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Sunday November 14, 1999 ~ 25th Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon Text:  Matthew 25:14-30
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18   *  1 Thessalonians 5:1-11  *  Psalm 90:1-12


Be's of Christian Discipleship
Be Fruitful

During a conference on technology last week, I heard of a young man who just sold his internet based, web design company for over three hundred thousand dollars.  Not all that much when you consider the enormous wealth of another young man named Bill Gates.

Yet, I was utterly impressed when I learned that the young man was 16 years old and had invested his capital in a trust fund for college.   As part of the arrangement with the buyer of his company, he would consult three or four times a year with the marketing department for substantial fees.

"Pretty good ROI, huh mom?" He was reported to have said.

ROI

Huge words in the corporate world these days.   "Return On Investment."

The master in our reading from Matthew's gospel would be pleased.  This young man with his own college trust fund at age 16 outperformed the servants who had given their master a 100% ROI.  On the other hand, the master's words to the servant who gained nothing – "As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth," – are quite relevant in the corporate world today.

The bottom line is ROI.  Not people.   Not principle.  Not compassion for the employee or care for the company.

"My how the world has changed," you might say.  At this same conference, it was observed that 2.5 years with the same company in the hi tech field world is now considered a long time. Most of our grandfathers would consider a long time with the same company only those persons who received their first and last paycheck from the same company.

But, is it really such a different world?  When you hear the parable Jesus told, you might wonder.  The master in the story seems to be after the same ROI our modern corporate execs are looking for.   Those who produce are welcomed into the joy of the master and the poor frightened soul who lost nothing -- but gained nothing -- was cast into "outer darkness."  This sounds like many people you and I know who have lost their livelihoods because of the bottom line.

I can tell you that not a few people have expressed puzzlement and even disturbance with what they perceived to be Jesus' approval of unsympathetic treatment of the last servant.

***

There is, however, much more to the story. Jesus is telling this story to underscore an urgency his disciples are facing. He is no longer addressing the religious leaders of his day. He has signed off with them. They have already rejected the message and messenger of God. It is for his followers that Jesus now has real concern.

"There is no middle ground with God," he is saying, "You can not be a little bit for me and a little bit against me. There is a great division coming – a reckoning that will separate those who have loved and honored God and those who have not. If you follow me, you must make a commitment. When you follow me there is requirement as well as reward. You must be fruitful with the opportunities you are given."

An experience during my time in the Air Force helped me to understand the unyielding stance Jesus takes in these last days with his disciples and the seemingly harsh treatment of the third servant. As a radar operator, I was in our control center during a simulated enemy attack. Hundreds of incoming enemy planes dotted the radar scope like a bad case of measles. A two star general from another base had come to take command of our unit. He fired out orders with a tone that compelled absolute obedience. There was no discussion of procedures or explanation of process – just that torrent of orders. In the face of crisis, there was no room for wavering. Actions had to be swift and decisive.

And so Jesus is speaking with his disciples on the threshold of crisis. He will soon be executed and they will be left to carry on. This is not a matter of, "It would be nice" if they were fruitful and productive for their master – the Lord Jesus. It is required!

Does this mean Jesus is seeking ROI? Not in the sense of the "bottom line" or the profit margin in business. But there is a "bottom line" of sorts in the spiritual world. Perhaps ROI for Christian folk would mean that God expects a Return On the Incarnation. The coming of Christ as Redeemer was a kind of spiritual investment of immeasurable proportions. St. Paul said, "… you are not your own, you were bought with a price." (1 Cor. 6:19-20) The first letter of Peter puts it this way, "…you know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ…" 1 Peter 1:18

Here’s an amazing fact that should call us to attention. This amazing price Christ paid on our behalf has now been entrusted to our care. The greatest stewardship of all is the stewardship we practice with the message and mission we have been given to carry on the work and witness of Christ.

Financial stewardship is important – but it is not the most important stewardship of all. Stewardship of our time is important – but it is not the most important stewardship of all. Stewardship of our talents is important – but it is not the most important stewardship of all. The most important stewardship of all is the responsibility we have to do everything we are able to do to spread the word about the immense price Christ has paid for our redemption.

