Sunday, August 22, 2010

August 22, 2010 - It is Necessary - Sermon for Back to School Sunday

Kids can really try your patience! The boy Jesus' relationship with his parents undergoes considerable strain in this story. Caught up in something he loves, he forgets about everything else! A little less endearing, he’s “fully human” all right. To anyone who has been around teens, this Jesus must be all too familiar. Our savior is beginning the life-long process of becoming his own person, separating from his parents, and figuring out for himself who he’s going to be when he grows up. And his attitude toward his parents appears downright insensitive.

Yet, this is all we have to go on. Luke is the only gospel writer to tell us anything about Jesus as a boy. In a sort of Biblical Home Alone, Jesus decides to stay in Jerusalem at the end of a family visit, and an entire day passes before his parents realize. It then takes them three days to find Jesus in the temple – three days has a certain significance, of course – but the family went to Jerusalem for the primary purpose of visiting the temple. Wouldn’t they search there first? And when they do find their child, he’s not frightened or apologetic. He certainly doesn’t behave the way a well-brought-up boy should behave, especially one who is the Son of God!

But what young person would not welcome the word that their parents “don't know everything”? Jesus, our example, certainly seems to be saying as much to his parents. But parents may also find comfort in knowing that there are others in their community of faith to look after their children when they seem lost.

Finally, there is what seems to be a happy ending. A child who once was lost and now is found. Who promises to obey his parents in the future. A child who strays, and who ends up in church of all places! When his parents find him, he reassures them – “didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house?” Perhaps this is a moment that any good pastor or children’s minister would be proud of! And for parents to think that our children might end up "lost" in church, again great comfort.

But all this leaves us wondering. Jesus is Jesus, right? We know who Jesus is. Why doesn’t Jesus know who he is? Mary and Joseph know who Jesus is. So why are they so surprised? Is this just a not so sweet story about a bratty kid or does it have some significance for us now?

This story is about identity, about Jesus beginning to figure out who he is and who he is called to be. And, like Jesus, we also have a call, or a purpose. As we journey through life, we ask, “what does God want me to do?” In this story, Jesus catches what might be the first glimpse of what God wants him to do, and it sets the stage for everything that is to follow.

We can imagine how this could have transpired. Picture Jesus accompanying his parents and their extended family to the big city for Passover, where they would worship in the main temple, just as they did every year. Jesus would have already studied the Torah, and as a 12-year-old, he’s fast approaching manhood and the opportunity to participate in more formal lessons. If he is one of the most promising students, he might even be chosen to study as a rabbi!

After the festivities, the women and young children begin to make their way slowly home, and when the men (who leave later because they travel faster) join them to camp at night, Mary and Joseph discover that their oldest son is not a part of either caravan. Frantic with worry, they search for three days. But far from being lost, Jesus is just starting to find himself.

Here he is, the carpenter’s son, the target of cruel jokes as neighbors whisper about his father marrying a visibly pregnant Mary. This boy from rural Nazareth on the cusp of manhood stands in THE temple. He peers inside and sees students not much older than himself seated at the feet of the rabbis. Perhaps he stops to listen. He overhears a rabbi’s question and thinks to himself, “I know the answer!” And his hand goes up, anxiously hoping that the teacher will call on him.

Soon, Jesus is in his element! He asks questions that amaze the esteemed teachers. His responses demonstrate an understanding well beyond his years.

In Luke's telling, the temple and it's resulting representation of the “faith” is central in Jesus' life. He is taken there as an infant to be presented. Simeoon and Anna both recognize and proclaim his destiny. Again in this story, the temple is a place where others recognize something in him that might be missed. Later the scribes and Pharisees will recognize the same thing even if their response is severely misdirected.

And, we might add, he is completely oblivious to his impact on Mom and Dad. Did he have a nagging sense that he should have told Mary where he was going? Maybe. Or maybe being in the temple just felt so right. Instead of being the boy who – in his hometown – felt just little bit out-of-place, Jesus was at home.

So when Mary and Joseph find their son, his response is not meant to imply “you’re not the boss of me” or to disrespect his parents at all. He simply states the obvious. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

“I must be in my Father’s house.”

It sounds like Jesus is simply telling his parents “you know where to find me.” There’s more to it than that. “In my Father’s house” is a curious translation from the Greek. More literally, the words mean “the things of the Father.” Others translate this as, “in my Father’s interests.” So Jesus is realizing, and articulating to his parents, “I must do God’s work.”

Must is already a strong word, but it is a translation of the Greek word dei, which more clearly means “it is necessary.” This is the first time that Jesus uses this word, and he will use it repeatedly to refer to an important actions.
“It is necessary that I be about my Father’s affairs.”
“It is necessary that I preach” (4:43)
“It is necessary that I go to Jerusalem” (13:33) he will say, shortly before his death.
“It is necessary that everything written about me must be fulfilled” (24:44) he will say, after his resurrection.

Anticipating the total dedication to the mission with which his Father has entrusted him, Jesus must! This temple story portrays the resulting necessities under which Jesus fulfills that mission from this early announcement of the necessity of being in his Father's house to the subsequent necessities of his ministry: preaching the kingdom of God, casting out demons and performing cures, and finally suffering may things, being killed, and being raised from the dead.

Jesus is saying nothing less than, “It is necessary that I do God’s work.”

For us, this isn’t a surprise. Of course it is necessary that Jesus do God’s work! We, like Mary and Joseph, know that Jesus is not an ordinary kid. Yet Mary and Joseph are astonished by these glimpses into Jesus’ abilities and knowledge. Why is this? His birth was foretold hundreds of years in advance. If that message was too subtle, what about the angel Gabriel? The shepherds? Mary listened to their amazing words, and she heard them call her son the Messiah, the Lord. Did Mary lose faith? Did she forget these promises? Dismiss them as youthful visions?

I don’t know, but everything in this story indicates that Jesus was treated like any other child. Although we know it was plausible that Jesus could get lost among the extended family of travelers, I can’t help but think that the mother of the Lord would be a little over-protective. Maybe Mary and Joseph began to feel in these moments that they really had lost control. “Is God going with you today or am I responsible for God?”

It is possible that when we ask, “Mary, did you know?” the answer is NO… She didn’t. She heard that her child would be the Son of the Most High, but what did that mean? Could she have joyfully nursed him and changed his diapers if she knew where his call to God’s work would lead?

We read that Mary treasured in her heart everything that was said. Did she keep them to herself, or did she pull those memories out as we would a baby book, leafing through prophecies and promises, and revealing them to Jesus? It seems like the answer, again, is no.

While it is anti-climatic that Jesus has to figure out his purpose in life just like everyone else, it’s part of being human. If God wanted a divine superhero, God would have dropped Jesus down from heaven as an adult, pre-programmed to do exactly what God needed. But that wasn’t God’s plan. God wanted Jesus to experience everything about being human, and so Jesus, like us, had to discern his call in life.

When I read this story, I think about the things that I must do. And how hard it is to feel this compulsion to do and be. The ways in which we each learned that it was necessary for us to do God’s work. It wasn’t until we looked back, that seemingly unimportant incidents were revealed as moments of truth. For some, teaching school is that type of must, a call to discipleship.

I think about my own parents and how they must have sense some call to teaching. It couldn't be that they showed up every day at those schools by accident. God-life just doesn't work that way!

God rarely communicates in a Mission Impossible Style message – a mysteriously delivered recording that announces, “your purpose in life, should you choose to accept it…” And demands that we make a choice before our mission self-destructs. No, God offers us glimpses of our purpose. Reveals as much as we are able to accept. Then, we figure it the rest along the journey. God asks us to choose to be a part of God’s work throughout our entire lives, even as they twist and turn and we grow and change. Perhaps we choose not to accept our call…at least right away…but it is still out there. Our purpose in life never self-destructs.

