This morning’s sermon preached at Forest Presbyterian Church in Lyons Falls, NY. My text is Luke 12:32-40.
In the eyes of popular media, inner-city neighborhoods are often portrayed as haunts of violence and lawlessness. The inhabitants of such areas tend to be stereotyped as hardened and dangerous people, who are best avoided by well-to-do suburbanites. I’d like to reassure you this morning that the reality of life “on the street” is far duller than the imagination allows. The lives of our fellow human beings in downtown Utica bear a striking similarity to the lives of people here in Lyons Falls.
I’m thinking right now of Youngblood, a sometime-resident of Genesee Street who is frequently in trouble with the law due to his activities as a vendor of controlled substances. One day, Youngblood and I were driving to an appointment with his probation officer and he said, “Man, I been reading about this 2012 s**t. They say the world is gonna come to an end. Is that stuff really in the Bible?” What strikes me about Youngblood’s question is that this is the exact same question that many people are asking in churches these days.
In fact, people have been asking this question on and off for many years. Before the massive influx of literature regarding the end of the Mayan Calendar on December 21, 2012, many of us will undoubtedly remember the great fuss that accompanied the arrival of the year 2000. Going a little farther back in history, much attention has been given to the quatrains of Nostradamus (which have never been successfully used to predict an event before-the-fact) and other Apocalyptically-minded “prophets”. Almost forgotten is the chaos that surrounded the turning of the last Millennium in the year 1000. Kings and Popes were found muttering prayers in cathedrals at midnight, certain of the earth’s impending doom.
Several bestselling “road maps” for the end of the world, notably the Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins and The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey, claim to take their information straight from the pages of the Bible itself. As a result, many Christians have become increasingly confused and anxious about the so-called “end of the world”. While rational believers are typically disinclined to accept the dark predictions of such fanatics, we sometimes wonder, “What does the Bible really say about that stuff?”
To fully answer that question would take much longer than the time we have this morning, but we can begin by looking at the gospel text we have in front of us. In verse 40, Jesus tells his followers, “You… must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” This is one of those Bible verses that often get painted on billboards, bumper stickers, and picket signs. During his growing up years, my father heard sermons on texts like this one. The preacher would thunder, “When Jesus returns, you wouldn’t want him to find you out dancing or at the movies, would you?!” Trusting that Jesus doesn’t really have a problem with people going to movies and dancing, it makes sense to ask the question: what then does it actually mean to “be ready” for the unexpected coming of the “Son of Man”?
To answer this question, we must first establish what it is that we should be ready for. When Jesus uses the phrase “Son of Man”, he is making use of an ancient Hebrew expression that means “human being”. This phrase is the one that Jesus uses most often in reference to himself. Many scholars agree that, in this particular case, Jesus is identifying himself with the figure seen in a vision by the Hebrew prophet Daniel:
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. 14To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)
This human being in Daniel’s vision, who receives eternal authority over the nations of the world, appears immediately after God subdues the other empires of the earth, all of which appear in the vision as vicious and wild animals. The message is clear about God’s plan for the future: to reform the many violent and animalistic nations of the world into one human society. Jesus presents himself as the crux and the catalyst for this new human society.
In the book of Revelation, the apostle John expands on Daniel’s vision:
I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)
According to John’s vision, the face of the earth is renewed and all suffering is erased. Ironically, no one flies away to heaven in either of these visions because heaven comes here! Isn’t this exactly what we ask for each week when we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”?
I believe that one of my favorite modern-day prophets, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had this eternal vision in mind when he spoke about that day “when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing together in the words of the old negro spiritual: free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
So, when Jesus tells his followers to “be ready”, I believe this heaven-on-earth is what he had in mind, not some apocalyptic vision of destruction through fire and brimstone. Later in his vision, Daniel states explicitly that “the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever” (Daniel 7:18). Daniel’s vision bears remarkable similarities to Jesus’ words of comfort in Luke 12:32: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” This is beginning to sound like good news, isn’t it?
How then, do we make ourselves ready for the fulfillment of these visions? I think Jesus gives us a hint in verse 33: “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. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
This little nugget of advice from Jesus is part of a larger block of teaching found in Luke 12. It starts when someone comes to Jesus in verse 13, asking him to resolve a family dispute regarding an inheritance. Jesus declines to get involved and embarks instead on a teaching about greed and anxiety. From God’s point of view, the acquisition of material goods is not an end in itself, but merely a means to an end. The only worthwhile end, in God’s eyes, is that vision we read about in Daniel and Revelation. Material possessions are only helpful insofar as they contribute to the establishment of that kingdom of heaven-on-earth.
You and I live in a world where we are inundated with messages telling us that true happiness can be achieved if only we would purchase this or that product. I recently saw a commercial for a brand of beer that is apparently favored by “the most interesting man in the world”. I don’t know about you, but in my experience, consuming alcohol has little to no effect on how “interesting” a person is!
Jesus, in today’s gospel reading, invites you and me to check out of this empty process and invest in projects that have eternal value. To the person who came asking him to arbitrate a family dispute, Jesus had this advice:
…why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? 58Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. 59I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny. (Luke 12:57-59)
Whether the world’s game for you is consumerism, fear, or conflict, Jesus’ invitation is to stop playing. If you play, you will lose because the game isn’t fair. This is why Jesus said, “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. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” When we stop playing this world’s games, we are liberated to participate more fully in God’s vision of heaven-on-earth. This is what it means to “be ready” for the unexpected coming of the “Son of Man”.
So, what does the Bible really say about all that end-of-the-world stuff? We have seen that God’s vision for the final destiny of the world is one of redemption and not destruction. The best way for us to “be ready” for this redemption is by checking out of this world’s silly games of fear & greed and living lives based on spiritual values such as generosity and reconciliation.
Living our lives according to these values will necessarily put us at odds with the world around us. The world says that the only way to successfully establish a kingdom is through violence and anxiety. But our ace in the hole as Christians is that we don’t have to build anything! As Jesus told his followers in Luke 12:32: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” We already have everything we need to accomplish this task and more! It’s not up to us to produce or construct or build God’s kingdom of heaven-on-earth because it has already been given to us.
I ask you this morning: how are you making yourself ready to participate in God’s vision? Jesus told his followers to sell their possessions. Most of us in this room probably aren’t ready to take that step. But maybe we can begin to ask hard questions about our relationship to those things. Do we own our possessions or do they own us? How does my use of time, talent, and treasure communicate the spiritual values upon which I base my life as a Christian? As you seek to answer these questions for yourself, remember that you already have everything you need.
I met a woman several years ago who had been very anxious about the turn of the Millennium. In preparation for a global disaster, she stockpiled food and water in her basement. When New Year’s Day came and went without a hitch, she was suddenly embarrassed to have an entire barrel of wheat berries and no idea of what to do with it. Over the next few years, she slowly emptied the barrel and gave bags of wheat berries to family and friends as gifts. I love this image: the unnecessary byproduct of this person’s fear and anxiety was transformed into a nourishing gift for an entire community. What better illustration can there be for how God wants to redeem our anxieties about the end of the world? Amen.