Sermon delivered on the second Sunday before Advent A, November 16, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you would prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Zephaniah 1.7, 12-18; Psalm 90.1-12; 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11; Matthew 25.14-30.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In last week’s epistle lesson we saw that Paul addressed concerns about what would happen to the Christian dead when Jesus returns. Paul reminded us that they are safely in the Lord’s care and would appear with Jesus at his Second Coming. In other words, those who are alive when this happens will not have an advantage over those who have died in the Lord. In today’s epistle lesson Paul focuses on the fate of those who are living when the Lord returns and this is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.
How many of you have some concerns or anxiety about what will happen to you when the Lord returns to finally put to rights all that is wrong in his creation? I mean, look at our OT and psalm lessons this morning! The prophet warns his people (and by extension us) that God’s wrath is coming and there will be no escape. They had not been God’s light to the world to bring the blessing of his healing love to bear on the nations. Instead, they had become just like the nations to which they were called to bring God’s light, and worse! And now the prophet warns the chickens are about to come home to roost. They will discover that God is not indifferent to their sin as they foolishly believed. God’s wrath is about to be poured out on them and there is nothing in this world—not their wealth or status or their false gods or their delusional thinking about their accountability to their God—that can save them. It is a terrible picture Zephaniah paints for us. No wonder the only appropriate response is silence.
And if we are looking for some better news from the psalmist, he’s not giving us much love either. He reminds us that God has set our misdeeds before him so that we kindle God’s anger and are consumed by his wrath. Oh sure, some of us might live to be 70 or 80 but even then our days are filled with toil and sorrow, passing away before we know it and then we are gone, i.e., we will die. Or what about Paul’s warning to the Romans and Corinthians that we all must stand before the judgment seat of God (Romans 14.10; 2 Corinthians 5.10)? And this is just the tip of the proverbial biblical iceberg! I could cite dozens more passages like these. In light of all this, I’m really looking forward to the day of the Lord. Aren’t you?
Ah, Father Maney, you cry (literally)! Another one of your feel-good sermons! How nice. You sure do know how to preach good news to us so that we are uplifted and given hope. Do you happen to have an ice pick we can put to our heads to put us out of our misery? To which I respond, where’s the fun in preaching that kind of stuff? So again I ask. In light of what we have just reviewed, how many of you have some concern or anxiety about what will happen to you when the Lord Jesus returns to put his corrupted world and its people to rights?
This, of course, is the concern Paul is addressing in our epistle lesson. The Thessalonians were apparently anxious not only about the fate of their loved ones who had died in Christ but also about their own fate. And in light of what we’ve just seen, who could blame them? But the question I just asked is also a trick question if you are a Christian. Do you know why? Of course you do. And if for some reason you don’t listen to what Paul says.
Paul, of course, would have recognized immediately that I was asking you a trick question because he would have known instantly that I left out a key event in asking it and then in reciting all the passages about God’s judgment on sin and the people who commit them. Please don’t misunderstand. None of us should take sin and its deadly consequences lightly or make light of it. God certainly does not and that is why he acted decisively on the cross to do something about it on our behalf and that is what was missing in the previous equation.
The cross of Jesus Christ and his subsequent resurrection to which Paul refers almost in passing in our epistle lesson (who died for us) is the key to us not being anxious about our present or future. Why? Because as Paul tells us elsewhere, on the cross evil has been defeated (Colossians 2.15) and there is now no condemnation for those of us who are in Jesus because in his blood shed for us on the cross, God condemned human sin in the flesh so that God would not have to condemn us who put our hope and trust in Jesus (Romans 8.1-4). On the cross, we are reconciled to God and transferred out of the dominion of darkness and into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son so that we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins (Colossians 1.13-14, 19-20). And since Jesus is God, we see the very heart of God beating for us on the cross. It is a heart overflowing with grace, mercy, and love for us, a heart that does not want to see the death of any of his image-bearing creatures.
