Always watchful…and willing
August 11, 2019
Scripture: Luke 12:35-40
Today’s reading, from Luke’s gospel is one of those passages that seems fairly straight forward at first. Upon closer examination however it proves to yield much more to us. The actual language of the text is a bit tied into conventions and customs of the time and we need to open those up some in order to appreciate what Jesus was trying to teach his followers.
“Be dressed for action” is translated variously as “Gird your loins” or “Keep your aprons on”…however it literally means to pull up one’s long outer robe and to tuck it into the sash or belt around one’s waist in order to allow for greater flexibility of movement…to allow one to move quickly and to be able to respond in the moment. Not so unlike, I suppose, the actions of many youth today who, as a result of wearing their pants so low down, that when they need to run, have to reach down and hike them up with one hand, holding them so while they sort of awkwardly run,…but anyway…this passage starts out our theme of watchfulness with this initial call to be prepared for action both mentally and physically.
From there it moves quickly into wedding imagery of the first century picking up on the tradition of how a groom goes over to the house of the bride in order to be married. The groom’s servants stay behind in the groom’s household waiting for his return when he will carry his bride over the threshold of his house and into their new home together after which there is great rejoicing and celebration. Not knowing when the groom is expected back, the servants are charged with keeping the lamps lit and the house in all readiness for the banquet to follow. “Blessed are those servants the master finds alert when the master comes”, says Jesus. Blessed are we, if we live in a state of constant readiness and willingness, able at once to respond to that knock on the door of our faithfulness.
Here the parable picks up an interesting, but such God-like reversal of custom as Jesus shares that in fact the returning master is so pleased at finding his house in order and ready for him that he himself pulls up his robes, tucks them in his sash, and serves his servants the banquet that was intended for him. At this point Jesus extends the call a bit saying that even into the wee hours of the morning we may be called…that in fact, God’s needs for our participation and faithfulness may fall outside the bounds of polite custom, routine, or comfort. Even in the middle of the night, or even as late as the dawn the call may go out for us to witness and share the blessing of God’s love.
After this, in verses 39 and 40, Jesus moves on to what seems like a bit of a warning saying that our readiness to respond should always be present…that there is no excuse really to deny the love of God to another in need regardless of how much it may seem to put us out at the time. Obviously if anyone of us today knew Jesus might show up and ask something of us at a particular time, we would surely be very ready. However, Jesus may not always be so recognizable when he comes to us in a form or manner in which we did not expect…perhaps dressed as someone we might not usually associate with or care to assist…or was someone we would not think our Lord would readily associate with. “If we knew when he was coming”, the passage says, “then we would be prepared”, if we were watchful, then we would surely respond faithfully. However, the passage ends with the reminder that our Lord comes at an unexpected hour!
So it seems that ‘faithful living’ might best be described as a fully engaged lifestyle, as awake and alert and ready to respond when, where, and for whomever it is needed. So, we are called to be watchful for the master is coming. But is there any way we might tell when that will be?
Often, this is as far as the interpretation of this passage goes. Often it ends here with an injunction to ‘wake up, to be ready, and to do what you can for now’. ‘For some day, one day, we will truly be graced with the coming of the Master’. ‘In fact, Jesus himself will come and we need to have our lamps lit, the house cleaned and spotless, and the banquet table laid out in all finery and abundance’. And this is the way many Christians understand how it is that we are supposed to live out our faith lives as watchful and ready servants. In fact, if I wanted to, I could end this reflection right here and send you all home feeling that your understanding has been affirmed and that you now know how to structure your daily faith response just a bit more clearly.
However, you might suspect, that I am not going to do that. I am not going to stop just when you might be feeling a little more comfortable, just when you have me figured out for today. No, I think there is much more to this passage we need to consider in order to zero in on what Jesus was actually saying and preparing his followers for that day.
