Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The King's Judgment, 11.20

Matthew 25:31-46
31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

We may not know Ezekiel as well as Jeremiah and Isaiah. His visions and actions are often strange, though this vision is easy enough to follow. Ezekiel preached in the years before and after Judah’s defeat and occupation by Babylon. His prophetic words combine criticism of injustice with hope for Israel’s future. Let’s see what Ezekiel has to say to us this morning.

Ezekiel 34:1-24 (pg. 803-804)
1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel:

Let’s start out by getting our parts straight so we can understand this passage. Who do you think Ezekiel and God mean by the shepherds of Israel? Who are the sheep in this passage?

We’ll find out more about this in a minute, but why do you think God might want Ezekiel to prophesy against Israel’s leaders? Don’t worry if you don’t know the answer, the passage will get to it, I just want to get our brains warmed up by thinking about where we might be headed.

2Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.

What’s a shepherd’s job? How is a king or business leader like a shepherd? What’s their responsibility to the people they lead? What does it seem like these leaders were doing instead?

Check this out: Ezekiel says that Israel’s shepherds, Israel’s leaders, are so bad that they aren’t really shepherds at all.

5So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

What happens to sheep without a shepherd? What does being scattered mean in this case? How does God feel about this situation?

7Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; 9therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.

God warns the shepherds, the leaders of Israel, that they haven’t done their job. They haven’t taken care of the sheep, so God is going to kick the shepherds out and take care of the sheep himself. In other words, even though it seems like the powerful can take advantage of the weak forever, even though it seems like the leaders of society can ignore the needs of others and pile up riches for themselves, it won’t always be that way. God is going to step into the picture and take care of people in need. God is going to take his flock back from the selfish leaders and give them the care they aren’t getting from their shepherds.

11For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.

God’s sheep, God’s people won’t always be scattered in the wilderness. Israel and Judah are exiled from their land now, but it won’t always be that way. One day God will bring back the exiles and make sure everyone has good land to feed on. God will make sure everyone has enough.

Living in the Light, 11.13

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
1Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!

4But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But 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. 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

Matthew 25:14-30
14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then 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.’ 21His 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.’ 22And 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.’ 23His 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.’

24Then 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; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But 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? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.

28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For 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. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

            OK, raise your hand if passages like this one make you nervous or make you want to just shake your head and close the Bible. We’ve been reading passages about the end of time and the final judgment for several weeks now. It seems like as Jesus got closer to his own death he became more insistent about warning his audience that the end was coming soon for them too. I get it, and at the same time it still feels a little like we’ve been getting beaten over the head with judgment talk for weeks now.

            A couple times in the last few weeks Jesus has talked about how his return will be like a thief in the night. Paul uses the same image in today’s passage. The idea is that Christ will return suddenly, when we least expect it. In a lot of ways it’s a threatening image. We imagine darkness and shadows. We imagine a sneaky guy in a ski mask prowling around the back of the house looking for a loose windowpane. Maybe we even imagine a mugger in a dark alley striking unsuspecting victims without warning and without mercy.

             If we’re honest we often see Christ’s return like that. We think of Christ coming back and judging the world and we feel afraid. We’re suspicious of his intentions in judgment and fearful about what might happen to us. We worry he’s going to hurt us and take away our treasure like a thief. We have this Santa Clause image of Jesus making his list and checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.

            Paul helps us see this image in a more hopeful way. Yes, Christ will come like thief in the night, he says, “But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.” The darkness that makes the thief seem threatening isn’t a given; it’s a choice. Christ is the light of the world and when we belong to him we aren’t stuck in the darkness. In Christ we walk in the light, and everything looks different in the light.

            When we’re in the darkness Christ’s return feels like a threat; in the light we see his return as the joyful reunion it is. In the dark God’s justice seems threatening; in the light it’s a relief because we know that everything wrong will finally be made right. In the dark it feels like we can do whatever we want and that we need to look out for ourselves. In the light we see the needs and possibilities of the world around us and it’s clear that our calling is outside our walls.

            The challenge of this passage is to be who God made us, to live like redeemed followers of Jesus, to do what we know we are called to do. Paul reminds his readers that they are in the light so they have nothing to worry about from thieves or from judgment. He also reminds them to keep acting like they are in the light, he encourages them to remember who they are.

            When we remember our identity as Jesus followers we know how to do the right thing. When we walk in the light we can see where we’re going. The Christian life is natural. It means looking at Jesus as an example of what authentic and faithful life looks like. It means caring about our neighbors, speaking up for the powerless, serving the poor. It means comforting those who are sad or afraid, reaching out to people who are lonely, sharing our hope with others. In short, it means acting like a Christian.

            Faithful Christian living takes practice but becomes almost instinctual. It’s less about rules and more about choosing our actions in the light of who we are and who Jesus is. At our core we have been redeemed and we are new creations in Christ. So when we live honest, love-filled lives we will naturally do the right thing.

Choosing and trusting, 11.6

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
1Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors — Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor — lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. 3aThen I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.

14“Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. 15Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

16Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; 17for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; 18and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”

19But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” 21And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the LORD!” 22Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel.” 24The people said to Joshua, “The LORD our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” 25So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
13But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.

15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.

