(Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18, Psalm 90:1-12, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11)
[Jesus said] 14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 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.’ 21 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.’ 22 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.’ 23 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.’ 24 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; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 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? 27 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. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 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. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Courage…what does it mean to have courage? If we look up the word in a dictionary, we’d come across a definition similar to “the ability to do something that you know is difficult” or “the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” These are helpful definitions because they define courage as an ability and a strength. Abilities and strengths are attributes that are developed over time. We enter into this world with few abilities and many weaknesses. We rely heavily on our parents to take care of our needs until we learn how to take care of them ourselves. Anyone who has ever been a parent can tell you there are only three things that infants do in their early days: eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom. And infants don’t really ponder doing these three things all that much either. They don’t sit around and ask themselves, “Hmm, should I or shouldn’t I snack a little now?” or “Hmm, should I or shouldn’t I lay down for a little nap?” Their bodies simply do what they must and parents better be prepared. Even infants that have difficulty eating, sleeping, or going to the bathroom don’t really reflect on their predicament. They simply cry until someone helps their bodies do what they must. It is with time that we become aware of dangers, fears, and difficulties. It is with time that we build the mental and moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand the dangers, fears, and difficulties. It is with time that we gain courage.
Our readings for this week are meant to “encourage” us, to instill courage in us. Recall from last week’s readings that we are preparing to enter into our annual Advent journey, a time of waiting for the birth of Jesus. The parable of the ten bridesmaids taught us not only of the importance of being prepared for our Lord’s imminent return but also the importance of faithfulness. Our faith is known not by what we believe but rather by what we do. Recall the 6 attributes of faithful Christians and how they are “action attributes.” A faithful Christian loves the truth and obeys the truth, expresses, through word and deed, love for brethren, increases and builds up his faith, worships and prays regularly, works his heart out for the Lord, experiences godly sorrow when he sins, confesses his sins to God and seeks forgiveness. If we are to be faithful, we are to do things. We can’t just sit around and expect God to do everything for us. God wants us to act on our faith. Sometimes acting on faith needs courage. Sometimes waiting on God needs courage.
The prophet Zephaniah called the people of Judah out of their complacency and into action. It was a calling of judgment meant to instill fear. He proclaims, “the great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there. That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements.” The people of Judah had become complacent in their waiting. They had worshipped false gods and forgotten the needs of the poor. They had lost their faith in God and treated each other badly. Zephaniah warns that the great day of the Lord won’t be cause for rejoicing and celebration. No, God will come with judgment and condemnation for those who have become complacent. Zephaniah calls the Judeans into action, into getting in right relationship with God. Because it is a great day of judgment, the day of the Lord demands courage. One can’t survive the day without courage. Zephaniah wants the people of Judah prepared, wants US prepared, and gives us the grim reality of the day of the Lord so that we might build our moral and mental strength to meet the day.
King David is no more cheery in describing the day of the Lord. He cries out, “for we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance.” On that great day of the Lord, our sins will be brought out into the open, plain for all to see. We won’t be able to hide them anymore. And the Lord will judge accordingly. Having our sins exposed will free us from the chains they held us in throughout the years. Secrecy and sin shackle us with fear and doubt. We cry, “Thank you for bringing my sins to light so that I may begin seeking forgiveness and atonement.” The process of healing and rejuvenation can begin once our sins are exposed. David understood this process of renewal when he sings, “you sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.” Even the day of the Lord will come to an end. Judgment will last only so long. It will take great courage to overcome the day of the Lord but take comfort in knowing there will be a time of renewal following that day. The cycle of death and rebirth will continue and God will remain. As David sings, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”
Paul further encourages us by reminding the Thessalonians and us that through faith we are children of light and children of the day. The day of the Lord won’t surprise us because we will have listened to the warnings of Zephaniah and David. We will have courage to meet the day with boldness because we know what awaits us. In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul likens the sudden destruction of the day of the Lord to the suddenness of labor pains that come upon a pregnant woman. What a great image to liken to the day of the Lord! Pregnant women can endure the pains of childbirth, as sudden as they are, because they, too, know what results from labor—a baby! New life! Pregnant women have courage to face the labor process because they know it is a process of renewal and rejuvenation. Life is renewed and no amount of pain can diminish the magnificent blessing of life. Most women quickly forget the pains of childbirth once they hold their babies. It is the same when we are children of light. Paul writes, “but since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for the 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.” Our courage comes from knowing we live with Christ, in knowing we are Christ’s, who wipes away our sins so that we may walk in God’s light.
