Sermon for 12th Sunday after Pentecost, OT19C
Let your waists be girt and your lamps lit
whilst back in the UK, a dear friend gave me the present of a book about his homeland, where he grew up, in the PNW of the USA. In its early chapters it is dominated by the story of the great Columbia River which empties into the pacific between the states of Oregon and Washington. At that point of collision where mighty river meets the worlds largest ocean (if not its most terrifying) the seas are so rough and terrifying that for many years sea farers didn’t even realise that a river lay behind them – and to this day even those charged with rescuing those from the waters, and those who pilot ships into the Columbia live in fear of those tumultuous waters.
For almost all of its history the Columbia was as terrifying as its outfall. Whirlpools and rapids made the navigation of the river far from straightforward, but as modern humans have done almost everywhere now, the river has been tamed by dams. Where once one might have regularly expected to be hurled into the foaming waves, now people waterski.The great flow broken into people friendly lakes for fishing and what we have been trained to call ‘recreation’ – the River has disappeared. And the church herself lives in constant danger of doing the same with Holy Scripture. The words of a friend of mine ‘My concern with the scriptures is to look for contemporary answers to contemporary issues’ is symptomatic of such taming. The text now reduced to little more than a somewhat confusing encyclopaedia of ‘spiritual problems’. So we are reduced to sitting aside from Scripture, distancing ourselves from the invitation to find life in and through them. For as the Columbia was once a scene of vibrant life and its taming has led to ecological devastation, so our attempts to ‘tame the scriptures to make them serve our ‘concerns’, has led to the imminent death of the church in so many parts of the world [And, let the reader understand, this is no mere metaphorical parallel]
So Sunday by Sunday, if we are careless, we come to a gospel reading as a little snippet, a thought for the day, a little something helpful to tuck away, rather than an encounter with the Living God, whom no one may see and live. From riding the terrifying rapids clinging on for life, we are reduced to spiritually moribund tourists on deckchairs – most of us, lets be honest well past the age even for waterskiing!
And Luke’s gospel, if we dare approach it so, is like a mighty river in full flow – of a whole. Its end in its beginning, the tumultuous climax known even as its waters are first seen high in the mountain air of the Birth Narrative – for those who Hear Scripture, like those who navigate rivers, we Know where this is headed. At the outset this Mighty River is framed by two great prayers which form the Gates of the life of the church in her daily prayer – the Benedictus in the morning, the prayer of Zachariah at the birth of John the Baptist and The Magnificat in the evening, The Song of Mary which heralds the Birth of Jesus – And out through these flood gates flows the Story of God’s coming with judgement to save his people. Judgement and Salvation woven together. So John comes and announces the one who is coming the thong of whose sandals he is not worthy to untie – the one who will baptise you ‘with the Holy Spirit and with Fire’. Judgement and Salvation!! And these Themes are the flow, the rapids, the whirlpools, the rocks and the occasional still pool in the journey of this River as it flows insistent, urgent, with a power that overwhelms towards its  as it joins with the mighty Ocean that is the Living God.
So when we hear the Gospel, we do not come as those who are set apart from it, for as the baptised we have been thrown into its waters. In that light, to say that we have domesticated Scriptures, Worship and the life of the Church seems almost to obvious as to be of comment – we have not ‘come to church’ we have he Living God, to come to share with all the heavenly host around the throne of Grace with thousands upon thousands of others, hidden from our sight yet present to us by the sight of faith.
So last week – we may remember the story of the man who built barns – this is no mere fridge magnet ‘nice idea for the week’ ‘There’s more to life than your stuff’ – which we all agree with, go home and do not even begin to think about what it requires of us – no this is a parable of the coming Salvation and Judgement of God. This is coming! It is present in the words of Jesus. ‘You fool! this very night your life will be required of you, and who then will get all your stuff?? Your life reduced to a stuffed owl . . .’ Jesus says – in the light of God’s Presence, in Judgement and Salvation, to live like this is as mad as setting off down the Columbia and into the ocean on a child’s beach toy. It is a call to wake up to existence!! One of the great myths of our existence is a loss of the sense of our fragility – here and there there are still faint voices calling us to wake up – I remember for myself one of those was the news when I was about 20 that a friend, just a few years older ‘just dropped dead’ in London . . . I was too insulated from such stuff – modern life, insulated as it has made itself from the reality of existence in the world had told me that these things didn’t happen, that I would live a long life . . .
And so it is in this light that the words of Jesus to his disciples are to be heard – not in the sight of a river that has been dammed to make a pleasant lake, a little gospel nugget – hiding the river from us – but in the sight of the mighty torrents – for they only make sense when we are alert to our predicament and our place. God is coming! God is present!
Jesus is not offering us a ‘thought for the week’ – ‘try to worry less, after all what does it acheive’ not leading us into some sort of Zen detachment from life – rather he is speaking to those who are in the full flood and trying to hang on – ‘do not be afraid little flock’. A good parallel would be where Jesus is asleep in the boat in the midst of the Storm – and rebukes them for their fears! ’Oh ye of little faith!’ –
So these words ‘Do not be afraid little flock’ are to be heard in the context of the great flow of the Gospel – in the announcement of God’s coming in Judgement to Save his people . . . and then seemingly Jesus pushes us even further into the flood – 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. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. . . . for after all, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give You the Kingdom. In the midst of the flood of Life in which we encounter the Judgement and Salvation of God, what is it that we are given to cling to – the promise of Our Father, the One who has taken us to himself in Jesus – that he desires to, that he is pleased to give the kingdom to this tiny – humanly insecure flock.
