Sunday, November 27, 2011

Last Things First

Texts:    Isaiah 64:1-9;  Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

    WHAT IS OUR HOPE as Christians?  What is the goal and object of our faith?

    To hear some people talk, you'd think it was to make us nicer, more fulfilled individuals, with better marriages, families, and careers in this life.  And with higher self-esteem, too.  In such an understanding of Christianity, the Baby in the manger at Bethlehem is a nice encouragement, but the Son of Man coming again to judge all humanity is not to be thought of at all.  After all, in this world we're taught to put first things first.  But the Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, isn't interested in the teaching of this world.  After he greets the saints, about the first subject he mentions is the second coming of their Lord and ours, Jesus Christ.  Hear what he says in verses 7 and 8:

    . . . [Y]ou do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The church in Corinth was eagerly waiting for Jesus Christ to be revealed.  And so they stood in the tradition of the true people of God, for this is the object of our Christian faith: that the great day of the Lord will surely come, when Christ will return as King, the heavens and the earth will be made new, and we will enjoy the kingdom of God in all its perfection.  These things-- The end of the age, the second coming of Christ, the Judgement, and so on-- are known as the Last Things.  And St. Mark, St. Paul, St. Peter, St. John, and all the New Testament writers follow their Master Jesus in urging us Christians to keep Last Things first.

        But why? 

    Because when we keep our focus on the second coming of Christ, we keep our eyes on God's goal for all creation, and when we keep our eyes on God's goal for all creation, we maintain and strengthen our hope in Christ, even in the midst of the troubles and worries of this world.

    And we need hope in this world.  Not the hope that consists in wishful thinking, but the firm and sure hope that depends upon a promise made by Someone we can trust now and into all eternity.  In our Gospel reading from St. Mark, our Lord Jesus declares that the time will come when

    . . . men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.  And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

Jesus calls Himself the Son of Man in this discourse.  And thus the disciples know that He is the coming King the prophet Daniel saw in his vision of the Last Things in Daniel 7.  But more than that, the title "Son of Man" tells us that it will be His own human Self, Immanuel, the Child born of Mary who rose from the tomb, who will sit on the throne of God.  And He is God, for the angels are His, and it is His to command them to "gather his elect" from wherever they may be.  That's us, who by the grace of God, have been called by the Holy Spirit into faith in our crucified and risen Savior, all of us in every time and place who have been washed clean by His blood.

    But not all of humanity shares this hope.  Not everyone knows that their eternal happiness depends on their keeping Last Things first. 

    Some don't believe there will be any Last Things at all.  I heard an interview the other night with a man they called an expert on the subject of the Apocalypse.  He admitted that cultures all over the world for the past three thousand years have had prophecies and stories that someday the world as we know it will be destroyed and then made new.  But, he said, all that was false; it was never going to happen.  No, he said, all talk about the end times is just a way for priests and rulers and others in authority to keep people focussed on some future state of perfection, instead of working and maybe fighting and rebelling to make things perfect here and now.

    What do we say to such a man and those who believe like him?  Do we let him undermine our hope, so we stop keeping Last Things first?  He quoted the famous atheist Richard Dawkins, to the effect that it's only some outgrown evolutionary stage that makes people look forward to a end to this age and the birth of one that is new.  Do we tie ourselves in knots trying to prove Richard Dawkins wrong?  There are people who have the gift of apologetics, and God strengthen them as they exercise it.  But there's something even better we can show.  When we speak of the second advent of our Lord and the end of this age, we're not just passing along some gut feeling or old tribal legend.  No, we are quoting the very words of the Son of God.  This Man told His disciples that He would be crucified by the authorities during His next visit to Jerusalem, and that three days later, He would be raised from the dead.  You could say it was inevitable that Jesus would be crucified sooner or later.  But no mere man, not even the wisest and cleverest, can say that He will rise again-- and actually do it.  It is not in the power of any ordinary man to make such a thing happen.

    But Jesus our Lord foretold His resurrection and it did happen, not in myth, not in legend, but in real history, under the authority of a Roman bureaucrat named Pontius Pilate.  When Someone like that tells us that He certainly will return and that by His power death and hell will flee away, you can believe Him.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but His words will never pass away.

    But others, while they may believe this world will end someday, aren't looking forward to it in hope. They can't imagine a better existence than they might achieve in this present age, and the idea of living in fellowship with the Son of God means nothing to them.  Why would they keep Last Things first?  Any second advent of Christ would ruin their whole day!

    And indeed, when we think of our sin, and the judgement to come on the world, how should creatures like us hope and pray for the day of the Lord?  In Isaiah 64 God's people plead that He would come save them in their day of distress.

        Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
               that the mountains would tremble before you!

They look forward to the Lord taking vengeance on His enemies and theirs--

        [C]ome down to make your name known to your enemies
           and cause the nations to quake before you!

But there's a problem.  God's people have been acting like His enemies themselves.  True,

        [the Lord] comes to the help of those who gladly do right,
        who remember your ways.

But Israel has not gladly done right.  They've continued to sin against Him.  "How then," Isaiah asks in behalf of the nation, "can we be saved?"

    What do you do when the One who is your only hope is also the One you most need to fear?  Not because God is some kind of abusive father, but because we have been like adult children who have taken advantage of and robbed and harmed and disgraced Him.  For know this, this passage in Isaiah is not simply about an incident in the history of ancient Israel, it also describes our position before God when we forget Him and go our own way.  In our selfishness and idolatry even our attempts at righteousness are like filthy rags.  How can we who neglect to call on the name of the Lord, who fail to lay hold on God and His goodness find hope in the coming of Christ?  Why should we want to put Last Things first?

    Because the Lord our God is our Father.  He is our Father because like a potter He has formed and made us.  But even more, He is our Father because He has remade us in the image of His Son Jesus Christ.  To cite St. Paul in 1 Corinthians again, thanksgiving can be made for us because of the grace that has been given us in Christ Jesus.  In our sins we were ragged and filthy, we blew away like dried-up leaves.  But in Christ we "have been enriched in every way."  Perhaps not in the material ways this passing world values, but in speaking and knowledge, in ways that build one another up in the faith of the Gospel of Christ.

    Or have we?  This was true of the Corinthians.  Whatever problems they may have had in other areas, they recognised and used the spiritual gifts God had given them.  Paul is saying that God the Father will keep them strong and faithful in the use of these gifts, so they might be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus.

    God has given us gifts by the Holy Spirit to serve Him in the Church as well, till Christ comes.  You do not need to take a spiritual gift inventory to find out what yours is.  Whatever the Holy Spirit is urging you to do, and you know it's the Holy Spirit's urging because it is confirmed by the Word of God, do it!

    This is what our Lord means by saying in Mark that we're like servants a master going on a trip has put in charge of various jobs to do while he's away.  So let's do them!  Let's put Last Things first by loving our neighbor with food and clothing and shelter.  Let us tell them that Jesus died for them just like He did for us, and invite them to church where they can hear the saving good news of eternal life in Him.  Let us do our daily work in ways that benefit others and glorify God, the Master Workman over all.  Let us live holy and gracious lives in the midst of this perverted and wicked world, so that when Jesus comes again we will have no cause to feel ashamed.

    Jesus says, "Keep watch!"  So live the life He has given you on earth to His praise and glory, always with an eye open and an ear tuned to His footstep at the door.  He may come tomorrow; He may for His good purpose delay another thousand years.  But it is the promise of Christ's second advent that gives all our work in this world its meaning and gives our earthly existence its hope.  This life is not one endless grind of things going on the way they always have; it has a purpose and a goal.  Christ came into this world as the Baby of Bethlehem to bear our sins and keep God's righteous commands for us the way we never could.  He will come again as the glorious Son of Man to gather His own that we may be with Him forever.

    Live in this blessed hope.  By His Spirit's power, serve Him in all you do.  And always remember to put the Last Things first.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Word of the Shepherd King

 Texts:    Acts 9:1-6; Galatians 6:7-10; Matthew 25:31-46

     IT'S BEGINNING TO LOOK A lot like Christmas!  At least, the merchants have had the decorations up for the past three weeks or more.  And up where I live in B--, some people already have their wreaths up in their windows.  However you feel about rushing things like this, in five weeks Christmas will be here.

        But there may be signs something else is coming soon, too.  A lot of people are asking, "Could we be getting closer to the end of the world?"  It's not just false prophets like Harold Camping and chatter about the Mayan calendar and December 2012.  We've got natural disasters coming so thick and heavy.  Civil unrest all over the world, especially in our own streets.  Our whole economic system seems to be headed for collapse, with greed and selfishness championed all the way up and down the economic ladder.  Our moral standards are getting worse and worse, faith is growing cold in many hearts, and even those who call themselves Christians proudly follow their own devices and desires instead of clinging to Jesus their Lord.

    Could these all be signs of the end?

    Maybe, maybe not.  As Christians, we need to be ready for our Lord's return as King and Judge no matter when it occurs.  In Matthew chapter 24 Jesus' disciples asked Him what will be the sign of His coming and of the end of the age.  He told them, and us, that no one knows that day or hour, and that He, the Son of Man, would come as a thief in the night.  Therefore, we must be prepared.  But prepared for what?  Beginning in the 31st verse of Matthew 25, Jesus our coming King tells us what will happen when He returns.

