Sermon - Ordinary Sunday 19, Year C RCL Resources Index | DBHome |
A Sense of Urgency
There is a sense of urgency about the parables in the gospel for today. Jesus admonished his followers to be ready for action:
This would have reminded them of the instruction for celebrating the feast of the Passover. At the time of the exodus, when they escaped from slavery in Egypt, they had been told to be ready to move without notice. This urgent readiness was then remembered in the way they celebrated these great events in the Passover every year: so we have the instruction on how the Passover meal was to be eaten hurriedly, in the book of Exodus:
The Jewish people were used to recalling these directions in scripture every year and would easily have recognized the same idea in the teaching of Jesus about the coming to the Kingdom of God:
Being ready for action
The theme of readiness and being equipped for action was a common theme in the life of the early Christians. They were constantly being reminded by the own experience of a hostile world to be on the alert, and ready for action like a soldier. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians:
Having a belt around you, being girded, was a sign of being ready for action. They were to be ready with the truth, equipped with the belt of truth. They were not of course encouraged to fight a battle physically: their weapon was the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God, and they were supported and protected by truth, righteousness, and readiness to proclaim the gospel of peace; their shield was faith and their helmet was salvation.
Though different from soldiers in a worldly battle, they shared with them qualities of readiness and discipline. From Peter we have:
In this state of readiness, they hoped to be ready when the Lord appeared, for they were expecting him to come again and finally establish the Kingdom in which he would be the ruler, and they would share with him in the glory of God. At first they thought that might happen very soon, and the apostles had to counsel them to be patient; later they remembered other parts of the teaching of Jesus in which he spoke as if the Kingdom had already come, and we will look more closely at those parts of his teaching another time. In any case they knew that if the Kingdom was in their midst it was hidden and yet to be revealed. But, however it was to appear, there is no doubt that Jesus urged his disciples to be ready for action.
The great reward for being ready
He told a number of parables which contained a warning of people missing out when they were not ready: remember the foolish young bridesmaids who were not ready with oil in their lamps [Matthew 25:1-13]. Emphasis was placed on the fear of missing out, but in the first of these parables today there is something extraordinary by way of reward for being ready when the master returns from the wedding very late at night or in the early morning and finds his servants or slaves ready to open the door to him:
See how the master too was made ready for action - "he will fasten his belt" - he would made himself ready for service. The really strange thing about it was that it was that they, the servants or slaves, who were to sit down to a meal and be waited on - by their master. The strangeness of it is emphasised by its being at a very strange hour, in the middle of the night or in the early morning.. Now, we know that Jesus himself did that later when in a parable of action, at the Last Supper he took the role of a slave and washed his disciples feet. But the story he told here must have struck his hearers at the time in a strange way: the master serving his slaves a celebratory meal in the middle of the night! Extraordinary things happen when they are not expected. Be ready, and you will be blessed.
At other times Jesus had appealed to their conventional wisdom about the relations between masters and servants, before making the point that he would be their servant:
So the one whose coming they await is the master who chooses also to be their servant, and they are all to celebrate the Kingdom together. At this stage they were yet to know the lengths and depths to which he would go to serve them, even to death, but now the message is clear: be ready. There is an urgent expectation about the coming of the Kingdom.
What does that mean for us today?
Being ready for service today -- fear and hope
At this time of the year, near the 6th of August, it is good to remember the destruction of Hiroshima by the atomic bomb. There have been many who have seen in nuclear weapons the kind of fiery end which the world could have under the judgement of God. It has at times been the favourite theme of small religious cults, sometimes expecting that they will be the only ones to be saved. Some have made prophecies about the end of the world, faithfully waiting on a hilltop, to be caught up into the air to meet their Lord as he comes with a destroying angel to wipe out all the rest. Indeed there has been a great deal of prophecy of a less exclusive and sometimes quite secular kind, about the likely end of the world in ohne way or another.
Jesus warned his disciples not to be carried away by such talk: [Mark 13:6, Matthew 24:6]
This sort of prophecy was quite common as the year 2000 approached. Just before the year 1000 there were strong and frightening Millennial movements sweeping through Europe. It is possible to interpret the Book of Revelation with reference to periods of 1000 or 2000 years passing before the end. Be on your guard against these prophecies. Jesus said that no one knows the time:
Indeed that was partly the point of the set of parables we are considering in Luke 12:
Does it really mean what it says?
