Year A: The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (November 16, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Judges 4:1-7
Well, first of all, let’s hear it for Deborah; it is nice to recover at least one remembrance of a woman in a place of authority in Israel. (Sorry for those who may still be caught in the “God can’t call a woman” trap…guess that’s exactly what God did here. But, I digress!)

Sisera, the villain of the story, is going to meet a painful end at the hand of another strong woman, Jael (see v. 21 in this same chapter.) But, the point of the story — as always — is that God is in control and will respond to the cries of God’s people.

Sure, there’s a little retributive justice that they have to go through first. But, God works through the circumstances of our lives to bring about God’s own good purposes, in God’s own good time. Thank God for the Deborahs and Jaels and multitudinous others who have listened and obeyed when God called.

Psalm 123
It may be a bit of stretch for most of us to truly understand what it means for a servant to look to a master for the OK to live, work and breathe. A “maid” depending on her “mistress” for sustenance and support doesn’t ring that true with most of us, either, I would suspect.

Regardless, we do look to God for relief in our distress…and for mercy when what we find in our world is contempt.

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Do we serve a “do-nothing” God? That’s the question that the prophet raises here. There are those that believe neither that God will do good, nor that God will do harm. The just don’t believe much about God at all!

I don’t know that the way to their conversion will be through blood-pouring and dung-flinging…but “the day of the Lord” is coming, nonetheless. What do we have to say about that, preachers?

Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12
I like the thought of God’s existence being “from everlasting to everlasting.” God lives in all of the time between the boundaries of eternity…and exists outside those boundaries, as well. There is simply nowhere — no place, no space, no time — that God is not.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Back in the way cool 1970’s, there was lots of interest in the ending of the world and the image of “the thief in the night” received a good bit of airplay in the popular culture. Hal Lindsey made a mint from the publication of The Late, Great Planet Earth (28,000,000 copies sold and counting!)

I remember lying awake at night, pretty much scared to go to sleep, wondering if I might snooze through the Second Coming and miss the excitement. (It wasn’t until a few years later that we learned from Tim LaHaye about being “Left Behind.”)

Notice that Paul tells the Thessalonians, “but you are not in darkness;…that day will not surprise you.” (v.4) The purpose of this passage is encouragement, not warning (though I’m brushing up on my apocalyptic imagery, just in case!)

Matthew 25:14-30Like so many of the parables we have been reading during this stretch from Matthew’s gospel, this one has a bit of a tough pill for us to swallow at the end. We’re not fond of weeping and gnashing of teeth, when it comes right down to it.

As my colleague, Dr. Chilton is wont to say, “Jesus calls us to leave our fear behind and give ourselves over totally to trust and faith in God.” I believe that is, indeed, the message of the parable. Don’t worry that you might mess it up; go ahead and live life with the “talents” God has given you.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

When I was a child, we have week-long revivals at Slate Mountain Missionary Baptist Church. The revival preacher generally centered on issues of Jesus coming again in judgment, While he spent a lot of time on the lake of fire, most of his effort was put into the rapture and how the Christians would be taken up to heaven and the evil people left behind.

When I was 9 or 10, I was mighty shy and mighty scared of going to hell. If there was any way to get saved and accept Christ and avoid Hellfire other than going down to the front of the church during the invitation, I would have done it. But there wasn’t and I was too shy to go down there in front of all those people. So I prayed each night in my bed for forgiveness and please, please Jesus, don’t leave me behind.

One morning during the fall revival I awoke at dawn to a completely empty house. My parents and my four siblings weren’t there. Even the dog was nowhere to be seen. The electricity wouldn’t work. I immediately jumped to conclusions. Oh my God! Jesus came back, and took everybody else, and left me behind. I’m going to hell.

It sounds funny now, but I assure you – it wasn’t funny then. Imagine a nine year old boy, in his underwear, down on his knees in the frost covered backyard, tears streaming down his face, pleading with Jesus to spare him. It was an awful few minutes.

