This is the second week where we have as our Gospel readings parables that we call “Kingdom Parables.” The title is obvious, but the reason for their appearance in this time of the Church calendar is not. Recently, some denominations decided to designate these weeks between All Saints Day and Christ the King Sunday as “Kingdomtide,” both to anticipate the coming of Advent and to extend the forward-looking aspect of All Saints Day. That explains the use of red vestments, the Kingdom Parables and the end-times (or eschatological) emphases in our readings from Zephaniah and I Thessalonians.
Last week I promised to return to the first of these Kingdom Parables, the one about the 5 wise and 5 foolish virgins with their oil lamp crisis. As with today’s parable, it’s one of the ones at which many people wince, saying that several pieces of it are simply unfair. It wasn’t the foolish virgins’ fault that the bridegroom was so late in coming to his own wedding feast. It wasn’t very charitable of the wise virgins not to share their extra oil supply if it might have kept all the lamps going longer. And then, after the foolish virgins went to the trouble of chasing down an oil merchant well past his store hours, it wasn’t fair of the bridegroom to claim that he never knew them and to lock them out of the feast. After all, the bridegroom had personally invited these 5 foolish and imprudent virgins to his wedding feast! Add all those things up and this parable of Jesus is definitely a scratch.
But that conclusion springs from a misinterpretation of the parable that’s doubtless at the head of the list of ways to misinterpret many parables, with only occasional exceptions. The use of parables as a pedagogical device was common in Jesus’ day. But a parable, as you may have heard me say before, is not something that is intended to “walk on all fours,” that is, to be scrutinized in each of its details in order to ferret out deeper layers of allegorical meaning. In fact, with the parables of Jesus, I find it unwise to subject any of them to that sort of hermeneutic with the sole exception of the very few times where Jesus does it Himself when explaining a parable to His disciples. Those are the exceptions that prove the rule.
The parable of the 10 virgins has one point and one point only, and it’s explicitly stated in the final sentence: “Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour.” This is precisely Paul’s point in verse 2 of today’s epistle where he writes, “For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night.” Zephaniah was saying the same thing when, in different words, he wrote: “Near is the great day of the Lord, near and coming very quickly; listen, the day of the Lord!”
There’s a pervasive theme in warnings about the last times, the Day of the Lord, the return of Christ and the Great Judgment: it’s “Be ready!” And this is the very reason that such apocalyptic writings often seem frustratingly vague to us. We live by our calendars, whether electronic or paper, and we would love nothing more than to write down that the Day of the Lord will be September 10, 2018, the next Rosh Hashanah. Clearly that’s not in God’s design or intention for us. It’s for our own good in many respects that no date is set for any of God’s ultimate interventions in human affairs.
We glean from both of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians that there was a serious problem with idleness among some who, thinking that the Day of the Lord was imminent, decided to quit their day jobs and just wait it out. Then there were others of a more pessimistic ilk who fretted that the Day had come and gone and that somehow they’d missed it altogether. I suppose a case could be made that if we had the precise date on our calendars, we at least could avoid those particular difficulties. But I suspect they would be replaced by much worse ones.
So what do we actually know, and what are we to learn from today’s readings? I’ll start with the easy one: the parable we misleadingly call “the Parable of the Talents.” I say “misleading” because many of us grew up thinking that this parable was all about Daniel Ziesemer: a young man to whom great talent has been given. There definitely are pieces of this parable that apply to Daniel, and he’s well aware of them. But, as we’re all wise enough to know, “talents” had to do with money, not with special gifts. In any case, this parable is to be approached in exactly the same way as we approached the “Parable of the 10 Virgins:” we’re to discover its main point and let the details go.
And what is that point? It’s not about whether we have 5 talents, 2 talents or 1 talent. It’s simply this: all that we have has been entrusted to us by God, whether it’s houses or lands or bank accounts or investments or superior intellect or great good looks or skill at violin playing. We sing, “We give Thee but Thine own, whate’re the gift may be; all that we have is Thine alone, a trust dear Lord from Thee.” And that’s the point of our parable: everything we have is a sacred trust from God and we’re to use it, whatever it may be, to the very best of our ability. Hiding it in the ground is definitely not an option.
The greatest gift God offers to any of us is His Son, through Whom we have salvation. If we bury that gift in the ground, we will fall under the severe condemnation at the end of this parable: “Throw out the worthless servant into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Obviously this sounds much more severe than what the bridegroom said to the foolish virgins: “I do not know you.” But I suspect the end result is exactly the same: eternal separation from God. And that alone is the most devastating thing we know or need to know about Hell.
And so, we have two Kingdom parables with two points. If we misunderstand the genre of parables, our conclusions might be that heaven will be occupied primarily by two categories of persons: wise and prudent virgins, and successful investment bankers. Have you ever actually known an investment banker? One with whom you’d like to spend eternity? But these aren’t the points that Jesus is making at all. His two points are: 1) that everyone needs to be ready, “on the alert,” for the coming of God’s Kingdom; and 2) that when we use every gift God gives us to His greater honor and glory, especially the gift of salvation through His Son, we can expect to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your lord.”
Soon we will be entering into the season of Advent. Most of you already know that the word “Advent” itself means “coming to” something. Many Christians view it only as a “coming to Christmas,” when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. But Advent is intended to be a time when we celebrate not one coming but two: yes, the historical coming in Bethlehem of Judea, but also the anticipated Second Coming of Jesus at the end of the age when He returns in triumph to establish His eternal Kingdom.
Many passages in Holy Scripture allude to this second coming, and some even attempt to describe specific aspects of it. But not one of them gives us a date or a time. Just when we’re primed to discover that coveted piece of information, the trail stops and we’re left with these two admonitions: “be ready,” and “take comfort.” Jesus stressed the “be ready” part, while Paul stressed the “take comfort” part.