This is why Paul could reassure the Thessalonians (and us) about our respective fate. He tells us we need not fear our Lord Jesus’ return and gives us two reasons why. First, we are children of the light and children of the day. In other words we are the Lord’s people who are forgiven and who will therefore escape his terrible wrath. Second, God has destined us for salvation because Jesus died for us and was raised from the dead. In other words, we who have faith that God has done this for us in and through Jesus are destined to share in Jesus’ vindication (his resurrection) because we are inextricably linked to him in the power of the Spirit who makes Jesus present to us right now and binds us to him forever so that wherever he is, there we will be also. We don’t receive this gift because we are deserving in any way. To the contrary we are deserving of God’s wrath about which Zephaniah and the psalmist speak. No, we are given this gift of life and pardon and mercy because God is loving and merciful and has given us demonstrable, historical proof of his love for us in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
But here’s the thing. Many of us act like we don’t really believe this. We remain anxious about our present situation and eternal destiny, choosing to believe that the Good News of Jesus can’t really be that good. And so we walk around anxiously gritting our teeth, trying desperately to earn favor in this wrathful God’s sight, which of course is an impossibility. We instinctively get this and it does nothing but increase our fear and anxiety.
And even if we do believe the Good News that is in Jesus, it is easy for us to lose sight of it because as Paul reminds us we live in a good world gone bad, a world of darkness that is hostile to God’s good plan to heal and redeem us in and through Jesus, a world that seeks after any god except the one true, living God. That is why we have to remind and encourage each other about the gospel so that it is not taken from us and we lose all hope. If you are someone who calls himself or herself a Christian and are laboring under this terrible burden of a false gospel that is full of wrath and devoid of hope, stop it right now! Do the math and take time to read and reflect on the hope and promise that permeates the entire Bible, especially the NT! And if that does not do it for you, talk to a trusted Christian friend or one of the priests here and we will try to help you find the love and hope that is in the gospel. Again, it is not about our worthiness; it is about God’s great love and tender mercy for his image-bearing creatures.
If we really take to heart the healing power of the gospel, there will be a release from the burden of guilt and anxiety over our relationship with God and our standing before him because we realize that on the cross, God really has done something about our sin so that we are destined for life and not death, pardon and mercy instead of judgment and wrath as the world and its people are. This, in turn, frees us to be the light-bearing people Jesus calls us to be as part of the rescued community of Abraham. This is why Paul goes on to urge us to act like people of light or the daytime. Your eternal destiny is secure, he says, so start acting like you really believe it. And how do we act like people who belong to the day (who have been rescued from evil, sin, and death)? In this particular passage, Paul tells us to put on God’s armor that will help us show others that we are people who possess the virtues of faith, hope, and love.
And now we are getting at the message of Jesus’ parable about the talents in today’s gospel lesson because the parable really is about how well we use the gifts God has given us to be his light to the world, to bring hope and Good News to the nations (and to our neighbors and fellow workers and friends, including each other). Notice that in entrusting the third servant with only one talent (a talent was worth about 15 years of wages for a common worker so even this was a huge amount), God judged this servant’s business smarts to be less reliable than the other two. Notice too that God did not condemn the servant for having lesser ability than the other two servants. Rather, God judged the third servant because he didn’t even try to use the limited abilities he had!
At the heart of this parable, then, Jesus is warning Israel (and us who are the newly reconstituted Israel around Jesus) that God has given us our life, our possessions, our gifts and abilities to be spent and put into circulation in the arena we call life so that we can help bring God’s light and love to the world. This is what Jesus was talking about on the sermon on the mount when he called his followers to be salt and light. This is why God has rescued us from the darkness of our sin—so that he could use us to help bring about the kingdom on earth as in heaven. Once again, our eternal destiny is not contingent on how well we do this, but rather that we at least try in grateful response to the incalculable gift we have been given.
But this is where it gets tricky because for a variety of reasons, most notably because the Church has dropped the ball in teaching its people how to be Jesus’ salt and light to the world, we don’t know how to do that. For example, we think loving people is all about being nice or giving them what they want, when often what they want is more darkness and not the light of Christ. If their darkness is going to be judged by God, how is that loving them? Our challenge is to redefine the conversation in our day so that we are not letting the culture with all its disordered desires define and drive the conversation. As one writer recently put it, we are called to be radicals because we are the recipients of the radical love and forgiveness of Christ so that we can offer folks a reason why they should want to come and die and so follow Christ.
Think on these things and talk about them so as to encourage one another in this work. How can we share the light of Christ so that in us, people see the gift of love and salvation we have? Whatever it looks like, and there are literally infinite possibilities, one thing is for certain. If we do not know we have Good News, we will not be prepared or know how to share it. And so in closing, I remind us all again that we are set free from sin and death and reconciled to God now and for all eternity by the blood of the Lamb shed for us and are given his Spirit to testify to us that this promise is trustworthy and true. That’s the Good News that is the sole basis for us to live as people who belong to the day, who belong to Jesus forever, thanks be to God! To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.