Reflection: “Watching for Signs”
Imagine you’re traveling in a foreign city, where English isn’t the official language.
All the street signs, menus, bus schedules, everything needed to navigate the city, are in a different language.You stop people on the street for assistance, but it seems that no one speaks your native language.
For novice travellers, this could be a scary and intimidating situation, whereas more seasoned and experienced travellers seem to relish challenges such as these.
Fortunately, today, there are electronic devices that can quickly translate foreign text into English and vice-versa.
All a person has to do is point the device at the written text you want translated, and – voila! – it gives the English translation.
Some Christians may feel that their spiritual journey is taking them to unknown places, where all the signs are in a strange language and they just can’t figure out where they are, or where they’re supposed to go.
As much as they attempt to discern the signs in their lives, they find themselves feeling more and more confused while trying to navigate in this strange place.
For new Christians, sitting in unfamiliar church pews, reading the signs and navigating their way through new surroundings can be tricky and sometimes, confusing.
This is especially true with apparently conflicting religious messages coming at them from different directions.
But, whether they’re a new convert, or a lifelong Christian, the spiritual journey is scattered with signs along the way – and they require translation. Making things even more troublesome, are the modern, self-proclaimed prophets, who go on and on about what are often called “End Times”.
These people use specifically chosen scriptural passages to weave fanciful tales of horrific proportions, which, if accepted as truth without a discerning heart, can derail people along their journey’s path.
To a similar degree, the disciples of Jesus were confused by the signs of their times. Israel was under Roman rule, contemporary prophets were routinely spouting apocalyptic predictions, and the Jews were desperate for a Messiah who would reinstate the line of their greatest king, David, and thus re-establish Israel to its former glory as an independent kingdom.
In the midst of the confusing signs and false prophets, Jesus warned his disciples – and us today – to stay awake. This implies being alert and cognisant of what’s happening around us, living in a constant state of readiness and anticipation.
It doesn’t, however, suggest that believers should be pouring over scripture in a vain attempt to find a prophetic interpretation for every single event in history or in the news.
Much time and energy has been wasted on End Time books, movies and prophecies.
But now is the time to focus on proclaiming the Good News in Christ, by being his hands and feet - reaching out to those in need.
As our church enters into this Advent season, the beginning of a new church year, the world’s in a race to read the signs of the time.
Maybe it’s an attempt to make sense of all that is going on in this crazy place.The news is rife with reports of increased terrorism, nations rising against nations, and religious extremism and intolerance.
Political and religious leaders are under continual scrutiny, as reports of indiscretion, rorts and misappropriation surface, and crime seems to be taking over the streets.
Diseases such as Aids, Ebola and now Coronavirus, indiscriminately kill.
People are being pitted against each other in a continual competition for limited resources, while those who are the vulnerable ones in society, suffer the most.
When looked at as a whole, we might begin to wonder what it all means.
It’s no wonder that some people begin to interpret some of these events as signs of the End Times.
Misguided religious zeal and emotional pessimism are ripe and dangerous in times such as these.
People lose hope and spiritual and intellectual apathy sets in.
In the midst of suffering and despair, the world longs for some sort of cosmic event that will wipe away everything that’s wrong, in a single stroke. In the midst of doomsday predictions are those who warn that Christ’s return is imminent.
Despite this, Jesus clearly states that no one knows the time of his re-appearance, neither the angels in heaven, nor himself, but only God.
Apocalyptic predictions in traditional and the newer social media - even from some church pulpits - are indicative of the fear and anxiety filling peoples’ hearts in light of life’s uncertainties.
However, the church’s emphasis on scripture, tradition and reason, is the lens through which these signs can be put into focus and better understood.
Part of remaining alert in these times, is a commitment to continual study of scripture in light of historic teachings of the church, developing critical-thinking skills and seeking a discerning spirit.
The church is firm in its belief of the return of Christ Jesus.
But exactly how and when this culminating cosmic event will take place, remains a mystery.
Scripture doesn’t give a clear explanation, other than to say only the father knows when it will occur.
