Trinity 18 - God's universal sovereignty

A sermon preached at St John the Baptist Holland Road by Martin Carr on 19 October 2014

I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

One of the greatest of theological debates concerns the question of why there is suffering in the world. This is the Problem of Evil, or, even more technically, theodicy. Why does a God of peace allow wars to rage? Why does a loving God permit people to suffer from cancer or dementia? How can a God who cares stand by while innocents die in earthquakes and floods?

The contemporary American biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, in a recent book, documents his own journey from Christian fundamentalism through to a more liberal faith and eventually to agnosticism – a position which neither affirms nor denies the existence of God. As he makes clear, this final position has been reached for him precisely because of his inability to continue to believe in a personal and loving God, while at the same time acknowledging the often pointless and excessive sufferings of human existence. Yet while Ehrman is not alone, there are many who have felt quite the opposite, that through suffering they have found faith in God, or, if they already have faith, it has been strengthened. When I was 17 my father suffered from cancer of the colon. As I family we prayed and reflected through this difficult time. We were not churchgoers, but after his recovery we began to attend our local parish church. None of us have looked back. Moments of personal or national catastrophe, a death, a tragedy, an illness, can be moments where the human soul finds refuge in a God who understands suffering and has compassion, having suffered himself in the person of Jesus.

The Problem of Evil focuses on where evil and suffering originate in our world, and God’s response to them. Our first reading today was from the prophet Isaiah, and towards the end of the passage we hear these surprising  words: ‘I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.’ Is God then the origin of darkness and woe? Are we to understand God as the source of evil as well as good? This is certainly one reading of the text. An early group of Christian heretics, led by Marcion, a bishop and scholar from Asia Minor, believed that the God of the Old Testament, who in today’s Isaiah passage creates evil as well as good, and elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures is not entirely innocent of ordering mass genocides and demanding merciless sacrifices, was not in fact the same as the God whom Jesus worshipped. The God of Jesus was a supremely loving and good being, unlike the ignorant and vengeful so-called God of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Church has never accepted this to be the truth, though occasionally the idea resurfaces. We hear in our worship both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures because we believe that the same God who created the world and was made known through the prophets was revealed in the flesh in Jesus Christ. So we need to return to Isaiah and ask again what the passage might be saying to us. At the beginning of chapter 45, the Lord speaks to Cyrus, his anointed, interestingly the Hebrew word Messiah. Cyrus, who was not a Jew, was nonetheless going to be God’s instrument in the politics of his day. Though Cyrus did not know God, God had given him a name and a purpose. Through Cyrus, who liberated the Jews from captivity in Babylon, the name of the true God would be known. This God, Isaiah makes clear over and over again, is the only God, he has no rivals. The God who was originally known as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is now, in Isaiah’s universal vision, the God of all peoples and places.

As contemporary westerners we are used to the idea that there is one God, what we call monotheism, but to the people of Isaiah’s time, this was radical. Isaiah is not saying that the Lord, Yahweh, is better than other gods, or more worthy to be worshipped than other gods, but in fact that there is no other God but the Lord. Working through his instrument Cyrus, all nations would come to recognise his universal sovereignty. It is in this light that we can understand Isaiah’s final and seemingly unpalatable assertion that God creates both good and evil. Everything in the world, Isaiah is saying, is under God’s power and control, bad as well as good. We may not agree with that, but I think at least it might help us understand what the prophet is aiming towards.

In today’s gospel, another question arises as to God’s sovereignty. The Pharisees, seeking to trap Jesus, ask him a question about taxes, should they be paid to the state or not? They are testing his loyalty – is God or Caesar the ultimate authority?

Jesus’ well-known answer, Give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s’, can simplistically be regarded as a division of authorities. In the world of finance and politics, the Emperor is sovereign; in religious matters, God should be obeyed. We've all heard it said ‘keep religion out of politics’, and we could use this verse as our proof-text. How often in our own lives we make this same division, reserving pious and holy feelings about God for our Sunday worship, yet acting the rest of the time as if God has no claim at all on our time, talents, least of all our money.

But Scripture is rarely so simple. The supreme and only God of Isaiah rules over politics as well as worship. Nothing is outside his sphere of influence. And Isaiah’s God is Jesus’ God too. So let us return to Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and look at it through new eyes. He holds up a tiny coin. ‘Whose head and whose title?’ he asks. To the Jews of course the coin was a blasphemy, marked with the graven image of the emperor who was worshipped by the pagans as a God. ‘Give back to Caesar this worthless idol’ Jesus is saying, ‘and give God what truly matters’.

Both Isaiah and Jesus are making a similar point – God has a claim on our whole lives. It is the one true God who creates and governs all things, and who works through even the pagan king Cyrus to bring his purposes about. It is the one true God who deserves our honour, love and worship, not the Emperor whose blasphemous image adorns the tax coin.

In our day there are many alternatives to the worship of God. We may not worship an emperor, or rival deities, but it is easy to turn our desires to the worship of power, money, or beauty, while casting God to one side as either irrelevant or to be worshipped with increasing infrequency. ‘Give to God the things that are God’s’ challenges us to realise that all things are God’s, and we owe him our whole lives. ‘I am the Lord and there is no other’ says God through the prophet Isaiah. Let us strive then to live the truth of that statement, giving to God the love and worship which is due, and serving each other and the world God has created with the compassion of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Holland Park Benefice