Texts: Isaiah 45:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
Theme: My pick is "The Sovereignty of God", or some variation on that theme. (Perhaps "Supremacy" rather than "Sovereignty" might be even clearer.) That would certainly encapsulate the first lesson and the gospel passage, although it would be a bit of a stretch to include the second lesson. If the focus is to be on the gospel passage only, something like "The Image We Bear" might be a useful starting-point, and safer than "Taxing Theology"!
Introduction. We begin with one of the more startling biblical passages, which illustrates the fundamental belief that God is revealed in and through history - individual, national and international. To see God's "hand" in our national history is more likely in times of "success" and "victory"; and there are many examples of that in Israel's history as reflected in the Scriptures. But to recognise God as the one who has decided to work through a foreign, all-conquering military commander? St Paul's approach in this very early letter is much more conventional: all that the believers are able to achieve, and all that they are able to withstand in the face of persecution and suffering, is evidence of God working in them and through them. God is working through people of faith. The gospel passage has yet another take on this aspect: there are those who exercise power and authority on earth, and they are entitled to an appropriate level of respect and obedience, but their authority is never absolute. God and only God rules supreme. In other words, we are back to the same sort of issues we struggled with last week.
Background. Well, let's get the problem of history over with first! The cynics among us will want to point out that Cyrus was "revealed" as doing God's work only after he conquered the Babylonians, and, for his own reasons of State, decreed that their "captive minorities" were free to return to their native lands. More specifically from our point of view, the Babylonian exile of the Jews, which had lasted about 70 years, was brought to a sudden end in a most unexpected way. The exiles had been forced to re-examine their history: what had happened to the God of Israel who was supposed to have defended them and their territory from the Babylonian invaders, but had failed to do so? As the psalmist put it, how could they sing their songs by the waters of Babylon? But with time on their hands they began to reflect on their history, their story as a people, and the story of God's past dealings with them. Had they previously been in captivity? Yes, yes, long ago, they had been in slavery in Egypt. How did they get out of that? They cried out to the Lord their God, who heard their cry and rescued them. Well, then, what God did for them in the past, will he not do it for them again? And so hope and faith were re-ignited, and they waited for God to send them another Moses to lead them out of captivity in Babylon and back to the land God had promised would be theirs for ever. Cyrus was the new Moses! The fact that he had no idea that he was called and used by God in this way – or, indeed, that he did not know who God was – was beside the point. This was God's doing and it was marvellous in their sight!
Or should we say, it was marvellous in their hindsight? Does that make any difference? If we accept the cynics' view that all those passages in the prophets that appear to predict the coming of Cyrus before he came were written after the event, what difference does that really make? We know what happened, and we know the outcome. A modern parallel would be the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall. Back in the 1950's and 1960's when I was growing up, none of us expected to see the fall of the wall in our lifetime. Yet fall it did. Was that God's doing? Was Gorbachev the new Cyrus, merely the latest in a long line of God-chosen rescuers stretching back to Moses? Or was it all the outcome of world politics and economics and nothing to do with God?
What then of prayer? Exodus 2:23-25 is very clear. It was in the impassioned prayers of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt that we find the true beginnings of the whole Exodus story. When the Berlin Wall fell was it not acclaimed as a real answer to prayer? And today, when we pray for an end to the atrocities in Iraq and Syria, and many other parts of the world, what exactly are we doing, saying, or hoping for if not articulating a belief that such prayer can make a difference? Of course, the same question can be asked of any form of intercessory prayer, from the global to the individual. When I pray for my friend who is about to undergo surgery do I not do so in the hope, if not the expectation, that the outcome of the surgery may be better than if I had not prayed?
All this is taking us very close to trying to understand the mystery of our faith that is beyond all human understanding; but I do think our readings can give us some guidance. One of the other key elements of the Exodus story that has always struck me as important is the stress placed on the need to obtain Pharaoh's "permission" for the Hebrews to leave. Moses is not sent to Pharaoh to deliver an ultimatum, much less to kill him. He is told to ask Pharaoh to "let my people go". Of course, over a series of "negotiations" some "divine muscle" is applied in the form of increasingly unpleasant plagues, but the purpose throughout seems to be to persuade Pharaoh to consent. Even at this fairly early stage in the development of Hebrew theology there is a strand of "incarnational" divine action: God does not simply "nuke" Pharaoh off the face of the earth – or magically transport the people from Egypt to the Promised Land in a science-fiction extravaganza. God works through Moses and Pharaoh to achieve the desired outcome. The God of Israel is almost literally arm-wrestling with the demigod of Egypt.
