Sunday, November 19, 2017

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Zephaniah 1:7-18
Psalm 90:1-12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

But you, brothers, aren’t in darkness, that the day should overtake you like a thief. 5 You are all children of light, and children of the day.

The Day of the Lord. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I cry out daily “Come, Lord Jesus,” but I’m reminded by today’s Old Testament lesson that it isn’t necessary a day we should hope to see. There is nothing but doom and gloom found in this 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. God’s 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 isn’t a pretty passage. It is not an image of God we want to see.

We find comfort in the images of Christ returning, taking His people with Him, promises that will be fulfilled finally after so much time. Yet, we cannot forget that the people of Israel were God’s 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 and God would not come simply to defeat His enemies, but to cause His people to repent.

The scriptures say, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” We automatically think this is spoken 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.

Zephaniah identifies another type of fool. God says, “It will happen at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are settled on their dregs, who say in their heart, “Yahweh will not do good, neither will he do evil.” The phrase “are settled on their dregs” can be translated “are complacent.” This was spoken about God’s people; they had become self-satisfied and conceited. They didn’t believe that God would do anything, good or bad. If they sinned, they wouldn’t 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.

I’m 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 doesn’t mean much, it doesn’t affect the way they live and they don’t expect anything to come of it. God is there, safely tucked away in a corner of their mind. They attend church services and donate to charities, but faith is kept separate from the rest of their lives. In too many cases, faith is the least priority. They might not say “Yahweh will not do good, neither will he do evil,” but they live as though nothing they do matters to their King.

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 like those who 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. Aren’t we doing the same? And when our lives are threatened by forces beyond our control, we mumble like the people in Zephaniah’s day that God won’t do anything, good or bad. We think we can “settle on our dregs.” 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 passages such as this one from Zephaniah that we can fall, turning 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, “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to deliver them in the day of Yahweh’s wrath.” We can’t buy our way out of learning that 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. Has He, even now, been consecrating the enemy for that great and terrible Day of the Lord? Will we see it? Are we ready?

This is certainly not a message we want to hear. But we do 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 in the scriptures. We read a message like this through the eyes of faith, resting in God’s love. 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 this passage may seem hopeless, but we are called to believe that there is always hope even when we can’t see it with our eyes. God does not forget His promises. Despite the warning there is always a promise. Zephaniah writes later in the book, “Yahweh, your God, is among you, a mighty one who will save. He will rejoice over you with joy. He will calm you in his love. He will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17)

We like to put God in a box. It is much easier for us to deal with God if we make Him fit into our world. We build magnificent churches for His habitation, 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 we don’t know how to deal with the God we often see in the texts, like that of Jeremiah.

But our uncertainty isn’t limited to the Old Testament images. Some people are bothered by the image are very bothered by the image in the Gospel lesson. We can’t embrace a God who is “a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter.” Yet, this is the story of a master giving his servants an opportunity to work in his kingdom. He gave each of these servants according to their ability and left them to learn how to deal with business while he was gone. A good master will give some freedom to the servant so that they might succeed knowing they will make mistakes. Some of the greatest lessons are learned in failure. The third servant is unprofitable in this story not because he did not make a profit, but because he did nothing.

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. When we replace the bulb we are shocked by its brightness. We do not realize how dim the old one had become until 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 didn’t realize it.

Paul might have thought that Jesus would return during his lifetime, but his words are for us today. Despite two thousand years of waiting, we are called to stay awake. 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 making it hard to see how our lives are falling apart around us. But we are called to be in the light, to shine the light of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are called to suit up and dwell in the promise of God, whose hope and salvation are true. We won’t be disappointed unless we allow ourselves to settle too deeply into the world and forget that the immediacy of Paul’s warning is as vital for us now as it was for them. Jesus will come; if we lose sight of His kingdom He will come like a thief in the night. But we are people of the light, called to be ready instead of “settling on our dregs.”

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 are all signs or omens and have been for every generation of humans. The same is true today.

Matthew’s text focuses us on the work and successes or failures of the people waiting for the return of the landowner. The story foretells of Jesus’ own leaving and return; He is the landowner who gives His servants everything they need to do the work of the Kingdom. In the parable, the landowner returns to find two of his servants have not only worked hard, but have doubled the resources the master gave them to use. They took what they had and made it into something bigger and better.

So, even though the text does hint at an end time scenario, it is even more important to think about what we should be doing while we wait. We aren’t very good at patience; human beings haven’t been from the beginning of time. Even the Old Testament heros did what they thought would hurry God along. Look at Abraham and Sarah. They 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 Sarah’s 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 Christ is coming again, but we do not know when. How do we respond to the hope as we wait? 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 into faith to compel Jesus’ 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 resources to make a difference 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. It does us no good to bury our gifts when there are so many people who still need to experience God’s kingdom. 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 God’s business today. Then we have no need to worry, or fear, or doubt, because we’ll be doing exactly what God is expecting from us when Christ comes again. He’d find us actively living in faith and hope and love, ready to see what He has planned for us in eternity.

We find it 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 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. The stories have been written so that we won’t forget, and so that we can see our place in God’s Kingdom. Yet, it is frightening to consider. 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 to dwell among us, but rather offers Himself as a dwelling place for us. He is not limited by time. The psalmist writes, “a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past.” We might think time passes quickly, especially when we watch our children grow up. But we can’t 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. Unfortunately, we have our limits. Time passes. We get older. Things change. The world becomes different. Our magnificent buildings crumble and fall. 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 certain images of God, 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 what kind of God would He be if we could know Him as fully as He knows us?

When will 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. It is tempting to be like the third servant, planting our resources so that they won’t be lost, but our mission is to use the gifts that God has given. 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.

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