Nov. 19, 2017: 1 Thes. 5:1-11, Matt. 25:14-30
Sermon on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
Zion Lutheran Church, November 19, 2017
Grace be to you and peace from God our father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Waiting is hard. I am sure many of you can tell stories of having to wait for something.
I remember one time when I had to wait. One of my daughters was auditioning for a youth orchestra and I took her to the audition. What I didn’t know was that she was then invited to participate in the whole orchestra rehearsal that evening, which lasted two hours. Two hours, and I had nothing to help me pass the time. The orchestra rehearses in a church, so I read everything on the church’s bulletin board. I read their most recent newsletter. I counted chairs in the orchestra. I counted how many boys and how many girls there were. I was bored. In fact, I was so bored that I perused the fire escape plan on the wall and discovered that the word “altar” was misspelled. Now you know someone is bored if he or she studies the fire escape plan in such detail that spelling mistakes are noted.
What do you do while you wait? We spend an amazing amount of our lives waiting for something: for the surgery that is scheduled the next day; for a package to arrive; for the wedding day to come around; for the game to begin; for spring to arrive; for our child to be born; for our kids to get out of college; for the plane to land; and on and on and on.
Waiting. It is part of life. And it was a big part of the life of the early Christians, like the Christians in Thessalonica Paul is addressing in the letter we read this morning, and the Christians for whom Matthew is writing his gospel account some 30 years later.
These Christians are waiting for Christ to come back. After the resurrection, the followers of Christ had expected Jesus to reappear pretty much immediately, like in a matter of days. They thought Jesus’ return was imminent and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth just around the corner. All the early church members waited eagerly for Christ to come.
By the time Paul writes to the congregation in Thessalonica, it’s been almost a decade. So the people are beginning to worry. They have waited so long and nothing has happened. How much longer would they have to wait?
By Matthew’s time, a whole second generation of Christians had grown up. The churches were still waiting, though not quite as breathlessly as Paul’s congregations. After all, it’s been about 45 years or so since the resurrection. There is a limit to how long you can be eager in your wait.
This delay of Christ’s return was a huge issue. Let’s see how Paul is dealing with it in his letter:
First, Paul reminds the believers that nobody knows the time of Christ’s return. Nobody! It will come totally unexpected, like a thief in the night. Not even Jesus himself knew the time. So, Paul says, don’t worry about the ‘when’ of the day.
Second, Paul assures the believers not to worry about what will happen to them on that day. It will not be like the terrible day of gloom and destruction that Prophets like Zephaniah and others paint. No, the Lord has died for the forgiveness of their sins, so now there is nothing to fear. When the Lord comes, first the dead will be raised, and then all the faithful will be gathered into the kingdom. So don’t worry about the ‘what’ of the day.
Third, what the congregation should worry about is how to live in the meantime. What should they do while they wait? That is what Paul is really interested in. His advice is: You all are children of the light, so live as such. Show the people around you by the way you live that you have hope, that you have faith, that you have a Lord and savior who loves you, that you have a peace that passes all understanding. Show it in the way you live!
So avoid drunkenness and quarreling and all kinds of behaviors that would turn other people off. Instead, live in a way that spreads light and hope. Be generous, share your blessings, be a people of hope.
On to the gospel lesson. What is Mathew trying to tell his people by sharing this parable of Jesus’ with them? It’s a somewhat puzzling question since the master in the parable is not very nice. Even the master himself admits this. He is nice enough to the first two salves, but he is pretty mean to the third one.
We also need to keep in mind that the parable is really just about money. In the English language, the word ‘talent’ invites us to think of gifts and skills. However, the Greek word talent really just means money, and a lot of it! One talent was worth 6000 denarii, and one denarii was what a day laborer earned in one day. So one talent represents roughly twenty years of labor for the average wage earner. That is a lot of money!
The first slave receives 5 talents. That equals the value of 100 years of labor. That is an obscene amount of money.
What, then, was Jesus thinking about when he told this parable? What was Matthew thinking when he included it in his gospel account? How could this story be good news to the peasants and day laborers who were listening to Jesus, hungry for words of hope? How could Matthew’s congregation find gospel news in this parable?
And what about us? The gospel lesson begins with ‘It is as if …’, with ‘it’ being the kingdom of God. Do we want the kingdom of God to be like life in the parable, with harsh masters, obscene amounts of money, people being thrown into the outer darkness, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer? No, we don’t. We have enough of that now. The kingdom of God has got to be better.
Let us remember that this is a parable. Parables are told to make one point. There is one point of comparison between the story plot and the real world, one lesson to be learned. It is not an allegory, where everything in the story can be equaled to something in life as we know it. We are not to go: The master is God, we are the slaves, and so on. That’s not how a parable is read.
Which is why Jesus can use unsavory characters in his parables, characters like the unjust steward, or the lazy judge the widow encounters, or the greedy farmer who builds bigger barns. These are not nice people, and by no means is Jesus telling us to be like them. He just uses extreme characters to make a point.
He is doing the same in today’s parable. The master is a mean and greedy guy. And filthy rich. He is ambitious, and when he suggests money to be invested for profit, he actually suggests breaking Jewish law. No at nice guy at all.
Now that master gives his slaves piles of money, but never tells them what to do with it. The money doesn’t come with any job description. Two salves invest and multiply the money; one hides it in a safe place. How do they decide what to do? And why does the master expect all of them to know what to do?
Because when the master leaves for a long time, he expects his slaves to carry on exactly the way the master had acted. They have been with him for a while, they have observed his actions, they have absorbed his values and priorities, and the master has a right to assume that all this would guide the slaves to continue the work in their master’s footsteps.
That is the lesson Jesus wanted his disciples to get, and Matthew wanted his congregation to get, a good message for us today as well: While the master is gone, continue the way he had taught you. While you wait for Jesus to come back, keep up the good work Jesus started.
Suddenly, this parable sounds a lot like Paul’s directive: The wait could be long, the master could be gone for a long time, don’t worry about the when and the what. Instead, worry that you do the right thing, the faithful thing in the meantime. Live as children of light. Carry on Christ’s work. Be kingdom people in this world which needs a message of hope and peace so badly.
Martin Luther is quoted to have said, “If the world were to end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today.” I love that quote. It speaks to the assurance we have through our faith: We know what the end will be like: We will be resurrected to life everlasting by God’s grace through faith. We do not have to worry about the end and about when it will come. And thus we are free to focus on today, on the here and now, and on how we can use our many gifts to support God’s kingdom work in this world while we wait for the Lord’s coming.
We can plant trees, as Luther said. The parable speaks about money; we can give generously from what God has given us, striving to become faithful tithers. We can invest our time by packing and handing out lunches or visiting shut-ins or taking care of the property. We can give of our enthusiasm by encouraging others on their faith journey. We can give of our compassion by spending time with the ill and the institutionalized and the homeless. We can become serious about discovering our gifts and then using them for the work of the church.
In short, we are called to use the time while we wait for Christ to keep up Christ’s work. We shouldn’t just sit and wait and twiddle our thumbs and study some other church’s fire escape route and bury our gifts in the ground. Rather, we are called to be busy and productive while we wait. Each and every day is a gift from God, given so we can bring to life one more piece of the kingdom of God that is already growing among us. Amen.
And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.