15 November 2020 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30
I don’t know whether you have ever seen it but there is a T-Shirt available which expresses in a very succinct way the message that it is possible to take from this morning’s readings – the T-shirt says: Look busy – Jesus is coming,!
Now, of course, that slogan is meant as a joke but it contains both an important truth about our faith as well as a significant misunderstanding.
The important truth is that God, in the person of Jesus, is coming, and that with Jesus comes judgement – especially judgement about how we have lived our lives in response to the Gospel – and that judgement has consequences that last for an eternity.
In this post-modern era in which all values are relative and no values are absolute the image of Jesus as judge is not one that seems to receive much prominence or even much credence in today’s church. And, if I am being brutally honest with myself, that image is not one that features at the forefront of my theology on a day to day basis.
However the concept of Jesus returning to judge the world is not limited to just a few passages of the bible and of interest only to the hellfire and brimstone brigade – it is, in fact, one of the central tenets of our faith and one that we repeat each week in the words of the Nicene Creed:
“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.”
Now if you are told that someone is coming to see you it is not unnatural to ask when? If Vivienne and I have someone coming over for dinner, which we don’t anymore for obvious reaons, we like to know when they are coming firstly so we can have some food ready and secondly so that we can make the place look a bit respectable.
So, if Jesus is coming back, when is it going to happen? That was a question that exercised the early Church a great deal as the first disciples believed that it would be during their lifetimes and when that didn’t happen the church had to work out what it meant to be a church-in-waiting, a church that exists between the first coming of Christ that we will be celebrating at Christmas and the paruosia or the return of Christ. This led to the two main answers that we saw in today’s readings and which also appear elsewhere in the NT:
The first answer is that it is futile to try and guess when the second coming will happen – it will happen in God’s time and, put simply, God does not work to our timetable!
As it says in Psalm 90:4 “For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.”
Some Churches (not Anglican ones in the main) do spend an inordinate amount of time working out and then announcing the exact time and date of Christ’s return – but of course those dates pass and the followers get disillusioned and Christianity as a whole is slightly embarrassed by the whole activity. As it said in the reading from 1 Thessalonians: “…about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”
The second answer is that because we don’t know when it will be we have to remain watchful and faithful at all times and that we will be judged at least in part on extent to which we have continued the work that has been entrusted to us.
Importantly we should also not lose sight of the fact that whether or not Christ returns to judge the world during our physical lifetimes is actually of supreme unimportance – because even if that does not happen for another 100,000 or 1,000,000 years as far as each of us are concerned we will experience the moment of judgement after our own death and, of course, like the return of Christ the moment of death is likely to come as a thief in the night without making an appointment. As it says in Psalm 90:12: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
But what are we to do whilst waiting for the day we meet Christ, whenever that will be? Well, whilst parables should always be handled with care, perhaps we are given some parabolic hints in the gospel reading this morning. As we heard the owner of the three slaves was going away on a long journey but he knew that he will be coming back and he wanted his wealth to increase whilst he was gone – so he gave some money to each of the three for them to invest and grow. Whilst these men are slaves they are not the menial labourers that we may associate with that word but, rather, they are obviously highly trusted stewards as the sums involved are surprisingly large. The average days wage for a labourer in Roman era Judea was 1 drachma. 100 drachma equalled 1 mina and there were 60 minas in a Talent. This means that 1 Talent was equivalent to 6,000 days or 16 years wages for a labourer – and the most senior of the three was entrusted with 5 talents which would have been 82 years wages! We are not quite talking A Rollover Jackpot on the National Lottery but we are still talking about very large sums of money and the slave owner wanted that money to be wisely invested while he was gone.
The first two slaves kept themselves busy and they both doubled their master’s money while he was away – we are not told exactly how long he was away for but 100% return is good in anyone’s books. The master congratulated and rewarded the industrious slaves saying that they will have charge of even greater things and can now “enter into the joy of your master”. However, the third slave failed in the task given to him – he simply dug a hole in the ground and put 16 years of someone’s salary into it and later handed it back to his master without even receiving any interest on it. This man was deemed a “worthless slave” and his investment fund of 1 talent was handed over to the more productive fund manager and the worthless slave was thrown out of the household into the outer darkness.
On one level the moral of this parable is easily accessible – if we use the gifts that God has entrusted to us wisely then those gifts will increase and we can offer the growth back to God and we will share in the joy of our master by entering into the kingdom of heaven; conversely if we bury and neglect our gifts out of fear or laziness then we will have no part of the kingdom as we have done nothing to increase the kingdom.
Given the message of this parable it is easy to see where the “Jesus is Coming, Look Busy” mentality comes from and we can probably all sometimes be guilty of thinking that the more we do the more acceptable we make ourselves to God.
Of course, the point is that it is not about looking busy nor is it even about being busy for the sake of busyness. God is not fooled by our outward appearances or by any good works that are motivated out of making ourselves look good.
Rather God looks first and foremost at the motives in our hearts – if we live every day in genuine expectation of meeting Christ, and in the knowledge that any moment could be our last before we face judgement, then I believe that that constant contemplation of the reality of Christ in our day to day lives will transform our hearts and that purified hearts will lead, inevitably, to a transformation of our actions and motives. Our desire to put God’s gifts to good use by loving action towards others will then become a fruit of our ongoing salvation and not a cause of our future salvation.
Unfortunately that sentiment does not fit quite so easily on a T-Shirt.
I said a moment ago that we need to treat the parables with some caution as they are not meant to provide straightforward answers or, if they are, we may not be asking the right questions. It is easy, if we are not careful, to form the impression that the return of Jesus is coming at an unexpected time in order to catch us out in order to cast us out. I don’t think that God wants to jump-scare us. I believe that God’s greatest desire is for us all to enter into his glory and that is why we are told be diligent and vigilant.
As it says in the 1 Thessalonians reading:
“For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”