Yes, but you might say, `That is all symbolic. It does not mean literally that something terrible is going to happen when we a not ready for it. Surely, it is rather primitive thinking to imagine such an event in the history of the world as we know it. Is it not just a general warning to watch out for what God is doing?' May be, may be it is; but I would not be too sure. All that we know of God in the Old Testament and from the coming of Christ as the man Jesus at a particular time and place points to God as one who acts in history as we know it. The God who acts, acts in real lives, here and now in the normal course of events in actual nations, families and circumstances, not oanly in ageneral abstrct sense. It is one thing to reject narrow minded and fearful fundamentalist warnings, it is quite another to dismiss the sense of urgency in the teaching of Jesus. He did tell his disciples to be ready for action, and we cannot tell how or when God will act in our world.
I believe we should be wary of both the fundamentalist and the liberal interpretations. What is necessary is to trust God to act is ways which are trustworthy, just, faithful and caring; and it is necessary to be ready to respond to what he is doing without trying to rationalize everything and make it fit into our limited understanding.
Our limiting expectations
Our understanding is sometimes limited by our expectations. Sometimes we are able to see only what we are ready to see. As many people have found to their sorrow, if what happens is not somewhere within the realm of what we think is possible, important things can be going on right under our noses without our seeing them. If we do not believe that God is active in the everyday world that we know, we are not likely to discern his presence unless he chooses to make it plain. If we imagine that everything in the garden is lovely we may not see a few nasties that are there. Some people live with a sense of God guiding them from day to day or even moment to moment, and they might appear to be somewhat credulous, making too much or ordinary things, one is never sure of that. Archbishop William Temple used to say, `When I pray, co-incidences happen; and when I don't pray, co-incidences don't happen.' Being sensitive to such possibilities is part of what it means to be ready for the Kingdom.
Another way in which our readiness and our discernment can be limited depends upon whether we see the world as a basically friendly place or see it as hostile. A variation on this is whether we see the world as accepting of the Gospel or as an enemy of the Good News. It is easy for Christians to see that the world is often hostile to the Gospel. If that heightens your awareness of what God is doing, then good; but if it only makes you fearful, then you might be overly suspicious and unable to see what is being achieved. On the other hand, if you have an optimistic view you are inclined to think that you can go along with what is happening around you, taking an active part in the community at large expecting that what is pleasing to the community in general will be pleasing to God. It is true that it is God's world, and when he made it he saw that it was good; and it is true that much remains in our culture that has been shaped by Christian belief. It is also true that there is a broad way that leads to destruction and Jesus told us to ready for the narrow way:
Perhaps there are times when that warning is more relevant than at other times. How do you see our situation today? Are we under pressure to go with the flow, to conform to what is generally acceptable. I think we are, and that the danger is greater for us than most of us realize. We who are not young now lived through a time of some reaction against narrow ways of understanding the call to Christian discipleship. We might in our youth have decided it was alright to go to dances, although many of our parents generation did not. Young women in my youth were bold enough not to ware hats to church. Petty little things you might think, but we went on with our lives believing that it was possible to be thoroughly modern people and Christians at the same time. So many of us were happy to have modern music in Church and give our children every opportunity to have a progressive view of the faith and of life in the world. Sadly many who have came from liberal Christian traditions have been disappointed to see how few of the next generation kept up the tradition of worship which we had thought could be made to fit in the modern world. They learned well enough the value of progress as it was reinforced by the world around them, and they left the rest behind. They kept the wrapping and threw away the gift! Should, we then be surprised if the fewer young believers we have in the church today are less inclined to believe in progress, and more suspicious of worldly ways? They might see, correcty, that being ready for service is not to choose the easy way.
The need for clear Christian witness
We need a change of direction and a new sense of urgency. I think, and of course this is my opinion and yours may differ, that we need to be much more ready to take a distinctively Christian stand in a world that is often hostile to the Gospel and cares little for the truth. When we talk of outreach, it must not merely be seen in terms of what the world wants of us, or our going along with general community interests. What the world needs most is the truth about God, even though many may not know it. But it is important to see that the world that would have us conform to their ways, is also open to receiving the Good News. In strangely contradictory ways, people, these days, are ready both to condemn the messengers and to listen. To be ready to act will require us to be able to see where God is already at work, to see where the signs of the kingdom may be discovered.
The message of the Gospel is clear. Whatever form of service we might be called to, we need constantly to be on our guard against going to sleep when the Lord is coming, or failing to see him where he is. Expect God to be active in our world, and be ready to respond when he comes. There is a sense of urgency about the coming of the Kingdom of God. Indeed, nothing could be more exciting. Praise be to God, who comes to us, who came in Jesus Christ, and will some again. So it is the prayer of the church, from the earliest times until the present day: Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.
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