And how do we know when our work is God’s work? Jesus wasn’t a smarty pants kid in the temple, feeding his own ego – he was relishing his understanding of God because it confirmed his call to do God’s work. When he realized that his actions hurt his parents, he knew that, for the time being, he needed to return home, and obey them. His hour had not yet come.

Even after Jesus embraced his call to teach, heal and publicly do God’s work, he often withdrew from the crowds to be alone with God. To ask, “what next? What is necessary for me now? How can I best do your work?” In the wilderness, on the mountaintop, and in the garden, Jesus prayed. He asked God for guidance. He came to fully understand what was necessary, and to accept it. And we can do no less. Wherever we are, we pray. We ask God for guidance. We say, “How can I best do God’s work.” What is necessary for us?

Discipleship is hard work, as Jesus shows us in this story. This conflict between faith and family will continue for him. Jesus enlarges the family boundaries (he will do this again and again) but not without some stretch marks. He speaks sharply to his mother here, denies family connection elsewhere, and even suggests that the disciple must hate their father and mother! What happened to the 4th commandment? Honor your father and mother. But perhaps Torah takes precedent over family.

When I think about discipleship, I remember a few years ago when my sons decided to surprise for my birthday. I had planned to sleep in and take it easy but they crashed into our bedroom early that morning, demanding that I get up and go with them. It was necessary, or so they said, that that we go hiking. So we left and headed for the Smokies. As we entered the park, I noticed that there was a lot of traffic. But after all, it was a beautiful late spring day, the sun was shining and the temperature was about perfect. When we arrived at the parking area, I noticed that there were still several cars but with some searching we found a parking spot. As we hit the trailhead, I noticed that there were a few less people, not crowded by any stretch but still we had some companions. As we hiked I noticed that there were less and less people, until finally several miles in to the hike, we were all alone.

Discipleship is a hard must and often times we look around and wonder if we're the only ones. Some people like to drive by churches, still others park in the parking lot, but how many are willing to do the hard work of discipleship? Following the example of Jesus, we must be willing to make our following the priority of our lives. It is necessary. In the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

August 15, 2010 - Counting on the Master

Counting on the Master
Luke 16.1-9

Did Jesus just make up tales like the storytellers at the Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough on the first weekend of October *OR* were his stories taken from real life? Just a generation ago, the great Biblical scholar Jeremais (1) made the case that Jesus' stories...
1. Were taken from the life that people lived everyday: stories like the Parable of the Sower or Children in the Marketplace. They are true to life even if the details are made up.
2. Or, they were taken from specific events which would have been familiar to everyone. Remember when Jesus asked, "Who would build a house without counting the cost?" Everyone knew that actually had happened; they knew the family and passed by the unfinished house often.
My guess is that the Parable of the Dishonest Steward fits this second possibility. Something had happened in the neighborhood; everyone knew the story which involved people familiar to them. Jesus just used the familiar situation to teach us something about God.

One further note as we begin, I am very dependent in this Bible study today on the work of Dr. Kenneth Bailey, whom I met in the late '70's at a pastors' school in Spokane, Washington. Because he spent his career outside the U.S.A. at the Middle Eastern School of Theology in Beruit, Lebanon, we mainly know him through his writings (2).

The Parable of the Unjust Steward is one of the most difficult of all the parables. In his commentary on the Gospel according to Luke, C.C. Torrey said of this parable:

This passage brings before us a new Jesus, one who seems inclined to compromise with evil. He approves a program of canny self-interest, recommending to his disciples a standard of life which is generally recognized as inferior: "I say to you, gain friends by means of money." This is not the worst of it; he bases the teaching on the story of a shrewd scoundrel who feathered his own nest at the expense of the man who had trusted him, and then appears to say to his disciples, "Let this be your model!" (3)

This particular parable has been an embarrassment to the Christian movement from the time Luke first put his Gospel into written form. But, is it a poor choice of stories on Jesus' part? Or, could it be that we do not know the situation, which everyone hearing Jesus knew, and thus fail to see the point he was making? With Dr. Bailey's help, we will see the situation as Jesus' audience knew it. I believe it will give us a new appreciation for the parable and the great message which Jesus intended.

