Stay Alert (August 11, 2013)

sermons.fw STAY ALERT
A sermon preached by
Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, August 11, 2013

Text:  Luke 12:32-40

Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.
The time is drawing nigh.

So sings the old spiritual, with words of warning to stay alert and be prepared for the coming “Day of the Lord.”  Or is it the day of freedom?  Is this one of those great signaling songs about the underground railroad and the way to liberation?  Stay alert. “There’s a better day a comin’, fare thee well, fare thee well.  In that great gittin’ up morning, fare thee well, fare thee well.” “My Lord, what a morning when the stars begin to fall!”  These songs and many others like them sing the hope of a people for freedom from slavery, for a better life lived in liberty, for the promises they heard in God’s word and longed to claim for themselves and their families.

Earlier this summer I saw a semi-staged version of West Side Story, the great American musical about life among poor white and Puerto Rican youth in 1950s New York City.  Early in the musical, Tony, the white boy who is the musical’s hero, is persuaded by Riff, the leader of the Jets, his former gang, to join them at the neighborhood dance that night, not knowing that Riff intends to start a rumble with the rival Sharks.  Tony agrees to go along with his old friend, though he is clear he wants no more part of gang activity.  At the end of the scene with Riff, he breaks into this powerful song of hope for a better future.

Could be
Who knows?
There’s something due any day
I will know right away
Soon as it shows
It may come cannonballin’ down through the sky
Gleam in its eye
Bright as a rose!
Who knows?
It’s only just out of reach
Down the block, on a beach
Under a tree
I got a feeling there’s a miracle due
Gonna come true
Coming to me
Could it be?
Yes it could
Something’s coming
Something good
If I can wait
Something’s coming I don’t know what it is
But it is
Gonna be great!
With a click
With a shock
Phone’ll jingle
Door’ll knock
Open the latch!
Something’s coming, don’t know when
But it’s soon
Catch the moon
One handed catch
Around the corner
Or whistling down the river
Come on – deliver
To me
Will it be? Yes it will
Maybe just by holding still
It’ll be there!
Come on, something, come on in
Don’t be shy
Meet a guy
Pull up a chair
The air is hummin’
And something great is coming
Who knows
It’s only just
Out of reach
Down the block, on a beach
Maybe tonight
Maybe tonight…

Stay alert, Tony.  Keep your lamp trimmed and burning.  The day is drawing nigh.  Something’s coming, something good, something great…maybe tonight.

Of course, Tony doesn’t live to see the day.  Neither did many of the African slaves in the USA.  Nor did those who first heard Jesus’ words as recorded in Luke.  Nor did many an Israelite who wandered in the wilderness.  The “Day of the Lord” did not come soon enough for them – at least not that grand apocalyptic day of radical transformation.  God’s kingdom did not come on earth as it is in heaven.  Still the hope lived on and it lives on today.  Stay alert.  You don’t know when the Bridegroom may return – or the thief break in.  You’re never sure when God may show up in your life – or the evil one challenge you from within or without.

We know that, for those who first heard Luke’s gospel, there was an eager expectation that Christ would return soon and make all right with the world, that the day of God’s final judgment was imminent and they’d better be prepared.  We don’t live so much with that expectation or even hope anymore.  I suspect most of us are not at all eager for the “Day of the Lord.”  We are not looking for God’s final judgment any time soon.  So, maybe these ancient words don’t have much to say to us.  Maybe we live in such comfort that we are not caught up in the Hebrews’ hope for a promised land, in the slave’s longing for freedom, in Tony’s dream of something better than the poverty and violence of the city’s streets, in the early church’s longing for Christ’s return.

Stay alert.  For what, we might ask.  We don’t live in that three story universe in which we hope to achieve heaven and avoid hell.  Most of us don’t worry about the devil.   We know there is evil in the world, but by and large it bypasses us.  We’re not so directly affected.  Our fears are not much the imminent danger of poverty, war, displacement, hunger, homelessness, street violence.  So when Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock…” does it have any meaning for us?  Does it touch you at all where you live?

Well, let’s take a minute and consider these words, “Do not be afraid, little flock…”  Of what might we be afraid, you and me?  Are you ever afraid of not being in control?  Do you ever worry about a lack of security?  Have you saved enough, accumulated enough to keep you comfortable and safe?  Are you ever concerned about thieves breaking in?  Any anxiety about the kind of future your children might face?  Perhaps our fears are not as dramatic as those of the most needy of our sisters and brothers, but they are certainly real for us.

Now the point is not to encourage us to dwell on our fears, to overinvest in them, to make them worse.  The encouraging, hopeful word in Luke’s story is just the opposite.  Before today’s text, Jesus has been talking to his followers about letting go of their fears and anxieties.  “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (Luke 12:22-31).

Life is more than food and the body more than clothing.  Strive for the reign of God and you will have all that you need.  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  We need to hear very clearly.  The word is not that God wants us to work hard and do right so we can earn God’s favor.  It’s not stay alert and don’t mess up because that’s your heavenly insurance policy.  It’s that God wants to give us the delights of God’s realm.  God wants to shower us with the abundance and joy of God’s reign.  It’s God’s pleasure to welcome us home.  We don’t need to worry about anything.  God will take care of us, if we let her.

In our words of preparation, Alyce McKenzie writes of the place of fear in our lives: “We are all wrong about fear. We think it is our protective shield. But fear is the thief. When we dwell on our fears, they become our treasures. Jesus says, ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’. Faith is the genuine treasure we are to be accumulating, but we get it backwards when our fears fill our hearts and faith cannot gain entrance.”

So when I say stay alert, it’s not meant to be an admonishment to fear and anxiety.  Rather I see it as an invitation to faithful living.  It’s a word about watching over our lives so that unwarranted fear and anxiety do not come creeping in as a thief in the night and take over.  Stay alert, be mindful, so that the mighty movement of God in our lives and in the world all around us will be so obvious to us that we fall right in.  McKenzie again writes, “Live in the past and you will be depressed. Live in the future and you will be anxious. Live in the present with gratitude and you will be at peace.  From our Christian perspective the message is that that we need to be preoccupied, but not with fear and anxiety. We need to be preoccupied in the present with faith in God’s future.”  As children of God and disciples of the living Lord are our eyes and ears, our hearts and minds focused with faith on God’s future rather than self-absorbed with the petty details of our daily existence?  Stay alert to what is so much larger and more wonderful than we could ever imagine on our own.  Stay alert for that which can only nourish us and make us whole.

Friends, something’s coming, something good, something great.  Stay alert.  It may not be the apocalyptic “Day of the Lord” but “there’s a better day a comin’.”  Not only will it be showered upon us liberally without our ever lifting a finger, we can also be a part of making it happen – not because it demanded of us as a way of earning our salvation – but because that is where our treasure lies and, with it, our hearts.  Stay alert.  It can only lead us to the goodness of God.  Amen.