Sunday, March 25, 2012

Entering the Joy of Our Lord - III : Serving God Generously [Matthew 25.14-30] (21 January 2001)

Soli Deo Gloria! To God alone be the glory. That was what Johann Sebastian Bach inscribed at the top of every piece of music he wrote. Though he died in the mid eighteenth century, his music—especially his church music—lives on to this day while numerous other composers have become passé. He had learnt what our text for today intends to teach us.

Two Sundays back we dealt with serving God faithfully as a means of entering into the joy that Jesus has for NUPC. The passage we learned from was Matthew 24.45-51. We saw then that Jesus defended his practice of associating with people who were otherwise considered to be beyond God’s blessing. He ate and drank with gluttons and drunkards, tax collectors and prostitutes. We saw that the task for NUPC as we move to a new place further from the University and inside the community is to be the bearers of God’s love and grace to various groups in the community who we are told are beyond God’s love and grace—the poor, the homeless, single parents, pregnant teenagers, gangs members, drug addicts, pushers, prostitutes, people with AIDS, drunks, gays.

Then last Sunday we learned from Matthew 25.1-13 how to serve God expectantly. We saw that Jesus urged his disciples to be in a state of relentless anticipation—a state in which there are no easy answers. We saw that, as NUPC is poised for wonderful things, we should make plans—plans both to disciple the Christians at NUPC and to reach the community with God’s love. And we should expect God to revise our plans.

Today we will learn from Matthew 25.14-30. On the Tuesday before he was betrayed, Jesus and his disciples went to the temple. As they were leaving, his disciples brought to his notice the wonderful buildings of the temple. In response to this Jesus pronounced a curse on the temple. Surprised at this, his disciples asked him, “When will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” These words form three questions: 1. When will this be—that is, when will the temple be destroyed; 2. What will be the sign of your coming; and 3. What will be the sign of the end of the age? Please stand to hear part of Jesus’ answer to these three questions.

[Here read Matthew 24.36-25.30]

Please be seated.

The passage we are dealing with today is a parable. In the parable a wealthy man entrusts three of his servants with money and leaves on a trip. Now Jesus is careful to add the words “to each according to his ability.” The servants receive different amounts of money not because the master shows favoritism. Rather, the master recognizes the abilities of the servants. He probably bases this on their past endeavors for later in the parable the two servants who are called faithful are given greater responsibilities based on their performance. So what sets the servants apart is not how much they are given but what they do with what they are given.

The third servant did not put his money to work for two reasons. First, he was afraid of reporting to the master with less than what was given him. So he took his single talent and buried it in the ground. This, according to some commentators, was considered the best way to guard against theft. We can picture him stealthily making his way to a remote part of his master’s property at night, under the cover of darkness, when the other two servants were busy working. There, as silently as possible, he dug a hole in the ground, probably cursing every time the shovel rang against a rock for someone might hear him. The hole dug, he quietly placed the money into the womb of the earth and covered it. This servant was not concerned with putting the money to use.

For, he was motivated by fear, as he himself says. Why else would he hide the money in the ground? And how many sleepless nights did he have wondering whether someone would inadvertently dig up the money? Driven by fear that paralyzed him, he was able to take only the solitary act of burying the talent. He did not want it stolen. But it did not occur to him that he could use it. He was probably counting the days till the master returned so he could get this burdensome treasure off his chest. He was short sighted.

Much like the old member in a church who objected to the proposal to buy a plot of land adjoining the church yard to increase burial space. “I have measured the yard,” said he, “and have counted all our members, and find there is just enough room left to bury all our members without buying more land.” But what about new members? This man had a sure fire plan the kill the church!

Now the third servant had one thing right. He knew that his master would return someday. And he knew he would have to account for what had been given him. But he saw the master as a harsh man. His master would ask him to give an account for the talent that had been entrusted to him. If he was not able to produce it, the master would be furious. He could not risk having to come before the master empty handed. After all, a talent would have amounted to fifteen years worth of wages! It was as though the master had given him a million dollars. He had hit the jackpot without even playing the lottery! But he knew the money was not his. Paralyzed by fear he was like the person in the Yiddish proverb who can’t dance but complains that the band can’t play.

Since he was afraid of having less than what had been given him when the master returned, he decided to play it safe. Much like Dan Bricklin. Do not be surprised if you haven’t heard the name. I hadn’t heard of him either till I read an article about him in the US News and World Report. So all my information about him is from the article. It so happens that this man is a genius. He invented the first computerized spreadsheet. Today we can hardly do any job without resorting to some sort of number crunching on a spreadsheet. All thanks to Dan Bricklin. But when his contemporary Bill Gates dropped out of college to concentrate on Microsoft, Bricklin decided to play it safe and complete his M.B.A at Harvard. After all, a Harvard M.B.A almost spells job security. But today Gates is a household name, even if a notorious one. But hardly anyone has heard of Bricklin. For he played it safe.

Why did the third servant play it safe when the other two servants did not? What gave rise to the paralyzing fear he himself said he experienced? See what he says to the master: “Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid.” There it is! He was afraid because he saw the master as a harsh man. If that were the case, if the master were indeed a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter seed, the servant should have at least made a safe investment in the bank. That is what the master tells him in response. Certainly he could have found a reasonably stable bank which would have ensured that he would receive a fair amount of interest by the time the master returned.