B. Now, let's consider two questions about the parable that we need to answer:
1. Is the master an honorable man, or is he a partner in crime with the dishonest steward?
2. Did the steward get himself into this situation by inflating the contracts with his master's debtors? Thus, is he now getting them to write the honest contracts he should have written in the first place?
The interpretation of the parable hinges on the answers to these questions. So, let's work on them one by one.

#1. Everything indicates that the master is an honest man. It appears that he is not part of the steward's dishonesty. If anything, he stands to lose from the steward's last minute maneuvering. Further, the steward is clearly described as "squandering his master's property." The master investigates and calls in the steward to account for his actions. Clearly, the master is an honest, and even an honorable man; the steward is and has been dishonest. Knowing that the steward has been dishonest, the master could have taken him to court for further punishment, but being an honorable man, he only dismisses him from his employment.
But, if the master is an honorable man, how could he commend the dishonest steward for his shrewdness? Well, ask yourself: Under what circumstances would you, as an honorable man or woman, be forced to commend the shrewdness of someone who had just taken you to the cleaners? Well, think about that as we continue our study.

#2. Remember that our second question asked: Did the steward get himself into this situation by inflating the contracts with his master's debtors? This one is hard to figure. Common thinking is that Middle Eastern landowners, who are often absentees, agreed with their agents on a fixed amount which they expect to receive from land rentals. The owners then allow the agents to inflate the bills beyond this amount to whatever the traffic will bear. This follows the same thinking we have assumed for the hated tax collectors like Zacchaeus.

If the steward inflated the debtors' contracts to make himself rich at their expense, then several additional points would also have to be true:
A. The master doesn't care what the community thinks about him; in other words, he is not an honorable man, and as a result they would not respect him.
B. The master does not care if the leading citizens of the community are badly cheated.
C. The steward is hated bitterly by all the renters for all the same reasons the tax collectors were hated. Restoration to their good graces would be almost impossible under any circumstances. If he is hated for cheating them, they will beat him to death if they ever get him down.
D. The master is just as cruel and dishonest as the steward turns out to be.

But, none of these assumptions fits the parable.
A. Someone in the community cared enough about the master and the community to tell the master that the steward was squandering his property. The master is clearly a part of the community and respected.
B. According to Middle Eastern custom, a dishonest steward has many ways to cheat, but all of these are under the table and off the record. The master's contracts with the debtors are public and in the open. Remember, everything the steward did at the last minute affected the official bills.
C. The steward is respected by the debtors enough that they do not question his authority to change their bills.
D. The debtors appeal to the master directly which suggests that he is not dishonest like the steward.

To sum it up: the cultural setting of the parable is that of a large farm with a manager who had authority to carry out the business of the farm. The debtors were most likely tenant farmers, who had agreed to pay a fixed amount of produce for their yearly rent. The steward may have been making extras "under the table," but these amounts were not reflected in the signed bills. The master was a man of noble character respected in the community who cared enough about the good operation of the farm to fire a wasteful manager. It appears that the bills were not the place of the steward's dishonesty; they were OK. With these relatively clear answers to our questions, we can look at the parable itself.

III. The parable:
A rich man had a steward and charges were brought to him that the steward was squandering his goods. So, the rich man called in the steward and asked, "What is this I hear about you? Turn in your records; you can no longer be steward."
And the steward says to himself, "What am I going to do? I am not strong enough to farm and ashamed to beg." Then, he had an idea. "I know what I'll do so that, when I am put out of my stewardship, they will receive me into their homes."
He called in one debtor and asked, "How much do you owe the master?" He replied, "A hundred measures of oil." The steward said, "Take your bill and write fifty."
He called in another debtor and asked, "How much do you owe the master," He replied, "A hundred measures of wheat." And he said to him, "Take your bill and write eighty."

