Sermon 325 St. Martin’s 81 (Big Church) 11/19/23
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Jesus said, “It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
Something's Afoot I’m curious, is it just me or do you hear a faint drumbeat in the distance? Slowly but surely, it seems to be growing louder as it moves in our direction. Can you sense it? A movement is afoot because somewhere over yonder, Advent is making its way toward us.
Something strange happens around this time every year. The days become shorter, the nights come more quickly, and even the readings in our Sunday lectionary seem to be more ominous. Jesus’ tone in the gospel, and many of the accompanying readings in the weeks leading up to Advent become more apocalyptic, meaning they focus on the end times.
Though Advent doesn’t officially begin until December 3rd, we can’t deny that it is marching towards us, even now. Some scholars have even said that Advent should be seven weeks instead of four because of the lectionary’s apocalyptic themes that appear after All Saints Day.
Though our church has yet to be transformed, trading its green vestments for blue and adding a wreath with candles in the front, surely, we are in a season of pre-Advent; priming us for what is to come.
And so, is Advent marching toward us, or are we marching toward it?
The End is Near! But you don’t have to be in Advent to be thinking about the apocalypse. Someone recently sent me a video of a megachurch pastor’s sermon and wanted my thoughts.
The pastor gave a 50-minute sermon on why this present moment is likely the end of the world. I’m not sure if I was more shocked at what he said, or how long it took him to say it!
The pastor in this video had 15 points as to why he believed that we were getting close to the end times. “The time has come,” he said. “When looking at the situation in Israel, and the conflicts we have with China and Russia, we must look at our Bible to interpret the signs of the times.”
He then made some strange interpretations from the prophet Ezekiel, and by the 15th point, he was confident in saying that it was time to get ready. Everything indicated we were headed to Armageddon.
I’m always surprised that these pastors who pride themselves on preaching “only the Bible,” somehow forget that Jesus said that no one will know the day or hour when he shall come again. But as we know all too well, that has not stopped preachers in every generation from proclaiming to their attentive listeners that the end is nigh.
Even though I am suspicious of their fear-inducing interpretations, I can understand why people could come to that conclusion. And it’s hard not to feel sometimes like the world is coming to an end when we see everything that is going on. The wars, the violence and division that are so evident not only around the world, but in our own country and city.
“Things are not like they used to be,” we might say. Or “What has this world come to?”
We may not need to jump to the conclusion that this is the beginning of the end—remembering that Jesus said no one knows—but we may be stirred by the current circumstances to long for the beginning of the end; knowing that Jesus has promised to come again and establish his kingdom in all its fullness.
Early Christians, like those that Paul wrote to in Thessalonica, were certain that the end of human history was near—and we can’t blame them. It seemed quite logical after Jesus’ ascension to heaven that he wouldn’t be gone for very long.
If Jesus’ resurrection ushered in the new creation, then of course, that meant the old world was passing away, and the new world was about to begin. Every good Jew knew that the resurrection of the dead happened at the end of the age.
These early Christians, sprinkled in house churches throughout the Mediterranean, were interpreting the signs of the times and adamantly believed that they would be one of the last generations, if not the last before the Lord returned in power and great glory.
Paul himself was pretty sure of this as well. But he even reminded believers that Jesus would come like a thief in the night. It was important to keep awake and be sober because he could come at any moment.
This anxiety about the present moment—and the uncertainty of the future—has been a constant feeling of angst for Christians for 2,000 years. Christians were expecting to wait momentarily for the Lord's return, not seemingly forever. But as time has gone by it has felt like forever.
Many of us have let down our guard, and not kept awake in the ways that Paul has said, in part because it is impossible to live in a constant state of alertness.
That sense of expectancy that accompanied the early Christians naturally had to wear off at some point; they went about living their life. If the early Christians’ alertness began to fade, how much more so for you and me?
Jesus’ Parable This is where Jesus comes in because he knew something that Paul and the Thessalonians didn’t. Jesus knew his second coming would take some time, and people would have a chance to live their lives without hearing the faint drumbeat of the apocalypse in the distance.
The parable we heard this morning is about how different servants used the talents (the money/the resources) that their master entrusted to them while he was away on a trip. Their Lord had come once, and one day he promised to come again. Sound familiar?
In his first advent, his first appearance, the master calls his workers to tend to what he has. He recruits them into his service and gives specific gifts. But when he returns, after a long time away, he has come to check the quality of their work. He has gone from recruiting to accounting.
The lesson of this parable is all about how the servants—who willingly took the master’s talents—used (or didn’t use) his gracious gift while he was away. It’s important to note that even the one who was entrusted with a single talent was given an amount that exceeded a lifetime of wages. What the master gives then is generous beyond measure, even to the one who goes wastes it by burying it in the dirt.
