A sermon by Steve Cooper
Good morning! Let me wish you a happy New Year! I hope you’re enjoying a break and a slower pace after the Christmas season.
The New Year is an appropriate time to re-assess our lives. We reflect back on the past year, and start thinking about the year which lies ahead. Some of us make New Year’s resolutions, or at least we make a quiet commitment to do some things differently. We can never be sure what the New Year holds. We may make our plans, but the wise person will hold them loosely since unexpected surprises are bound to happen.
This morning I want to focus on an event which we can be sure will happen, perhaps this year or perhaps beyond this year. It’s the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. When he returns, he will assess the lives we’ve lived. That’s a great motivation for us right now to re-assess and change our own lives.
During this New Year period many of us take time to re-assess our lives. We reflect on what we could do better, and prepare ourselves for the coming year. For me, the end of one year and beginning of another motivates me to re-assess. This morning let’s reflect on one event yet to come which should motivate us to re-assess even more – the return of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Before Jesus ascended back to heaven he promised that he will return to earth. When he returns he will bring back to life all who have lived on this planet. Jesus will be the Judge and King. At the final judgment he will divide all people between those who are forgiven and those who are condemned. Listen to this vivid and majestic description of the final judgment in Matthew’s Gospel. ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”’ (Matt 25:31-34). What an awe-inspiring scene this is! Those who trust in Jesus will be given wonderful new resurrection bodies, and will be welcomed into God’s eternal kingdom, the new heaven and new earth.
Before Christians enter God’s eternal kingdom, we will face a judgment. The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church: ‘We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad’ (2 Cor 5:10). Writing to the Roman church, Paul said: ‘We will all stand before God’s judgment seat … each of us will give an account of ourselves to God’ (Rom 14:10,12).
If we are trusting Jesus as our Saviour, this judgment of Christians cannot imperil our eternal salvation. Paul asserted ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom 8:1). When we believe in the Lord Jesus, God’s final verdict has already been pronounced on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness credited to us. Christians don’t need to be fearful about facing Christ the Judge. We are assured that God by his grace has made us his children, and we will share in our inheritance, the glory of our Saviour (Rom 8:15-17). The judgment for Christians will be like a ‘fatherly judgment’ (1 Pet 1:17), having all of a father’s understanding and compassion; yet it is clearly not to be disregarded or treated carelessly. This fatherly judgment will be exercised by the Lord Jesus at his coming.
In this New Year each of us will prepare for events we expect to happen. Some of these events will not occur, or they will probably not occur in the way we anticipate. So if we are wise we will think seriously about the coming of the Lord Jesus, and his assessment of our lives. That’s a certain event in the future we can be sure of!
This morning, as we enter this New Year period and re-asses our lives, let’s reflect on an event in the future which we can be sure of – the return of Jesus to this earth, and his final judgment when he will re-assess each of us and the lives we’ve lived.
One of the stories Jesus told, The Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30), is a key Bible passage about the judgment of Christians. Jesus likens himself to a master of a house, who has servants. The master entrusts his property to three servants, each one allocated a different amount. The master goes away for a long time, and expects that his servants will show their love for him by working responsibly to use and develop what they have. When the master returns he meets with his servants to examine whether they have been faithful stewards. Two of the servants had done their assigned duties, and one was lazy and lacked love for his master. The master rewards the two, and rebukes the third.
It’s not hard to understand what this parable teaches us. Every follower of Jesus is a servant. We are stewards of what our master, the Lord Jesus, has entrusted to us. Our talents, gifts, opportunities, responsibilities, ministry, witness, service and the like will be subject to some kind of assessment before the Lord Jesus at his coming. If we have done the duties the master assigned us, growing, husbanding and developing the resources God entrusts to us, we’ll hear these wonderful words of praise: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness.’ (25:21) The faithful servants are given two things: glorious new responsibilities in the eternal kingdom, and holy delight as they share in their master’s joy. The unfaithful servant, on the other hand, did not love or trust his master, and failed to fulfil his responsibility. This third servant is rebuked as ‘wicked, lazy’ and ‘worthless’ (25:26, 30).
