Second Sunday before Advent – 15th November 2020

1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

Revd. David Stranack

Many a drama on TV uses the technique of shock and surprise. You think all is going well when suddenly something dramatic happens which can make you almost jump out of your skin. This is especially true of horror films so I always avoid watching them. I think most people don’t like frightening surprises. But in our first reading St Paul gives us a warning that the ‘the day of the Lord’ will be coming unexpectantly ‘like a thief in the night’. In the Old Testament the phrase: the 'day of the Lord', is used by several of the prophets in the most frightening terms. It is often used with a description of unrelenting distress under the wrath of God, 'because the people have sinned against the Lord' (Zephaniah 1.7&17).

The Old Testament passages referring to the ‘day of the Lord’ often speak of both an immanent fulfilment and also a far off fulfilment, as does much of Old Testament prophecy. It has both the understanding of the Messiah coming to rescue his faithful people and also the idea of his final return to give judgement to the world. Certainly the Old Testament understanding of God differs greatly from the way God is revealed to us by Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament they understood that suffering was punishment that God inflicted upon sinful people. They were taught to fear the punishment that God would inflict. And this was also widely used in medieval times. Our understanding from Jesus however is very different. In St John’s Gospel 3.17, we read that ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in
order that the world might be saved through him.’ (John 3.17) In the Old Testament, far from God punishing his wayward people, it was in effect the people of God who brought disaster upon themselves because they turned away from God and rejected their real calling as a Holy Nation. They made themselves weak and vulnerable to the invasion of stronger nations. God did not cause them to suffer; rather they caused their own suffering because of their unfaithfulness. And this does serve to remind us of the truth that when we fail God, when we turn away from his way, we also lay ourselves open to the consequences of sin and wrongdoing. We make ourselves spiritually weak and vulnerable.

And we too will one day have to face the reality of God's final judgment as shown in both our New Testament readings. As our judge he will reveal to us just what we have done and how we have let ourselves down. Paul tells the Thessalonians that 'the day of the Lord' will mean destruction for all who live without regard to that judgement. And he encourages them to prepare for it by being 'alert and self-controlled ... putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.’ And then Paul adds: ‘For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath, but to receive salvation!' (vv. 6, 9). And the only sure way to that salvation is through faith in God

In our Gospel reading we hear from St Matthew chapter 25, with the second of the three stories which all look ahead to 'the coming of the Son of Man' and the coming of his kingdom. These parables traditionally have been interpreted with reference to the second coming of Christ in judgement, when Jesus will return to us either individually when we each die to this life, or when he returns to the world at the end of all things. The story of the talents is a parable about how those who believe in God respond to his generosity. God gives us so much - but the question is: what do we do with the gifts and abilities and, above all, what have we achieved with the gift of faith with which he has blessed us. As Christians we will be judged on our faithfulness and on the way we have loved and served our Lord and our neighbour.

In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus himself pictures God as a hard master, who is ready to throw his 'worthless servant' out into the darkness, 'where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth' (vv. 24, 30). Is this an accurate picture of God? And are we to believe in a coming 'day of judgment' like this? Many Christians feel uncomfortable about it, both because it feels a little fanatical and also because it does not seem to fit well with belief in a God of love and mercy. There are important and wider issues involved here, but it is worth asking why the apostle Paul, and our Lord Jesus, retained this very firm belief in the judgment of God when, at the same time, they emphasised so strongly his compassion, love and mercy. The answer is that God regards our moral choices with the utmost seriousness. He treats us as responsible beings, with the ability to decide what sort of relationship we have with him and with our fellow human beings by the choices we make now. We are appointed stewards of the gifts he has bestowed upon us.

In the story the three servants had different abilities, and were therefore given different tasks. The first two achieved different but good results, they were treated exactly the same by their master on his return, because he judged them not by their results but by the quality of their service: he says to them both, 'Well done, good and faithful servant'. With the third servant it was not his lack of achievement which displeased the master, but the lack of love and care. The servant had not wanted to do his best for his master - even if his best had been merely to deposit the money at the bank. 'I was afraid,' he says (v. 25). It lies in our hands, to choose whether we will live in a relationship of love with our God and Father, or a relationship of fear.

And the sobering message is that God respects our choice: he will not finally force us to change our minds if we decide to ignore him and neglect his call. If we fail to love and to care for God it will not be God who punishes us but we, who cut ourselves off from God. What we need to remember is that it is by the way that we honour God and the way we love and care for other people that we show our love and care for God himself. And of course during this present crisis one of the ways that we care for other people is by wearing our face masks in public and accepting the present covid 19 advice. So may we also in our generation do our part to serve others to the best of our ability and to live our lives in the ways of God, for we must never forget that we are all answerable to our God who is merciful, but does expect the very best that we, in our turn, can offer as good stewards of the gifts, abilities, time, money and opportunities he has provided for us. And when it is our turn to come face to face with God whether that is at the point of our own death or at the time of the end of the world, I pray that God may find us to have been faithful, loving and caring in his service and for his glory. And I pray that we may one day hear him say to us 'Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master'.