This is the start of the Christian Education year. Sunday School starts today and AWANA begins on Wednesday. During this time, some people put a lot of effort into trying to find workers for these various programs. Why would they have the nerve to ask us to give up a number of hours each week for the sake of these programs?
For the next 8-10 months those who teach will put in a lot of time in preparing lessons and spending time with their students. Over the summer a number of you have been involved in various ministries at camp. Some of you have participated in mission projects and others are planning for mission projects in the future. A whole bunch of people served at the MCC sale yesterday. Why do we so willingly give ourselves to all these efforts? Wouldn’t it be a lot easier just to go to our job, come home, watch TV and engage in the recreation that we enjoy? Why give your time away?
The word that is used in the Bible to describe this kind of activity is the word “servanthood.” This morning, I would like to invite you to examine four passages in the Gospel of Matthew which help us think about what it means to be servants of God.
We will look at Matthew 20:17-28; 24:45-51; 25:14-30; 25:31-46.
During the Rosenort Festival, which by the way was a great time, they had a very unique activity called a “ping pong ball drop.” Some 500 or 600 ping pong balls were dropped from an airplane onto the field at the arena grounds. Children and adults were running all over the field trying to retrieve these balls. Each ball had a number on it and when you turned in the ball you received a prize. Everybody got a prize, most of them were nice but inexpensive prizes, but some of them were more valuable prizes. I suspect that everyone who was out there catching ping pong balls wanted to have one of the valuable prizes. This is our nature.
In about half an hour, we will sit down to a meal together. Sometimes when we do that, the tables are called up by number. Some will eat first and some will have to wait. Does anyone ever say, “I hope our table gets picked last?”
Brent McAtee has written, “I think that the main problem with the church in America is that in most American's "self" is on the throne.......and it is hard for Jesus to elevate His Name in His church when man is trying so hard to elevate himself.”
Jesus has taught us a different way in Matthew 20:25-27. In this passage, the disciples had expressed a desire for position in the kingdom of Jesus. They expressed the normal way of thinking which most of us have. But Jesus taught them a different way of thinking. He introduced the ethic of servanthood. In contrast to the normal ethic in which those with position and power are to be honored, Jesus taught that those who serve are most to be honored. William Barclay said, “…service alone is the badge of greatness; greatness does not consist in commanding others to do things for us; greatness consists in doing things for others.”
This is the ethic of God. When Jesus said this to the disciples, it was not the first time that servanthood was expressed. If we do a search of the word “servant” in the Bible, we find that there are many who have been identified as servants of the Lord. In Joshua 22:4 we read about “Moses the servant of the Lord.” In 1 Samuel 3:10 the response of Samuel to the voice of God was, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” David is identified in both the Old and the New Testament as God’s servant. We have many such examples in the Old Testament and even in the New Testament where Paul, for example, identifies himself in Romans 1:1 as, “a servant of Christ Jesus.”
But in this text we see the pinnacle of servanthood in the person and work of Jesus. When Jesus calls his disciples to servanthood, he does so on the basis of His own example. He says in Matthew 20:28, “…just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The call to servanthood among the followers of Jesus, based on the Biblical examples of servanthood and seen particularly in the powerful example of Jesus, tells us that servanthood is the ethic of the kingdom. This is the way for anyone who is a part of the kingdom of God to live and act. It may not be the ethic of Wall Street or the stadium, but it must be the ethic of all those who follow Jesus.
What does this servanthood ethic look like?
One of the most powerful passages on servanthood is Matthew 25:31-46. This is the parable of the judgment which is coming at the end of time. At that time, all will be judged according to what they have done. Those who have served Jesus will be rewarded and those who refused to serve Jesus will be punished.
