Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned:
Surprised By the Day of the Lord
First Baptist Richmond, November 19, 2023 the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; Matthew 25:14-30
For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.
The worship planning team met last Monday afternoon, as we usually do, to work on the service for Sunday. Everything was going well until we got to the last verse of the Old Testament lesson, Zephaniah 1:18, which reads: “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath; in the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.” We sat there without saying anything for a minute, just as the prophet suggests at the beginning of the passage: “Be silent before the Lord God.” But eventually I asked, “How do we end that reading?” Because I couldn’t imagine someone saying, “The Word of the Lord,” and then having everyone respond, “Thanks be to God.” How do you thank God for a reading in which he has just promised to make “a full and terrible end” of all the inhabitants of the earth? But when we turned to the Gospel lesson it wasn’t much better. Here are three servants who come before their master to give an account of their activity. Two of them have invested their master’s money recklessly but profitably, and he says, “Well done! Enter into the joy of your master!” But the third one played it safe. He buried his master’s money in a hole in the ground so nothing would happen to it, and the master said, “You wicked
and lazy slave!” and then had him thrown into the outer darkness. How do you say, “Thanks be to God,” after a reading like that?
The Gospel is meant to be good news, but here we are three minutes into the sermon and already you’ve heard: a) we’re all going to die; b) we’re all going to be judged; and c) some of us are going to end up in the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. What can we do about any of that? How can we keep from being surprised by the Day of the Lord?
I don’t spend a lot of time in the Book of Zephaniah, but in my research for this sermon I learned that Zephaniah wrote during the reign of King Josiah, one of the “good” kings of Judah, who came to the throne when he was only eight years old. He made some significant reforms when he got a little older, but Zephaniah seems to have written before any of those reforms got underway, and he seems to be particularly perturbed by those in Jerusalem who rest complacently on their dregs (and, yes, I had to look up the word dregs. It means “the most worthless part, or parts, of something”). The Lord says he is going to search Jerusalem with lamps for those who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, “the Lord will not do good and he will not do harm.” In other words, those who have given up on God’s ability to do much of anything.
I did an Internet search recently to see how many Americans still think of themselves as religious. Did you know the number has fallen to 47 percent? My guess is that if you had taken the same survey 100 years ago, 97 percent of the population would have identified as religious. But now? Only 47 percent. It makes me think that most of us no longer look to God for the answers to our questions. We type them into a search box on the Internet. We turn to science, or medicine, or technology. We sit around on our dregs like the people of ancient Jerusalem,
confident in our own wisdom, and when someone mentions God we say, “the Lord will not do good and he will not do harm.” We don’t think the Lord will do much of anything.
Zephaniah would disagree. He says, “The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast…. That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom…..” Speaking for God he says, “I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the Lord, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath; in the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.”
When I read that passage last week I was reminded of some of those apocalyptic films that come out from time to time. Films like “Armageddon,” about a deadly asteroid hurtling toward the earth: or “The Day after Tomorrow,” in which people ignore the warnings about climate change and reap the consequences; or “Contagion,” about a woman who returns from China with a virus that turns into a global pandemic (that one’s a little too close to reality). One scholar says that apocalyptic films have never been more popular than they are right now.i The threats we experience are real. It’s easy for filmmakers to convince us that we’re all going to die because at the deepest level we know that it’s true.
We are all going to die.
Our Call to Worship for this morning puts it as plainly as it can be put: “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty if we are strong.” Moses wrote those words 3,000 years ago but apparently the average life expectancy
hasn’t changed all that much. “Even then,” he writes, “their span is only toil and trouble. They are soon gone, and we fly away.” In other words, we’re all going to die! But it doesn’t mean we can’t do anything about it.
At the Ash Wednesday service here at First Baptist Church we invite you to come forward so that we can make the sign of the cross on your forehead with ashes. We say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a way of reminding you that you are going to die in order to give some urgency to the way you live. This is your moment. This is your chance to do something with the incredible gift of life God has given you. Don’t waste it!
Which brings us to our Gospel lesson for this morning. Jesus taught what Jesus learned and I feel sure that at some point, in that little synagogue in Nazareth, he must have heard someone read from the Book of Zephaniah all that prophecy about the end of the world. If his mother was sitting close by she may have clapped her hands over his ears and told the rabbi on the way out, “Children shouldn’t be exposed to such things!” But Jesus was. At some point he heard these words and they rang true for him. Yes, we are all going to die, and for that reason it matters all the more how we live. And so, in those last few hours before his own death, he tells his disciples a story about making the most of what you have been given.