I would just observe that all of this maneuvering only works because the debtors have no idea that the steward is about to be fired. They have to assume that he has the authority to do this or else they are just as dishonest as he is and this maneuver does not work. And the master has to know that he has not decisively and publicly fired the steward, or he could reject these modified bills. Speed is absolutely essential to the steward's maneuver.

Then, the master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness.

Then, Jesus seems to add the comment:
...for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

It appears from the parable that the master was a bit of a softy, and did not fire the steward on the spot. Instead, he gave him a bit of time to turn in the records. It does not matter whether it was just a short time or a long time; it was *enough time* for the steward to maneuver. This possibility is the major reason that when you fire someone one you make the firing as definite and immediate as you can to close off the possibility of doing anything like this.

At the same time, we see something about the master's character in this firing. He could have had the steward jailed for his dishonesty but he did not; the master is merciful. The master expects obedience and honesty; he will act in judgment on a disobedient servant. But he will show great mercy and generosity even to a dishonest servant. This is the kind of man the master is. The people who heard the parable from Jesus would have recognized this. And, as I suggested before, this parable may have been based on actual events that had recently taken place in the nearby community so that his listeners knew the names of all these people.

Now, the problem faced by the steward as he walks out of the master's presence is not just his next meal. He does not want to become someone's perpetual guest. What the steward needs is another job. But, who is going to hire him when everyone finds out that he has been dishonest with his long-time master? He needs to create a situation that will change his devastating public image.

[IMP:] Thus, the dishonest steward's plan is to risk everything on the quality of mercy he has already experienced from his master. If he fails, he will go to jail. If he succeeds, he will be a hero in the community and the master will let him off.

The key to this plan is that no one yet knows he is has lost his job. They will find out soon enough, so he has to act quickly. He summons the debtors; obviously, he still has the authority of the steward of the master's business or he could not do this. If the debtors have any way of knowing that there is any deception involved they will not cooperate. They would become co-conspirators and just as guilty as he is. They have to remain innocent. In this parable there is no criticism of the debtors; they are honest people.

For the debtors, these debt reductions come out of the blue; they are unexpected; they are generous. They are welcome as they would be for us. The steward thus achieves the position of a foreman who arranges a generous Christmas bonus for all the workers in the middle of August. The bonus is from the owner, but the foreman is praised for arranging it for everyone.

Now, think about what happens as these renters go back home to tell their families what has just happened. "Hey! Good news. The master has just cut the rent... for the year! The steward made all the arrangements." And by suppertime, the word has spread throughout the community of tenants who live and work this farm. "The master has cut the rent for everybody; isn't the master a great guy! It's going to be a good year!" People are out talking about it; dinner is going to be a feast; there might even be dancing after supper. And everyone agrees: "We have the most generous master anyone could want."

IV. Now, we can see the social situation in which the master now finds himself. He did not fire the steward decisively and allowed him room to maneuver. As a result, the whole community is convinced that this master is a good and generous man. His reputation for generosity has just set a new standard that is the envy of the county. He has been *had*, but what can he do?

1. If he runs through the streets telling everyone that it's all a mistake, that he failed to fire the steward decisively enough and allowed him time to pull this off, then he looks both tight-fisted and stupid.
2. If he keeps quiet and leaves the new bills alone, he is the hero to every family that works for him. People keep using words like "generous, kind, big-hearted" when they describe him. He likes this reputation.

A. But, think, too about the steward, who is clearly a scoundrel. How did he put his master into this awkward situation? Easy: he did it by counting on the character of his master. He knew, probably before this confrontation, that his master was merciful and kind. When his master did not jail or humiliate him immediately, he figured that the one thing he could count on was his master's good character. The dishonest steward knows that if his future depends entirely on his character or his reputation, then he is toast. So, he counts on the master's good character in the hope that the master's good character will be enough.

