Friday, June 16, 2006

On the occasion of the Queen's 80th birthday

Matthew 22:16-22

It is good to give thanks for our Queen

We give thanks for her role as a figurehead for our nation.
Throughout her reign of 54 years we have, as a nation, known relative stability and prosperity. And some of that sense of well-being is due to the fact that God has granted her a long reign and a long life. Throughout my life, and throughout the life of many people, we have only known one monarch. And psychologically, if nothing else, the fact that she is - is, in a very changing world, one of the constants of life.
We give thanks for her role as head of the commonwealth: it is widely recognised that the reason the commonwealth has been such an effective organisation is because of the work of the Queen
We give thanks for her as a person.
For her wisdom: perhaps we will never know the significance of her weekly meetings with successive prime ministers: but there are very few things that she hasn't seen and she hasn't done
For her sense of duty: She has shown total dedication to the work and role. She has never abandoned a responsibility. For instance, while there is so much tittle tattle about her in the media, she has kept her counsels to herself. She is the sort of person exemplified in the book of Proverbs
For her courage, especially in the face of trials.
She may be Queen, but she is also a person, a wife, a mother and a grandmother. And she has been through trials that so many people identify with: the break up of her children's marriages, the death of parents and sister and former daughter in law.  The difference is that for her, it has all been done in the public eye.
For her with-it-ness: many 80 year olds are fully with-it. But I also have to say that some are thinking of putting their feet up and saying, "Let life get on. But we'll take the slow route - we'll look back, rather than forward". She has - up to now - not chosen that option.
We particularly, as the Christian community, give thanks for her faith. She is 'supreme governor' of the Church of England, and it is a role that she takes with the greatest seriousness. She is someone who professes a living faith in Christ, and that faith is reflected in her life

It is good to be here to give thanks for our Queen

But it is also good to be reminded in our reading that there is a higher authority.

The religious leaders come to Jesus. They say, "Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are .."

Then comes the sting: "Tell us, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?"

It was the burning topic of the day. It was taken for granted that Israel should be a theocracy: that is - ruled by God. In other words, the hopes and dreams of 1st century Jews was that Israel should have rulers who acknowledged the authority of the Old Testament, of the religious teachers and of the priests, and that there laws should be religious laws.
In their eyes, it was not right that Israel should be under occupation. It was not right that Israel should ruled by pagans. It was not right that people had to pay taxes to Caesar.
So if Jesus said, "Yes it is right to pay taxes to Caesar", they had him: they would accuse him of selling out Israel - of being a Roman sympathiser.
But if Jesus said, "No, we should not pay taxes to Caesar", they had him. They could tell the Roman authorities, and Jesus would be arrested for inciting insurrection.

It is the same as if the war had been lost, and the Nazi's had occupied Britain. And someone asked a religious leader: "Is it right to pay taxes to the Nazi's?" If they said Yes, they could be accused of being a collaborator. If they said No, they would be arrested by the authorities.

Jesus answer is astonishing. It is not just clever - a verbal get out. He maintains his integrity, he teaches the way of God, and he is not swayed by who people are and what they think. But what he says is astonishingly radical.

When he says, "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and give to God the things that are God's", he is actually separating the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God. He is saying that they are two distinct things.

There is the Kingdom of this world: ruled by monarchs, presidents, elected officials, oligarchies and business leaders. The currency is money, status, and the sword. We toe the line because in the end it is in our interest to do so.  But this kingdom is temporary (we talk about temporal powers) and very very provisional.

And there is the Kingdom of God: ruled by Jesus Christ. The currency of this kingdom is love. We are obedient to God because he loves us and forgives us, because of what he has given us, because this King died for us. And we owe him our ultimate allegiance because this Kingdom is ultimate and eternal. It is to this king that every one of us will have to give account.

And it seems that in his answer, Jesus is doing two things

1. He seems to be implying that, in the end, it does not matter who is governing you. Yes, as Christians we are called to pray for rulers so that we might live Godly and quiet lives. Yes, of course, we long to see good and fair and just government. But in the end, as far as the Kingdom of God is concerned, it does not ultimately matter who rules us politically: whether a tyrant or an occupying force or a democratically elected government. Indeed it is significant that the Kingdom of God has often been seen to grow far quicker and with more power in places where there is oppressive government.

2. Jesus is changing the place where the Kingdom of God is worked out. It is not to be worked out in the nation or state; it is not to be brought in by power politics or by laws or by the sword. It is instead to be worked out in every human heart.

Each of us has to decide what belongs to Caesar and what (if anything) belongs to God.

Each one of us has to decide where our ultimate allegiance lies

So let me finish with four examples

1. In the film, Chariots of Fire. Harry Liddell is refusing to run on a Sunday. He is summoned to attend a committee of Olympic officials headed up by the King's brother. Liddell states, "Whatever the consequence, I have to put my God before my King. I will not run". Lord whoever-it-is responds with the glorious statement, "Huh, In my day, it used to be King before God".

2. The second example is Tony Blair, who got in enormous trouble a few months ago, for stating that the final judge of his actions would be God. It is a simple Christian truth.

3. St George. He was a senior officer in the army of the emperor Diocletian. In 303 Diocletian unleashed a furious persecution against Christians. George, although he was under an oath of obedience to the emperor, resigned his commission and went to the emperor and said, "What you are doing is wrong". That is why he was martyred. He put God before king.

And the final example: the final example is our Queen herself. Many of her Christmas speeches draw attention to her own personal faith. But I would like to quote from two.

In 2000 she said, "To many of us our beliefs are of fundamental importance. For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life."

And in 2002, she said: "I know just how much I rely on my own faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning, I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God."

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