What are we to make of the ‘rewards’ to the two faithful servants and the stern ‘rebuke’ to the unfaithful servant? When interpreting a parable of Jesus we must approach them with care, since parables in general are presented to make one central point and we must not press the secondary issues. The rebuke to the lazy and timid servant shouldn’t make us afraid that genuine Christians will miss out on God’s eternal kingdom. The rest of Scripture is clear that even the believer who receives a small reward will still be secure on the Day of Judgment. Paul writes this about the lazy Christian on the Day of Judgment: they ‘will suffer loss but yet will be saved – even though only as one escaping through the flames’ (1 Cor 3:15). The idea of ‘rewards’ might seem strange to us. Does this mean if we work hard we will earn more? Does this add a mercenary motive to Christian service? We must remember that the basis of any reward at the day of judgement is not our work, but God’s grace. Calvin expresses it aptly when he observes that the ‘rewards’ are not a matter of ‘servant’s wages’, but ‘son’s inheritance’.
What motives us to re-assess our lives? During this New Year period it’s logical to re-assess and plan for the future. There’s one future event which should motivate us to re-assess more than any other – the return of the Lord Jesus and the fact that he will assess our lives.
In The Parable of the Talents Jesus promised rewards to those who faithfully love, trust and serve Christ our Master. Those servants of Jesus who have been more faithful will receive a greater reward. The idea of different amounts of rewards given to different servants might worry us that there will be jealousy, competition and unhappiness in the eternal kingdom. We must guard against misunderstanding here. Even though there will be degrees of reward in heaven, the joy of each person will be full and complete for eternity. Notice in the parable that both servants are promised the ‘master’s happiness’ – delighting in God and rejoicing in the status and recognition he has given them. Jonathan Edwards most helpfully said, ‘The saints in heaven are like so many vessels of different sizes, all cast into a sea of happiness in Christ, where every vessel no matter what its size is full to the brim. Everyone will be completely satisfied and full of happiness, having as much as [they] are capable of enjoying or desiring … fulfilling God’s will fills them with inconceivable satisfaction.’ That image from Jonathan Edwards is very helpful. Whether you are a one-litre vessel or a five-litre vessel, you will nevertheless be just as full to overflowing with the glory and joy of Jesus Christ!
Every Christian is aware of their failings and weaknesses. We wonder how we will ever get through the scrutiny of the Lord Jesus Christ on the Day of Judgment. Our confidence, however, is not in ourselves. Our trust is in Christ himself, our crucified Saviour and risen Lord, and his saving grace. When we place our faith in Jesus we are clothed with his righteousness, and are no longer condemned. The thought of being judged as a Christian should motivate us. Our master has graciously entrusted so much to each of us – gifts, talents, opportunities and responsibilities given in this life. He expects us to use and develop them in his interests. He will reward us for faithful service with his pleasure and confidence, which will lead to further entrusting of responsibility. That prospect should provide a great incentive to show our love for our master, to be responsible with the tasks he assigns us.
As you reflect on your own life during this New Year period, let me encourage you to consider the future. We are not sure what awaits us in this coming year. We do know this: our Lord Jesus Christ will one day return, and he will assess our faithfulness as his servants. He promises joy, glory and new responsibilities to all his faithful servants. In this New Year, let’s dedicate ourselves afresh to loving, trusting and serving our master. Let’s commit ourselves to the Lord Jesus Christ, longing for the day when we’ll see him face to face, and hear his words of praise: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!’
I hope this New Year season for you is a time to relax and take it easy. I hope you’ll also re-assess your life, especially in light of the event in the future we can be sure of – the return of the Lord Jesus Christ and his assessment of our lives.
Let me offer a prayer of commitment which was written by Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556):
‘Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve:
to give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and to ask for no reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will. Amen.’