1 Thessalonians 5:1-18; Matthew 25:14-30
2nd Sunday before Advent
19.11.2023 St Barbara’s
Rev Tulo Raistrick
When I was three my grandfather asked me to come and help him water his garden. I loved my grandfather. He could be slightly scary to others but to us grandchildren he was the most fun and special person around. To have special time with him, to be asked to do a job with him, was just amazing, the best thing I could be asked to do. Looking back with hindsight I’m sure I wasn’t a huge amount of help to my grandfather that day. I probably hose-piped him and the house more than I hit the garden, and those flowers I did hit, I probably pummelled flat with the ferocity of my spraying. But it gave both of us so much joy.
That joy, that sheer delight in doing a job alongside someone we love or respect, tends to be harder to hold on to as we get older. We think of reasons why it may not be convenient; we resent the intrusion into our own priorities and workloads. And so we miss out.
So I’m struck by the parable of the talents we have just read. There the labourers are entrusted with a responsibility by their boss: “while I’m away, can you do a job for me?” Two of them do so willingly. Their reward? More responsibility, more work. It seems a strange reward until you realise that the reward also leads to sharing in their boss’ happiness. It is a joy, a privilege, to serve. The other labourer chooses not to accept the invitation – out of laziness or out of fear of failure. And his reward: no more work but consequently no more sharing in the joy of the boss either.
Each of us here has been given the most wonderful invitation. God says to each one of us: I want you to come and work with me; I want you to share in my joy as we work together. Like my grandfather with me as a toddler, God does not expect us to do a perfect job or even a better job than he could do without us, but he wants the delight of doing it with us, and he wants us to share in that delight. How amazing is that!
Which brings us to our reading from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Those who have been paying particular attention to our readings and sermons over the last four weeks will have noticed that we have been working our way through this letter, discovering what Paul had to say to this young group of Christians in northern Greece. Today as we come to the end of his letter, Paul sums it up by a commission to them: “Get ready for God by doing the work he has called you to do”.
As we have seen over recent weeks, the church in Thessalonica experienced severe persecution. Christians were being beaten up for their faith. Paul himself had had to flee the city after just a few weeks because of the riots being stirred up against him. And so when they prayed: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, they must have really longed for that day when God’s kingdom would fully come. When they broke bread and remembered Christ’s death and resurrection and said the words we still say today: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”, that hope of Christ’s return must have filled their hearts with yearning.
And in communities around our world today suffering immense hardship and pain, whether in Gaza, or the genocide in Sudan, or the fighting in Myanmar, or the famines of East Africa, their cry goes out too: “Come, Lord Jesus. Come and put an end to all of this. Your kingdom come.”
Maybe each of us finds ourselves longing for that at times too. Whether its the pain of relationship difficulties that seem insoluble, or the suffering of loved ones that seem too much to bear, or the despair of not knowing how we can turn around seemingly intractable problems, we may find ourselves longing for God’s kingdom to come.
It is right to long for that day, to yearn for the day of Christ’s kingdom in all its fullness, for the day when Christ is fully acknowledged as king.
But what are we to do with those feelings of yearning and longing now? Are we tempted to give up on life, to feel there is nothing worth doing, nothing that we can do, until that day comes? To give up and wait in despair?
We find the answer interweaved between our two passages. Paul urges his readers to “get ready” for God’s coming kingdom, to live in expectancy. Jesus’ parable urges us to use our energy, our gifts, our time, in his service, that we may be part of the kingdom-coming process. And Paul fleshes that out with some practical instructions.
So, firstly, live with expectancy, live with hope. Sport is full of stories of teams that come from the brink of defeat to pull off unlikely victories. If you have been following the cricket world cup, you may have seen that the broadcasters have been displaying a “win predictor” during matches – showing the estimated percentage chance of a team winning or losing at any given point in the match. In one astonishing match a few days ago, Australia pulled off a victory against Afghanistan when the win predictor at a certain point in the match said they had a less than 1% chance of winning. They won because one of their batsmen retained hope, and ended up playing one of the greatest innings of all time, whilst playing on one leg and suffering from cramp and back spasms.
The win predictor for life may at times seem similarly bleak, but Paul encourages us to “put on the hope of salvation as a helmet”. To remind ourselves that the God who loved the world so much that he sent his only son to live among us and die for us, is not going to desert his world now. That he is committed to our world, and will one day renew it, and bring the peace, the life, the joy that it so needs. Even in the darkest of times, Paul says, live as children of light, hold on to the light of hope. No matter what the win predictor may say, we know that ultimate victory is assured.
Secondly, live with the joy and pride that you have been given a task by your heavenly Father. We are called to serve, to make a difference in our world for good, to use the gifts and time God has given us to help further the coming of his kingdom more fully among us.
Like my grandfather with me, God is not expecting from us perfection or especial competency. We may not feel particularly competent or confident in what we can offer. But none of that matters to him. What he longs for is that we show a desire to work with him, that we delight that he bends down to each one of us, looks us in the eye, and says: “I want you to help me”.
And Paul gives us an insight into what responding to that call means in practical terms. He says… Encourage one another and build one another up. I wonder, how do we affirm family members, colleagues, neighbours, when they do something good? Take a moment – is there someone you could speak to, ring, today?
Not only that, we are to live in peace with each other; be patient with everyone; make sure nobody pays back wrong for wrong. This is hard. When someone says something that we strongly disagree with, maybe even find offensive, our instinct may be to bite back. As I was writing this sermon, I received a message on one of the clergy what’s app groups that I strongly disagreed with. I was tempted to text back a cutting reply, but Paul’s words made me think twice. What could I do to work for peace and understanding instead?
And we are to encourage the disheartened, help the weak and always strive to do what is good for others. How does that apply to us in our daily lives – in our workplaces, families, neighbourhoods? Who needs encouragement, who needs support, how can we strive for what is good? For when we ask those questions and work towards answering them, we are working alongside God in his work of brining his kingdom nearer. Whether it is down the street or in the block where we live, or with Council, or in our schools, or in the companies we work for, are we joining in God’s invitation to work with him? What a joy and privilege.
And we finish with Paul’s most famous words from this letter: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” This is how we get ready for God’s coming kingdom. This is how we accept his call to serve him now. With rejoicing in who God is: the God of love, compassion, grace & wonder. In praying continually for his kingdom to come – his kingdom of justice, peace and life. And in giving thanks, that no matter our circumstances, no matter what the win predictor of life may be saying, God is with us, he will pull us through.