This sermon is based on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and Matthew 25:14-30
For the last two Sundays, the subjects of our Epistle and Gospel readings have been the Second Coming of Christ (and the reign of the Kingdom of God) and our place as believers in that Kingdom (the resurrection life) Today is no exception as the assigned Scripture readings continue to look at these subjects from yet another angle.
As I said last week, Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians is an answer to the concerns of the church at Thessalonica - 'When Christ returns to earth in our lifetime and the Kingdom of God comes, what is going to happen to our brothers and sisters in Christ who have already died?' And Paul's answer to them (he's still expecting Christ to return in his generation) is 'Don't worry, they will not be second class citizens in God's Kingdom but they will also participate fully in the Kingdom life'.
The Gospel as Light of the World
Today's reading from Thessalonians is part of Paul's closing of the letter. And Paul takes the opportunity to remind them that the coming of God's Kingdom has already begun and that they are a part of it. And he uses the images of darkness and light to make his point. In 1 Thessalonians 5:4-5 (NIV) he writes: 'But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.'
I suppose that many of the Thessalonians and many people in society today might want to respond incredulously 'How on earth can anyone claim that the Kingdom of God has already begun? Are you blind to all the evil that is going on in the world? Blind to the Roman occupation? Blind to the suffering in the Congo? Blind to people in Gaza who are starving? Blind to the current economic crisis?'
And I think that, theologically, the church's answer is 'No we are not blind to evil and injustice, but we also have hope for the future that God's certain intention is that evil and injustice will end and that they will be replaced by his Kingdom.' We believe that God has promised that as surely as the sunrise follows the nighttime, that evil and injustice will most certainly end. Paul makes this point a number of times in his first letter to the Thessalonians and, now at the end of his letter, he reminds us once again of the Church's glorious hope: The Gospel of Christ is the light of the world and we have been entrusted with that light.
The Gospel as a Great Treasure
In today's reading from Matthew, we have yet another image of the the Gospel message: the image of a great treasure.
How great a treasure is the Gospel? Well, it's like fifteen years' wages for a labourer (one talent). And that's just for starters because, although one of the servants in the story was given 15 years' wages, another servant was given 30 years' wages and still another 75 years'. The message of the Gospel is a huge treasure! As a child might say, the Gospel is as wonderful as a hundred million gazaillon years' wages.
And what does God want us to do with that treasure? God wants this treasure to be invested, he wants the talents to be spread around and wants the light to make the whole world glow But instead of spreading God's light all over the world, the church is often times guilty of hoarding it for ourselves, like a treasure buried for safekeeping.
Don't Bury Your Treasure
So if we are share our treasure better, what might this mean for church-going Christians at a practical level?
First of all, you might be glad to hear that I'm not trying to say that I think we should be out knocking on doors asking people if they've accepted Jesus into their hearts. Personally speaking, I actually think that this form of witnessing comes under the category of the third servant: it's an activity that meets our needs rather than the needs of others. As someone put it, it comes under the category of 'Because I need to tell you this, therefore you need to hear it.' Which is exactly the sort thing that this parable is warning against, I think.
But hold on to your pews because this parable is certainly not meant to make us comfortable or complacent. Rather this parable is a call to believing that the Kingdom of God will come on earth as it is in heaven not by things staying the same but rather by things changing. If the church doing things the way we've always done them were the key to the Kingdom of God, then the Kingdom would have come along time ago.
Now, I have to confess that I don't have any easy answers at a practical level about how to magically turn 10 portions of the Gospel into a great harvest. But I do have a few observations from the text.
First of all, the third servant was following the traditions and customs of his time: valuable treasures were to be buried. It was actually the first and second servants who we acting in a way that the prevailing culture would have called irresponsible.
The third servant was behaving as if God was that 'better safe than sorry' God who I talk about sometimes: He thought that God's main demands on his disciples is that we shouldn't break rules. When, in fact, God's main concern is that we spread his treasures about with abandon.
But worse than that, the third servant seems to think that the religious customs of his time are not human-made customs, but that they actually are the will of God. I think that perhaps this is a lesson to the church: 'Which of our human customs do we confuse with God's calling? Which of our human customs do we idolise?
I honestly don't think that God cares if we have pews or chairs (although the Methodist Property office certainly does!) I don't think that God cares if we sing traditional hymns or Matt Redman worship songs. I don't think that God even cares if we stop worshipping on Sunday mornings and have a meal and a worship mid-week instead.
Thinking about some of these changes might make us nervous but I think this parable is asking us to stop and consider what it is that we might be doing simply as human custom that hinders the working of the Holy Spirit in us to spread the treasure of the Gospel.
Before I end, I want to say that I don't have a hidden agenda and I'm not to drop a bombshell on you. I'm simply trying to reflect on this passage.
This year, our circuit did a circuit review and, along with other churches in the circuit, we've seen the positive benefits of that exercise. I think it's important that we don't think of review and change as a one-off but rather as something that we must do on an on-going basis as part of our discipleship.
But in the middle of all this remains God's Good News: the coming of the Kingdom has begun and the Kingdom will reign on earth as it does in heaven. If the early church could profess this Good News whilst living in the middle of an occupation army, then we too can profess it in our own circumstances. Our God is a God of freedom and not of fear. His Spirit is there to guide us through the challenge of change. Spirit-led change is an adventure and not a threat.
My prayer this morning is that we will always continue on a journey of trying to discern how we can share the Gospel in a way that serves the needs of others rather than in a way that serves the needs of the Church. And I also pray that we can live joyfully in the freedom of the Holy Spirit so that we are not afraid of change. Amen