Sermon 03-24-13: “Journey to Jerusalem, Part 4: Commitment”

March 28, 2013

Fading Footprints in the Sand

When we read Jesus’ Parable of the Pounds in Luke 19:11-27, we easily identify with the third servant and feel guilty: “Why can’t I be a more faithful disciple? I guess I need to try harder!” As I argue in this sermon, however, the third servant’s problem isn’t about “trying harder”; it’s about trusting more. This sermon encourages us to trust more in our King Jesus, who is always loving us, always taking care of us, always working for our good. He proved his love for us by suffering and dying on the cross.

Sermon Text: Luke 19:11-27

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Many of you have seen the movie Argo, which recently won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The movie begins at the American embassy in Iran in 1979. A large crowd of Iranian demonstrators are gathered outside the gates of the embassy, protesting that the U.S. has given asylum to their deposed leader, the Shah. The Iranians want the Americans to return the Shah to Iran, where he can be tried, convicted, and probably executed for his many crimes against humanity. The U.S. refuses. From our country’s perspective, the Shah may be a bad man, but he’s our bad man; at least he’s been a loyal ally. We reward loyalty.

The American embassy in Iran in 1979.

The American embassy in Iran in 1979.

In fact, loyalty is one theme in the movie. When the angry mob finally breaches the wall of the embassy, the diplomats inside continue to do their duty: without panicking, knowing they only had a matter of minutes before the Iranians captured or killed them, they began shredding and incinerating all the confidential embassy files. They were loyal to the end. In fact, one of the six diplomats who, at the last moment, escaped the embassy and took refuge at the Canadian ambassador’s house was angry at himself for remaining at his post for the past several months, while the situation got out of control. He wonders why he didn’t take his wife and go home to safety. Instead, he remained faithful and kept serving his country. He was loyal, even in the face of great danger.

Loyalty is also a theme in the parable that Jesus tells in today’s scripture. Jesus begins, “A certain man who was born into royalty went to a distant land to receive his kingdom and then return.” This was based on historical events: When King Herod died, for example, his son Archelaus believed that he was his father’s rightful successor. But he couldn’t assume control of his father’s kingdom—not without authorization from the government in Rome. So Archelaus went to Rome to receive authority to be king. As in the parable, however, the people who would become the new king’s subjects, the Jews in Judea, hated Archelaus and didn’t want him to be their king. So they sent a delegation to Rome after him, pleading with the Romans not to give Archelaus the authority he sought.

And that did not end well for those Jews who opposed him… After Archelaus returned home, he slaughtered all the people who failed to be loyal—just like the king in the parable. And this sort of thing happened all the time back then.

But inside this story of a king leaving and returning with power is another story: While he’s away, the king has left money with ten of his servants. Each of the servants receives a mina, which was the equivalent of about four months’ wages. The king tells them, “Do business with this until I return.” It’s a lot of money and a lot of responsibility. And it’s likely that he was gone for a long time—he had to be gone long enough for at least two of the servants to earn a huge return on his investment. One of the servants earns a return of a thousand percent! He took his one mina and made ten more. The other didn’t do quite as well: he only earned a return of 500 percent. He took his mina and made five more. Ether way, these servants did remarkably well.

Have you ever heard of counting cards in blackjack? It’s a way of using math to greatly increase your odds of winning blackjack. Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man. It’s not technically illegal, but once casinos figure out that you’re doing it, thick-necked guys named Bruno will kindly encourage you to take your business somewhere else. The public radio show This American Life had a story recently about a group of evangelical Christians who learned how to count cards and convinced people at their church to cash out their IRAs and 401(k)’s and entrust their money to them. They would take it to Vegas and Atlantic City, play blackjack, and return their winnings over to their investors. These Christians were opposed to gambling. But as they said: if you count cards successfully, it isn’t gambling: it’s math, and the math works! And guess what: the story has a happy ending. This Christian blackjack group was successful. They only stopped doing it because apparently counting cards is a mind-numbingly boring way to make a living.

Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that our church copy this business model! But as I was listening to the story, I was thinking: “Would I be willing to take that risk?”—either the risk of entrusting my retirement savings with people who would gamble with it at a blackjack table, or—assuming I knew how to count cards—the risk of taking someone else’s retirement savings and playing blackjack with it, secure in the knowledge that I would make money and not lose money! Sure… the potential reward is great, but so is the risk. As all investors know, the higher the rate of return, the greater the risk.

Whatever these servants did, then, to earn a 1,000 or 500 percent return, we can be sure that they took incredibly great risks!

And just think: Jesus is telling his disciples this parable in order to make a similar point: Being faithful to Jesus means taking risks for the sake of God’s kingdom. It means being willing to step outside our comfort zones for God’s kingdom. It means refusing to play it safe for the sake of God’s kingdom. We ought to be like those embassy workers in Argo who see the hostile and threatening mob gathering outside and think, “I’m going to remain loyal in spite of all the pressure to do otherwise. I’m going to do my duty, even though my enemies would rather see me dead. I’m not going to abandon my post, no matter how scary it is to stay here—because this is the work I’ve been called to do, this is the pledge I’ve sworn to uphold.”

But I know… I know… Who am I kidding? I’m the biggest wimp! I much prefer playing it safe, and I bet many of you do, too.

When I was a young kid, one of my favorite activities was to play “army” with my friend Matt in the woods behind his house. There was a creek running through the woods, and usually there were Nazis that we’d have to fight on the other side of the creek. So we had to cross over the creek to fight them. Every once in we’d find a vine hanging from a tree that would enable us to do a Tarzan routine and swing from one side to the other. Sometimes, we could could walk across stepping stones from one bank to the other. But sometimes the only way to cross was by walking carefully over a log or tree trunk that was suspended in the air from one bank to the other. I was always afraid of falling in. My knees would get wobbly, and I’d worry about losing my balance. Sometimes, my fear of falling into the creek was so great that I’d scoot across the tree trunk on my bottom—which was not cool. I hoped that the Germans weren’t watching me do this!

