A couple of weeks ago I took my grandchildren to see The Secret Life of Pets. If you find yourself in need of a good, rollicking laugh at some innocent fun (and you have some pre-teen children to take along with you) this movie is worth the price of admission. If you haven’t seen the trailers, the basic idea is that our pets—our dogs and cats, our guinea pigs and our budgies—live quite a different life when we’re not at home to see them and they get up to hijinks that we would never dream of. If you haven’t seen the movie, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.
The Bible makes it very clear that as followers of Jesus you and I also, like those pets in the movie, live in two different worlds. At the Last Supper Jesus told his disciples that they do not belong to this world (John 15:19). A generation later the apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Philippi that our true citizenship is in heaven and that we are not to conform to the pattern of this world (Philippians 3:20; Romans 12:2). And St John counsels, “Do not love the world or anything in the world …” (1 John 2:15).
What does all of this mean? Many Christian people have interpreted these and other passages as though we need to withdraw as much as possible from any involvement in the affairs of the world. That has led to the formation of monastic communities in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions and groups such as the Amish and the Hutterites on the Protestant side. Yet I think that the more perceptive among them would readily admit that even they have not managed to escape the world completely, both from a social and an economic perspective, and more significantly from a spiritual one. They face the same issues and fight the same struggles as you and I do.
Well, if we cannot entirely escape the world, does that mean that we are forced to give into it? A clear answer to that can be found in the words of Peter: “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:11-12). So how does this work out in day-to-day life? I believe that that is exactly what Jesus was talking about to his followers in this morning’s reading from Luke’s gospel. The passage divides into three sections, so let’s take a few moments to look at each.
The Shepherd: Be fearless (32-34)
Jesus’ first words to his followers in this morning’s reading are, “Do not be afraid.” As the events in the months that followed would prove, those disciples would have plenty to fear. Jesus had already warned them at least twice that he would be rejected and suffer and die at the hands of the religious authorities and that they too would be called upon to take up their cross. Besides that, in recent days his words had begun to take on a darker, more sombre tone—about a wicked generation that refuses to repent, about people who killed the prophets and then erected their tombs, about those who have power to destroy the body but not the soul…
Admittedly we do not live under the looming shadow of the cross as the disciples did. Nor do we live beneath the menacing eye of Roman oppressors. Nevertheless, it seems to me that one of the dominant motifs of our current age is fear. You have only to look at some of the most popular films over the past few years—Mad Max, Extinction, Hunger Games, Oblivion, Resident Evil, and The Maze Runner, to name just a few—all of them depicting the future world in grim, dystopian terms. You and I may not have gone to see them, but somebody did. These titles alone grossed over $225 billion at the box office. Think of how long it takes to board an airline flight since 9/11. Think of the climate of fear that has engulfed many European countries after the recent ISIS attacks, not to mention the fear which I believe is the overriding theme in the U.S. election right now, no matter which side you may happen to be on. It’s all over Facebook and the media, in the news columns and the op-ed articles, combined with positively frightening images of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton with headlines to match.
In the midst of this Jesus says to us, as he said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid.” And notice how he refers to them. In spite of their being grown men, accustomed to the rough and tumble of the world, Jesus addresses his followers as lambs—“little flock”. Can you think of anything more vulnerable and defenseless than a little wooly lamb? At the same time we recognize that God has not placed us in a fierce and hostile world without any protection. That is precisely why Jesus speaks to his disciples as his “little flock”. He wants them to know that he is their Good Shepherd, and ours too. “Uncertainties are no cause for alarm or anxiety,” wrote New Testament scholar Fred Craddock. We do not need to join in the prevailing paranoia that surrounds us because we know that we are in the hands of one who loves us more than we can ever possibly imagine, whose purposes for us and for his creation are only good, who will lead us even through the valley of death, and whose goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life. Immersed in an environment of anxiety and paranoia, Jesus says to us, “Do not fear.”
The Master: Be faithful (35-38)
In the second section of this morning’s passage Jesus gives us a picture. It is of a large household whose master has gone off to join in the celebration of a marriage. In our society that might mean an absence of a few hours—or if the wedding happened to be at some distance, perhaps a weekend or a few days. But in the context of ancient Near East you need to think big—bigger than an Italian wedding or even “my big fat Greek wedding”. We are thinking of festivities that could last for a week or longer, and so if the wedding were at any distance the master could be absent from his household for a considerable span of time. At best it would be a temptation for the servants to take a little time off. At worst it might provide an opportunity for an extended party time as long as the master was away.
It seems that that was exactly what Jesus had in mind. When Peter asked him about this parable, Jesus explained, “Suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk” (Luke 12:45). Obviously the parable is about the time between Jesus’ ascension and his coming again and the call to us to remain faithful during that time. Yet the pressure is always on us not to. We live in a society that less and less has any sense of moral responsibility to any power beyond ourselves. In that sense, the twenty-first century is not markedly different from the first, when the apostle Paul urged his fellow believers in Rome not to “let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but [to] let God re-mould your minds from within. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Listen to How Eugene Petersen puts this in The Message:
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
Much along the same lines, Paul wrote these words to his fellow believers in Ephesus:
Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit…(Ephesians 5:15-18)
A few sentences later he reminds Christian masters that they have a Master in heaven—and both they and we are called to be faithful to him as we await his return. What shape that faithfulness takes will vary according to the gifts and responsibilities that God has entrusted to each of us. But the call remains the same, in the power of the Holy Spirit seeking to make God’s love and God’s good purposes realities in this world.
The Coming Son of Man: Be focused (39-40)
In the final couple of verses of this morning’s reading, Jesus shifts to a third image. This time it involves the owner of a house and a gang of thieves. You never know when thieves might try to break in, says Jesus, but you can make yourself ready in case they ever do. In the same way, he warns us, “You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” And so, if you will pardon the alliterations (but as a preacher I find myself powerless to resist them!) in the course of this morning’s reading Jesus has told us to be fearless, knowing that he is our Good Shepherd whose purposes for us are only good. He has encouraged us to be faithful to him as our Master, seeking to carry out his will in the world. And now he cautions us to be focused, as we know neither the day nor the hour of the coming of the Son of Man.
Back in biblical times protecting your belongings from a thief probably meant putting a bolt on your door. Nowadays it seems that most theft takes the form of white-collar crime and protection means using adequate security codes on your credit cards and computer. Not long ago that involved 56-bit encryption, which employs codes using more than 72 quadrillion (15 zeroes) permutations. However, nearly twenty years ago it was shown that a little desktop computer could hack it, and so the standard had to be increased to 128-bit. Yet even that hasn’t prevented the major security ruptures that we have witnessed in the last few years.
So what about the coming of the Son of Man? Jesus is going to come again and you and I need to be prepared. And what does that involve? Certainly not abandoning the world, as some might suggest, but quite the opposite: plunging into it, seeking to make God’s new creation a reality in the here and now. It could be through the beauty of art, literature or music. It could be in the social or political realm. It could be through such seemingly mundane occupations as farming, driving a bus, managing finances, teaching a class, raising children, caring for the elderly or any other of a million and more activities that human beings are engaged in. We speak of all of these pursuits as “secular”. Yet as they are offered up to Christ and his kingdom they take on a worth and a significance that are eternal. And it goes without saying that by necessity it will also mean praying, seriously seeking God’s will and cultivating our relationship with him, loving our neighbours, striving to know the mind of Christ and to reflect the heart of Christ in all we are and do.
As we seek to be people of God’s kingdom in the midst of the kingdoms of this world, may we be fearless, faithful and focused, as we rely on “him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us. To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)