April 9, 2019 by jmar198013
Live audio and manuscript of my sermon for April 7th, 2019. From an ongoing series, God’s Neighborhood: a visit with Matthew’s Gospel. This is fifth lesson of a five-week mini-series focusing on the parables of Christ in Matthew.
Here’s the audio link for those who’d like to listen:
A man, his servants, and their talents: unlocking the parable
Today is our fifth and final week visiting Jesus’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe, the parables. Jesus used these make-believe stories to teach us how to live in God’s Neighborhood right here and now.
They also teach us what we can hope for in the future. And to orient our lives now toward that future. When God’s Neighborhood comes in its fullness. When every neighborhood has been transformed into God’s Neighborhood.
So today’s story comes from Matt. 25, beginning with verse 14. Like the other parables we’ve heard, Jesus begins by saying: The kingdom of heaven is like this …
But of course, in this series, we’re calling it God’s Neighborhood: God’s Neighborhood is like …
Now, I want you to understand—I’m not changing the words of scripture to sound more relevant or cool or whatever.
Way back when we first started this series, I explained how in the Bible, the whole idea of the kingdom of heaven is wherever you see God at work in the world.
It’s wherever you see a group of people who’ve surrendered their lives and their wills to God. So God is present with them, and working through them.
That’s the kingdom of heaven. So that’s God’s Neighborhood.
Now in today’s story, Jesus asks us to make-believe that a man is leaving for a business trip. But before he leaves, he entrusts his wealth to three of his servants. Then he goes on his journey.
Now, here’s the key that unlocks this parable: The traveler going away on a journey is Jesus. He’s returned to God the Father’s right hand, where he’s reigning over heaven and earth right now.
And the servants he’s entrusted with his wealth? That’s the church. That’s us. Jesus has left work for us to do, and treasures for us to take care of until he returns.
Now, before we go too deep into this story, I want to talk about this wealth and this work Jesus has left in our care. The translation I like to use says this treasure was valuable coins. Most of the older translations call it talents.
Now, back in the day, a talent was a measure of money. And a single talent was worth nearly an entire lifetime’s income for the average worker.
Okay, nowadays when we’re talking about talents, we mean some personal giftedness—some skill or aptitude we have.
But I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant when he talked about these valuable coins, or talents. Instead, I believe the talents in this story represent opportunities we have to invest in God’s Neighborhood. To build it up and beautify it and bring more people in.
By the way, you see this same idea in Paul’s letters. In Eph. 5.16 and Col. 4.5, Paul talks about how we shouldn’t live selfishly, or fearfully, or trying to stir up a lot of controversy in this world. Instead, he says we should take advantage of every opportunity to build up and God’s Neighborhood and serve our neighbors. Especially our neighbors who don’t know Jesus yet.
So I think that’s what Jesus was getting at in this story too. Our gifts and skills and experiences—the talents we bring to the table—they all figure into it, for sure. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter what gifts God has blessed us with if we don’t put them to work for his glory, for his Neighborhood.
So we should understand the story like this: Jesus is always giving us opportunities to work for God’s Neighborhood.
To invest our lives and our gifts for God’s glory and our neighbors’ good. So we need to be making the most of those opportunities.
These opportunities aren’t just given to us in a church building. They’re in every part of life. Our jobs. Our schools. Our hobbies. Our daily routines. Our families and friends and social networks.
Now, as we go about investing ourselves in these opportunities Jesus gives us, this story teaches us three important ideas.
- In God’s Neighborhood, Grace always comes before work.
- God wants us to be creative when we serve him.
- We should fear not trying more than we fear failure.
With God, in God’s Neighborhood, grace always comes before work.
So Jesus says this is how it works in God’s Neighborhood. This man who’s going on a journey divides his wealth between his employees.
If you’re following along in your Bibles, look at v15 of chapter 25. Jesus says: To one of his servants he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one.
So the story begins with this act of rich, extravagant grace. These three employees were given everything they needed to be productive in their master’s household. Their boss showered them with blessings before he left. He entrusted each one of them with a fortune!
Yes—even the guy who only got the one talent! Remember what I said—a talent was about a lifetime worth of wages. In today’s economy, that would be about $1.4 million.
Remember, those three employees represent Christians, working for Jesus. Working to build up and beautify God’s Neighborhood. So Jesus is telling us that God gives each one of us a lifetime of opportunities to work for God’s glory and our neighbors’ good.