However, it does provide signs to help us navigate life’s journey with the help of the Holy Spirit - until the Lord’s Second Advent.
Until Christ’s return, the church is reminded to remain awake, as it diligently carries on the ministry of the Lord.
It learns from the past, while maintaining a confident faith in the future, all the time tending to the work of the Kingdom of God in the world, today.
The people of the world may be driven by fear and anxiety, but Christian believers can be confident that God will strengthen them to the end, so that they may be judged blameless on the day of the Lord’s return.
In light of all the troubles in the world today, this Advent presents a unique opportunity for the church to stand firm in the gap and proclaim the Good News of Christ Jesus, through word and deed.
Now is the time to be active in proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
If believers are to interpret any message from the signs of the time, it should be that God’s grace is sufficient to sustain his people even in the worst of circumstances.
With every generation that passes since Christ’s ascension, the danger of complacency threatens the church’s overall mission – that is, to proclaim the Good News.
Some in the church are just happy living with the status quo, while others adopt a “religious country club” mentality.
Even worse, and more detrimental to the mission of the church, is when believers become embroiled in debates that result in division.
Self-proclaimed prophets have misread the so-called signs and made false predictions of apocalyptic proportions, only to push people away from the church, rather than drawing them into the Kingdom.
They fail to listen to Christ’s words, spoken to his disciples in today’s Gospel reading.
The church proclaims: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
Until then, the church has a job to do – waiting for the master to return.
Whether Christ returns today, tomorrow or in hundreds of years, today is the day of salvation.
If we look closely at the signs of the times, they point to the One who holds all the answers to all that ails the world.
Christ’s mission to the church remains as clear today as when he first sent his disciples into the world.
So, for now, we must keep a lookout for the signs and act positively upon them, whether they be the appearance of fig leaves heralding the return of summer, or the other many signs given to us in scripture.
If we’re always vigilant and prepared, it doesn’t really matter exactly when Christ’s return occurs.
People of God, let us wait with an enduring faith for the day of the Lord.May we be willing to serve without restraint in humility and love. Amen
Reflection: "Love Draws Near"
In the last few weeks, we’ve looked at the parables of the 10 bridesmaids and of the 3 servants with talents.
This week we’re looking at a story featuring the King who comes to us, draws near and shows us how to offer practical love to the needy folk around us.
One of the privileges of being a Pastor is that I get to go to a lot of funerals.
It’s an honour and a pleasure to assist the family in giving thanks for the life of the loved one whom they have lost.
It means that I get to hear a lot of people speaking about what they thought was important in the life of the person who died.
It probably won’t surprise you that the tribute payers never speak about how much money the person made, how flashy their house was, or how many possessions they had accumulated. Instead, it’s almost exclusively about relationships – especially about their relationships with family, and whether they have been able to do some good for others in the world.
That is how our loved ones will sum up our life at its end.
In today’s parable, Jesus raises the question of how God will judge our life at its conclusion, and guess what, God also looks at our lives in terms of relationships.
God dearly wants to be in a loving relationship with us and Jesus says the way God knows we are responding to his love is to look at how we pass on that love to others.
You can’t repay God’s grace – you can only pay it forward.
Jesus says that God especially wants to know whether, like him, we are trying to love the imperfect, the struggling, the ones no one else seems to love – the poor, the hungry, the prisoners, etc. It’s a tough task.
I imagine that if Jesus came into our church on Sunday morning and asked for the sheep to be on one side and the goats on the other, most of us would be standing in the centre aisle.
Yes, we’ve tried to love and care for the poor, the hungry or the refugees, but we’ve also had plenty of selfish and self-centred moments.
We need to remember just who is telling this story – Jesus, the one who shows us that God loves us despite our failures, not because of our good deeds.
The more we open ourselves to that grace, the more we can pass on that grace to those who need it most.
I know it’s tragic, but I’m a fan of the book and TV show The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, by the late Douglas Adams.
For those who haven’t come across it yet, it’s a comic science fiction novel about the end of the world, other intelligent life in the universe, and ultimate answers.
