Sermon notes 10-18-20 Our Ultimate Identity Pastor David King
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. (ESV)
I want to talk with you this morning about something that gets talked about a lot in our world, and that is, the subject of identity. We often hear people using terms such as identity politics, identity crises, self-identity, proof of identity, and identity theft, to name just a few terms related to identity. Identity, simply put, is what a person or thing is. Psychologically speaking, our identity is our understanding of who we are; it is the combination of our experiences, memories, relationships, and values, that gives us our sense of self.
There are many things we might claim as our identity. Someone might say she is a mother, a teacher, a Southerner, a Methodist, and a Wolfpack fan (anybody identify with all five of those?). Some of the things that make up our identity are things we have no choice about, such as our ancestry or our birthplace, but many things that make up our identity are things we choose or claim for ourselves, such as our favorite team. There are any number of things we might claim as part of our identity, but of all the things that combine to give us our sense of who we are, I want to argue that there should be one thing that is more important than any other; one component of our identity that has superiority over every other component. And so, the question I want us to think about today is, what do we claim as our ultimate identity?
Based on the level of political discourse in our nation these days, and our apparent obsession with the outcome of the upcoming election, it would seem that for a lot of people, their ultimate identity is in their political party. When we observe the amount of time and energy and money and passion that people are pouring into the election campaign, it would seem that for many, nothing is more important than who, or which party, wins on election day. And what is it all about, really? It is about power, who gets to be in power, who gets to set policy and pass laws and appoint judges and so forth. It’s all about political power, and about being able to identify with whomever or whichever party is in power.
Which brings me to our Gospel passage this morning (you were probably wondering when I would get there!). The passage from Matthew’s Gospel that Sandy read for us is the story of two groups of people whose identities are wrapped up in their political status and their positions of power.
First there were the Pharisees. Their identity was in their status as religious leaders who were respected by the Jewish people for their strict adherence to the religious laws. Their power was in their religious influence over the people.
And then there were the Herodians, who identified with the royal Herod family and who sought to further the power and dynasty of the Herod clan.
The Pharisees and the Herodians were not normally allies; their desire for power usually placed them as much in opposition to each other as the Republicans and Democrats in our nation today. But on this occasion, their lust for power and their concern with protecting and clinging to their political identities united the Pharisees and the Herodians in opposition to Christ. Both groups refused to identify with Christ because they each saw him as a threat to their status and power.
So, Matthew tells us, the Pharisees and Herodians conspire together to try to trip Jesus up, to entangle him with a trick question. It’s a question essentially about paying taxes that would seem to have no right answer.
I don’t need to tell you that in our time the subject of taxes is often a volatile issue; but it was even more so in ancient Israel. Israel was under Roman occupation and the Jewish people suffered under the Roman Empire’s heavy taxation. Some Jews even believed that paying taxes to pagan rulers was a form of idolatry.
So the Pharisees and Herodians expected that they could turn the people against Jesus if he responded to their question by saying it is right to pay taxes. Yet if Jesus said it is wrong to pay taxes, they could accuse him of leading an insurrection against the Roman government and have him executed. They think they have Jesus between a rock and a hard place, with no way out.
But much to the disappointment of the Pharisees, the Herodians, and probably to the bystanders who wanted Jesus to establish a political kingdom in opposition to Caesar, Jesus answers by saying that there are matters like paying taxes that belong to the realm of civil government, but there are other matters that belong to God’s realm.
Jesus says, give to the realm of Caesar (or to the government) what belongs to Caesar and the government, and give to the realm of God what is God’s. We might all wish Jesus would have been more specific, but outside of paying taxes, Jesus does not specify which matters belong in which realm; he seems to leave that for us to determine for ourselves, based on what he teaches elsewhere in the Gospels.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we never had to make that determination, if there were never a conflict or contradiction between national politics or the platform of our political party, and the teachings of Scripture? I think we all realize that regardless of which party we might identify with, that is unfortunately not the case. But even if it were the case, if we never had to choose between our identity as Christians and our identity as citizens of our nation, we will nonetheless all eventually have to determine our ultimate identity.
Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC. I want to share an excerpt of an article he wrote in 2017 called “Identity in Christ.”
There is no more characteristic theme of modern western culture than that of ‘identity.’ Talk is incessant about gender identity, racial identity, national identity, self-esteem and personal identity. The Bible, however, speaks about Christians getting a new ‘name’ in Christ, the more ancient way of talking about a change in identity.
In ancient times, a person’s identity and self-worth largely rested in one’s family. So if you had a lot of children it meant you were esteemed and respected in society. But God says that believers receive a name “better than that of sons and daughters” for it is “an everlasting name that will not be cut off.” (Isaiah 56:5). In other words, the Lord gives us an identity not based ultimately in family or race, in money or success — it is not like any other kind of identity in the world. And the New Testament tells us it comes to us through faith in Christ. In Christ we are born again and adopted into God’s family (John 1:12-13) and we have God’s name put on us (Revelation 3:12), …. This being “in Christ” means now that no other feature — not your education, vocation, gender, race, or any other human condition or achievement — defines you or grounds your worth and identity as does your relationship with God through Christ (Galatians 3:26-28). (Your identity in Christ) also creates a deep bond and tie to all other believers, regardless of their worldly status, gender, race, or nationality.
