Preacher Revd Neil Summers
In more recent years, the few weeks between All Saints’ Day (1 November) and the eve of Advent Sunday have become known as the ‘Kingdom season’, and the final Sunday (next week) will indeed celebrate the Feast of Christ the King – a triumphant note on which to end the church’s year. The Gospel readings on these few Sundays are all parables: last week, the story of the lazy bridesmaids; today, the parable of the talents; next week the story of the sheep and the goats. We’re looking ahead to Advent, now only two weeks away. Advent is partly about the anticipation of Christmas, but, for the Christian, it also carries the theme of judgement, a recurring theme in the parables and which, I guess, is a more uncomfortable take on the season many of us would prefer to keep hidden away. But think of it this way: maybe that judgement will be less about an angry and vengeful God, and more about taking an honest look at ourselves and the extent to which those of us who say we are followers of Jesus have actually allowed his vision of the kingdom to be made real in our lives. Yes, Advent, used well, may throw open to the light the shadier side of our human nature and experience, and the many ways we haven’t allowed the kingdom into our living, before giving us a chance to have another go when we celebrate the birth of a baby in Bethlehem. That child will urge us once more to let his life be born in our lives – not only on Christmas Day, but every other day as well.
A few days after I became full-time vicar here, two smart-suited young men appeared at the back door of the church asking if I was praying for the coming of the kingdom. Charming though they were, it was a slightly unnerving start to a new phase of my ordained ministry! But I answered, ‘Yes, I am’, because every day I pray ‘Thy kingdom come’. They asked me when I thought the kingdom would come, and I said I believed it was already here, that Jesus had established it through his birth, life, death and resurrection, and that it’s now our job to try to let that kingdom grow continually in ourselves, our churches and our communities, here and now. They clearly believed the kingdom was still to come and, when it did, it would be the inheritance of only a chosen few. (A few days later, they came back to have another try, bearing a copy of their latest magazine, but also very kindly enquiring how my new job was going!)
As we approach Advent, we are supposed to anticipate the coming of Jesus with excitement, aren’t we? But some of the readings that take us up to the start of the season can strike the fear of God into us instead, especially the writings of the Hebrew prophets. Last Sunday, we had the prophecy of Amos and his warning that the coming day of the Lord is ‘darkness, not light’. Today, Zephaniah is even fiercer, as he catalogues the calamities that the fast-approaching ‘day of wrath’ will bring.
In our other readings today, Paul and Matthew also speak with a prophetic voice, even if their styles are different. For Paul, the day of the Lord – that is, the Lord himself – will come suddenly, like a thief in the night. Matthew’s parable of the talents stirs us to make the best and most productive use of the brief space we have before the Lord comes. The claims of the kingdom can confront us at any moment, in any part of our life, and we need to be prepared to respond.
Sometimes, the talents Matthew refers to in his story are interpreted as representing money, and sometimes as referring to particular skills or gifts we might possess. But try this idea instead: maybe we could think of the talents as the opportunities we are given to enable the kingdom to be made real in our lives. In the parable, it is the servants who use their talents and thereby double their value who receive their master’s commendation. Given the nature of the kingdom Jesus espouses, we might imagine the process of trading talents involves building constructive relationships with other people, bringing compassion, healing and wholeness to those routinely ignored, despised or excluded, and seeking justice for the poorest and most downtrodden in society. Because that’s what Jesus did. The problem with the third servant in the story is that he doesn’t want to build relationships or allow what he’s been given to be active or productive in any way. Instead of taking the risks that the other servants do, the third servant buries what he’s been given, so it produces nothing. How can the kingdom possibly flourish if its potential for growth is hidden away in the ground?
So the thrust of this parable and its challenge to us is to think about what it is that the master is giving the servants in the story. It is nothing less than the love of God: the love that creates relationship with God, the love that can make us different people, the love that dissolves the fear and anxiety that separate us from one another. The talent given by the master in the story is the chance of a transformed human life. And when you put it like that, you realise what an extraordinary thing it is that the third servant in the story is trying to do. ‘Oh’, he says, ‘I’ve been given a relationship with God – it’s so precious and so important and so vulnerable that the best thing I can possibly do with it is nothing. Tell nobody, show nobody, keep it buried. Never mind about relationships with others, never mind about transformed humanity, what I’ve got is a relationship with God. I’ll keep it safely hidden away so it doesn’t make a difference to anybody else’.
But what’s the use of that? No wonder the master is so frustrated and angry, and this slave ends up in the outer darkness where, in that striking imagery, there is ‘gnashing of teeth’. For what God in Jesus Christ offers us is the opportunity to trade and prosper with a new kind of life, a life that crosses frontiers, breaks boundaries, and gives us a vision of what is due to all human beings and what they are capable of as they respond to that love. How can we possibly bury it in the ground? But, if the painful truth be told, that is precisely what we’re often inclined to do – partly because it doesn’t feel very safe going out and building relationships with all sorts of people who may not respond in kind, and also because the new humanity on offer looks too much like hard work. It goes a bit against the grain, doesn’t it, all that stuff about forgiving your enemies, letting go, and taking risks for the sake of the kingdom. All things considered, we might quite like to keep the talent in the ground out of sight. But what Jesus seems to says to us in the parable is that the one sure way you have of losing your relationship with God is being unwilling to use the talent in creating a new humanity, building relationships with strangers, standing up for the most fragile, vulnerable and forgotten who can’t stand up for themselves, those we’d rather not think about, or try and train ourselves not to see around us, refugees, homeless people, those lives blighted by poverty and lack of opportunity.
So I want to encourage you today. Don’t be put off by the harsh tone of the prophets as we move towards Advent. They tried to call God’s ancient people, the Hebrews, back to God’s vision, and they call us, too, and alert us to possibilities and realities as yet unseen. My take on all this, for what it’s worth, is pretty much the one I tried to explain to my smart-suited visitors. I don’t think we have to wait for the appearance of the day of the Lord, because he has already appeared, once and for all, in the person of Jesus. Now, every day is the day of the Lord’s appearing. But how intently do we look for it, and how willing are we to recognise its appearing, especially when meeting it means we may have to reconsider our attitudes, lifestyles and habits, and probably let go of some of those things we have tended to idolise and which we always assumed guaranteed our security and comfort. This kingdom isn’t limited to a certain few at some future date: it is among us today and it holds the promise of transformation for all humanity, now and for all time, if we make the best use of the talent we are given. Let us not risk losing sight of the kingdom. Rather, as Paul advised the Thessalonians, let’s remain alert, just in case we miss it.