Fast-forward a few hundred years to the time of Isaiah and the different theology is, perhaps, the first thing that strikes us. There is now no suggestion that God has to resort to using every plague imaginable to subdue and finally overcome an almost equal adversary. Cyrus is every bit as powerful as any Pharaoh ever was, yet God uses him without him even realising that he is being used. The God of Israel is becoming the God of all peoples: no longer limited to one small people, God can use anyone of any nation for any purpose. But that's not the only difference between this "intervention" and the Exodus: this time there is no need for "direct action" of a miraculous nature. God co-opts the military might of Cyrus to rescue the Jewish exiles from Babylon.
Fast-forward again to the time of Jesus and we find the third and final stage of this long process of divine self-revelation, or of human understanding, which is the other side of the coin. Look at this week's epistle reading and we see a new phenomenon. The evidence of God within and among these new believers is clear for all to see. It is manifested in their love for one another, in their courage and steadfastness in the face of persecution, and in their growing reputation among others. This is the kingdom of God growing among them, the kingdom that Jesus has been teaching about in the parables we have heard and pondered in recent works. The kingdom that has been growing for 2,000 years. The kingdom that we pray for each and every time we pray the prayer our Lord taught us. The kingdom that is entirely consensual. The God who coerced Pharaoh, the God who simply used Cyrus, is finally revealed as the God who stands at the door and knocks.
And awaits our "yes". The Sovereignty of Love is all God's doing and it is marvellous in our eyes.
Isaiah 45:1-7. Notice how well balanced this passage is. It opens with the shocking news that God has chosen a Persian (today we would call him an Iranian) to rescue God's people (today we would call them Jews) from exile in Babylon (today we would call it Iraq). But in verse 3 God calls himself "the God of Israel"; and in verse 4 there is a reminder that this extraordinary choice of Cyrus is "for the sake of Israel". In verses 5 to 7 the developing theology of monotheism is to the fore: the reference to light and darkness may be a refutation of the Persian belief in the divine power of the sun, moon and stars.
Taking It Personally.
· Reflect on this historical view of our understanding of God's self-revelation. What do you make of it?
· If God is not involved in the unfolding of history, what is God involved in?
· As we prepare to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the gospel in this country, in what way was that God's doing, or was it all Samuel Marsden's idea?
· With the benefit of hindsight, are you aware of God's action or guidance in any aspects of your own life history?
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10. This letter has about it a very early feel, and it is thought by many scholars to be one of the earliest, if not the earliest, of St Paul's letters that we have in the New Testament. The first glow of conversion seems to be radiating from this small group of believers, who have enthusiastically and joyfully accepted the gospel and abandoned their previous idolatry. Their reputation is spreading, even though they are already experiencing persecution. But clearly the belief in the imminent return of Christ is still very strong, and later in the letter St Paul will respond to their concerns for those of their number who have already died. Notice, too, the hint of Christ coming to pluck us out of danger: later, as St Paul's theology deepens and matures, he will present a very different understanding of "salvation" in which all things are brought to unity in Christ and taken back to the Father.
Taking It Personally.
· St Paul characteristically starts this letter with words of praise for this fellowship of faith, and assurance of regular prayer for them. Do you usually start your prayers with a time of thanksgiving and praise, or do you get straight into your list of requests?
· Read slowly through this passage as if it were a letter addressed to your faith community. To what extent is it "spot on", and which bits make it seem that the writer doesn't know your community very well?
· Have you turned away from all idols? Are you aware of serving a living and true God? Are you awaiting Christ's return?
Matthew 22:15-22. This passage in the NSRV edition that I use has an intriguing heading: The Question about Paying Taxes. (Read it aloud putting the emphasis on the first word.) Of course, Jesus wasn't really teaching about paying tax, and his interrogators weren't really asking him about that. In fact, as St Matthew makes clear, it was yet another attempted trap. Jesus turned it into a short teaching on power and authority, or sovereignty. A while ago we had the parable of the workers in the vineyard, where the denarius was said to be the usual daily wage. Now we learn that it was also the coin required to pay the hated poll tax applied by the Roman occupiers. It not only bore the image of Caesar, but also the inscription "Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus and high priest". The challenge could not be clearer, and in fairness to the Pharisees it did create a real dilemma for them. But Jesus' answer invited them to reflect at a deeper or higher level. The coin bore the emperor's image; human beings bear the image of God. So if the coin belongs to Caesar, to whom do we belong?
Taking It Personally.
· What, if anything, does this passage say about the duty of a Christian to obey the political authority of the State? Are there any circumstances in which it might be right for a Christian to refuse to pay his or her tax in full?
· Given that taxes are used for the benefit of other members of our country, should Christians give to the Taxman cheerfully and generously?
· Conversely, are all lawful ways of avoiding tax open to Christians as they are to a everyone else?