One of the chapters in the book actually provides, thanks to the universe's most powerful computer, called Deep Thought, the “Answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything”.
After seven and a half million years of calculation, Deep Thought reveals that the answer is 42.
And then, to those baffled folks wondering what they can possibly do with that answer, Deep Thought suggests that maybe the problem is that they've never really thought through what the ultimate question actually is.
So, when we come to this climactic passage from the latter part of the Gospel of Matthew, should the question be “how do we gain everlasting life, or go to Heaven, when we die?”
Or should it be “what are we supposed to be doing right now?”
When we're seeking Ultimate Answers, how we understand the question matters quite a bit.
In our gospel lesson today, Jesus is seen separating sheep and goats and is described as a king on his throne, rewarding his subjects according to their adherence to his great ethical commandment of compassion.
The passage comes in the last great teaching discourse in Matthew, a long section about the end of the world and the time of completion, it follows numerous parables about being ready for whatever is coming, whenever it gets here.
A thief in the night.
A slave and a master.
Foolish bridesmaids who are unprepared.
Slaves given trust over things while the master is away.
Apocalyptic stories about judgment and being prepared.
So what’s the question?
Is this passage about believing in God, so that you’ll go to Heaven when you die?
The Bible's central message is not about believing in God so that you’ll go to Heaven when you die.In fact, in Matthew’s Gospel, belief in and of itself, is not sufficient for the disciples of Jesus.
At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus laments that many people will call him Lord, but only those who act upon his ethical teachings can be his true followers.
And in the Great Commission, Jesus doesn't ask them to form disciples who believe that he is the Messiah, instead, he says
“teach them to observe every ethical teaching I have commanded of you.”
If you think the question is “am I going to Heaven?”, “will I be saved?”, or “am I a sheep or a goat?”, then Matthew suggests you’ve missed the point.
What you're seeking, is not actually pie in the sky, but, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, “pie in the here and now”.
A jolt from a spiritual cattle prod - that will help you struggle up the path that awaits you this week, month, year.
So maybe the question we should ask is not what happens at the end of things, but more like what am I supposed to be doing right now?
What does Jesus want me to do?
How will my life be different if Christ is King and his love draws near to me?
The conflict over who is Lord, is acted out in our lives today and every day.
The world still wants us to worship all that is “not-God”, and our culture even rewards us when we do.
But this conflict between the two Kingdoms, one of this world and one of the divine realm, becomes clearly delineated in the life of Christ.
Jesus tells us that the usual things people elevate as gods – like power, wealth, celebrity and fame - are replaced in the Kingdom of God by the supreme values of service, love, self-sacrifice, and faithful community. Life in God's Kingdom is not about self-aggrandisement, but about self-denial.
It's not about big words, it's about powerful actions.
Life in God's Kingdom is not about what you have, or who you are, it's about what you do.It's not about what the world values, but what God values.
Some years ago, I was asking God to let me know what he wanted me to do with my life.
I prayed hard, asked often, and the result, was this: a friend got up at church and talked about a new ministry he was involved in, called the Kairos prison ministry.
I realised immediately that this was right for me.
The main bible verse they use is one that we read today, Matthew 25:36
“I was in prison and you visited me”.
So, instead of listening to the world, which says "believe in me, and act like a goat", the message should be this:
“if you love God, if your values are God-values instead of the world's values, if Christ actually is your King, then you will love as God loves, give as God gives, forgive as God forgives.If your values are God-values, you can't help but live as Christ taught.” So how are things going to end?
What happens after we die?
I don't know - and I suspect that you don’t, either.
But we do know the shape of the story a loving God is writing for us:
If Christ is King, we know that Jesus will be waiting for us at the end of our story, that he will see us and know us and that if we’ve done what he taught us, he’ll claim us as his own.His love will draw very near to us.
And, I have to say, that question and answer are enough for me.
Reflection: “Risky Business”
Our God is right into taking risks.
That’s obvious, isn’t it?
Otherwise we human beings, unstable creatures as we are, wouldn’t have been left in management positions on his precious planet.
This strategy, the degree of free will God has permitted us, is a high-risk undertaking.
