Reading Ramblings – November 15, 2020

Date: 24th Sunday after Pentecost – November 15, 2020

Texts: Zephaniah 1:7-16; Psalm 90:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Context: One more week until the start of the new liturgical calendar and we continue our focus on the coming Day of the Lord. And the language remains troubling overall. Personally, it is a reminder to me that judgment is coming. It’s one thing not to fear God’s wrrath because of faith in the promises of Jesus Christ, but I find myself increasingly ill at ease with judgment of any kind. Influenced heavily by medial bombardment and social and cultural trends towards disavowing personal responsibility at a variety of levels, such passages strike me as more and more frightening and, if I’m honest, perhaps unfair. Do I trust the judgment of God, or do I presume my sympathies and empathies are more accurate? These passages remind me and call me back to faithful trust in the Creator of the universe who alone knows best the hearts of every one of his creatures, and loves us more than we can even love ourselves let alone others.

Zephaniah 1:7-16 – Zephaniah is one of the latter Hebrew prophets (often called one of the minor prophets – a problematic term at best!). We know nothing more about him than is provided in the brief superscription to his prophetic writings. We are uncertain if he is actually the descendant of King Hezekiah, and arguments both for and against this are compelling but ultimately fruitless. If he is descended from a king, then 1:8 would have additional force! Josiah reigns from 640BC – 609BC, providing a date for Zephaniah’s ministry. Knowing that just a few years after this Judah and Jerusalem will be obliterated by the Babylonians adds force to his prophetic words. The Day of the Lord then takes on dual meaning – the day of the Lord’s judgment against his complacent people through the Babylonians but also the Day of the Lord, the day of Jesus’ return, the day of Judgment. The two days overlap and intertwine in Zephaniah’s vision and words. And his words are harsh, a warning, a shaking of the complacent and the half-hearted. Those who cheat and presume God is none the wiser or not even interested will very disappointed on that day of judgment! God’s people must be roused to the seriousness of the times – times they cannot know for certain and should not live in disdain for!

Psalm 90:1-12 – This psalm is credited to or at least written in from the perspective of Moses, the only such psalm. Could it be a writing of Moses passed down, whether in writing or in oral form? Perhaps. It could also be intended to provide the reader/hearer with a context or perspective. As such the psalm is beautiful, knowing how much of Moses’ life was spent homeless, yet always at home (v.1). Reference to a flood in v.5 brings to mind images of the Red Sea closing in on the Egyptian army. He watches the children of Israel die in the wilderness under God’s judgment, a perspective poignant as well as beautiful. The perspectives of a man grown old in the service of his Lord, who watches the fleeting passions and trials of life come and go as people are born, mature, age, and die. The impact of v.12 is powerful. Life is not forever. Youth is not forever. We move from beginning to end, and our days should reflect this journey and our understandings of our eternal dwelling place here and now as well as in eternity.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-13 – Paul writes to encourage, responding to questions the Thessalonians have raised regarding those who die in faith prior to our Lord’s return, and now about the Lord’s timing. Paul reiterates the teachings of Jesus as well as his language (Matthew 24, Luke 12). The Lord’s timing is uncertain but not a surprise, just as a pregnant woman knows she’s going to give birth, even if she isn’t exactly sure when labor will begin. Those who are not mindful of this are as foolish as a pregnant woman who thinks she will not give birth! But the Thessalonians are wiser. They do not fear the dark of night because they live in the light of Christ. They are ready for his arrival because his coming will not, for them, mean destruction but rather life. We know what we have inherited through faith in Jesus Christ, and our lives should reflect that rather than being embodied with the sinful behaviors done under cover of darkness. We should encourage one another with this hope – the hope that our Lord will come and that we need not fear that day!

Matthew 25:14-30 – A fascinating parable with many various interpretations. Unlike some of Jesus’ other parables, this one is addressed to his disciples and followers, as Jesus continues his teachings not about the kingdom of heaven in general but in terms of the kingdom of heavens’s coming, a topic since the beginning of chapter 24. To understand this parable, we must know that Jesus is the master. With that piece of information in place we can better understand the events which might otherwise frighten us or make us uncertain. There are three servants here, but for all intents and purposes there could just be two – the first two servants are almost identical in every respect except the amounts entrusted to them and returned to the master. They are, effectively, a single servant, contrasted with the third servant who acts very differently than the other two.

The story is therefore not a matter of degrees. It isn’t a story about percentages, or about making enough use of the master’s resources. It isn’t intended to make us doubt whether we could do more for Jesus or not – of course we could! However it is intended to demonstrate two basic types of servants – those who trust their master and trust what he’s entrusted to them and use it wisely, and the servants who believe their master to be untrustworthy, dishonest, harsh, and therefore make no effort whatsoever. The third servant doesn’t do less than the other two servants – he does nothing. And then attempts to justify his refusal to treat his master’s gifts well by blaming the master himself.

Who do we say the master is? What is his character? While some might wonder about this, if we presume Jesus is the master then we know the answer to that question and how to make sense of the third servant’s response. The departure and long absence correspond to Jesus’ upcoming ascension to the right hand of the Father. The master’s return refers to Jesus’ second coming, and the settling of accounts with the first two servants corresponds to the reward of eternal salvation to the faithful, and the judgment against the unfaithful servant corresponds to the final condemnation and banishment of evil.

No, we aren’t to worry about whether we’ve done enough with the gifr of our life we’ve been given by our master. The answer will always be no, and that has already been forgiven in the death and resurrection of Christ. We will undoubtedly confess that we have not been as productive as we could, this will not be a source of judgment for us. We will be welcomed into the master’s eternal joy! But for the ones who can only conceive of and experience (or deny) the master as harsh, cruel, unfair, dishonest – essentially evil – they will stand condemned in their blasphemy eternally (Mark 3:28-30).

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