Yet, for some reason, he chose to bury the money in a barren hole in the earth. What could this reason be? Let us probe his words a little more. He ends his words to the master with, “Here you have what is yours.” Now when the master had entrusted the three servants with money, he had given them what was his. But the first two servants manage to double what was given to them. Technically, the first servant possessed five talents that belonged to the master and five talents that were the product of his own hard work. Similarly, the second servant had two talents belonging to the master and two that were the fruit of his own labor.

“Here you have what is yours,” says the third servant. What does he imply? Is he not saying, “Master, you gave me one talent, which rightly belongs to you. Had I put it to work, you would expect me to give you even what my hard labor has produced, much like you have with these two servants whom you have commended. Since the product of my sweat should belong to me, and since you insist on having even that, I decided not to put the money to work. So here you have what is technically yours. I’m sure you can’t fault me for this.”

You see, the third servant not only did not want to go before the master with less than he had been given. The second reason why he did not put the money to work was that he also did not want to go there with more! For he was unwilling to let the master have possession of what he had earned. This is the second way in which he stands in stark contrast to the other two servants. They willingly give the master even what they had earned along with what they had been given. They realize that they would not have been able to earn anything had the master not given them something in the first place. The first two servants seem to have the view that whatever they earn with the master’s money should belong to the master. But the third servant is different. He believed that the master owned only the principal. He thought that the earnings on the money should belong to him. He knew that the master would expect all the money returned. His own selfishness and greed made him see the master as a cruel and harsh man for having such expectations. The way we are, the kind of people we are shapes the way in which we view others.

In his book Virtuous Passions, Father G. Simon Harak narrates the following story. Three students decided to go to the movies. One of them was a former Marine sergeant. The second had studied karate for a number of years. The third had no such training in violence in his background. After buying their tickets they regrouped in the lobby. The former Marine addressed the other two, “Did you see that guy on the other side of the ticket booth?” “Yes,” replied the former karate student, “He sure was cruisin’ for a bruisin’, wasn’t he?” “You know,” said the former Marine, “the look on his face...I was just waiting for him to try something.” Saying that, the former Marine thumped one fist into the other palm. The former karate student started to say, “If he had made a move, I would’ve...” but the third student interrupted them by saying, “What guy?”

The two students who were trained in violence were disposed to taking things in a certain way. They were, in every sense, looking for trouble. But the third student was not. His background of nonviolence made him expect nonviolent behavior from others. He might have indeed perceived the belligerent man but did not perceive him as belligerent.

In the same way the three servants in our parable had the same master. There is nothing to indicate that the master used to treat them differently. Sure he gave them different amounts of money. But he rewards the first and second servants in exactly the same way with exactly the same words. Though the master used to treat all three in the same way, the third servant had a decidedly different picture of the master.

He saw the master as an exacting, cruel man. So he treated the master in the same way. He saw the master as a miser, so he gave the master miserably in both his work and his repayment. He did not work and he gave the master exactly what had initially been given to him. But the first two servants recognized the master’s generosity. They worked generously and gave back to the master in a generous manner.

How we view God will determine how we treat God and the gifts he has given us. If we view God as a miser, we will give him miserable work and use our gifts in a miserly fashion. If we see him as harsh, we will address him harshly. If, on the other hand, we view God as generous, we will give him generous work and use our gifts generously. If we see him as gracious, we will address him graciously.

Now, the way the three servants viewed their master had consequences. The parable does not end with the servants giving back to the master. Rather, it ends with the master giving again to the servants. To the first two he gives dominion over many things. To the third servant he metes out punishment.

In a sense, all three servants get something at the end of the parable. Quite a few of you have probably heard of the computer-speak word WYSIWYG. What You See Is What You Get. For all practical purposes, the experiences of the three servants are like that. The first two servants see the master as gracious and generous. The third sees him as miserly and harsh. All three work for him in accordance with their perception of the master’s character. And in doing so, their characters are changed. The first two become more like the master. The third becomes more unlike the master. And at the end the master rewards them all with what they saw in him because they have become like their perception of the master. The first two are rewarded with grace because, in seeing the master as gracious, they had become gracious. The third is rewarded with harshness because, in seeing the master as harsh, he had become harsh.

This is revealed in the way in which the master addresses the third servant. “You wicked and lazy slave!” he says. Note the order. The first charge is that the slave is wicked. He is wicked because his view of the master reveals him to be wicked for only a wicked person could accuse so gracious a master of being harsh. And his wickedness leads to his laziness. He fails to work because he does not want to work for the master. And he does not want to work for the master for, on account of his own miserable character, he sees the master as a miser.

So what does all this have to do with NUPC? Why have we labored three weeks through this greatly misunderstood portion of Jesus’ teachings?

God has placed us in a place of tremendous opportunity. We have members from all over the world. And we are moving right into the heart of possibly the most diverse community in the world. Are we going to shrug off the responsibility to which God is calling us? Or are we going to be faithful like Jesus the faithful slave par excellence?

