This was the message that I gave at Grace UMC (St. Cloud, MN) for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A), 25 July 1993. My scriptures for this Sunday were Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 9 and Matthew 25: 13.
The measurement of time is an interesting thing. The development of our civilization can be marked by how we measure time. While we use watches and clocks to measure the passage of the day, people in John Wesley had to rely on bulky and unreliable clocks. People in Jesus’ time marked the passage of time through the use of hour glasses. Early man had only the movement of the sun and stars. While we have calendars to tell us what day of the month it is, early man had to rely on the changing of the seasons. It was against that backdrop that the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven;
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 8)
But time meant more to this writer than simply passages through life.
“What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3: 9 – 11)
Against a background of day-to-day life and the struggle to make a living, the writer saw that God was a part of his life and that he was a part of God’s plan for the world. He knew that without God, life held no promise, that there was no hope in the future. The same is true for us today. As we begin to look towards the year 2000 and the new millennium, we ask what the future will bring us. Will the future bring us hope and good fortune? Or will it bring us pain and misery? Will God remember or forget us in the passage of time?
It has long been noted that the coming of a new century brings with it renewed anticipation for the Second Coming of the Lord. There are some who say that the all of the disasters we have endured this summer, the floods in the Midwest, the excessive heat in the East, and the drought in the South, are all signs that God is displeased with us and His return is imminent.
We are not the first generation to say this. Every generation before us has had someone who looked at society and all of its troubles and interpreted it to mean that now is the time for the coming of the Lord. But Jesus told us that we would never know when he was coming.
“Then the Kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you. Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.’” (Matthew 25: 1 – 13)
Nor will we know how he will come. In Matthew 25: 31 – 46 we read,
“But when I, the Messiah, shall come in my glory, and all the angels with me, then I shall sit upon my throne of glory. And all the nations shall be gathered before me. And I will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and place the sheep at my right hand, and the goats at my left.”
“Then I, the King, shall say to those at my right, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, into the Kingdom prepared for you from the founding of the world. For I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me water; I was a stranger and you invited me into your homes; naked and you clothed me; sick and in prison, and you visited me.'”
“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Sir, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you anything to drink? Or a stranger, and help you? Or naked, and clothe you? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?”
“And I, the King, will tell them, ‘When you did it to these my brothers you were doing it to me!’ Then I will turn to those on my left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry and you wouldn’t feed me; thirsty, and you wouldn’t give me anything to drink; a stranger, and you refused me hospitality; naked, and you wouldn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.'”
“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’ And I will answer, ‘When you refused to help the least of these my brothers, you were refusing help to me.'”
“And they shall go away into eternal punishment; but the righteous into everlasting life.” (Matthew 25:31 – 46)
Jesus may come this afternoon and we might not know it. After all, even Jesus’ own disciples did not recognize him at first after the resurrection. So what can we do if Jesus should ask us what we did to help Him?
There are a number of possibilities. First, we could run away. But then we would be like Jonah. Remember what happened to him? When first called by the Lord, Jonah chose to flee. In chapter 1 of the book of Jonah, we read
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god; and they threw the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call upon your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we do not perish.”
And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us, on whose account this evil has come upon us? What is your occupation? And whence do you come? What is your country? And of what people are you?” And he said them, “I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.
Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Take me up and throw me into the sea; the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. Therefore they cried to the Lord, “We beseech thee, O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood; for thou, O Lord, hast done as it pleased thee.” So they took up Jonah and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” (Jonah 1: 1 – 15)
Jonah did not simply go to the next city or county to get away from God. He tried to put as much distance as he could between himself and God. It would be like trying to hide from the authorities in New York by going to Los Angeles. But it doesn’t matter where we hide, God can still find us. And, like Jonah, when we get trapped by our efforts to escape, until we come to the Lord, He will not help us.
Second, we could ignore the problem. After all, if God is angry with this country, He has the power to simply wipe it off the map. But, if we choose to take no action, we are like the servant given the single talent. Turn to the parable of the servants and the talents, Matthew 25: 14 – 30. I want to use this parable in its literal terms, using the word talents to mean the skills and abilities we bring to the church. If you recall, the first servant was given ten talents which he used wisely. Because he did so, he returned twenty talents to his master. Likewise, the second servant, given five talents, returned ten talents to his master because he too had used them wisely. But look at what happened to the third servant in this parable, the one who choose to hide his single talent and not develop it. In Matthew 25: 24 – 30 we read
“He also who had received the one came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’ (Matthew 25: 24 – 30)
Just as this third servant lost his single talent because he failed to use it, if we do not use our talents, those skills and abilities that God has given to us, we will die. This death may not be a physical death but it will certainly be a spiritual death, leaving us without any hope for the future. A church which ignores its responsibilities to society, a church which does not seek to be a positive force in its community, will likewise die.
Finally the third possibility. Instead of running away from the Gospel or ignoring it completely, we can accept the Gospel message in our hearts and take the Gospel message to the people. Jesus knew that the Gospel message must be taken to the people. He sought a ministry outside the temple walls. In closing the Sermon on the Mount, he told the people
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 13 – 16)
To take the Gospel to the people is undoubtedly the toughest choice we can make. It is tough enough to accept the Gospel; it is even tougher to live the Gospel message. Stephen was stoned to death because he chose to preach the Gospel and challenged people to choose a life in Christ.
John Wesley understood that challenge. He knew that if English society was to change, it’s heart must change first and that could only be done through the Gospel. Forbidden by law to preach in the Church of England, Wesley and his followers, our forefathers in the United Methodist Church, took the message of the Gospel into the fields and the streets of England. On more than one occasion, crowds were encouraged to harass and physically abuse Wesley and the other Methodist preachers. Many an earlier Methodist preacher was put into jail for preaching the Gospel. But we cannot expect others to know the Gospel message if we do not let them know.
But there are rewards. Because they were kind to three strangers, Abraham and Sara, both in their ninety’s, became the parents of the future nation of Israel. Because Wesley preached the Gospel, because Wesley sought to make fundamental changes in English society, many historians feel that the violent revolution which occurred in France was avoided in England.
We do not know when Jesus will come again nor how he will do so. But how we as individuals and as a church act today determines our tomorrow. If we run away from God, we will never receive rest. We will be like Jonah, trapped and with no hope of escape. If we ignore God, we will be like the writer of Ecclesiastes crying that all our work is in vain. We will have no future.
Accepting Jesus Christ as our personal Savior will not solve society’s problems. But by placing Jesus in our hearts and in our souls, we gain the power by which those problems can be solved. We can become like the other two servants whose talents, whose skills and abilities multiplied when they did the work of their Master. We go beyond a simple day-to-day existence. Through our acceptance of Jesus Christ, we receive that special guarantee of the empty tomb, the promise of everlasting life as our future.