This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn North on Sunday 19th November 2017.
Judges 4:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
The tradition of sermons around the Parable of the Talents connect it with the messages we heard from Jesus and Paul last week, of how we need to be living out our discipleship to the full since none of us knows when Christ shall return and the opportunity to serve God has passed. Jesus is represented in today’s gospel story by the character of the Master, and the disciples (including us) are the worthy slaves to whom are entrusted the talents, the property of the master, which for us is the mission of the Kingdom of God.
In our reality Jesus has died and has been resurrected and ascended. Today we eagerly await his return. We heard this from 1 Thessalonians 4 last week, which was probably written around the year 49 or 50 and we are still waiting today in 2017. The popular interpretation of the Parable of the Talents goes that when Christ returns those who are found to have been faithful in the Lord’s absence are rewarded with Heaven, and those who have been found unfaithful (lazy, afraid, defiant) are punished with exile from Heaven. So where the wise bridesmaids taught us to be vigilant while our Lord is delayed, the wise servants teach us to be diligent.
Last week I suggested that most half-hearted Christians no longer attend church. In the same way I want to suggest to you that the work that goes undone in the Church is undone because of a lack of youth and person-power rather than a lack of wisdom or desire. I am sure there is more that can be done by us, you and me, in the Yallourn Cluster, but we need not beat ourselves up about it or fear that Christ will disown us when he comes. We can only do what we can do, and for the most part that is being done. We would do more if we had more, but we are being pretty faithful with what we have. Nonetheless the call of God is individual and we must each do what God has called us to each do. And we must each do it with all the strength God gives. The lesson of the talents is that the more you do for God the more God will give you to do: the reward for diligence is greater responsibility. This may sound like a punishment rather than a reward, but if you think of new responsibilities as the evidence of God’s trust in you, and your work is a display of additional opportunities to give God glory and worship, (which as a Christian is the desire of the heart), then it is reward upon reward.
So, I think Yallourn Cluster is perhaps the second servant, the one with less than the first servant, but the one who still managed to employ what was given and turned a profit for the Master.
The third servant in the parable, the one who is cast out, has buried his talent. To bury something is to treat it as if it is dead. But the Lord’s resource is never dead, it is alive and should therefore be exhibited in the world and opened to the elements of light and heat and air to grow. To bury a borrowed thing is a breach of trust when it has been entrusted by its master for ongoing, practical use. To bury is to betray.
We are wise to remember that this parable comes toward the end of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, we are in chapter 25. Palm Sunday was back in Matthew 21, Jesus will be arrested in Matthew 26, murdered in Matthew 27, and resurrected and ascend in Matthew 28. Jesus “the master” is about to leave “for a long time”. My chronology suggests that Jesus here is speaking on the Tuesday before Good Friday; in light of the story he is making sure his servants are up to speed with the need to continue his work while he is away.
We are the people of light. What a privilege we have to be the people of light and the ones with the responsibility to display that light to the world. What a loss it is to God then, and to the world, if we do not share that light.
And let’s go deeper still. The sin of the unfaithful servant goes further than merely not using the resource given to him: he actually blames the master for being a bully. “I did the right thing by keeping your investment intact,” he says. “If I had invested in this opportunity and lost the lot then you’d have received nothing back and I’d have been punished. At least here you’ve not lost anything.” Do you think that is a fair response? Some might think so, depending upon the character of their master; but our master is Jesus and he is not like this. One of my commentators this week suggested that laziness is being portrayed as virtuous, where in fact it is an abuse of privilege. I like this.
Paul reminded the Thessalonians that the return of Christ will come unexpected and unannounced. Like labour pains out of nowhere will come immediate and great, debilitating distress. This is a great metaphor, because two things are going on here. One, known to those of you who are mothers, or indeed the loving husbands of mothers, is that labour is very painful and that it can come on suddenly. I am neither a mother nor a husband, but I know this to be true, even in theory. The other aspect of the metaphor is that labour is somewhat predictable: when 40 weeks have passed you know you’re “due”, and you’d be on guard from 35 weeks. I know that when my sister was pregnant with my nephew she had her “due date” marked on the calendar months out: and do you know what, she was right.
But the unannounced and sudden return of Christ is of no concern to us since we are alert and not asleep. We are people of the light, people of the day, and not of the darkness. Let us live with faith and love as our protection and hope as our assurance. When the terror comes it will not come for us, we have been chosen to be saved and have been prepared in advance to be armoured and ready. Once again Paul’s message is not to be afraid of what is to come but to rest assured in God’s sufficiency in protection. Live out your faith confident that when the Lord returns he will find you doing so, like the slave with two talents. Do not fear judgement, only live in the light and you have nothing to fear. Only those who are asleep on duty, live the foolish bridesmaids or the slave with one talent, will be caught off guard and have need to be afraid; but we are not them.
But here’s the rub, if we are people of the light, and other people have never seen the light and so will be caught off guard when Christ returns, whose fault will that be? As faithful disciples of Christ and investors of his talents you are assured of Heaven’s welcome; but what of your friends who are not? Is your own salvation enough for you? Are you shining so that others can see, or have you shaded your light? Have you kept yourself so pure for God that all of your devotional and worshipping activity is hidden from those who might need to overhear?
Our reading from Judges this morning spoke of Israel in the time of Deborah and Barak and of how the Israelites were doing evil in God’s sight. The conquest of the land had not been completed under Joshua, the people had just settled when they were ready. The people had not held to the promise made under Joshua to choose only the Lord as God. God allowed the people to be overrun by an insurmountable Canaanite king, but then delivered them from that king when they cried out for mercy. When God was ready to act God spoke through the prophetess Deborah to the military commander, not to Barak directly. So, if not for Deborah, Barak would not have heard the Lord’s command or been ready to act where and when the Lord’s timing was prime. My commentary says that this was the first time an Israelite force had overcome a plains people: all previous victories had been against mountain people or city states. So, because of Deborah’s faithfulness to the message of God, and to her “talents” as judge and prophet the armies of Israel were confident to try something new, and they were successful at it.
Who are we denying the word of encouragement and direction from God? What new thing is to be done in the Latrobe Valley which we know but they out there do not? This congregation, including those members of it who live in Newborough and Moe, are faithful in worship, faithful in giving financially, and faithful in care of each other. For the most part. I do not believe that this congregation is under threat of judgement from the returning Lord. But I appeal to your conscience: is there more light, more power, more love that you could expend in the service of God and the people God loves in Gippsland, the people who don’t know how much they are loved?
This is a challenge to each of you, and not an accusation for any of you. So, be challenged, invest your talents, and see what the Lord will do.