The Terror of a Moment of Reckoning
Sermon for November 18-19, 2017
The Last Judgment as Hope and Terror
Near the end of his earthly ministry, the disciples asked Jesus to tell them when the end of the age would come, and what signs they might observe that would alert them that end was coming. Jesus told them that no one knows the day or the hour when the end will come, and he alerted them to signs that have been observed and noted in every generation since: wars, violence, hatred, divisiveness and oppression.
We note those signs even today, and we wonder if this might be the end, the great unraveling of creation. Deep down, we long for an end to war and violence; oppression and suffering; hunger and thirst and mourning and loss, and we cry out for justice and the start of a new day. And so, we have to recognize that something deep in us longs for the end to come and that longing is a cry for release from the powers that bring pain and suffering and death. We wait and watch for the end.
And yet … the thought of the end strikes fear into our heart. What might be next, ... after the end?
In hope, we long for a new world, a new heaven, a new earth. We desire to see God and God's purposes clearly. We want a new way of relating to God and each other based on love and trust. To that end, we all have our own fantasies of paradise, but whatever those dreams may be … they still testify to a longing that the end of all things will be the start of something new. Our imaginations and desires can't tell us what this new thing might be, but we hope it is wonderful, beautiful, just, and we hope that we are somehow included in something new and glorious. And yet, there is a fear in this as well. The fear that wonders if the freedom and justice of a new day that some long would give birth to yet another nightmare of oppression and suffering. But even worse than that is this gnawing doubt that wonders if the end is just that ... the end. The creation unravels, and the story is over, and there is no second act. What if ... the end is nothingness and oblivion.
To quell their fears and give us hope Jesus gave his disciples another sign to wait and watch for. The last sign is a vision of Jesus coming again in glory to judge both the living in the dead. We have yet to observe that sign. We still watch and wait for Jesus to appear. We watch and wait for the great unveiling ... not an unraveling. It is that yet to be revealed sign that gives Jesus’ disciples confidence and hope that the end yet to come really is the beginning of God’s new thing and not another power play or the looming darkness of oblivion. Jesus is coming again, enthroned in glory and power. That proclamation inspires and sustains faith and hope in the hearts of all who trust in God. But, there is fear here, too. And like all fears, it reveals something about ourselves and our relationship to God. This fear is the fear of judgment, specifically the fear of God’s judgment.
The Problem with Accountability
We cannot silence the anxious voice in our head by telling ourselves, "I don't believe in a God who judges" any more than I can silence my own anxious heart by asking others, "Please, don't judge me." Few eagerly away a moment of judgment, whether that judgment comes by my own words, by my peers, by my enemies of by my God. I do not think I can count the times, I myself have shouted … or pleaded with people … mostly in my head, of course, “Please, don’t judge me.” It’s become the motto of our age: "Don’t Judge!" And being judg-ey or judgmental is a type of modern mortal sin.
And yet, at the same time, everywhere we hear the refrain of accountability. In every aspect of our lives, someone is advocating a process that will hold us accountable for this or that. We are held accountable for our performance at work, our behavior in private and in public, our church, and even within ourselves as we try to become more ... [fill in the blank]. The more we multiply moments of accountability, the more we cry, "Please, don’t judge me." Call it what we want, it’s the same. The accountability review session, is a moment of judgment, a moment of reckoning.
Jesus makes that quite clear in the parable that is our Gospel reading for this week. It’s a story of an accounting, which, of course, serves as a metaphor for the final judgment. We can think of the last judgment in terms of a moment of accountability, when we will have to stand before Jesus and testify about what we have done with what we have been given. There’s something broken in this metaphor, and I think Jesus is out to fix it, but for now let yourself feel and experience the moment of reckoning when it is time to open our books and give an accounting for what we have produced with capital and opportunities we’ve been given in the time that yet remains before the end. Can you feel the terror of a moment of accountability?
It’s About the Relationship Between Slave and Master
There’s something strange about this story, though. Can you feel it? Can you sense it? Let’s see. Can I take a quick, blind poll? OK, I’m going to ask which of these slaves do you most feel for and identify with? But I am going to ask you to close your eyes, so no one else can see what anyone else is saying. And, by the way, I won’t be judging you by your answer, I am truly curious to see if we’re feeling the weight of this parable in a similar way.
Thank you. If you identified with the first two steward slaves, you are on the right track, but I want to ask you to consider ... with empathy and compassion ... the plight of the third slave for a moment, because in the time we have before the end, we can be part of Jesus' answer to the fear that paralyzes capable and talented disciples.
I truly believe that this story is a story that is constructed so that we identify most closely with the third slave. The slave who seems to be more comfortable being a slave than being steward and partner in the work of the master. The other characters, at least to me, pass by in a repeatable formula, like the priest and levite in the parable of the good samaritan. But the heart of this story is in the relationship between that third slave and the master. Our own fears (or avoidance or denial) of the final judgment also reveal a similar broken-ness in our relationship with God.
