SCRIPTURES - Isaiah 45:1-7; 1 Thess. 1:1-10; Matt. 22:15-22; Ps. 121
The Bible, its stories and teachings, is often looked upon and presented as a book of victory and success. Take today’s readings, for instance. Isaiah speaks of Cyrus, a Persian King who does not know or believe in the God of Israel. Even so, God says He is going to go before him to give him victories and treasures, and all for the sake of His people and God’s own name, that people might know Him. God rules! And, in our Gospel reading we hear how Jesus turns a tricky question about taxes against His opponents and sends them running with their tails between their legs. God is great! His teaching and wisdom gain the victory! Psalm 121:5 promises, “The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand.” If you follow Him, then – learn His wisdom and put it into practice in your life – you will triumph over your enemies and your difficulties. You will have a great life!
Tell that to Job, who was a faithful follower of God and yet lost everything – his wealth, his health, and even his children – to the assaults of the devil. Tell that to the Thessalonian Christians, who listened to Paul when he came and proclaimed Jesus to them but then lost him after only 3 weeks as he was driven out of town by those who rejected him. They then had to face opposition without him and suffer for the name of Jesus. Above all, tell Jesus about what a great life those have who follow God’s words. Who followed God’s words better than Him? He is the Son of God who inspired them and is the subject of them! And yet, shortly after He turned this tax question against His opponents they succeeded in having Him crucified.
“The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand.” (Psalm 121:5) These are comforting words, most surely. How much better to have God as your keeper than some government bureaucrat! But, the words of Psalm 121 are also challenging words. For, God keeps us as a gardener keeps his garden. In fact, the first occurrence in the Bible of the Hebrew word translated “keeper” is in Genesis 2, as God puts Adam in the Garden of Eden to keep it. A gardener not only fertilizes and feeds. He also uproots and tears out. He cuts off stems and branches. God will do such things in your life as He keeps you.
“I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.” (Isaiah 45) Why would God create darkness and calamity? The answer to that question is seen in another occurrence of the word “keeper” in the Bible. It is in Genesis 4, as God asks Cain, who has murdered his brother, “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain responds, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain refused to do what God had created him to do: to be a keeper, one who tends and supports life, as does God. The desire for self that was within Cain lives in every one of us, also. It is in evidence every time we keep our desires first in our minds and hearts and put them ahead of God and others. Because of such sins God creates darkness and calamity. He takes things away from us and sends hardships. He responds in ways that are at times harsh, but are always designed to turn us away from our selfish desires to others and to Himself. Martin Luther, in his characteristic bluntness, says: “God could not retain and fulfill His promises in us if He did not kill that stupid, proud, and smug flesh in us.”
The Lord of heaven and earth has reached down into this world in Jesus and reached into your life to join you to Jesus and change your life. In Christ you are a new creation! This is the central message of the Bible. He has made you in Christ to be a keeper: a keeper of the life-shaping treasure of His Word, and then by it a keeper of yourself and others for eternal blessings and eternal life.
The apostle Paul praised the Thessalonian Christians for “turning to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” This is the purpose and focus of your life in Christ. God, as your keeper, your gardener, has the long term in mind. Yes, there is victory for us; and what a victory it is! Deliverance from the wrath to come, so that hell is not before us but endless joy in heaven; resurrection from death to eternal life in a new and holy body; life forever in the presence of the Triune God and the enjoyment of His blessings and love. We have so much to look forward to and eagerly anticipate! But, it is given only at the end, when Jesus returns in glory from heaven. Until then yes, God keeps our lives; but He keeps us above all for that eternal life, and not for this life. This life serves the life to come.
Keeping the end in mind will help you deal with the confusing nature of God’s keeping in this life. It is hard to see the fear and suffering caused by Ebola, which is especially afflicting people in western Africa who are mostly Christians. How is God their keeper, the shade at their right hand? Well, many are lifting up their eyes and voices to Him for help. Many Christians are also sacrificially serving them and willingly putting their lives on the line by doing so, Christians such as Dr. Kent Brantly, who, while working with the aid agency Samaritan’s Purse, contracted Ebola. “As I lay in my bed in Liberia for nine days, getting sicker each day, I prayed God would help be more faithful even in my illness, and that in my illness or even death he would glorified," he said. It is hard to see God as our good and kind protector when Christ’s people in Syria and Iraq are being mercilessly slaughtered by the Islamic zealots of ISIS. But here especially we must remember the words of St. Paul in Romans 8:
“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from God our keeper, for He is the Lord of heaven and earth.
Until that great and final Day comes, when God’s eternal blessing for His people and His eternal wrath against the enemies of His Son is revealed, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Live your life in this world, using the things of this world as you must: for your own need and good, and even enjoyment, but especially for the good and blessing of others. Hold onto them lightly as you use them, so that you do not yearn for them more than you yearn for Christ and His Word.
Above everything else, however, render unto God the things that are God’s. Yearn for Christ and His Word! Keep His Word foremost in your mind and heart. For, by it God will “keep your coming and going from this time forth and forevermore.” In the name of Jesus. Amen.