    First of all, Jesus will come as King, King of kings and Lord of lords.  And He will come as the Son of Man.  He will sit on the throne of the universe as a glorified Human Being, in the same flesh He brought with Him resurrected from the tomb.  In Christ, for our sakes, God has become Man forever!  He will sit on His throne as King in heavenly glory, and all the nations will be gathered before Him.  All the nations.  Not just the so-called Christian nations, but all of them, regardless of what religions they professed here on earth.  All people will learn that Christ is King, and Christ alone.

    But what does Jesus mean by "the nations"?  Remember, God ordained that Jesus should be born a Jew.  Jesus was speaking to Jewish disciples in a Jewish context.  For a Jew, the word "nations" (ethne in Greek and goyim in Hebrew) meant the Gentiles.  That is, everyone who wasn't a part of God's chosen people Israel.  The disciples would assume-- and assume rightly-- that God's faithful remnant would find blessedness when Israel's Messiah and King came as Judge.  But what was going to happen to all those other people Out There?

    Something the disciples would not have suspected.  Jesus says He will take the people of the nations and separate them from one another, and some He will put on the right as sheep, and some on His left as goats.  That tells us first that all mankind are under His staff as the universal Shepherd, whether they ever confess faith in Him or not.  In verses 37 and 44 we see that all the dead acknowledge that, they all call Him "Lord."  When Christ sits on His glorious throne, all nations will bow the knee and every tongue will confess that He is King and Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  But on that day He will sort out some who did not visibly belong to His chosen Israel, and He will put them with His chosen ones, with the sheep He loves. 

    These days, we often assume that almost anyone can be saved, if only they're nice enough.  For good 1st century Jews like Jesus' disciples, it would have shocked them to think any Gentiles who didn't convert to Judaism could get into the kingdom at all!

    To these unexpected sheep Jesus the King will say, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world."  Who could have thought it?  Ever since the world began God had included these sheep from the nations in His glorious kingdom, along with His chosen people Israel!

    But why?  On what basis?  Because He was hungry and they fed Him; He was thirsty and they gave Him something to drink; He was a stranger and they invited Him in; He needed clothes and they clothed Him; He was sick and they tended to Him; He was in prison and they came to visit Him.

    These righteous from the nations are amazed.  They don't understand how they could have rendered all these good services to Him, the Lord of glory.  And the King will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."

    We think we understand this.  But again, Jesus is out to undermine our modern understanding of how things will be at the Judgement, just as much as much as His word subverted the ideas of the typical 1st century Jew.  Here's the question: Who are Jesus' brothers?  Who are His sisters?  Who are this family with whom He identifies so closely?

    Two thousand years ago, the assumption would be that since He was the Jewish Messiah, His brothers and sisters would be the nation of Israel, people who were born Jews by blood.  But over and over again in His teaching Jesus kept letting everyone know that the true Israel was not those who attempted to keep the law in their own righteousness; rather, His brothers and sisters are those who do the will of His Father in heaven, as we read in Matthew 12.  And what is the will of the Father?  St. John tells us that the Father's will is that we believe in the One He has sent, the Man Jesus Christ.

    The consistent teaching of the New Testament is this:  that Christ's brothers and sisters are His believers, the Church.  They-- or rather, we-- are His Body, the New Israel made up of ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles alike, formed by the new covenant in His blood, shed on the cross.

    So in Acts 9 the risen Christ casts Saul of Tarsus down on the road to Damascus and demands, "Why are you persecuting Me?"  Like the righteous from the nations at the Judgement, Saul can't understand.  He'd been attacking a rabble of Nazarene heretics, not this heavenly Being he now had to call Lord!  But Jesus identifies with His Church and says, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting."  To do evil to His disciples is to do evil to Him; to do good to His disciples is to do good to Him.

    And who are "the least of these"?  Please note that this doesn't mean "only the least of these."  No, Jesus is saying that the surprised  righteous have done good to Christians even when those believers were so humble no earthly credit could possibly come from it.  Jesus taught us in Matthew 18 that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are those who humbly repent and become like little children and follow Him.  In Luke 12 Jesus calls His disciples His "little flock" and says that the Father has been pleased to give them the kingdom.  Jesus exalts the humble in His kingdom, and at the judgement the nations will share in their exaltation.

    I realize that this goes against much popular thought on what this passage in Matthew means.  The usual interpretation is that some people will enter the kingdom by believing in Christ, while others can get in by doing good to the financially poor.  But nowhere does the Scripture hold out any possibility of any man or woman entering eternal life on the strength of his or her own good works.  It is only through the blood of Christ shed for us that we can inherit blessedness forever with Him.

