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"All Bets Are Off"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on March 10, 2024
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2024 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Mark 12:13-34

Eunice was what you might expect of a church lady: friendly, wholesome, someone you could count on to offer a warm greeting, knit a warm scarf or a set of mittens, and always to bring a warm dish to the potluck. Eunice was what you'd expect except perhaps on one count. Eunice loved to play poker. Not the high stakes, cutthroat variety, but penny poker. She would carry a heavy box of pennies with her and would bring it out at family gatherings. She was always looking for a few takers. She loved poker. And it wasn't about the money for her, when all you're playing with is pennies, maybe some nickels for the high-rollers, you'd never win much more than a dollar and 27 cents. It wasn't about the money. It wasn't about taking her opponents for all they were worth because her opponents, in most cases, were her grandchildren. And what they were worth to her couldn't be measured, at least not monetarily. Eunice would share her nickels and pennies and deal out an open hand of poker with any grandchild willing to learn. Maybe it was because she thought there was something to learn there, about how to lose and not quit, how to make the best of the hand that you're dealt, how to recognize a bluff, an opportunity, and the moment to go all in.

There was a moment in the life of Jesus of Nazareth that was something like a game of poker, high stakes, cutthroat. About as far from Grandma Eunice's nickels and pennies as you can get. Jesus walks into this situation in the temple in Jerusalem, in the springtime, around the year 30A.D., the week before He was crucified. It was high stakes because they're playing not with chips, but with Jesus' life. But Jesus isn't playing; though He is going to go all in.

His opponents are playing games; they're trying to trap Him with hypothetical religious questions about money and taxes, about what happens after we die, about who has the best interpretation of the Bible. They're trying to catch Jesus off guard, trying to manipulate Him, trying to get Him to play "on tilt." On tilt is a phrase used among poker players. On tilt, it's like those old pinball machines. You remember what happens if you tried to lift the machine or shake it to keep the ball from going between the levers down the drain? All the displays lit up, "Tilt! Tilt! Tilt!" Everything shuts down, you lose, game over. And when a poker player is on tilt, it means that their negative emotions are interfering with their decision levers. Sometimes a player is tilted hot, that means they're angry and they lash out with overly aggressive play. Other times a player can be tilted cold. That means they limp along like a victim, believing the cards are against them, the world's against them. Tilted hot or tilted cold, it's not a good way to play. And Grandma Eunice would tell you it's not a good way to live.

But it wasn't your grandmother's hand of poker that Jesus found Himself in there in the temple, a few days before they stripped Him, mocked Him, spit on Him, and crucified Him. It was a high- stakes head game. And Jesus, not only does He keep His cool, He ups the ante. They're playing small-time with their Bible trivia and ridiculous trick questions, but He speaks of life and death and of our relationship with the living God.

Picture the players around the table. They're playing in Caesar's palace or at least near it, the various Jewish factions circled around Jesus, and Caesar the emperor is there in spirit, so to speak. Caesar is the high-roller at the table. He's got all the chips because it's his house, his empire. He holds all the chips because he mints his own chips. The denarius, they called it. Equivalent to a day's wage. On the front side of the coin, the denarius, there was an image of Caesar, his face. And on the back there was an inscription, declaring Caesar the human emperor to be the son of God. Now to a pious Jew, it was as blasphemous as blasphemy can be. The most pious Jews wouldn't even carry a denarius with them there in the temple. They wouldn't even look at it with that filthy image and blasphemous inscription. They'd look away to protect the purity of their eyes because they knew that the denarius was Caesar's way of saying that this was actually his house, and the house always wins.

