WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET

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WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET
A sermon on Matthew 25:14-30
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
November 15, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
There is an old bit of advice about preaching that I heard long ago—even before I became a preacher. I must confess that I do not follow it very often, but this is one of those instances where I think it might be a bit more helpful than at other times. This simple piece of advice is: “When you preach, you should begin by telling them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them and then finished by telling them what you’ve already done told them.”
I am not sure that following such a plan of preaching is always a good thing—though it is better than others. And maybe it would help to keep some of us preachers from rambling around too much and straying from the main topic so many times. But today, I want to tell you straight up at the beginning of this sermon what the main idea is for your consideration this morning. So I’m going to begin by “telling you what I’m going to tell you.” Right up front, this is the main thought that I want us to consider: Our understanding of who God is, in large part, determines what our relationship to God is going to be like.
Years ago, I was working on a church staff which was part of a group of churches that sponsored a community Thanksgiving service every year. This was a group of congregations from several different faith traditions, not all of which were Christian. The location for the service rotated among the different churches. One particular year, it was my church’s turn to host the service and to plan and put the service together. I was tasked with putting the service together. And I was fine with that.
I spent a great deal of time looking up resources, choosing special music, selecting scripture passages appropriate for the occasion, deciding on which hymns to be used, and writing out the various prayers. I had put a lot of time and effort in it to be as inclusive as I could, being sensitive to the diversity of the faith traditions that would likely attend. And honestly, I felt pretty good about the final result…
When I finished composing the service, I emailed a copy of it to all the participating clergy with their assignments for the service. The very next day, I received a call from one of the pastors, the one that I had asked to do the opening prayer. He told me that, while he appreciated my efforts, his theology did not line up with the theology expressed in the prayer. So he was calling to ask if he could write out his own prayer that aligned closer to his own beliefs. I was somewhat puzzled by his request, and wondered what in the world that he would have found offensive. But I said, “Sure,” and did not think much else about it.
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When the day of the service arrived, I was curious to see what kind of prayer he would offer as
part of the service. When he got up to lead in prayer, he began with “O great giving Spirit of all life…” I
do not remember much else of what he said in his prayer, but it seemed like it was filled with phrases
about a God who was impersonal and not at all interested in the day-to-day affairs of human beings. It
frankly struck me as a little bit odd. I would not pretend that I could peer into his heart and know what
his relationship to God was like…But at the very least, it did not seem that it could have been very warm
or personable, judging by the words of his prayer that morning…
Today’s gospel text from Matthew 25 is a very familiar text that I am sure many of you have
heard many times. It is a story told by Jesus that is known as “The Parable of the Talents.” You probably
remember how the story goes…
It seems that a master was going on a long journey. Before he left, he called in three of his
servants together. He gave them each some money with the instructions to take care of it. Implied is the
expectation that they would use the money in business to increase the master’s wealth. Upon his return
a long time later, the master called his servants in order for them to give an accounting of their
stewardship. The first two servants were proud to be able to report to the master that they had doubled
the money that he had entrusted them with. And the master was pleased with their work.
Then the third servant appeared before the master. This servant brought with him every nickel
that the master had given him and he returned it to him just as he had received it. He explained to the
master that he had taken the money that had been given to him and buried it in the ground for
safekeeping. He also explained that he did this because he was afraid of his master. He told the master,
“I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not
scatter seed.”
Notice something significant here. Did you notice that neither of the other two servants offered
any assessment of who the master was? We do not know if they perceived their master in the same way
as did the third servant or not. Maybe they did—maybe they didn’t. We just don’t know. Or maybe they
had experienced the master in a very different than the way the third servant did. So they did not fear
him in the same way. But what we can say is that the third servant’s fear of who the master was
paralyzed him. He became frightened of what would happen to him if he lost any of the money with
which he had been entrusted. Consequently he did nothing with it out of fear that he would be severely
punished if he did not do well. The irony of the situation is that, because he decided to bury the money
to keep it safe—but did nothing with it—he wound up being severely punished anyway. The third
servant’s fear of the master’s punishment became a self-fulfilling prophecy…
I’ll say it again: Our understanding of who God is, in large part, determines what our
relationship to God is going to be like. If we see God as a harsh judge keeping a ledger of all our sins
and waiting for the appropriate time to punish us, then we are likely to be fearful of God—maybe even
resentful of him. This seems to be the error of the third servant who buried the money…However, if we
see God as some kind of cosmic impersonal force that is unconcerned with what is going on in our
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lives—a kind of Ultimate Bundle of Absolute Values1—then we are likely to be just as uninterested with
him as we perceive him to be with us…If we see God as a mostly negative force in our lives—a cosmic
killjoy whose job it is to snuff out any fun that anyone on earth may be having—then we will relate to
him in that way—and mostly try to avoid any relationship with this God as much as we can…
There are no doubt lots of inadequate understandings of who God is out there. Here are a few
deficient images of God that come to mind:
Some people want to create God in their own image. That is, they want to imagine that God is
pretty much like they are. They believe that God has the same likes, the same tastes, the same
preferences, the same prejudices, and the same political leanings as they have. When God acts
and thinks and feels the same way that you do, then you think that you pretty much have God
figured out. God is not going to surprise you with much of anything because he is like you are…
With all due respect to Jiminy Cricket of Pinocchio fame, letting your “conscience be your guide”
is not a great way to connect with God, either. That’s because one’s conscience can sometimes
be faulty—or even manipulated to do things that are really not right or spiritually beneficial to
us. Equating God with conscience—that can be a dangerous thing…
Some see God as Absolute Perfection. They read in the scriptures that God commands us to “Be
holy, as I am holy.”2 Therefore, the perfect God demands perfect obedience. It sets that person
up for failure, for no one can be perfect—let alone compete with a pure and holy God. No one
will ever measure up. Such an attitude only breeds frustration and a sense of failure time and
time again…
Some have an image of God as a doddering old grandfather figure. He may be nice enough and
relatively harmless, but he is a God who is hopelessly out of touch and powerless in the day and
age in which we live. What has God got to do in an age of computers…and space travel…and
algorithms and the explosion of technology and knowledge that we are experiencing? Not much
that they can see. It is not so much that they don’t believe in God or have anything against him
particularly. It’s just that God does not matter anymore. He is not important. He has hopelessly
outdated ideas about all kinds of things including politics, sexuality, science, medicine, and a
whole host of other things. When your understanding of God looks like that, then that’s the way
that you relate to him. And so pursuing a relationship with that God is pointless at best…if not
an entire waste of time…
One more time: Our understanding of who God is, in large part, determines what our
relationship to God is going to be like.