    Yes, you might say, but if "the nations" in this passage are those who didn't identify with Christ's Church in their lifetimes, doesn't it sound like they can earn their way in by good deeds done to those who belong to Him?

    Well, think of it this way: When are Jesus' disciples most likely to be hungry, thirsty, refugees, naked, sick, or in prison?  In times of persecution for the faith.  Today, particularly in Muslim and Hindu countries, Christians are being harried, arrested, burned out of their homes, put to death-- all because they dare to confess Jesus Christ as Lord.  Now think of yourself as a Muslim neighbor of one of these despised Christians.  Everyone else is pouring on the violence.  But something moves you to step out and help the followers of Christ.  Even though your friends will shun you for it; even though you could be arrested yourself as a Christian sympathizer, you go ahead and open your home to the refugees.  You visit the tortured pastor in prison and work for his release.  You make sure those orphan Christian children are fed and clothed, and you don't pressure them to convert to Islam. Whether you realize it or not, you're identifying with the believers and identifying with Christ.

    In Matthew 10 Jesus sends His disciples out with the good news of the kingdom, warning them they'll face danger and hardship for His sake.  But in all this, He says, "He who receives you receives me," and "anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man's reward," and "if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward."

    At the Judgement there will be many who never considered themselves to be part of Christ's flock the Church, but they sympathized so strongly and actively with Christians because they were Christians that Jesus will recognise them as His sheep themselves.  To their surprise they will receive eternal life, the righteous man's reward.

    But what about those on the left, the "goats" who did not minister to Christ's faithful in their need?   To say they didn't identify Christians with Christ will be no excuse.  When they see the King enthroned in glory it's too late to say, "Oh, my Lord, I'd do anything for you!"  What about that insignificant Christian they saw beaten, tortured, starving, or simply slandered out of a job, and they did nothing to intervene?  The King will reply, "If you did it not for the least of these my brothers, you didn't do it for Me."

    So.  Here we are, and we belong to Christ's church on earth. Can we sit satisfied and sure we'll go to the King's right hand in the Judgement?  Not necessarily.  This passage is a warning to us, too.  A lot of people are members of Jesus' New Israel on paper, but actually they belong to the unbelieving nations.
    We have to examine ourselves!  How do we treat our fellow members in the Church?  The truly committed disciple will feed and clothe and help and heal their fellow Christian precisely because he or she is a fellow Christian.  A true believer in our Shepherd King will strive in the Spirit to see and serve Christ in everyone in the congregation, no matter how humble or struggling that other believer may be. 

    In the course of my life I've seen too many churches and church people focus all their ministry on those outside the church.  And yes, like Christ Himself we do extend the love and grace of God to all.  But sitting all around you are brothers and sisters who are hurting.  They're struggling with troubles of body, mind, and spirit.  They need someone to help them repair their house, to watch their kids for an afternoon, to sit for awhile and just listen.  But there's this assumption in the Church today that as soon as someone becomes a believer, they're set up for life and have all they need.  No!  Jesus calls us into His little flock because we do need each other, and He expects us to minister to one another for His sake.  As St. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially those who belong to the family of believers."

    Remember, Paul puts the command for Christians to do good in the context of judgement.  If we take one another for granted, if we live to please our sinful natures, we will reap destruction.  Goats all along we will show ourselves to be, and as Jesus says, we'll go into eternal punishment.  But if we follow the Spirit of Christ who has saved us and do good to one another, we will show that we are His sheep. We will reap eternal life and enter into the blessed inheritance prepared for us by our heavenly Father before the creation of the world.

    As baptised believers, we no longer belong to the nations; we are citizens of Christ's new chosen people and sheep of His little flock.  Since this is true, let us strive in the Spirit to do the things that belong to Christ.  Do good to all, but especially to your brothers and sisters in the faith, from the greatest to the least.  Care for, help, and build up one another because you belong to Christ.  And so by His grace, His judgment at the end of the age will bring no fear for you, but only exultation, blessedness, and joy as together with all the saints you enter the realm of your Shepherd King.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Master's Property

Texts:    2 Timothy 4:1-5; Matthew 25:14-30

    HAVE YOU EVER DONE RENOVATIONS to your house?  Or maybe you watch DIY programs like Holmes Inspection on TV.  If you do, you know how it goes.  You start out to do some improvement, to put in a new bathroom or whatever, but when you do the tear-out you discover there's rot in the walls or the foundation is weak or the plumbing is about to burst.  And instead of getting straight to the fun things like tiling and painting, you have to go back and redo the basic structure.