Let us not be reticent in fulfilling this responsibility. God is waiting for us, to meet us in the midst of our fulfilling the tasks to which he has called us. We may not read his timing or ways infallibly. But have no doubt that he is eager to take us where we can scarcely dream of going. Are we ready to serve him with expectancy? Will we serve with each moment charged with anticipation that God would reveal himself to us?

And let us not think that we are small and have but little to offer. It does not matter how large a church we are. What matter is the largeness of heart with which we serve this gracious God who has, of his incredible generosity, called us to be partners in and heirs of his kingdom. Will we respond by serving him generously? And will we serve him with an attitude that does not grudge him the glory he rightly deserves?

If we serve him in this manner—faithfully, expectantly, and generously—have no doubts that we will be entering into the joy that Jesus has for us in the near future. And it will be a sweet foretaste of that greater joy for which we eagerly wait when he will at last be revealed to all the world in his magnificent glory.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Entering the Joy of Our Lord - II : Serving God Expectantly [Matthew 25.1-13] (14 January 2001)

"Be vigilant therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."

In December 1995 I left India to come to Fuller. A few months earlier, I had fallen in love with this most incredible woman. When we had told each other how we felt and that we wanted to get married, we were immediately faced with a problem. I was headed for Pasadena to start a program that would take three years at the very least. I knew that three years was a long time to be away from the woman I loved. And I knew that it would be difficult for her too. So I warned her that she might probably see me only after three years. “Alice,” I told her, “you know that I might not be able to visit India till I complete my studies at Fuller. This will be a long wait.” I went on and on, painting the gloomiest picture I could. Though my words were directed toward her, I was warning myself as much as I was warning her. I left India for Fuller. And then began the period of relentless anticipation.

Last Sunday we dealt with serving God faithfully as a means of entering into the joy that Jesus has for NUPC. The passage we learned from was Matthew 24.45-51. We saw then that Jesus defended his practice of associating with people who were otherwise considered to be beyond God’s blessing. He ate and drank with gluttons and drunkards, tax collectors and prostitutes. We saw that the task for NUPC as we move to a new place further from the University and inside the community is to be the bearers of God’s love and grace to various groups in the community who we are told are beyond God’s love and grace—the poor, the homeless, single parents, pregnant teenagers, gangs members, drug addicts, pushers, prostitutes, people with AIDS, drunks, gays. That was what we learned last Sunday.

Today we will deal with Matthew 25.1-13 and next Sunday we will learn from Matthew 25.14-30. When I mentioned today’s sermon last Sunday I said, and I quote, “Next Sunday I will preach from Matthew 25.1-13, unless Jesus returns in less than a week.” The reason I did this was that today’s passage teaches us that we are in a state of relentless anticipation.

Relentless anticipation. What does that mean? It means two things. First, it means that we should anticipate the fulfillment of a promise at any moment. To fail in this would give rise to complacency. Second, it means that we should relentlessly hold on to the promise if any given moment does not prove to be the moment of fulfillment. To fail in this would result in disillusionment.

The Jews realized this slowly and painfully. If my eighteen month wait was torture, just think how painful their wait had been at the time of Jesus. Some scholars place Abraham in the eighteenth century BC. At the time of Jesus, the Jews had waited eighteen centuries from the time of their founding promises. Sure Abraham had been warned that his descendants would be slaves in Egypt for four hundred years. But that did not make their enslavement in Egypt any more endurable. Rather, they grew restless. For the promise of redemption had also been made to Abraham. How could they live restfully as slaves when exodus had been promised them? To live between promise and fulfillment is to live in a state of relentless anticipation.

And in the time of Jesus, the Jews were living in the promised land for sure. But they were subservient to the Romans. In the minds of many Jews, they were still in exile. Something drastic had to happen if God’s promises to them would prove true. God had to send a deliverer. And SOON! They were primed to respond to just about any person with messianic claims. God had promised them freedom. But they were prisoners in the promised land. How could they live restfully as the jailbirds of the Jordan when liberation had been promised them? To live between promise and fulfillment is to live in a state of relentless anticipation.

Into such a situation Jesus came announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God. He knew that the hope for God’s kingdom was a good one but that the shape it took in many minds would have to be altered. So he presented the kingdom to his hearers in the form of parables and miracles. When he began his ministry he painted word pictures to enable his disciples to recognize the activity of the kingdom. However, toward the end of his ministry, his parables took on a different flavor.

On the Tuesday before he was crucified, Jesus and his disciples were leaving the temple. At that time, his disciples brought to his notice the magnificent buildings of the temple that Herod was building. In response to that Jesus pronounces a curse on the temple. Then the disciples ask him “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" If you are able, please stand for the hearing of part of Jesus’ answer.

[Here read Matthew 24.36-25.30]

Please be seated.

There are some things to keep in mind. First, the disciples ask Jesus three questions: 1. When will this be—that is, when will the temple be destroyed; 2. What will be the sign of your coming; and 3. What will be the sign of the end of the age? Second, Matthew 24.36-25.30, which I just read, is part—and only part—of Jesus’ answer. Third, Matthew 25.1-13, the text we are learning from today, is a parable. We should avoid forcing meaning on every aspect of the parable.