Everyone knew that paying the denarius tax was a symbol of subservience to Rome. So, they asked Jesus about it, to trap Him. If Jesus says pay the tax, He'll anger the conservative Jewish nationalists. If He says, don't pay the tax, He'll anger the pro-Roman parties and could be charged with sedition, of trying to start a rebellion. It's the perfect entrapment. But Jesus ups the ante. So what if Caesar has his tiny image pressed in a thin slice of metal? God has His image pressed into the mettle of every human being because God is the Creator. As it was taught by Moses in the book of Genesis, God created every human being in His own image, after His likeness, to be like God. Not bluffing, betting, backstabbing, but beloved children of God who love God and love their neighbors as themselves. They think they're playing games, but Jesus is teaching—teaching like Grandma Eunice with her grandchildren, teaching that this isn't Caesar's house, it's God's, the God of the living, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Moses, the God who never folds on a promise.

But that can be hard to see when you're playing on tilt. When Jesus went into the temple that week in Jerusalem, a lot of people were on tilt. There were these various Jewish factions. For example, the Pharisees and the Herodians, these guys were tilted hot. They felt like the cards were against them; they kept catching bad breaks, and the hot headed among them were calling down curses on their enemies, and some were ready to take up weapons against the Romans to fight. Then there's this other group called the Sadducees. The Sadducees were the higher-class members in Jerusalem. These guys were tilted cold. They had folded on God's promise to raise the dead and renew all things; they were hoping for a better run of luck in bed with Rome. So, you've got hotheaded Pharisees, cold, calculating Sadducees, and high-rolling Rome. These are the players of the cutthroat poker game into which Jesus was dealt.

And listen how He plays: He not only keeps his cool, He raises the stakes so high that anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear can know that He is the Son of God and that this house is His house.

Listen to how it goes in the Gospel according to Mark 12. It happened after the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were offended by Jesus and looking for a way to arrest Him, but they couldn't because they were afraid of the people. So, they sent to Jesus some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians in order that they might trap Him in an argument. And they came and say to Him, "Teacher, we know that You are truthful and that You don't worry about anyone's opinion. You're not swayed by appearances, but You truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay the tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay it or should we not?"

But Jesus, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, "Why do you test Me? Bring Me a denarius that I might see it." And they brought one, and He says to them, "Whose image and whose inscription is this?" "Caesar's," they said. Jesus said to them, "Then give to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar and to God the things that belong to God." And they were completely amazed at Him. Then Sadducees who say that there is no resurrection come and began to question him, saying, "Teacher, Moses wrote to us, if a man's brother dies and leaves behind a wife but does not leave a child, the man should marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. There were seven brothers and the first took a wife, but when he died left no offspring. The second took her, but he died, leaving no offspring. And the third, likewise. And the seven left no offspring. Last of all, the woman died. In the resurrection, when they rise, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her."

Jesus said to them, "Isn't this the reason you are in error? Because you neither know the Scriptures nor the power of God. For when they rise from the dead, they're neither going to marry or be given in marriage, but they are going to be like the angels in heaven. But concerning the dead, that they are going to rise, you have read, haven't you, in the book of Moses how God at the bush said to him, 'I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.' He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You err greatly." And one of the scribes upon coming up and hearing them disputing with one another and seeing that He answered them well, asked Him, "Which is the greatest commandment? The first of all?" Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Listen, O Israel. Hear the Lord our God is One Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God from your whole heart and from your whole life and from your whole mind and from your whole strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is not another commandment greater than these." And the scribes said to Him, "You are right, teacher. You have truly said that He is One and there is no one except Him. And to love Him truly from one's whole heart and from one's whole understanding and from one's whole strength and to truly love one's neighbor as oneself is greater than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, "You are not far from the rule and reign of God." And after that, no one dared to ask Him any more questions.

There's a story about a high-stakes gambler named Johnny World. Johnny was a world champion who had accumulated more than six and a half million dollars in winnings at the poker table. He lived in Las Vegas and was known for being willing to bet on anything. One night Johnny was there around the poker table with his friends and he was complaining about the nightlife in Vegas. He said that he was thinking of moving to Des Moines, Iowa. His friends jeered him. "There's no action in Iowa. The bars close early. You wouldn't last one month in Des Moines." True to form, Johnny World said, "Wanna bet?" And they did. They wagered 30 grand that Johnny World wouldn't stay in Iowa for 30 days. Well, Johnny picked up and moved to Iowa and two days after arriving in Des Moines, Johnny was on tilt. He called his friends up and begged them to get out of the wager. They ended up settling with him and Johnny paid out $15,000 in cash to return early to Las Vegas.