        We're in that position this morning as we look at Jesus' parable of the talents as it comes to us in Matthew chapter 25, verses 14-30. We've got to do some tearing out before we can begin to build.  The problem is this word "talent."  In ancient times, it had nothing to do with someone's personal endowments or abilities, it was simply a unit of weight, used especially for mass quantities of precious metals.  Over the centuries, however, the English language has taken this word, from this very parable, and changed its meaning to connote our God-given natural abilities, or, as we say, our talents.  So we build on that to conclude that Jesus will hold us accountable for how we put our natural gifts like singing or reasoning or entrepreneurship into service for Him.

    And this is true. He will hold us accountable for that.  But in this parable the word "talents" is referring to something different from our abilities.  Look at verse 15.  It says there that the master gave talents of money to each of his servants, "each according to his ability."  The servants' abilities or natural gifts were something different from the property their master entrusted to them. What profit they would make from it would go along with the abilities-- or, as we would say, the talents-- they already had.

    The talents in this parable do not naturally belong to the servants themselves.  They are, as it says in verse 14, the master's property.  Very valuable property, too.  The weight of a talent varied across the ancient world, but in 1st century occupied Israel it came to 2,080 ounces.  To get an idea of its value, let's reckon it up as gold.  At yesterday's price, one of those talents would have been worth $3,718,728.00.  Just one.  This property is the master's, and it is very, very precious.

    As we heard last week, in these parables our Lord is answering the disciples' question in Matthew 24:3, " . . . what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?"  In the parable of the talents, a master goes away, and after a long time, the master returns.  The Master is Christ, and He warns us to be prepared for His coming at the end of the age. 

    Jesus begins the parable by saying, "Again, it will be like . . . " What will what be like?  Look back at verse 1 of chapter 25: "At that time"-- the time of His coming and the end of the age-- "the kingdom of heaven will be like . . . "  He is speaking of the time of His return.  So when Christ returns as Judge, it will be like a master who has entrusted his great and precious property to his servants and gone away, expecting to find they've turned a profit with it when he returns to settle his accounts. 

    Brothers and sisters, the kingdom of God will not begin with the moment of Christ's return.  We who believe in Him live under Jesus' rulership right now, and it affects how we His servants work with His property in the long weeks and months and years until He comes.

    So what is this property He puts into the hands of His servants?  If it isn't our natural abilities, if it isn't even the spiritual gifts He gives us for ministry, what could it be?

    We can find a clue in Matthew 13, in the parable of the sower.  There, various kinds of soil receive the same seed and yield different amounts of increase, depending on the nature of the soil.  In the parable of the talents, different kinds of servants receive the same kind of money in different amounts and yield different amounts of increase, depending on the nature of their abilities and attitudes.  Jesus tells us in Matthew 13:19 that the seed sown is the message about the kingdom of heaven.  The Master's property in Matthew 25 are the same thing: It is the good news about Jesus Christ the Son of God, come to earth to establish the kingdom of God as its divine Lord and King.  As St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15,

    [This is] the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. . . .  that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures [and appeared to many faithful witnesses].

Christ's servants the apostles were good and faithful.  By their labors we have received the trust of this good news, too.  His glorious gospel is the currency of the kingdom, and in this parable Jesus our Master charges us to put it to work for Him until He comes.

    So again, if we're talking gold, one servant receives five talents, worth around $18,600,000 at today's prices; one is entrusted with two, about $7,400,000; and the last servant is handed one talent at about $3,700,000.  Verse 16 says the first man immediately put his five talents to work. This man exerted himself to do business with his master's property so it might be increased, and the second servant did the same.

    So how do we exert ourselves in the business of the Gospel?  What is the Gospel's business, anyway?  The Word of Christ on earth has three primary purposes: For grace-- that is, to bring salvation and redemption to the sinner; for growth-- to build up the Church and each individual member in it so we achieve the full likeness of Jesus our Saviour; and for glory-- for the greater glory of God, and for the ultimate glorification of all His saints in Him.

    Each of us is given the Good News of Christ crucified and risen for us and for the sins of the world.  Our depth of understanding may be greater or lesser, but each of us in the Church have heard-- or should be hearing-- what Jesus has done for us.  According to the abilities we have from God, we minister this Word to one another and to the pagan at our door, so that grace, growth, and glory may increase and abound.

    Five-talent people might be those like St. Paul, or, more recently, someone like C. S. Lewis.  When the Holy Spirit brought him out of the darkness of modern paganism, Lewis took the wonderful riches of Christ's gift of salvation and multiplied it in his speaking and writing, and his profit to his Master increases to this day all around the world.