It means that God is prepared to even hold back on applying his divine power, so that we might have such freedom.
That’s really quite a dicey decision on his behalf.
God chose to live dangerously in order to open the opportunity for his “many earthly children to come into glory”, as the bible says.
In dark contrast, the temptation for believers to “play it safe” may be one the smartest items in Satan’s box of tricks.
Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like: a man going abroad, called his servants, trusting all his capital to them.
He gave 5 talents to one, 2 to another, and to one have gave 1 talent. To each, according to their ability.
Over many generations, preaching and teaching has focussed on how well Christians used the gifts God has given them.
It’s stressed our need for good stewardship.
The amounts of money that were mentioned - 5, 2 and 1 talent - have been likened to our special abilities, thus the meaning of the word “talent” changed; no longer does it mean just a unit of currency, but it now includes the special gifts we have been given by God.
What was the value of a talent, you may well ask?
Well, that depends on where you grew up.
It seems that for the Greeks, a talent weighed about 25 kilograms of silver or gold.
But for the Jews, it was about 50 kilograms of either silver or gold.
The point I’m making is that it was a large sum of money.
So, let’s not feel sorry for the servant who was given only 1 talent.
Okay, the others got more to manage, but even one talent was a huge amount of money. In silver, it would be substantial - the equivalent of 15 years wages for a labourer.
In gold, it would be a small fortune.
What the master did, before he went away, was to entrust them to trade with these large sums of money, and to try making a handsome profit for him.
He didn’t specify whether they should utilise wine, oil, grain, textiles, pottery, land, shipping, or whatever.
He just took a big risk and allowed them to make their own decisions.I guess he expected them to take a similar risk.
They were to put what was entrusted to them to good use.
Trade and commerce, like human life itself, can be a precarious business.
There’s always the possibility of setbacks or losses.
Trading is high risk.
But the master knows all about that; he understands.
He wants them to try; to give it their best; have a go - that’s what counts. Let’s recognise the key element in this parable: The Lord truly places the responsibility in the hands of his servants.
This is not make-believe stuff.
He was serious.
He doesn’t even stay in the background, like a back-seat driver, giving gratuitous advice, or tut-tutting when things aren’t going well.
Nor is he like a driving instructor, with calm nerves, yet with a separate brake pedal for him to employ in an emergency situation.
No, the Lord in the Gospel fully trusts his servants.
He leaves his country and travels abroad. It’s now entirely up to them whether they succeed or fail.
A high-risk strategy indeed!
The first two servants honour the trust placed in them.
They take some risk and put the money to use.
Their talents became highly productive in the commerce of this life.
Both of them make a 100% return over the period that the Master is absent overseas.
These two receive the Master’s gratitude.
Those who are faithful receive a two-pronged reward.
1) Immediately there is the sheer joy of celebrating in the Master’s presence and:
2) Then comes more trust and responsibility.
Those who do well for Christ Jesus are not given a “golden handshake” and allowed to sit on their backsides, preening their pride.
They are given larger tasks.
This idea of extra trust is a sobering thought for us, isn’t it!
In the many generations since Jesus told this parable, among Christians there has always been a tension between those who want to play it safe and those who are prepared to take a risk in the name of their Master.
That is true in the way we either hoard or share the Gospel with the world.
Some opt for exclusive religion.
Groups like the closed Brethren, who keep to themselves and take no risks interacting with the outside world. They turn in on themselves, maintaining a tight knit fellowship, using their talents for each other, yet never risking them in the evil world outside their community.
In contrast, some other churches and individuals are more of the risk taker kind.
These groups quote Jesus when he said: “Go into all the world and make disciples of all men.”
These take many risks and, in doing so, maybe at times relate too closely with the world and its secular values.
At the present time in the Uniting Church In Australia there are some who feel keenly that in social justice matters we have taken some large, and even foolish, risks, which may have been gravely influenced by the outside world.
But only God can judge whether our church has exceeded acceptable risks or not.
So - playing it safe, or talking the risk?
Well, for my part, I’d always prefer to take the calculated risk for Christ’s sake.
