Check out or
Stand up?

But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.

St. Paul had arrived at Thessalonica in the winter of 49, around this time of year. Paul had just struggled mightily in Philippi. His rights as a citizen were violated and he was mistreated and now ended up in Thessalonica.

Unfortunately, Paul did not have it much better in Thessalonica. He was forced to leave in the face of severe opposition. Yet his time there was blessed. He founded a fledging Church. On the down side, he didn’t have time to fully teach the members of this young Church. After leaving, and meeting Timothy in Athens, he sent Timothy back for a check-in visit.

The letter to the Thessalonians, authored in about 51, two years after he had to leave, was intended to offer support and learning to this young Church, and to reassure it in the essentials of the faith.

A vital, moment in a young (or even not so young) life comes when we are confronted with that life altering choice. Do I turn left or right? Do I go forward or turn back? Do I check out and slink away, or do I stand up with my head held high? Jesus put that choice to us. Paul put it to Thessalonica. We are asked in our youth, and we are asked today – How will we decide?

Today we enter Advent, the season of waiting, preparation, and expectation. Jesus reminds us of what we are waiting for, preparing for, and expecting. It is His return. Will I be ready to stand up and raise my head at His return? Will I be prepared? Am I even expecting Him or have I checked out?

Paul taught the young Church at Thessalonica and us today about those choices. They are before us because Jesus promised His return in glory. The angels on the Mount of the Ascension attested to it: “Galileans, why are you standing there looking up at the sky? This Jesus, who was taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way that you saw him go to heaven.”

So what are we to do, we in our youth and our not so youth? The Church at Thessalonica took Paul’s advice. They did what was necessary. They lived in constant and urgent expectation. They not only lived it, but also shared expectation so others might be saved. Time to stand up and do likewise.

How do you do
religion?

He responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

Welcome to September, a time of change and transition. We move from the activities of summer to pumpkin everything, apple cider donuts, and crisper air.

Our scriptures today are about essential change. Moses starts out with a long dissertation about the new Law of God. The people were to observe it, were not to change it, and in honoring the Law, they would find themselves the envy of nations and peoples. In honoring, maintaining, and keeping the Law, the people of Israel would show a unique wisdom and a very special closeness to God.

It seems kind of obvious to us, at least at first glance. God gives us something remarkably special, and if we have any sense at all, we honor it and respect it. We would want to brag about it, ‘look at what God has done for me.’ We would follow the dictates of whatever God has given us. Who would hide what God had done for them? Who would ever want to go against God? To do so, we would show ourselves as the opposite of smart.

Similarly, St. Paul speaks of the great gifts we have received. He was the biggest bragger of all – look what we have, look what God has done and revealed. Let’s live it large: welcome the word, be doers of the word, don’t delude yourselves.

Jesus brings this all together. He chastises the Pharisees because they had let the Law become only a series of doing – not living. They not only did that, they didn’t evangelize God’s word. They kept it all locked up and just for them. Jesus said on other occasions that they: “shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces.” And in another: “you have taken away the key to knowledge. You have hindered those who were entering.” Not only were they failing to live God’s commands from the heart, going against them, they were hiding away His gifts.

Our call is to do religion right. Let us honor God with our lips and our worship – and from there do evangelization. Right religion means changed living – faith from the heart, showing God’s gifts, putting it all out there for the world to see. Tell the great gifts. Show them off. Listen to that little voice that prompts you to stop, turn, and invite.

Investing
rightly.

“A man going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one– to each according to his ability. Then he went away.”

In case anyone might have missed it, the past two weeks have focused on getting ready and being prepared. Prepared for what? It is about preparing for wise investing, that is that carrying out of the obligations God has entrusted to us.

Given the time of year and the immanent celebration of Thanksgiving, we might take Jesus teaching on talents as a time to discuss investing in our church. We could turn this day into a discussion of money stewardship and emphasize generosity. While Jesus’ parable deals with stewardship, it is about a different kind of investing.