What, then, is the parable about? One thing I really appreciate about Jesus’ teaching methods is that he often follows a lengthy discourse or parable with a short saying that captures the essence of what he was trying to teach. Here we have the statement, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
However, no sooner have we read this than we are faced with a problem. For in the parable all the bridesmaids sleep! It is best, therefore, to translate the last sentence “Be vigilant therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Be vigilant, be alert, be ready, be expectant.

Another problem arises when we try to identify elements of the parable. For instance, what is the oil? We might be tempted to say that it is the Holy Spirit. Or since the bridegroom answers, “I do not know you” we might say that the oil signifies a personal relationship with Jesus. However, that is not what the parable says. At the end of the parable the foolish bridesmaids return to the reception hall. Would they have returned without oil? Quite unlikely!

The key to understanding why the foolish bridesmaids are denied entrance is to see how Jesus tells the parable. When the parable begins the bridesmaids are divided into two groups. The foolish ones take no oil with them. The wise ones take oil with them. Toward the end of the parable, the bridesmaids are again divided into two groups. The ones who were ready gain entrance into the wedding banquet. The “others”—the ones who were not ready—are denied entrance. So in some way taking oil with them qualified the wise bridesmaids as being ready. And that is the key. The ones who participate in the banquet are those who were ready.

What does it mean, though, that one group was ready? Does this mean that they alone were eager for the bridegroom to come? Hardly! All the bridesmaids were eager to receive the bridegroom. They wanted him to come. They wanted the festivities to begin. That is why they all trimmed their wicks when the bridegroom came. The foolish bridesmaids were not accused of a lack of enthusiasm. Oh they were eager to put on a great show when the bridegroom came. They wanted their lamps to shine brightly. They wanted to be part of the procession that accompanied the bridegroom into the banquet hall. They were not guilty of lack of zeal. Rather, they were found wanting in foresight. They were not wise. They were foolish.

What earned them this label? Why can they be called foolish? The only indication the parable gives us is that they did not take oil. Sure they managed to get oil later. But they were meant to welcome the bridegroom and participate in the procession. They had taken their lamps with the full intention of setting the night sky ablaze. But they had a time schedule in mind. Their lamps were lit and they expected the bridegroom to arrive before the lamps smoldered and died. While that expectancy in itself is good, they had not questioned their time frame. They had not entertained the possibility that the bridegroom might be late. They were foolish enough to think that they could dictate the time frame which the bridegroom should observe.

This calls to mind some of the end times cults and the books that accompany them. “Eighty eight reasons why the world will end in 1988.” “Eighty nine reasons why the world will end in 1989.” Both titles of books. Both proved wrong by history. Both proved foolish by Jesus’ parable. For it is foolish to try and dictate terms to God. We should approach every moment as the moment in which God might fulfill his promises but not attempt to imprison God’s purposes within it. To live between promise and fulfillment is to live in a state of relentless anticipation. It is a state of tension in which there are no easy answers.

But the foolish bridesmaids believed they had the answer. The bridegroom was sure to arrive before their lamps went out. Surely he was eager to meet his bride! How, then, could he delay? Ah, yes! The foolish bridesmaids had the answers. They did not consider the possibility of their being wrong. Even though the festivities belonged to the bridegroom and his bride they presumed to think that they controlled events.

“What? The bridegroom delay? You must be kidding! He will come well before our lamps go out. What’s more,” they probably say to the wise bridesmaids, “the five of you will be distracted with having to dispose your excess oil. After all, we are all environmentally conscious!” Yes, they believed they knew when the procession would begin. And they did not think it wise to stock up on oil.

But that is precisely why the wise bridesmaids are called wise. They thought ahead. “What if the bridegroom delayed? Our lamps would die an ugly death. But this wedding procession should be the best one ever. We want to put the stars to shame with the brilliance of our lamps. Therefore, we must take more oil.” The wise bridesmaids identified the issue correctly. The bridegroom might be late. And they were wise to plan for that possibility.

Both groups were anticipating the arrival of the bridegroom. Both groups expected to participate in the wedding festivities. When they first lit their lamps both groups were ready for the bridegroom to come. But the wise ones were ready when the bridegroom chose to come. By that time the foolish one were quite unprepared. They had to run here and there to get oil. And even when they did, it was too late. When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, time shall indeed be no more. There will then be no time to make amends.

Now if this parable is about the imminence of Jesus’ return, how do we apply it to our present situation at NUPC? Though it is about Jesus’ return, the difference between the two groups of bridesmaids is that the foolish ones presumed to dictate the agenda whereas the wise ones recognized that it is the bridegroom who dictates the agenda.

The Hebrew prophets looked forward to a day when God would act and deliver his people. They expected the deliverance to come imminently. However, they had to wait centuries. When John the Baptizer came along and repeated words from Isaiah, many Jews may have thought this was another instance of a prophet announcing imminent deliverance when there would be no deliverance. Only a few who were ready for the deliverance when it came—and, for that matter, the manner in which it came.

