We Episcopalians have a different view of Scripture than some of our neighbors do. Some of our neighbors want to use Scripture as a sourcebook for scientific truth. Some want to predict the future with it. Others dismiss Scripture flippantly as little more than an artifact from a barbaric culture. Neither of these will do for us Episcopalians. We receive Scripture as one of the means by which God changes us from earth-bound, deathly creatures into beings capable of being brought into God’s nearer presence. As this morning’s Collect says, God caused all Holy Scripture to be written “for our learning,” and the goal of this learning is “that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life....” For us, reading Scripture is about God bringing us into maturity; it’s like, if you’ll permit me a bit of latitude with the simile, a gymnasium and a weight room for the soul. God has provided this means by which our souls can grow stronger, but it is we who have to work at it: we have to “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them” which gives us the strength to “embrace and hold fast the blessed hope.”
If you look closely at this morning’s readings, you find that each of them, although it appears to be about judgment and doom for evildoers, is really about something else — ready? here it comes! — they’re about trusting in God’s goodness in the midst of judgment. If we can trust that God will do what’s right no matter what, then that trust is the first step in finding ourselves transformed. In the Bible we find that the God who is portrayed there — though he is wild, untamable, unpredictable, unstoppable — is also unutterably good. And so we slowly find ourselves able to trust that same God in our turbulent lives. We don’t ever know the future, and we won’t know it any better by reading Scripture than we will any other way, but we know the One Who holds the future. And by exercising our spiritual muscles in God’s weight room, we become strong enough to “embrace” and “hold fast” the hope that the future God is bring about is far better than we can desire or pray for.
Let’s start with the Gospel. It’s a familiar story. Most of the time we focus on the faithful slaves who, trusting their master’s goodness, invest and double his principal investment. The commendation from his lips rings out, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave.” And we all hope to hear such words from God someday, so that’s natural enough. God has given each of us “talents” that we’re expected to use in the service of the Kingdom, and so this is a natural lesson to draw. But the story is actually much darker than that, contrasting the actions of those good slaves with those of a worthless slave, and I’d like you to notice what the worthless slave says:
I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.
His opinion of his master’s character determines his course of action. The master, he thinks, has unfair expectations. Who knows what this guy would do if a bad investment were made and the money lost; so the slave tries to protect himself by removing the element of chance, hiding the money rather than using it to accomplish things. It’s a failing to which I and most of the people I know are prone: we may tell ourselves, “In God We Trust,” but we hedge our bets in a hundred ways, everything from our armed forces to our insurance policies.
The prophet Zephaniah alleges that this self-protective attitude is idolatrous, trusting in a god who is unmoved by morality. The LORD, they say, “Will not do good, nor will He do harm.” The thing is, I bet if we’re honest most of us will admit that these ancient people of Jerusalem articulate a principle that governs our daily life almost all of the time. If God can be expected to remain aloof, neither helping the good nor hindering the wicked, then we’re going to have to look out for ourselves. We don’t really believe that God helps people, so we live by the principle that God helps those who help themselves. We don’t really believe in God’s judgment, so we have a hell of a time leaving judgment in God’s hands. And in particular, we keep living our lives as if nothing were going to change. We build houses and store up wealth; we plant our vineyards. We stock up on weapons and ammo, we hire police and military and private security contractors. We set apart “rainy day funds.” We buy “life insurance” and “health insurance” and pretend that they will keep us alive and healthy. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we try to store up the manna that we receive daily, but only find that it doesn’t keep.
How would that all change if we really believed in God’s unchanging goodness? How would you change? How would I? How would we, as a church, change our behavior if we really expected God to act, powerfully and inexorably, on the side of good?
Well one possible response might be to just check out, just sit around and wait for God to do something. This is apparently what some in the church at Thessaloniki thought: Since Jesus does all the work of salvation, they figured, and since He was coming back soon to complete His work, they could afford just to bide their time. Like the foolish virgins that we heard about last week, who waited for Jesus’ imminent return but didn’t carry enough oil to provide for even a slight delay. In his letter this week, St. Paul advises Christians to keep themselves watchful even though there’s no way to predict when Jesus will return. They were to keep doing the works of the Kingdom, staying sober and watchful so as not to be caught unawares.
After nearly two thousand years, maintaining this kind of watchful expectation for God is even more difficult than it was in St. Paul’s day. Even maintaining a hopeful attitude about the future is hard when we’re bombarded by news from near and far that makes it feel like the world is unraveling. This is why we need to hear, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Scriptures: to keep alive our hope that, despite all our failings and despite the sorry state of the world, we are being brought by God, sometimes kicking and screaming but inevitably, into the Kingdom where life and not death is the operative principle.
How does reading Scripture do that? Most importantly, it makes our story part of the story of God saving the created world, lets us know that what seems to be a setback in our life is actually a necessary part of the work God is doing, transforming our failure into God’s victory. There is no greater success than to fail and experience how God redeems that failure and turns it into something to be thankful for. But for that to happen, we can’t be like that guy who buries his sack of money in the ground. We have to step out bravely, looking expectantly for what God is doing, and the strength to do that comes from hearing all those stories in Scripture where death is swallowed up in victory. If we read the Bible expecting to encounter there that good God who, even with judgment, comes with healing in His wings, then we will surely meet this God, embrace and hold fast the blessed hope of our salvation.