Priorities and Preparedness
Jesus made the things that he taught memorable. He used striking imagery and he told interesting stories.
In recent weeks we have thought about his story of a self-centred rich man building bigger and better barns for himself. He thought the best way forward to prepare for a comfortable retirement was to focus all his efforts on N°1. We’ll need to keep this story in mind as it continues to provide the context for the verses we’re going to be looking at this morning.
We’ve also heard Jesus teach that because God cares even for the birds and the flowers we should trust him to provide for us as well. In other words if we are followers of Jesus Christ we really don’t need to worry about life in the way the rich man did because God looks out for his own.
It is all a question of priorities really. The rich man focused on this world alone and in so doing had got his priorities all wrong and Jesus encourages his disciples not to follow the example of the foolish rich man but rather to consider and prepare for heaven.
What have you done along these lines? Indeed have you paid any attention to this at all?
You really ought to because it is very important, so important that Jesus went on to say more quite a bit more about it.
Treasures in Heaven
The rich fool hadn’t actually set his sights very high had he? His horizons were dominated by nothing more significant than his barns. All his hopes were invested in those barns; that was where his treasure was located. This man was so caught up with his material concerns that he was totally unprepared to meet with God.
Jesus doesn’t want his followers to imitate that such an example. He wants his disciples to lift their eyes higher than that man had, much higher. He doesn’t want his followers to settle for something so paltry as the fame and fortune that this world has to offer. Men and women have been created for a relationship with God: how disastrous then to settle for something less than that, how pathetic too!
Jesus wants and encourages his followers to ensure that, whatever else they might have, they have treasure in heaven, that they be rich towards God. If they are rich towards God they will be well-prepared to meet him.
This being the case Jesus continued his teaching to describe how a person might seek to be rich towards God and he described in practical terms what this might look like.
Let me draw out from Jesus’ teaching a few simple steps:
1. We must settle it in our minds that such treasure in heaven is better than anything else that might be pursued and then go for it.
Jesus makes it clear what he thinks is important. Why waste your limited time and energy in worrying about those things that God will take care of anyway? Use your time and energies to pursue that which isn’t automatic: treasure in heaven, Jesus says it must be pursued.
So who will we believe? Will be listen to what Jesus says or merrily go our own way? Friends, will you take what Jesus says seriously and make it your priority?
2. We will need to take the necessary decisions that will free us up and not allow the draw of this world to bog us down.
The exact decisions you will have to take will probably differ in detail from the ones I will have to take. Each of us has his/her own particular make-up with their respective strengths and weaknesses. Know yourself and don’t be soft on yourself: take yourself in hand and take those decisions you know to be necessary. Elsewhere Jesus described the importance of it all in stark terms that are not meant to be followed to the letter but which nevertheless make it extremely clear just how ruthless we must be with ourselves:
Mk.9:43-48 "if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’"
3. We will apply Jesus’ teaching and instead of worrying about this world we will actively seek to put our trust in God.
That will mean that every time we find ourselves becoming unduly concerned about the everyday necessities of life we will consciously go back to God and we will deliberately remind ourselves of his power and his care and confess our need of his help so that we might put our trust in him.
3. We will aim to abandon the self-centred selfish foolishness of the rich man however alluring such a course of action might be and we will seek to replace it instead with a genuine spirit of generosity.
Paul wrote to Timothy to warn the rich:
1Tim.6:17-19 "nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life."
And that of course is in line with what Jesus taught here:
Lk.12:33 "Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys."
A word of caution is now necessary. This type of verse will often give rise to some extreme interpretations. So let me tell you that:
Jesus is NOT saying that ALL Christians must sell ALL they have and give ALL the proceeds away.
As ever context is our guide and the context for this statement is the parable of the rich fool. There selfish interests dominated everything. Jesus’ purpose was to counter this selfishness (which so easily affects us all) by replacing it with a spirit of unselfish generosity.
However, if we are not to understand Jesus’ words in their most extreme form, that does not mean that we are free to void them of all meaning for us. If we have become followers of Jesus Christ we are now members of God’s family and we should be developing something of that family-likeness in our lives. Our Heavenly Father is very generous having given us so much and so freely. It is only appropriate for us to become generous minded folk too.
Generosity is an attitude and a behaviour that is approved of in the Bible. The early church was characterised by it:
Acts 2:45 "And they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every one had need."
Cornelius, a Gentile, was commended for his generosity:
Acts 10:1-2 "At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God."
The Gentile churches too gave generously to support the struggling church in Jerusalem which was predominantly made up of Jewish background believers. Paul could write:
2Cor.9:5-6 "The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver."