The parable Jesus tells his disciples is not about economics at all. It is about the responsibility his followers have to be fruitful for the kingdom of God. It spells out the fact that we are given opportunity and responsibility – and there are very real consequences for our actions. There is the joy of fruitfulness and the judgment of unfruitfulness.

As we look at the reading, there are three components to the parable which build upon each other and move toward a conclusion that impacts all of us. [1] Everyone has ability, [2] Everyone has response-ability and [3] Everyone is accountable.

[1] Everyone has ability

There is an important principle growing through this parable. God has given each one of us gifts. Some may be more gifted than others, but no one is without gifts.

Another point here is that God is the One who gives the gifts. We can not "gift" ourselves. There is a humbling quality to Jesus words. I may be gifted in one area while you are gifted in three things. Yet, neither of us are responsible for "gifting" ourselves.

However, the gifts we have receive are to be developed. The gift is the potential and our development of this potential brings about fulfillment of the gift. The Master in the story calls his servants together to "entrust" his property to them. We are gifted and entrusted.

[2] Everyone has response-ability

Now Jesus moves the point forward. God has given each of us ability and responsibility.

Key issue here is that as God has given gifts to all of us, so also we are given a divine purpose for our living. We are – to put it in the parable’s terms – in business with the Lord! How’s that for meaningful living? Whatever else your life may be about – knowing that you are in partnership with God is a wonderful foundation for daily living.

A great way to bring this closer to the surface of our day to day routine is to intentionally ask during the events of the day, "How does this fit in with my partnership with God?" This can bring new dimensions to playing with your children, talking to the woman at the check-out counter, going out with friends or on the job.

[3] Everyone is accountable

Here’s the part of the parable we need to pay close attention to. Whether we want to be or not, we are in business with God. God has given ability and responsibility. We are able to respond.

"Listen up," Jesus says to his followers here, "You will be accountable for the talents you’ve been given."

Notice the wonderful affirmation of the servants who developed their talents and went about the business of the master. And get this – the one who developed the five talents and the one who developed the two talents were absolutely equal in the eyes of the master! The person who develops his or her gifts for use as partners with God is affirmed as "good and trustworthy" – whether the gifts were many or few. What a wonderful, equalizing thing this is.

The final element in the story is sobering. If we do not develop and use our talents, we find ourselves in an "outer darkness." In some ways, this is a very natural thing. When we can not see our lives in partnership with God, there is a loss of meaning. Without purpose in living, there can be no passion in living. The servant who hid his talent in the ground did so out of fear. "Master, I knew that you were a harsh man." Yet, Jesus did not begin the story by saying, "A harsh man going on a journey…" Even more, the Master says to the faithful servants, "Enter into the JOY of your master…"

I see a lesson here. The notion that the master is harsh is more likely the perspective of the servant who did nothing with his talent. The other two saw their talents as more of a challenge than a chore. A number of people who are not in meaningful relationship with the Lord tend to see God as a harsh and unmerciful. In a sense, they bring about their own outer darkness.

The major lesson of the story is that there is great joy in developing and using our talents in life long partnership with the One who has created us. And the most wonderful thing of all is that the joy has just begun and the joy will never end!


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Texts
The eternal power and righteousness of God stands over against the futility and unrighteousness of mortals. Apart from our relationship with God, we have no claim upon the gift of life. Personal gain is an illusion and the notion of inherent significance in our living apart from our relationship with the Lord is folly. God will reign, righteousness will prevail, Christ will come, and only those who see themselves in light of who God is will stand in The Day of the Lord.

Matthew speaks to the issue of productive Christian living. Zephaniah rocks those who dismiss the reality of God’s immanence and Paul comes through with an affirmation that God does not desire our demise, but had destined us for salvation. 2 Peter 3:9 affirms that the Day of the Lord or coming of Christ is sure. The delay of the parousia should not be perceived as a denial of the reality of the Day of the Lord, but rather as a sign of God’s patience and desire that no one should perish, but have an opportunity to receive the grace of God.

