Sunday, November 13, 2005

Twenty-sixth Sunday of Pentecost
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90:1-8 [9-11] 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

Well done, good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will set thee over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

Zephaniah is shocking in his blunt verbal attack of the people of Israel in today's Old Testament lesson. They had become complacent and had turned away from God in search of other gods. They thought God was distant and uninvolved with His people. Through Zephaniah, God promised to search out all those that did not believe. The promise for those was not a happy promise. They would suffer destruction from the wrath of God. Their wealth would be taken away, their houses uninhabited and their businesses laid to waste. To Zephaniah, the Day of the Lord was to be a day of wrath, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of death.

The irony is that those to whom this prophecy was sent did not care anyway. They said in their hearts, "Jehovah will not do good, neither will he do evil." They had no hope and no fear. They were satisfied with life as they knew it and with the gods to whom they had become accustomed. The day of wrath promised to be a day of darkness, but they were already living in darkness, blind to the truth and wallowing in their self righteousness. On that day nothing will be able to save them, not their gods or their possessions. Zephaniah says, "Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them in the day of Jehovah's wrath; but the whole land shall be devoured by the fire of his jealousy: for he will make an end, yea, a terrible end, of all them that dwell in the land." There is no grace in this passage because this is for those who've turned away from grace, who've rejected God's mercy by believing that God was distant and uninvolved.

Paul writes to the Thessalonians, "When they are saying, Peace and safety, then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall in no wise escape." People were complacent, believing everything was fine. When we are complacent, we also become apathetic. If there is no need for hope beyond today or if there is no fear, then there is also no need to reach beyond oneself. Yet, our passages for today speak of a day when everything will fall apart. This passage uses end times language and we can expect that day of the Lord, but we face ends even in the midst of our lives.

There are a great many people that think God set the world in motion and then just let it go. Some believe in predestination and that there is nothing that can change what has been ordained since the beginning. Some do not believe that God interacts with His people, or that He changes His mind. In this attitude there is no reason for prayer or repentance, there is no reason for faith. The do not seek security from God, but rather from their homes, wealth and relationships. They have no need of God and thus do not fear Him. They also have no hope. We are in a different time and place than Zephaniah, but we suffer from the same sin trusting in the things of this world rather than God.

I feel very secure in my house. It is located in a safe neighborhood with caring neighbors. While extreme weather is a possibility, it is unlikely that it will be destroyed by wind or rain. We are careful, following safety procedures and going everything we can to protect ourselves. Yet, we have seen very recently how quickly a fire, flood, tornado, hurricane or earthquake can take everything away. In New Orleans many residents went into the Super Dome to take refuge from the hurricane. They breathed a sigh of relief when it was over because the damage was not nearly as bad as it could have been. They lived in the dome for several days expecting that everything would be fine. Then suddenly the levy broke and thousands of people were stranded inside. Their haven became their hell. The place of refuge became a place of anguish. When we put our trust in things or in people, we are often disappointed. Our wealth fails and people disappoint us.

In Psalm 90, we see a different kind of dwelling place. The psalmist writes, "1Lord, thou hast been our dwelling-place in all generations." God is different than man. Man exists because He was created by God, for God. God is. Man lives in time and space and we live in a world filled with sin. Disappointment is a part of our humanity because we are imperfect. But God is outside time and space. He is perfect. He does not disappoint. We can rest in His promises and trust in His mercy because what He has spoken to us is true. Even those who heard the words of Zephaniah would know God's mercy, if only they would hear His voice and believe. God is longsuffering. He does not seek to destroy the world; He seeks to bring restoration and forgiveness.

He also does not hold on to the past. "For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, And as a watch in the night." Our past, our darkness, is swept away with the light. At the end of this psalm the psalmist asks, "So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom." Listening to the words of Zephaniah helps us to realize this is true. Our days are numbered and we deserve nothing but the wrath of God. Yet, the day of the Lord is not only to be seen as a day of destruction. It is a day of salvation for those who believe. And while that day is a day that will happen at some point in our future, salvation is also for today.

While we live in the flesh we are bound to the flesh. We will not know the perfection of God in the here and now; we will not know it until He returns. We don't know the day. We can't pencil in Christ's return on a calendar and wait until that day to live as Christ calls us to live. This is why the psalmist asked God to teach us to number our days. We are more likely to live in today when we know there may not be a tomorrow. I wonder how many people in the past few months who have faced the destruction of everything they knew, have regrets about the things they know they should have done. How many wish they had forgiven a neighbor, a neighbor whom they may never see again? How many wish they had given that gift to a loved one, the gift that has now washed out to see or been blown by the winds? How many wish that they'd spent more time with God, knowing that it is in His dwelling only that we are safe?