    We can't all be five-talent servants of our Lord.  But we can be good and faithful in our sphere and according to our abilities.  We can be like that wise Sunday School teacher who influenced the children in the church for grace, growth, and God's glory up to the time of her death.  We can be godly parents who lead our children in the way of the Lord, and never take it for granted that they know that Jesus died for them.  We can exert ourselves to increase in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ as we study His word and participate in His sacraments.  We can be good capitalists of the Word-- if I dare use the term in these protesting times-- and follow Paul's charge to Timothy in 2 Timothy chapter 4, being prepared in season and out of season to communicate the Word of Christ.  For all Scripture-- all of which speaks of Christ, as He Himself reminds us-- is God-breathed and is useful-- profitable-- for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.  So, put it to work, beginning in your own life and the life of your household.  Paul's charge applies especially to us pastors and elders, but all of us who have been entrusted with the good news of Jesus Christ should be prepared at all times to give anyone who asks a reason for the kingdom hope that is within us, so our Master's property might increase.

    What about the third servant?  The other two each increase their master's property 100% and the master commends them, entrusts them even more responsibility, and invites them to share in his great happiness.  But this man buries his $3,700,000 in the ground and very disrespectfully hands it back to his master on his return.  In our understanding of the parable, did he ever truly belong to Jesus Christ at all?

    As any human being belongs to God, yes.  Physically, he was a resident worker in the master's household.  But in his heart and mind, he was not the master's man.  He's like those who sit in church for decades letting the preaching wash over them, but they're never actually converted.  They think they know all about God and what He's really like, and they think they're smarter than He is.  And kinder and more loving, too.  The Jews in Jesus' day knew that God for centuries had made a practice of only saving a remnant of His chosen people. But then He'd go and have mercy on Gentiles.  How was that fair?  "Hey, God, don't You have enough to do taking care of us Jews?  Why meddle with people who pledge allegiance to other gods?  They don't belong to You!"  And so in the parable, "Master, I knew you were a hard man, harvesting where you had not sown and gathering where you had not scattered seed."  A man like that today might reason, "God's going to save whoever He's going to save, whether I say anything to anybody about Jesus or not.  And He'll send to hell anybody He feels like, even if they're really good people.  So why should I get myself in trouble in this world by going around talking about Jesus?  Let God get back what He gave, and keep me out of it."

    This is a terrible distortion of the truth.  But many church members use it so they don't have to exert themselves to increase their Master's property in the kingdom of heaven.  The master in verse 26 in effect says, "So that was your opinion of me?  In that case, you should truly have been afraid to return my money to me profitless.  You should've at least put the money to the bankers so I'd get some interest out of it."

    Now, I humbly admit that I am not certain how our Lord wants us to understand and apply this.  Most Bible commentators I've read skip right over it!  Jews weren't allowed to charge interest, so perhaps the master is saying, "All right, you've called me a cruel man and a thief; why didn't you put my money out at interest so you could call me a usurer, too?"  In that case, it would be a warning against speaking ill of our Lord and God.  But Jesus often used the unrighteous practices and people of this world to illustrate truths about the good of the kingdom of heaven. So Jesus could be saying to so-called followers like that, "You were afraid to speak the Gospel yourself?  Very well, you should at least have opened your home to My apostles who were speaking it.  You should have supported My missionaries and evangelists, even if you never said a word about Me yourself.  Then you would have received for Me some of what they earned."  (This is just a possibility, and if the Holy Spirit commends it to you, good; if not, let it alone.)

    But Jesus' conclusion is clear: As Paul says, when Christ, the righteous Judge, returns on the last day, He will reward His good and faithful servants with a crown of righteousness-- a crown that will signify their responsibility over much more than He entrusted to them on this earth.  But those who take the Gospel for granted, those who think the message of Christ crucified is a word of intolerance and exclusion, those who play it safe in church and bury their Master's property, they will be cast away from His presence into outer darkness forever.  They will find that what they thought they had of Christianity and Jesus will be taken away, but those who truly have laid hold on the truth of the gospel and increased grace, growth, and God's glory in this world, they'll find their share in Jesus Christ and His work wonderfully increased in the world to come.

    Which kind of servant will you and I be?  Our Master Jesus has entrusted His property to us, the infinitely valuable good news of sins forgiven in His blood.  He has also given us abilities, natural and spiritual, so we can put the Gospel to work.  May we be those receive His trust and immediately set to work for the increase of His kingdom.  And when Christ comes again in glory, may He gladly say to us,

    "Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!"


