It takes 8½ hours for the winners to complete the Ironman world championship triathlon. One year, the networks featured a firefighter from New York City who ran in honor of his fallen colleagues. Eleven-and-a-half hours after he started this triathlon, he crossed the finish line and experienced a huge outpouring of emotion. It was at that point my eight-year-old daughter walked into the room and said sarcastically, "Is he crying?" I replied, "You're darn right he's crying." You just can't relate to the thrill of a marathon unless you're a marathoner.
In the same way, you can't relate to the thrill of heaventhe finish line of the race of lifeunless you're a believer. Even for believers, the thrill of the finish line can get fuzzy at times. Some of you came in here today staggered by pain and disappointment, things in life that have not gone well. You're like that weary marathoner midway in the race. His mind is spinning a thousand miles an hour, wondering, How in the world did I ever get myself into this? What satisfaction could the finish line possibly hold that would be worth 13 more miles of agony? I want to encourage you today, because there's a thrill at the finish line. Don't grow weary and give up, because the prize goes to the finishers.
The context for today's message is the parable of the talents from Matthew 25. A wealthy landowner goes on an extended journey. Before he leaves, he gathers together three of his servants and parcels out to them varying amounts of talents. A talent in Bible times was a currency worth about 6,000 denarii. A denarius was a day's wage for a common day laborer. So, converted into today's terms, a talent was worth roughly a quarter of a million dollars. This wealthy landowner trusted a substantial amount of money to three different servants, saying, "I want you to manage this and make it grow."
What we do in this life matters for all eternity.
God will reward us with commendation.
First of all, you can expect commendation from God on payday. You'll hear personal praise from God when you step foot into heaven: "Well done, good and faithful servant." We spend a lot of energy trying to render our praise unto God, but imagine what it will be like one day to hear God rendering his praise unto usthis God who shouts and mountains quake, who speaks and worlds come into existence. What will it be like when he stands and praises you? Seems like just six simple wordsWell done, good and faithful servantbut when we hear it from the lips of God directed toward us, it will ravish us like no words we've ever heard before.
God will speak commendation to all his faithful servants in heaven, but I think it's going to be even more personalized than the praise in Matthew 25. In 1 Corinthians 4:5, Paul says, "Judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes At that time each will receive his praise from God." In other words, God's commendation is going to be like a well-crafted note of encouragement, not like some Hallmark card God just puts his signature to. God's going to personalize it for you.
Revelation 2:17 suggests a similar notion: "To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it." At the time Revelation was written, the Lord was addressing people who were going through hard times, and they needed to persevere through them. God promised that if they remained faithful, he would give them some of the hidden mannalike that he provided for Israel in the desert. He also promises to present them with a white stone engraved with their name.
Most likely, the white stone refers to the tessera. Common in Roman times, the tessera was a small rigid square or rectangular tablet made of wood or tile, the more expensive tessera were made of ivory or marble. They had various uses in Roman times. Sometimes they were tickets. Sometimes they were vouchers. Sometimes they were a token of personal identification. The tessera stone was used most commonly as an invitation by wealthy people who were hosting a banquet. What God is saying to his people is: I'm going to give you some hidden manna now to sustain you. Later, I'm going to give you a white stone that will serve as your ticket into my eternal feast. It's going to have a new name written on it known only to him who receives it.
It seems God wants to give some commendation for a person's essence or uniqueness. Who you really are is going to be clearly revealed and celebrated when a new name written is on this stone. Maybe we're all in for one of those Bible name changes. God changed Jacob's name to Israel and made him the father of an entire nation. God took Simon and gave him the name Peter, the rock. God changed Saul's name to Paul. We could all be in for a great name change that captures our character, the essence of who we are. Maybe some of you will get a white stone with the name giver extraordinaire, or servant savant, or Bible Einstein, or whatever it is that you're really good at. God is going to celebrate your character with words of affirmation and commendation.
"Well done, good and faithful servant" are character words. They indicate that these servants are morally upright, pure, and faithful. They're dependable, and they're reliable. They took their talents, invested them, and they came back with an increase. Moreover, their productivity was a product of their personhood. You can be encouraged that God's not just the bigger, scarier version of your sales manager who gives you an "atta' boy" if your numbers are good. Rather, God's more interested in goodness than genius; he's more interested in your faithfulness than your fabulous success. Being a "good and faithful servant" depends upon being the kind of person who behaves in a way that honors God.
