“Keep alert” is a message in the series “Good counsel for a good life,” preached Aug. 18, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood; from Matthew 25.1-13 and Luke 12.35-40.
It doesn’t happen to most of us nearly as often as it might have in the past, so it’s always shocking when the power goes off. Suddenly, it’s a lot darker than it was, and in an instant the steady hum of the air conditioner or furnace or refrigerator is replaced by the sound of … nothing … except gasps of surprise and dismay.
Maybe you were at a dramatic moment in your favorite TV show, or you were making bread dough in the electric mixer, or straining your eyes trying to tie a tiny fishing fly or sew a button on a shirt, or reading a good book…
The list of common things you could have been doing is long. But now you can’t do any of them because you’re sitting in the dark, wondering when the power will come back on and hoping it’s soon because you have a lot of things you want to do – and if the heat or AC doesn’t come back on soon, you’re going to start to get uncomfortable.
If the power is off long enough, you may want to dig in the closet for some candles and your storm lamps – those oil lamps you inherited from grandma with the cloth wick and the sooty smoke and the smell that lingers long after the lamp is put out.
It hasn’t been that long since the whole world was lighted that way, and much of it still is. To survive in our world, even if you have electricity, you need some sort of lamp to light your way.
Lamps and light are mentioned frequently in scripture. I’m going to focus today at two stories that Jesus tells about lamps, and about readiness for the unexpected. As we proceed, keep in the back of your mind the idea of the lights going out.
The first story Jesus tells is from Matthew’s gospel. It’s a parable – that is, a story in which one thing is set aside another for comparison, to make a certain point. In this story, the subject is the kingdom of God, and the story that’s set aside it for comparison concerns 10 bridesmaids.
Each has a lamp she will use to light the way for the bridegroom into the wedding banquet. It’s likely a small lamp that can be held in the palm of her hand. Half the bridesmaids think this through and carry with them a small flask of oil to replenish their lamps, should the night go longer than expected. Half the bridesmaids don’t think ahead and don’t carry extra oil.
Naturally, the bridegroom is delayed in arriving. When finally he arrives, everyone jumps up with their lamps to greet him. But the foolish bridesmaids who didn’t think ahead now realize that they don’t have enough oil to last very long. And the wise bridesmaids who did think ahead don’t have enough oil to share, so the foolish bridesmaids run off to buy more oil.
We could chastise the wise bridesmaids for not sharing, but this parable isn’t about sharing. It’s about being ready. The foolish bridesmaids pay the price for not being ready. When they get back to the party, the door has been shut, and they can’t get in. “Who are you?” the bridegroom asks.
So, Jesus says, keep awake, because you don’t know the day or the hour when the bridegroom is coming.
Jesus is the bridegroom, of course. He refers to himself that way several times. So if this story tells us something about God’s kingdom, it must be that we can’t know when Jesus is coming to usher in the kingdom in all its glory, so we’d better be ready at all times.
How do we do that?
The second story comes from Luke’s gospel. It begins with Jesus saying, “Be dressed for action, and have your lamps lit.”
Neither of these stories directly address the issue of being properly dressed. That comes up in another story from Matthew (Matthew 22.11-13). A king is throwing a wedding banquet for his son, and he notices a guest who is not wearing a wedding robe. He says, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” The guest offers no excuse, and the king has him thrown out.
“Be dressed for action, and have your lamps lit,” Jesus says.
The characters in this story apparently are household slaves. They want to be ready when their master returns from the wedding banquet, even if he is delayed for some reason. They’ll be happy if they’re alert and ready when he returns, even if it’s in the middle of the night, even if it’s almost dawn. And here’s an unexpected turn. If he finds them alert and ready, he’ll take off his wedding duds and put on his serving clothes, and he will serve them!
What’s up with that? We’ll return to that in a moment.
“You must be ready,” Jesus says, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
How unexpected an hour? Suppose that your house is broken into one night, and the thief quietly makes off with some of your most valuable possessions, and you sleep through the whole thing. What do you say the next morning when you discover the burglary? “I wish I’d been awake when that guy broke in! If I’d known he was coming, I would have stayed awake and stopped him!”
But he didn’t call you ahead of time to say, “Hey, I’m coming to rob your house tonight.” You didn’t know when he was coming, and you didn’t stay awake, and you got robbed. Well, you can’t stay up all night every night, can you? You’ve got to know when the thief is coming. You can’t stay on high alert forever.
You just can’t. It is physically impossible. If you try, you will wear yourself out physically and mentally and every other way there is, and you’ll suffer a breakdown.