In the same way, we at NUPC are poised this year for wonderful things. We are moving to a new facility that will enable us to make a concerted effort to bring God’s love to the community. We will begin writing discipleship materials in about two months and begin one-on-one discipleship shortly thereafter. We have LIGHThouses in which brothers and sisters are maturing.

How soon do we see all of this come to fulfillment? I have given Mark, Steve, and Persida quite a detailed plan for all of this. However, what if God decides to act slower? Would we get disillusioned and just give up on all these wonderful things? And what if God acts faster? Would we hinder his work because he caught us unawares?

We need certainly to make plans prayerfully. But we must never set our plans in stone. We need to hold them lightly, always being ready for God to revise them. In fact, we should expect God’s hand to constantly mold our plans for we still see through a glass dimly.

When I warned Alice, I expected the warning to make the wait easier to bear. But in retrospect I realize that waiting is never easy. Just knowing that there was a promise waiting to be fulfilled was enough to give rise to a restless longing for fulfillment that gnawed at me every moment of the eighteen months that I was away from Alice. How could I live restfully as a bachelor when Alice had been promised me? To live between promise and fulfillment is to live in a state of relentless anticipation.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Entering the Joy of Our Lord - I : Serving God Faithfully [Matthew 24.45-51] (7 January 2001)

As a Star Wars fan, the question that recently sprung up in my mind was, “Who is the Jedi that returns in The Return of the Jedi?” Anyone here care to shed light on this? Does it not refer to Luke Skywalker, who returns after losing his hand to Darth Vader’s lightsaber to defeat Vader? That would seem to be the answer to my question. Now some of you might be thinking that I should get a life, but as I pondered the question I realized that there is a second level to it. At the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Luke is not a Jedi. That is what we learn from Yoda, who is about as reliable a character as one could get. How then could Luke be the Jedi who returns? And if Luke is not the Jedi referred to in the title, who is? I believe the reference is to Anakin Skywalker, who is rescued from the dark side by Luke. Anakin was a Jedi before turning to the dark side and becoming Darth Vader. And in The Return of the Jedi he returns to the good side. The reason why the title fascinates me is that there is more than one level of meaning—the obvious and the not so obvious. And it is a sign of genius to be able to combine two levels of meaning in a cryptic title.

Would we expect any less from Jesus? In his book, The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard says this: “It is not possible to trust Jesus… in matters where we do not believe him to be competent.” He goes on: “[Can] we seriously imagine that Jesus could be Lord if he were not smart?… Once you stop to think about it, how could he be what we take him to be in all other respects and not be the best-informed and most intelligent person of all, the smartest person who ever lived?” Elsewhere Willard says, “‘Jesus is Lord’ can mean little in practice for anyone who has to hesitate before saying ‘Jesus is smart.’”

So, if multiplicity of meanings in a movie title is a sign of genius, we should expect multiple meanings in what Jesus says. And that is what we have in the passage we will deal with today. Before we go on to our text, let me warn you that I will be preaching three Sundays in a row, including today. The three sermons will be a series titled “Entering the Joy of Our Lord” based on Matthew 25.21 and 23. In these three sermons we will understand what it takes to enter into the joy that Jesus has for us as a church in the present and the near future. For the series I have chosen the chunk of text in Matthew 24.36-25.30. Today I will be preaching from Matthew 24.45-51. Next Sunday I will preach from Matthew 25.1-13, unless Jesus returns in less than a week. And on the 21st I will preach from Matthew 25.14-30.

Before we read our text, let us set it in its proper context. It is two days before the night when Jesus would eat his last meal with his disciples prior to his crucifixion. Two days have passed since Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey on what we know as Palm Sunday. As was his custom, Jesus went to the temple every day of that week from Sunday to Thursday. On Tuesday, as he and his disciples were leaving the temple, his disciples noticed how magnificent the temple was. In response to that Jesus said, “You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

This pronouncement of a curse on the central symbol of Jewish faith made the disciples curious and they asked Jesus, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?” 

It is important here to observe that this is not one question but three: 1. When will this be—that is, when will the temple be destroyed; 2. What will be the sign of your coming; and 3. What will be the sign of the end of the age? Jesus proceeds to answer these questions, not strictly in order. Part of the answer is in the chunk of text with which we are dealing. If you are able, please stand to hear then what Jesus says:

[Read Matthew 24.36-25.30 here.]

Please be seated.

Today we are dealing specifically with Matthew 24.45-51. Now, because we view this as Scripture, we tend to see in it application to us right away. That is the obvious level of meaning. However, that might not be the real way of understanding the passage. So before we try to apply the passage let us uncover the not so obvious meaning. Then we can let that meaning guide us in applying Jesus’ words to NUPC (North University Park Church).

Our passage is a parable. But it is also presented as a riddle. Jesus asks, “Who then is the faithful and wise slave?” And at the level of a riddle, we can get to the not so obvious meaning. There are two clues for the not so obvious meaning.

First, Jesus describes a wicked slave as one who “eats and drinks with drunkards.” Turn with me to Matthew 11.18-19. Here we see that Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus’ response is, “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.

Now turn with me to Deuteronomy 21.18-21. Here we see that a rebellious son is described as a glutton and a drunkard. And the solution to the problem is the stoning of the rebellious son. That is, the rebellious son is to be put to death so that evil would be purged from Israel.