We are children of light, but it is so easy to fall asleep. We might be regular attenders of worship services. However, all too many people are in church every Sunday morning, receiving the gift of God, yet they never take that gift into the world to share with others. At our baptism, God has given each of us faith and a gift – a talent – to use for His glory. There are many reasons why we don't use our gifts. We don't know we have them and don't know how to use them because we have never sought to learn. We are afraid of rejection or failure. We are unwilling to take risks. We don't have the time because our lives are so hectic with all our other responsibilities – responsibilities that are often tied to our possessions. We work to many hours to pay mortgages beyond our means. We are so involved in the world that we don't have the time to seek God, to study His word, to pray or to live as He has called us to live.

While it is true that God gives us gifts to use within and without the church – for our mission goes well beyond the walls of our buildings – we all too often use our busy-ness as an excuse for not doing what God is calling us to do. We bury our gifts and go about our business as if it is better to leave them someplace safe than to take the risk of doing something wrong.

This is what happened in today's Gospel lesson. The Master gave talents to three of His servants. Each received the number of talents according to his ability. One received five, one two and one received just one. From the start of this passage we think this is terribly unfair. After all, why didn't the Master give each one the same number of talents? The scriptures tell us why. It was because He gave according to each one's ability. We all know someone who is like a superhero – able to do a million things at once and do them all well. I suppose at times we are jealous of those who are able to do that, thinking "If only I had that much talent, I could do the same." Yet, that is not necessarily true. I've also known people who have tried to do a million things, even do them fairly well, and yet get burned out quickly or get bogged down with illness. Some people are built to withstand great trials, others are built to withstand lesser trials. It is not a matter of fairness, but of God's perfect knowledge of His people. He knows what you can handle, and He gives accordingly.

The first two servants – slaves would be a better word – were given great sums of money. A talent was worth a lifetime of wages, in today's money it would be worth nearly a million dollars. At that, even the third servant was given a great wealth. The first two servants used their talents to great profit, doubling their money. When the Master came home, they presented Him with their work and He was well pleased. He not only commended the servants, but He gave them even greater work to accomplish. He also invited them into the joy of their Master.

This phrase caught my attention because it shows that on His return He made the servants more than servants. They were no longer bound as slaves, but were made part of the household. As Paul writes, "…for ye are all sons of light, and sons of the day." The slaves were like sons, trusted with great things in the kingdom of the Master.

The unfortunate part of this story is that there was a third slave who did not do well with the talent his Master gave him. Even one talent was a significant amount of money. Instead of working with it, he buried it in the sand for safekeeping. He gives as his reason the fact that the Master is a man who does not sow what He reaps and gathers what He does not sow. What He means by this is not necessarily clear. Does the Master steal from the work of others? Or, is it because the Master owns it all that what is reaped and gathered is His anyway. The slave tells the Master he was afraid. The Master calls the slave "wicked and lazy" especially since he knew that the Master would take it all. The Master took that one talent and gave it to the first servant. Then the lazy servant was cast out of the kingdom – into the darkness. He was not made a son on the Master's return.

Paul writes, "But let us, since we are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for a helmet, the hope of salvation." Zephaniah's audience might have had nothing to hope for, though God's grace was abundant even before Christ walked on earth. He loves His people, of every time and every place and fulfills all His promises to those who trust in Him. There were many in Old Testament times that lived by faith, that believed God was active in the world. They knew there was hope beyond this day and that God was worthy to be feared and revered. Yet, we live in a different world because we have seen our Salvation and it is found in Christ Jesus. "For God appointed us not into wrath, but unto the obtaining of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him."

This is a wonderful promise because it tells us that even when we fail, Christ still died for us. We can know the forgiveness and mercy of God when we can't stand under the weight of the world. This does not mean we should use our hope and an excuse, because our days are numbered. Christ calls us not to live in complacency, apathy and self-righteousness. He does not gift us so that we can live trusting in the world. He has made us children of the light so that we will take His gifts into the world to reveal His mercy and His grace to all who will hear. Paul finishes this passage with a command to encourage one another and to build up each other.

When one of us falls asleep, we need to love and care of our brothers and sisters in Christ to keep us awake. We need one another, this is why Christ calls us into community. We can't do this alone. All too often when we try to be in control, we react like the third servant, afraid to take the risk. So we bury our talent and leave it there for safekeeping, but it is useless. It does nothing to enlarge the Kingdom or bring favor from the Master. It is wasted. So too are the gifts we do not use. Though we may have gifts of which we are unaware, we have no excuse. God promised to give us gifts at our baptism and opportunities to use them. We are called to live in hope, walk in faith and use all that God has given us to His glory. When we don't, we live in bondage to ourselves and the things of this world. When we do, we live as children of light, sons of God and inheritors of His eternal kingdom. Thanks be to God.

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