jesus is in his home town, where everyone should be excited to see him.  But once he starts to preach even his family didn’t want to hear it.  The verse says “They took offence at him.”  Wow – that had to be depressing!

But it gets worse.  In this short lesson It says, “5 He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. 6 He was amazed at their lack of faith.”  Yep – it got worse.  One chapter earlier Jesus was raising the dead and in this verse we learn he could only heal a few sick people.  In his home town nobody believed he was who he said he was and what he could do.  It says in Mark – They didn’t have faith!   He was the son of a simple carpenter.  Who was he to think he was anything special?  His family didn’t think so.

Now I am going to tell you a true story about myself that I am not very proud of.  Several years ago. I was attending my home church we had our usual big crowd of probably – twenty people.  I sat in “my pew” and after a few moments I noticed two rows up on the aisle there was a homeless dude sitting there.  Well, he looked homeless anyway. You know – his clothes were clean but they were old and wore. He had a scruffy beard and his hair down over his collar.  You all know the type.  You see them around town, right?

You probably know where this story is going, but let me say this – I had already heard the story I read to you earlier, but it obviously did not have any impact.  Maybe some of you have already forgotten what it was about.  Well, to continue, we did our Call to Worship, sang a few hymns and then the Pastor stepped up to give his sermon.

But before he began I was surprised that he suddenly introduced the homeless dude and asked him to come up to the pulpit.  I was thinking – wow, where’d he find this guy?   Turns out, he wasn’t homeless.  He was a street preacher trying to raise money to start a men’s shelter in town. He had already started a small church back behind an old Antique Mall.  He was married and had four or five kids and that was his livelihood.  He gave his testimony with a passion about his mission like no person I have ever heard

Any of you want to guess how big I felt when he was finished and I remembered my first impressions?   What was he doing here in “our” church?  Who let him in? I wonder if he is going to ask for money.  Yep – I could have passed through the eye of a needle I felt so small.

But like most stories God writes this one has a good ending.  That day was a turning point for me in my growing my faith in Christ.  Boy did God wake me up!   I had not ever thought of myself as selfish in that way – but I was.  Here’s the God works in mysterious ways part.  Less than six months later my Pastor got sick and I was asked to step up.  A year and a half later I was sent as a supply Lay Pastor to two churches. And I have been there close to a year!

I’m convinced that God gives us plenty of chances – we simply need to show our faith.  In the 90’s there was a popular song called What if God Was One of us:  Here are some of the lyrics:

If God had a name what would it be?

And would you call it to his face?

If you were faced with Him in all His glory

What would you ask if you had just one question?

What if God was one of us?

Just a slob like one of us

Just a stranger on the bus

Tryin’ to make his way home?

You see, at that moment, when I realized what a bad witness to Christ I was, I decided to change.  I started asking the Pastor for his bible verse early so I could read them before he preached it.  When I decided to change, when I grew in my faith, then God opened me up and moved me in a direction I did not expect.

So, what did Christ do with his disciples?   We learn all about it in the next part of Mark 6:6b-13.  Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. 7 Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.  8 These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. 9 Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. 10 Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 11 And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” 

That “homeless looking man” I saw in church surrendered to Christ and was put on a mission to save homeless men in his own home town.  The lesson here is you do not need anything but the Good News to save souls – no wallet, no bread, no bag.  Just your staff!

It’s interesting though – Jesus also told them if you are turned away you move along.  He tells them to “11 And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”  What does that mean?

Twenty-five years ago, I dabbled in telemarketing sales.  Yes – I was one of THOSE guys!  Every day I had make at least 100 phone calls and try to get people to just let me send them an envelope with information about our company.  That’s it.  I was paid by how may envelopes I sent out.  My first week there devastating.  Not only did I not hit my daily quota of calls I only managed to send out about ten envelopes.  I thought about quitting.  Monday morning wasn’t any better.  Well –to make a story short too long –my boss came over to by me and he saw someone had hung up on me. He said – “David, you have to shake the dust off your feet.”  He explained that not everyone is ready to hear what I had to say, and that it was not personal.  In fact, be thankful for hang ups as I can get to my next call faster.

Jesus is telling his disciples the same thing.  Not everyone is ready for the Good News.  Not all will be saved.   Jesus reminded his disciples that the road was going to be hard.   A lot of doors are going to be slammed in your face.  And guess what – it is even harder in your home town.  After all – who are you?  “I remember that time you…”  I’ll let you fill in the blank.  In the closing verse of this lesson today we see that the disciples did what Jesus told them and they had great success.

12 They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.” I imagine they soon learned what Alexander Graham Bell said – “When one door closes, another one opens.”  And guess what – that goes for you too.  But let me ask you a question, are you answering the door when God knocks?

Don’t forget how this lesson started.  Jesus “5 could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. 6 He was amazed at their lack of faith.” 

In closing this blog, I want to ask you this.  How many of you here know you have faith that your savior can heal you right now?  If you have a chronic health problem or financial problem or marriage problem or problems at school – and you pray about it…  but you don’t really expect anything to get better.  Well guess what – Jesus can’t fix you!  He is standing there right beside you ready to pull the yoke – but if you don’t get strapped in he can’t take you anywhere.

Now to bring this full circle I want to ask you – how do you know God hasn’t already been acting on you in your life and you don’t see him.  I saw what I thought was homeless dude in church – and it turned out he had more faith in his pinky than I had in my entire church tithing body.  I was made stronger in my faith by seeing God work in another person.

People are brought to Christ in all kinds of amazing ways.  People encounter the holy in differently.  We read earlier in the OT readings that God got so fed up with Balaam that he finally made his donkey talk – now that would get my attention too.  Our savior is everywhere.

What if God was one of us?

Just a slob like one of us

Just a stranger on the bus

Tryin’ to make his way home?

God is standing right next to us.  It is like the old hymn goes:

“I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene, and wonder how he could love me, a sinner, condemned, unclean. Oh How Marvelous! O How Wonderful.  How Wonderful is my Saviors love for me!” (UMC Hymnal #371)

Every one of you is ready to be a disciple of Christ.

Get out there and share how Christ is working in you.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, and who ever believes in him will not perish, but will have everlasting life!