In other words, when Jesus is described as a glutton and a drunkard, he is being portrayed in the mold of a rebellious son. And the solution is to put him to death. So, when Jesus is crucified, his accusers would be able to point to his death and say that God had cursed Jesus and ordered his death because Jesus was a rebellious son who led the people of Israel astray.

Jesus, as we saw, does not refute outright the charge of being a rebellious son. Rather he responds with the cryptic words, “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

The second clue is the way in which the faithful slave is rewarded. Jesus says that the master “will put that [faithful slave] in charge of all his possessions.” That is the vindication Jesus is looking for. And in Matthew 28.18 he claims, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” In other words, God has placed Jesus in charge of all of God’s possessions. In other words, Jesus is the faithful slave of the riddle. Though he fraternized with people of ill repute, though he ate and drank with gluttons and drunkards, he had not mistreated the members of God’s household, nor led them astray in a manner that his enemies accused him of doing.

What Jesus does is break the link that many people entertain between being faithful to God and the company one keeps. Fraternizing with gluttons and drunkards does not make one a glutton and a drunkard as long as one is bringing the light of God’s grace to those gluttons and drunkards.

We have two options. Either we believe Jesus is still dead and under God’s curse for leading people astray. Or we believe that God raised Jesus and put him in charge of all creation. If we choose the second alternative, we must conclude that the way of Jesus is the way of God. That is, Jesus’ life reveals the way of living as God would have us live.

But what was Jesus’ way? If we read the text at its superficial level we might conclude: 1. that we are to treat the other slaves of the household well; and 2. that we are not to associate with gluttons and drunkards. But from the riddle we see that Jesus is defending the way he associated with the gluttons and drunkards. For him, treating others in God’s household well involved bringing God’s light to them.

Do you know why most Protestant churches have Sunday services that start between 10 and 11? It goes back to the German reformer Martin Luther. When he was an Augustinian monk, he lived a secluded life that was concerned with his personal purity before God. He was burdened with being able to present himself holy before a holy God. He would spend most of his time confessing his sins to his confessor—that is, the priest who heard confession and pronounced absolution. In fact, his confessor disclosed that Martin would come to him to confess the sins of a five year old. The sins of a five year old were burdening Martin! 

Then Martin stumbled upon the gospel of God’s grace. So what did he do? He left the Augustinian order, got married, and began to spend much time in the taverns of Wittenberg. He realized that it was the sinners who needed to hear the liberating gospel of God’s grace. So he spent time with them. But he stayed so late every night, including Saturday night, that he was not fully functional the next morning till about 10 am. So he moved the Sunday services from 7am to 11am.

Though this bit of information is somewhat humorous, it stems from the fact that Martin realized that sinners will only be saved by our bringing God’s light to them. Did he drink with the drunks? Sure! That’s where we get the melody for the great hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God! He took a well known German tavern song, wrote new words, and soon had the drunks singing this hymn while they chugged down their steins of beer.

So today we are faced with the question, “What is the way of Jesus for NUPC?” But for our context, what is God’s household? Again, there are two levels.

At one level, God’s household is NUPC itself and the slaves who are in charge are the leaders at NUPC. How do we fulfill our task as leaders? The answer is not programs of different sorts. No! Jesus’ way for the leadership at NUPC is twofold. First, we need to spend time with everyone at NUPC. It will not do for the leadership to always huddle together in its little clique. Second, as leaders we need to do what Jesus did as a leader. He delegated his authority to his disciples. In like manner, the leaders at NUPC need to delegate the authority Jesus has given us. Both of these we have done to some extent. But we need to go much further. And we need the help of all of you. When you see us falter in this, please bring it to our notice. And please do it gently.

At the second level, God’s household is the community and the slaves who are in charge are all of us. We are soon to be moving some distance from the University. We will now be a real presence in the community. However, in order to bring the light of Jesus into the community, we need to personally go into it. Nothing can substitute for the presence of redeemed humans in a community that needs God’s redemption. We need, therefore, to understand the community and its needs. We need to realize where it is hurting and also what its strengths are. And we need to use all this information to be intimately involved with the life of the community.

There will be people whom we have been taught not to associate with: the poor, the homeless, single parents, pregnant teenagers, gangs members, drug addicts, pushers, prostitutes, people with AIDS, drunks, gays. But which of these do not need the love of God to shine in their lives? Which of these is beyond the blood of Jesus? It will not be easy. Each of these groups has its own cultures and its own challenges. We need to decide which groups we will seek to understand and, having understood, formulate a strategy for bringing God’s love to them.

Here let me make myself very clear. Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard because he ate and drank with people who were shunned—like prostitutes, tax collectors, etc. Though he associated with sinners, he did not condone their sinful behavior. However, he did show them God’s unconditional love by entering their homes and eating and drinking with them. So also, in seeking to bring God’s love to people who are otherwise shunned or believed to be beyond God’s acceptance, we should certainly not condone their behavior—far less behave like them—but neither should we refuse to be their friends. For be very certain of this: if we refuse to be their friends, we are, as people who claim to be God’s friends, telling them that God refuses to be their friend. How then, when we consider how great sinners we ourselves are, are we so sure that God is our friend?

