“Honor to Whom Honor Is Owed”
Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Rom 13:7 ESV)
“At 5:00 a.m. on Monday, November 11, 1918, in a railway carriage in the Forest of Compiegne, 60 miles north of Paris, France, the Germans and the Allies signed a document called the Armistice, ending the hostilities of the First World War. This day began with the laying down of arms, blowing of whistles, impromptu parades, and closing of places of business” (adapted from Maymie R. Krythe, All about American Holidays [New York: Harper and Row, 1962]).
Soldiers came out of the trenches, walked across the field of battle, and exchanged greetings and also items of military equipment. Thus arose the saying that in World War I the English fought for honor, the French fought for glory, and the Americans fought for souvenirs.
A more sober note was struck in November 1919, when “President Woodrow Wilson issued his Armistice Day proclamation. The last paragraph reads: ‘To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nation’ ” (adapted from Krythe).
Annually thereafter, Americans have celebrated this day, and in 1954 Congress changed its name to Veterans Day, in recognition of servicemen and women from all of America’s wars. President Eisenhower called on citizens to remember the sacrifices of all those who through the years have fought so bravely in defense of our country and to dedicate themselves to promoting lasting peace.
Veterans Day is by no means a liturgical holiday, but in God’s Word, specifically the letter to the Romans, our Lord certainly does address the relationship of individual Christians to the government and, particularly, to those who bear arms.
We are obligated to pay what we owe: “taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” I don’t know if anybody preaches on this text on April 15, when taxes are owed. But it is certainly good for us to remember this Word of God on Veterans Day, when honor is owed. Especially in these days when men and women of the armed forces of the United States are serving in great peril, we do owe honor to our military veterans and to those even now following in their footsteps. And how do we as Christians honor them in a Christian worship service?
We Honor Our Servicemen and Women by Honoring God in what He has instituted. Both of His Two Kingdoms.
Our veterans have served their country. Thousands more men and women are currently serving their country. Many here today have served. Two of our congregational Elders have served with honor, and one in particular still serves as the Wisconsin State Chaplain for Combat Veterans Motorcycle Assn. These two, and countless others, are serving God as they served their country.
As our text says, “There is no authority except from God” Romans 13:1. Jesus said the same thing to Pontius Pilate: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (Jn 19:11 ESV). Pilate had civil authority. He was an agent of God even though he was a pagan unbeliever. And to him were due taxes, respect, and honor, because he held an office that was instituted by God.
We note in the Passion history that the Jews defamed the Son of God and treated him with utter disrespect. Likewise, Pilate had Jesus flogged for no reason, and then ordered his execution. But when Jesus addressed the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, he was the model of courtesy. The leaders of the Jews and the Roman authorities were abusing their power, but they were still to be held in honor.
As we all know, sometimes the authorities govern badly. So we pray for good government from those we honor, as our Lord directs: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:1–4 ESV).
Do you see the connection? Good government—even if those in authority are not Christians—results in a stable society in which the Gospel can spread. Here we have one of those paradoxes in Scripture. We call this the doctrine of the two kingdoms. The kingdom of God’s left hand is government, for in his left hand God holds a sword. Through the kingdom of the left, God establishes order in the world and punishes those who do evil. As today’s text says, the ruler “is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” Romans 13:4. We honor our servicemen and women when we honor the way God has chosen to work through them in his kingdom of the left.
Just like our body has two hands, so does the doctrine of the two kingdoms. God’s right hand kingdom is the Church, for in his right hand God holds a chalice. Through the kingdom of the right, God imparts the forgiveness of sins through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. Here poor, miserable, penitent sinners come for mercy to a loving God, who forgives them for the sake of Jesus, his one and only Son, who died for them on the cross. Here God forgives your sins and the sins of all who believe in his Son.
In the one kingdom, God operates by force. Paul says, “He does not bear the sword in vain” Romans 13:4. But in the other kingdom, God operates by love. The two must never be mixed. A Church that operates by force soon marches off on crusades and instigates inquisitions. And a government that pretends—or intends—to operate by love soon gets soft and lacks the will to do what is necessary and punish criminals.
So we honor those who have served, and are currently serving, in the military. We honor those who govern us, who must make terrible decisions about war. But most of all we honor God Almighty, who, though hidden, governs the world through the visible means of the state.
The state, of course, will not endure forever. It’s only temporary and provisional, as Jesus indicated to Pilate—no doubt shaking him up—when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:36). And again, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Mt 24:35). What will endure forever is the Word of God. What will endure forever is the kingdom of God. What will endure forever are the men, women, and children who have believed in the Word of Jesus Christ and been baptized into his everlasting kingdom.
For Jesus died upon the cross for our sins. He rose again on the third day to justify us before a holy God. He has declared you who believe righteous, sinless, and holy in his sight. And now today every believer stands before God as innocent as his own Son, Jesus. Not that you’re sinless. But God has washed away your sins and credited the righteousness of Jesus to your account.
When Jesus comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, there will be a new heaven and a new earth. Old things—including governments and armed forces—will pass away and be no more. Only that which is abides in Christ will endure and live forever. I trust, are you abiding. For as you confess with your lips and believe in your heart that Jesus Christ is Lord. And so you are saved now and you will be saved from eternal damnation on the Last Day.
Meanwhile, in this sinful world we need governments and the Army, Navy, Air-Force, Marines, and Coast Guard in the kingdom of God’s left hand. And at the same time we need churches and pastors and sermons and altars in the kingdom of God’s right hand, for we sin much everyday and need the forgiveness of sins.
The Church in this world is a Church under the cross. It suffers persecution and violence from the Pilates and Pharisees of our day. The Church in this world is also a Church militant. It marches boldly forward against the evil and darkness of Satan, taking captives one by one.
So today we honor our veterans who have fought in past wars. And we honor the servicemen and women who fight today on distant fields of battle. But most of all, we honor, praise, and worship God, who is a mighty fortress, a trusty shield and weapon, whose Son, Jesus Christ, fights for us as Lord of Sabaoth, who holds the field forever.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.