A pastor friend of mine commented to me that this parable is like the professor giving the answers to the final exam on the first day of class. When Jesus talks about how the servant with five talents—and even two talents—use what is entrusted to them to further the work of their master, we are given the formula for how our Heavenly Father expects us to live. This is ultimately what will be on the final exam when he comes again to be our Judge at the end of the age.
This is not a parable about investing your money, it is about investing your life—all that you are and all that you possess—into God’s service. “Store up treasures for yourselves in heaven,” Jesus says, “where neither rust nor moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Let’s be clear, the servant who was given one talent had all that he needed, but he didn’t use it. On top of his laziness, he blames God for his inaction. He says that he’s an unmerciful master—but we know that’s not true from the audacious amount even one talent was. He thought too little of himself and too harshly about his master, and thus squandered the time and talent entrusted to him.
And how this parable ends probably made you squirm a little bit: “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” But in essence Jesus could’ve just said: “Don’t be like the last servant who was given everything and did nothing.”
Now, does that seem daunting? Probably. But at the same time, we can be grateful that we have been given the answers to the final exam. Praise the Lord we know what is expected of us in this present hour of waiting!
What can seem so unsettling about Jesus’ more apocalyptic parables is just how many ordinary examples of everyday living there are. Many of them are about people going about their business, looking for lost coins in their home, scattering seed in their field, making sure you have enough oil in your lamp.
The point of these parables is not like the slogan that says: “Jesus is coming, look busy.” Jesus cannot be duped that easily. Rather our Lord is showing us how to live out our faith, how to bear fruit for his kingdom, and store up treasures in heaven.
Use what the Lord has given you—whatever that may be—to build up the kingdom that he will bring in its fullness when he comes again. Invest in his eternal purposes for it’s the only thing that lasts.
Gustavo Here’s one example. Recently, I had a conversation with a friend of mine, who works for an organization called Plant with Purpose which partners with villages and farmers in watersheds around the world. My friend was telling me about a man named, Gustavo who lives in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Gustavo is not a celebrity by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, his impact is so great because it is so subtle. Gustavo’s mission in life is to plant trees on the side of a mountain that had been deforested many years ago near his village. He has taken up this quiet work with little fanfare, but he feels like it is his purpose in life to plant trees on this mountain.
Over time the trees that he has planted have not only restored the ecosystem to its original form, but it has restored the beauty of the mountainside. Gustavo is a hard worker and has planted roughly 2,000-3,000 trees.
That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? I mean planting twenty trees would be pretty good in my book. But here’s the catch: this man alone has planted 2,000-3,000 trees every year for 25 years. That is anywhere from 50-75,000 trees…and he is still going.
I think we sometimes look at the problems in society, whether locally or globally, and feel a sense of helplessness, and even hopelessness. What can I do to fix such a complex situation?
Our parable this morning is a reminder (and even a challenge) of our sense of helplessness. We can do something, and our master expects us to do something. In this time of waiting doing nothing is not an option. The answer to this end-of-the-age exam is not that we have done everything but it’s that we’ve done something.
Something not for our own sake, for our own glory, or even for our own well-being, but maybe, just maybe, for someone else. For someone who may never know that it was us who did it.
Something that may never be covered in the newspapers, that doesn’t have an award associated with it, but something that points to the restoring of all creation; that points to the day, when Jesus will come again, and make all things new.
Fixing everything is not one of the spiritual gifts, and actually, humans have messed a lot of things up when they think they can fix everything. The transformational calling that Jesus gives his followers seems so ordinary because—in so many ways—it is. Faithfulness is inextricably linked to the people and places we find ourselves in.
Maybe our calling is to do one thing our entire life, and when it’s all said and done, we will look out and see a mountain, green and beautiful because of our work…but even seeing the fruits of our labor is not promised.
You may be a teacher, that never sees the impact you have on your students later down the road. You may be a caregiver who never gets to fully see the ways that you have blessed your child, your elderly parent, or the stranger that you’ve served.
You may be a social worker, a therapist, or a doctor who never gets to see your patients and clients thrive once they’ve left your office. You may be a waiter, an electrician, a realtor, or an insurance salesman and not know the positive impact your momentary interaction had on a person.
The end is coming…but what do we do until it arrives?
That question unsettles me, to be honest, but one thing I’ve realized recently is that I need to be unsettled. I need to be shaken out of my routine to hear Jesus’ words afresh…and maybe you do too.
I want to spend some time thinking about what this means for my life and the things I give my time and attention to. Maybe you’ll consider joining me in that discernment of our priorities.
Do you hear that in the distance? Advent is coming, but one day it’ll be our Lord.
28th Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 28. Year A. 1st Thess. 5:1-11. Matthew 25:14-30. The pictures are from the mountainside that Gustavo has planted his trees.