Now we are still a relatively small church. However, the issue is whether or not we fulfill God’s task to us of ministering properly to his household around us. So let us take stock of our resources and gifts. Let us use them to fulfill our vision. But just a concluding note of encouragement—or, for those of us who do not like responsibility, of warning—if we serve him faithfully, he will put us in charge of greater things.

Monday, March 5, 2012

...And Remember [Matthew 28.16-20] (12 November 2000)

It’s a scene that sticks in the mind of anyone who has seen the movie. A motley trio attempting to rescue Princess Buttercup who is about to be forced to marry the evil Prince Humperdinck. Wesley, the hero, just been barely resuscitated from a state of being almost dead, Inigo Montoyo, the Spaniard seeking to avenge his father’s murder, and Fezek, the giant aiding them are looking down across the moat toward the castle in which Wesley’s beloved Buttercup is being held prisoner. In this strange group huddle they come up with a plan of action. But we must leave them there for now.

After all, we have Jesus to deal with! Now we will be concentrating on vv. 16-20. Yet I chose to read all of chapter 28 because the way in which Matthew tells his story is brilliant. Now each of the four Gospels tells the same story differently. For instance, only Luke has an account of the ascension. Only Matthew has the account of the lie told by the soldiers. Only John does not have an account of the transfiguration. The differences help us understand the special emphases each of the evangelists had when they wrote their Gospels. And we will see how the way Matthew tells his story impacts us today.

What do you think is the main point of Matthew 28.16-20? What title would you use to describe the passage?

Now on Monday, quite out of the blue, Mark called me and asked me if I would be willing to preach. I accepted and asked him whether he had a specific text in mind. He told me he would like to continue with the theme of encouragement. This time from the New Testament. Now the Greek word for encouragement is ‘paraklesis' from the verb ‘parakaleo' which means “to encourage”. It is also from this verb that we get the word ‘parakletos' or Paraclete, one of the titles in John’s Gospel for the Holy Spirit. None of these words appear in our passage. Why then are we dealing with it now? Well, for a passage to deal with a certain subject—in this case encouragement—it does not have to have the word “encouragement” in it. After all, if a friend needs encouragement, you scarcely go up to him or her and say, “Here, let me encourage you.” No, you would most likely listen, offer advice, or give an encouraging hug. So if you want to be encouraged by scripture, go to a passage that encourages, and not just a passage that has the word!

And the final words of Matthew’s Gospel are all about encouragement. Now for encouragement to be truly effective there need to be some elements. Let us treat them one by one.

I don’t know how many of you have heard Another Brick in the Wall, Pt 2 by Pink Floyd. The song goes: “We don’t need no education/ We don’t need no thought control/ No dark sarcasm in the classroom/ Teachers leave us kids alone.” The movie The Wall is quite bizarre. While this song is being sung, we see a whole bunch of children, dressed up identically as students, marching like zombies into a sausage making machine that symbolizes the education system. Much of The Wall deals with the main character’s feeling of futility. For him, life has no purpose and so he goes through it like a zombie, trying his best to give it a kickstart but only becoming increasingly suicidal.

An opposite picture is painted in The Dead Poets’ Society. There Robin Williams is an English teacher at a snooty school. The students initially feel much like the kids in The Wall. However, Robin Williams proves to be innovative. He gives them something that the school administration would disapprove of. But it includes reading poetry! The students dislike the school administration more than they dislike poetry and the teacher knows it. His plan gives them purpose—that of pooh-poohing the establishment. This is what the kids in The Wall lacked.

But this is what Jesus gives his disciples. He tells them, “As you go, disciple all nations, by baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and by teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” What a purpose! The scope is so large that the whole world is included. Yet it is so individual. After all, each person is unique implying that disciples cannot be produced on a assembly line. It is so specific. Disciples are to obey everything that Jesus has commanded. In other words, discipleship centers around Jesus. And what a privilege to be able to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit! Could they get any higher name!? Jesus is such a genius! In order to encourage his disciples, he gives them a purpose beyond which there can be no other.

However, a purpose alone is not enough as seen in the novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The main character, Captain Ahab, has a very specific and motivating purpose—that of killing the enormous whale Moby Dick who had bitten off one of Ahab’s legs. However, Ahab fails and fails miserably because he fails to realize that, between Moby Dick and himself, he was by far the weaker of the two. Ahab just did not have the power to fulfill his purpose. And so he ends up on the back of Moby Dick trying to drive a harpoon into the whale and failing at that too.

Ah, but Jesus is great. He gives his disciples the most challenging purpose ever. And lest they say, “Great purpose! But you gotta be kiddin’!” he precedes it with the words, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Talk about power to match the purpose! Not just some authority but all. Not just in heaven but also on earth—exactly where the disciples would need it if they are to disciple all the nations. Moreover, Jesus does not say, “I have all authority” but “All authority has been given to me.” The use of the passive is typical in Jewish circles when God is the initiator but the speaker wants to avoid the use of God’s name. Jesus is saying, therefore, “God has given me all authority.” This indicates that Jesus has not stolen it but is the one to whom by God’s will all authority rightly belongs. So no one can strip him of this authority. What a backing the disciples have! Jesus is such a masterful encourager! How do you motivate and encourage a bunch of doubting disciples? Give them a charge to beat all others. And provide them with the assurance that there is power—enough and more—to fulfill the charge.

