Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sermon for the 27th Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for the 27th Sunday after Pentecost (November 16, 2008)
“Using Your Gifts until Jesus Returns” (Matthew 25:14-30)

Usually when we hear the word “talents” we think of special abilities, special gifts that people have cultivated and put to use. Acting. Singing. Playing a musical instrument. Woodworking. Baking. Excelling at a sport.

In the Bible, a “talent” is a monetary measure, a certain weight of silver or gold. In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus tells us about three different slaves to whom their master entrusted his riches while he went on a journey. One got five talents. One got two. Another one. While the master was gone, they were to put those talents to work. The expectation was that when the master returned, he would check to see how well they did with what he had given them.

It’s easy to see, then, how our modern use of the word “talent” is derived from this parable. Some have more talents than other people. Some are more dramatic, like having the skills to be an NFL running back or a prima donna ballerina. Others are more modest, like being good with computers or being able to knit an afghan. But to say that Jesus is referring to these types of talents and others in the parable is really limiting what Jesus is teaching us. The talents in this parable can refer to all the gifts and resources that God gives us in order to serve others in love and to edify Christ’s Church. He may give more abilities to some than to others. But each of us has gifts and resources to use in service to the Body of Christ. It may be as simple as picking up the garbage in the parking lot. But when done in faith, it’s a good work and is pleasing to God.

Baptized into Christ, you and I are Christ’s servants. He has gone ahead of us into heaven and promised that he will come back again one day. That day will come “like a thief in the night.” (1 Thess. 5:2) Last week we heard about the wise and foolish virgins who were waiting for the Bridegroom to return. Those who had oil in their lamps were ready when he returned. From that we learned that we are to be ready for our Lord’s return by having our hearts ignited with the oil of faith in Christ. The Parable of the Talents follows right after that and teaches us to be ready to do good with the gifts and resources God gives us while we wait for our Lord’s return. Will we despise the gifts that God gives us and not put them to use? Or will we be the ones who will be welcomed into the joy of the Master with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Despising the Gifts

What’s your attitude toward your gifts? Do you despise them? That was the case of the man in the parable who had received one talent. He did not put the talent to work. Instead, he buried it in the ground. He despised what the master had given him. He did not think it was worth his time to do anything with it. When the master returned, he could just hand it back to him. After all, it was stashed away in the ground for safe keeping.

Maybe the servant was jealous that the others got five or two talents, and he only got one. Whatever the case, he should have recognized that he didn’t deserve to be entrusted with anything in the first place. Even being called into the master’s presence and given a job to do was a gift of grace. The talent was not his to begin with. It belonged to the master. It was not his to do with as he pleased. He was to use it in the master’s service. The fact that the servant had been given some of the master’s treasure should have moved him to faithful service. But it didn’t.

Likewise, for you and for me, we should not despise the gifts and resources God gives to us. We don’t deserve to be entrusted with anything. Nor should we be upset if we see that others have more or different abilities than we have. Our gifts are not ours to begin with. They are from the Lord. And they are not ours to do with as we please. We are to use them in the Master’s service.

Despising the Master

Also, it becomes apparent in the parable that the servant who buried his master’s talent had the wrong attitude toward the master. Not only did he despise the master’s talent. He despised the master. He thought he was hard to please. He made excuses for not putting the talent to work. “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” It’s almost as if he is blaming the master for everything. And I don’t know about you, but his last statement sounds kind of sarcastic: “Here you have what is yours” ... or maybe, “Here’s your lousy money... take it!”

Is that the kind of attitude we have toward our Master and Creator? Are we jealous because others seem to have more gifts and resources? And so, instead of putting to use what we have been given, we bury our talents, hide them away, and they never see the light of day. But we have no right to despise God and the talents he gives to us. Or to put it like St. Paul does in another context: “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” (Romans 9:20)

Destiny of Darkness

Despising both the master and the master’s gifts, the servant who buried the one talent has a date with darkness. The master calls him “wicked and slothful” and criticizes him for having such a low opinion of his master. That being the case, the master says, “Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what is my own with interest.” In other words, he is saying, “If you had such a low opinion of me in the first place, you were afraid of me, and you knew I was coming back ... then isn’t that all the more reason to get to work so you wouldn’t be in the trouble you are in now?” And with that, the master stripped him of what he had, gave it to the others, and cast him into the place of darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

If we persist in refusing to use the gifts and resources that God gives to us, that is a sign of unbelief. We are guilty of the sin of omission ... omitting to do the good that God calls us to do. If we do not repent of our unbelief, then there will be no mercy for us, either. We will be cast into the outer darkness. Outside of the Master’s love. Outside of the Master’s presence.

Good Friday

But our Master Jesus faced the darkness for all of us who have despised both the Master’s gifts and the Master himself. For three hours on that fateful Friday we call “Good,” the sun refused to shine. It was as if creation itself was mourning because God was in the flesh, bleeding and suffering and dying. Jesus wept and gnashed his teeth with the weight of the world’s sin laid upon him. At the cross, Jesus felt what it is like to be cast into the outer darkness. All in our place. All for us. All for our forgiveness.

Good Friday was a picture of the great and final Judgment Day to come. The prophet Zephaniah described it as “a day of wrath ... a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and destruction, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” (Zeph. 1:15) That sounds an awful lot like the day of Christ’s crucifixion. At the cross, God’s wrath over sinful mankind fell upon his sinless Son. The temple curtain was torn in two, and the barrier between a holy God and sinful man was town down in Christ.

Good Attitude

In Christ, God’s attitude is changed toward us sinners. In Christ, we are reconciled. St. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5, declares that “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” (2 Cor. 5:18-19) And in today’s Epistle reading, he says, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thess. 5:9)

Now, you and I can have a different attitude toward God. Instead of seeing God as a harsh taskmaster, we can view him as a loving, merciful Father who forgives us in Christ and who graciously provides us with gifts and resources to use to his glory and for the benefit of his kingdom. The first two servants in Jesus’ parable had the right attitude toward their master. They simply took the talents that had been delivered to them and put them to work. The talents on loan to them were undeserved. And when the master returned, they made no excuses like the last man, but joyfully offered back to their master what was gained.

Good and Faithful Servants

In response to God’s great love and forgiveness in Christ, you and I can put to work our gifts and talents, our time and our treasures, whatever resources he has graciously given to us to “encourage one another and build one another up” until Jesus returns (1 Thess. 5:11).

And then, when Jesus does return, he will say to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” You are good, not because of anything in you. Instead, you are declared to be good because of Jesus. Jesus is the true good and faithful Servant. Whereas you and I have not always been “good and faithful servants,” Jesus was the “good and faithful servant” in our place. By trusting in him, what Jesus did for you in his good and faithful life, death, and resurrection is credited to your account.

So get ready to “Enter into the joy of your master.” Today he invites you to his altar, where he serves you with the very same gifts and resources which he first delivered to the disciples in the Upper Room. With these gifts he gives you an abundance of forgiveness and comfort and strength. And with these gifts he prepares you for the day when he will invite you to the eternal feast where there will be eternal joy in the unveiled presence of the Master.


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