Monday, August 09, 2010

Your Father's Good Pleasure: Sermon on Luke 12:32-40

We have entered into the portion of Luke’s gospel which some have titled, “Readiness for the Coming Judgment.” I need to confess to you right here and right now, that this particular gospel theme is one I have very hard time with. In fact, I hate this stuff—this “the-world-is-ending-make-sure-you’re-ready!” stuff. I think it is the source of some truly bad theology, based on fear, and I don’t believe a fear-based faith is a mature faith.

Still. For all my misgivings on the theme of “Apocalypse Soon,” I find great hope in the very first line of the passage: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” [Luke 12:32]. So I propose this: we will work our way through this passage together, and while we do, we will commit to keeping that promise at the forefront of all our reflections. Do not be afraid. It is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

Let’s start with a bit of a refresher as to the context. Where is Jesus, anyway? To whom is he speaking? What is their life like? Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem. This marks a great turning point in the gospel; once Jesus is heading to Jerusalem, the shadow of the cross looms over absolutely everything that takes place. So the first important piece of context for what’s happening is this: Jesus is looking death squarely in the eye. Most of us have a scenario we can play out for ourselves that goes something like this: “If I found I had only two months to live, here’s what I would do.” Insert “bucket list” here. Jesus is living that scenario. He knows the end of his life, the end of his ministry is approaching. He knows it will be violent, and he knows he will be at the mercy of a brutal empire that makes quick work of anyone who does the kind of thing Jesus does: inviting the people to an alternative allegiance, anything or anyone that might challenge their loyalty to Rome. Teaching people to love God, preparing people for God’s reign of justice and peace falls squarely in this category of “crime.”

Do not be afraid little flock, it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

On his journey Jesus speaks to many people—to Jews and Gentiles, to students of the law and Pharisees, to his disciples and friends, women and men. Here he is speaking to a crowd that Luke estimates to be in the thousands—Jesus has developed such a following that the people are trampling on one another to get close to him and to hear the things he has to say. He’s a rock star. And we need to be clear: though the crowd may well contain a wealthy landowner here and a scribe there, the “crowd” generally consists of the peasants, the landless, those living at or below subsistence level. Jesus is speaking to the people at the margins. Jesus is speaking to the poor.

Jesus has been stirring things up with his criticism of religious leaders and his urging people not to fear the empire—“Do not fear those who kill the body,” he says, in the face of this own death. He is preaching a radical reliance on the Holy Spirit—so radical, he even has harsh words for someone who does what most of us would think of as a pretty sensible idea. Remember the parable we read two weeks ago? About the rich man who wanted to build larger barns to store his grain? Jesus roundly condemns him as missing the mark entirely, trying to be rich according to the standards of the world rather than having a rich and deep and living relationship with God. Today’s passage covers some of that same territory:

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. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. ~Luke 12:33-34

Jesus is saying, ‘Keep nothing. Nothing I tell you! In the end, “things” don’t matter.’ Life does not consist of an abundance of things. This is Jesus in the last weeks of his life. This is Jesus, responding to the urgency of his impending death with urgent words for anyone who has ears to listen. And they are words that hit us right where we live, we who have health insurance premiums and rent and mortgages and credit card bills and car loans. I have this image of Jesus urging us to simply lighten up. Let go of the loads that weigh us down, whether those loads are our possessions or our worries. This prospect of lightness causes us unease. Who are we without these things that root and ground us, that identify us to ourselves? It unnerves us.

Do not be afraid, friends, it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

Abruptly, the tone of the passage shifts. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit,” Jesus tells us. Or, as the bumper sticker says, “Jesus is coming: Look Busy!” Jesus tells a parable:

…[B]e like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. ~Luke 12:35-37

Jesus is talking about a scenario that could easily reflect the reality of his listeners: he is talking to servants. In Jesus’ day, the distribution of wealth was even more skewed than it is today—the rich were even richer (if you can imagine), the poor were even poorer. And the belief was that the truly poor and marginalized could not have access to even the most basic needs unless they were somehow attached to a person of wealth—as servants, tenant farmers, etc. The poor depended on this “patron” to ensure they received enough goods to survive.

