God is alive and beyond our control: but the Good News is God is working for the healing of all things and needs you and me.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, Lect. 29 A
Texts: Isaiah 45:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Is God doing anything in this world? How would you know if you saw it?
Israelites in Babylonian exile saw God’s hand in a foreign general, Cyrus of Persia, who destroyed Babylon’s power and made an edict that they could return home, to Judah, and rebuild. Isaiah says God-Who-Is, the one, true God, anointed Cyrus Messiah to save Israel. Israel trusted God enough to have the imagination to see God working in ways beyond their comprehension.
The Pharisees seem to lack the imagination of their ancestors. They defended God’s law, and were good at it. And this rabbi from Nazareth played a little too fast and loose with it. He challenged their authority, questioned their interpretation, didn’t clear things with them before saying them. In these last days of his life, they tested him again and again. Even though, as we’ll see next week, the center of his teaching, summing of all God’s law into love of God and love of neighbor, was taken straight from the Torah itself.
The question behind this is, do you get to decide where and how God is working?
Maybe some ancient Israelites had doubts about calling a foreign emperor Messiah. But they saw what happened and concluded God was behind it. The Pharisees can’t see Jesus as from God because he’s outside their control.
That’s the real issue. It’s not about choosing Caesar or God, Cyrus or Jesus. The question is do you get to control God? But surely a God whom you can control is no god at all.
Today Paul praises the Thessalonians’ trust in a living God, not in idols.
“In every place,” Paul says, “your trust in God has become known, how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.” We can control idols because we make them. In ancient times, idols were made in human images, animal images; today they’re reflections of our wants, our desires. Reflections of us.
But we can’t make a true God. It is the very truth that we do not control God that tells us we’re connected to the true God. If we create our gods, there’s nothing we don’t know about them, nothing we can’t explain or control. And there’s nothing real about them.
The true God creates us, comes to us from the outside, and we can’t always know what God is doing. And we can never control what God is doing.
But that makes life in a painful world challenging.
There’s no shortage of people who know for sure what God is doing in international affairs and politics, sure their view of God’s law and ways should be forced on everyone, sure they know who’s with God and who isn’t. People of most faiths can often act as if they’re in charge of God. And need to control things to make sure their view of God prevails. So they feel comfortable.
But when we live with the humble certainty that we’re not in charge, and we look at the wars in the Middle East, in Ukraine, in Sudan, at the oppression and violence that shape our world, at the paranoid politics that infect the spirit of our nation, at the violent rhetoric that just keeps on a crescendo, and we know we don’t have all the answers, we do wonder: what are you going to do, God? Do you care? Is there a plan?
And in the imagination of the ancient Israelites, we find an path. They trusted God was working in the world, and had promised restoration. And they trusted God worked through people to do that restoration. Even unexpected people. Even through God’s people themselves.
What if we follow their lead?
Theologian Tom Wright has said, “Because of the cross, being a Christian, or being a church, does not mean claiming that we’ve got it all together. It means claiming that God’s got it all together; and that we are merely, as Paul says, those who are overwhelmed by [God’s] love.” 
If we trust God’s got it all together, and we don’t, we can trust God’s promise, that God is working to bring hope and life to this world. Even to the most devastating of places and scenarios. That every act of grace and kindness, every step away from the usual human violence and hatred and retaliation and revenge, is inspired by and led by God. That can be our hope and prayer.
And if God can use a Persian emperor to bring about restoration, God also can use you. That’s central to Jesus’ hope. He called people to follow, to become like him, to be shaped by love of God and neighbor, because God needs as many hands as possible to bring about the healing that is needed.
And yes, we feel we aren’t up to the task. We feel helpless here, in our place. We don’t elect every leader in Congress, we don’t have the ability to shape foreign crises personally. We can’t even fix our own city. We despair that it seems we lack the ability to help in anything that really matters.
But Jesus seems to think you’re critical to all this. That you, with a changed, new heart, filled with God’s Spirit, will make a difference that will tip the scales. That your love of neighbor, your careful voting, your engagement with your neighborhood, your prayer and supplication, your ability to hold in tension seemingly contrasting truths and find hope, all this makes a difference. You make a difference, Jesus thinks. Even if you can’t see it.
Like Paul’s Thessalonians.
Their trust in a living God whom they can’t limit or control, instead of whatever idols they’ve had, made them into people of grace and hope and healing that became known all over the region. They had no ability to control the Roman emperor, or probably even affect much beyond their own towns and villages. And yet Paul says the word got out: these people are living as Christ in the world and making a difference.
And since you are loved by God in Christ, since you are made in the image of God – that’s the image printed on you, not Caesar’s – when you give to God what is God’s, you give yourself, and you, too, will change the world. And even if you can’t see it, God can.
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
 N. T. Wright, For All God’s Worth, p. 20; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI; © 2007.