Keep those lamps lit

Keep those lamps lit

A sermon on Luke 12:32-40

Here we are in the middle of the summer, on a lovely sunny August evening, and the lectionary drops on our laps a gospel reading that is really more suited to Advent. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit” and “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour”; these are the sort of words that appear in the readings for the first couple of weeks of that season, reminding us that Advent is not narrowly about getting ready for Christmas, but rather for the culmination of all of time and history in and through Christ’s return. That’s the stuff I’ll be working with when I preach those early weeks of Advent… not that there’s anything wrong with hearing this sort of a challenge at any time over the course of the year.

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Just a bit of context as to where these words are situated in Luke’s narrative. The material that comes directly before this passage is all about the nature of priorities, specifically wealth and possessions. That includes the parable of the Rich Fool, which we read last Sunday and which ends with Jesus saying, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.” Rich toward God; such an evocative phrase. That section also includes those lines, “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. “(12:27) So given that, as today’s reading opens you can really see the through-line:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“[W]here your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” How you manage the things of life and where you place your priorities are a reflection of your heart. More than a reflection, actually, because Jesus seems to be saying that how you set and manage your priorities will actually shape your heart, much as it did the unfortunate character in the parable of the rich fool. So if your priority is your bank balance, your desire to have a “successful” career, your appearance and expensive clothing, whatever… well, Jesus is saying here, that will actually shape your heart. And guess what? None of those things can possibly last. That’s what he’s saying when he talks about making purses that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. Those other things that can so consume us are in the end going to look like a moth-eaten blanket if that’s all we’ve been living for.

And then the transition is made into these teachings about readiness and watchfulness. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 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.” In his comments on this passage, Erick Thompson makes a very important and helpful observation; that this teaching is primarily about vocation, about the nature of being a disciple of this Jesus. As Thompson notes, this isn’t a simplistic mandate to “be prepared and you will be saved”—you know, like have your life in order and your spiritual ducks all lined up in near row, lest Christ appears and finds you somehow unfit or unacceptable for the kingdom. No, this isn’t that fear-inducing theology of the Left Behind books and movies, like you better be ready, or else…

“Instead,” Thompson comments, “the idea here is to be ready so that when God calls you to action, you seize the opportunity and spread the good news. Being alert and being ready are like potential energy, ready to be turned into kinetic energy when prompted.” It is a readiness to act on our vocations as disciples, and to be prepared always to welcome God’s continuing in-breaking into our world, our lives. There is no doubt that Jesus teaches that this will come in an ultimate and culminating way, but in the context of everything else he teaches in the gospels it is quite clear that in the meantime—and we do live in the “meantime”—disciples must always be ready to live our faith now; must always be awake and alert and watchful and ready to move as gospel people.

What I find really striking in his image of the slaves waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet is how the master is shown responding to his slaves. He’s been out at this wedding feast, and he’s likely to be late. The way Jesus presents it is that the maser may well be out until the middle of the night, or maybe even nearer to dawn if that banquet is particularly festive. The disciples quite probably pictured one rather tired master, ready for a little pampering from his slaves followed by a long luxurious sleep, but that’s not the way Jesus unfolds his image. “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes.” Okay, they’ve stayed true to their responsibilities of being watchful, keeping the house secure, and unlocking the gate when the boss gets home. But then this: “truly I tell you, he—the master—will fasten his belt and have them—the slaves—sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.” He will come and serve them… this is of course a complete reversal of the master/slave order of things.

The great good luck of these slaves, comments Robert Capon in his inimitable style,

Their great good luck is that he will come home in a hilarious mood. He will not come with sober assessments of past performances or with grim orders for future exertions; rather he will come with a song in his tipsy heart, a chilled bottle of Dom Perignon in each tail of his coat, and a breakfast to end all breakfasts in his hands… We too, then, are blessed in the risen Jesus, for he comes to us from his nuptials in death, and asks only that we wait in faith for him. He will knock at the door of our own death, and he will come in and throw us a party.

 

Now consider the words with which Jesus opens these teachings: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Do not be afraid, which is such a key phrase in the bible. It appears again and again through the torah, the psalms, and the prophets, and then in the gospels it surfaces at these extraordinarily key moments. It is spoken by the angel to Mary when she is told she will bear this child, and then to Joseph when he’s thinking that he should just call of the betrothal and get on with his life. Again and again we find Jesus speaking these words to his disciples, and when the women encounter him resurrected from the grave, those are again his words. “Do not be afraid,” don’t get bound up in fear and anxiety, don’t cripple yourself in shame over what a mess you’ve made of things, because it is actually God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. The call to wakefulness and readiness is in the end about getting ready to welcome the party that God in Christ has been planning to throw for us all along.

In the meantime, live like you believe that. Be as abundant in your generosity, hospitality, willingness to forgive, and gracious party spirit as is Christ himself. Because really, in faith and under the claim of grace, there is nothing to fear.

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