Sunday, November 16, 2008

Twenty-seventh Sunday in 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.

The scriptures for this week reference, again, the Day of the Lord or the end of days. Every generation of Christian and religious folk from many faiths since the beginning of time have wondered about the end of the world. The imagination can go wild with the possibilities. We see the end as some sort of catastrophic event. People have watched for signs on earth and in the heavens. Comets, eclipses, meteor showers foretold of doom. The people have always pointed to world events as proof that they are the generation that will see the end. War, rumors of war, natural disasters have been seen as signs or omens for every generation of humans. The same is true today.

There is nothing but doom and gloom in the Old Testament text. There is no promise. There is no Gospel. There is only a word of warning describing that the Day of the Lord will be horrifying. God will be searching for sinners, setting forth to punish those who are indifferent. Godís people didnít care. They didnít think He would do anything, good or bad. Perhaps they thought He was no longer listening. Perhaps they thought that He no longer cared. Perhaps they thought that God would leave them alone because they were His people, but in this passage we see that God will not hold back from dealing with the sins of His people. This isnít a pretty passage. It is not an image of God we want to see. Most pastors will probably ignore this passage when writing their sermons for this week because it seems so contrary to our understanding of the Gospel.

But as we draw to the end of the Church year, we are reminded that we are still looking forward to the Day of the Lord. We find comfort in the images of Christ returning, taking His people with Him, promises fulfilled finally after so much time. Yet, we can not forget that the people of Israel were Godís people and that they had turned from the God who had blessed them above all other nations. They were set aside for a purpose and they had failed. They were unfaithful to God and the coming Day of the Lord would not be for God to defeat His enemies, but to cause His people to turn back to Him.

So, it does us well to listen to the warnings of the Old Testament even when it seems to hold no promise. It is true that we live under a new covenant, but we are the same as those who throughout the ages have believed in God. We, too, can become complacent. We can forget God when our focus is on other things. We can turn our hope toward earthly things and lose sight of the One who is our true hope. Zephaniah talks about the people building houses and making wine, building up wealth that they would never use. Arenít we doing the same? And when our lives are threatened by forces beyond our control, we mumble like the people in Zephaniahís day that God wonít do anything, good or bad. We think we can ďsettle on our lees.Ē But God is offended by our indifference.

He calls us to know Him fully, to know His power as well as His grace. He reminds us with the words of Zephaniah that we can fall; we can turn away from the grace He so freely gives. We can lose sight of Him by focusing on our own desires and resting in our own wealth. Zephaniah writes, ďNeither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them in the day of Jehovahís wrath.Ē We canít buy our way out of learning that same lesson all over again. We can only fall on our knees in repentance, crying out to the God who can ensure our deliverance or allow our destruction. This is certainly not a message we want to hear.

Paul doesnít offer a much better message in todayís epistle lesson. A light bulb glows brightly when it is new, but it slowly dims as time goes by. As it gets older, the light bulb eventually burns itself out until that day when the filament breaks and the light is gone forever. Then we have to replace the bulb and it is shocking how bright it is when we turn on the light again. We do not realize how dim it is becoming until it is burnt out and it is replaced with a new and brighter light. We do not know when a light bulb will burn out, but when it is replaced we realize that we had been seeing the signs all along, we just didnít realize it. Thatís what happens when we become complacent. We donít even realize it is happening. One day, all of a sudden, it seems, we are burnt out. We have lost touch with the meaning and purpose. We have given up hope.

We are reminded to see the world in which we live through the light which we have been given by our Lord and our God. Despite two thousand years of waiting, we are called to stay awake. Paul might have thought that Jesus would return during his lifetime, but his words are also for us today. It is easy to become complacent, to settle into the world without concern for the heavenly things. It is easy to let the light bulb slowly dim until it is too dark to see how our lives are falling apart around us. But we are called to live in the light, to be the light for others who are getting lost in the darkness. It may be two thousand years since this message was first spoken, but the coming of Christ is as imminent today as it was then. Jesus can still come soon, and if we lose sight of His kingdom in our day to day life, He will sneak up on us and come like a thief in the night. We are cautioned to stay awake, just as we were cautioned to be prepared last week.

These passages give us, then, a sense of foreboding when it comes to the Day of the Lord. Are we complacent? Are we sleeping when we should be awake? What have we missed as we have journeyed through our life in this world?

It is strange, then, that the passage from Matthew talks about the work and successes or failures of the people waiting for the return of their Lord. As Jesus tells this story, He likely has in mind His own leaving and return. He is the landowner who gives gifts to his servants to work with while he is gone on a long trip. They do not know when he will return. When he returns, the master finds two of his servants have not only kept busy in his absence, but they have made a profit from their work. They took what they had been given and made it into something bigger and better. In faith terms, they took their gifts and used them to grow the kingdom of God.

An apprentice is someone who works for minimal salary under a master to learn a trade. There is usually a specified period of time of service required, but at the end the apprentice is greed, often with their own set of tools, to go and work their craft. Most apprentices stay in the employ of their master, especially if the master is fair and successful. In ancient times, an apprentice that did not complete their time would probably never become more than a laborer. The apprenticeship was the doorway into the better life.

I donít know much about apprenticeship in our day, although Iím sure it still exists within the skilled labor fields. In other fields, interns serve in the same way, learning under an experienced member of the profession. Business people, clergy, lawyers and doctors serve internships. Like the apprentice, the intern shadows the professional for low pay so that they might gain first hand experience. We rely on institutional education in our world today for almost every job, but there is nothing like learning while practicing the profession.