Remember a few years ago when the country was in a panic about foreign terror attacks? There were five security levels: green for low, blue for guarded, yellow for elevated, orange for high, and red for imminent. The system was quickly abandoned because it was too complicated and too confusing, and it rarely dipped below yellow, so people were kept in a constant state of semi-panic, ready to jump to real panic and hyper panic at any moment.
On some naval vessels and imaginary starships of the future, the captain calls for Battle Stations when the threat of danger is high. But you can’t keep your people on high alert for very long. After awhile, you have to let them stand down. If you don’t, sheer nervousness is liable to lead to a tragic mistake.
So, if you can’t be on Red Alert all the time, why is Jesus telling us to be on Red Alert all the time?
Or is that what he’s telling us? I don’t think it is.
Be awake, be alert, be ready, he says. Be dressed for action, have your lamps lit, and have some extra fuel handy if my return is delayed. Which it will be, of course. Why else would he tell us to be prepared for delay?
The “thief in the night” story is powerful. Be ready, or you’ll be sorry. But that’s not Jesus’ primary message. His primary message is the opposite: Be ready and you’ll be glad.
Or as my seminary preaching teacher Gene Lowry puts it, “position yourself to be surprised.”
“Look, I’m coming like a thief in the night,” Jesus says (Revelation 3.3, 16.15; 1 Thessalonians 5.2, 2 Peter 3.10). And if he catches you ready, what happens? He takes off his wedding duds and puts on his serving duds, and he serves you. Read the story in the 13th chapter of John’s gospel about Jesus washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, and you’ll see an amazing parallel to this story in Luke.
Be ready, and you’ll be blessed. Be ready, and you’ll be happy.
That’s a far cry from the message you’ll get from popular, toxic, so-called evangelical Christianity. You’ve seen the bumper sticker or Facebook meme: “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” That’s supposed to be ironic, but it’s often taken seriously, as a solemn warning. Jesus is coming, and he’d better not catch you napping, so if all you’re doing is leaning on that shovel, at least keep one eye open so when the boss appears you can raise your head and pretend that you’ve been busy.
You ought to be aware that Jesus is not fooled by counterfeit Christian activity, and if that’s what you’re relying on to save you, you may find yourself pounding on that door, saying, “Lord, Lord, open to us” and hearing Jesus saying, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.”
Another thing. Don’t look for signs. I know that all the hack TV preachers love to go on about “signs of the end times,” and “signs that Jesus’ return is near,” and all that rot, but Jesus makes it clear several times in several ways that there are no signs.
That’s why you have to be ready. Like the thief who wants to break into your home, Jesus is not going to call you ahead of time and say, “Hey, I’m coming.” He’ll come when the time is right, and you want to be ready. You want to be ready not because he’ll slap you silly if he catches you napping. You want to be ready because if you’re napping, you’ll miss one big party where you’re a featured guest.
So how do you stay ready?
Let’s circle back to where we began, talking about when the electricity goes out. How do you get ready for that? Some folks have powerful generators that kick in the moment the power fails. Even those require a certain amount of maintenance, or they’ll just sputter and die, and what you sputter afterward isn’t for repeating in public.
If you don’t have a super generator at your house, you need to be ready for a blackout. That means you have some flashlights in easy-to-get-to places, and extra batteries. You don’t want to be like those foolish bridesmaids, after all. And you want to have candles and those oil lamps and extra oil in a place that’s relatively easy to get to in low light, so you’re not tripping through the basement in the dark looking for them. (I did that once. Never again.)
The point is, you don’t have to live on pins and needles. You don’t have to live on Red Alert. You just have to be ready in case it happens. And if it’s that simple to prepare for something bad happening, can it be any harder to prepare for something good happening?
The foolish bridesmaids were foolish in that they were not prepared to welcome the bridegroom. They thought they were, until the time came, and then they realized that they weren’t ready at all. How can we be sure we’re ready?
What does it mean to be ready? Read the gospels, and you’ll know. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12.30-31).
Keep short accounts, Jesus says. If you have a problem with somebody, make it right fast (Matthew 5.23-26). Or, as the Apostle Paul interprets it, as far as you are able, live peaceably with everyone (Romans 12.18).
I could go on, but I hope you’re with me. There is no room here for hatred or bigotry of any kind, especially bigotry that you think is protected by religious privilege. If you think you’re better than someone because you’re a Christian and he’s not, or you’re a better Christian than she is, or any other superiority complex you may have, I ask you to think again.
Think of the humble carpenter from Nazareth who gave his life for all, not just for the religious elite. Think of the one who promises that if he catches you alert and ready, he’ll make you the center of the party.
Be ready for Jesus’ delay, and be ready for his sudden arrival. Be ready, and you’ll be blessed. Be ready, and you’ll be happy.
And the power will never go off again.