The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
Today's Gospel lesson is one of those that are incredibly difficult to preach. It's not that the subject is tough or dicey; as if it may offend someone by talking about such a political thing as paying taxes to the government. That doesn't bother me. Somebody is ALWAYS going to be offended. I once had a guy (a self-professed "good Lutheran") come out of church and tell me in the handshake line that I should never preach on or even mention abortion from the pulpit. "I don't want politics mixed in with my religion." Clearly this yahoo had never heard of that "super-political" statement made by God Himself called the Fifth Commandment. I digress.
The fact that somebody may get their feathers ruffled by the Truth of God's Word isn't the problem. That's just reality. No, the problem with today's text is the simple fact that there's so much here to talk about; way more than can be discussed in even a month of sermons. For example, we've got polar-opposite enemies (Roman establishment-loving Herodians and Rome-hating, Jewish theocracy-loving Pharisees) uniting together to discredit and do away with Jesus, their mutual hatred of Jesus being the unifying factor. There's a sermon right there. We've got multiple sermon possibilities on what exactly belongs to Caesar and what exactly belongs to God. This is what most people usually wind up focusing on, and for good reason. There's SO MUCH to say on this! Does only money belong to Caesar? Do only material things belong to Caesar? What about stewardship? What about God-given authority? What about respect? What about honor? What about obedience (assuming that what the authorities are asking of you isn't sinful)? What about the things that belong to God? Doesn't everything ultimately belong to God? Even the governing authorities are given by God. Jesus Himself tells Pontius Pilate, "You wouldn't have any authority unless it was given to you from above." Boy…what does this mean for us in our super-charged, overly-sensitive, ever-offended culture today? Does such an "all authority is given by God" realization change the way you look at the authorities in your life? It should.
Unfortunately, in all this one thing usually gets overlooked; those words that Jesus asks when He holds up the coin, "Whose image and inscription is this?" Now, to be sure, I have heard more than a few sermons on these words, and they were all good and faithful…but they all tended to focus on us. Such a focus isn't necessarily bad. Case in point: In Holy Baptism, God puts His name on us; on our heads and hearts, marking us—inscribing upon us—the fact that we belong to Him and we have been redeemed in Christ the Lord. All men bear the likeness of God; that is, we all look like Him, but the image of God, which man was originally created in, was lost in the fall into sin. We may all bear a likeness to God, but the pure and holy image of God has been lost in sin and death. This is why God, in His unconditional grace and mercy, restores this holy image to us, working this life-giving, life-saving restoration through His life-giving, life-saving means of grace. By means of His Word, His holy Baptism, His Body and Blood, He restores and imprints His holy image upon us.
And none of what I just said is problematic in the least. This is all absolutely and blessedly true. Thanks be to God! And yet…there is an aspect to these words of Christ regarding the image and inscription that is still so often over-looked. What about Jesus? I know, like all of you, that we are baptized into Christ. I know that in Christ and because of Christ; because of His Body and Blood, we are made clean and restored unto new life and everlasting salvation. Like all of you, I know this, and I thank God for this. But…this isn't what I mean when I ask, "What about Jesus?"
Consider Jesus' own reality in light of His own words regarding image and inscription. Don't put the cart before the horse and make it about you. Focus first on Jesus. These words of Christ find perfect fulfillment in Christ. Consider the testimony of St. Paul. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul professes that Jesus "is the icon/image of the invisible God." Jesus Himself tells Philip when Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father. "Show you the Father? Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father." Folks: Here is the image and likeness of almighty God, in the flesh. You wanna see God? Look right here. Look to Christ.
And that takes us even deeper. Look to this bloody cross. Here is the very icon and image of God's wrath against sin. Here is what it looks like—beaten, bloodied, mangled, defeated, nailed to a cross. Here in the bloodied corpse of God's only-begotten Son is the wrath of God against sin. Here in this bloodied corpse of God-in-the-flesh; here is the perfect image of perfect faith and obedience. Jesus truly walks the walk when it comes to rendering unto Caesar and rendering unto God. Yes, He renders His very life unto His heavenly Father…we get that. But consider the fact that the religious establishment, under the leadership of the high priest Caiaphas, wanted Jesus dead. Remember, too, that these representatives of God could not put anyone to death. They didn't have the authority. They had to render unto Caesar, who did have the authority to carry out executions.
Think about this. Let this really sink in. Both the high priest (God's representative) and Pontius Pilate (Caesar's representative) were permitted to be in these offices, discharging the duties of their respective offices, with all the attendant responsibilities and authority, by Almighty God. "You would not have any authority unless it was given to you from above." God the Father used both men—Pontius Pilate (Caesar) and Caiaphas (God)—to carry out His plan of redemption. Jesus Christ lowered Himself; that is, He humbled Himself to the point of death on a cross, lowering Himself to the authorities that wanted Him there and the authorities that put Him there, rendering unto both God and Caesar His perfect, righteous obedience. And He did it all for us! He did this all out of a selfless, unconditional and incomprehensible love for us poor and miserable sinners.
Look at this cross! Here in this mangled, bloodied corpse of Christ is the crystal-clear exact image of God's unconditional and incomprehensible love for you, for me, and for all mankind. Behold the inscription posted above His head: "The King of the Jews." It's absolutely true, and not just the King of the Jews—David's royal Son—but He is the King of Kings; the King of all Israel; that is, the King of all who believe and hold fast to God's Gospel promise.
Behold your King, O faithful Israel! His wounds bear the image and inscription of His Father's wrath against sin—yes—and these same mortal wounds bear the inscription of Christ's love and obedience to His Father…unwavering, rock-solid love and obedience that He poured out for you. Three days later the risen and victorious Jesus would stand before His dumbfounded disciples and show them these same wounds, only now Jesus will interpret for them what these sacrificial inscriptions mean for them and for all humanity: "Peace."
My fellow redeemed: Those bewildered apostles' reality is your reality, now and into all eternity, for Christ forever bears these sacrificial wounds and inscriptions as reminders to His heavenly Father that the full wage of sin has been rendered in Him and because of Him. "It is finished!" Look in the mirror. Look at your neighbor. Here is one Christ loved enough to die for. Look to this cross; look to this font; look to this altar—here in all these things is the image and inscription of Christ. Here is the very image and icon of God's love for you. Here is your peace that surpasses all human understanding. Here is Christ.
And when you rightly understand and recognize this divine image and inscription—this divine Christological reality—how can you not give thanks? This really puts everything else in proper perspective, doesn't it? All that you have and all that you are, even in matters pertaining to Caesar, is a gift of God's mercy, grace, and love to you. "What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me? I will offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the Lord."
May almighty God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—keep all that you say, think, and do in proper, thankful, cruciform perspective, and may your life be a daily rendering of humble thanks and praise for all the benefits God has already shown and continues to show to you.
To Him alone be all glory, all praise, and all honor. AMEN
Feel free to use any or all of this sermon for the edification of God's people. It is NOT necessary to ask my permission for any of it! In fact, you don't have to mention me at all. (I think it's highly problematic when pastors seek credit/glory for sermons inspired by the Holy Spirit!) Give praise to God for the fact that He continues to provide for His people.
Send Pastor Jason Zirbel an email.