Christ Lutheran Church Upper Darby
October 18, 2019 Worship Sermon - "The Dead Emperor and the Living God"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36
A friend of mine takes great pride in showing people his coin collection. He has the standard assortment of wheat-back pennies, liberty dimes, and silver Kennedy half dollars. But his prize possession is a blackened disk that you can barely identify as a coin. If you study it carefully, though, with a magnifying glass, you can make out the helmeted head of a man on one side and a seated figure on the reverse. I couldn’t read the Latin inscription, but fortunately, someone with better eyes than mine studied it and determined that it reads, in English: Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Emperor.
The man whose figure is depicted on the coin, Tiberius, the Emperor of Rome, was one of the most influential men ever to live. He had the power of life and death over people from Spain to Syria, from England to Egypt. He was a man who inspired tremendous fear and awe wherever he went.
My friend's coin could very well have been identical to the coin we hear about in this morning's Gospel reading. Jesus asked to see the coin in order to give the Pharisees and the Herodians an answer to their question about whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. They had asked Jesus this question in order to entrap him. If he told the Pharisees that they should pay tax to the emperor, the people would turn away from him because they resented having to support their Roman oppressors. But if he told the Pharisees not to pay tax to the emperor, the emperor had a few thousand soldiers in the area just chomping at the bit to make an example of some rebellious Jew by nailing him to a cross.
It's interesting that Jesus had to ask his opponents to show him the coin. That means his own pockets were empty. But it also means that his opponents had brought into the temple a coin with a graven image of a man who claimed to be a God. That coin, with the image of Tiberius and the inscription, "Son of the Divine Augustus," broke the first and most important of all commandments, the commandment against idolatry, the commandment against creating an image of a false god and bowing down to it.
So Jesus was not only finding a clever way out of the trap the Pharisees and Herodians had laid for him; he was showing them how they had become complicit in a system of idolatry that raised up Caesar as a god. Idolatry is one of the themes running through all of our lessons this morning. In Isaiah, God says, "I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me, there is no other God." And in our epistle, Paul praises the Thessalonians for turning from idols to serve the true and living God.
Idolatry is worshipping as God that which is not God. Although we sometimes think of idolatry as bowing down before statues, usually idolatry is much more subtle than that. Martin Luther said that whatever we fear and love the most is our god. If we fear economic ruin and love money more than anything else, then money is our god. It will rule us. If fear illness and love our health more than anything else, then our body becomes our god. We devote all our attention to serving it. If we love our family more than anything else, then family becomes our god. Whatever we fear and love the most, that is our god.
For many Americans, our political zeal has become idolatrous. Jesus words about God and Caesar are particularly significant for us as we approach an election that has all of us very stressed out. As our society has become increasingly secular and as our faith in God has diminished during the past generation, it seems we have become increasingly preoccupied with Caesar. We believe that the salvation of the world depends on who is in the White House and we curse those who disagree with our political opinions. Don’t get me wrong: this election is important, and everyone should vote. But all elections are important. Why don’t we take local elections as seriously as we take presidential elections? I think it’s because presidential politics have filled in the vacuum created by our loss of faith in God. That’s idolatry!
The problem with idolatry is we give all our energy and all our time and all our attention to something that cannot satisfy our deepest needs. So we keep sacrificing more and more to our false gods, hoping that our sacrifices will grab their attention and induce them to give us what we crave. Idolatry becomes a vicious cycle of unfulfilled desire until we hit rock bottom. We have wasted our time and our possessions, our love and our life, pursuing our false god and now we have nothing to show for it.
The nice thing about hitting rock bottom is that there is nowhere to go but up. When we finally discover that the idols we have given our lives to are nothing but lies, then we find ourselves in the same position as Jesus in today's Gospel: our pockets are empty and we have no one to worship but the one true God, the God who cannot be contained in a coin or a bank vault... the God who cannot be contained in an emperor, or a flag, or a temple, or a even church building.
When we stand with our hands and our hearts empty before the true and living God, then we are no longer slaves to the false gods who had dominated us and brought us to ruin. We are finally free to live according to the truth. Our empty hearts can finally be filled with the love and the grace of the God who created us. Our empty hands can finally receive the blessings of the God who holds us safe and secure in the palm of God's own hand.
It's funny, the image of Tiberius Caesar on my friend's coin: you can barely make it out. Time has corroded it and worn it down. In the same way, time has corroded and worn away the power of this emperor who used to inspire fear throughout the western world. Most people wouldn’t even be able to tell you who he is. That's the way it is with false gods. They never last, therefore we need not fear them.
The true and living God, on the other hand, lasts forever. The true and living God survives the rise and fall of every Caesar and every empire. Even after all the kingdoms and powers of this world have worn away like an old coin, the true God stands at the end of history with arms outstretched, beckoning us to come and live.