The prophetic word of God comes to us in various forms. One is prophecy itself, and while some try to limit “prophecy” to things that foretell the future, a prophet is any servant of God who is instrumental in proclaiming God’s message to His people. That message may touch on things that are yet to come, but it always has something to do with the present. Some prophecies are wonderfully specific. Many of those found in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures, already have been fulfilled with astonishing accuracy.
But there’s another genre of writings that we properly call “apocalyptic” that’s clearly distinguished from that of “prophecy.” Whereas prophecy may reveal the future in relatively clear and specific terms, apocalyptic writings make no pretense of revealing anything very specific. Apocalyptic literature is filled with suggestive and fantastical imagery that sometimes seems to us rather bizarre and that certainly veers strongly towards the inscrutable. It almost always leaves us with many unexplained details.
Some of you remember Phil Dziki, who was a student of mine at Moody about 45 years ago. One Sunday morning in an adult ed class I invited those present to ask me any question at all, whether or not it would be related to the Scripture readings of the day. Phil raised his hand and asked, “Who are Gog and Magog?” He then immediately added, “Just kidding!” His “just kidding” was his acknowledgment that absolutely no one knows who Gog and Magog really are or, more properly, who they will be. They appear in Revelation 20:7, 8, in the apocalyptic writing of John, where John is describing the very end of this age, the final defeat of Satan and the Last Judgment. Gog and Magog are the armies of the enemies of Israel who will be gathered from “the four corners of the earth” only to be annihilated during their attempted assault on Jerusalem. Many theories have been put forward as to who they will be and where they’ll be from, but none of these theories can be established with any certainty.
Another example appeared in last week’s reading from I Thessalonians, where Paul writes that the return of Jesus will be accompanied by a loud voice and a trumpet blast. N. T. Wright pointed out that Paul was borrowing from the descriptive imagery of the descent of Moses from Mt. Sinai with the Law, and also from an apocalyptic passage in the Book of Daniel, chapter 7, where “‘the people of the saints of the Most High’ (that is, of the ‘one like a son of man’) are vindicated over their pagan enemy by being raised up to sit with God in glory. This metaphor, applied to Jesus in the Gospels, is now applied (by Paul) to Christians who are suffering persecution.” But as an apocalyptic metaphor, it does contain a large element of unexplained mystery.
Today’s reading from Zephaniah is decidedly in the genre of apocalyptic writing. No one in Zephaniah’s day or in the days of Jesus, Paul and John would have read it any other way. When we attempt to force a literal meaning on these words, we’re doomed to failure and may be superimposing things on Scripture that never were there in the first place. Revelation gives a solemn warning against our adding any words to prophecy.
There’s more than enough plainly stated truth in Scripture about what we’re to believe and how we’re to live. If we commit ourselves to trying to exhaust those clear Biblical truths, we’ll find it to be a lifetime endeavor. As Paul wrote to Timothy, every page of Scripture is God-breathed and is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for instruction in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16). Rightly interpreting Scripture includes understanding its genres and its purposes. That’s why we need the illumination of the Holy Spirit and at least sometimes the help of others. There’s nothing wrong with having a few unanswered questions left over. All that remains “mysterious” is properly left to what we call “faith” and “hope,” not to doubt or anxiety or invention.
If we’re willing to accept that some things are intentionally mysterious, vague and hidden, what’s left that we actually can glean from Zephaniah and I Thessalonians? We can distill these readings into two main points about the Day of the Lord, or two aspects of that day. Apocalyptic writing and parables do share this in common: the making of a single overriding point. Zephaniah’s unrelenting emphasis is on the negative aspects of the Day of the Lord: he writes that it will be “a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of destruction and desolation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness” and a fearsome day of judgment and punishment for those who are said to be “stagnant in spirit.” On that great day, wrote Zephaniah, God “will make a complete end, indeed a terrifying one, of all the inhabitants of the earth.” “Stagnant in spirit” reminds us of the church at Laodicea in Revelation 3, to whom God says, “because you are lukewarm I will spew you out of My mouth.” Clearly “lukewarm” and “stagnant in spirit” are states to be avoided!
In I Thessalonians 5, Paul emphasizes the opposite side of the coin, the positive side, assuring both his readers and us that while there indeed will be inescapable destruction in the Day of the Lord, “God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ Who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him.” Paul’s conclusion is not that we should live in fear of the Day of the Lord: far from it. Rather to all believers, whether in Thessalonica or in Illinois, Paul writes, “Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing” (I Thessalonians 5:9-11).
And so, yet again, we return to the two basic and essential lessons that grow out of all New Testament eschatology, whether it’s of the prophetic or of the apocalyptic variety: “be ready” and “take comfort.” For us, the promise of that great day is to be the source of incomparable comfort. But also for us, “be ready” should be a call to arms: the largest red flag in all of history requires that we engage in the ministry of reconciliation that God has entrusted to us. The “great and glorious” part of the Day of the Lord is not something we should harbor for ourselves. It’s to be shouted from our rooftops to all those persons who are “lukewarm” or “stagnant in spirit,” for whom the Day of the Lord brings nothing less than “wrath, trouble, distress, destruction, desolation, darkness and gloom.” It’s our responsibility to throw them the lifeline of “salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” before it’s too late. And perhaps, for us, that itself is the main point of today’s Scriptures: we must shine the light of Christ on all those who are perishing without Him. It’s our most basic Christian duty. May all of us be ever faithful to that task while it is yet day; for Jesus said the night is coming, when no one can work (John 9:4).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen
 see Matt. 24:29ff; 26:64; Mark 13:26f.; 14:61, 62; Luke 21:27 (footnote and references mine)
 II Corinthians 5:18