It’s about a man who is going on a journey, one who entrusts to his servants an incredible amount of money. A talent weighed about 75 pounds. 75 pounds of silver would have been worth roughly 15 years’ wages for a common laborer. This man—the master—gives five talents to one of his servants (and let’s picture it as silver coins in big, canvas bags that weigh 75 pounds apiece), two talents to another of his servants, and one talent to a third. And then he goes away,
apparently without giving them any instructions as to what they should do with his money. The first two go out the next day and start trading with what they’ve been given. I always picture them shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Hey, it’s not my money!” But the third servant is afraid to do that. He knows that his master is a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow and gathering where he did not scatter. I can almost picture him gulping and saying, “It’s not my money!” And so he drags his big canvas bag out to the back yard one night, digs a big hole at the base of a fig tree, and buries his talent there. Now no one will find it. Now it will be safe. And when the master asks for it, he can give it to him.
But things don’t turn out the way he has imagined. When the master finally returns he calls for an accounting and those first two servants, the ones who have been so reckless with his money, have miraculously earned a huge return. The first one drags ten big canvas bags of silver into the room. “Look!” he says. “You gave me five talents; I made five talents more!” And the master is overjoyed. “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many more. Enter into the joy of your master!” And then the second servant comes in with four big bags of silver. “Look,” he says. “You gave me two talents; I made two talents more!” And the master says the same thing to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your master.”
But when this third servant comes in, with the same bag of silver he was given all those years ago (only covered in dirt now where he’s dug it up from the garden), the master is furious. “You could have at least invested it with the bankers!” he says. “You could have done something!” But since he has done nothing with what he has been given, since he has, instead, buried his talent in the back yard, the master has him thrown into the outer darkness, where there
will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. What was his crime? Only this: he was afraid. He was afraid to do anything with what he had been given. He was afraid he might lose it all.
And that’s where the idea that we are all going to die becomes liberating. Because if this parable is actually about life, and not about money, then we know we’re going to lose it anyway. We can’t hold onto it. And so it becomes a question of what we will do with it while we have it. Will we live fearlessly, and risk losing everything, or will we bury it in the back yard, too afraid to try?
And that reminds me of my friend Joyce.
She started visiting the church years ago and someone who had talked with her referred to her as “suicidal Joyce.” I got to know her and discovered that she had suffered from severe depression for most of her life and that sometimes the pain was so bad she just wanted to end it. But it helped to talk. And so we talked that week, and the week after that, and the week after that. I don’t usually do that, but in Joyce’s case I felt it was necessary; I felt it might keep her alive.
And along the way something happened: we got to be friends. Real friends, where I cared about her and cared what happened to her. I listened to her talk about her depression and began to understand it in a way I never had before. I could almost see why she thought it would be better to end her life than to live with that incredible pain. But one day, as we were talking, she said that if she was going to be here she might as well do something, and that she’d like to do something for the people in Gilpin Court, the poorest neighborhood in our city.
She had worked in that neighborhood when she was a nurse. She understood some of the needs, and one of them was for children’s clothes. I thought I knew where we could get some children’s clothes. I thought our
preschool parents might be willing to donate. But who would deliver the clothes to Gilpin Court? “Why, I would,” said Joyce. “But aren’t you afraid?” I asked. Because some people are, and there had been some shootings over there just a few weeks earlier. But she said, “What have I got to lose? I keep wanting to die. If someone shot me they would be doing me a favor.”
And that’s how Joyce became a regular in Gilpin Court, driving over there once or twice a week with a trunk full of children’s clothes. Young mothers would come running from every corner of the neighborhood to see what she had, and they were so grateful to her for coming. She was fearless. She knew we’re all going to die anyway. She didn’t really mind if, for her, it came sooner rather than later. But it didn’t happen that way. She died several years later, of natural causes, and right up until the end she was doing good work in Gilpin Court. The last thing she did was to establish three little libraries over there, so the children could have books to read. I believe our volunteers are still stocking those little libraries, and on each one is a tiny brass plaque with Joyce’s name on it.
Now, I can’t really recommend her course of action to you. I don’t want you to go into dangerous places where you might get shot. But I do want you to realize that life is short; that it will come to an end someday; and that it matters what we do with it. We can become so paralyzed by fear that we don’t do anything, just like this man in the story. We bury the treasure of our lives in the back yard, like a sack of someone else’s silver. And when we do we come to regret it. Fred Craddock says that like the man in the story we can end up in the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing our teeth, “which is the inevitable fruit of an unlived life.”
So, how do you get over your fear and start living? You remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, and that what you do in this earthly
existence has the power to define you, to make of you something more than dust, to make of you a good and faithful servant,
Just like my friend Joyce.
—Jim Somerville © 2023