Not only that, God’s not going to give us opportunities without also equipping us with whatever we need to make the most of those opportunities. God’s not going to give us work to do without preparing us for it.
Now, we may not always feel prepared for the work God is giving us. But if God is calling you to do something, he’s already been at work preparing you for a while. And whatever you lack, he’s going to give you along the way.
God knows who you are, what you’re made of, and what you can handle. And because God is a God of grace, he’s not going to put you somewhere you don’t belong, with more on your plate than you can handle.
Now, we sometimes do those things to ourselves. And sometimes we let other people do that to us, by going along with their demands and expectations. But God doesn’t do that to us.
That’s actually the very next thing Jesus explains to us in the story. We’re still in v15. Jesus said the master gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability.
He knew which one of his servants could handle five valuable coins, and who could only handle one. God is the same way with us. He knows what each one of us brings to the table. Our abilities. Our skill-set. Our personality. And our limits. And God respects all of those when he sets opportunities in front of us. In God’s Neighborhood, grace always comes before work. Always. Period. Full stop.
God has always been that way. Yes, even in the Old Testament. God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt before he gave them the law to follow at Mt. Sinai. First God saves you. Then he tells you what he expects from you.
It’s all grace, you know. Not just salvation. Not just your home in God’s Neighborhood. Not just your seat at God’s table. I mean your birth. Your life. Every breath you take. Every sunrise. Every drop of rain. Everywhere you have been, and everything you’ve experienced that has brought you here.
Every opportunity God gives you to do good for him, for other people, for your world. And every way he prepares you for those opportunities—it’s all grace. It’s all a gift.
Like those valuable coins the man in our story entrusted with his servants. They didn’t earn them. They weren’t saved by them. They were already servants of their lord. And those valuable coins gave them opportunities to do really cool things for their master’s household. And he wanted to see what they’d do with those opportunities.
C.S. Lewis once said that we should think of all the work we do for God and God’s Neighborhood like this. We are all children who want to buy gifts for our Father to show him how much we love him. But we have to get the money to even buy those gifts from our Father.
That’s how it works in God’s Neighborhood. Grace always comes before work. In fact, we can’t even do the work God has for us on our own. It’s all his grace, his gifts, his generosity from start to finish.
God isn’t just generous. When you look around your world, with all its beauty and intricacy; and you remember all the ways God has worked in your own life, you see that God is also creative.
And that brings me to the second lesson this story teaches us:
God wants us to be creative as we work for him.
If God is creative, his children ought to be creative, too.
Interestingly enough, we learn that God wants us to be creative in our work for him by what the story doesn’t say.
(Guys, we’re still in v15—the second verse of the story!) So this boss has doled out all these marvelous opportunities to his servants, based on their abilities. And then listen to what Jesus says: Then he left on his journey.
Did you hear what didn’t happen? He didn’t give them a long checklist of detailed work descriptions. He’s not calling them, faxing them, emailing them, or texting them every day to check up on them and tell them what to do, and what they’re doing wrong.
He handed off a fortune to each one of them to take care of. And then he just left them with it!
That means he left plenty of room for them to be creative in how they pursued the opportunities he gave them.
God is like that with us, too. I know some of you were taught different than that. That your main purpose is to play it safe. Get church right. Mark off all the boxes. But that’s not what this story teaches at all!
The work Jesus has given us to do in this world until he comes back really is all about building up and beautifying God’s Neighborhood. And he absolutely wants us to use our hearts and our ingenuity in how we go about doing that work.
A few years ago, I heard a story about an inner city church that was really striving to reach the people in their neighborhood experiencing homelessness.
And they didn’t just want to treat them as objects of ministry. They wanted those homeless people to really be involved in the life of the church. They wanted them plugged into ministries wherever they could be.
Well, there was this one guy who had severe mental health challenges. And he really wanted to play guitar in the worship band. But he had no idea how to play guitar. Half the time he didn’t even know what day it was. But do you know what they did for that man? They gave him a guitar to use that they never actually plugged in. He never knew the difference. But his joy as he strummed on that thing, worshiping God with every bit of energy he could muster—it was contagious. He made everyone else worship with more heart.
God wants us to use our creativity like that. The last words of a dying church are often, Well, this is how we’ve always done things. They will say that until the day Jesus takes away their lampstand and the doors close. Let’s not do that. Let’s be creative.
Our story today tells us that the first two servants got to work with their valuable coins. I’m sure they were creative with their investments. They probably took some risks. But it paid off. They made the most of their opportunities to grow God’s Neighborhood, and those opportunities led to more opportunities. And so Jesus tells us, eventually they doubled their investments.