The word in our story is best translated Ďslaveí but these slaves were obviously very trustworthy. The man trusted them enough to give them each no small amount of money to use in his absence. He was giving these servants hands on experience, a chance to do what they were being trained to do. Even the servant with only one talent had as much money as most people could earn in a lifetime. We might wonder why the master did not divide the talents more equitably, but Matthew tells us that each servant was given according to his abilities. If these servants had been learning under the master, the master must have seen certain potential in each of them. Despite the inequality, even the servant with one talent was given a great wealth to use. That servant did nothing with the wealth. He buried it in the ground so that it would not get lost. He did nothing while the master was away.

That servant explained his reasoning. ďLord, I knew thee that thou art a hard man, reaping where thou didst not sow, and gathering where thou didst not scatter; and I was afraid, and went away and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, thou hast thine own.Ē I know some people are very bothered by this passage because we find it hard to see God or Jesus as ďa hard man, reaping where thou didst not sow, and gathering where thou didst not scatter.Ē Yet, this is the story of a master giving his servants hands on experience. He gave each of these servants according to their ability and left them to learn how to deal with business while he was gone.

I think it is interesting that we donít see someone who lost their talents, although I suspect that the master would have been merciful. The problem with the third servant was not that he gave back the same amount, but that he did not even try to do anything with the money. This is like an apprentice who has been given permission to work, but does not try to fix a leak while the master has gone because heís afraid heíll screw up. A good master will give some freedom to the apprentice to succeed and to make mistakes. Some of the greatest lessons of life are learned in failure. The servant is unprofitable in this story not because he did not make a profit. He was worthless because he was afraid did nothing with his gift.

Even though the Gospel lesson does hint at an end time scenario, it is even more important to think about what we should be doing while we wait. We see throughout the Bible in the stories of Godís people that many do not have patience to wait. They do what they think will hurry God along. Abraham and Sarah could not wait for God to fulfill His promise that they would be the father and mother of nations, so they took matters into their own hands. They decided to use Sarahís servant to get the long awaited heir. Their impatience still impacts our world today. Moses had little patience with God and the people as they journeyed through the wilderness. David had little patience with his situation and dealt with his sin against Uriah with more sin. The consequences of our decisions can be life altering, not just for ourselves, but for the world in which we live.

So, we know that Christ is coming again, but we do not know when. How do we respond to our hope as we wait? The problem in Paulís 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 didnít 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 Jesusí return. Yet others gave up. They stopped waiting and turned to the world for comfort and peace.

We look at the story of the talents and realize that 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 make a difference in the world while we wait. It does us no good to sit around waiting for the Day of the Lord because there is so much to be accomplished. We have heard that it wonít be a great and wonderful day anyway! It does us no good to bury our talents when there are so many people who still need to experience Godís kingdom in this world. So, instead of waiting and wondering when the Day of the Lord will happen, or even wonder what it will be like, we are called to get to work doing Godís business today. Then there is no need to worry or fear or doubt, because weíll be doing exactly what God is expecting from us when Christ comes again. Heíd find us actively living in faith and hope and love, ready to see what He has planned for us in eternity.

We donít really like the messages we hear from the prophet and the evangelist. Where is the hope in a warning? But we have something that trumps this message: hope in God. He has promised, and He is faithful. We may not hear it clearly, but the Gospel underlies every text we read. As we read passages like these through the eyes of faith, resting in Godís love, we see that the lesson will help us see more clearly out need for Godís grace. We know that He has relented from destruction; He has changed His mind. We also know that He has given us His own Son to overcome our faithlessness and sin. The image in these passages may seem hopeless, but we are called to believe that there is always hope even when we canít see it with our eyes. Despite the warning there is always a promise; and God does not forget His promises.

We like to put God in a box. It is much easier for us to deal with the concept of God if He fits within our human understanding. We build magnificent churches in which we invite Him to dwell in them, as if He needs a place made by human hands to dwell. We visit Him regularly, but when we walk out the doors into the world, we often forget that He goes with us. It is easier for us if we let Him stay hidden away in our box because then we do not have to try to explain the things we do not understand about Him. We donít know how to juxtapose our image of God when faced with what seems like a contrary image.

We find it especially difficult to deal with the idea of eternity. 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 seasonsóthatís 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 wonít forget and we fit God into our story. It is too frightening to think of ourselves in Godís story. What is our life compared to eternity? What is our life 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 can hold on to a God that we keep in a building.

God calls us to look at the world from a different perspective. 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. For Him a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day. The psalmist writes, ďa thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past.Ē We might think time passes quickly, especially when we watch our children grow up. But we canít even imagine a thousand years being like just one day.

And so, as we draw closer to the Day of the Lord, we are reminded that God can not be kept in a box, but we do have our limits. Time does pass for us. We get older. Things change. The world becomes different. Our magnificent buildings get old and crumble, the things we deem important become obsolete. Even our words pass away; they are forgotten or they become irrelevant. But God and His Word are from everlasting to everlasting. He does not dwell in the world we have created for Him, we dwell in Him. He does not exist within time as we have ordered it, He has ordered the world in which we dwell. We need not put God in a box to understand Him because He has given us all we need to live. Whether our time is short or long, our home large or small, we dwell in the midst of the One who is outside time and space even while we are limited by our flesh in this world. And while we find comfort in the images of God that we have that help us to identify Him, let us never forget that He is more than we can imagine. He is beyond our grasp even while He is so close that we can feel presence in our life. This paradox is such a great mystery, and yet we find comfort in the reality that God is before and beyond all that we know.

So, we are called to suit up and dwell in the promise of God, whose hope and salvation are true. We wonít be disappointed unless we allow ourselves to settle too deeply into the world and forget that the immediacy of Paulís warnings is for us as much as it was for them. But we are people of the day, of the light. Let us pray that we will not fall asleep as we wait for the Day of the Lord, doing all that He has given us the gifts to accomplish the work of building His kingdom in this world. We wonít be found worthless, as we faithfully use all that He has given for His glory.

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