Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Judgment Day, Part 1

Preached 11/30/2008
Parable of the Investments

Advent calls us to remember the historical birth of Jesus, the incarnate God, who taught us by example what God is like, and who reconciled the world to God through his death and resurrection. We now know for sure that God’s intention toward human beings is love and relationship, and that all humans need to do is turn around and look into God’s loving eyes and let that love start healing them from the inside out. Advent also calls us to think solemnly about the second advent of Jesus, when Jesus comes in glory and power to gather his people from one end of heaven to another.

No one knows when the second advent of Jesus will be, but many of Jesus’s parables tell what we can expect when we face the person that we Christians call our Lord and Master. Here’s one of those parables, the parable of the talents. This story is in Matthew 25 (also Luke 19).

Here’s an updated version of it:

An employer was leaving on a journey of indefinite length, and he summoned three employees and entrusted the business to them. He was well aware they all did not have the same talent for business, so he divided up the capital accordingly. To one he gave $500,000 and said, “See what you can do with this.” To the second, he gave $200,000, and said, “See what you can do with this.” And to the third, he gave $100,000, with the same instruction.

The first employee took the $500,000 and invested it in trade and made another $500,000. The second took the $200,000 and invested it in trade and made another $200,000. The third took the $100,000 and invested it in a hole in the back yard to keep it safe.

When the employer came back, he called the three employees in; the first brought in the records of how the $500,000 had become $1,000,000 for the business; the second showed how the $200,000 had become $400,000; and the third came in brushing away the dirt from the $100,000 that had been hidden in the ground.

Let’s see some other stories about investments that paid off in the Bible:

Blessed are the humble, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
Blessed are the mournful, for they will be comforted
Blessed are those who put others’ interests first, for they will inherit the earth
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God
Blessed are the peacemaking, for they will be called God’s children
Blessed are those who take abuse for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

Blessed are you when people curse you and abuse you and lie about you because you are following Jesus, for your reward is great in heaven

These describe the return on investments: put your efforts into identifying with the poor and lowly and sorrowful; put your efforts into putting others’ interests first, into working for justice and peace, into being merciful and singly focused on knowing God and obeying God. Invest your energy in becoming more and more like Jesus—namely in listening more closely to what God says to you through the example of Jesus, through the Bible, through God’s
Spirit within you, and in obeying what you hear God saying. Invest in loving those who do not love you. Invest in generosity that doesn’t call attention to itself, in prayer that is content to be secret, in forgiveness that frees God’s forgiveness to work in the world, in doing without what you think you need in order to be more open to relationship with God. Invest your energy in accumulating these kinds of treasure that last—not in accumulating money, which so easily replaces God as the master.

And what about the third employee, who hid the money in a hole in the ground? What can we learn not to do?

First, that employee was afraid. He says, “I knew that you were harsh and would take all the profits of my work for yourself.” Luke makes this more specific, “I was afraid of you.”

Remember the three things that come between us and being completely God’s person: Wanting to be the greatest, wanting to be recognized, and wanting to be rewarded, and remember what Jesus has to give us—relationship with a loving God who through Jesus poured out himself for us and is committed to our healing and our growth. This love for us is infinite, and it will satisfy us when we understand it rightly and know God personally.

At times I’ve thought that this parable encourages Christians to take risks and be radically obedient, knowing that they have nothing to fear from God or from the world around, and that’s not a bad interpretation.

But there is something dire at the heart of this employee’s statement. He says, “I didn’t want to work for you to profit from. I didn’t take what you gave me into the public marketplace. Why would I do that? Why would I try to make someone else wealthier? What’s in it for me? The rewards you’ve given these other employees—more power and clout—you didn’t say anything about this to begin with, so I just made sure I could give you back what you gave to me.”

It was to people with this attitude that Jesus said, “You think that what God wants is a sparkly surface, so that if you don’t kill anyone, if you don’t commit adultery, if you don’t walk away from your vows of marriage, if you don’t break your promises, if you don’t lie in court, if you limit your revenge to an eye for an eye, if you love those who are like you, if you give public donations, if you pray in public, if you fast in public, if you enforce the rules, if you keep the unworthy out, if you tithe, you are keeping God’s stuff safe; what you’re really doing is keeping yourself safe from God. All I have ever wanted is to gather you into my arms, and you were not willing. There is no way you can ever see me until you say, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

C.S. Lewis said that his whole attitude toward God before his conversion could be summed up as wanting God to leave him alone, wanting not to be interfered with. That’s just not God’s style. God reaps where we sow, and God profits where we invest. This is our joy and pleasure in life—to plant everywhere we can the good news of God’s love and the mercy God has shown to us, and to invest the time and energy we have into making God’s kingdom more visible on earth—walking cheerfully over the earth with humility, tenderness, a pure focus on God, doing justice, loving mercy, and making peace.

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