Sunday, November 16, 2014

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Zephaniah 1:7-16
Psalm 90:1-12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

Now after a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and maketh a reckoning with them.

ďThe fool says in his heart, ĎThere is no God.íĒ When we hear this bit of scripture, we automatically think of the atheist or agnostic who rejects or doubts the reality of God. They call us the fools for believing in a myth or a fairytale, calling faith a crutch to those who are not wise enough to understand the world without superstitious ideas.

As I was reading todayís Old Testament lesson from Zephaniah, I noticed another type of person who could be called a fool. God says, ďAnd it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with lamps; and I will punish the men that are settled on their lees, that say in their heart, Jehovah will not do good, neither will he do evil.Ē The older language of the American Standard Version is harder for us to understand; ďÖare settled on their leesÖĒ is better translated for us ďare complacent.Ē This was spoken about Godís people, but for some reason they had become self-satisfied and conceited. They didnít believe that God would do anything, good or bad. If they sinned, they wouldnít be punished; any good works they did had nothing to do with God. It is almost better to reject or doubt God than to believe and reduce Him to nothing more than a far off creator-king who is no longer involved in his creation.

Iím not sure things are much different today. While many people believe that there is a God, their understanding of Him is minimalistic and their faith is little more than a footnote on their life. It is a label that doesnít mean much, it doesnít affect the way they live and they donít expect anything to come of it. God is there, safely tucked away in the corner of their mind; they do what they think is necessary like attend church once in awhile and give canned goods to the food bank, but faith is kept separate from the rest of their lives. In too many cases, faith is the least priority. They might not say ďJehovah will not do good, neither will he do evil,Ē but they live as though nothing they do matters to their King.

When we were college shopping, my daughter and I visited two similar but very different colleges. They were similar in that they were founded and supported by a Christian denomination. Though faith was the foundation, they saw the relationship between the church and school very differently. During one tour we were repeatedly told that those the school is faith based, the relationship was little more than a footnote on their constitutions. The school was free to run things their way without church interference. The chapel was not even a stop on the tour, and the tour guide repeatedly told us about all the non-Christian activities that would thrill and entertain the students while they attended the college.

The second college was not only founded on Christian faith, but that faith still remains the center of student life. We began our tour in the chapel, where we were told that no classes are scheduled during certain times during the week so that all students, should they choose, can attend chapel services. Though the school certainly welcomed students from other denominations and even religions, the relationship between God, their sponsoring denomination and the school was obvious. Thankfully my daughter chose the school that would encourage, support and help her faith mature as they were preparing her for life in the world.

Many churches tend to ignore passages like todayís Old Testament lesson. It is filled with doom and gloom. Where is the promise? Where is the 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 thought that God would let them be 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.

But as we draw to the end of the Church year, we are reminded that we are still looking forward toward the Day of the Lord. We find comfort in the images of Christ returning, as a matter of fact I cry out for His return on a daily basis. We look forward to the final fulfillment of all Godís promises. We are certain that we will be the ones who will be welcomed through the pearly gates of heavenís eternity. We are the chosen ones! All too often, however, the joke ďfrozen chosenĒ is much, much too true.

We cannot forget that the people of Israel were Godís chosen ones that 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, they believed but they did not expect Him to accomplish anything. They didnít expect Him to punish the sins of His people. They looked forward to the Day of the Lord because they were sure their enemies would be punished while they were set free. Unfortunately, they had turned their back on Him; they needed to repent.

So, it does us well to listen to the warnings of the Old Testament promise. It is true 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.

Is that what was happening in todayís Gospel story? Matthew tells us that the third servant, who did nothing with his talents, was afraid that the master would punish him if he lost even a penny of the resources he was given. He decided that it would be better to return the exact amount to the master because he didnít expect the master to reward his efforts or punish his lack of effort. We are shocked to see that the master not only took away the servantís talent but also sent that servant out into the darkness.

I know some people are very bothered by this passage because it is hard to accept a description of God as ďa hard man, reaping where thou didst not sow, and gathering where thou didst not scatter.Ē What we see here is the story of a man trusting his servants with hands on experience in working in his kingdom. He gave resources and opportunity to each of his servants according to their ability. In that time they learned how to deal with the business. I think it is interesting that we donít see someone who lost their talents, although I suspect that the master would have been merciful. A good master will give freedom to his servants to learn and succeed, even allow them to make mistakes. Some of the greatest lessons are learned in failure. The problem with the third servant was that he did not even try; he was cast into the darkness because he did nothing.

This master is described as a hard man but letís think about what he did in this story. He gave three servants, better translated slaves, huge sums of money and the responsibility to take care of the business of his kingdom. A talent was worth a lifetime of wages, in todayís 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 well and were able to double 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.

Instead of working with his talent, the third servant buried it in the sand for safekeeping. He reasons that the Master is a man who reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he does not scatter. What does this mean? Does the Master steal from the work of others? This is certainly an argument made about many large corporations where the CEOs get rich off the blood, sweat and tears of the employees. Isnít it interesting, then, that we see the master not only allowing the first two servants to keep their talents, but he then gives the one talent to the servant who had the most. This is not the story of a hard and cruel taskmaster, but of a smart and generous businessman. I think as we see God in this character and realize that He is the Master who owns it all. Everything which is sown and everything which is reaped belongs to Him. He gives generously to His people to use what He has for His Kingdom.

