Sunday, November 13, 2011

Lectionary 33A
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90:1-8 [9-11] 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

For a thousand years in thy sight Are but as yesterday when it is past, And as a watch in the night.

I was in a store the other day and it is obvious that the retailers are anxious to get the Christmas season started. Even as there were baskets full of Halloween inventory at discounted prices for quick sale, an extra large decorated Christmas tree loomed in the doorway. The shelves are packed with Christmas gift packages such as collections of smelly lotions or spiced coffees. Halloween candy was replaced with Christmas delights. Right next to the door was an electronic sign with the countdown to Christmas. We have just 40+ days until the big day.

Those of us with children know how hard it is to wait for Christmas. It is made even harder when the children see the signs so early. They don’t understand what forty days means. To them, a Christmas tree means it is Christmastime. Even though Santa is more than a month from his visit, the children are anxiously ready to open their presents. “Is it tomorrow, Mom?” they ask every day. They are driving parents crazy by the time the day is actually at hand and parents are sick of the whole thing. It is bad enough spending two hours in a car with a child saying “Are we there yet?” It is so much worse to live with a child asking the same question for more than a month as they wait anxiously for Christmas. How much worse must it have been for those early Christians who were waiting for the coming of Christ? They didn’t even have an end date to mark on a calendar. They had to be patient and walk into the unknown.

The psalmist writes, “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, And as a watch in the night.” We live in a world with instant gratification. We send a text and have a response in seconds. We type a few words into an Internet search engine and we have a million resources to help our research. We order a burger and fries, and it is delivered to our car window in seconds. We buy a book from a bookseller and it is downloaded to our e-reader instantly. We do not have to wait for anything anymore, and so we have lost the ability to wait.

Not that people were ever very good at being patient. Sarah wouldn’t wait for God, so she sent Abraham into the arms of a maidservant to create a child. The disciples wanted Jesus to go into Jerusalem long before His time. And the early Christians wanted Jesus to return in their day. We still have that same longing, and it manifests occasionally when some charismatic cult leader decides to proclaim that the time is now. Harold Camping might be done for now, but I have no doubt that there is another would-be prophet ready to tell the world that the bizarre weather of 2011 is a sign that Jesus is coming. There will be people who believe that leader, who quit their jobs and take up their signs that say, “The End of the World is Near!” And when it doesn’t happen, they will be left without a job, home or food. They will be disappointed and perhaps even lose heart.

Even worse, however, is when people are complacent. In Thessalonica, people were self-satisfied, believing everything was fine. When we are complacent, we also become apathetic. There is no need for hope beyond today and no need to reach beyond oneself. Yet, our passages for today speak of a day when everything will fall apart, when the Master will bring an end to our complacency.

Many people think that 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. These attitudes leave no reason for prayer or repentance; there is no reason for faith. They do not seek security from God, but rather from their homes, wealth and relationships. They have no need for God and do not fear Him. They also have no hope. We we suffer from the sin of trusting in the things of this world rather than God.

So did the people in Zephaniah’s day. 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.

This prophecy was sent to people who did not care. 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 would be a day of darkness, but they didn’t care because they thought nothing would happen. They were blind to the truth and wallowing in their own comfort and self righteousness. But on that day nothing would 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.”

The consequences of our decisions can be life altering, not just for ourselves, but for the world in which we live. Sarah’s impatience has led to a history of distrust between people all around the world. The impatience of the disciples and early Christians has led to confusion about God’s purpose for Jesus even into today. We know that Christ is coming again, but we do not know when. The problem in Paul’s day is that the people were getting frantic because they were dying and Jesus had not yet returned. They were afraid and doubted the promise. They didn’t know what to do. Some were falling for false preaching. Others were oppressive with their own preaching, forcing others to believe in the hopes that they would create the necessary conditions for Jesus’ return. Yet others gave up. They stopped waiting and turned to the world for comfort and peace.

The Gospel lesson hints at an end time scenario, but it is even more important to think about what we should be doing while we wait. We aren’t supposed to sit around, expecting the coming of the Lord. We are to use what God has given us to share the Gospel with the world. We are called to be like the two servants who used their talents for the glory of God. He has gone away but has left us each with sufficient talents to do His work here and now. There is so much to be accomplished. Why are we waiting for something that won’t be so wonderful, anyway? Burying our talents does nothing to help us prepare, it leaves us stagnant. We might be satisfied with what we have, but God is not satisfied with an offering of nothing but what He gave us. He wants our gifts to flourish, to multiply, to grow. When there are so many people who still need to experience God’s kingdom there is no time to sit around waiting for something that might happen in a minute or a thousand years. We are called to get to work doing God’s business today. We won’t miss anything. As a matter of fact, if we are doing what He’s called us to do, He’ll find us actively living in faith and hope and love, ready to receive what He has promised us for eternity.

God operates on a different timeline. A day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day. He’s not confined to the clock or to the movement of the heavenly bodies. Because we are trapped in time, we have a hard time imagining what God’s time is like. We want to count down the days. We want to have a mark on a calendar. We want to understand the concept of eternity even though it is impossible for us to relate to something that has no beginning or ending.

How can there be no beginning or end? We have so nicely laid out our days, divided them up into simple units: seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years. We have even taken the story of God and divided it up into seasons: that’s what we do with the lectionary and in this devotional. Time is easier for us to grasp when we can identify it. We remember yesterday and look forward to tomorrow. We keep histories of our lives so that we won’t forget and we fit God into our story.

Yet, our scriptures for today make us think, “What is our life compared to eternity?” What is one body compared to the universe?” Our life is barely a fraction of a second and we are nothing more than a spot on a speck. To cope with this, we define God by our terms, limiting His time and His scope to be much closer to us. We put Him into a box. He does not need our buildings in which to dwell, but offers Himself as a dwelling place for us. He is not limited by time. The clocking is ticking in our world. Christmas is really just around the corner. The sign will continue to countdown for the next month and a half, and then the great day will be here.

But when does the Great Day come? We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. Whether Jesus comes today or in a thousand years is up to God. Until that day, we are called to be actively participating in the creative and redeeming work that He began. We might hear the world crying our “Are we there yet?” or telling us that the time is now, but our mission is to use the gifts that God has given in ways that glorify Him. Now or later, near or far, the day is God’s and by faith we can trust Him. Eternity will be more than we can imagine. Until then, this life can be more than we can imagine if we dwell in the Lord and use His gifts until they are multiplied beyond our wildest dreams.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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