 Matthew

We need to remember once again that Jesus is speaking to his followers on the verge of a crisis. His relationship with the religious leadership is 100% toxic. They seek and will bring about his death. In light of his departure, Jesus is in the midst of teaching his followers who they must be and how they must be when he is gone. They also need to be aware that with God there is a final consummation where absolute righteousness will prevail.

Key point: We need to live our lives as individual followers of Christ and as the Body of Christ in light of God’s ultimate victory over evil! A short form of this particular parable about the master and the servants is, "Make it count!" We have been given just so much time, and just so much talent – God may sometimes seem to be far away. Wrong sometimes seems to be gaining and the right on the run. But the Master will return and there will be an accounting, so to his followers, Jesus says, "Make it count!"

Another key issue in this text is: "Everything is of God!" There is the humility inducing principle that whatever talents / gifts we have are given to us by God. The difference between persons is not the number of talents or a difference in reward for using those talents. The only difference is in how responsible we are in using those talents. The lesson of the third servant is that there is no "coasting" in the Body of Christ.

This would make a good stewardship text. You could deal with the responsibility we have to invest our resources (time, talent and treasure) in a way that will honor God and build the kingdom. We must avoid the "third servant syndrome" – "I’ve done my share." "Let someone else do it." "Joe’s got way more ability than I do." "My grandmother did more than enough for our family."

Zephaniah

Zephaniah’s words strike at the heart of complacency in our relationship with God. God’s words to the people through the prophet are a stern warning to those who dismiss God as a relevant factor in their daily lives.

Zephaniah addresses those whose lives are built on the false premise that God will not scrutinize our lives. The words are powerful, "At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’ "

On another occasion, I might do a message called, "The Third Servant Syndrome." Matthew contributes the point: "The Third Servant is Irresponsible." Zephaniah adds, "The Third Servant is Complacent."

Zephaniah has a word for those who eliminate the notion of responsibility in living and God’s judgment. I hear that in the words some folk will use in a cavalier way when someone – anyone – good, bad or indifferent – dies, "Oh well, he’s / she’s in a better place." This calls to mind J.B. Phillips’ comment in "Your God is Too Small" which ran something along the line of, people don’t want a Father in heaven so much as a Grandfather in heaven, a kindly, benevolent old chap whose chief desire is that a good time be had by all."

1 Thessalonians

The beginning words in this text follow the line of Zephaniah. Just at the time people have dismissed the Lord and have become quite complacent – judgment will strike. The Day of the Lord will come like a "Thief in the night." That is – unexpectedly.

There is an application of this in all of our lives. Whenever disaster strikes our lives, there is a sense of shock, "That’s the last thing I thought would have happen today!" Another reminder to embrace each day and each experience with an eye on the temporality of our living.

Key words in verse four: "But you, beloved, are not in darkness…" The people of God – the Body of Christ would not however be surprised by the coming of the Lord. We are not irresponsible, complacent, unknowledgeable concerning biblical teaching about the final victory of God. Are we?

The passage is a call for people of faith to live their lives responsibly in light of the redemption Christ has gained for us. Two important words go to the heart of our lifestyle as Christian folk – how we are to be with each other. Encourage one another and build up each other…" And isn’t it a great joy to a pastor’s heart when we can add the words, "As indeed you are doing!"

 

Worship Helps

A Call To Worship  (Based on Psalm 90)

Leader:   O Lord God, we who are mortal turn to you who are eternal.
People:  Your love and grace have stood forever.
Leader:   Before the stars were hung in space,
People:  Or the mountains stood high above the plains,
Leader:   Your splendor was the light of the universe.
People:  Teach us, O Lord, to be wise in our mortality,
Leader: That we might come to know you more fully,
People: And serve you with all our hearts. Amen.

A Prayer of Dedication

We stand amazed before you, O lord. You use the gifts of
we poor mortals to accomplish your eternal aims. The value
you have placed upon us is beyond anything we could ever
bring to you. Bless these gifts and accept our praise in the
name of the One who gave his all for us. Amen.