Then I heard a familiar sound, “Putt, putt, putt.” Our farm tractor. Suddenly the dog burst over the hill behind the house followed by the tractor pulling a trailer load of cured tobacco, my family riding along. They had gone to get a load of cured tobacco out of the barn and transfer it to the pack house, and decided that since I had the sniffles to leave me in bed. And, the power had gone out, which happened once or twice a month, for no known reason. Instead of the Devil coming to devour me, it was just my parents coming to fuss at me for being outside in my underwear and my siblings to laugh at me for being afraid.

When I read our Gospel lesson for today, the fear and terror of that morning came back to me. As I read the harsh judgment pronounced upon the fearful servant, the one-talent wonder who was so afraid of failure that he hid his talent for fear of losing it; I shook once again with the recollection of my evil and my failures and my fearful retreats into silence.  I thought to myself – “The ‘master’ will return some day and judgment will come upon me, unexpectedly, as Paul says, ‘like a thief in the night,’ when I least expect it. What am I going to do?”

This text is a warning against complacency, against merely maintaining the status quo, against quietly holding down the fort.  As our reading from Zephaniah says, “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs,” (1:12) Even the Psalm reminds us that “We are consumed by your anger; we are afraid because of your wrath.” (90:7)

One time in Lent I preached a sermon on the crucifixion and a man came out of church and complained, “I don’t come to church to hear all that negative stuff.  I come to church to feel better.”  Looking at these texts, I know exactly how he felt.  As a person and as a preacher, I find myself wondering “Where is the good news here? Where is the grace note?  Where is the positive word of forgiveness and love that will lift me off my knees and back into my life?”

Today, it’s not in the lesson from Matthew, but the letter of Paul to Thessalonica: – “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” (5:9-10) Though Paul too has just talked about the end times and the coming Judgment, he reminds us that our salvation is not in ourselves or in anything that we do or don’t do.  Our salvation is in God’s hands, in Christ’s death and resurrection. Here we are called upon to recognize our need to respond to God’s love with love and care for others without fearing that our failure to do that perfectly will land us in eternal flames.

For in the meantime, in the time between now and the eternal then, there are no small moments, no insignificant actions.  Whether we have five talents, two talents, or one – we are invited, encouraged and expected to use all for the glory of God.

John A Broadus was the first Professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, back in 1850. He was a recognized scholar of Classics and the New Testament. He had taught at the University of Va. and was well respected in all academic circles. When the Civil War erupted, the seminary closed and Broadus served as a military chaplain. After the war, in the fall of 1865, the school reopened with one student. But Broadus soldiered on, lecturing on a regular schedule to this one student, teaching him Theology and Bible and Preaching. He carefully prepared his lectures for his one student, and in 1870 those lectures became a book called A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons.  It is still in print, it was the standard preaching textbook in many American seminaries well into the mid twentieth century.

John Broadus did not teach his one student because he was afraid of the wrath of the “master.”

No, John Broadus taught his student because that was what God had called him to do. He never considered burying his talent.  He believed God wanted him to use what he had to the best of his ability and to leave the ultimate outcome up Divine Providence and Intention. Broadus did not prepare his lectures expecting to write a book. He prepared his lectures in order to teach his one student to preach.

So it is with us.  These texts are not here to terrify us. They are here to remind us to take ourselves and our lives as God’s people in the world seriously. We each have gifts from God to use in the world.  It matters not how many we have.  It does matter greatly what we do with them.

Amen and amen.

2 thoughts on “Year A: The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (November 16, 2014)

  1. Congratulations on 100. Yes, there are those who listen. I just wish I had started listening sooner. Some folks have even said that my sermons have gotten better, which I believe are a result of listening to your conversations about the Lectionary. I hope that I can join you at the next Hinton Center Conference in Feb.
    Peace and blessings as you begin a new year. Thank you for your gift of bringing Holy Scripture alive that comes from years of living a life of study and piety.
    Les Spear+

  2. Les…what a delight to hear from you again! Thank you for your generous comments; they help to keep us going. May God bless you and your ministry this year. We hope to see you “on the mountain” in February.

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