Knowing me that way I do, I cannot imagine that any accountability session would result in anything short of condemnation. God is perfect and holy. God’s standards and expectations are perfection (in the sense of lacking nothing, nothing left undone) — perfection in my love for and trust in God and perfection in my love for neighbor. Yet, I confess that I sin daily in thought, word and deed, in what I have done and left undone. And … if I am angered and frustrated by my own selfishness and weakness and meanness and on and on … how much more angry must God be with me. And then what? That's the problem of accountability. What will you do to me if I come up short of expectations? That's the fear. That's the fear because whether in the church or out of the church we have most always followed up meetings of accountability with some sort of rejection or punishment. If that is what we find in the managers and authorities of this world ... then how much more will find it God.
You see, we do not trust each other to deal gently with our shortcomings. We don't trust Jesus, either. The fear of judgment reveals the brokenness of our relationship. The problem isn't that Jesus will come to judge us. The problem is that we do not trust Jesus' own righteousness, power of ability to deal with our sin in love and mercy.
“Lord, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you do not sow and gathering where you do not plant, so look, here you have what is your own.” This may be one of the saddest and most pitiful speeches in all of scripture, and it gets worse. This poor slave hears his worst fears confirmed, the nightmare scenario of condemnation and rejection becomes reality. The master rejects and condemns him. Tells him what he already knows about himself. He is just a worthless slave.
Everything in my being at the end of this story wants to run to this poor person as he is being dragged away into the darkness and oblivion outside the realm of the master, and I want to say, “I understand. I get it. I know why you just buried the treasure in the ground to keep it safe and preserve it intact until he returned. I understand, and I see that your really achieved your goal for the sake of your master.” And I want to say, “It’s just not fair."
The Truth About Ourselves — We are sinful, and we are afraid
If we think we are worthless slaves. If we know that the master is waiting to condemn and punish poor performance. If we want to do what we can to escape with our lives and save ourselves, then the best we do is to prudently manage the master's stuff so that we don’t lose it, so we don’t fail, and so no one ever knows how little talent and ability we actually have. So know one every discovers the truth … I am sinful, and I am afraid.
We are justified by grace through faith — Jesus came into the world to save sinners
Jesus takes us to that point in this story. It is, of course, alway helpful to remember that this is a single, teaching story that appears within the larger story of God revealed in Jesus Christ. If you can't imagine Jesus acting like the king in this story, it is only because you know the larger truth of the story of Jesus' life, ministry, death and resurrection. It is only because, by God's grace and in the Spirit, you trust God and God's response to sin in Christ's death and resurrection. Yet, here and now, in our teaching and in our learning about ourselves and our relationship to God ... Jesus takes us to the edge of destruction to show us how warped things have become when we live life on our own, from out of ourselves, our thoughts, our feelings, our emotions, instead of out the faith, hope and love that come to us as a gift enjoyed in a reconciled relationship with God through Christ.
And I think the good news and the promise of this story is that Jesus takes us aside and speaks to us and teaches us and tells us here and now while there is yet time to change our hearts and minds. Jesus prepares us to look at the cross and to hope in the resurrection so that in him, the fear of judgment and condemnation and rejection is taken away. All our sins are forgiven. All our shortcomings are transformed into wonderful new opportunities for God's grace to display and glorify this perfect God who loves us.
What is the difference between the first two slaves and the third slave. At first glance, it is a difference of performance, and, of course a difference in ability and giftedness. But that’s not quite it. If that was the case, the story-world would include the possibility of loss and failure and various degrees of return. But in this world Jesus creates, there is not the possibility of loss … except by doing nothing, except by fear. The fearsome wrath of the king is a reality only in fears of the heart of the third slave. For the stewards of the king's wealth, which is there's as a gift, by the way, there is a relationship of love, trust and common mission.
The difference is that the first two understand they are more than just slaves, but stewards of the master’s assets and partner in the master’s plans, purposes and aspirations. They understand the nature of their call and the permission to take risk for the sake of reward that comes with it. The aim of this story is to show us how God is transforming us fearful, worthless slaves of sin … into stewards of the mysteries of God and partners in purposes and plans of God’s coming kingdom.
And that’s the re-telling of the story that Jesus accomplishes through his own death and resurrection for us. Through the call of the Gospel, the Spirit overcomes our fear, giving us faith to die in sin in hope of rising to new life. To come to the cross, however, we reach the end. A total and utter vulnerability … an ultimate risk ... our life, for his.
That is the accountability and potential of this moment That is the accountability and potential within the realm of church disciplines and discipleship, within the grace, love and mercy of a God who died and rose for us And it leads us to consider then how we might better use these gifts and capabilities and opportunities we have been given so that God might be glorified in grace and love.
The steward’s job is to convert commodities into currency that master can employ to increase the power and influence of his realm. In a worldly sense this multiplies oppression and suffering, but in the currency of God's kingdom it overwhelms death with the gift of life, freedom and faith. The freedom and faith that only come when finally here the master say, Well done, good and faithful servants. Enter into the joy of your master ... and that is the good news I proclaim to you now. That in Christ's death and resurrection, even your sin has become God's profit and your gift ... through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
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