Better that than becoming constricted like that one talent bloke who went and buried his master’s treasure.
He is the big disaster in this story.
Of course, we need to be careful and minimise the risks - to be wary at times.
In fact, all believers are called by Jesus to be “harmless as doves, yet as wise as serpents.”
We have no commission from the Lord to be foolhardy in the way we use our lives and our gifts, or in the way we employ the treasure of the Gospel.
But I encourage you - risk it, for God’s sake!
Don’t be afraid.
I guess none of us can look back over the years of our Christian experience and be completely satisfied with how much we have achieved.
Most of us have some regrets.
But fear certainly isn’t an appropriate strategy.
It was the over-cautious servant who was the one who was afraid.
Yes, one of the three servants DOES claim to have been ruled by fear.
And look where it got him!
Our stewardship of what God has given us and those calculated risks we take in utilising our talents, should never be exercised under the shadow of fear.
Ours is a God of perfect love, who is always on our side.
No room for fear.
As it says in the first letter of John: “Perfect love casts out fear.”
The God who is love, is a risk taker and we’re called to be like him, for loving is always a risk.
Yet it leads to the greatest bonus of all, immeasurable in the hard currencies of this world:
“Come and enjoy your Master’s delight.”
Trusting the love of God in Christ Jesus, I implore you to live a bit more dangerously.
Risk it, for God’s sake!
Think hard about the talents that God entrusted you with.
Are you taking risks in utilising them, and multiplying their impacts, on the people you meet in your daily life.
We need to be showing them how God’s love has impacted our lives and sharing the good news with them – that they, too, can share with us in God’s kingdom.
Maybe it’s the money God has graciously allowed us to accumulate, but I think that for most of us, it’s just the abilities we have. Instead of locking them away and keeping them just for ourselves, let’s get out there and put them to use, furthering the Kingdom of God here on earth.
You must determine for yourself, through prayerful consideration, or in consultation with others, the talents God has entrusted you with and how you can best use them to bring glory to him.
Reflection: What to do whilst we're waiting.
At this stage of the final week before his capture, trial and execution, Jesus has stopped speaking to his opponents, and doesn’t even address the general crowd, but, instead, speaks only to all who are currently disciples and those who wish to be one. He relates three parables, one for each of the last three weeks of this church year before the New Year arrives with Advent.
These 3 parables refer to the future coming of the Son of Man, the Holy One who comes to consummate the kingdom of God on earth.
Today’s parable is about waiting, being alert and being ready for his arrival.
It concerns the 5 wise and 5 foolish bridesmaids (sometimes called the 10 virgins).
In understanding the parable, we have to remember that it’s set in a different culture and time period.
The marriage customs were exceedingly different from ours today. Today we expect bridesmaids to attend the bride. Not so these ten maids - who are attending the groom.
What’s more, today we announce a set date and time for the wedding.
At the time when Jesus lived, the time of the wedding was not specified. Some Bible commentators have suggested that it was actually considered smart to trick the guests by arriving at an unexpected hour.
Hence, in this parable, the bridegroom’s party chooses to arrive at midnight and catch some folk ill prepared.
These days, the maidens arrive with the bride and escort her. In Jesus’ time the groom was to be met by the maidens with their lamps shining, to escort him into the wedding ceremony and feast.
Whereas now everything might be well lit by rows of LED lights, in the time of Jesus, they relied on lamplight.
These lamps had a reservoir of oil and a wick.
In today’s parable, five of the girls neglected to have a reserve supply of oil. They had waited such a long time that their lamps burned low and began to smoulder. They tried to borrow oil from the other five, but to no avail.
At that critical moment, the bridegroom arrived. The wise maidens who had back-up oil went into the feast with the bridegroom. The other five, after rushing out to buy more, arrived back at the reception centre to find the door firmly shut against them. In a panic, they knocked at the closed door and cried: “Sir, sir, please open the door for us.’ However, the voice inside replied “Go away. I do not know you.”
They’d missed their opportunity. They weren’t prepared and ready.
That may sound somewhat hard-hearted, all very final and I think Jesus meant it to be so.