My point is, even back then, I would rather play it safe than risk falling into the creek. But why? What was the worst thing that was going to happen if I did fall in? I’d get wet and cold and dirty? Big deal. The embarrassment of scooting across the log was worse than falling in! Similarly, Jesus tells us in this parable that playing it safe is much worse than taking a risk for God’s kingdom.

At some point we have to remind ourselves of Paul’s words in Romans 8:28: “In all things God works for the good of those who love him…” No matter what happens in life, no matter what bad things come our way, we can be confident that the Lord will be right there in the thick of it, working to bring good from bad. I have found that to be true time and time again. Inasmuch as I’m able or willing to take risks for God’s kingdom, it always pays off. You may recall six months ago I was confessing to you that I was afraid to go to Kenya, even though I knew God was calling me to go! You’ve seen in these videos how well that turned out.

O.K… As I compare the actions taken by the first two servants with the actions taken by the third servant, I am in danger of turning this sermon into the kind of guilt-inducing sermon that I’ve heard a thousand times, and I’ve preached a few times myself: It’s the kind that says, in so many words, “You lazy, no-good Christian. God has been calling you to go on that mission trip, and you keep saying ‘no.’ You need to to try harder.” Or: “You lazy, no-good Christian. God wants you to get your financial house in order so you can start tithing the way you ought to. You need to try harder.” Or: “You lazy, no-good Christian. You’ve had so many opportunities to witness to your co-worker, and you keep failing to do so. You need to try harder.”

And we preach this kind of “try-harder” sermon when we misunderstand the problem with the third servant in this parable: his problem was not that he took the king’s money and failed to do something with it. That was merely a symptom of the problem. His problem was the reason he failed to do something with it.

He failed to do something with it because he didn’t know the kind of king he was dealing with. “I was afraid of you,” he said, “because you are a stern man.” So first, the servant mistakenly believed that the king was harsh and unforgiving. Although we’re not given an example of a servant who took a risk and failed, doesn’t it seem likely that this king would commend the servant for the effort, even if the servant failed?

Then the servant also says, “You withdraw what you haven’t deposited and you harvest what you haven’t planted.” So he mistakenly believes that the king is greedy. But that can’t be right for two reasons. First, notice that the king orders that this man’s money be taken from him and added to the one who already had ten times as much. Which meant, in other words, that the king let his servants keep their profit and continue to manage it. That doesn’t sound like someone who’s greedy. Besides… the money belongs to the king and even the servants belong to the king in the first place.

Therefore, the servant fails to realize that the king is much more gracious and generous and merciful than he knows. The servant fails to take the risk because he doesn’t trust that the king will take care of him. The servant’s problem is not that he isn’t trying hard enough; it’s that he isn’t trusting hard enough. His problem is trust.

And when we read this parable, we’re not supposed to read it like a straight allegory and say, “The king is just like God.” On the contrary, Jesus wants us to understand that in many ways the king is not like God. Jesus wants us to consider the differences and think, “If even this vindictive, sinful king can be gracious, generous, and merciful—if even this king proves himself trustworthy—then how much more will God our true king prove himself to be gracious, generous, merciful, and trustworthy?

In the movie Argo, Ben Affleck plays the real-life CIA agent named Tony Mendez who created and implemented the plan that eventually freed the six American diplomats who were hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s house. Mendez went into Iran pretending to be a Canadian movie producer. His cover story was that he was there because he wanted to film a science fiction movie, called Argo, on location in Iran. Once he arrives, he pretends that the six Americans at the ambassador’s house are members of his film crew who arrived in Iran a few days earlier. They all have phony names, passports, and identities. The plan is that they will pretend to scout locations for the movie one day, and then go to the airport and fly home the next day—all the while convincing suspicious Iranian soldiers that they are who they say they are. Can they pull it off?

ARGO (2012)

It all sounds so preposterous. How could this crazy scheme possibly work? Some of these six diplomats have serious doubts. “Trust me,” Mendez tells them. “This is what I do. I know how to get people out of situations like this.” So the diplomats face a choice: do nothing—and remain virtual prisoners inside this house until the Iranians eventually find them out—or trust this man with their very lives and be set free. Trusting him is risky, but, look at it this way, Mendez says: “If the plan doesn’t work, I’ll die, too!” If the plan doesn’t work, he’ll be exposed as a spy and be executed along with the other Americans. See, Mendez wasn’t asking them to do anything or suffer anything that he himself wasn’t also willing to do or suffer. In fact, Mendez was willing to lay down his life in order to rescue them.

In the same way, it’s as if our King Jesus were saying to each of us this morning: “Trust me. I’ve got this. I know what I’m doing. I’ve got your back. I’ll take care of you. I promise. Trusting me may seem risky, and scary, and even crazy sometimes. But trusting me is the the only path that will lead to your freedom. And I’m going to walk this path with you, step by step. And not only am I willing to lay down my life, I did lay down my life to set you free. And unlike the king in the parable, who rounded up all his enemies and put them to death, I suffered the death penalty on behalf of all of my enemies in order to bring them to God. You used to be one of those enemies. But now you’re my friend. Now you’re my brother and sister. Now you’re a son and daughter of my Father.

“Why do you think I did it? Why did I choose to go to the cross and die for you? Because I love you. I loved you when I was on the cross, and I haven’t stopped loving you now. In fact, nothing will ever prevent me from loving you. So you can trust me when I tell you that I’m going to take care of you. O.K.?”

In the words of the apostle: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Trust in that love.


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