Sunday, November 6, 2011

Emergency Preparedness

Text :    Matthew 24:36-44; 25:1-13

   ANYTHING WORTH DOING IN life needs to be prepared for.  You all had to prepare to come to church this morning.  I made preparations so I could be with you to share God's Word.  You prepared when you got married and when you had your children.  People prepare to do their jobs, to go on vacation, to retire.  At least, they do if they're wise.  

        Then there are the kind of things that are bound to come into every life, but we can't know for sure when or how.  Sudden illness or the loss of a job.  And what about those life emergencies we hope won't happen to us, but might?  Nobody plans to undergo natural disasters like floods or wildfires or devastating Fall snowstorms, but it's still wise to be prepared.

    Emergency preparedness is preached to us from all quarters.  Have enough food stored up!  Formulate a meet-up plan for your family!  Buy gold and silver for when the market collapses!  But for the ultimate emergency this world will ever see, how can we be ready?  What do we need to do, what do we need to lay up for ourselves to be prepared?     

    In chapters 24 and 25 of the gospel according to St. Matthew, our Lord Jesus tells what it will be like when the Kingdom of heaven finally emerges in all its stupendous grandeur, on that day when Jesus Christ Himself will return in glory to judge the living and the dead.

    In the portion we read from chapter 24, we see that His coming will indeed be an emergency.  For the most part, people will be living life as normal when the Son of Man returns.  "As it was in the days of Noah," Jesus says in verse 37, people will be eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.  That's not to say there will be no signs of His coming; no, it's just that we humans have an amazing capacity to be blind to anything that threatens our everyday routine.  When Jesus comes again, believers and unbelievers alike will be going about their ordinary work, making a living, doing what people do.  Two men in a field: one taken, one left.  Two women grinding grain together: one taken, one left.  Incidentally, the Greek word rendered "taken" in our modern translation has a positive meaning in Matthew's gospel; the idea is of taking someone to be with you, not taking them off to destruction. 

    Whichever category we fall into, the coming of Christ will be an unexpected emergency, and Jesus says we believers need to be prepared.  "Therefore keep watch," says Jesus in verse 42, "because you don't know on what day your Lord will come."  In fact, for those who are not prepared, Jesus' second coming will be like having your house broken into in the middle of the night.  "So you must also be ready, because the Son of Man will come when you do not expect him."

    So what does it mean for us to be prepared for His coming?  Jesus tells four parables to help us understand.  The first is the parable of the faithful and wise servant, which Matthew relates in verses 45 to 51 of chapter 24.  We didn't read that section this morning, but it shows us that a big part of being ready consists in doing those acts of service towards one another that Jesus Himself commands for us day after day.  This parable is especially addressed to pastors and elders, whose responsibility it is to give the Master's other servants their food at the proper time-- the food of the Word of God.

    But what happens when we've done all we can to be ready,  and all we can do is wait?  The second part of today's reading helps us with that question.

    If we want to understand the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, it will help to know a little about first century Jewish marriage customs.  The practice was that when a young man took a fancy to a particular young women, he, or his father on his behalf, would approach the girl's father and make an offer for her hand.  The men would settle on the financial arrangements, then the young woman would be brought in to see if she agreed to have the young man.  If so, the marriage covenant was sealed with a glass of wine and the engagement was made.  As we know from the story of Mary and Joseph, this engagement had the effect of marriage, and a formal divorce was necessary to break it.  The only difference was that the couple would not come together for a year or more after this.  The girl continued to live in her father's house, and the young man would return to his father's property, to build a dwelling where he and his new bride would live.  Then, when all was ready, he would come by night with his groomsmen to the bride's house, in a torchlight procession to take her away to be with him.  When they approached her house, the best man would shout out, "Look! The bridegroom has come!  Come out to meet him!"  The groom would lay claim to his bride, and her bridesmaids would join the torchlight procession back to his home and the home of his father, where the marriage would be completed with the formal ceremony, the consummation of relations between the bridal pair, and a week of feasting by the family and their guests.

    Now, it is said that some grooms liked to take their brides totally by surprise.  But in this parable, Jesus says that at the time of His coming, the kingdom of heaven will be like ten bridesmaids who have gotten word that the groom is coming  sometime very soon.  Five are wise, and five are foolish.

    Let me say that with Jesus' parables, we must be careful not to turn them into allegories.  An allegory is a story where every last detail symbolizes something specific, whereas the point of a parable is, well, to make a point.  It is proper to say that the bridegroom who is coming is Jesus the Son of Man Himself.  But the point of this parable is preparedness, especially, preparedness for an event that we know definitely is coming, but we don't know exactly when.

