The Unseen God
Text: Matthew 22:20: “Then he said to them, whose head is this, and whose title?”
I have two sermons in mind that are linked by a single idea. This morning’s is the first, and the second you will hear a at the end of next month. What links them is the idea of seeing, or more accurately not seeing, and the way our faith is caught up with the evidence presented to us by our eyes.
We start with this old and familiar story, this argument that washes up on Jesus’s front porch in an effort to bait him into saying something that could be used against him.
Pay at least a little attention to the details of who it is bringing this question to Jesus. It’s folks from two different groups of people who don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on anything except a shared suspicion of this itinerant teacher who is getting all the attention. They see the same problem in front of them; the problem is Rome. But they have bitterly opposed ideas about what to do about that problem.
The Pharisees are those who think what the Jewish people need to do is to be more rigorous, more rigid, in their religious observance. They need to people people of such religious discipline that they ignore the rest of the world, and especially the fact that their city, and their nation, is ruled by a kingdom of this world—the Roman empire. To them, any compromise is religious heresy.
Then there’s the Herodians. They have a very different view. Their power, their position, their comforts, their lot in life all come from the fact that they are clients of King Herod—the Jewish puppet-king that the Romans keep propped up in order to give the Jewish people a feeling that they’re still their own nation somehow. Herod is nothing more than a figurehead; he has no effective power, and his whole position depends on keeping the Roman officials persuaded that he’s really on their side.
So the Herodians want to do something else. Their strategy is a go-along-to-get-along strategy. The Pharisees want to make the Romans go away by ignoring them; the Herodians think somehow they’ll go away by a strategy of appeasement.
About the only thing they share is a common view of Jesus as a problem. Jesus keeps talking about a different kingdom, another power structure, one that has nothing to do with either the religious hierarchy of the Pharisees or the military power of the emperor. So they’re trying to draw him out here in this little trumped-up argument. And he’s having nothing of it.
For hundreds of years this text has been preached in a few different ways—as an argument for obeying the civil authority, as a teaching about the responsibilities of citizenship, as an insight into the separation of powers between this world and God’s realm. Except, of course, that this world is God’s realm too. So there must be something else up here.
To get to that, think about the story from Exodus that we heard this morning. Here is Moses, our great ancestor, having a conversation with God that I must tell you has a very familiar ring to it to me. Moses has had some pretty powerful experiences along the way of coming into the leadership of his people. He has seen great signs, and done great things, and now he has his people safely out of the hands of Egypt, and he wonders whether God is still there for him.
The people are getting restless. They are losing interest. They are not so sure about Moses anymore. Before, there was drama, and fireworks, and amazing signs. Now, there is just desert, and confusion, and a seemingly endless road ahead. They thought they were getting the promised land. What they got was the prolonged hike.
Brothers and sisters, I know how Moses feels. I know what it’s like to spend a lot of your time in prayer praying for some kind of ability, some kind of word, some kind of idea to inspire all of you, to increase our energy and our joy, to strengthen our collective commitment to this place and what it stands for. I know what that’s like.
Moses just wants a little sign, you know? He just wants a little reassurance, a little bit of proof that God is still with him. If you’re really there, if you’re really with us, if you really want me to lead these people, show yourself to me. Let me see you. Throw me a bone here.
But what Moses learns about the God who sent him is—that God is not a god who does personal appearances. That God is not a god of coins, or plaques, or podiums, or publicists. That God, the god of the universe, the God that is the source of all that is and all that will be, the god that both fills and embraces all of time and space, that God isn’t there to be seen. It is a very different kind of reality.
The God who made us, and whom we are called to worship with our words and with our lives, with our choices we make and the love we give, that God is something much more real and much more present than a figure on a coin. God is worth far more than the kinds of worship our society is most interested in and encourages most readily—celebrity worship and self-worship.
So the point Jesus is making, the point that confounds both sides of the argument that comes roiling up in front of him and tries to suck him in, is simply this: No god worth believing in is a god that we are going so see—not on a coin, not on a pedestal, not anywhere.
This is a little confounding to us, too. We use all kinds of images to tell the world who we are and what we are like. We want to send the right message by the brand on our clothes, or the bumper sticker on our car. What kind of phone we pull out of our pocket, what kind of business card we pull out of our wallet, what kind of sign we put in our front yard, what kind of posture we adopt during the national anthem, all of that is supposed to say something about us.
We make meaning out of what we can see, because we are people of reason and proof. Fully a third of our brain is taken up with visual information.
And we spend a lot of our effort, consciously and unconsciously, putting a series of signs out into the world meant to communicate something about who we are. We expect God to do the same.
So what are we supposed to render to this unseen God? What are we expected to give to the true God, the god we can’t reduce to an image or a painting or a coin or a flag—or even to a cross around our necks?
We don’t get the answer in a direct instruction from Jesus. What we get instead is the idea that it’s something different, or something larger, than that.
Jesus does give us an answer to this question, but not in the answer he gives to the Pharisees and the Herodians. He gives us the answer in his whole life—in the way he lives his life. And the answer that he gives is, he holds nothing back from God; he lives a life completely transparent to God, heart, mind, soul, and strength, no possessions of his own, no ambitions of his own, and no competing allegiances to anything else.
Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor? Well, who is your emperor? The state? Fame? Wealth? Respect? Attention? Position? The church? Jesus doesn’t give a direct answer. Instead he answers in the whole of his life, holding nothing back and trusting God entirely.
That is what is God’s in our life; that is what we are supposed to render to the unseen God. The gods that are “seen” may get our attention, or our taxes, our time; but they should not get our worship. They should not get the best of who we are and what we have to offer. Because those are the gifts that God has given to you; and what we make of them, what we do with them, we are meant to render back to God alone. Amen.