Author Annie Duke tells that story in her book, Thinking in Bets. She uses the story to illustrate how all decisions are like bets. She says that a bet is simply a choice that you make by thinking about what will probably happen in the future. A bet is a choice you make when you don't have all the information, when there is some risk, but you make the choice anyway based on what you believe to be true. Every time you make a decision, she says, you make a bet. You may not wage your 30 grand like Johnny World did, but like him, you might take a new job in a new place, betting that it will be better than your current job. Or you might invest in your children's education, betting it will raise their future standard of living. Or you might order salad instead of steak, betting it will improve your health in the long run. Every decision you make, Annie Duke argues, is like a bet. It's like betting against one future and betting on another. So what might it mean to bet on God?

Roughly 360 years ago, a French philosopher and mathematician named Blaise Pascal asked that very question. His answer has come to be known as "Pascal's wager." Maybe you've heard of it. Put simply, Pascal's wager goes like this: "It's better to bet on the existence of God—what have you got to lose?—than to wager against God and be damned forever." Maybe it's lost some of its punch in our time, but Pascal's wager is one of the more enduring rational arguments for believing in God.

I remember when I first heard Pascal's wager; it spoke to my head but not so much to my heart. It felt a little cold and calculating. Turns out Pascal thought the same. He presented his so-called wager for God at the beginning of his writings, but at the end he goes in a different direction. He stops talking about probabilities and bets and starts talking about actually meeting God and His Son, Jesus, hearing His story in the Bible. In the end, Pascal went all in, not with a bet, but with faith, hope, and love. He wrote, "I hold out my arms to Jesus who has come to suffer and die for me. And by His grace, I live with the hope of being eternally united to Him."

Pascal was one of the greatest mathematicians, scientists and philosophers in modern times. He had poor health and died just after his 39th birthday. After his death, they found a scrap of paper sewn into the lining of his jacket with a note written in his own hand. It said, "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and savants. He is only found by the path taught in the Gospel. This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God and Him whom You have sent Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ."

Jesus raised the stakes in the temple because His on-tilt opponents were so worked up that they'd forgotten whose house they were in. So Jesus calls their bluffs and cleans them out. He showed them and us that this is His house, and in His house loving God and loving people is the prize. And Jesus went all in on the cross to win that prize, to win us. And now that He's risen from the dead, all bets are off.

Some people say that life is just one long game of poker. If there's any truth to that statement, it's more like the game of poker at Grandma Eunice's house. That's how my friend Andrew learned to play poker as he explained when he told me about his grandmother, Eunice. Today, Andrew says that when he plays poker, it's a social activity for him. It's about the people he gets to be with. See, Andrew learned from the best. And just so we're clear, this sermon is not about poker. It's not about games of chance at all. It's about Jesus who holds the future in His hands and an old Lutheran church lady who used the game to teach her grandchildren a little something about life and God.

So this week, when you feel like the cards are against you and you're tempted to play on tilt, hold on to God's promise. You don't need to let anyone rile you up; you don't need to let anyone get under your skin; you don't need to let anyone put you on tilt. You don't have anything to fear; you don't have anything to lose; you have everything to gain; your future is a gift. So, bet it all on Jesus. He's already bought you with His blood. He's already brought you into God's house. And in God's house, everybody wins. Amen? Amen!

Reflections for March 10, 2024
Title: All Bets Are Off

No Reflection Segment this week.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Lamb of God" by Kenneth T. Kosche. From Triumphant Lamb by the choirs of Concordia University-Wisconsin (© 1996 Concordia University-Wisconsin / Art Masters Studios, Inc. - Minneapolis)

"I Trust, O Christ, in You Alone" arr. Henry Gerike. Used by permission.

"God Loved the World So That He Gave" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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