Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 29 A
texts: Isaiah 45:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“Here be dragons.”
Supposedly when old mapmakers got to the end of what they knew to draw, that’s what they wrote on the edge of their maps. Meaning: beyond here we don’t know, but it’s dangerous. According to The Atlantic (Dec. 2012), however, no known ancient maps actually have that phrase, though one globe from the early sixteenth century does. But such a warning is helpful. It’s good to recall there are limits to our knowledge, edges to our certainty. We know some things. Much we do not.
We should keep this in mind when speaking of God. There are definite limits to what we can know about God. Beyond is real danger trying to speak definitively. Plenty of people of faith are willing to fight, even to kill, to defend firm convictions about God.
Christian faith doesn’t let us do that. It is central to our faith in Christ that we place serious boundaries around what we claim to know about God’s action and life in the world. 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 his love.” 
Beyond that there be dragons. But if we believe the Triune God is who Jesus revealed, and works as Jesus claims, that’s just fine. God will handle the dragons, and we can focus on what we’re really called to be as followers of the crucified and risen One.
Our readings today ask what God is up to in the world. There’s disagreement amongst them.
Israelites returning from exile saw God’s hand in a foreign general, Cyrus of Persia, who destroyed Babylon’s power and sent them home. Isaiah claims the LORD God of Israel, the one, true God, anointed Cyrus to save Israel. Anointed him, made him Messiah.
Cyrus doesn’t even know the God of Israel. He was just taking down the current empire and setting up his own. Yet Israel believed this was God’s doing. Even if, as we heard today, it meant God having to do a meet and greet with this pagan emperor first. These people of faith knew their theological limits and were willing to see God’s hand acting in a way outside their boundaries.
The Pharisees struggle with such limits.
To be fair, their job was to interpret God’s law, and they were good at it. Israel had a core belief that the God of all time was also the LORD, the God of Israel, and had given them laws to live by to make this world a place of healing and life. The Pharisees defended that law.
This rabbi from Nazareth played a little too fast and loose with it, they thought. Had they the openness of their exilic ancestors, they might have seen Jesus as the true successor to the prophets of Israel. Even his summing of all God’s law into love of God and love of neighbor was taken straight from the Torah.
But he did challenge their interpretation, question their authority. So in these last weeks of his life, they tested him again and again.
It’s an odd switch. Their ancestors, with little evidence other than their rescue and new life back home, called a foreigner the Messiah of God. They, with all sorts of evidence, called the true Messiah of God a blasphemer.
Here be dragons indeed. They, like us, wanted to draw to the edges of the map of reality and claim knowledge and certainty about it all. The Triune God, though, seems to enjoy messing about the margins doing whatever pleases God, even if it doesn’t fit our boxes.
Paul wrote: “In every place your faith in God has become known, how you turned to God from Idols, to serve a living and true God.”
That’s what this is about, isn’t it? Caesar or God, Cyrus as Messiah, Greek pantheon or the Triune God, it’s a question of who the true God is, what the true God is doing.
As followers of the crucified and risen Christ Jesus, we center our life and worship around serving this true and living God, just like Paul’s friends. Because of the cross, our whole life is worship of God, as we offer ourselves in service to the world as embodiments of Christ’s love.
Beyond that, though, God will keep doing whatever God wants to do. That’s OK for us, for because of the cross, we claim God’s got it all together, not us, and we’re only those who are overwhelmed by God’s love, who know we don’t control where and how God gives that love.
That’s the difference between the true God and idols: who’s in charge.
The one true God stands outside human endeavor and speaks into our lives. We do not make a true God, nor can we tell God what to do. Idols, set up by us, do what we want because we make them, we create them, we shape them. In ancient times, idols were made in human images, animal images; today they are reflections of our wants, our desires. Reflections of us.
The witness of the Scriptures is that the one true God isn’t made in our image, though, we are made in the image of God. So our faith doesn’t create God, shape God; God shapes us, creates us through our faith.
It is the very existence of boundaries beyond which we cannot know that reveals our connection 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. But the true God creates us, comes to us from the outside, and has much that is unknowable, uncontrollable.
That’s how we know God is true.
God is beyond us, except when God comes to us. That’s what we cling to.
We have seen and believe for ourselves what others have witnessed to us, that God has entered our world. We have encountered our Lord Jesus at the cross and have seen God there. We have seen the shape of the true human life to which he calls us, have experienced his risen presence in this world, in our hearts, in our worship. We trust in the Triune God he has revealed to us. We live in God’s presence now; we await a life to come where we’re even more fully alive in that presence. That’s what we know.
Now, like most people, we long for absolute certainty, argue for it with others. We don’t wish to kill for it, but we recognize a similar discomfort when others describe God in ways we can’t explain or understand. We convince ourselves we have a say in who God is, or if we think the right things we’ll be saved.
The truth is we are not saved by our thoughts anymore than by our works, we are saved by the cross-shaped love of the Triune God. That’s our place of wonder and joy and faith, like Psalm 8, that a God who is so beyond us has come to this world to bring hope and life and grace.
We claim that in the cross and resurrection of Christ Jesus the true God is re-making the world and bringing life to all.
We claim that our life in Jesus’ resurrection is the cross-shaped life of Christ to which he calls us, so we live that for the sake of the world. We love God and our neighbor with all we have, because that’s the life our Lord lived, that’s the gift his resurrection empowers in us. We tell others about this God so they, too, can know and rejoice.
Beyond this, we don’t always know what else God is doing.
We might want to keep our eyes open, though. God is almost certainly doing far more interesting things than dragons out there if we’re open to seeing it.
In the name of Jesus. Amen
 N. T. Wright, For All God’s Worth, p. 20, italics sic; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI; © 2007.