Topical Scripture: Luke 12:35-50
When the COVID-19 pandemic began last March, a prominent church where I live put up a billboard that drew citywide attention: “Is the coronavirus a judgment from God?”
As part of my work, I am often interviewed by Christian radio stations around the nation. This is the most common question I’ve been asked over these months.
I understand the question. In Luke 21, Jesus predicted that “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” (v. 10). Russia’s president recently stated that his navy would be armed with hypersonic nuclear strike weapons that would be difficult for the US to track and intercept. Experts say that the risk of military conflict with China is higher than ever.
Jesus added, “There will be earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven” (v. 11). We have seen earthquakes in California this week. The coronavirus “pestilence” has taken more than seven hundred thousand lives. Experts say it has put 265 million people at risk of famine. “Terrors” from heaven include Hurricane Isaias that has battered the East Coast this week.
Jesus added, “They will lay their hands on you and persecute you” (v. 12). China is persecuting Christians in unprecedented ways, including posting pictures of President Xi and demanding that believers worship him.
However, my purpose today is not to predict the return of Christ, an event about which our Lord said no one knows the day or the hour (Matthew 24:36). Rather, my purpose is to help us be ready when the Lord comes for us or we go to him. I cannot tell you when eternity will begin for you, but I can tell you that you are one day closer than ever before. And I can tell you that you have only today to be ready.
In our series in Jesus’ parables titled “Hope for Hard Times,” we come this week to his most urgent story. Let’s walk through it together. We will find some very practical principles for living in pandemic days. Then we will decide whether or not to apply them to our lives, today.
A parable of urgency
Our parable begins, “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning” (Luke 12:35). “Stay dressed” is literally, “keep your loins girded,” a reference to the outer robe of the day. Such robes were difficult to move quickly in, so people would gather them around their waist if they were preparing to run.
Jesus’ words translate a present tense imperative that could be translated, “Be always dressed, beginning now!” We are to be ready for service whenever our returning master comes, clothed for work with our tools at the ready, fully prepared.
We are to “keep your lamps burning” so we can leap into action at a moment’s notice. Lamps in Jesus’ day burned olive oil and were difficult to light, so prepared servants kept their lamps lit and filled with oil (cf. Matthew 25:1–10). The fact that they were needed points to a late hour of the night. Nonetheless, these servants will be ready when their master returns.
Jesus continues: “And be like men who are waiting for their masters to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him when he comes and knocks” (Luke 12:36). Feasts after a wedding could last as long as a week, so the master’s return home could not be predicted with accuracy. It could be any day or night.
Nonetheless, his servants are to be ready to open the door “at once when he comes and knocks,” ready every moment of the day or night.
Verse 37: “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.” It was most unusual in Jesus’ day for the master to serve the servants, but that is how this master will reward those who are faithfully ready for his return.
Verse 38: “If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants!” The Jews had three night watches (sunset–10 PM, 10–2 AM, 2–6 AM; cf. Judges 7:19). Assuming the wedding banquet began during the first watch, the master could return any time between 10 PM and 6 AM. As a result, his servants were obligated to stay awake and ready all night long.
Jesus adds: “But know this, 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” (v. 39). Typical homes of the period had mud brick walls a thief could “break” or tunnel through, but the process took time and was loud. Thus, unlike a thief picking a lock and entering a home quietly, thievery in their day happened when the owner was gone.
So with our Lord’s return: “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (v. 40). “You” is plural, referring to all believers. “Be ready” is a present tense imperative, translated, “Be constantly on the ready.” “The Son of Man” is Jesus’ favorite designation for himself. “Is coming” shows that his return is certain. “At an hour you do not expect” shows, however, that the timing of his return is known only to him.
To summarize: we are servants of a Master. Our Master is coming back. He wants us to be ready when he returns, knowing that he could come any time, even now.
What does this parable say to us in these pandemic times?
How to be blessed by our Master
Let’s consider two biblical applications.
One: Our job is not to predict our Lord’s return but to be ready to meet him.
When I am asked if the pandemic is God’s judgment, my answer is “yes” and “no.” We are living in a fallen world that is suffering as a result of the original sin (Romans 8:22). In this sense, hurricanes, earthquakes, and natural diseases are God’s judgment on sin.
But I do not see the pandemic as a specific judgment initiated by God. Biblical judgments through disease are supernatural in origin, as with boils in Egypt and the “pestilence” in Revelation. COVID-19 seems to be naturally occurring, like flu, smallpox, etc.
Also, biblical judgments are against specific sins and sinners, from Pharaoh’s obstinacy to Herod’s idolatry. No specific sins caused this virus. Nor are those affected by it more sinful than others. It originated in Communist China but has spread across the world.
And such speculation keeps us from the practical response the pandemic illustrates: we are all mortal. We are all dying. We must all be ready for eternity.
If it were today, would you be ready?
Two: To know God, serve God.
In the parable, the master serves those who were serving him. This is an astounding description of our true Master. In Jesus’ day, masters often had many servants. However, they never served their servants.
But our God does.
There is a divine-human partnership at work in the world. As we work, God works. As we share our faith, meet human need, and serve in other ways, we experience God in ways we cannot otherwise know him.
This principle contradicts two cultural lies that are popular today.
The first is that God, if he exists, is removed and distant from the world. Many see him as a kind of deistic clockmaker who made the world, set it on his mantle, and now watches it run down. They are convinced that science has disproved biblical miracles and that the creator is irrelevant to his creation.
However, as Jesus’ parable shows, the master is intimately engaged in the home he owns. He is at work through his servants and in their lives.
This leads to a second cultural lie: that religion is to be divorced from the “real world.”
Just as our God is at work today, so we are to be at work today. We are to “go” into the world to make disciples of all nations. We are to feed the hungry and care for the sick. We are to be the hands and feet of Jesus in his world.
In fact, when we serve God, we meet God.
If a farmer is at work in his field, the best way to experience a personal relationship with him is to join him at work in his field. As Henry Blackaby noted, to experience God we need to find where he is at work and join him.
And as we serve Jesus, we experience Jesus. In fact, the more we serve him, the more we experience him.
How fully would he say you are serving him today?
The best way to live every day is to live every day as if it were our last day; to forgive those we need to forgive; to seek forgiveness from those we need to seek forgiveness from. To serve those we can. To obey God’s word and will as fully as if he were watching us, because he is.
This way of living redeems even pandemic days. It calls us to reach out to those who are hurting physically, relationally, or financially. It calls us to grieve with those who grieve. It calls us to be the presence of Jesus in the world until Jesus returns to the world.
And living every day as our last day is the best way to be right with the One who is coming for us all.
In one of the churches I pastored, I preached one Sunday morning on the theme of judgment and the need to be ready today. That night, after our evening service, an elderly couple in the church stopped me to thank me for the morning message. They told me that they took it to heart, spending time that afternoon praying and being sure they were ready to meet God.
The next day, the wife died of a heart attack. The following day, I received a thank-you note from her in the mail. She had written it Sunday afternoon and put it in her mailbox in case she did not see me that night. She died on Monday; I received her note on Tuesday; and I read it in her memorial service on Wednesday.
We are one day closer to eternity than ever before. Are you ready?