There is much in this passage to think about, but I just want to pick up on two ideas. One of those ideas is that those who are rewarded are surprised that they have been servants to Jesus. They ask, “When did we…?” This tells us something very important about serving God. The true servant of God does so out of an inner motivation that is so natural to them that they don’t even know that they are doing it. They are not serving for show. They are not serving to gain points so that they will be received into heaven. Rather, their hearts have been changed by the grace of God and they serve God from an inner motivation. Myron Augsburger says, “…it appears that the righteous answer is innocent surprise, as though they had been doing these things out of inner transformation of grace without being legalistically bound to do so.” William Barclay writes, “Those who helped did not think that they were helping Christ, and thus piling up eternal merit…It was the natural, instinctive, quite uncalculating reaction of the loving heart.”
The other internal characteristic of servanthood which we see in this passage is that it is other oriented. The king answers the surprise of those who have served by saying, “whatever you did for…” Those who are truly servants of God and who serve God out of inner motivation do so because they are not thinking about themselves and what they can gain out of any particular action or work. They are thinking about the other person. They see a need. Perhaps they recognize that there are children who need to know the Word of God or they understand that another person needs a word of encouragement. They see disorganization and realize that they can help. They see the hungry and offer food. They aren’t thinking that they are heroes or that they are gaining all kinds of points for their good deeds. They are thinking about what the other person needs and out of this understanding, they serve.
Gary Inrig in his book “A Call to Excellence” tells the following story:
“A large group of European pastors came to one of D. L. Moody's Northfield Bible Conferences in Massachusetts in the late 1800s. Following the European custom of the time, each guest put his shoes outside his room to be cleaned by the hall servants overnight. But of course this was America and there were no hall servants.
Walking the dormitory halls that night, Moody saw the shoes and determined not to embarrass his brothers. He mentioned the need to some ministerial students who were there, but met with only silence or pious excuses. Moody returned to the dorm, gathered up the shoes, and, alone in his room, the world's only famous evangelist began to clean and polish the shoes. Only the unexpected arrival of a friend in the midst of the work revealed the secret.
When the foreign visitors opened their doors the next morning, their shoes were shined. They never knew by whom. Moody told no one, but his friend told a few people, and during the rest of the conference, different men volunteered to shine the shoes in secret. Perhaps the episode is a vital insight into why God used D. L. Moody as He did. He was a man with a servant's heart and that was the basis of his true greatness.”
How do we develop such a servant attitude?
At the root of it is the willingness to deny ourselves. But the difficult question is, “how can we deny ourselves?” Such self denial, which Jesus exemplified and to which Jesus calls us is possible when we know that everything belongs to God and that we have received so much from God. God has given us life and forgiven us and given us eternal life. How blessed we are! When we know who we are in Christ, it isn’t hard to give of ourselves because we don’t belong to ourselves, we have been bought with a price, the precious blood of Jesus.
You would think that this understanding of blessing would naturally make us all people with servant hearts. But the Bible also reminds us that we are accountable to be servants. In the parable in Matthew 25:14-30, we are reminded of this accountability.
The first lesson which we want to look at out of this parable is that each of us has been given something. The parable focuses on three servants and indicates that each of them received something. They did not all receive the same thing, but they all received something.
If we look at other passages in the Bible, particularly I Corinthians 12 we know that each person who is a follower of Christ has been given some gift. There are many different gifts and they are distributed for the good of the church. Some have more gifts and others fewer, but everyone has some gift.
One of the messages of this parable is that we will be held accountable for what we have. In other words, the person who has one talent will not be held accountable for five talents. God is not going to say, “What did you do with what I did not give you.”
This means that we need to be aware of what we do have. What have we been given? What are the resources we have from God? Since every believer has some gift, it is important to discover what it is that we will be held accountable for.
The question is not if we are called to serve, but where!
Because the other message of this passage is that we will be held accountable for the way we have used what God has given us. The servant with five talents was rewarded because he used what he had been given. The servant with two talents was rewarded and blessed by the master because he used what he had been given. The servant who did nothing with the gift he had been given was condemned for his failure to use what he had. Myron Augsburger observes that the unfaithful servant – “was not interested in his Lord’s cause or advantage but rather in saving his own skin.”
