Sunday 16 November 2014
Second Sunday before Advent
Readings Zephaniah 1: 7,12-end
Matthew 25: 14-30. The parable of the talents.
May I speak this morning in the name of God + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I mentioned very briefly last week that this season of the church year is in many ways one of the most important but it is also one of the most overlooked, and in some ways one of the most difficult and, depending on your inclinations, perhaps even embarrassing. I can’t promise to cure of all that today but I do want to start to try!
These few weeks between All Saints and Advent can, if we are not careful, just feel like marking time: the festivals of harvest, All Saints and Remembrance are over and the anticipation of Advent proper and Christmas have yet to begin. It is a terrible church cliche to moan about Christmas starting earlier each year but I suspect that all us are guilty of thinking so much about the events of next month that we overlook the importance of what is right before us.
And what is right before us? Well, if Advent and Christmas mark the start of the Christian story then this season marks the culmination of the Christian story and the end to which we should all be striving – the return of Christ and the establishment of his Kingdom. But the return of Christ also involves faithfulness on our part and, dare I even say the word – judgement on the part of God. A terribly unfashionable word but, as Vivienne will tell you, I have never been over afflicted by fashion.
It is very easy for us to love the image of Jesus as a baby in a manger. It is very easy for us to admire Jesus the wandering preacher and healer and we can probably all empathise to an extent with the image of Jesus being crucified. All of these images concern Jesus being in the world as a human being and we can relate to each of those images in our humanity. But, if we are not careful, the story of Jesus’ earthly ministry can also sometimes feel like the opening credits of Star Wars – it was a long time ago in a place far, far away. We may find the story inspiring but we may not feel terribly threatened by it. By that I mean it is easy for us to make the human Jesus into a good example to be followed but without a real, personal, immediacy.
And people of other faiths generally have no problem in accepting the humanity and even the divine inspiration of Jesus – the muslims accept Jesus as a prophet, for example. People of no faith will often accept that Jesus was a ‘good man’ and an example to be followed perhaps in the way he treated people. So the departing point for Christianity from those of other faiths and of no faith is the way in which we place Jesus in the bigger picture of God’s plan for humanity – his origin as the living word of God – which we will think about more at the time of the nativity – and his role as judge and king – certainly in the here and now but also at the time of the parousia – the second coming of Christ.
Because, of course, the story of Jesus does not end with the crucifixion and it is from that point that things may begin to get less easy to relate to, but which can hardly be ignored if our faith is to bear any relation to that which has been handed down to us. After the crucifixion we have the resurrection on Easter Sunday, the appearances of Jesus to the disciples in sometimes strange circumstances and then the ascension of Jesus, to sit at his Father’s right hand. Jesus then sent the Holy Spirit to guide and protect his followers and he also left his body on earth – the body of Christ which is the church and the body of Christ which is the sacrament. And the church is, of course, sent out into the world to love and serve it and to make disciples of all nations.
But even that is not the end of the story. We are told in the scriptures and in the creeds that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and that his kingdom will have no end – and that is the part of the Christian story that we are called to remember and, more importantly, to inhabit in this kingdom season.
It was only a few months ago that I suggested to the PCC that it would be good for St Mary’s to have regular readings from the Old Testament back as part of our regular worship. This morning’s reading from the Prophet Zephaniah was indeed suitably ‘Old Testament’ – yes, it is challenging to be reminded of the view that God can be both angry as well as loving but as disciples we should not shrink from challenges, especially if they enlarge our view of God.
The prophet Zephaniah lived approximately 600 years before the time of Christ and at a time of great flux for the kingdom of Judah and the faith of the Israelites. They were surrounded by people of other faiths, by more powerful kingdoms, and the constant temptation for the kings and the people was to abandon their worship or to mix it with the worship of foreign gods. As Christians living in a largely secular world it is easy to feel that the challenges we face are both new and unique but 2600 years ago Zephaniah was speaking into a situation in which people’s relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob looked under threat.
And through Zephaniah God warned the people that the day of the Lord was coming and that he would punish the people who think to themselves that “the Lord will not make things better or worse” – i.e. those who have lost faith that God has any interest or activity in the world. Those who have become indolent and, to use that lovely phrase, resting on their dregs. And the prophecy of Zephaniah was not talking about a far off time yet to come – his prophecies came true with the fall of Jerusalem and the carrying away the people into captivity in Babylon. Interestingly it was that very exile that helped the Jewish people to rediscover their identity in the face of an overwhelming temptation to conform to the local culture, and you will of course all be familiar with stories such as Daniel in the lion’s den and Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego in the furnace.
