I was never a Boy Scout. I'm not sure why, just never was. So the whole “Be Prepared” thing has been slow to grow in me. But, over the years and with thanks to my very type-A personality, I've come to adopt the motto “failure to plan is planning to fail” as a sort-of mantra for my life. Conveniently for me, Jesus seems to affirm this way of living in our Gospel lesson for today. “Be dressed and ready for action,” he tells his disciples. Be prepared, the master could return at any moment.
When it comes down to it, we all understand that planning is important for success in our lives. This week, my friend and colleague, Ben from Saint Paul's in Mobile and I spent the four days at Camp Beckwith serving as Deans for the last session of the season, 4th and 5th grade camp. Having accepted the call to serve for the week, Ben and I began planning in late February. Neither one of us had much experience with fourth graders, so we began by asking for advice from a friend of mine who teaches fourth graders at Spanish Fort Elementary. We met for lunch. We emailed. We Google Waved. We Facebooked. We talked on the phone. By the time we arrived at Beckwith on Monday morning, we felt well prepared for two services of Holy Eucharist and three Dean's programs, and yet we had almost nothing written down. Five months on planning meant we were ready to talk about our topic, we knew the points, we knew the questions, we had the activities in our pocket. And so, on Thursday afternoon, when the campers, Assistant Counselors, and even the Senior Staff were all nearing zero on the energy meter and not at all interested in talking about the great “unless” of Dr. Seuss' the Lorax, we were able to realize that plan A had failed and it was time to quickly turn to plan B.
And isn't that what planning is really all about, the contingencies? Planning means preparing for those bumps in the road that we can realistically foresee. Of course we can't all leave or work an hour early in case we get a flat tire on the way, that wouldn't be realistic. But we should probably anticipate the fact that traffic backs up at the Wallace Tunnel and maybe an extra ten minutes isn't such a bad idea.
Jesus wants his disciples, and for that matter, all of us to be prepared for any contingency for his return. This is especially important to Luke and his community because they are beginning to realize that maybe Jesus isn't coming back in their lifetime. They are starting to develop ways to live long-term as followers of the Risen Christ. This new way of living is based on the possibilities laid out by Jesus, who himself had said, “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
In his metaphor, Jesus seems to set up three possibilities for his return. The first, what early Christians thought was the plan all along, was that he was coming back soon, like maybe even tomorrow. “Be dressed and ready for action and have your lamps lit; be 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.” What are we called to do if Jesus is coming back tomorrow? This is perhaps the hardest situation to understand. If Jesus is coming back tomorrow, then why bother doing anything? Why not sit back, have a great meal, drink the finest wines and bask in his triumphant glory? Well, mostly, because Jesus said to “be dressed and ready for action.” In other words, be doing the work you've been called to do. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Tend to the widows and orphans. Visit the imprisoned. Lift up the lowly. Even if Jesus is coming back tomorrow, the work of restoration and redemption must be ongoing; the work of sharing the Good News that the Kingdom of God is at hand must continue. So be ready because Jesus might just be here tomorrow.
The second possibility for Jesus' return is described in the story of the master's return as “the middle of the night.” I read this as, “What if Jesus is NOT coming tomorrow?” If Jesus is NOT coming tomorrow should we spend our time pining and wondering when he WILL return? No. If Jesus is NOT coming tomorrow should we sit, scared senseless, at the prospect of his eventual return? No. If Jesus is NOT coming tomorrow should we continue doing with work that we've been called to do? Feed the hungry? Clothe the naked? Tend to the widows and orphans? Visit the imprisoned? Lift up the lowly? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. And Yes. As the evidence that Jesus' return would not be as imminent as originally thought grew, the early Church began to develop ways to live as long-term, long-distance disciples of the risen Christ. It included the things that we've come to expect, the stuff of Acts Two, “They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Even if Jesus is NOT coming back tomorrow, the work of restoration and redemption must be ongoing; the work of sharing the Good News that the Kingdom of God is at hand must continue. So be ready because Jesus might NOT be here tomorrow.
The final possibility for Jesus' return is described as the master returning from the wedding banquet “near dawn” which I read as “What if Jesus is not coming in OUR LIFETIME?” If he's not coming tomorrow and he's not coming next year and maybe he's not returning for thousands of years; well then what do we do? The trap here, as I see it, is similar to the “he's coming tomorrow” problem. If he's not coming for tens, hundreds, even thousands of years, then why bother doing anything at all? Sure, I'll make sure my card is punched for life everlasting, but God has plenty of time to work out the issues of injustice, poverty, hunger, racism, sexism, classism, domestic violence, and so on that are so prevalent in society. Why should I even care about that stuff? Well, Jesus says, blessed are the slaves who the master finds ready even at the break of dawn. Even if Jesus is not coming back IN OUR LIFETIME, the work of restoration and redemption must be ongoing; the work of sharing the Good News that the Kingdom of God is at hand must continue. So be ready because Jesus might not be here IN OUR LIFETIME.
Jesus might return tomorrow. But then again, he might not. He might return next month. But then again, he might not. He might return in your lifetime. But then again, he might not. Whenever his triumphant return happens; at supper, the middle of the night or near dawn, the call is the same, be prepared by living the life he has called you to. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Tend to the widows and orphans. Visit the imprisoned. Lift up the lowly. Whatever you do, Jesus says, don't be afraid. Despite all the high budget special-effects in Hollywood and, for that matter, Christian films about the end times, Jesus' assurance is that his return will bring the ultimate fullness of the dream of God, which the the prophet Amos described as “justice rolling down like mighty waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” It will be a time when everyone lives into what the prophet Micah says the Lord requires of us, “to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.”
What we do between now and whenever Jesus returns matters. It matters not for our salvation – we can do nothing to make God love us any more or any less. Instead, it matters because God's dream is unfolding right now. Every second of every day we get a little bit closer to the return of the Master and as such we should be living that way, not out of fear but in thanksgiving for the mercy God has shown us, for his love which never ends, for the fact that it is his good pleasure to give us the kingdom.
Failure to plan is planning to fail. Jesus lays out three possibilities for his return; now, midnight, or dawn. Whenever it comes, his hope is that he finds us working to better the old world preparing the way for the new heaven and the new earth. May we be found awake, alert, with our lamps light, ready for the return of the Son of Man. Amen.