    At first, it looks like all ten of the bridesmaids are ready.  They've all heard the bridegroom is coming tonight, and they've  all taken up their positions in the street near the bride's house.  All of them have lamps-- torches, actually, it would have been-- for the procession back to the house of the groom.  They did all they could do, and now, all they could do was wait.

    So it is with us.  We know Jesus will definitely return someday.  We look around ourselves these days, and we think that perhaps, just maybe, the signs are right that He may well come back in our day.  In contrast to the faithful servant of the previous parable, this teaching is not so much about taking action or doing, but about our attitude of heart and mind.

    For Christ our Bridegroom, for His good purpose, does delay.  And we are weak and human, and like those ten girls we simply cannot be looking out for His coming all the time.  Sometimes we have to sleep.  We have to take care of the ordinary business of life.  Neither the foolish nor the wise virgins are condemned for sleeping; it's just a fact of the situation.  True preparedness is revealed when the emergency occurs, when they're all awakened by the midnight cry, "Here's the bridegroom!  Come out to meet him!"

    It's too late now to take thought about what they will do or what they need.  It's time for them to put their torches in order to light the bridal couple back to the father's house.

    But the foolish girls have brought little or no oil.  Their torches are going out as soon as they are lit.  "Give us some of your oil!" they demand of the others.  But the answer is no.

    Are the wise virgins selfish and cruel not to share?   This detail tells us that when Jesus speaks of "oil" He is referring to something belonging to each person, that can't be shared.  In Scripture, oil tends to signify the Holy Spirit and His anointing.  It'd be foolish of us, though, to think that the Holy Spirit were some sort of commodity, something we can have more or less of.  Rather, think of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in your life.  He's the One who brought you to salvation.  He's the one who confirms the grace of Christ to you in baptism and Holy Communion.  The Spirit illuminates the Word of God to you are you read it and as you hear it preached.  The Spirit causes you to have a wise attitude of heart, full of faith in your Lord Jesus, a heart that can persevere in any kind of trial, no matter how long He may delay. 

    But there are many in the church who simply are going along for the ride.  They think they can enter the kingdom of heaven on someone else's faith.  They believe, foolishly, that they don't need to know anything about Christ and what He has given to them in His death and resurrection.  Their Jesus is only a creature of their own imagining, a mascot to help them get along in this life, but no good for the life of the world to come. Those who are foolish are not really expecting Christ to return as Lord and Judge; even less, they do not eagerly desire to see Him appear as the beloved Bridegroom of the Church.  If that's your attitude, what do you need a heart and mind prepared by the Holy Spirit for? 

    But those who are wise do walk according to the Spirit. They take advantage of the means of grace that He provides them, so they will have light when the crisis comes.

    When Jesus returns, it will be too late to get ready.  The wise virgins literally are sending the foolish girls off on a fool's errand when they tell them to go find someplace to buy oil at midnight.  Interpreted, their words mean, "You should have prepared when there was time.  We cannot share with you; it simply isn't possible, and now you must take the consequences of your foolishness."  But those who are like the foolish virgins will actually think they will be able to purchase the ministry of the Holy Spirit in their lives at the time when Christ returns.  But it will be too late.  The very fact that they will attempt such a thing shows that they do not belong to Christ at all, however much they have appeared to be part of the visible Church, and the door to the marriage feast of the Lamb will be closed against them. 

    "I do not know you" they will hear.  This is not a statement of simple fact on the part of the Bridegroom, but a formal rejection of those who did not care for Him enough to be ready at His coming.

    What of us?  Are we ready for Christ's return, no matter how long He may delay?  Are we improving our baptism by heeding and following the Holy Spirit as He ministers to us in Word and Sacrament?  When the ultimate crisis comes in your life, be it death or the coming of our Lord to judge the living and the dead, will you be firm in your faith that He died for your sins and rose to give you life eternal?  This isn't something you can do in your own strength or your own effort.  This grounding of heart and mind can't be acquired at the last minute when the shout of the archangel announces that the Lord is near.  It is yours only by the gracious gift of Jesus Christ in His Holy Spirit.  Be wise and follow His leading as He strengths you by the Word of Scripture.  Let Him serve you with Christ and all His benefits at the Table of the Lord and as you remember your baptism.  May He confirm to you more and more each day that your Lord Jesus Christ is coming, He is coming soon, and that will be the most glorious, joyful day of your life.

    For although Jesus wants us to see ourselves in the bridesmaids in this parable, we must never forget that ultimately, we who are called and confirmed by His Spirit are also the Bride.  Your Beloved is coming!  Live the life on earth He has given you, but be ready, always ready to run to meet Him when He comes.

    Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly!  Amen.