God will reward us with responsibility.
You can also expect promotion on payday. You'll bear greater responsibility for God. The master tells his servants that since they've been faithful with a few things, he's going to put them in charge of many things. What are you going to bear greater responsibility for? We're not sure, but the parable of the minas in Luke 19 gives us added insight. One servant who's been given a mina comes back with ten more, and the master says, "Well done. I'll put you in charge of ten cities." Another received one mina and returned with five more. The master says: Way to go. You're in charge of five cities. However you look at it, God's going to put us in charge of things.
Just by way of comparison, there are some ways of rewarding people that are completely arbitrary. You can say to your kids, "Practice your piano two hours a day, and I'll buy you a new bike." What does a bike have to do with piano playing? A more consistent reward might be to say, "Practice your piano two hours a day, and one day you'll play like Mozart." Your reward will one day follow naturally from what you are doing now. That's the way it works in God's economy: his rewards flow logically from the actions that garner them.
The Bible talks about crowns God's people will receive one day. James wrote to people who were persecuted and beaten down. James 1 says: You just hang in there and persevere, because for those of you who bear up under that kind of pressure, you'll receive the crown of life. God will reward you with the life that you were willing to sacrifice here on Earth.
Peter says to elders and pastors in the church: Those of you who shepherd the flock, do it humbly. You're just under the body bearing it up. You know what you can look forward to one day? The crown of glory. Of course that naturally follows because leaders are estimable, or they should be. But if they serve humbly, if they're servant-leaders and they don't exult themselves, then God will give them the crown of glory that they deserve by his grace.
At the end of his life, the apostle Paul said, "I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord will award me on that day" (2 Timothy 4:8). Paul knew God would celebrate his righteousness because Paul conducted his life properly. None of God's rewards are arbitrary. Paul doesn't say, "I've fought the fight. I've kept the faith. I've finished the race and now there is in store for me the crown of cash that I've been looking for all this time." It just doesn't work that way. God's rewards are all proper and consistent. You get responsibility here and you reign later, because that's been God's plan from the beginning. From the beginning to the end of the Bible, God's purpose is that we reign with him. God's words to the first man and woman in Genesis 1, "Be fruitful and increase in number. Fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over every living thing." We see God's plan consummated in the last book of the Bible: "The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face and they will reign forever and ever" (Revelation 22:35). That's God's design for making image bearers like usthat we would reign in this world.
Trying to rule over creation right now is a bloody battle. Nature lashes out with floods and hurricanes, and people fight back with steel beams and reinforced concrete. People go on the attack and develop all sorts of drugs and antibiotics, and then nature counterattacks with mutant viruses, AIDS, and incurable plagues. But one day all that stuff is going to come under our sphere of sovereignty. Every maladygreat and smallwill be eradicated. Nature will serve us fully and perfectly as we, along with Christ, reign sovereign and supreme and do so righteously and perfectly.
What you're doing right now is preparing you for your sphere of rule in the kingdom to come. If you are faithful in small things, God will put you in charge of many things. Who knows what sphere God has marked out for you if you'll prove yourself responsible, good, and faithful in your service here! Be ready to be a part of that sovereign reign and receive your promotion.
God will reward us with his fellowship.
Finally, we can look forward to celebration. You're going to know joyful fellowship with God forever and ever. The master says to his servants, "Come and share your master's happiness." The King James Version reads, "Enter into the joy of your Lord." The phrases "come and share" and "enter into" were commonly used in the first century to describe someone's grand entrance into an awesome feast or banquet. The master has returned and the servants are affirmed, the tessera stones have been handed out, and the party is beginning. "Enter into the joy of your Lord"that's the ultimate reward. As great as affirmation is from God, as intrinsic to our own nature as it is to rule, there won't be anything as infinitely satisfying as entering into an unimpeded relationship with our God. To enter into his very joy and happiness, to see him face to face, to know him directly and intimately, right up close. That's what God's made you for and that's the pinnacle of joy.
David wrote, "One thing I ask of the Lord, this one thing is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple" (Psalm 27:4). In Matthew 5:8 Jesus says, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." The old confession puts it: "The chief end of humankind is to glorify God and enjoy him forever." That's what we have in store for us.