Think about it, when we come to stand accountable before God, should we bring the record of all our accomplishments, present them to the Almighty, and declare with confidence that God must surely be impressed? Or will we present ourselves to the Almighty and place our hopes on the character of God?

Remember Paul's words in Romans 5.8: "Jesus died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God's love toward us."

Remember in the great pastoral prayer in Isaiah 63 and 64, the prophet speaks to God for the people:
6 We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father;
we are the clay,
and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.

We dare to come before God, not because of our own righteousness, but because of God's righteousness and mercy. It other words, everything all depends on the character of God. Except for *this*, we cannot stand. Except for the mercy and kindness of God, we have no hope. In this parable, Jesus tells the story of a steward who risked everything on his master's character, and now invites us to risk everything on the character of God.

One final thought:
1. What do you think happened to the dishonest steward when he went back to stand before the master for the last time? Jesus leaves the story for us to finish.
2. What do you think will happen to you and me when we stand before God on the last day? Jesus also leaves our stories for us to finish.

Jeremais, Jehochim. The Parables of Jesus.
Bailey, Kenneth. Poet and Peasant, pp. 86ff
Torrey, C.C., Our Translated Gospels, New York: Harper, 1936, p. 59.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

August 8, 2010 - Impatient Watching

Impatient Watching
Luke 12.32-38

[SCRIPTURE - Luke 12:32-40 as edited by af]
32 "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 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. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
35 Let your loins be girded, and your lamps burning; 36 And be like servants that wait for their master to return from his wedding; that when he comes and knocks, they may open unto him immediately. 37 Blessed are those servants, whom the master, when he comes, shall find watching. Truly, I say unto you, that the master shall gird himself, and make the servants sit down to meat, and will come and serve them. 38 And if the master shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants.

A. To each of us come experiences and intersections where we must watch and wait. We wait for
+the answer,
+the verdict,
+or the outcome.
We wait
+for school to begin,
+for our wedding day,
+for the babies to be born.
+for the mail to arrive,
+for the airplane to bring someone special to the airport (1).

You might say that waiting is just part of life. Watching and waiting cannot be avoided.
1. As a culture, we seem to have little time for waiting of the sort held out in the Bible, waiting for promises whose telling plunges us deep into the wideness and mercy of God. Instead, we attend to promises of a much more limited and transient nature:
+Buy this cosmetic and you will be beautiful.
+Drive this model car and you will become powerful.
+Earn this degree or win that position and you will have fulfillment.
This not exactly waiting on God's promises; it is more like making a bargain with life.

2. Recently, I have learned to track the promises companies that sell on the internet make to me. I buy and look for the package tracking number; then get on the UPS website to watch the progress of my package across the country. I can literally watch the progress of the promises the vendor made. If we track it, are we really waiting on a promise?
Think about: as a culture we have short-circuited our own ability to articulate and dream out of the most fundamental longings of our hearts. The result is that we are poor-er.

B. You see, to wait, in the Biblical sense, is to feel suspended between WHAT HAS BEEN and WHAT WILL BE, to confront and affirm new meanings that take us beyond the familiar present.

1. But there is more. WAITING CHANGES US.
+The young woman who waits 9-months for her child to be born, is not the same woman on the day of the birth as she was the first time she imagined she would have a child one day. Over the time of waiting, she has become both physically and emotionally prepared to be a "mother."
+The young soldier who deploys to Iraq or Afghanistan after months of training and preparation is not the same young man or woman who walked into the recruiter's office months or years earlier. Once a civilian, she or he is a "soldier" now.

2. Jesus repeatedly calls on us to watch, to be ready. I believe that he means much more than merely, "Stay awake, you sleepyhead!" I believe that Jesus knew how our souls are shaped and prepared by the watching and the waiting time. So,
+we WATCH for Jesus to come again.
+We WAIT FOR FAITH to become the strong foundation of our lives.
+We HOPE to see the goodness of God.
And we are shaped by the waiting.

