Of the sovereignty of God

(A sermon prepared for delivery at Community Presbyterian Church in Arthurdale, WV, Nov. 16, 2014)

Scripture Passages
Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Good morning and thank you. I can’t tell you what an honor it is to be invited to be in your pulpit this morning. I have been in West Virginia since 1997, and almost from the day I got here, I’ve heard of this historic town and its connection with one of the greatest women — not just women, person — of the 20th, indeed any, century. And as a history buff, it was after all my college major, I’m kind of awed to be here. (I’m also honored to have preached several years ago at the Eleanor Presbyterian Church, so this is even cooler. OK, I’ll quit gushing now.)

With that, let’s turn to today’s Gospel reading, Matthew 25:14-30. Listen for the word of God to us today:

For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God.

Please join me in prayer: O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the mediations of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

I’m going to be honest with you. I was not at all pleased with the election results of Nov. 4. Not one bit. I’ve been in a serious funk ever since as it feels very much like that baby and bath water thing. Some very good people got unceremoniously booted out of office and some very good friends got clobbered. I don’t mind telling you that – in my judgment, the country took a very wrong turn on that day and I worry, truly worry, about the future of the Republic.

To me, the results were bought by lies and half-truths told by people whose wallets stand to get fatter and fatter at the expense of folks like me and even more so by folks less fortunate. They spent billions on billions of dollars to pollute the discussion to get the verdict they want.

Now I realize that many people, probably many sitting in this sanctuary, disagree vehemently with that assessment and sentiment. Many people are genuinely pleased with the results and believe the nation is being cleansed.

Where I see robber barons and the Gilded Age, they see less government and more personal responsibility.

OK, you can stop squirming in your seats now because this is not really a political sermon, but a sermon about who’s in charge, where we put our faith and what we’re supposed to do with that faith.

You probably already know where this is headed, but bear with me.

Let me start with a scripture passage that we did not read today, but which is one of the four appointed readings for today. It comes from the Old Testament, Judges 4:1-7:

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years.

At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’ ”

Indeed that is what happened. We read later on in Judges how Barak defeated Sisera, with God’s help. And we also read how, even though Sisera escaped alive from the battle, he did not escape punishment, dying in a pretty gruesome way worthy of The Walking Dead – read if for yourself in Judges 4:14.

It would be easy to use this passage to justify a holy war, wouldn’t it? Throughout the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, we hear stories of how an outmanned, poorly equipped army of Israelites overcame a more modern, larger, in-all-ways-superior force just because God was on their side. And this is just another one – all those iron chariots and those men are code for just how superior the force Sisera commanded was.

But Barack had God, so it didn’t matter.

It would be easy, yes. It would also be wrong.

The real point to be taken away from here is not that a God-backed army will save us.

The real point to be taken away from here is that God will – indeed has – saved us.

Listen to how this story is introduced: “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord…” How many times do we hear that throughout the Old Testament? Only just about every time that God is getting ready to fix things.

So what to take away? God is in charge. (How very Presbyterian is that?)

Keep this story in the back of your mind as we move on to the New Testament.

The Parable of the Talents presents several challenges, doesn’t it? I mean we can understand why the two who doubled the master’s money get praised, but why would the poor guy who at least didn’t lose anything, didn’t steal anything, didn’t gamble anything away, get banished?

We have to back up to the first verse of the chapter to give this parable a bit of context.

In introducing this section of parables, Jesus says, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this …”

Next comes the parable of the 10 bridesmaids, five wise and five foolish, who are waiting the groom’s arrival. The five wise ones “keep their lamps trimmed and burning,” in others words remain vigilant, and the five foolish ones go to sleep. In the end are admonished to “keep awake.”

So the Parable of the Talents, then, is a description of the kingdom of heaven: “it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.”

One slave gets five talents – one talent was equal to about 15 years of wages for a laborer, so five talents would be a lifetime’s pay; another gets two talents; and another one talent – still a significant gift. You heard the results. The first two double the master’s money, the third hides it in the ground and doesn’t lose any.