For the past few weeks we have heard Jesus talk about the end times. Jesus has been encouraging us to prepare for his Second Coming. Today, we do not hear a ‘Let’s get ready for Jesus’ coming parable, but are asked to look back – what have we accomplished after we had prepared.

St. Matthew’s is writing in the late first century when the church was struggling with Jesus’ delayed return. This retelling of Jesus’ parable reminded his people and us that we have been entrusted with great treasure, we have been prepared, and that we will now be held accountable for how we have invested.

In this parable, the man going on a journey represents Jesus. His going on a journey represents His ascension. The servants represent Christians who are awaiting Jesus’ Second Coming. The talents represent the blessings God has bestowed on us. The man’s return represents Jesus’ Second Coming. The master’s assessment of the faithfulness – the investment of the servants – represents Jesus’ assessment of us at the end of time.

Jesus has entrusted His property to us – His word and the building of His kingdom. He has treated us as individuals, allocating resources in accord with each of our abilities. He neither insults the most able servant among us with trivial responsibilities nor overwhelms the least able servant in the community with impossible tasks.

The parable indeed celebrates active, forward-leaning, risk-taking, involved-in-the-world, where-the-rubber-hits-the-road investment of our preparation.

The master does return, and will settle accounts with us. This will be the time for accountability. Jesus will ask us to show what we have done for Him, for the kingdom. If we have taken our church time, our prayer time, our scripture time, and our fellowship, all in preparation, and have invested it wisely, if we have taken risks, sweated the details, and have remained while others have hidden, we will be rewarded greatly.

As in the parable, the Lord rewards the servants who have invested in four ways: He gives each investing servant equal treatment even though each servant returns different amounts; He will pronounce us as ‘good and faithful.’ Nothing feels better than words of praise given by God; He will give us increased responsibility—a promotion; and He will say, “Enter into My joy.” This is what the faithful Christian can expect to hear when Christ comes again.

As John Shedd observed, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are for.” So, we must not live in fear, prepare and bury what we have learned. We must invest rightly and build for His return.

Coming
home.

Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you. Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; they will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee.

John heard about Jesus as he languished in Herod’s prion. He sent his disciples to see if Jesus was the real thing. We wonder if John’s disciples were a little suspicious? Certainly they did not want to be disappointed. Here is their man, John, sitting in prison. Will this Jesus really fulfill the promise? Will He bring the promised redemption and allow them to walk free? Will this Jesus bring them home?

Isaiah foresaw a time when Israel would be released from captivity, and would undertake yet another journey through the wilderness. Unlike the exodus from Egypt, on this occasion they would not be left wandering for forty years, but would make the journey home in record time, by a route already prepared by the Lord. The returning exiles would relish the sight of their home ahead as they pass Lebanon’s snow-capped hills, and the luxuriant growth on the mountain ridges of the Mediterranean coast.

Isaiah’s prophecy was not only for the immediate future, it wasn’t just about tomorrow’s homecoming, but also foreshadowed the Messiah and the ultimate homecoming that is in Him. Seven hundred years after Isaiah, Jesus would finally free Israel once and for all and would bring them home. His promise delivered an eternal homecoming, a beautiful return that would not be for just a moment, but for all time. His homecoming is the glory of heaven for those who believe.

We all long for homecoming, for the warmth of welcome and peace. We long for the joy of family and friends, the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of those places we once knew. We seek the hugs. We want that place that is so familiar we can walk free in it, unencumbered.

At the start of this third week of Advent, about fourteen days from Christmas, we can rejoice because our homecoming is near. We can re-experience, in that moment at the manger, our welcome home. The journey is not long, the road is paved, and our room is ready. Jesus’ road brings us straight home.

As we live in expectation of our ultimate homecoming in Jesus’ return, let us rejoice. In anticipating our homecoming let us renew our strength and take courage. For all those afflicted, who have waited, who in sadness longed for deliverance: take heart and rejoice, God brings healing. God lifts us up. We are saved. The restoration of sight and hearing is at hand. We will walk with strong legs and steady step. We will return home and enter singing, crowned with everlasting joy. We will come home with joy and gladness; all sorrow banished.