We have spent some time in this sermon about who God is not. But such discussion really serves
to beg the question that confronts us, “Well, if God is not like any of those things, then what is God
really like?”
1 I am indebted to J. B. Phillips for this phrase.
2 Leviticus 19:2.
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Artists, poets, musicians, mystics, philosophers and writers have all tried for ages to plumb the depths of reality in order to discover who God is. None have really been able to fully capture the essence of God in all its wonder and mystery. But ultimately the answer of who God is is both disarmingly simple…and unreservedly profound at the same time.
The scriptures give us one of the most important clues as to who God is. At its most basic, the Bible teaches us that God is like Jesus. The Bible suggests that, if you want to know what God is really like, then look to the teachings…and the life, and death, and resurrection of his son, Jesus Christ.
In Colossians 1, we read that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things.” (Verses 15-16, 19-20) That last phrase is really telling. It says that all of who God is—God in all his unfathomable power as the Creator of everything—is somehow mysteriously and undeniably present in the man we know as Jesus.
The great 20th Century scholar and preacher George Buttrick reflected on the nature of who God is and poignantly gave us this answer when he wrote,
What is God like? He is not like a scheme of ‘justice’ with an invisible police force; [he is] not like the space-time continuum or any other abstraction; [he is] not like the vast cosmic holocausts of fire from which new constellations emerge; [he is] not like mere pity or mere terror or any other temporary catharsis…But God is really like a Man dying on a Cross. He is as helpless and as mighty, as vigilant in truth and as utterly self-giving in love.3
That’s worth saying again: God is really like a man dying on a cross. He is as helpless and as mighty, as vigilant in truth and as utterly self-giving in love. When we come to understand that God is really like Jesus dying on the cross, our whole outlook on who God is changes. God can no longer be understood as the tyrant who demands absolute perfection from us. He can no longer be thought of as the One who put the universe together and then walked away to let it run on its own. God is no longer the harsh, vindictive judge who is waiting to zap us the first time that we step out of line.
NO. When we come to realize that God is really like Jesus dying on the cross and being raised from the dead, it is fair to say that everything changes. Gone is the strict rule-keeper counting up all the times we mess up. Gone is the impersonal God who controls the universe, but has no desire to be involved in the lives of his people. Gone is the God who lives to make the ones who worship him miserable and devoid of true life. Gone is the God who hides behind half-truths and wrong notions of the nature of our world and of reality.
Instead, the God we encounter on the cross is one who displays his boundless love and concern for all of his creation. We see a God who is willing to take chances. We see his power shown through his
3 George A. Buttrick, Christ and History (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1963), 129.
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denial of self, demonstrating in the process how it is that we should live. We see a display of how and why the universe exists in the first place. And we see his power displayed in the conquering of the final enemy—death itself. This is the God we know in Jesus—the one who has come to bring life—and life more abundantly. This is the true God we serve—a God of power and a god of infinite love. It is the God that puts to shame all of the phony misrepresentations of who He is… even among those who would profess their loyalty to him. Anything else is a gross misrepresentation of the true nature of the one true God.
What you see is what you get. It is an important truth of the spiritual life. Because how you understand who God is will determine, in large part, how you relate to and experience him…
So what about you this morning? Who do you understand God to be? As I went through a number of harmful—and even destructive—understandings of who God is that some people hold, did any of them seem familiar to you? Did you recognize any of them? It must be said that sometimes even the most well-meaning and earnest Christians—Christians who are sincere in their belief in God and in their service to the church—can have inadequate understandings of God. These false images of God color and hinder a vibrant and satisfying relationship to him. It makes their spiritual journey less than what God intends for it to be. It makes following Jesus more of a chore and a burden than it ought to be…
So what is God like to you? Let his life and love shine brightly in your life—to bring you the life that you were created for…to be the person he intends for you to be…
To God alone be the glory! Amen.