Isaiah 45: 1-7 (page 605 in our pew Bibles). The message of this piece is that God works through history, people and circumstances to create the conditions needed for His glory to be known. The people themselves, from Cyrus to Pontius Pilate don't have to know God at all - but they can still be used.
1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10 (page 986 in our pew Bibles) The earliest Christian words recorded in the New Testament. Paul commends the lively faith of this young church that he planted.
Matthew 22: 15-22 (page 827 in our pew Bibles) A very clever parable indeed, often misunderstood, that ascribes all things to Almighty God.
Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”
The Pharisees sent a few of their young guns and a few followers of Herod to first flatter Jesus and then to try and trap him.
Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not? Is meant to trap him.
If he says yes, then he would lose favour with the crowd, some of whom thought it even blasphemous to handle a coin with the Emperor’s head on it, let alone pay tribute to an occupying power.
If he says no, then he is guilty of treason.
Jesus sidesteps the trap and comes up with the enigmatic phrase I started with – pay to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.
Generations of people have tried to use this as a formula to try and work out what the proper relationship should be between church and state – but misses a deeper central point.
Jesus asks whose image (icon) is on the coin and whose inscription and of course it is Caesar’s.
But fundamental to monotheism is that human beings bear the image of God
They might have to pay the tax but they do not belong to Caesar they belong to God. In fact all things ultimately belong to God – and that includes Caesar – even though he doesn’t know it.
Cyrus too in the Old Testament did not know that he belonged to God – he was a worshipper of the pagan god Marduk – but that didn’t stop him being used as a vessel through whom the one true God could act. It was ultimately through King Cyrus that the Jews were set free from their captivity. Without him, that would never have happened.
God moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perfom and what the Bible reveals to us this morning, that ultimately, at the last, God is in ultimate control and he will use who he uses in order to bring about his will.
From Cyrus to Pontius Pilate and beyond, to unseen and unheralded people acting in your own lives, through people and through circumstances God can and will act.
The unseen hand of God was recognised by Isaiah in regard to King Cyrus, and interestingly Pontius Pilate is recognised as Saint Pontius Pilate in the Egyptian Cristian church for his role, unsought and unacknowledged, in the death and resurrection and salvation wrought by Jesus.
We shall baptise today a child whose parents have recognised in some form or other that she bears the divine image.
She belongs to God and more specifically she shares the divine image with her brother Jesus and she will have that status confirmed today when she is baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
She joins all the baptised in this new holy family, where she is born again and becomes not just the daughter of her biological parents but becomes also a child of God with a Father in heaven.
This same belief is the same belief that energised the young church in Thessalonika. 1 Thessalonians is the very first Christian writing we have in the whole new testament, pre-dating all the gospels so is the earliest written evidence of Christianity.
It starts with an extended Thanksgiving for a faith that changed them and in turn led them to become evangelists themselves.
Fundamentally they recognised what Jesus was pointing out in his altercation with the Pharisees, that Paul recognised in the Thessalonians and what we are all collectively acknowledging in Grace. That we all belong to God, that we bear His image and we are children of the same heavenly Father.
Governments and nations and all manor of human agencies will ask for our allegiance and we will have to give it as part of living in a community, just as the Jews had to pay taxes to Caesar but ultimately we don’t belong to any of them. Our home, and our true allegiance lie elsewhere.