            The early church thought Christ would come back very soon. Jesus told his followers that some of them would still be alive when he came back. Paul was urgent about telling people about Jesus because he felt like he might not finish the job before Jesus returned.

            That sense that the end was coming was important to the early Christian church. So it came as an upsetting surprise when people in the community started dying. They expected to be waiting for Jesus when he returned, so they didn’t know how to handle it when their friends and family died.

            Paul writes the passage we just read to help them handle their grief and move forward. He reminds them that Jesus died too, but his death was not the end. Because Jesus rose from the dead, those of us who die before Christ’s return will also rise to be with Christ when he comes back. Then we will be together again with Christ when he makes all things right.

            Paul doesn’t say anything about when this is going to happen. He doesn’t give details about what Christ’s coming will look like either. There is a lot about Christ’s return that we don’t know. There’s a lot about the afterlife that we don’t know. The future, especially the future beyond our earthly lives is a mystery. It’s a mystery and sometimes that makes us anxious.
            Paul’s is wise to avoid the specifics. The details don’t matter; what matters is that God is in charge and God loves us. Christ’s life and death show us that above every thing else, no matter what the cost, God wants to be with us. Christ’s resurrection shows us that God’s love is stronger than death. We don’t know what it will look like, but when all is said and done we will be with Jesus in glory.

            The more I’ve gotten to know God, the more I appreciate Paul’s wisdom. I don’t care what heaven looks like. I’m not worried about how the resurrection will happen. I know that God loves us and that’s all that matters. The more I trust God’s love the more I’m able to let go of my anxiety about the future and focus on God’s calling for life. If you’re anxious about judgment or life after death I invite you to read the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection again and let go of your anxiety. Nothing is going to separate us from God’s love in Jesus. You have nothing to worry about.

            Interestingly enough, a lot of Israel’s problems had to do with the future as well. When Moses spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai, the people worried he was gone and told Aaron to make gods to lead them. Often along the way the people worried about where they were going and feared that God and Moses had led them into a place with no future. Throughout the journey the people are anxious about where they are going and whether their leader can get them to safety.

Moses spent his life leading the people through the desert, trying to get them to trust God. Deuteronomy is a whole book of sermons from Moses about God’s faithfulness calling the people to trust and follow God. As Moses came to the end of his life he told Israel about the future and encouraged them to cling to God in their new home.

            Two weeks ago we read about Moses’ death and how Joshua followed him as Israel’s leader. Now we skip ahead in the story. Joshua led the people into Canaan and took over the land. After years of warfare Israel is more or less at peace and Joshua prepares them for life without his leadership, just like Moses did before he died.

              Joshua’s main goal isn’t setting up a government or choosing a leader to guide Israel after he is gone. Instead he focuses on getting Israel to choose to follow God. That seems like a strange decision, since Israel has been following God all this time, but Joshua is exactly right to wrap up his ministry this way.

            In theory Israel is already following God; in practice they have really been following Joshua. Joshua worries that when he’s gone the people will loose their direction. In this farewell speech Joshua reminds the people that the point isn’t following him, but following God. Joshua’s goal is getting the people to choose to follow God for themselves.

            Joshua asks the question clearly: “Choose this day whom you will serve…” Will they choose to serve the gods Abraham’s ancestors served in Mesopotamia? Will they choose to serve the gods of the people who lived in Canaan before them? Or will they choose to serve the Lord who brought them out of slavery and through the desert?

            Joshua asks the question as a one-time choice because this one question, whom we will serve, is the center of our whole life. He doesn’t raise the possibility of serving no one. For people in that time the idea of life without a god wouldn’t make sense.

            For us the choice looks a bit different because our temptations are different. We aren’t tempted by Mesopotamian or Amorite gods. Instead we’re tempted by the false god of independence and selfish success. We are not tempted to serve foreign gods, but to serve ourselves.

            The gods of our culture are freedom, selfishness and wealth. We worship at the temple of consumer culture and endless choices. We worship at the altar of me first partisan politics and blaming other people. We want freedom without responsibility. Joshua’s voice rings out calling us to choose whom we will serve. Our culture responds, “We will serve ourselves.”

            God calls us to choose differently. God calls us to choose community and faithfulness over selfish independence. God calls us to choose following the real, living God over the daily grind. God calls us to choose a true life of service to love and justice over the charade of meaningless materialism. Choose this day whom you will serve.

            It’s not a choice we make just once, when we baptize our children or commit ourselves at confirmation. It’s a choice we make every day as we buy groceries and go to work. It’s a choice we make as we choose how to treat others and how to spend our money. It’s a choice we make at school and in sports. It’s a choice we make as build our life. Choose this day whom you will serve.

            As we come together at Christ’s table we choose to serve God. We choose to serve each other. We choose to serve justice. At Christ’s table we recognize that we are hungry for community and hungry for justice. We recognize that some of our brothers and sisters are hungry for bread and security.

We can only choose to serve God when we trust God. At Christ’s table we remember that the God of the universe chose to live and die for us. This meal shared with our Lord reminds us that we can trust him. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Taste and see that the Lord is good. Choose this day whom you will serve; God has already chosen to serve us.

Thanks be to God.