Turn Out the Lights, the Party’s Over

Last in a Lenten Series on Matthew 24,
Delivered April 5, 1998 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates

Sermon Text:
Matthew 24:45-51
45 "Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in
charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the
proper time?
46 It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he
47 I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions.
48 But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is
staying away a long time,’
49 and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with
50 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect
him and at an hour he is not aware of.
51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites,
where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Back when I was in high school, one of the typical horror stories that made the rounds once in awhile went something like this: “Hey, did you hear that so and so’s parents went out of town last weekend and so and so had a party. The parents were going to be out of town from Friday afternoon to Sunday evening and so and so had this party Friday night. It was great! We trashed the place out but then lo and behold so and so’s parents came back early Saturday morning to find their home looking like the infield at Pimlico the day after the Preakness and did you hear that so and so got grounded until Christ returns”?

Well when Christ does return if it happens to be in our lifetime, what will he find you and me doing? That is the key question raised in the text before us this morning as we finish up our sermon series on the second coming.

So turn with me in your Bibles to the book of Matthew and this morning let’s take a look together at verses forty-five through fifty-one. I would encourage you to keep your bibles open during the sermon as we keep looking back at the text.

This is the word of God – Jesus speaking to his disciples: (see scripture text above)

Join me as we pray – And now Father as my words are true to your Word may they be taken to heart, but as my words may stray from your Word may they quickly be forgotten, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

You know it’s all really a matter of timing. You and I a lot of times think we have all the time in the world, but we don’t, and that is why Sociologists even now are saying that time is beginning to replace money as one of the chief commodities that you and I bargain with and for as we enter the twenty-first century. You know that the time is going to come either at our deaths or at the visible, personal, bodily return of Christ when Jesus is going to come for you and me and the question is “What will he find you and me doing at that moment?” So the church ought to be a place that takes time and timing very seriously.

There is a church in Boston that sure does. It is designed with seven doors standing for each of the seven days of the week. In the sanctuary are twelve pillars one for each month of the year. There are fifty-two windows in the church one for every week of the year. There are twenty-four steps leading up to the library one for each hour of the day. There are sixty steps up to the roof of the church for every second and three-hundred and sixty-five steps up to the top of the church tower one for every day of the year. That is a church that takes time very seriously, but so does this one! That’s why the theme of our all-church retreat this year is “As Time Goes By” and Jonathan and Kristin Smoot will hopefully help you and me get a better handle on how we can use the time we have more faithfully for the glory of God.

This morning Jesus confronts you and me with a story that is all about timing. It is about two servants and what they choose to occupy their time with until the master returns. These two servants have a lot in common. They are both servants of the same master. They realize that this master has some kind of authority over them. They’ve got marching orders, they have a mission, they’ve got a call and that is to take care of the master’s household and to build it up until he comes back one day. Both servants believe that one day the master is going to return, they just have no idea as to exactly when it is going to be.

Then there are some big differences between the two servants in the story that Jesus tells. One is described as being wise and faithful. He is the guy that follows through on the master’s orders from day one. We are told that when the master returns he is promoted, in fact he becomes sort of an heir to all that the master owns.

The other servant is described as being wicked, which means that he decides to occupy his time between the master’s return and the present moment by thinking like this: “Ah – the master is gone and he won’t be back for a long time. I can live like hell and still inherit heaven. While the cat is away the mice will play. Hummmm – I’ve got plenty of time to get my act together and clean things up before he returns, but right now I’ll just kind of do my thing.” So he blows off the master’s orders and starts becoming abusive to those who are in his care and he starts running with the wrong crowd. You guessed it – just like that high school horror story; the master comes back early before he can get it back together. It is not a pretty scene!

What do we learn about the master from this text? He seems a pretty trusting and generous sort of a guy. He puts these servants in charge of everything he has and gives them a lot of responsibility. He also gives them a lot of freedom. He is a master that says he will return, but he just isn’t specific about when that will be. He is a master who is very generous. When he returns and finds the faithful servant following through, boy he really rewards him generously. For the wicked servant, well the master sort of comes back as an incarnation of do you remember Revco’s Veg-O-Matic slicing and dicing, and chops the guy up. That is a reference to capital punishment. Then we are told that he assigns this wicked servant a place with the hypocrites. Does that mean that he makes this guy start going to church? I mean that’s where all the hypocrites are, right? If that is the case, it is not a very nice church. There are all kinds of weeping and gnashing of teeth. I am glad you all aren’t like that.