We often focus specifically on the spiritual gifts when talking about this passage, particularly since most translations call the coin a ďtalent.Ē We think about our own talents and consider whether or not we are using them in a way that will grow the Kingdom of God. Are we serving Him with our music or art? Are we using our leadership skills to lead the body of Christ forward? Are we preaching Godís Word to those who need to hear, both as a pastor to the saved and an evangelist to the unsaved? It is vital that we take these gifts that God has given to us and use them in a way that will glorify Him.

This story isnít necessary just about those spiritual gifts and talents; it is about our whole lives. After all, everything is Godís, isnít it? We can probably list all the many ways weíve served the Lord through our churches, the Sunday school classes weíve taught or the songs weíve sung in the choir. But do we take our faith out into the world in which we live, glorifying God with everything we do? Do we bury our gifts in the church and go about our daily lives without thought of Godís Kingdom?

We are just as afraid of that third servant, afraid to use what God has given us where it is risky. It is risky to share our faith with our neighbors. It is risky to serve people. It is risky to give everything we have for an outcome we canít guarantee. It is much safer to keep our faith among friends, to share our gifts with those we know, to do the things that we are sure will make a difference in the world. It isnít enough to dedicate a few hours in one place each week to the glory of God. God calls us to use everything He has given us (life, breath, love, time, hope, peace, faith, along with our tangible possessions and our spiritual gifts) every day for the sake of His Kingdom and people.

But we get complacent. We become self-satisfied and conceited. Though we donít necessarily say it, we begin to act as if God will not do anything, good or bad. We let the world convince us that if God exists, He isnít much more than a far away creator-king who is no longer involved with His creation. We hide our faith because we are accused of believing in those myths and fairytales; it is simply easier to have a private faith without the risk of being rejected or persecuted by the world. Unfortunately, thatís no better than the third servant who buried his talent in the ground, returning to the master only what he had given.

It takes time to get complacent. Godís people did not start out the way they were in Zephaniahís time. They had passion and living, active faith. But time and the world mellowed their passion. They didnít teach their children to have the same passion or faith. They conformed to the world. They allowed their leaders, their kings, to be allied with enemies and to concede to foreign friends. They made their faith fit their circumstances. Donít we do the same?

We have talked about how the lectionary at this time of year focuses on the second coming of Christ, but how many of us are truly waiting for the Day of the Lord? How many of us really think weíll see Him return in our lifetimes? Oh, there are those who think so, and who are counting down the days, studying the texts to learn the time and the place. There are even those who are working at ensuring that all the pieces are in place to make Him come sooner. But most of us, most Christians, go about our daily lives worried about how weíll pay the mortgage and what we will have for dinner rather than whether or not we are ready for when Jesus comes. After all, it has been two thousand years; perhaps we misunderstood. Some have suggested that He has already come or that the second coming is spiritual. That kind of thinking makes us stop preparing and waiting because there is no reason for it.

Despite two thousand years of waiting, we are called to stay awake. We are called to dwell daily in the promise of God. Jesus can still come and if we lose sight of His kingdom, He will come like a thief in the night.

Throughout the scriptures we are told that we will not know the hour or the day of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are warned to be ready, 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 continue to be appropriate for us today. We need to be careful that we do not become complacent or settle into the world without concern for the heavenly things.

Paul writes in this letter to the Thessalonians that Godís plan is beyond our knowing. We have no excuse to bury our resources; Jesus expects us to be using everything God has given us for the sake of His Kingdom. Too many today are hiding behind the trivial, meaningless interpretations and predictions of the end times or are hiding behind the safety of the church. God calls us out into the world He created with the gifts He has given to share our faith even when it is risky to do so. He is not a hard taskmaster; He is a generous King who gives us both the resources and the opportunity to do His work while we wait for His return.

We might fail, but God isnít looking for us to make Him rich, or even to expand His Kingdom. Everything is His already. He is looking for us to try. What we will find, however, is that we canít really fail with God on our side. He is faithful to all His promises, and He is able to do whatever He intends. He has invited us to be a part of it and He has given us all we need to do so. All He asks is that we try.

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 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 an image like that which we see from Zephaniah.

We find it especially difficult to deal with the idea of eternity. How can there be no beginning or end to time? 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. 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 little corner of the world 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 cannot be kept in a box, but we do have our limits. Time passes 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. 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 our understanding of God, let us never forget that He is more than we can imagine.

In this day, we should be watchful and alert, doing as God has called us to do, living as God has created and redeemed us to live. We are in Christ, saved by His blood and Spirit, called out of darkness into the light. In that light, we are to love God with our whole being, doing His work every day. God is faithful and His Word is true. The Day will come, whether it is today or in a thousand years and God has provided us with everything we need as we wait. We need not be afraid to risk what He has given us for He will provide the growth.

Let us pray that we will, one day, hear Him say, ďWell 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.Ē In that Day, we will be invited to share in His joy, to bask in His glory, to dwell in His Kingdom forever.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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