A Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost
(Judges 4.1-10; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11; Matthew 25.14-30)
For some time now, I have been interested in the life of birds. I find them to be the most fascinating of all God’s creatures. Where other creatures have fled the city, birds have truly found their place among us. Whether you notice them or not, that are all around us.
In recent years I have dedicated significant time and energy to birdwatching. At one time I was part of a small group who offered most Saturday mornings to walking – binocular-clad – through Canberra’s bushland. We searched each week for any sign we could find of the hidden life of our feathered friends.
As with any practice, looking for birds has the potential to become something of an ingrained habit. With practice the ability to spot movement and identify a distinctive call improves. This can occur in times specifically dedicated to birdwatching or, indeed, at any other time.
I find myself, even now, habitually and passionately attuned to the life of birds. The quietest call or the slightest movement can instantly remind me of their presence and pique my interest.
And each time this happens I am reminded that I want to be as easily and naturally distracted by the presence and activity of God: I desire to be attuned to the slightest reminder of heaven. I sincerely hope you can say the same.
Today’s gospel reading continues Jesus’ plea that we live lives in readiness and expectation his return. Recently, we have heard in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus’ teaching on the last days; were encouraged by his anticipated return, and; are now being offered word pictures of what our response to this reality might look like.
In these final parables a crystal clear theme emerges: we need to be ready for Christ’s return.
Today’s Jesus-invented story is the third in a series of parables pointing to the need to faithfully watch for the return of the once dead, but now living and reigning Christ. The first tells of a slave who, believing his master is delayed, begins to mistreat those under him. The second describes ten bridesmaids of whom only half are prepared for the groom’s late arrival.
And then there is the parable we just read.
This story tells of three lives: two who in the absence of their master invested well, and one who invested poorly. All three anticipate their master’s return. But only two allowed this hope flourish into fruitful obedience.
Jesus’ story focuses somewhat on the final servant. Of the three described, he is clearly the odd one out. Having said this, however, there are important similarities between the experience of the three: each is summoned by the master; each is given money, and; each is instructed to invest for profit.
Perhaps we might derive from this that God calls all of us, that God entrusts us with good gifts, and that God desires that we invest these gifts fruitfully for God’s benefit.
The final similarity is that the master leaves them all.
Of course, there are differences between the three as well. They have different ability levels and, accordingly, they are entrusted with different amounts.
But perhaps the most significant difference between the final slave and the previous two is the response to the master’s action. The third servant is motivated – perhaps more accurately paralysed – by a fear of his master’s imminent return. Clearly, two trust this master, and one doesn’t.
Despite the fact that the master’s gifts and final words are inherently empowering this servant responds with a crippling concern for self-preservation and safety. He cowers from his gift and call.
It is a sad and telling account. Here fear prevents the fulfilment of the master’s task and is proven to be the poorest of motivators. The final and sobering fate of the talent-burying slave is the master’s wrath. His inaction, born of faithlessness, caused the realisation of his worst fears.
So once again we are presented with Jesus teaching on the nature of faith. The first two servants trust. When the master says ‘invest’ they imagine, risk, and act on his behalf. But in the third this clear call is silenced.
Is it any wonder so many have recognised fear and faith as polar opposites?
Jesus’ story is an encouragement to nurture our trust in God during the hear-and-now – this in-between time. It is a reminder that any passive waiting for God’s return is in fact a fear-laden, faithless, non-response to the gift of salvation and the invitation to participate in the work of God.
We are called here to actively invest all God has given in the kingdom of our returning king.
We are fast approaching the end of the liturgical year and the pinnacle of the unfolding story of God’s work in our world: ‘Christ the King’ Sunday is two weeks away. Our readings are preparing us for the annual reminder of the place we occupy in this God-story we celebrate and tell. Through Lent we looked to the past action of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Since then we have celebrated Jesus’ ascension and heavenly crowning. At Pentecost we reminded ourselves that the very Spirit of God is loose in our lives and our world. In these final weeks we remind each other that these things invite us to look in animated anticipation for the return and unending reign of Christ.
And we speak openly and joyfully of these things for we, as Paul articulates, have every reason to be filled with expectation – not with paralysing dread – at the coming of the Christ. We hold to such hope, not because we ‘trust in our own righteousness’, but because we ‘soberly’ don each day the protective breastplate of faith and love, and the ‘helmet of the hope of salvation’. Yes, faith, hope, and love, these three, form the path on which Jesus invites us, as sinners washed clean, to walk, undeserved but welcome, into the presence of God.
Is it any wonder we gather each week to proclaim – in word and sacrament – our heartfelt, personal, and God-inspired trust in the gracious work of Jesus’ obedient life, death, and resurrection?
The Bible clearly teaches us that there is no other source of hope in the face of this returning king. We can only trust in the saving work of God in the person of Jesus. This one died for us – for you – so that, whether at his return you are ‘awake or asleep’ – read alive or dead – you may live with him.
It is only as we learn to trust in Jesus that the master’s return is transformed from a source of dread into a source of hope. This is the miracle of conversion the reality of what we call salvation. It is an extraordinary change that may happen over a lifetime or in an instant. Either way it is a miracle worthy of our grateful and heartfelt response.
It is possible that you feel you have never had the opportunity to respond to God’s work with such thankfulness. If that is the case, I would like to give it to you now. If you have never before embraced the opportunity to faithfully thank God for what God has done in Christ, you may like to kneel, in heart or body, and pray these words with me:
You have loved me with an everlasting love,
But I have broken your holy laws
And left undone what I ought to have done.
I am sorry for my sins
and turn away from them.
For the sake of your Son who died for me,
forgive me, cleanse me, and change me.
By your Holy Spirit,
enable me to live for you
Through Jesus Christ my Lord.
Conventional wisdom suggests that, if this is a first for you, you do well to let someone know.
Of course, many, if not all of you, are familiar with these words. They are a personalised version of the prayer we will later use in preparation for coming to the Lord’s table. Each week we give opportunity for you to respond to this good news of Jesus.
And that response is the very essence of Christianity: a Christian is someone who has responded to – and is responding – in faith-filled trust to the work of God in Christ. Jesus consistently sum it up even more succinctly: ‘Follow me’
I pray that you might be impassioned, emboldened, and inspired by the promise of your returning king. May this deep-seeded hope enliven your relationships, your desire to share this good news, and inspire a passion to invest your God-given gifts in the kingdom of heaven.
It is fear that blinds us to our God-ordained call to be constantly distracted by heaven. But you have no need to fear. In Jesus your every sin is forgiven. Learn to trust this one and you will learn to see that God – as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is, like the birds of the air, all around you.
May the life of God be the distraction in which you delight.