I think he’s telling us that we must make the most of our opportunities and be always ready to welcome him, whatever the hour. If we miss the moment, we’ll miss out altogether.
We need to remember that God’s timetable is not the same as ours.
Most of us would like to have a God who fits in with our wants and needs.
You know, one who is always on time for US!
Some stroppy churchgoers have even been heard to complain: “Where is God in today’s affairs?
What is he doing? We need his help right now.
Why doesn’t he show his love?
Why won’t he give us a hand when we most want it?
Why are we kept waiting?”
It’s easy enough to get weary when we hear about so much trouble in the world. The absence of God may seem prolonged indeed. It’s easy to grow careless and allow our lamp of faith to grow dim. We give up supplementing our supply with new reserves. We become negligent, apathetic - even faithless.
I guess we’ve all met people who complain about God’s tardiness.
Some will tell us: “Well that’s it! I gave him some of the best years of my life and what has he done for me?
Where was he when I desperately wanted him to come to my side?”
We notice their light is growing dim, or even going out.
They’re prone to start complaining about a lot of things in the church. Nothing seems right in their eyes.
Before long they’re just a smouldering wick, giving off a nasty, disgruntled, odour.
Or they fall asleep and miss out on the moments when the groom comes with abundant blessings.
It’s an all too familiar story to many church elders and ministers.
Some people can’t tolerate the fact that God has a different timetable to theirs.
I urge you, as Jesus said, to keep awake, for you never know the day or the hour.
All very well, I hear you say, but how do we top up our oil supplies?
How can we become numbered among the wise - who are ready whenever the Son of Man arrives?
Well, one thing we can’t do is to borrow it from our fellow Christians. We can, however, be encouraged by others. We may be inspired by the example of others, but we can’t actually borrow their faith.
But looking from other side, we should be reminding those who appear to be running low, to top up their reserves before they run out.
The good oil can be found in regular worship and in the reading of the Scriptures, in Bible study and prayer groups.
In these COVID times, we find it difficult to meet in person, but we can still communicate via other means (telephone, computer chat, etc.)
Our stock will also be replenished in our private devotional life, when we spend time in the presence of our Lord.
We need to seek for ourselves. Look for all the opportunities we can to assist others.
Things that will keep our faith alert and growing. Here are some of the time-honoured ways of doing this.
The “With Love to the World” booklets that Gaye orders in each month are a good resource if you’re looking for something to encourage this.
Another good method is to spend time in prayer and meditation with those who love the Lord.
But there are also some less recognised sources of oil for our lamps of faith. Some of us have received oil from most unexpected quarters.
It may flow from critics and unbelievers. Such unlikely folk can actually contribute to increasing our faith as we address their criticisms.
Sometimes our oil is replenished in the giving of ourselves to those in need, without any thought of reward. This type of love is called Agape, in Greek. We unselfishly care for others and, to our great surprise, discover the oil of happiness rising up within our own souls.
It’s in giving that we receive.
We find ourselves spiritually enriched by those whom we set out to serve, with no thought of a reward for ourselves.
And take note of this, because I know it’s true.
On occasions, our oil will be replenished when we undertake some task which we strongly dislike.
Those times when we loyally, yet reluctantly, perform some service for Christ which we find difficult.
The giving of undeserved love can be a strange source for the good oil.
When our oil tank is regularly topped up, only then will our lamps glow warmly.
They glow, not for our own satisfaction, but for the sake of those around us, and to the glory of Jesus.
It’s then that we can recognise the privilege and honour that is ours. Jesus once expressed it this way: “Let your light so shine before all people, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
That’s what it’s all about. Not for our glory, but God’s. But in return, we receive his love.
So, I encourage you to be alert and be ready. Remember that it’s God’s timetable, not ours.
You’d better keep awake, for you never know the day or the hour when you’re going to encounter Christ.
And while you’re at it, look around for others who may be dimming and then help them top up and be ready, too.
“May God’s love be in us,
Christ’s call be clearly with us,
and the power of the Holy Spirit
give us strength.”