Thanks to modern technology, I have 25 translations of the Holy Bible literally at my fingertips via a keyboard. This enables me to easily compare translations and select those I consider to be most appropriate for each occasion. I read the following from the New King James Version: “Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching.” The New Revised Standard Version says, “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes.” I read the NKJ version because even though servants in that culture may have been enslaved, Jesus is using a metaphor for us, and we are to serve God, but not as slaves, and this is a distinction worth noting. But, the NRSV describes the blessed servants as “alert,” rather than just “watching.” The word, “alert,” says a lot more about the Christians’ desired state of being than “watchful.”
So, this morning, I want to talk about us, you and me, as alert servants of God. Perhaps because of my experience in the Air Force many years ago, the meaning of the word “alert” embodies not only attention to what is happening, but a preparedness to respond quickly, appropriately and effectively. In the Air Force during the “cold war,” it meant being prepared to be ready for combat in a minimum of time. Thank God, the cold war remained cold. For us, being alert is especially challenging in that it may require that, in addition to heightened awareness, we make and implement appropriate decisions quickly.
Jesus, the master of the parable, uses interesting analogies in this scripture. His example is not difficult to understand. Jewish weddings were at night, and it would be difficult to predict how long it would be before the festivities ended and the bridegroom came home with his bride. The scripture indicates that the time of this arrival could vary from the middle of the night to near dawn. It was important that the staff should be prepared to serve the groom and his bride like royalty, serving them promptly and well.
But then Jesus deviates from the expected scenario and indicates that the faithful servants will be blessed. The master will be so pleased with their faithfulness that he will serve them. Commentaries suggest that this actually happened sometimes. This part of the analogy works because we know from experience that we often, even usually, experience God’s blessings even as we engage in his work. Jesus concludes this passage saying, “Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
As contemporary Christians, it is obviously correct, for us to take Jesus’ admonitions as reminders of the need to be prepared for the second coming of Christ. But, Jesus’ words are deserving of a broader interpretation, one that enhances the more narrow one. The parable of the uncertain time of arrival of the bridegroom is analogous with the unpredictability of the arrival of our many and varied opportunities to serve God and often others as Christians. Surely we all have opportunities, big and small, to promote God’s will and address the needs of others in Christian love. We frequently experience these opportunities unexpectedly. Our then district, now conference lay leader was told me of missing a scheduled event as she addressed the needs of a handicapped neighbor during a period of bad winter weather. Like her, we should be prepared, like the bridegroom’s servants, to act promptly and in the best tradition of our Christian faith. Our preparedness wants to be constant, uninterrupted. We go about with our waists girded and our lamps burning, seeking the opportunities to serve especially “the least of these.”
Jesus clearly makes the point that we don’t know when the “Son of Man” is coming and thus must be prepared for him at all times. “Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” In subsequent passages of scripture, Jesus elaborates on this point, relating a scenario of a hypothetical servant.
But if that servant says in his heart, ‘My master is delaying his coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and be drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. Luke 12:45-46
These and many other scriptures on the subject quote Jesus implying that because we cannot know when Christ will return, we must be prepared – in a state of good behavior all the time. Such scriptures include –
But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.” Matthew 24:36 (and two similar passages in Matthew).
In Mark 13:32, Jesus indicates that even he does not know the day and hour of his return. “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” He continues with yet another parable, “Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time is. It is like a man going to a far country, who left his house and gave authority to his servants, and to each his work, and commanded the doorkeeper to watch. Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming–in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning– lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping. And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch!” And there is our Gospel reading today from Luke. The message from these is consistent and unambiguous.
This Biblical threat, and it is a threat, that we may be caught unawares by the unpredictable return of Christ has always bothered me. I think it can easily be misunderstood to imply that God is playing some kind of “gotcha” game with us, threatening to catch us off guard. In addition to finding that uncharacteristic of God, this idea doesn’t work for several reasons.
- God never leaves us alone the way the bridegroom or master leaves his servants alone.
- We pray to a God the father, from whom no secrets are hid.
- Jesus, the son, has promised to be with us always until the end of the age.
- Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit will abide with us, will be in us, will be with us forever.
- So I reject the idea that Jesus’ admonitions mean he is trying to catch me unprepared, and I replace it with two others.
- He is telling us to be mindful of our accountability to God, lest we, like the farmer who took great satisfaction in his material wealth and the need to build new barns to contain it, should forget what God demands of us.
- Jesus is also discouraging us from procrastinating, from assuming that we will somehow get our act together at a future time before we will be held accountable.
- My response to Jesus’ admonitions is three fold:
- I must not be so distracted with other interests that I forget my accountability to God.
- I must not assume that reconciling with God is something that we can be sure we will have time to do in the future. It should be clear to mature adults, that such procrastination is foolish.
- God has not left us alone. God is pained by our sin and wants us to follow his will at all times.I don’t want to be alert to watching for God, lest he catch me momentarily unprepared. I want to be alert to -the wisdom that God offers those who would follow him. I want to be alert to God’s will, both generally and for my life and my decisions. I want to be alert to opportunities to serve God and my neighbor. And I want to be alert to my sins and shortcomings, Instances where I fail God.Amen
- If I can be alert in these ways, it will not bother me in the least that I cannot influence or know when my life will be required of me and when I will be judged.
- Being concerned that we might be caught at an inattentive moment is not the issue. We must remember accepting God’s wisdom and guidance and most importantly adhering to God’s will will provide us with a richer, more fulfilling, blessed life, even on this earth. This is another reason not to procrastinate. Why put off rewards and benefits of being a follower of Christ?