[I.] I want to focus on the parable which begins with v.35.
35 Let your loins be girded, and your lamps burning; 36 And be like servants that wait for their master to return from his wedding; that when he comes and knocks, they may open unto him immediately.

The language of this parable immediately throws us into images and social structures that are strange to us. So, let's dig into it; there are insights and a blessing here.
Jesus speaks to people who know what it is to be servants in ways that we do not. Imagine a household that is run by life-long servants – not just the lawn-care service or Merry Maids who swoop in to do their jobs and then zoom on to the next house. In Biblical culture, there were the wealthy; there were servants. To be a servant meant that your whole life was focused on doing the will and the commands of your master.

We talked with someone at Bible study the other night who had lived in cultures where there were household servants. He said that in most cases these servants were whole families who did everything around the house. This was no 9 - 5 job; they were on duty every waking moment. In return, you were expected to provide housing and food for everyone in the servant family. Your responsibility, as one who had such servants, was to provide a living for them as long as they lived. In these cultures there is no such thing as a pension; there is certainly no Social Security. He observed that if the master had to speak to a servant to get his or her attention, it meant that the servant was not doing the job. Their job was to be so focused on the needs and wishes of the master that they were already watching him and anticipating the next instruction. I can almost hear Jesus saying to his disciples: "Stand ready to be that kind of servants." "Stand ready, for as my disciples you are that kind of servants of mine."

Well, as you can already see, Jesus speaks out of the assumptions of a society that is very unfamiliar to us. The only people who are supposed to be this watchful are servers in a restaurant. Many of us have fumed when the waiter or waitress stays away too long; some of us have waited tables to get through college. Very few of us have worked for one family or one person intensely enough to know what this kind of servanthood is like.

This is one source of the discomfort that I have with this passage; I never think of myself being such a servant to a master. As Christians, we never event think of ourselves being such servants of Jesus. When we think of Jesus, we think of the Jesus who loves us as little children, who takes us on his knee and loves us. But, Jesus lived in culture that assumed the presence and maybe the likelihood of servants. Further, for the 12-disciples to follow Jesus meant that they were willing servants of Jesus. This is the reason Simon Peter was so shocked when Jesus knelt to wash his feet at the Last Supper. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

[TEXT] In the parable, Jesus says, "Imagine that you are the servant of another. The master has gone out to his wedding. You know that the master will be late; these things take time. Your job is to make sure the house is ready when he comes back accompanied by his new bride. Be that kind of servant.

"Gird up your loins," is the literal language of the parable. The words are strange to us. Basically, the words assume that the servant wears a simple, floor-length robe. This is probably easier for women to imagine, because it might be a simple, floor-length dress. You can move elegantly and with dignity in such a floor-length robe or dress, but you certainly cannot run or chase a child who just darted into the street.

Girding up your loins means lifting the hem of that floor-length robe or dress and tucking it into your belt. This frees up your legs so you can run – run to do a job or even run as a soldier into battle. "Gird up your loins."

The job of the servant is to have to house ready for the arrival of the master and new lady of the household. Because it is their wedding night, servants must get this arrival exactly right. There can be no goofing off, no sleeping, no inattention. Be that watchful.

[POINT] And the point for disciples is that as servants of the victorious Christ, we are also to be ready to welcome the returning Christ. Such waiting anticipates a crisis: you can rest assured that the coming of Christ to rule the earth in glory is going to change everything. And, such waiting shapes us, because waiting prepares us to live in a world ruled by the victorious Christ. The WAITING is our time to practice what it means to be Christ's persons. So, be waiting so you'll be ready.

III. Then, Jesus goes on to say something unexpected. You'll find it in v.37:
37 Blessed are those servants, whom the master, when he comes, shall find watching. Truly, I say unto you, that the master shall gird himself, and make the servants sit down to meat, and will come and serve them.