Some of the parallels between this story and the return of Christ are pretty obvious, aren’t they? However there may be a couple of parallels that are not quite so obvious. Try this one – I really believe that what Jesus is doing here is addressing this parable, this story to only those people who have decided to follow him. In other words in comparing these two servants, he is comparing so called Christians with other Christians, not Christians versus unbelievers. Think about it – both servants believe in a master and that a master exists. They both have some kind of commitment to this master. To one extent or another they both recognize that the master has some authority over their lives. They both realize that this master is one day going to return; however, the big difference is that for one servant the master and his kingdom and what it is that the master has called that servant to do has become the central theme of that servant’s life. The other servant well he’s put all of that stuff on the back burner. He’s busy doing his own thing. It is not that he doesn’t believe the master exists and it is not that he doesn’t believe that the master is going to come back one day – he believes that he is going to return.

In my first sermon on the second coming I said that the recent polls reveal that more Americans today believe in the return of Christ than at any other time in recorded history. Sixty-six percent of Americans say that they believe that Christ is going to return. Look around us in our society. Are sixty-six percent of Americans outside and even inside the church really living their lives like they believe that’s a reality? I kind of doubt it. This other servant thinks he’s got all the time in the world. “I’ll get my act together and I’ll clean myself up before my master returns it will be okay. Even if I don’t – well this master (who of course is the Christ figure), well he is a God of grace and mercy isn’t he? He’ll come back and maybe say to me “Oh you rascal you”; that’s probably the worst that can happen – right?” Right? I don’t know.

Look carefully at this story. Jesus here is firing a warning shot across the bow of the U.S.S. Presumption. How then are you and I to act if we’re going to be faithful authentic Christians? How then are you and I to live between the first and final comings of Christ or between our births and our deaths, because it’s really the same question for both of those scenarios, because you and I don’t know the date of our death just as we don’t know the date of Christ’s return. How then are you and I to live? That continues to be the key question that is raised here. Are we to think, “Well, he might return tomorrow therefore I better clean up my act, put on my white robe and sit on a mountain top for the rest of my life till he returns?” Or do we decide to gamble – gamble with our lives. “Oh well the likelihood of Christ returning in our lifetime is not very good. I’m in good health and I’ve got a lot of years left before I’m going to die. Yeah, he’s coming back but I’ve got a lot of time and I can do my own thing”.

Saint Francis understood this story that we read this morning. Someone came to him one time and said “Saint Francis what would you do if you knew for certain that Christ is going to return tomorrow”? Do you know what he said? “I would go and hoe my garden”. Think about that. ” I would go and hoe my garden”.

When I was in my early twenties I believed in Christ. I lived like hell but I believed in Christ. I was what you would call a nominal Christian. I remember actually praying this prayer; I was walking through the woods this one time and all of a sudden I felt compelled to pray. I even got down on my knees at twenty-two years old and I prayed this prayer. I’m almost ashamed to pass it on to you but I will. I prayed: “Lord God I know that I’m not living for you but you know what Lord – when I’m in my forties, (which I figured was near to the end of life), when I’m in my forties I know that I’m going to come back to you and I know I’m going to start living for you. I’m then going to get involved in worship. I’m even going to join a Bible study, but not right now. I know you understand.”

You know my friends, God is a God of grace, long suffering grace. He is a God of patience and mercy. I’m here today to tell you I praise God for that – I am so glad he is and that we know a God who was gracious enough to give me the time to wise-up and to get my act together. To straighten myself out – to pull Jesus out from the periphery into the center of my life – “Oh God I’m so glad you’re gracious enough that you gave me the time to do that before I died or before you came back.” He is a God of grace who gives you and me time. In that time all the time he is nudging us and dropping little clues in front of us. He is bringing situations and people across our paths all the time saying “I’m real – I’m Lord – I’m king! I’m your maker and I will not settle for second place. If I’m your copilot then move over!” He is so gracious that he gives us time but you know what? One day he is going to return and time is going to be up. You know I gambled with my life foolishly. I gambled and I won by God’s grace but when he returns there are going to be some winners and there are going to be some losers. On the day Christ returns, there are going to be some drug deals going down that are never going to get finished. There are going to be missionaries setting out for the mission field who will never reach their destination. There are going to be big time lottery winners who never get to spend one penny of those millions of dollars. There are going to be prospective pastors finishing up their last year in seminary and they will never get to use all that training to pastor a church. There are going to be students handing in their doctoral dissertations on that very day who will never receive their PhD. Time will be up for everyone. What will you and I be doing? Will Christ find you and me either at the moment of our death or at his return, will he find you and me living for the master, investing our lives in the master’s kingdom. Living out our lives, maybe stumbling but living out our lives trying to be and do who God has called us to be and do. That is the key question. You see life, real life, authentic life, joyful life is a grateful response to the unmerited grace of God. God is so gracious. Unconditionally loving. You and I can’t even begin to plumb the depths of God’s grace and yet in the story Jesus shoots a bunch of holes in the whole idea of cheap grace. The idea that you and I can live safely with a lukewarm commitment to Christ; that we can ultimately get away with playing church and substituting respectable religion for a radical commitment to the master. We don’t have all the time in the world. Yes God is a God of grace, but he is not a God of cheap grace – cheap grace is a lie and real grace costs; it cost the life of God’s son. Real grace is always painful and is always faithful, loyal; It’s tough love, and it’s tough living because it’s tough to live as a Christian. Grace – it’s all of grace and it’s all a matter of timing, how God’s grace works in your life and mine. He is buying you and me time all the time. So when you and I die or when he returns we’re going to hear one of two things. We are either going to hear “Well done good and faithful servant” or we are going to hear “Here take your place over here with the hypocrites.

Let’s jump on that word for just a moment. Hypocrite is a great word. Actually it is a Greek theatrical term. It referred back in the early centuries to a play actor who wears a mask in a play. Is the church full of hypocrites as we often times hear? You better believe it – one hundred percent! In fact that is one of the requirements for membership. You have to be a hypocrite. Hey – you and I come here Sunday and we sing hymns “I’m going to live for Christ” and all this. If you’re like me, I barely get down the front stairs of the church and I’ve blown it somehow. But do you know what? The human race is one-hundred percent hypocritical. There is not one person (thieves and murderers even they have their standards of who they want to be, who they say they are) and nobody on this planet lives up to their standards. Yeah – the church is a place full of hypocrites. “Come on in there’s always room for more here”. The difference is this – when you walk up the front steps of a church you’re not saying “Look at me, look how good and respectable I am”. What you and I are announcing to the world is that you and I are hypocrites. We need help and we come here and we meet a God of magnanimous grace who doesn’t say “Get out of here you’re a fraud!”. Instead he welcomes us challenges us and says “Take the mask off and leave it at the door. Every Sunday as we bump up against that prayer of confession — if we’re doing more than just praying words on a page, if we are really putting our heart into that and if we understand what we are doing is we are taking the mask off – saying “Lord I admit I’m not the person you want me to be. I’m not the person that I purport to be and I’ve blown it and I’m out of time.”

You know what happens when God’s grace enables you and me to come clean and to be real and admit to who we really are and as we come and sit under the word of God and receive the sacraments then God’s grace really begins to kick in, and he begins to mold you and me. He begins to bind up our wounds and begins to build us up more into the likeness of Christ. He doesn’t demote us – no he picks us up and dusts us off and says ‘Okay I’m sending you back out as my servant’.

You see this text is addressed to the followers of Jesus Christ. There are only two options of what you and I can be in this text – a servant or a servant. To be a Christian is to be a servant and so we go back out to serve and to serve and to serve and to serve until either the day we die or Christ returns. Then at that moment and only that moment for the very first time in our lives you and I are ushered into the unveiled glorious presence of God to be free from any taint of hypocrisy – but only then! You see the real difference between the church and hell is that hell is full of hypocrites forever.

What time have you got? Well it’s about time to end this sermon. Time to maybe look at this text and ask the question “Which servant am I?” Time to maybe change. Time to move Jesus from the periphery into the center of our lives. God in his grace has given you and me the time – at least for now.

Join me as we pray –
“Lord God we gather here on this Palm Sunday where we celebrate hypocrisy. We celebrate the crowds that lined the street and cheered Jesus on and then by Friday they not only deserted him but crucified him. Lord we are here this morning to admit that we are a part of the crowd. We’ve been there, we’ve done that and yet Lord you are such a God of grace. We kill you and you rise so that death might not have the last word in our lives. Lord you are a God of time and timing and we pray that you would be at work in our hearts right now. If we’re on the fence and if we are nominal followers of you Lord may your Holy Spirit move us into the mainstream. Oh Lord God let your grace envelop us, change us, turn us loose as joyful, vibrant men and women and boys and girls that you have made us to be that the world may see something different in us and realize that Jesus is indeed King of Kings and Lord of Lords – we make our prayer in his strong and saving name – Amen”

© 1998, Dr. Ronald W. Scates
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145