Instead of seeing this passage as a comfortable, although a bit challenging call to readiness and willingness, in anticipation of a second visitation from Christ, I would like to see if we can back it up a bit into the present moment, to see if there is more being asked of us other than ‘faithful waiting’ for some promised day that by some accounts was promised to occur almost 2000 years ago. Is Jesus really saying here, “Be good until I get back”, or is there more to his words, more to the biblical narrative, more that might make sense of Jesus’ oft-repeated claim that the Kingdom of God was already upon us, already at hand. Is our watchfulness and faithful waiting solely intended to keep us awake until Jesus comes back to earth, or is it more of an ongoing directive intended to direct our daily life as followers of Jesus? Is there really a “Second Coming” we should be expecting or has Jesus already come and we missed it? I think this is the real question for today for it has so much more bearing on how we are called to live, act, and engage ourselves in life here and now if in fact the answer to the latter part of this question even comes close to being answered in the affirmative. If the supposedly promised ‘Second Coming already happened…what would that mean to us here and now?
Now surely there is no shortage of those who would challenge me and disagree deeply with my even asking this question, but I think it has merit as well as perhaps a perspective that may lead us further on in our faith journey as well as closer to the call Jesus is still issuing to followers today. Walk with me a moment if you will as we look more closely at what our scripture just may also be saying.
What we know of as the ‘Second Coming of Christ’ is the result of a system of thought that was developed in the 1830’s by a denomination of the Christian faith called the Plymouth Brethren. They invented a view of history that came to be known as ‘dispensationalism’, in which human history was broken up into eras or time periods of God’s involvement with humanity known as ‘dispensations’. These ‘eras’ were taken from a close and fully literal reading of the Bible and included several distinct periods of time beginning with the past/present and stretching forward unto what they believed was the end of time. They surmised from their interpretation that there would be a time of preparation before the great tribulation and trial, then a time of Rapture when a chosen few would be spirited away from earth to safety with God (not including children of saved parents by the way), and then followed by a time of great trial and global conflict culminating in the second arrival of Christ on earth and an massive time of warring and destruction that would see some of humanity saved and others destroyed and sent to hell in an apocalypse that would annihilate all of creation once and for all.
This system of thought and radical belief gained many followers over the past 175 years or so until it came to be pretty much accepted as orthodox Christian doctrine by many within the faith. However, interestingly enough, this whole idea of a Second Coming is not supported by the biblical narrative at all. There simply is no mention of a ‘Second Coming’ in the bible.
The ideas gathered into this belief system by the Plymouth Brethren were taken from the scriptures to be sure, however their literal reading of the text and interpretation of one key Greek word in particular lead them to go off in a direction that I think may have missed the point of what Jesus was actually trying to convey.
Those who would argue against this, point out that there is in fact a Greek word that means ‘Second Coming’, and that this word is ‘parousia’. Parousia actually is formed by adding the prefix ‘para’ which means ‘alongside of’ to the root word ‘ousia’ which means ‘substance or being’…in effect saying ‘being alongside’, a word most commonly translated as ‘presence’. This was the word that was used by the Brethren in coming up with their theory of a Second Coming…they heard Jesus say that he would draw alongside of them and that his presence would be made manifest to them. They then decided that that promise was for some time in the future, some future time of God’s dealings with humankind, some future and not yet seen era or “Dispensation”. Which I suppose is not all that much of a stretch unless there is nothing else in the rest of the Bible to support such a radical view of history…which does in fact seem to be the case.
And more importantly, if we are brave enough even to consider this notion that there may in fact not be a ‘Second Coming’ sometime in the future then perhaps we also should consider what these type of belief systems have done and continue to do to influence and shape not only religious understanding and faith guidance but government policy that has been shaped by this religious understanding as well. In other words, if we allow for a moment that there may be something different being said here, then a history of human actions that has been based and guided by those previously incorrect assumptions may need to be looked at as well…and not just in our own nation by any means!
There are in fact many views and understandings that are harmful and unjust that have been founded upon the notion of an imminent arrival of Christ back here on earth. As Brian McLaren points out in his book, A New Kind of Christianity, “If the world is about to end, why care for the environment…Why worry about climate change or peak oil? Who gives a rip for endangered species or sustainable economies or global poverty if God is planning to incinerate the whole planet soon anyway? If the bible predicts the rebuilding of the Jewish temple…why care about Muslim claims on the Temple Mount real estate? Why care about justice for non-Jews in Israel at all – after all, isn’t it their own fault for being on land God predicts will be returned in full to the Jews in the last days? If God has predetermined that the world will get worse and worse until it ends in a cosmic mega-conflict between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, why waste energy on peacemaking, diplomacy, or interreligious dialog?”