When the Christian gives and gives freely and generously he is, according to Jesus, providing himself with a spiritual moneybag which is constantly being replenished.
Now again some folk go astray here and try to turn Jesus’ words into a recipe for personal financial success as though Jesus was merely teaching an alternative economic plan. We are to give freely not in order to make God give to us but because he has already given to us. Jesus is encouraging his disciple to set their sights on heavenly riches let’s not try to pull those riches back down to earth in the covetous spirit that Jesus has just been exposing as utterly foolishness.
It is question time again:
Am I so busy thinking about my own material self-interest that I’ve no time for any generosity? Have I no time to pursue those spiritual treasures that Jesus recommends?
And what about you?
We must pay attention to this because if we don’t we will not be ready for the time when God calls.
Parables of Preparedness
Sometimes it is easier for us to understand a truth if we see some examples of how it all works out in practice. So Jesus gives us two further illustrations to help us understand what being prepared is all about.
First off he gives the general instruction:
v.35 "Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning..."
Get ready and stay ready!
I guess most of you have had the following type of experience: you have arranged to go out for an event with your husband/wife, or with a friend and you’ve got ready but they seem to taking ages longer. You wait and you wait – you’re ready after all. But they’re still taking their time so you sit down for a moment and before you realise it you’ve settled to something – an article in the paper, another email or whatever. And you know what – you’re no longer ready. She’s ready now but now you’re not!
Jesus wants his followers to be ready and to go on being ready.
The first step we take in getting ready for God is conversion and it is absolutely essential. We have to stop heading in the direction we’ve been going in all our life and we must turn around and become a Christian No-one is ready to meet God if unconverted – the Christian life begins there and you can’t skip that way that passes by the Cross. But conversion isn’t the end it is only the beginning.
Now, you will have heard me say on many occasions that conversion is a fundamental, radical change, and so it is, but the Bible also teaches us in no uncertain terms that it is not those who make a beginning who are saved but those who endure to the end. Conversion brings us into the Christian life which then must be lived day after day.
We read of those who begin by putting their hand to the plough but who then turn back and Jesus tells us that they are not worthy of the Kingdom of God. Jesus never told us that the Christian life would be easy nevertheless he did insist that it is "the one who endures to the end will be saved." (Mt.10:22) and that more than once.
Now to those stories that illustrate the importance of being prepared.
The first story is found in vv.36-38 and it is a story with a twist:
Lk.12:36-37 "be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them."
A man has left his home to get married and he’s left his servants behind. They are to be ready to open up to him when he returns. But when will that be? The servants simply don’t know and there are no mobile phones to alert them! They have to be ready all the time. All the servants know is that their Master is coming back and they must be ready when he does arrive. The fact they don’t know when doesn’t affect the reality of his return one little bit.
It’s at this point that Jesus’ story introduces a remarkable detail and one that should prove to be a great encouragement to his disciples who are being taught that they too must be prepared for their meeting with God.
You would normally expect the returning Master to be waited on hand and foot by his servants wouldn’t you? But that is not what we find here. This Master upon finding his servants ready and waiting for him responds in an exceptional manner – instead of looking to be served he serves them! How blessed are the servants of that man!
And our Master, the Lord Jesus Christ is an exceptional Master! He came into this world not to be served but to serve. How blessed we are if we are his disciples and if we take his instructions seriously and act upon them!
The second story also emphasises the need to be ready and this time our thoughts are directed to the uncertainty of the hour.
v.39 "But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into."
I bet you would take some steps if you knew that a thief was going to try to break into your house in the early hours of tomorrow morning. Perhaps you would leave extra lights on or maybe you’d sit up in the lounge with the phone near at hand. Or maybe you’d invite someone else, preferably big and burly, to stop round. If you knew that your personal interest was at stake you’d take action. That is what Jesus is saying.
Now we don’t know when God is coming calling in our lives. Oh, he doesn’t come to steal but there will come a time when each of us will be called to meet him just as the rich man in the earlier parable – will we be ready? Will we have taken the necessary steps?
At the end of his ministry on earth Jesus ascended to heaven but he promised before leaving that he would indeed personally return – we don’t know when that will be either but we must be ready. We don’t know whether Jesus will come when we are still alive or whether we will die and be called away to meet God but we must be ready.
Jesus, in his loving concern for his followers, urged them to make spiritual preparations and to be spiritually ready. It is only in this life that we can make those preparations so don’t put it off saying to yourself "Later, later". It is urgent.
My friends don’t receive the grace of God in vain! "Behold, now is the favourable time; behold, now is the day of salvation."(2Cor.6:1+2) But "how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?"(Heb.2:3)