August 11, 2013
A guest lecturer for a class I was taking told a story about an Easter he spent when he was a student. He decided that he would spend Easter that year not going to church. He wanted to see what it would be like to spend Easter outside, in the world. Perhaps he would have some new insights into the resurrection if he didn’t darken the church doors that day.
While everyone else he knew was sitting a church pew singing and reading scripture and listening to sermons, he walked. While he was walking he looked down at the sidewalk and saw an ant moving erratically in front of him. The ant was zigzagging its way down the sidewalk. It moved quickly to the left one second, and then darted toward the right in the next. It seemed that it was trying to avoid something, and the professor telling this story realized that the ant was trying to avoid him. Whenever the man would lift his foot to take another step, the ant would quickly move away from his shadow. He tested his theory by stepping in different directions, lifting a foot higher, than lower. The ant never failed to seek an escape from the shadow of the man’s foot. My guest teacher understood that even if the ant couldn’t see him in the same way we see each other, it was aware of his presence. It was aware of the shadow his steps made. And it wanted to avoid that shadow at all costs. It was as though the ant recognized that the shadow could be dangerous. The shadow, the man’s foot could come down on top of it at any moment and crush it like, well, like an ant.
Because it was Easter and because this man was trying to understand God in a different way, he wondered if this is how we perceive God most of the time. We can’t see God, but it’s as if God is an enormous shadow always hovering above us. It’s God with a supernaturally gigantic foot that’s just waiting to stomp us out of existence. So we spend each day of our lives zigzagging. We’re here, just trying to live our lives, trying to get on with our daily grind, yet we’re also trying to avoid the divine foot that’s just above, ready to crush us. If we zigzag the wrong way we’re done.
At first glance these verses from Luke might seem to confirm this way of perceiving God. I know that when I read them in preparation for today, the words that stood out to me were “be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” “If the owner of the house had known at hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You must also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Reading these words I thought, “Oh good. Apocalyptic imagery. Another reminder that God will come like a thief in the night and if we’re not ready, if we’re not hyper vigilant and toeing the line than we’ll be crushed like an ant under a boot.” And I must admit that a tremor of dread ran through me, not just because I would have to find some way to preach these words, but because they make me afraid. Fear is my first response. At first glance, these are scary words. They heighten that dread, that foreboding that so many of us have about the coming of God into our lives. It’s not so much good news as it is the guy on the corner wearing a sandwich board, shouting, “The world is coming to an end!” It’s like the video games that Zach and his friends play – their characters in the games are in a state of constant battle, trying to outsmart, outwit the enemy and just stay alive. I’m lousy at those kinds of games because I get so panicked I can’t think fast enough and the enemy always blows me away. Envisioning God like this makes me panic too. Even though I’m not officially crushed yet, I worry that there will come a day when that divine boot comes crashing down on my head.
Not a very life affirming, joyful vision of God is it? It makes it challenging at best to worship a God that, in truth, we dread. God is the great punisher, the great destroyer, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll be afraid. You’ll be very afraid. To some that might sound a bit exaggerated, but that was the message I most often heard growing up.
But I prefaced all of this by saying “at first glance.” When I initially read these verses my eyes immediately landed on verse 35. The truth is, though, that the lesson doesn’t start at verse 35. It starts at verse 32. Verse 32 reads, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
My emotional response to Jesus’ words was fear, but Jesus begins with, “Do not be afraid.” He begins with promise. God’s intent, and indeed God’s pleasure, is in giving us the kingdom. God wants, desires, takes pleasure in giving us all that is good. Is the kingdom some geographical location? Is the kingdom something we can achieve through our own efforts? Is it a place we can reach if we manage to avoid the divine boot of death long enough? Or is it abundant life? Jesus announces early on that with him the kingdom of God is fulfilled. The Law, the words of the prophets, all the promises that God has made, the covenants God has entered into with God’s people – all of those are fulfilled in Jesus. The kingdom of God isn’t far off. It’s here. In their midst. In our midst. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
God’s intent is abundant life, relationship, community, goodness. This is the promise God has made and God has kept. So in light of the promise, the next words of Jesus take on a new layer of meaning. Sell your possessions and give alms. Does that mean that possessions are inherently bad? No. But do they get in the way of abundant life with God? Do they create a stumbling block that keeps you from being in relationship with God and with others? As we spoke of last week, do we find our treasures in what we create or do we find it in God? Where our treasure is, our heart is. In light of the promise of God’ goodness, what keeps us from finding our treasure in God?
In light of the promise, what does it mean that we should be dressed for action? What does it mean that we should be like those who wait for their master to come home from a wedding so the door can be opened as soon as the knock is heard? I doubt any of us are comfortable with the language of slavery. Slavery in Jesus’ time was as destructive as it was in our own country’s history, and as it is today. But there is a reversal here that may be overlooked or easily missed. When the master returns it is not to sit in tyrannical power over the slaves, but instead the master will have the slaves sit at the table. The master will don the apron and serve them.
In light of the promise, what does it mean that we must be ready as the owner of a house is ready for a thief in the night? Is it about being watchful for God’s vengeance? Or is it more about being watchful for God’s presence in unexpected places and in unexpected people? Is it about being afraid or is it about being open to God’s grace and love in new and surprising ways? Is it being watchful for God’s love to surprise us?
Recently I read an essay in The Christian Century by a young theological student. She found herself in a long layover in a major metropolitan airport, and being faced with a difficult decision in her life she decided to go to the airport chapel and pray. When she got there she found a group of Muslim men already praying, so out of respect she waited outside. However her need for prayer felt urgent, so she knelt outside the door of the chapel and began to pray there. At first she was self-conscious of the people walking by, but as the intensity of her prayer deepened she no longer thought about the others who might notice her. She must have looked troubled because a Sikh man who was walking by stopped and asked her if she was all right. His face showed concern not curiosity, and she was grateful for that concern. The men who were praying in the chapel left, so she went inside and began to pray once more. A few minutes later some women, also Muslim, entered the chapel to pray. One of them seeing her kneeling there came and draped a shawl over her shoulders. The student realized the woman may have just been covering her for modesty’s sake, but she took comfort in the caring gesture. As the time of her flight drew near, she paused her praying, left the chapel and returned to her gate. But she reflected on the people who had shown her care. Neither of them was Christian, but both had reached beyond the boundaries of their particular faith to show compassion to a stranger. The woman likened this to the story of the Good Samaritan, another parable from Luke’s gospel. The Samaritan should have been the least likely to help the man beaten and abandoned by the side of the road. But grace comes in unexpected ways and from unexpected people. God comes in unexpected ways and through unexpected people.
It seems to me that these words of Jesus aren’t meant to be a warning as much as they are to be a reminder. They are not about fear or dread at the coming of God, but being prepared for God to come in ways we don’t expect. These words aren’t just tests in a clever disguise. If we pass them, great, but if not, here comes God’s great boot. Jesus speaks them in light of God’s promise. That promise isn’t about dread but love. God’s promise is based on love. God’s promise is about abundant life, not in some far off time or in a faraway place, but now, here. So hear these words of Jesus not in spirit of fear and dread, but in a spirit of joy and wonder. Do not be afraid. God’s promise is about life and goodness and love. The good news is that God keeps God’s promises. Let all God’s children say, “Amen!”