Until Christ Returns …
A sermon preached by Lay Reader Annie Coley on 11 August 2019
Aim: to explore in this set of parables servant themes of faithfulness and readiness
Response: to be encouraged not to grow weary
Gen15:1-6, Hebs 11:1-3,8-16, Luke 12:32-40
One thing most people know about Jesus is that his favourite teaching method was to use parables. The word parable comes from the Greek word, parabole, ‘para’ meaning ‘to put’ and ‘ballo’ meaning alongside which together means ‘to put something alongside something else’, a comparison, or analogy.
Parables did not originate with Jesus – they were already established in the Greco-Roman world and used by the prophets of the Old Testament and other teachers throughout the Mediterranean. Jesus, however, took them to another level with vivid imagery, hyperbole and humour, evoking a reaction and teasing his listeners into reflection or to rethinking their beliefs. In Luke’s Gospel, 24 parables are recorded and in today’s reading we have three. All tell us something about the Kingdom of God, revealing truth about the sure and certain reign of Christ, and challenging us to live as citizens of that Kingdom, which is already present, but yet to be fully realised. As we go home thinking about these stories, as I hope we will, I wonder which will stick with us?
The first is really an expansion of the Parable of the Rich Man earlier in the chapter, who lived his life in the grip of the me-me monster and came to a sad and lonely end. Jesus encourages his “little flock”, in other words, those who put their trust in him, that they don’t need to be consumed with worry, fear or anxiety, because the heavenly Father is already pleased to be giving them all that is ultimately of value.
Here’s a story – one you won’t find in the Bible. I don’t know whether you’d call it a parable but it’s like one.
There was once a rich and selfish man whose entire life was about accumulating riches. And he was very rich. So rich that his gold overflowed his safe and stacked up in his back garden. He had no time for anything else, so busy was he protecting it, watching over it and adding to it. Once in a while he would bump into the local vicar, who would sometimes chat to him and urge him to consider his mortal soul. “Don’t worry about me, Vicar,” the man would say, “I’ll have a word with St Peter when the time comes. Every man has his price,” he would add, tapping the side of his nose.
Well, of course the day came, as come it must, when the man encountered St Peter at the pearly gates.” I’m afraid we don’t know you,” said St Peter, and the gates remained closed. The man took him aside. “Look,” he cajoled. “You can have all that if you open the gate like a good fellow.” St Peter followed the man’s gaze and looked down over the wall of heaven into the man’s back garden. There glinting in the sunshine he saw an enormous stack of gold. St Peter was puzzled. “What in heaven’s name,” he said, “would I want with a load of old paving slabs??”
The moral is that heaven’s values are very different from earth’s. We may chuckle at the idea that heaven’s streets are literally paved with gold but the picture is a vivid one and the truth is that all the material possessions people spend their lives accumulating are useless when the time comes to part with them. Jesus urges his followers instead to set their hearts on treasure that will last forever and never lose value. The love of God, his forgiveness and salvation, are priceless. The Kingdom, Jesus promises us, is God’s free gift and he delights to give it to us. It’s for all who put their trust in him, and it’s faith which will open the door for us, not our good deeds and certainly not our money. That gift of eternal life is something that you just can’t buy, so money and worldly possessions are of limited use and a blessing only in that we can use them to bless others. So the more we adjust our priorities to those of the Kingdom and put money in its proper place, the less we need to worry about thieves, moths or fluctuating stock markets. Faith in the promise of God that he has given his flock the Kingdom drives out fear.
The next parables consider two servant scenarios. In the first, the master of the house is out late. It’s a wedding feast and the carousing goes on long into the night. Even so, he will expect his servants to be up and ready for his return, their lamps burning, to open the door for him and let him in. Jesus’ first listeners must have been astounded and then delighted by what happens next in the story because quite unexpectedly the master shows he is so pleased with them that he puts on an apron and serves them with a midnight feast! What had they done to deserve such a privilege? Nothing, except to be alert and wakeful, ready to watch through the long night if they had to. If they had been found sleeping and neglectful, there would have been a very different outcome. What the master looked for and found was faithfulness, and he was well pleased.
The third parable in this set switches focus from the disposition of the servants to the nature of the Lord’s return. It’s rather alarming to compare his return to a burglar who slips in when you are least expecting it – no one wants to encounter a thief in the house in the dark. In fact if we knew when the break-in was going to occur, we wouldn’t let it happen. The point is well made: just as in the previous parable, the timing and circumstances of the Lord’s return are unknown. All the servants have to do is to remain wakeful and eager. Those who are letting things slip are warned about their complacency and challenged in their faithlessness.
As we muse on these stories, it’s not difficult to put ourselves somewhere in the picture: people who are waiting for the Lord’s return are not worried but trusting, not greedy but generous, not lazy but diligent. These are Kingdom values, and the measure of our authenticity as servants of God.
As exemplars of faith, the Patriarchs are held up by the writer to the Hebrews. They didn’t have what God had promised (if you have it you don’t need faith) but believed in his promises and lived faithfully in the light of the future, to be ready for it when it came. It makes, sense, doesn’t it? If we are going to Greece or Italy or Spain, it’s a good idea to start practising now so when we get there we can be assimilated into its language, culture and customs. Living according to Kingdom values might be countercultural, even alien, here and now, but there and then will be the norm.
It’s easy to lose heart and get fed up waiting. Jesus told lots of parables about staying faithful, because it would be dreadful if we were like the foolish bridesmaids who ran out of oil, or the lazy steward who let his talents rot, or the ones who fell asleep on the job or said, “He’s never coming – let’s do our own thing.” In a little while we shall emerge from church into a world going about its business, largely ignorant and uncaring of the reign of Christ. When we get home we’ll leaf through the Sunday papers, listen to the news and stress about how bad things are getting. Perhaps it’s precisely now that we need to stay alert. We do sometimes feel odd for going to church, out of step in our lifestyle choices, a bit silly and narrow-minded in some off the stands we take, tempted to ease off or give up. But God expects us to trust him and hang on in there. There will be times when we feel worn out, worn down, helpless and hopeless – which is precisely when we must do our utmost to encourage each other and not lose sight of all that God is pleased to give us. Amen.