Now just as purpose without power is not enough, power without purpose is also insufficient. In a world that does not understand them and their powers, Xavier’s School for Gifted Children provide the budding mutants of The X-Men with purpose. Without that purpose, they would be like Rogue who is unable to touch any other human because of the power she has. But at the school, Dr. Xavier teaches her and the other mutant students to direct and control their powers so that they benefit and not harm humans.

So also Jesus does not only give the assurance of power. He couples it with the command to teach all nations to obey him. The disciples are not to go around calling down fire from heaven because the power available to them is available for the purpose of bringing the world to obey Jesus.

We would think that this is enough. Purpose and power together provide proper protection against potential misuse of either. However, is that enough?

The title song of Friends seems to indicate there is a little more. Through life’s ups and downs the refrain is “I’ll be there for you.” Supposedly each of the six friends commits to the other five his or her support through the struggles of life.

The song Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits puts it in stronger terms, “Through these fields of destruction/ Baptisms of fire/ I’ve watched all your suffering/ As the battles raged higher/ And though they did hurt me so bad/ In the fear and alarm/ You did not desert me/ My brothers in arms.” The song is sung by a soldier mortally wounded in battle. His comrades carry him out to safety putting their lives at risk though they know he will soon die. Much starker imagery than the chirpy title song of Friends!

In our passage Jesus has given his disciples a brilliant purpose. He has assured them of enough power to fulfill the purpose. But now he tops all of this by promising his presence, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” That is why Matthew does not record the ascension. For Jesus is with his church. Not just for his church as a crutch or support as in the Friends song. But rather as a comrade and commander as in Brothers In Arms.

Now Jesus does not pull this idea from out of thin air. He does not think, “Hmm. It would be good if I promised them my presence.” No! Jesus is drawing from a very crucial strand of Old Testament theology—one that, unfortunately, too many Christians do not understand or do not emphasize. It is a strand of theology without which Old Testament prophecy cannot be understood.

This strand of theology starts in Genesis 3.8 where God walks in the garden in order to have a rendezvous with Adam and Eve. However, it says, “The man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God.” Then in Genesis 4.16 we are told, “Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” In Exodus 33.15-16 Moses tells God, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us?” At the time of the exile Ezekiel ascribes the atrocities the Israelites faced at the hands of the Babylonians to his vision of the glory of God departing from the temple and from Jerusalem. And Ezekiel sees that the restoration of Israel will only be possible if God will return to live among his people. It is this strand of theology, so rich and so evocative, that Jesus draws upon. It is the biggest promise that Jesus could make because the sign that God had begun to reign on earth and had restored his people was that he was also dwelling with his people. But if this is true, if God is really with the church in the person of Jesus, what are Christians called to do?

And it is here that we come to the rest of chapter 28 and Matthew’s brilliant storytelling skills. Chapter 28 does not have only one commission—commonly known as the Great Commission. Rather, there are three commissions. In vv. 5-10 we have the first commission. It is first issued by the angel at the tomb, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’” Jesus repeats the command, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” The major elements are the same. The women are not to be afraid and they are to tell the disciples to go to Galilee where they would see Jesus. The difference is that the angel refers to the disciples as “his disciples” while Jesus calls them “my brothers”—they are to be brothers in arms, which is why in Matthew 11 Jesus calls his disciples to be yoked together with him. The command to the women is specific and there is an incentive for them when the angel says, “He has been raised.” And there is the assurance that they will see the risen Jesus. They proceed to fulfill the command. How, otherwise, would the eleven disciples have known to go to Galilee as they did?

Then there is a switch of scene. Now the priests issue a command to the soldiers, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” The soldiers are also given incentives—money and the assurance that they will not be punished by the governor. And they too fulfilled their command. So Matthew tells us, “So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.”

Then we come to vv. 16-20. Here too is a command, “As you go, disciple all the nations.” Here too there are incentives—that all authority belongs to Jesus and that he will be with his disciples always. But what is missing? There is no account of the fulfillment of the command.

We can take this in two ways. First, we could understand that the command was not fulfilled. If that is how the reader reads this, the reader is expected to say, “What!? With so much backing, why did they not fulfill the command? What more could Jesus have offered?” This is not, however, how Matthew intends us to take it.

Second, we could understand that the command is being fulfilled. Quite evidently it is not completed. But we could understand that it is in process of being completed. This is how Matthew would have us understand the passage. “But how,” a reader may ask, “am I supposed to know that this is how Matthew wants us to read it?” Or getting back to The Princess Bride, what do Wesley, Inigo and Fezek do next? If you do not already know it, you’ve gotta see the movie!

Similarly, Matthew would reply, “Ah! For that you would have to assume my position. You would have to be a Christian. For only Christians can see the fact that Jesus is present with his church. In other words, you have to make Jesus’ story a vital part of your story. And his story is one that will give you purpose, power, and the promise of his presence. What more encouragement can you need?”