As commentator Charles Cousar asks, “What about servant number three? What is his problem? He is not a dishonest servant who was out to milk his master of whatever he could get. There is no hint of fraud, deceit or scandal. He had no plans to embezzle the funds or to swindle his master. Neither do we have any indication that he was a philanderer, a prodigal son figure out for a fling. … What’s so wrong with being cautious?”[1]

His answer: “He deems it better to preserve his own safety and security than to run the risk of losing the money and angering his master.”[2]

But love demands risks, Cousar says, and the third servant was unwilling to take that step. As for the other two, what do they get for their willingness to risk? You may quickly say, “More money.” But that’s not quite right, it’s really more than that.

They get more responsibility, and even more meaningfully, they get to be in the master’s presence: “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

So now, let’s bring in Thessalonians. Here, Paul is writing to folks wondering just when this Kingdom is coming and what they should be doing to get ready, or as he says, “concerning the times and seasons.”

We should know the answer to those questions, if we’ve been listening at any point in the Biblical story – all the way back in Genesis, through Judges and the Gospel, all the way up to Revelation.

“But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief,” Paul says, “for you are all [WE ALL ARE] children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. …But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 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. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

Let me repeat that: “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.”

Did you catch that? Earlier in the passage Paul dismissed the drunkards and the sleepers, and remember back in the parable about the bridemaids how it was suggested that the five foolish bridesmaids who went sleep would be on the outside.

But here, “whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him,” we may “come into the joy of the master.”

Even the Psalmist, who had never heard of Jesus, knew this: “To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens! As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he has mercy upon us.”

For you and me, just as for Deborah and Barak, for the servants of the traveling master and for the Thessalonians, what we take away from all of this is that God is in charge. Despite all of our efforts, all of our organizations (even churches and denominations), it is God who is in charge.

We Presbyterians have held to this since our very beginnings; it jumps from almost every page in our church documents.

The Scots Confession, written in 1560 by Scottish reformers including John Knox, declares at its beginning:

We confess and acknowledge one God alone, to whom alone we must cleave, whom alone we must serve, whom only we must worship, and in whom alone we put our trust. Who is eternal, infinite, immeasurable, incomprehensible, omnipotent, invisible; one in substance and yet distinct in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. By whom we confess and believe all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible, to have been created, to be retained in their being, and to be ruled and guided by his inscrutable providence for such end as his eternal wisdom, goodness, and justice have appointed, and to the manifestation of his own glory.

On through the Brief Statement of Faith, written on the occasion of the reuniting of the main northern and southern branches of U.S. Presbyterians in 1983: “Loving us still, God makes us heirs with Christ of the covenant. Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child, like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, God is faithful still.

We even enshrine it in our Book of Order, which is actually a pretty good theological document:

The good news of the Gospel is that the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – creates, redeems, sustains, rules, and transforms all things and all people. This one living God, the Scriptures say, liberated the people of Israel from oppression and covenanted to be their God. By the power of the Spirit, this one living God is incarnate in Jesus Christ, who came to live in the world, die for the world, and be raised again to new life. The Gospel of Jesus Christ announces the nearness of God’s kingdom, bringing good news to all who are impoverished, sight to all who are blind, freedom to all who are oppressed, and proclaiming the Lord’s favor upon all creation. (F-1.01)

Yes, God is in charge and sovereign, above all things.

So, regardless of whether you believe the evil overlords of money and power are grabbing a stranglehold on this nation and world, or whether you believe that a Godless, suffocating and sinister movement has been turned aside at least for now – or somewhere in between or even outside those boundaries…

Regardless of any of that, I, we, can truthfully say together, as we do in the conclusion of the Brief Statement: “With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

To God alone be the Glory, please join me in prayer:

Good and gracious God, it’s a good thing that You are in charge. Left to us mere mortals, we’d worry, we’d hide Your treasure, we’d never challenge the oppressor – either ours or society’s, we’d surely mess it up – the world, our life, Your story. So Sovereign God, we give thanks, even when we don’t always see or understand what’s happening around us, we give thanks that you do. In the name of your son, Jesus the Christ, we pray. Amen.

[1] Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary, Based on the NRSV-Year A. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995. 569.

[2] Ibid, 570.

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