Second Sunday before Advent

Richard Hollingdale
Sunday 16th November, 2014

I was rather saddened last September by the death of Rev Ian Paisley, the northern Irish politician. Like anyone who has followed the politics of these islands over the last 30-40 years, I had been very aware of him since I first became interested in current affairs as a teenager. He was a towering figure, a great bear of a man with a booming voice. I didn’t agree at all with his political views, nor his religious views, but I had to admire someone who stood up so passionately and consistently for the principles he deeply believed in. As a politican he was hardline – no surrender! – and I remember him frequently berating the then Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, always seemingly with a group of press in tow. As a religious leader I remember him protesting vociferously when Pope John Paul II addressed the EU assembly, calling the Pope the Antichrist to his face. As a preacher, which is really why I mention him today, he was a fiery orator, calling up hellfire and brimstone and eternal damnation on all those he thought had departed from God’s path.

Zephaniah strikes me rather as the Ian Paisley of his day. Distress and devastation on the day of the Lord’s wrath. All will be consumed; all will face a terrible end. This sort of rhetoric has always been a part of both the Jewish and Christian traditions, even if we do not hear it much these days. We find hints of it too at the end of the reading from Matthew, where the servant will be thrown into the darkness, with weeping and gnashing of teeth. But is God really like that?

Let’s look a little closer at the parable in our reading from Matthew, which is often quoted to encourage Christians to use their talents in God’s service, because the word ‘talent’ suggests individual skills and abilities to the modern ear. Like the first two servants in the story, our waiting for our master’s return should be purposeful, not idle. But actually the word ‘talent’ is a translation of the Greek word talanton, which referred to a sum of money equivalent to 6000 drachmas – a substantial sum in those days, worth several years’ salary to the servants. Now while I don’t think this parable is an encouragement to us to invest in the Stockmarket, which of course did not exist in the 1st Century, its hearers would have known exactly how to make a profit from such a significant amount. Nevertheless, I don’t think this parable is really about economics. Instead it uses an economic example to illustrate some important truths about the Christian life and the character of God.

Today I want to focus for a few minutes on the third servant in the story. He buries the money in the ground and leaves it there to keep it safe. Why? Because he is scared of his master. He thinks he is harsh and exploits people. We don’t know if his master really is like that, but that is the servant’s perception. He is afraid that if he risks trying to increase the money he may lose it altogether and face terrible consequences when his master returns. So, paralysed by fear, he buries it and leaves it untouched.

Now it may be that the master is exactly as this servant describes; certainly his actions do tend to confirm the servant’s view. Yet might the master be reacting as much to the servant's characterization of him as he is revealing his true character? Is he – albeit unconsciously – playing a role? Maybe so. But whatever the truth here, surely it is the case that what we expect of a given situation or person very much determines the experience we then have.

Isn’t the same true of our expectations of God? I think each of us has fairly clear expectations of God that profoundly shape our experience of God. We all have a picture of God and our experience of God is coloured by that picture. For some, God is loving and kind, like a benevolent grandparent. For others, God is stern and judgmental. For some, God is protective; for others, God is always on the verge of anger. These pictures shape not just how we think about God but how we actually experience so many events in our day-to-day life that we connect to God and to our life of faith. We see what we are looking for.

This certainly happens in everyday life. For example, do we see conflict as something awful and to avoid at all costs? Then it probably will be. Or do we imagine conflict as a chance to grow? If so, then we will probably experience it as just that. Is a crisis a threat or an opportunity? Is a challenge a problem to overcome or a puzzle to be welcomed? So often our experience of life is deeply shaped by our expectations.

And how do we view failure? Are we so scared of failure – in God’s eyes, in others’ eyes, in our own eyes – that we never take risks or try anything new, like the third servant? Yet how can we advance and grow as a person if we never take a risk? Undoubtedly, sometimes we need to be shaken out of our comfort zone – or out of our complacency, as Zephaniah puts it. Perhaps that is the purpose in his fiery language. Surely it is by trying and failing that we learn and grow.

But equally we might ask if we are afraid of success. Do we think that success will change us, but not for the better? Will our friends not like us as much? Will success change our life in ways that we cannot handle, ways that are out of our control? Can we cope with not being in control of the outcome? That can also be a powerful reason for not taking risks.

Today’s gospel should reassure us that God will not be angry with us and judge us harshly if we do spread our wings and have a go. God wants us to take some risks. Like the first two servants, we will be rewarded with success – but not because we deserve it or we have earned it, but because it is a gift from God.

The master puts it like this in the story, in his remarkable – and rather subversive – conclusion. “To all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” It seems cruel and unfair, but the master is very accurately describing the way the world operates. The poor continue to get poorer. The rich continue to prosper, even when they have run companies or countries into the ground and brought them to the edge of ruin. Dare I say ‘bankers’?

But the master’s conclusion also describes the kingdom of God. More is given to those who have. Given. Not earned. The abundance that overflows from God and takes form in the person of Jesus. Such a generous gift, and if we accept it and the good news it represents; if we live well, following the way of Jesus, and if we do so in the here and now, not waiting timidly for the master to return, God will give us even more.

Isn’t that the sort of God we might want to believe in?

And that is the question I would like to leave us with today: what sort of God do we believe in? That’s a crucial question for us to reflect on, and perhaps for us to share and discuss with each other. How similar will our answers be, I wonder?

So as we approach Advent and we prepare once again to welcome Christ, the Son of God, I pray that we may all be able to come a little closer to knowing just which God it is that we are welcoming.

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