And then this little phrase. ‘Let your waist be girt and your lamps bright’ The pilot of the Colombia river straps his crew to the deck with a double line and equips them with emergency flares and locator beacons should they be thrown into the maelstrom, as indeed they are from time to time. Jesus likewise tells us how to be equipped in the midst of the flood, in the light of the Judgement and Salvation of God – in these two ways – let your waist be girt and your lamps lit . .
But, we may well ask – what does that mean? Is he just saying be ready, or is there substance to these phrases. Again we need to be caught up in the flood of the revelation of God in the scriptures. Our contemporary translations often do not help – we heard about ‘Dress yourselves for action’ but this rendering of the words of Jesus actually takes us away from picture that was highly recognisable to GOd’s people throughout the ages. ‘Gird up your loins’.
In the Scriptures there is perhaps no book which more speaks of this Storm of the encounter of the human with the Living God – this judgement and Salvation – than the Book of Job. Job finally is addressed by the LORD out of the whirlwind and is asked ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.’
To Gird the loins was an action which would be heard as ‘make yourself ready for the conflict’. A man would be working in the fields, enemy forces would be coming over the hills – the cry would go up – gird up your loins!! Prepare yourself for the coming storm! And so they would take their long robes and wrap them up over their waistband – Girding their loins so that they could run! Do not be deceived – you will face the LORD and that encounter will be just like the encounter of the LORD with Job. Prepare yourself!! This is coming. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by the many lakes of the river – the river still heads assuredly to its Source. You will see Him face to face – and who may abide the day of his coming?
Yes, but how!! Simply by living deeply into this reality in our daily lives. Through prayer, Through self examination before God, through throwing ourselves into the Majestic River of the Living Word. For our End is every before us in and through Jesus Christ – the Beginning and the end. As the life of a river is present in its source as much as it empties into the ocean, so our End is ever before us in Jesus Christ. Guiding and directing deeper into our life in him, so that that day might not catch us unawres, like a thief in the night. Yes, the Encounter with God is every bit as Challenging as those mountainous waves, but we are not unprepared . . .
And so also ‘let your lamps be bright’. Of course these words of Jesus about a master returning from a wedding – find a powerful parallel in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and their oil. or lack of it for their lamps. But what might it mean?? Of course unless we are immersed in the story of God’s people and indeed Luke’s gospel itself we might just wander off and put any old meaning which seemed amenable to us upon it. But we do not, instead we attend to lamps and understand that the lamp always indicated the presence of God. Aaron the priest was commanded not to allow the oil of the lamp of the presence to go out form before the Ark of the covenant. Unfortunately we live in an age of ‘symbol and metaphor’ where one thing is separate from another – but for God’s people the lamp in a powerful sense Was the presence of God. When God left Israel to her fate for a season, the Light of God is seen leaving the temple. the Angels of the Church in Revelation are warned, lest their lamp be removed.
The lamp is a very real sense was and Is the presence of God. Let your lamp be bright. but what might that mean for us? Well, as we pay attention to Luke and if we have travelled down the river of the gospel, we have already heard Jesus say, ‘Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness. Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.’ The ‘Eye’ here should be understood as what the Church calls ‘The Nous’ – the Eye of the heart – that place within your body where we See God – where we Know His Presence. For in the same way that the lamp in the Temple was the Presence of God before the Ark of the Covenant – so your body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit. The Oil of the Lamp? The Holy Spirit. Let your lamp be bright, to quote st Paul, ‘Go on being filled with the Holy Spirit, with whom you were sealed for the Day of redemption . . .
I think we ponder very little this profound mystery, that as the baptised, our very bodies are Temple’s of the Holy Spirit of God – what care we might take of them, and indeed of that lamp were we just a jot more aware of this reality. As St Paul puts it again, Christ in you, the hope of glory.
in the light of God’s coming with Judgement to Save us, so much of that with which we fills up our lives looks like so much broken flotsam and jetsam, so much detritus. The man who builds barns, that will crumble to dust and be over run with rats, even Martha – God coming with judgement to save his people comes into the house but in the Light of God coming with judgement to save his people . . . And of course that light of apprehension is the Gift of God. As I was sharing with a doctor whom I had to see on Friday, Faith is a Gift – It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom, but we get upset and worried, distracted by many things, pleasure, wealth and care . . .
Just a couple of weeks ago we heard Jesus say to us hear in this place – ‘Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?’ Later that week I saw a post on the internet which asked – ‘what do we do when it seems that God has given us a snake instead of a fish, or a scorpion instead of an egg?’ it went viral – and many people praised its wisdom . . . sadly, for it completely missed the point, that God’s good pleasure is to ‘give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. What is the Kingdom which it is the Father’s good pleasure to give? What is it but his very life!! ‘If you, though you are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him’ God gives to all who seek all that is needed to ready ourselves for that Full encounter, and he continues to do so, day in and day out, week in and week out – in prayer, in confession, in reading of the Scriptures, and in the Eucharist.
To quote the magisterial 8th Chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Romans
He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
God is coming with Judgement to save his people – do not be afraid little flock for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. Let your waists be girt and your lamps lit, for you know not the hour – and do not be afraid . . .