THE LAST WORD
Sermon delivered on the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, the 19th November 2017 by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Zephaniah 1: 7, 12-18 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11 S. Matthew 25: 14-30
Zephaniah 1:7 “Be silent before the Lord God!”
Most women will I suppose admit that if they ever got into a serious physical fight with a man they would probably lose the battle, other things such as age and physical condition being equal. Most men, on the other hand, would I suppose admit that if they ever get into a serious battle of words with a woman, other things being equal, they would probably be the losers. That balance, I suppose comes from the wisdom of the art that created our species. While physical battles are rarely amusing, verbal battles often are. I am reminded of a conversation reported between the mutually respectful political adversaries George Bernard Shaw the playwright and Winston Churchill (before he became Sir Winston). Bernard Shaw was looking forward to his new play St. Joan being performed, and he sent Churchill a note inviting him to the first night’s performance. He enclosed two tickets, as he said, “one for yourself and one for a friend - if you have one.” Expressing his regret at being unable to attend that night, Churchill replied asking if it would be possible to have tickets for the show's second night - “if there is one.” And I suppose too that it is correct to imagine some of the verbal battles between our Lord and his opponents that are recorded in the Gospels, as being conducted on His part with a twinkle in the eye.
These are some thoughts, then, on “the Last Word”, because it seems that the Scriptures today point out to us that whatever our judgments may be on things, it is in fact God who has the last word and not we. The “last word” of God, moreover, is depicted not merely as decisive answer but as decisive event: subtlety and force come together. Ultimately, with God we win neither the battle of words nor the battle of force, except of course when God Himself allows it, as when Jacob is said to have fought with God and prevailed, or when the words of faith of the Syro-Phoenician woman and others in the Gospels win the Lord’s heart and attention. With faith, we too may even participate in His ultimate victory. The portion of the Book of Zephaniah that we read from in the first lesson today begins with the words, “Be silent before the Lord God!”, and then in verse 14, “The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the mighty man cries aloud there. A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” St. Paul too in 1 Thessalonians 5 says "You yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, and the Lord Himself counsels us to be ready, for we know neither the day nor the hour."
We might very well be tempted to brush such considerations away. Ordinarily, it is good to think positively rather than negatively. With the effects of Harvey, Irma and Maria upon some of our neighbours we do well to speak of a Recovery Fund rather than a Disaster Fund, for instance. So might it not just be better to leave out this theme of a Day of darkness and gloom altogether? After all, in the same book of Zephaniah in which we are warned of the great day of the Lord, we read in the last chapter (Ch 3 verse 15) “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has cast out your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear evil no more.” We might ask, What’s the point of having disaster in our consciousness if we are also to be assured against the fear of it?
Part of the answer to this is that the Scriptures and all Christian thought value the truth over the immediately comfortable. The Way of Jesus is the Truth, not the Easy, nor the Popular. Indeed by faith in His grace we are assured of His strength to deal with all that is true, and not merely all that is easy. That is our very great comfort. And the comfort that is provided by God is not at the expense of truth, even when the truth we have to face is most terribly difficult.
In more modern terms, perhaps what the Scriptures are saying to us about the Day of the Lord might be put this way. We should not think that the natural progression of history or the state of things in general is in the direction of a greater order. We should never make the false assumption that the future is naturally going to be more ordered, more structured and therefore more predictable than the past has been. Even today’s science admits that such things as meteors crashing into the earth and disrupting us could happen at any time. In general science terms, the Second Law of Thermodynamics must always hold, meaning that energy transactions naturally cause an increasing state of disorder. So the remarkable thing, when we experience it, is not disorder and chaos, but the order with which we may be able to have stable positions and make settled judgments about anything. For it is God alone who must superimpose a non-natural (or rather, super-natural) order upon natural chaos, whether upon the world that is external to us, or in the recesses of our own minds. And the Scriptures say that God will not for ever be held to ransom by any part of His own creation, whenever the Day comes for its transformation.
Even with such a prospect as chaos, naturally speaking, however, the Gospel gives firm assurance to us. I say firm, not because we can never be affected by the world's chaotic default, but because we have a firm hope upon which we can draw in the time we are tested. Our hope is in the One who even now has granted order to natural chaos. For the earth is not at this time “without form and void, [with] darkness upon the face of the deep” as in Genesis 1:2. So in that coming Day also, when sudden destruction might be widely evident as predicted by prophets and apostles, yet because of our abiding hope in the One who grants order, we may all be children of the light, children of the Day. In that Day, we have the sure hope to be part of God’s new Order. As St. Paul says, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.”
Being in the way of listening to God’s words we will not fear His “last word”. Did you notice how in the parable of the talents of the Gospel, those who were entrusted with the property and did what was expected had no need to say much when the owner returned, but just to point to the results of their labours. They had listened much, protested little and were faithful. The one who had no results to point to, though, had all sorts of things to say. He had not listened, and had presumed the master’s character to be an image of his own, and then he had reason to fear the master’s last word.
None of us have need to fear God’s last word, but Jesus warns that any of us might ultimately have to, if we do not listen to His word now when we have the opportunity to do its bidding.