Jesus is speaking about loyalty to the patron that goes beyond normal servitude—alertness, anticipating the patron’s needs, the willingness to stay up all night until the patron shows up, tipsy from the wedding feast. And then—the most wonderful reversal takes place, because, of course, this is no ordinary “master.” We are talking about the kingdom of heaven here. The master rewards this alert attentiveness by putting on an apron and serving the servants. And we have to wonder, what kind of “master” serves the servants? The kind who would die for them? Would this ever really happen to a servant, someone listening in the crowd? Is the kingdom of heaven really beginning to break through?

Do not be afraid, friends, it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

And Jesus throws yet one more parable—just a single line—into the mix: “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into” [Luke 12:39]. And here is the genius—and the humor—of Jesus, the Teacher. Just when the crowd is starting to get more relaxed, following a story of the dizzying prospect of the servants being served by their master—Jesus turns the tables again. Notice, he never tells stories allegorically—there are no fixed identities, no dependable interpretations. We may have thought the master was God in the last parable. Now it appears the Son of Man is… a thief? The one who comes in the middle of the night? The one who breaks into the house?

Do not be afraid, it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

The “Son of Man” is one of those multi-layered terms whose meaning can be elusive. It can be found in the Hebrew Scriptures, where its earliest meaning seems to be “the mortal one,” or “the human one.” In the book of Daniel, the Son of Man “seems to refer to… the holy ones of Israel” exalted, in God’s presence.(1) In Luke, Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man” more than in any other gospel—25 times—and he seems to use the term in different ways. Sometimes, he seems to be emphasizing his humanity—as if to say, I’m a human being, just like you. At other times, it seems to anticipate his death, and his conviction that God will vindicate him and he will return, triumphant. This is one of those times.

Jesus wants us—he warns us—to be ready. There is a whole industry out there concerning the return of Jesus—the great Left Behind phenomenon. The theology behind that particular set of beliefs is not terribly Presbyterian, and was just conjured up about 150 years ago. Still, there’s the baby, and there’s the bathwater, and the Left Behind theology is the bathwater. And we shouldn’t be dismissive of Jesus’ urging us to be ready. As our General Assembly has instructed us, “God has not revealed to human beings the time when all things will be fulfilled; this preserves in us a sense of urgent watchfulness.”(2)

Jesus wants us to be alert, awake, ready for the Son of Man when he returns. And his disciples were ready—the women went to the tomb on Easter morning and encountered angels and the Son of Man himself, vindicated, triumphant, the grave unable to hold him. Other friends and followers of Jesus were ready, open, expectant, to meet him on the road to Emmaus, and to hear him break open the scriptures, and to share with him as he broke open both the bread and their unseeing eyes.

We are called to be similarly ready. No one knows when Jesus may return. But if we are the body of Christ here on this earth—we have to assume Jesus returns every single day. We have to assume we meet Jesus repeatedly, on the road to Apalachin or in the aisles of Sam’s Club. We have to assume the Son of Man is coming like the person ringing the church doorbell, in hopes of being given a few dollars for gas or food. We have to assume we will meet him in the junkie living in the motel across the street and in the twinkling eyes of the homebound members of our congregation.

Do not be afraid, friends, it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. And this is the kingdom he wants to give us: the kingdom where everyone, everywhere is received and welcomed and honored and loved as Jesus himself. Thanks be to God. Amen.


(1) R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 18.
(2) Office of Theology and Worship, “Between Millennia: What Presbyterians Believe About the Coming of Christ” (Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Church (USA), 2001), 5.


Fran said...

I keep thinking of what I can say as a comment. I keep coming back to this - thank you.

Cammie Novara said...

I think it is the source of some truly bad theology, based on fear, and I don’t believe a fear-based faith is a mature faith. I agree fully. There's a really fascinating debate that I thought would be of interest on evolution vs. intelligent design going on at