Which brings us to the third and final lesson the parable we heard today teaches us:
We should fear not trying more than we fear failure.
Think about it like this. We already know God has set us up to succeed. Right? He gives each one of us opportunities according to our abilities.
So God has set us up to succeed. And he wants us to pursue the opportunities he gives us with creativity. Not half-heartedly, but not recklessly, either. He wants us to stretch and learn some new things and take a few risks.
So knowing all that, we really shouldn’t fear failure. What we should be afraid of is just not trying. Of not making anything of the opportunities God gives us. Of being intimidated by them and paralyzed by them.
That’s the lesson we learn from the third servant. The guy who only got one talent.
Remember what he did with that treasure? He buried it in the ground! He did nothing with the treasure his master left with him.
I want you to hear why he did that. From his own mouth. Matt. 25, beginning at v24:
Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.
Did you hear what he said? I was afraid.
Fear did that to him! And the saddest part of all, he was afraid of God! Because in his heart, he saw God as scary. Cranky, unreasonable, and demanding. Just looking for reasons to punish people.
We really need to be careful with the ideas about God we carry in our hearts. We also need to be oh-so-careful with the ideas about God we impress on our children’s hearts. Please don’t weigh them down with your spiritual baggage! Let’s not do that to another generation of our kids.
Because this is what you get. You get Christians and you get entire churches of people who are so paralyzed by fear that they bury opportunities. Their gifts go unused. They turn inward. They think the whole reason they’re here is to safeguard an ancient treasure that they never actually use.
You get churches that become irrelevant and wither and die. And with their final breath, they’re still whispering: This is how we’ve always done it.
It’s fear that does that. It’s fear of failure, of messing up and making God angry with us. It’s a fear that darkens our vision and puts blinders on it. So that we can no longer see all the wonderful opportunities God is putting right in front of us.
We don’t want to end up like that one-talent servant who buried all his opportunities in the ground because he was afraid. God called him evil and lazy, and had security escort him right out of the Neighborhood.
I know that sounds really harsh.
But if you’re really so afraid of God that it paralyzes you. If you really believe he’s that scary and awful. Why would you want to go on living in his Neighborhood?
And if we refuse to build up and beautify God’s Neighborhood;
to expand its borders;
to invite new neighbors to live and work and feast with us;
if we’re not going to keep God’s Neighborhood salty and lit;
well, obviously God’s Neighborhood doesn’t mean that much to us, does it?
So what else can God do but respect our choice and tell us to leave?
We don’t want to be that last servant. The one who got so paralyzed by fear that he didn’t even try. We want to be the other two servants. The ones who made the most of their opportunities with joy and creativity.
We want to hear Jesus say what their master said to them:
You are a good and faithful servant! … Come, celebrate with me.
The more we make of the opportunities God gives us, the more opportunities we create. To build up and beautify and grow God’s Neighborhood.
And when Jesus returns, we’ll have plenty to celebrate with him. Because when we’re all feasting at God’s table in God’s Neighborhood forever, the beautiful, creative work we’ve done in this life; and the neighbors who have come to live in God’s Neighborhood because of the opportunities we said yes! to—those will be eternal. God will perfect every good work our hands and hearts have pursued, and they will be part of God’s eternal Neighborhood in the new heavens and new earth.
Fear will keep us out of that eternal celebration in God’s Neighborhood. Because fear tells us not to try. Fear tells us we will mess us, we will fail, and God will be angry at us. So we don’t reach out. We don’t learn new things. We don’t try new things. Because we’re so afraid of being wrong and making God unhappy.
But God is only angry when we let fear paralyze us and we don’t try.
Here’s why we don’t need to fear failure. Not only has God set us up for success, Jesus has already succeeded for us! Jesus has already won it all for us.
1 John 4.18 tells us why we shouldn’t live in fear. It says: There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear.
We already see God’s perfect love for us in the cross and resurrection of Christ. Our God loves us enough to die for us. And our God is a resurrecting God. And that should drive all the fear of failure out of us. The fear that tells us we have to walk before God like we’re walking a minefield.
Because the God we see revealed in the cross and resurrection of Christ is a God who crazy loves us. A God who has set us free from sin and shame and fear so we can serve him with creativity and joy. So we can feel safe to think new thoughts and try new things and take risks.
Because even if we try, and we make mistakes, and we stumble—and we inevitably will—our resurrecting God will always be there to catch us and lift us back up again.