So long before the time of Jesus the prophets warned the people that the day of the Lord’s wrath will overtake those who abandon God and those prophecies came to pass. And during his earthly ministry Jesus taught in many different ways that a time of God’s judgement would come and that those who were not ready for the return of the king would be judged harshly.
Last week we briefly considered the parable of the ten young women who were waiting for the bridegroom to arrive at the wedding banquet. Those that were ready and waiting to receive the bridegroom were invited to take their place in the banquet whereas those who did not seem to believe the promise of his coming, and so had not prepared properly, were left shut outside. Part of me finds this a difficult teaching because I want to believe that everyone will make it to the banquet in the end but I also believe that God gave us free will – if we use that free will to decide not to believe his promises then will God override our will?
And today’s parable, the parable of the talents, is no less challenging. Once again we have the premise of someone who has gone away for an indefinite time leaving behind others to show their loyalty in readiness for his return. In this parable the servants are entrusted with five, two and one talent respectively. A talent was actually a huge sum of money to be entrusted with – we are not talking about single coins here. One talent weighed 75 pounds – which is quite a bit heavier than Henry, and was worth 6000 denarii. As an average days pay was one denarii one talent was worth over 16 years pay for one man.
As we heard the servants who were entrusted with five and two talents each managed to double their money by going out into the market place and trading and they were rewarded as good and loyal servants when the owner returned. But the last servant was afraid and hid the money away and entirely failed to increase that which he had been given – and he was thrown out with much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Unfortunately it is all too easy to read this parable too close to its surface almost as an affirmation of the greed is good society and that the rich get richer whilst the poor get to gnash their teeth. However, I suspect that Jesus wanted his hearers, and us, to look further beneath the surface than that. It is easy to feel sorry for the third servant because he was afraid and didn’t want to lose his masters money. But, unfortunately, his fear meant that he did nothing at all with the great treasure, 16 years pay don’t forget, with which he has been entrusted. And so, rather than getting out there and putting that treasure to work he did nothing other than return the original gift, unused and unappreciated.
The point is, of course, this: God has given to each of us here a talent, and our English word talent does come from this word meaning a huge treasure worth thousands of days pay. For each of us that treasure, that talent, will be slightly different and we are each called to put it to work in different ways so that at the end of time, or the end of our days, we can show God what we have done with our unique gift from him. The only way we can fail God is to bury our talents out of fear and refuse to use that which God has given to us, and only to us. Most of us spend our lives in fear of the judgement of other people but, in reality, the only judgement we have to fear is that of God for not doing what he has called and equipped us to do in this world.
Imagine, if you will, for a moment facing Christ the King and being asked to account for the return on the talents he lent you during your lifetime. Like me when faced with that question I suspect most of us will probably bring to mind all the lost opportunities to use to better effect the great treasure that God has given us and will start spluttering and weeping like an unsuccessful Apprentice being fired by Alan Sugar. Anyone who is feeling smug at this point may need to think a little harder.
But here is the Good News, and every sermon should end with Good News – God does keep reaching out to us in love and you are being given an opportunity right now to dig up your talents and put them to work in the kingdom of God. What that may mean for you is a matter between you and God – so, during this kingdom season and beyond, spend some time in prayer and ask God to help you discover your treasure and how you can increase it in the service of Christ.
Thank you: I enjoyed reading this, as I do all your sermons. But that parable is still one I struggle with, hence the sermon I preached on it last November: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/aboutkings/principal/dean/chaplaincy/Week%206%20The%20values%20of%20the%20Kingdom.pdf. I’d welcome your thoughts.
Thank you Russell,
I really enjoyed your sermon too. The wonderful, challenging, frustrating and ever-fascinating thing about the parables is that they are parabolic – they are not straightforward and easy but they come at us like curve-balls. This makes them interesting because they can be open to so many differing interpretations (and I loved your approach) but it probably also makes them dangerous if one is tempted to build, say, an entire view of God based on a parable. They are similes, metaphors, artistic illustrations of something much greater which cannot easily be contained in words. So I think that we are meant to struggle with the parables and that we are only doing theology properly whilst we struggle with them and that when we think we have the definitive answer then we are most in danger of being wrong! And this has been a helpful reminder to me that next time I preach on a parable I must ensure that I take a more parabolic approach…
Parables as parabolic: that’s great, as it sums up just how tricky and teasing they can be! Lots of food for thought.