One day as I was walking to church, I saw two suspicious characters hanging around aimlessly. They were about my age, and in that town 15 years ago it was unusual to see anyone under the age of 30 out and about before 10 am on a Sunday. ‘Morning’ I said. ‘Ah Vicar,’ one of them improvised, ‘my Gran would like to come to church. What time is the service? And how long does it last?’ ‘It’s at 10 o clock,’ I said, ‘and it lasts for an hour and a quarter. And the great thing is, if your Gran comes in a car, she can leave it here safely because we have a retired policeman patrolling up and down the road all through the service.’ Funnily enough, Gran didn’t turn up, and we didn’t have any break-ins that day either
As Jesus says earlier in Matthew’s gospel: ‘if the householder had known what time the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. So you too should be prepared.’
We do not know when the time of trial will come, when problems will descend. Life goes its own untroubled way but then suddenly something changes. Scientifically, we do not know how long our world will exist, we do now know the span of our own lives. In v1 of our reading from 1 Thessalonians, St Paul tells us that we cannot predict the end, so we need to live in a way that is prepared. ‘For you yourselves know that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night’. Jesus will return at a time we do not expect, so let us be ready. (Biblical)
It is rather strange thinking of the return of Jesus being like a thief. Chantal and I were burgled when we were on our honeymoon – I think the thieves had seen it in the Parish Mag. Fortunately not much was taken – I lost some obscure indy CDs but all the wedding presents the thieves were after were at the in-laws. But it wasn’t the loss which was upsetting – it was the thought that someone had broken into our house, that even before my wife had lived there someone had been through all our stuff. Thieves might think ‘oh they’ll get it back on insurance’ but insurance doesn’t deal with the emotional impact.
Thieves cause grief and hassle out of all proportion to the value they get from the things they take. So it does feel distinctly uncomfortable likening the return of Jesus to a thief in the night. Isn’t the Advent of Christ supposed to be good news? Doesn’t Jesus bring in God’s Kingdom of justice and joy? Isn’t this the hope of a new world? Of creation reborn? Of every tear wiped away and evil destroyed?
But maybe that’s the point. Evil will be destroyed. For instance, justice is good news for many – except those who treat others unjustly. Tears being wiped away brings joy, except to those who enrich themselves by oppressing others. The destruction of evil is great news, provided we do not cling to the evil in our hearts, for if we do we shall be swept away with it. What is happening in Zimbabwe may turn out to be good news for many – but to Mugabe it may feel like the thief in the night.
As St Paul says in v.4 to the believers ‘For you beloved are not in darkness for that day to surprise you like a thief, for you are all children of the light.’ Clearly the implications, the idea of Jesus coming like a thief in the night partly depends on our response.
The image of the thief emphasises unexpectedness. It’s the shock of waking up and finding things gone. A jolt of unwelcome reality when we thought we were comfortably bumbling along. The car that pulls out in front when you’re driving along minding your own business. Even if we are children of the light, it’s important that we are ready and alert.
Perhaps that’s why St. Paul suddenly talks about being sober. I don’t think Paul’s against alcohol –the Bible talks about it as a gift from God. But I do know that if I’ve had a drink it’s harder to concentrate on work, prayer is less focussed. So it’s a decision: am I at work? Do I want to spend some time catching up with God? Is this a moment to relax and enjoy good company and good wine? And what’s the balance between those activities? Something would be wrong if I come home from work and always open a bottle, if I cannot be sociable without a glass in hand.
So how should we be then? If Jesus will return unexpectedly, if we may be called back at a time we do not predict, how then should we live? During November we hear different parables of Jesus which tell us how to live in readiness for him. This week it’s the parable of the talents.
A talent in the parable is a whacking great lump of silver. About half a million pounds worth in fact. So a not inconsiderable amount of money. But under the influence of this parable, a talent has also come to mean gifts, skill. In reality it can stand for anything with which we are entrusted. For God the Creator is the ultimate source of our abilities, our possessions, our money, even our time. All things come from God, and we are accountable to him for how we use them. Like the parable, God wants us to use our assets, time and skills well.
Some have one talent, others have five. From those who have been given much, more will be expected. The servant who had five talents produced five more, the one who had three earned another three – but that was fine. We should not be jealous of the abilities of others, but fulfil our own vocation. When I meet God he won’t ask me: ‘Why weren’t you Nicky Gumbel or Bill Gates?’ He might ask me: ‘Why weren’t you Christopher Bryan? Why weren’t you all I made you to be?
The bad servant gets in trouble because he hasn’t made even a minimal effort. Fearful, he buries the talent in the ground. Even just leaving it with the bankers would have earned interest – a rather dubious assumption these days! But he can’t be bothered, or maybe he’s frightened of failure.
Is God like this boss character? Is Jesus saying: make the most of what God’s given you, or else? Could we perhaps see it as saying that God wants the best for us? From us? After all, the best for us will involve giving our best.
Imagine a God who didn’t care. A ‘yeah whatever’ God. Would that be attractive? Would people be drawn to a church which bumbled along with minimum effort and asked for zero commitment? In my curacy parish there was an excellent choir. The demands on children were high – they were expected to attend and practice. There were rewards, ribbons, badges. They put a lot in and got a lot out.
Nobody wants to be part of an organisation which is a bit shabby because it’s run on a shoestring, or a church where you can be on the rota but nobody really minds if you don’t rock up to do your bit. Surely it’s better to belong to a church which encourages you to give your best, which has great plans even if people are challenged to give 10% of their income? What we see in our society is that people are drawn to quality, even if that asks a significant amount of them.
I don’t want to be a one talent, hide it in the ground sort of person. I don’t want our churches to be like that. I want to be the kind of person who does something with their talent. Whether it’s five, three or one, I want to grow, I want to be stretched through the risky process of putting talents to work. I want to step out in that journey with a God who honours our willingness to be used by him.
God knows we will not always get it right. God knows that we will learn through failures as well as success. God does not need us to be perfectionist. We’re not trying to earn salvation, find our way into God’s favour by doing things for him. What does Paul say in v. 9? ‘God has not destined us for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ’ He died for us, so that whether awake or asleep we might live with him.
If we trust in Christ, our destiny is secure. If we believe Jesus has died for us, we need not fear the end. If we trust him for forgiveness, we are not fearfully looking over our shoulders. We can live our lives freely, making the most of our talents, being ambitious for him. Amen