August 12, 2007 - Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
The yellow gourd had a taste like none he had ever experienced before. C. S. Lewis writes that it was “so different from every other taste that it seemed mere pedantry to call it a taste at all. It was like the discovery of a whole new genus of pleasures, something unheard of… out of all reckoning… For one draft of this on earth wars would be fought and nations betrayed.”
Lewis was describing his hero Ransom’s first taste of fruit on Venus in his fantasy novel Perelandra. It was so incredibly good that Ransom’s first thought was to reach up and pick another. But something in the atmosphere of the planet seemed to tell him no, that he did not need it. A little later he has an encounter with another kind of tree bearing a globe which emits a shower of liquid which washes over him with an exquisite scent that completely refreshes and energizes him. He considers crashing headlong through a whole grove of the trees so as to experience this wonderful pleasure multiplied a hundred times. Once again, something tells him no.
Venus, Lewis’s Perelandra, is an unfallen world, a paradise where sin has not ruined either the inhabitants or nature. Ransom realizes that his natural reaction, to have something good over and over again, as much as possible, did not fit in that paradise. He wonders, “This itch to have things over again, as if life were a film that could be unrolled twice or even made to work backwards… was it possibly the root of all evil?”
Jesus addresses the itch Ransom felt in chapter 12 of Luke. He speaks to us about our desire to have things, good things, and gently says in our text for today in verse 32, “Do not be afraid little flock…” He’s warning us as He did earlier in the chapter not to worry, not to be afraid concerning what we may or may not have.
It’s so natural for us to want to keep on having the good things we enjoy, to store them up like the rich man in the parable last week, like Ransom reaching for another piece of fruit. On our trip to England five years ago I discovered a wonderful British candy bar, chocolate covered Turkish delight. Nothing like it is made here on this side of the Atlantic. Gooey, sweet red jelly, coated in Cadbury milk chocolate. It’s exquisite. So when Susan came home from Oxford this April, I had her bring me ten packages, forty little bars of this wonderful stuff. But it’s starting to run low. I’ve been worried when or how I will ever get more, but I recently got a line on it. I think it might be found at the World Market over by Valley River. I’ll be checking soon.
That all seems so innocent, so ordinary, the kind of thing we do all the time. We store up pleasures for ourselves, make sure we have enough of that coffee we really like, that perfect wine, that extra creamy yogurt, those really tender steaks. Or another pair of our favorite shoes, one more fishing rod, a spare driver in our golf bag, an extra battery for our cell phone. Just insuring we have those little things that keep life sweet.
Yet Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” Instead of all those things you feel you need and want so much, your Father wants to give you “the kingdom.” Let’s set aside what the kingdom is for a minute and ask why we might be afraid. What is Jesus telling us we don’t need to fear? We do not need to fear loss.
Because God is giving us His kingdom, we may do what Jesus says in verse 33, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” If we only desire the right things, loss is nothing to fear. We don’t need to be afraid of money that runs out, of jewelry which gets stolen, of cars that break down. If we choose, all that really matters will be kept safely in heaven for us. We can give all that other stuff away and be no poorer with respect to God.
Yet we are afraid. A missing wallet sends us into a panic. A broken air conditioner drives us crazy. Don’t even speak of losing your health or a loved one. We are afraid, because this earth is where our hearts are. That’s why Jesus went on to say in verse 34, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
We often get that well-known saying of Jesus backward. What we hear Him say is, “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be.” In other words, we think our first business is to get our hearts right, to love heaven more than earth, to want the kingdom of God more than we want Turkish delight. If you and I can only get our desires, our hearts, in order, then we’ll put our treasure safely into God’s keeping. But that’s not what Jesus said. That’s getting spiritual life out of order.
“Where your treasure is” comes first. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” We start to deal with our fear of loss, by putting our important stuff where it belongs, in God’s keeping rather than our own. Give the money away. Use the car to serve others. Spend our time helping someone. As I said from Augustine last week, store your food in the bellies of the poor, and it will be safer than in your cupboard at home. Don’t try to get your heart to heaven, then put your treasure there. Move your treasure to heaven, and your heart will be there soon.
In short, don’t try to make yourself feel generous so you can then give more away. Just start giving, and you will find yourself becoming generous. Our hearts will follow our stuff. Hearts are slow to change, but they will, if we keep leading them by what we do. We need to keep at it, keep practicing at doing what Jesus is trying to teach us is the currency of heaven: giving, serving, even losing.
So beginning at verse 35, Jesus teaches us to be ready. We’re to be ready for Him by practicing what He’s teaching. The parable here is a picture of servants left to watch over a home while their master is away. That image points to Jesus going away after His death and resurrection, but promising to come back again. Update it however you like. Office employees tending to business while the boss is out of town. Fast food restaurant clerks running the place while the manager is out. But I always think of my mother leaving us to practice the piano after school.
My sister and I struggled through two or three years of piano lessons. We were supposed to practice a half hour every day. Mom told us to do it when we got home from school and then she would be home soon. She expected to find one of us practicing when she arrived after work. So the two of us would work it out carefully. Set the music up on the piano, turned to the right page. Then play or read or watch television, but listen carefully for our mother’s car coming up the drive. When we heard it, we were ready. Quick! Put down the book! Turn off the TV! And one of us jump to the piano bench and start banging away, as if we’d been going at it all along.
I don’t think my mother was very often fooled by that kind of readiness, and neither will Jesus be. In verse 37, He pictures the servants so ready that when their master comes, “they can immediately open the door for him.” No “just a moment, we’ll be right there.” No trying quickly to hide the mess from a party. No frantic scurry to get things in order or set dinner on the table. They’re all set. They’re doing what they should have been all along. They are ready.