Our friend at Bible study said, "This is unheard of!" The master in such cultures is always the master; the servants are always the servants. You would never hear of the master and his new bride coming home from their wedding, taking off their wedding clothes and fixing a banquet for the servants who stayed at home to get the house ready. It just won't happen. When Jesus said this to his disciples, his words surely startled many who heard them.

Two insights:
A. First, this is Jesus who is telling this story. Remember at the Last Supper when Jesus took off his outer garment, wrapped himself in a towel, and knelt to wash his disciples' feet? Simon Peter said, "Lord, you will never wash my feet." That might have been Peter's job to do for Jesus, but it was never Jesus' job to do for Peter. But, there he was, kneeling in front of Simon Peter, smiling as he reaches for the fisherman's hairy leg, a leg which was covered with the filth of the road. Jesus is the master who serves his servants.
Remember the cross which Jesus did not deserve. He was the innocent messiah who went to the cross in the place of the guilty.
+Judas betrayed, but Jesus suffered for his betrayal.
+Simon Peter denied, and Jesus suffered alone.
+The world is destroyed by sin of every level and sort, while Jesus, the innocent Son of God, dies. He died that we might know the depth of his love.
Jesus is the master who serves his servants.

B. Second, Jesus is telling us that such servanthood is the character of anyone who wants to follow him. "The greatest among you must be servant of all." He was serious in this call. He was teaching us; he was commanding us. He is telling us that the waiting time while we wait for his return is the time to practice this sort of Christianity. It is not optional; it is not just for the super-spiritual; it is not for the extraordinary Christian. Such servanthood is the very character of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

C. Now, when Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, they assumed that he would be coming back in his Second Coming very soon. Maybe today, maybe by the end of the week. Well, 2000 years have passed. What does such waiting mean after so many years have passed?

I believe that watching for Christ's Second Coming shapes the way we live. Our ethics as Christians are not based on the length of the wait before the Lord comes. Rather, now our ethics are based on the confidence that the Lord will come (time indefinite), suddenly and with judgment. All these become the basis for regulating the Christian life which apparently will continue for present.

Instead of thinking that, because Christ is delayed, it does not matter how we live, we should be thinking, because Christ is delayed, it matters very much how we live. This is the time for practicing. This is the time to make the house ready for the bridegroom to come and run the place. Like soldiers getting ready to be deployed to serve our country on the other side of the world, let us use the time to be ready when our orders come.

There is nothing so fatal as to feel that have plenty of time before the Master comes.

The Big Devil held a conference with all the little devils to map out their strategy. "What can we tell the people in East Tennessee to get them to come down to Hell with us?"
The first devil said, "Tell them there is no God." And the Big Devil said, "Nah, that won't work, God spent a lot of time making sure those beautiful mountains would lift their spirits with every sunrise. They know there is a God."
The second little devil said, "Tell them there is no sin." And the Big Devil said, "That won't work; people see the news every night. They see evidence of sin everyday."
The third little devil raised his hand and said, "Ah, I have it. Tell them there is no hurry." And all the other devils howled with glee, for this would surely work (2).

IV. I was talking with an older pastor about this passage one day many years ago. I have never been very comfortable with this parable. So, I asked him what it means to us. He said without hesitation: "It means that we are finally accountable." Then, he went on to say that God is gracious and merciful. God is patient with us and with the world. But... (the older pastor waited until I had given him my full attention), this parable is warning that there is finally an accounting, there is surely a judgment.

As Jesus said:
37 Blessed are those servants, whom the master, when he comes, shall find watching. Truly, I say unto you, that the master shall gird himself, and make the servants sit down to meat, and will come and serve them. 38 And if the master shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants.

1. Based on Shelby, Donald. The Unsettling Season, published in Alive Now!, N/D 1994, pp. 19ff.
2. Based on a story that comes, as I recall, from C. S. Lewis' book, The Screwtape Letters.