Friends, our ultimate identity, the identity that defines us more than any other, is our identity of being in Christ. Even when we believe and know that to be true, our identity in Christ is under constant threat of being stolen by the pressures of our culture. We need to constantly be on guard against spiritual identity theft that threatens from many quarters. Spiritual identity theft is something that we often unwittingly allow by letting the world or the expectations of others define or identify us, or even by claiming for ourselves a fraudulent or a mistaken identity. I want to give just two examples.
The first is from an article written by an author named Jeannie Cunnion about what she describes as America’s Teen Anxiety Epidemic. She calls it “the biggest issue facing kids today.” She writes:
Our kids are attempting to answer the question, “Is who I am (my identity) enough?” by how well they perform on the field, how much they excel in school, and how many likes they get on their Instagram feed. They are attempting to answer that question, “Is who I am enough?” by proving they can do enough and be enough. Whatever “enough” is. Because you and I both know enough is never enough when the goal is perpetual perfection.
The primary message our kids receive is that they’d better be the best at everything, and this leaves them afraid to reveal their inadequacies and insecurities—and hiding behind the best version of themselves.
And ultimately, it is our responsibility to help our kids push back the pressure they face with the truth of God’s Word. I am not at all suggesting that therapy and medication aren’t part of the solution. They often times are. But please let us not forget the alive and powerful Word of God that has the absolute power to show us where our significance (and our identity) come(s) from and ultimately set us free from proving our worth and our value in our performance.
Kids who constantly feel like they just don’t measure up and who feel they have “everything” to prove need to be told – over and over again – they actually have “nothing” to prove. Because this pressure to prove our value and worth has left parents and children alike longing for what all our hearts most crave:
- to be known—truly and deeply known
- to be accepted—for who they are, not who they wish they were
- to be loved—with no strings attached
In God’s eyes we are of great worth, not because of anything we have or haven’t done, but because of what has been done for us in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The cross has the final word on our value (and our identity). Believing that truth and embracing that truth isn’t the only thing we need to do. But it is a firm foundation on which to build a life of freedom from anxiety and the exhausting endless quest to prove our value (or claim our identity) through our performance.
Jeannie Cunnion’s message is that an identity based on performance is a fraudulent, false identity that offers nothing but anxiety and robs us of our true identity in Christ.
Another area in our culture where we see a great amount of identity theft going on is in how one self-identifies sexually. We have grown accustomed to persons claiming their identity in what attracts them sexually. But when someone claims an identity based on sexual attraction, that self-identity in a sense places that person in bondage to his or her sexual impulses and denies his or her true identity in Christ.
Sam Allberry is a priest in the Anglican Church who describes himself as having being same-sex attracted for his entire life. But he does not allow that attraction to define him. He says, “Sexuality is not a matter of identity for me.” “My primary sense of worth and fulfillment as a human being is not contingent on being romantically or sexually fulfilled.” Sam Allberry bears witness to the truth that when our identity is in Christ, we do not have to be identified or enslaved by our sexual impulses and attractions. When our identity is in Christ, we find our fulfillment not in those things, but in Christ.
Friends, more and more I see issues of identity as the core of the problems in our fragmented world and in our personal spiritual struggles. Our only hope lies in claiming our ultimate identity in Christ, and making every other identity subordinate to that. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. I pray that if you have not already done so, you will let those old, false, fraudulent identities pass away and claim your true identity in Christ, today.
I’ll bring this toward a close with the Scripture verse that persons in our Experiencing God class are trying to memorize this week. It’s Ps. 20:7: Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. A friend in the class has suggested this paraphrase: “Some trust in President Trump and some in vice-president Biden, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”
Friends, our ultimate identity determines where we place our trust. Don’t let your identity be stolen. Don’t let your life be a case of mistaken identity. You are not ultimately defined by your success or your performance, your position of power, your race, your gender, your sexual attractions, your political party affiliation, your ancestry or family, your education, your nationality, your appearance, or your past … I could go on. Any or all of those things may be a part of your existence and experience, but they are merely incidental. They do not define you and they are not your identity. In the context of eternity, they are ultimately meaningless. Our ultimate identity, the only identity that has lasting meaning and value, is in Christ.
I began by asking, what do we claim as our ultimate identity? But our ultimate identity actually comes from the One who claims us. Jesus staked his claim over us, once and for all, on the cross. Jesus Christ has the final word on our identity. May we all claim our true and ultimate identity in him, today and forever. Amen.
Prayers for Harvel Horrell, Mia (Bonnie’s great-granddaughter), Lindsey Wilson, daughter of John and Lou. Martha Marlow; nodule on throat. Logan, a 15-year old boy who needs the Lord’s guidance in his life, Sandy Taylor’s brother Don who died this week from pancreatic cancer, COVID on the rise.