A story is told of a famous sea captain, who, every morning opened a locked drawer in his desk and examined a small piece of paper, all folded up. This habit made the crew wonder what was on this secret paper that he looked at every day. The captain wouldn’t say. When he died, the crew rushed to his desk to discover his secret. Opening the drawer they found the paper and they eagerly unfolded it and read the words, “The left side of the ship is called the port side.” Like the captain, we find ourselves adrift quite often in this adventure called life, and we wish we, too, had a slip of paper that we could turn to for some simple answers.
The periscope we read in Luke Chapter 12 contains attempts by Jesus to illustrate some important truths about how to live our lives, truths we might otherwise overlook if they weren’t contained in these vivid images of the return of the Son of Man. There are 3 major ideas that I find in this reading and I invite you to see if you can relate to them as well.
The first reality Luke presents is that, somehow Christ comes among us.
When and how he comes has been subject to debate since the beginning of the Church. There are so many descriptions of that return throughout the Bible. Many of them are metaphors intended to stimulate our imaginations, never intended to be taken literally. For example, his coming is to involve reward, but also judgment; it is to be as visible as lightning, but as secret as a thief; he is to come as spirit, but he is to come as he left, which seems to mean physically; he says he will not leave us, but it is also said he will return at the end of the age. Paradox upon paradox upon paradox! This should convince all reasonable people that a literal interpretation is impossible, and yet…
No wonder, then, that the church has had layers of understanding of the second coming. Paul’s Epistles are filled with predictions of his imminent return, but that didn’t happen. It didn’t happen when the year turned from 999 to 1000, and it didn’t happen when the year changed from 1999 to 2000. So we have to look for other ways of locating that “second coming”. We might say that whenever someone is baptized in Christ, Jesus comes again in the flesh of that person. We can also say that when we die, Jesus has come to bring us home–a rather personal second coming. As far as I am concerned, these interpretations make much more sense and are more useful to my life than scary stories of a vengeful God looking for revenge during the End Times.
While Luke’s Gospel does encourage expectancy, I believe it is more meaningful to speak of Jesus’ presence in the here and now, rather than dwell on a possible physical return in the future. I personally know countless people who testify that Christ has come to them in many forms: a word of encouragement from a friend; a sudden insight; a flash of faith that everything is in God’s hands; a decision to become more than they thought they could ever become; in a moment of conversion when the poor and disenfranchised became more important than their own comfort. Paul teaches that all of us together are the Body of Christ, and that Christ is the head, the controlling influence in the body. Therefore, Christ is already present, and so for us, he has come again.
The second thing Luke wants is for us to be ready for his coming…whenever and however that occurs.
A clear message from Luke’s parables is that to live without concern about the return of the master is a bad idea. We know this from our own lives. When we live as if we report to no one, when we decide we can do whatever we want, pretending God is absent, claiming that we are too much of a “free spirit” to actually commit to God or the community that gathers in the name of Jesus, we invariably experience a reality check that is often unpleasant. We think we are “free” but we are in bondage to our own egos. We forget that our actions have consequences, and that this karma tends to manifest when we least expect it.
The other mistake we sometimes make is identical to that of the unwise steward: we believe we will have plenty of time to make things right before the Master returns. For this reason, Jesus urges his followers to be in readiness. When Jesus spoke of the wise steward’s reward, this was precisely because the steward was prepared, ready to act, and he was found loyal and awake when his master returned. Apparently, Jesus was thinking about my natural inclination toward procrastination: things undone, things half-done, things put off; things not attempted; and he wanted me to have a greater sense of urgency and to be ready always.
The third lesson from these words of Jesus is that we need to be faithful about doing our duty.
History is full of examples of people who have taken Jesus seriously, but who have nonetheless made poor choices or acted foolishly. Think about the people obsessed with calculating the end of the world and the ongoing parade of dates that come and go without effect. 2012 is the latest date in this centuries old fixation on predicting the end of the world. Fixating on this kind of foolishness gives people an excuse not to feed the hungry or nurture the wounded, or heal the sick. Thus the focus on dates and predictions only serve to make Christianity look ridiculous and irrelevant.
Jesus’ stories insist on the need for readiness, but being ready means being faithful in the performance of our duty. The wise steward is praised and rewarded precisely because he is doing what was supposed to be doing. He was fulfilling the responsibilities which his master had given him. His wasn’t looking for signs and wonders, he wasn’t obsessed with speculative theologies, rather, he was dealing with whatever life brought him. He found his true calling in the present moment, in the very things that we so often find to be interruptions. It was there he found his ministry.
If we are doing our duty, whatever that duty may be, on the day the Master comes for us, we will have no regrets. We will instead know joy, peace and fulfillment. But this raises the perennial question: “What is my duty?
To raise a child as a single parent? To be a faithful spouse or partner? To care for an elderly parent? To carry the burden of serious illness? To help someone in need? To work for justice for the despised? Only our conscience and the vagaries of our own life can answer that question completely.
Jesus comes to us in many ways: he calls us to be alert to his coming; and he calls us to faithful preparation. How Christ will come for you and for me, and the time of his coming, we do not know. But let’s not waste time speculating about the how or when. He has given us work to do and we want to be found faithfully doing it.
Several years ago, a reporter was interviewing a woman who had been a lighthouse keeper for many years. She told him her story. “I was living at Sandy Hook”, she said, “when I met Jacob Walker. He took me to the lighthouse where he worked when I was his young bride. I loved living there because the lighthouse was on land and I could garden and raise flowers and vegetables. After a few years, though, Jacob was transferred to another light house. The day we arrived there I said, ‘I can’t stay here long. The sight of all this water surrounding us makes me lonesome and sad.’ I refused to unpack my things at first. I did eventually, though, and after a while, they were all unpacked and we stayed on …
My husband Jacob caught a heavy cold while tending the light, which turned into pneumonia. It was necessary to take him to the infirmary on the mainland, where he could have better care than I could give him at the lighthouse. I couldn’t leave the light in order to be with him. He understood. One night while I sat up in the lighthouse tending the light, I saw a boat coming. Something told me what news it was bringing me, and I was right: Jacob had died.
“We buried him in the cemetery on the hill. Every morning, when the sun comes up, I stand at the porthole and look in the direction of his grave. Sometimes the hills are white with snow. Sometimes they are green. Sometimes brown. But there always seems to come a message from his grave. It is what I heard Jacob say more often than anything else in his life. Just three words: ‘Mind the light.'”
Mrs. Walker was 70 years old when this reporter interviewed her, and she was still keeping the light at that lighthouse. Her husband had been gone 32 years. To her, and to us, Jesus reminds us of the need for faithful performance of our duty, whatever it may be: “Be ready!” he says. “Mind the light!”