You and I are ready for Jesus when we’re doing what He’s been talking about here. Living our lives in service to others, letting go of what we have, placing our treasure in heaven. As I said last week, I am proud and pleased by the ways so many of our youth and adults have done just that in mission and service this past month. You were ready then, ready for Jesus.
We have a wonderful promise from our Master, if we are ready for Him. He said it twice here in these verses. “It will be good.” In verse 37, “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes.” In verse 38, “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready.” Literally it’s “Blessed.” Blessed will be the servants who are ready for their master. But I like the NIV’s translation, “It will be good.” When Jesus comes back, it will be good. It will be good, if we are ready.
Jesus tells us here just how it will be good. When He comes back, He tells us in verse 37, the roles are going to be reversed for His blessed servants. The master “will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.” Ponder that incredible picture for a moment. Instead of imagining how you and I will honor Jesus, bowing before Him, finding Him the best chair, bringing Him the most delicious food we can find, imagine Jesus doing those things for you. Just as He knelt and washed the disciples’ feet in John chapter 13, He promised to kneel down and serve you and me when He comes. It’s almost beyond thinking. We won’t serve. We will be served… by Jesus.
It’s beyond thinking, because you and I must admit that we are way too often incredibly bad servants. We are afraid to let go of what we have and give it to others. We are looking out for ourselves, not for each other. We are squabbling and bickering with our fellow servants. It’s almost too much to hope that Jesus will actually find us ready and watching when He comes, practicing what He’s taught us. About the best we might do is a frantic jump for the piano bench or a mad cleanup dash through the house while He stands waiting at the door.
No, we’re not ready for Jesus. At least I’m not. Looking for my candy bars. Worrying about how to take care of myself. Being afraid of what I might lose or miss out on. I’m not ready. Yet whenever God gives me grace, I would like to keep practicing, keep trying to learn those lessons Jesus is teaching me, teaching us all. And so I try. And I think you do too. We try to make a go of it, offering our efforts at giving and service and being the kind of people who will be unashamed to open the door for our Lord when He comes again.
Yet as odd as it sounds, being ready for Jesus means knowing and admitting how very much we are not ready. We cannot make ourselves ready by serving Jesus, because ultimately it all depends on Jesus serving us. Right with the lunches we pack for those in need, the tables we set under the bridge for the homeless, the service we offer, we see standing before us the Table of His Supper, His service to us. We can’t make ourselves right. Jesus died on the Cross and rose from the dead to make us right. We need to serve, but even more we need to be served.
This past week I heard a few lines from a long complicated poem by W. H. Auden. It’s called “The Sea and the Mirror,” and it’s a poetic development of themes from Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest.” As Alan Jacobs put it, Caliban, who has almost nothing to say in “The Tempest,” has lots to say in Auden’s poem. And part of what Caliban says is, I think, a perfect image for us, for the church.
Caliban invites us to picture “the greatest grandest opera rendered by a very provincial touring company indeed.” He says, “Our performance… which we were obliged, all of us, to go on with and sit through right to the final dissonant chord, has been so indescribably inexcusably awful.” He goes on:
…half the instruments were missing and the cottage piano which was filling out must have stood for too many years in some damp parlor, we floundered on from fiasco to fiasco, the schmaltz tenor never quite able at his big moments to get right up nor the ham bass right down, the stud contralto gargling through her maternal grief, the ravished coloratura trilling madly off-key and the re-united lovers half a bar apart…
Now it is over. No, we have not dreamt it. Here we really stand, down stage with red faces and no applause; no effect, however simple, no piece of business, however unimportant, came off; there was not a single aspect of our whole production, not even the huge stuffed bird of happiness, for which a kind word could, however patronizingly, be said.
That’s us. That’s me. At our best, in Jesus’ eyes it’s still the worst. We are not ready, we never will be. Nothing we do ever comes out quite right, quite good. We are sinners. That’s the Gospel truth. But both the Gospel and Caliban have something more to say.
The point is not our performance. The point is not our service. Jesus asks us to serve. He wants us to put on this incredibly bad performance of love and mission and service. He wants us to let go of this world and seek His kingdom. Yet He knows full well we will not succeed very well at all. Later on in Luke 17:10, Jesus tells us, “So you also, when you have done everything you were to told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants.’” And how much more, with our typically awful performance, must we say that. We are unworthy.
Yet Caliban says this:
Yet, at this very moment when we do at least see ourselves as we are… There is nothing to say… There is no way out… it is at this moment that for the first time in our lives we hear, not the sounds which, as born actors, we have hitherto condescended to use as an excellent vehicle for displaying our personalities and looks, but the real Word which is our only [reason for being].
It’s when we know how bad we are that Jesus is able to serve us best. It’s when our performance has disintegrated into shambles that the Master comes and has us listen to Him, has us hear His Word. We sit down as He takes over and serves up to us His own true and beautiful production of abundant life.
Caliban goes on to say that all our sin and shame and fear, all our “wish and no resolve” continue to haunt us, “only now… we are blessed by that Wholly Other Life… it is just here, among the ruins and the bones, that we may rejoice in the perfected Work which is not ours.”
That’s the promise and blessing of these verses here this morning, especially verse 37. “The perfected Work which is not ours.” The whole point of the Gospel of Grace is not that we serve, but that Jesus serves us, and will serve us for eternity. As in the hymn with which we began this morning,
Then he’ll call us home to heaven, at his table we’ll sit down.
Christ will gird himself and serve us with sweet manna all around.
So we go out to serve, not in the hope that we will do great and wonderful good, but simply in the hope of being ready, ready to acknowledge that all our service is imperfect and poor, and that we need to be served. We need that Work which is not ours. The perfect work and service of Jesus Christ. May you and I let go of this world and all it holds and be humbly ready for that amazing new world that is coming, where the Lord of all serves up joy forever. It will be good.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj