The scripture this morning is set in a very interesting chapter in which we find Jesus doing a lot of teaching about how to live. His emphasis is that God is the final judge and ultimately is in control. In the first half of the chapter, Jesus tells his disciples to not worry about life, but to have faith in God the provider. This section is parallel to familiar portions of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. So we find sayings like “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” (v. 25) and “Do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink, do not worry about it…your father knows you need them. But seek His kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.” (v.29-31)
Following these messages of not worrying, Jesus tells this parable of being alert and prepared. The connection between this message of trusting God to provide and the notion of being prepared would not be lost on the Jews listening to Jesus. Being “dressed” and ready to go is how the Jewish people were to eat their Passover meal just before God led them out of Egypt (Ex. 12:11). (Excursus explaining “girding loins.”) The clear emphasis here is that the servants are ready for action. The lamps are lit so they can light the path home for the master. They are dressed for service so that they can wait on the master as soon as he arrives home. The master could come home late in the evening, or really late at night, or even just before sunrise the next day. Whenever he comes, the servants are expected to be alert and ready for his arrival. It may not be exactly clear just what Jesus meant by the Son of Man coming, since Jesus was there and was the one speaking. Since the title “Son of Man” held the understanding of the Messiah, most Christians have taken this parable to be referring to the Second coming of Jesus to earth. So we can read this passage today as a call to be prepared for the Jesus’ return to earth. So let’s take a look at what it means to be prepared and then we’ll get into what we are preparing for.
Thoughts on being prepared:
Preparation can be hard work. As we saw from what it took to gird loins, it can also be slightly uncomfortable. I’ve been a part of enough sports teams to understand first hand the mental and physical strain that comes from preparing oneself. It can even be a little anxiety producing. Am I doing everything right? Will I be ready? I’m usually very edgy before we have people over for a meal. I want to make sure the home is clean and welcoming. So the process of preparing can be a little anxiety ridden and uncomfortable, but how much more at ease are we once the preparation is done. That’s when I turn on music, light a candle and wait on our guests. This is consistent with the verses leading up to the passage for today. “Don’t worry,” Jesus says.
When I was in the musical in high school, my anxiety level got higher the closer it came to show night, but it never got out of hand, because I was rehearsing the show over and over again, each day, so that when the night came to do it in front of 1000 people, I was prepared. I didn’t have to think too much or worry too much. Most sports coaches will tell you that one of the main goals for a coach is to prepare the players minds and bodies to the point that in the contest, they hardly need to think about what they are doing, they can simply react and trust their trained minds and bodies to do what needs to be done at the right time. Being prepared eases our anxiety and helps us to be present and ready for the upcoming event. Now in my examples, the “events” were generally good things that people normally look forward to like having friends come over, performing in a musical, or playing a sport. But the context of this parable is servants preparing for their master to come home from a party, possibly late into the night. Is that something the servants are really excited about? So let’s ask the question, what are we preparing for?
What are we preparing for?
I think one can infer a great deal based on the actions of the employees or servants when the boss is away. (YouTube clip of office workers ready for golf when boss calls in sick.) Certainly I might want to question the quality of the worker who wants to bolt as soon as the boss is not around, but I think it’s important while we look at these verses to recognize the quality of the work and of the master. How many of you have had jobs that you just couldn’t stand? How many of you have had bosses you didn’t get along with? Now, how many have had the opposite: wonderful work, wonderful bosses? Doesn’t it totally change your outlook as an employee when those circumstances are so different? The parable that Jesus tells gives us a clear message about just the type of master that the servants are working for.
It makes me think of my time doing concrete work in Pennsylvania. We were pouring concrete on the second story of a warehouse that was still being built, so there were no walls just yet. I had to operate a machine that flattened and smoothed out the concrete as it was hardening and I was having a really difficult time getting this machine under control because the concrete was hardening faster than I could smooth it out, so as I was walking backwards along the edge of this second story building with no walls, the machine was jerking and kicking and doing its best to send me over the edge. I was embarrassed, but I couldn’t keep going. I told my boss, who had plenty of other things to worry about, that I was scared and couldn’t finish. Without hesitating he handed me his hand trowel and took over on the edging machine. I remember being extremely humbled and really impressed by his willingness to take over my role, which was pretty well below his pay grade. And I remember two things from that experience. 1. I worked my tail off to get stronger and more confident with that machine so that I could fulfill my role and not subject my boss to that again. 2. I was at ease at my job from then on because I knew that my boss was willing to help me when I just couldn’t do it on my own.
The people listening to Jesus back then may not have had such a positive experience of a master. But in Jesus’ parable the master is away at a party and the servants aren’t packing their golf bags. They also don’t seem to be nervous, just eagerly awaiting their master’s return. When the master gets home, this is where Jesus’ followers would really have their heads spinning, he gets himself ready to serve, he tells them to recline at the dinner table, and HE serves them. This is not the image of a master that many of Jesus’ followers were used to. But Jesus is saying that this is the master that they serve. And if this parable is speaking at all about the time when Jesus shall return and the Kingdom will be realized in its fullness, then the servants reclining around the table sharing the meal represents the fulfillment of the prophecies:
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
from all the earth. (Isaiah 25:6-8 NIV)
“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost. (Isaiah 55:1 NIV)
We too are serving the master who gave us these visions of his return and the glory of the Kingdom in which we will fully live. We have certainly gotten away from the urgency that the early church felt about Jesus’ return. We don’t look for Jesus arrival, but most of us can look around and see how much the world needs Jesus right now. I think we look for ways that Jesus can effect change in the world through the church, but the eschatological emphasis has waned. We have lost the eager anticipation of the servants at the window, it has gotten really late and we’re hungry, so we groggily have worked to prepare the very meal that Jesus wants to serve to us. We ought to eagerly anticipate Jesus’ arrival. We need to recognize that the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated through Jesus death and resurrection, but its fullness is coming; and what a kingdom is!
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and your dominion endures through all generations.
The Lord is trustworthy in all he promises
and faithful in all he does.
The Lord upholds all who fall
and lifts up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food at the proper time.
You open your hand
and satisfy the desires of every living thing. (Psalm 145:13-16)
What to prepare for in our context and how to do it:
To prepare ourselves for Jesus’ return, I have a few suggestions:
1. Read the prophet’s descriptions of Jesus’ return and the Kingdom of God coming in fullness, because they stir our imaginations and inspire hope. The words of the prophets and apocalyptic literature give us some amazing visions of what that time will look like. Read the passages or have them read to you while you close your eyes and marvel at the evocative imagery. Don’t read them for the details, read them the way they were intended, to inspire and comfort. Know what it will feel like when Jesus returns in majesty and we are praising Him. A friend of mine used to say, “I want Jesus to come back, just not quite yet.” I think he meant that he was enjoying his life and didn’t want any major changes. I can certainly appreciate that sentiment and think it myself a lot. But perhaps we would welcome the return of Christ if we had richer images and feelings about that event. Revelation 7 pulls together a few images from Isaiah:
15 Therefore, “they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
16 ‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’” (Rev. 7:15-17 NIV)
Revelation 21 gives us a fantastic image of everything being made new. Revelation 7:9 presents the image that our church has used as a foundation for our understanding of the Kingdom that we envision “on earth as it is in heaven”: “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”
2. Recognize that gathering worship is a preparation for Jesus’ return. Worship is the tangible way that we regularly follow Jesus command to “take up your cross and follow me.” We lay aside our schedules and the rest of “normal life” to offer ourselves fully to God. The church in Greek is ekklesia, meaning called-out ones. Christ has called each one of us out. Stanley Hauerwas says, “Gathering indicates that Christians are called from the world, from their homes, from their families, to be constituted into a new community capable of praising God.” So with the image from Revelation 7:9-10 in mind as the Kingdom of God coming in fullness, Hauerwas continues to say that “gathering is an eschatological act as it is the foretaste of the unity of the communion of the saints.” So not only should we immerse ourselves in the scriptures that give us a hope and a vision of the coming kingdom, we must recognize that in our gathering, we rehearse that vision, even if in a broken, incomplete manner.
3. Finally, as we are led by the vision of the master coming home and see Jesus coming in glory, let us also recognize the ways in which Jesus knocks on our door every day. Jesus provides another vision of his return and that is one of judgment. In Matthew we find Jesus highlighting all the ways in which he had already come and knocked on the doors of those who were faithful to him, and those who were not. “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:35-36) So as we prepare for the coming of our Lord in glory, remember that Jesus is at our doors in weakness, hunger, and poverty.
May we be like the servants who eagerly await the coming of their master. May we stay focused on the coming Jesus and be inspired and hopeful by the words of the prophets. May we practice for that wonderfully imagined Kingdom in our worship and in our interactions with all those around us. Amen.