But…and it’s a big but…if those understandings of the will and purposes of our God of love are not actually what the bible is saying…then what is actually meant by ‘parousia’…what was Jesus saying to his followers and how might it apply to us and shape our understanding now some two thousand years later? What does our scripture passage tell us about today, what does it mean, and how is it to be heard in light of Jesus’ promise to truly ‘be alongside’ of us?
To go there we need to consider another related but different idea; the idea that history may be something different than we usually think. That instead of history being the arc of time as we live it out into the future with its direction determined solely by our decisions and our human actions, perhaps history is being called into reality, called forth into being by God who resides simultaneously in the past, present, and future. That history is being called into being by our God who stands out in front of us in time and beckons each of us to bring God’s good will and intentions into being, into experienced reality through the faithful living out of our lives. Is it possible to consider that it may be more biblically accurate to view history as something that unfolds in front of us at the beckoning of God? Is it possible that God is drawing all of creation ever nearer and closer to the fulfillment of his day of love and justice…as though calling us from the future, to live lives that make the best possible outcome for all of humanity as well as the one day prophesied final and complete triumph of justice and love over oppression and exploitation?
Are we, and is all of Creation an incomplete story with our God as an author who is not afraid to share the final draft with many other creative hearts and minds? I think perhaps this is the case…
If this is a possibility, then perhaps the ‘drawing alongside’, the ‘being present’, the ‘Parousia’ of our Lord already came about in the gift and giving of the Holy Spirit by which we all now have resident within us and most surely alongside of us the living, vibrant presence of God. And if this might be true…then the idea of being called to ‘watchfulness’ may gain new clarity as well as urgency for all who claim to follow our Lord Jesus.
Let us hear again the words we started with, this time however with these other possible ideas in mind…
“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit…may mean be ready and waiting at all times to respond to the inner whisper of the Spirit within…fully flexible and unafraid to take on even the most challenging of requests to share the divine love that is within you…
… be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. This may seek to point out the incredible blessings that await all who enter into willing partnership with our Lord of love and mercy…and that readiness to answer ‘Yes my Lord’ will give great joy and peace to all who wait…
Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. In this partnership with the Lord we will be filled from head to toe with gratitude and deep humility as our Lord himself continues to teach us by example…as he calls us to serve others in the same manner and to the same extent as he continues to cherish and to serve each one of us. As he stooped down to wash our feet and refreshed us unto newness of purpose and resolve, this calls us also to start each day ready, watchful, and willing to do the same for others.
If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. This is a reminder that following after our Lord knows not the imagined hassle of time or schedule, only the moment’s need and purpose…let us always be ready to share the treasure we have been given, for it is only ours to give anyway.
“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” This, the second part of today’s reading calls us to be careful not to miss out on the blessings that are ours when we participate in the ongoing story of our faith. If we are not ready. if we do not answer the call it does not stop God, it just stops our ability to participate at that time…be watchful or you may miss an opportunity to be a part of something wonderful. And though at times we may hesitate, or turn away in fatigue, let us never fail to keep an ear or an eye turned towards the Spirit within that we might never miss an opportunity to be a blessing for others and a blessed vessel in return.
‘Watchfulness’, truly is to be our way of being, as though we anticipate a word or a call from the Spirit at any moment to live as though our own life story is open and available for the Holy Spirit to see, and to make use of. ‘Watchfulness’ involves all aspects of our lives including trusting implicitly in God and in God’s ability to keep and to guide us. It also requires knowing and loving ourselves and keeping current with our need to ask for and to receive forgiveness through the discipline of prayer.
Today’s scripture is not about watching and waiting for some cataclysmic event or for the end of time, or some notion of a return of Jesus as it has so often been often interpreted. That reading of these verses not only to sells the message short, but also serves to distance ourselves from the very real responsibility we have been given as followers of the Lord of Love…responsibility to reach out and touch another, and another, and another with hope, grace, and merciful compassion. ‘Watchfulness’ is all about recognizing that we have been given an opportunity here and now to actively participate in bringing about God’s desired outcome and fullness of goodness and grace for all of Creation. Let us all hasten to the task…