What image will you offer?
Sermon 19th October 2014
I was in the temple that morning, presenting an offering to God, when I saw a crowd begin to gather. There is often busyness in the temple, and teachers gather for the crowds to listen. I had a little time to spare so decided that I would wander over and hear what this teacher had to say. As I approached, I could see that it was Jesus. No one could say they hadn’t heard of this man before – his name had surely spread far and wide for all the miracles he had been performing and the outrageous things he had been saying, but I hadn’t actually seen him for myself before. I’m not sure if I could say he was as I had expected or not. He seemed pretty ordinary. But oh so compelling – I had to stay and hear what he would teach.
The atmosphere was electric. The chief priests and the teachers of the Law had too seen that he was in the temple and had begun to teach. I watched them gather together like a murder of crows … and murderous too. They were gathering, waiting for the kill, hoping for some carrion to feed off. The crowd could sense it. Some obviously decided the danger wasn’t worth it, and sidled away, drifting silently back into their own lives. Others flicked their eyes nervously in the direction of the crows, shifting their feet uncomfortably.
A couple of the priests approached Jesus and challenged his authority but he wasn’t fazed. He didn’t leave but continued to preach, telling stories about wicked tenants and wedding guests. It was clear to everyone that he was jibing at the leaders, but the crowd was becoming stronger, sticking together to hear more of his stories. For a while the teachers moved away, but I could see them gathering in a corner. Their eyes shone like moonstones and their teeth glinted. It was clear they had thought of a foolproof plan to catch him in their net. Boldly they returned and pushed forward one of the more outspoken teachers. Their shoulders broadened and their chests puffed out.
I began to feel nervous for Jesus. Would he be able to keep evading them? One of these days, and someday soon, I was sure the net would tighten close around him.
The bold Pharisee spoke out. “Teacher,” he began. The cheek of it, they had no respect for this man, what was this game they were playing? “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.”
They were tightening that net, with the stealth of a pride of hunting lions. He surely wouldn’t be fooled by their silver tongues.
“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” the Pharisee asked, with a small flourish.
The crowd collectively held their breath. There was nowhere for Jesus to go. The noose was tight. Whatever Jesus said would open the trapdoor beneath his feet. My heart sank and all of a sudden I wished I had never come over to hear him teach. I didn’t want to be there to watch as the crows tore the flesh from his bones. Surely he was doomed. If he said no, he would be arrested for treason. If he said yes, the Pharisees would have won, the disappointment would be palpable, his following would be over, he could not be a prophet of God.
Without allowing a beat of silence to fall, without allowing the Pharisee to enjoy one single moment of triumph, Jesus began to speak. “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” He asked, “Show me the coin used for the tax.”
I couldn’t believe it. They fished a denarius out of their pockets as I sensed the noose begin to loosen. The crowd held their breath again, but this time in incredulity. How dare they bring that coin into the temple precinct, with the image of that emperor who thought himself to be God?
“Whose head is this, and whose title?” Jesus asked.
“The emperor’s,” the Pharisee responded. I think he knew the net had fallen.
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus finished.
The Pharisees looked at each other in dismay. They had lost. Their foolproof plan turned out to be foolhardy. They sighed as they left this time, not gathering together to plot anymore, but each going their separate ways.
For the crowd, and for me, was left only awe. Our teacher, our leader, our Jesus had slipped out from the crows once more. I had never before met someone so skilled with words, so sure of God and so stamped with God’s image himself. Surely I had just witnessed the messiah. In an instant, I no longer wished I had left, but was infinitely glad that I had stayed. I had heard Jesus and I was changed.
The image of that coin remained imprinted on my brain. How would it be if God’s image was stamped on a coin? Would it look like Jesus?
And what really did belong to God?
God has no coins, not like that blasphemous emperor, but everything in this world belongs to God, everything that lives bears his image, everything has been created by him.
As Jesus had shamed the Pharisees, he had lifted me.
I belonged to God and I must dedicate myself to him. My children belonged to God and, like Hannah in the days of old, I would dedicate them to God too. God deserved my life and my everything.
But as surely as I knew I had to give myself to God, I knew it would mean danger. Jesus had won this encounter, and he had won my heart, but danger was ever closer. The chief priests, the teachers of the law, the religious authorities could not allow Jesus to keep showing them up and knocking them down much longer. Jesus’ days were surely numbered, and numbering myself with him would put me in danger too.
Even so, now that I had witnessed him for myself, I knew that it was something I had to do.