We live with Christ when we reflect on his parables like the one lifted up in today’s gospel reading. The man in the parable goes on a journey, thereby leaving three of his slaves waiting for him to return. Rather than simply leaving them to twiddle their thumbs, he gives each of them each a portion of money to do with whatever they like. Two of the three slaves seized the opportunity and doubled the money while the master was away. The third slave chose not to risk losing his share and instead buried it with no chance of it being lost or growing. Seems like a pretty reasonable thing to do, right? After all, it wasn’t as if the slave selfishly spent it on himself. At least he could give back to the master exactly what was entrusted to him. The slave didn’t lose the master’s portion so why did the slave receive such a harsh rebuke? Perhaps this parable is about more than making wise investment choices, not only monetarily, but also in our God-given ability. Perhaps this parable is about more than taking risks with what we are entrusted. Perhaps this parable is about courage more than anything else.
In accounting for what he did with his portion, the slave responded, “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.” The master responds to such criticism with understandable harshness: “You wicked and lazy slave!” Here the slave thought he was doing the most sensible thing with the master’s portion and he was judged as wicked and lazy. What an unfair master! Or was he?
We can’t know how much fear each of the slaves had. We CAN know that the master rewards the first slave with the talent of the third slave. We CAN know his thoughts about doing this. The master says, “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.” In giving the talent to the first servant, the master is illustrating this point. Those with something will be given more and those without anything will have everything taken from them. Yes, somewhat of a weird statement…how can you take away from nothing? The master was speaking about showing nothing for what has been given. Everyone has something to work with. Health, education, wealth, reputation, the list could go on. We’ve all been given something by God in this world. We wouldn’t exist in this world without anything. The master in today’s parable wanted all of the slaves to do something with what was given to them. The third slave’s doing nothing was an insult to the master and he was punished for it.
So was the master a fair and just master in expecting all three slaves to do something with what was given to them? Yes. In many ways, our God is like the master in today’s parable. God reaps where He sows. God gathers where He scatters seed. But sometimes He chooses us to do these things for Him. That’s what we’re here for. To sow the seeds of faith, to make disciples of people and use what has been entrusted to us to grow the kingdom of God. At times, growing what has been given to us will be automatic and natural like a newborn infant eats, sleeps, and goes to the bathroom. At other times, it will be difficult to grow what has been given to us. These times will require a great deal of courage. Our God encourages us is in our times of struggle. We shouldn’t fixate on why we go through times of struggle but rather in building up the necessary courage to make it through. The day of the Lord might be sooner than we think but we can take comfort in knowing that we are children of God and that the day will be a process of renewal and rejuvenation. Our courage stems from knowing that we are Christ’s, daily dying and rising to new life in and through Christ.
Whenever I reflect on courage and the necessity of courage, I think of the story of a condemned prisoner awaiting execution being granted the usual privilege of choosing the dishes he wanted to eat for his last meal. He ordered a large mess of mushrooms. “Why all the mushrooms and nothing else?” asked the guard. “Well,” replied the prisoner, “I always wanted to try them, but was afraid to eat them before!” Like this condemned prisoner, we are called to act fearlessly in our times of waiting. Fear of the unknown mustn’t paralyze us into inactivity. Let us not be like the servant who buries what little has been given to us. Sure, we can give it back to our God when He comes for an accounting but because we have nothing to show for what was given to us, even this will be taken away. We must have courage to go into the unknown future, courage to know that God will grow whatever we have the courage to try. In today’s readings, God tells us, “Don’t be afraid, be assured.”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.