Second Sunday Before Advent 19 November
Readings: Zephaniah 1. 7, 12-end; 1 Thess. 5. 1-11; Matt. 25. 14-30
Theme: The Day of Judgment
The theme running through all three of our readings today is that of the judgment of the Lord, ‘The Day of the Lord’, as it is also called. But why are we being judged and what does this judgment consist in?
To answer this question, we need to bear in mind several things. The first is that this notion of judgment has a long history to it. The people of the Old Testament had continually wandered far from the covenant made between God and God’s people and through a series of reforms and prophetic admonitions the people are frequently reminded that the Lord will judge them on how they have responded. The response to this special relationship between God and God’s people is what is being judged. Have we honoured the relationship with God by our obedience or not? Dishonouring this relationship brings upon the people the harsh judgment prophesized in our reading from Zephaniah, “The cry on the day of the Lord is bitter; the Mighty Warrior shouts his battle cry. That day will be a day of wrath—a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of clouds and blackness—a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers”.
In the contemporary world, we cannot read such passages as they would have been read by the ancient Israelites. We no longer have an image of God as the angry warlord in the sky just waiting for an opportunity to deal out a lethal judgment of those who are disobedient. Such images of God permeate many of the texts of the Old Testament because in that world, the images of battle and warfare were projected onto the heavenly powers and the various gods and goddesses of these ancient peoples were frequently envisaged as prize fighters who would pile in on the side of the tribe to defeat their enemies.
Our images of God are very different. We no longer accept a God who is out to get us; whose anger requires appeasing by the blood of his enemies or even by the blood of the Son, as in some medieval theories of atonement. So, given this change of understanding, how should we understand the notion of the judgment of the Lord?
The Gospel passage from Matthew today concerning the talents or ‘bags of gold’, as we have it in our translation, is helpful in this respect. It speaks in the language of generosity and responsibility. Generosity in the sense that God has shared his own self with us, or as the Gospel puts it in financial language, “entrusted his wealth to them”. And, responsibility in the sense that what God has given to us, he expects us to use for his kingdom, as the imagery of five, two and one bags of gold is meant to represent. Having been given the wealth of the man (God) going on a journey, we are expected to use this wisely. It is our responsibility to do this because the one who has given us this wealth trusts that we will do so and it is reasonable for him to do this, if we are truly in a covenantal relationship with him.
So, what is this wealth that we have been given to steward? It is none other than the knowledge of God as revealed in Jesus, the Christ. We have been given this great wealth of knowing who God is and with this comes responsibility. It carries with it the responsibility of cultivating it, or of increasing its value in the imagery of the Gospel parable, and this means that the faith we have been given is not something that we should lock away in a cupboard or bury in the ground, as the servant with only one bag of gold does in the parable. It is something which needs us to invest ourselves in so that this gift can be properly cultivated. It should, therefore, not come as a surprise that if we do not do this, when the day of the Lord comes, the day of judgment, we are not prepared. As with any aspect of our lives, being ready, being prepared, is essential if we are to be able to respond appropriately. It is no different with our faith. The gift of knowing God in Jesus the Christ is not something which we can simply take for granted and presume that it will be all fine. If we are to receive this gift, we cannot sit around idle with it. It requires us to respond.
This is the meaning of the judgment that is passed on the servant who received just one bag of gold. He may probably represent in the story the one who thinks that it is possible to sit on his laurels with faith and just imagine that it will all be fine. It won’t. Faith requires us to actively receive it, to cultivate it and to invest ourselves in it. So, without this, it is clear that when the Lord returns and asks us what we have done with the faith that has been given to us, we should not be surprised at the consequences. In fact, when you think about it, I am sure most of us would agree that if we do not take responsibility for our faith, we should not expect to be ready at the day of judgment.
So, given this, it is clear that we should all be concerned to cultivate the gift of faith which has been given to us. If we do this, then when the day of the Lord comes, we should expect to meet the one in whom we have been growing in faith throughout our lives. When this is the case, the day of judgment will not be like on the day spoken of by the prophet Zephaniah, but rather it will be a day of great joy, for it will be then that our heart’s desire will be satisfied.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.