Posts Tagged ‘parables’

How do we “keep alert”?

November 11, 2011

These small, ceramic oil lamps are like the ones that the wise and foolish bridesmaids used in the parable. Photo taken at Herod the Great's Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem.

I said at the beginning of our sermon series on Jesus’ parables in Matthew that his parables have a way of stepping on our toes. At times, they make us deeply uncomfortable. They’re filled with good news, to be sure, but there’s also at least a little bad news, too. But even the bad news is good because it motivates us to repent and change.

About last week’s Parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew 22:1-14, which includes the troubling part about the underdressed man getting bound and booted out to a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” I said the following:

I know that we don’t like to hear these frightening words of judgment, but it seems clear to me that Jesus is aiming these words directly at us—at the church. As a warning… Maybe one reason Jesus puts it so sharply, so severely is because he knows it’s better for us to be judged now—while we still have time to repent and change and, as Jesus says elsewhere, to live a life “worthy of repentance”—than to face eternal consequences later on, at final judgment.

This week’s parable from Matthew 25:1-13, traditionally called the Wise and Foolish Virgins, will step on our toes and judge us as well. The punchline of the parable comes in v. 13: “Therefore keep alert because you don’t know the day or the hour.”

The “day or hour” in the context of the chapter that precedes it may refer to the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of Israel in A.D. 70, which was for Jesus’ fellow Jews a cataclysmic event that vindicated Jesus’ words about God’s kingdom, including his words of judgment in Matthew 23:37-38: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you. How often I wanted to gather your people together, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. Look, your house is left to you deserted.”

The church has also interpreted the “day or hour” to mean final judgment (after the Second Coming) or our own deaths. In his own notes on the text, Wesley doesn’t take a stand. And, like him, I hardly think it matters. Jesus’ point is the same, whether Jesus is referring to a specific historical event in the first century, the Second Coming, or our own deaths. The parable’s stern warning is for each of us.

Even if we present-day Christians are no longer in danger of dying at the hands of Roman soldiers, we know that we will die at some point. Even if the end of history doesn’t occur in our lifetimes, our own personal history ends at our deaths. Time is running out for all of us.

How do we live in the meantime?

I’ll explore this question in my sermon on Sunday. But one thing seems clear: We can’t live in a state of constant vigilance—and it’s not because we’re complacent or lazy. As humans, we simply can’t stay alert for very long. 

Doesn’t our nation’s experience in the wake of 9/11 prove that? Remember how vigilant all of us were in the days, weeks, and even months following the attacks? We had color-coded threat levels each day. We were screened before going into football stadiums and concert venues. We were waiting for the next attack. We were fully expecting another attack. And it didn’t happen (at least in our country).

A couple of years later, a country singer scolded us, asking: “Have you forgotten?” He was telling us that something was wrong with us Americans for falling asleep.

I don’t think that’s fair. In a sense, we had forgotten… but in a good way. We can’t live our lives constantly reminding ourselves of that day, constantly feeling anger, indignation, and a sense of loss. I can’t imagine that’s good for our health, physically or spiritually. We have to move on. It’s gracious that God has made us in such a way that we can move on and heal from terrible tragedies.

Don’t get me wrong: I trust and hope that there are plenty of people who are paid to stay alert and on guard for another attack. More importantly, I trust and hope that systems are in place that safeguard against attacks, even when individual humans fail. My point is that most people, most of the time, can’t live their lives on alert. Even in this parable, after all, both the foolish and the wise bridesmaids fall asleep. What matters is that when they were awakened, some of them were ready.

So what do we do with this parable and its warning to keep alert? In a sense (please don’t take this too literally), we have to do on a small scale what our country did on a large scale following 9/11: We have to build a new system into the fabric of our lives that will help us to be ready for our death or the Second Coming or final judgment, even during those times when the end of the world is the furthest thing from our minds.

How do we do this? No secret here. We do what Wesley always said we should do: We “attend to the ordinances of God.” We pray. We gather together weekly for worship. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We read and study scripture. We fast. We serve. We love. In one lovely turn of phrase, N.T Wright calls these activities a means of “keeping short accounts” with God—which is exactly my point above about being judged now so that we’ll avoid judgment later.

We make these mundane and often difficult tasks of spiritual formation a part of our normal routines so that when times aren’t normal—when unexpected, unpredictable, and unforeseen events occur—we’ll be ready. In biblical terms, “being ready” is the essence of wisdom.

Easier said than done, I know… but that’s why we have each other. That’s why we have church.

N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone Part Two (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 126.

Sermon for 10-09-11: “Do You Want to Know a Secret? Part 4: The Lost Sheep”

October 13, 2011

The world lost a powerful and inspiring public figure in the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. In this sermon, I analyze the “gospel according to Steve Jobs,” especially as reflected in his 2005 commencement address to Stanford University. Millions of people who mourned Jobs’s death responded to that gospel. How does it compare with the true and complete gospel of Jesus Christ? What are we the church doing to help people hear and respond to that?

Sermon Text: Matthew 18:10-14

The following is my original manuscript.

The world lost a remarkable man last week in the death of Apple Computer co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs. It’s no exaggeration to say that, directly or indirectly, my life is better because of his life, because if his creativity, because of his inspiration. I’m thankful to God for Steve Jobs. The company he founded played a formational role in my childhood development—not to mention my interest in computers and technology. Eventually my engineering career owed something to Steve Jobs. My earliest computer experience was playing educational games like “Lemonade Stand” and “Oregon Trail” on an Apple II at my elementary school library around 1979. We had exactly one computer at the school, mind you, so we could only use the computer as a group. We would take turns walking up to the computer and pressing a key or typing a command. That was a big deal back then.

Steve Jobs speaking at Stanford in 2005.

Many years later, when I discovered the Macintosh in college, I was hooked. I mean, I became a fanboy. I drank the Kool-Aid, O.K.? I remember those lean years before Steve Jobs came back to Apple when buying a Mac was an act of faith. In the mid-’90s, I was shopping for a new Mac, and friends would say, “Why are you buying a Mac? Don’t you know that Apple will be out of business within six months?” We Mac users had faith that it would somehow work out. We also had faith in our nearly religious devotion to our computers. This drove PC users crazy.

In the wake of Jobs’s death—and the huge outpouring of grief on the web—I watched, along with many of you, his powerful commencement address in 2005 at Stanford University. Did you see this? Don referred to it in his eNews article this week. It was strong, and I would recommend that all of you read it, because it rings true to me. It also catches my attention as a pastor because Jobs even made a couple of interesting religious statements during the speech. In describing, for example, how his life’s failures and setbacks had somehow worked out for good in his life, he said this:

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More on the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price

October 4, 2011

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that somebody hid in a field, which someone else found and covered up. Full of joy, the finder sold everything and bought that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one very precious pearl, he went and sold all that he owned and bought it.” (Matthew 13:44-46, Common English Bible)

We can find plenty of treasures in this world apart from the one we find in Jesus Christ. We may find treasures in our career, our relationships, our family, our possessions, our bank accounts, our favorite hobbies, our favorite sports. And all these competing treasures may be perfectly good in and of themselves. But they won’t satisfy our deepest longing.

The gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t one treasure among others; it’s the most valuable treasure. It isn’t one pearl among other pearls; it’s the most precious pearl. Even though God gives it to us freely—by grace through faith— it is worth nothing less than everything that we have to give.

And everything we have to give is exactly what Christ wants. C.S. Lewis puts it like this:

Christ says “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there. I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”

C.S. Lewis, “The Christian Way” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1076-77.