The great heavenly banquet will be corporate and communalwe're all going to be there togetherbut scholars are agreed that it will also be highly personalized and individualized in this sense: your enjoyment of that heavenly banquet is going to depend on your own capacity for happiness and joy in God. Are you the kind of person who can really enjoy the presence of God? We'll all be in the same environment and yet our capacities for joy there will vary greatly.
Let's say we took the pastor's personal vacation fund right now and took a cruise to Jamaica. All of us would do the same things, in the same environment, but we would have varying capacities to enjoy that event. Some of you would immediately be concerned about the extra pounds you've put on this winter. I can't be seen in a bathing suit with Christ Community Church. Are you kidding me? Others of you would not be able to enjoy the vacation because you didn't plan it and stress over it for six months. Or maybe you have abused your skin, and now the doctor says you can't go out in the bright sunshine anymore. Your capacity for joy is diminished. But then some of you have held your nose to the grindstone so long that you're ready for a break, and you'd be thrilled with a cruise to Jamaica. Others of you are accustomed to receiving great graces from God with joy and thanksgiving, and you'd be ready to go. Some of you are just so darn cold that Jamaica sounds good to you. If we were all to go to Jamaica, we would share the same circumstances and environment but would have differing capacities for joy. Some of our work here on this earth is to expand our capacity to have joy in God and celebration in the Master's happiness.
We must prepare for the celebration.
This past Christmas we were having dinner at Grandma's house. I wanted to be able to enjoy the feast, so I ran for an hour in the morning and I skipped breakfast. I came to noontime meal ready to go. I worked hard at enjoying the lavish feast before me. I filled two plates and downed them both before I had to push myself back from the table. Then we took a short break, cleaned the dishes, and let the grandchildren open their presents. Then they rolled out the dessert spreadcookies and brownies and chocolate-covered pretzels and pies and cakes and candy and all sorts of stuff. I was still recovering from the first feast, and now here's all this stuff. I gamely filled the dessert plate and downed that, too.
Part of our job here on earth is to expand our capacity to rejoice in the Lord, so that we can contain all the joy and happiness and blessings of our Master's presence in Heaven. Jonathan Edwards said that in heaven we're going to all be like vessels of varying size. Each will be filled to overflowing with the joy and the presence of God. Some of us are going to be able to enjoy more of God's presence. Some of us will be super-tankers, and some of will be saltshakers. We need to expand our capacities. How do we do that?
If you're going to enjoy God's presence there, you probably ought to develop a devotional habit in which you begin to enjoy his presence here. Spend time in his Word and prayer, and try to learn what it's like to connect with God. There are all kinds of other things he gives us to do as well: serving and giving and loving and mourning for our sin and fasting and praying and bearing up under persecution and taking risks and speaking for God in various situations. Such things are flesh-denying activities and, therefore, soul-expanding activities. If you engage in those kinds of activities, you'll be ready to respond when God says, "Enter into your Master's happiness."
Some friends of ours gave us their unused NordicTrack system. In the course of making the transaction, we started talking about exercise. I began to laud the wonderful benefits of running. Even in the middle of winter, you can stave off cabin fever and keep yourself in relative shape. My friend responded, "I don't like to run, but I like the idea of liking to run." That's a very good admission that's filled with hope. How could she turn the idea into the reality so that she'd like to run? She could get out and do it now. She should start simple, begin to develop an appropriate pace, and soon she'll be disciplined. But she must run as a discipline until it becomes a joy.
Some of us need to understand our relationship with God in similar terms. We need to admit that we don't like the presence of God. If we did, we'd probably spend more time cultivating our relationship. But we like the idea of liking the presence of God. You don't want to show up in heaven one day without maximum capacity to enjoy this God who wants to usher you into his very own happiness. The bottom line is that heaven is an acquired taste, and we need to get ready for it now.
One writer said, "In that light, hell is a grace, because for the person who has no taste for God, no desire to see his face, the prospect of standing before that God for all eternity would be far more terrifying than anything hell will throw at them." Just like the last servant who said, "I knew that you were a hard man," he won't have anything to do with him. But you want to enter into your Master's happiness. So let's do the work now so we're ready to enjoy the feast.