Does it cost something to serve? Certainly it does. Is there risk and discomfort? Of course there is! But we cannot forget that we will be held accountable for the way in which we use the gifts we have been given.
I heard someone this week say that, “There is no such thing as part time Christian service.” We are all fulltime servants of Christ. Therefore, we will be judged by how we continue in service to the end.
In Matthew 24:45-51 we hear the call to faithfulness.
One of the temptations of our work for God is that we sometimes forget that there is a final day coming. We get into the mindset that since Jesus return is delayed so long, we can invest more and more of our life in the present world. So we accumulate many things and we engage in many pleasures – none of them bad, but so many of them are only for this time and for this world. The call of this parable is a reminder that Jesus is coming back again and it will be a good thing if when He comes back, we are doing the work that He has called us to. Jesus has taught us that true servanthood is faithful servanthood.
When Jesus was 12 years old, his parents lost him while they traveled home to Nazareth from Jerusalem. When they found him, he was in the temple debating with the religious leaders. When they expressed surprise at what he was doing and that he had stayed behind, he responded in Luke 2:49 that he had to be involved in the things of His Father. In other words, He was already aware that he was on a project for God and needed to be doing it.
One of the last words Jesus spoke while hanging on the cross, in John 19:30 were, “it is finished.” These two phrases are bookends to the purpose for which Jesus came to this world. Through temptation, through homelessness and wandering, through ridicule, being beaten and being crucified, Jesus was faithful in this task. From beginning to end, he stayed focused on the work which he had been given.
From the teaching of Jesus and the example of Jesus, we learn that servanthood is characterized by faithfulness. Sometimes we get tired, sometimes we get discouraged and we wonder if there is really any value in the work. Sometimes we receive little support and no one really sees what we are doing. Perhaps our work is hidden; it requires continual effort and sometimes with no visible result. Yet if it comes from the servant heart which is given to us from God, then we will be faithful.
Wayne Manago identifies what faithfulness means. It means:
1). You can be counted on to do what is right.
2). You can be depended upon to do what is expected of you.
3). You can be counted upon to keep your word.
4). It means you can be counted on to fulfill your obligations and responsibilities even when no one checks up on you.
5). Bottom line—it is obedience to God and His word!
In his commentary on this passage, William Barclay includes a poem written by a slave.
“There’s a king and a captain high,
And he’s coming by and by,
And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
You can hear his legions charging in the regions of the sky,
And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
There’s a man they thrust aside,
Who was tortured till he died,
And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
He was hated and rejected,
He was scorned and crucified,
And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
When he comes! When he comes!
He’ll be crowned by saints and angels when he comes.
They’ll be shouting out Hosanna! To the man that men denied.
And I’ll kneel among my cotton when he comes.
This poem is a great expression of faithfulness, but it also alludes to the hope of all those who are servants of God and that is the eternal reward which we will receive.
In three of the passages we have looked at there is a promise of reward. Matthew 24:47 says, “I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions.” Matthew 25:28 says, “Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents.” Matthew 25:34 says, “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.”
Last week we examined the church and that God loves the church and has promised, “I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” We thought about how the church is going to exist into all eternity. We agreed that if we really want to invest in something of eternal value, we should give ourselves in service to God and His church.
Servanthood is the ethic of the Kingdom of God. It is the natural response of those whose hearts have been changed by Jesus and is focused on those in need instead of on self. Servants of God recognize the resources they have received from God and use them to bring glory to God and they continue in faithfulness. Such service will be rewarded.
How do we respond to the ethic of servanthood? Perhaps we have become filled with self. Is it time to repent and give our hearts back to our Savior? Perhaps we have been stingy in giving our time. Is it time to be generous to the one who has been so generous to us? Is it time to say yes to those who have asked us to serve? Perhaps we have become discouraged in our service. It is time to commit ourselves to faithfulness in hope of the eternal reward we will receive.
May our Lord find us serving when He comes back!