My grandmother was a marvellous woman – tough as they come and resourceful. She knew a thing or two about life. One of the most amazing things about her was her handbag. It didn’t seem that big, but I remember that she seemed to have everything you could possibly ever need in any circumstance in that bag.
There were tissues and tablets, tools, and all kinds of other things that you’d never think you might need. But she was never caught out by life. When I think of her now, she is indelibly tied to that great handbag of hers. She lived out a life that could have been defined by the phrase be prepared. And, of course, that is the theme of our reading from the Gospel of Luke today.
It begins with a rather charming image. The writer reports that Jesus talks about the servants being ready for work and uses two images. First, in the Middle East you would have to gather up your robes and tuck them into your girdle in order to work. Second – lamps. The lamps would have been oil in a kind of sauce boat with a floating cotton wick, and you needed to constantly attend to them if you didn’t want the light to go out. These days I’m sure he would use other images, like having your phone charged, but these were deeply relevant and relatable to the people who heard them. Be ready. Be prepared.
To really understand this reading we need to travel back in time in order to understand the mindset of those who would have heard it.
The gospel was written after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. There was an urgent thought that he would return very very soon and the world would be thrown into turmoil into the end times. You see this throughout the gospels and the letters of Saint Paul, indeed Paul advises people only to get married if they have to – not because he was against marriage but he was so convinced that the end was near that he thought there was no time for that kind of thing. We call this eschatology; the study the theory of what happens when the world ends and when it’s likely to end.
And these people at this time thought they maybe only had days or weeks to go. I wonder how that would shape your life and how it might shape our lives. Frankly I think we’ve become rather complacent, I certainly have. I lived my life thinking that things would just go on forever and that in many ways dictates the way I act maybe it stops me being as urgent about some things as I need to be.
These days the only people who seem to be interested in eschatology are the cults who will grandly declare that the end is going to happen next Thursday at three o’clock. But of course they’re wrong too because the reading says you don’t know when it’s going to happen but be ready.
So, what would it look like – life lived being prepared for the ultimate ending of everything? How might we live our lives?
I think the first thing to be said is that we would need to answer some of the more urgent questions that we pushed to the back of our mind. The question for instance of is there God? And all the other questions that come from that like – what is he like, what would he ask of us what might we need to do in response to the stunning revelation that there is an author behind the universe?
CS Lewis said that this was the ultimate question that all intelligent people should ask and answer. He said that this cannot be a question of no important it’s the question of ultimate importance. The pledges made at a baptism frame and answer this ultimate question.
I ask you just to take some time to think about it if there is a God and that God is the source of all goodness and beauty and creativity and joy is it time to go on that great adventure towards him? If you’re on that journey, how might you go deeper with God?
I think the second way that this might help us to be kind of different actors in the in the stories of our lives is that we may not any longer put off the really important things that need to be done and put right.
If we live with the sense that God asks us to be ready – that the end can come at any time, even today – then I think the first thing I would do is not make a bucket list a rather trivial excitements. I don’t need to climb a mountain or jump out of an airplane or drink the finest wine. No what I would want to do is to make good with those around me and make good with myself.
It would not, should not, lead to frantic action – and notice that passage from the gospel of Luke doesn’t ask us to indulge in frantic action. Instead it should, could, can drive us to deep peace and a sense of perspective on the tumults of our lives. That means making good with people that we have wronged people, who have wronged us and making good with ourselves. Because peace is the great marker, not fear, of this end-times perspective.
Peace and focus. Get the important things done.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about this kind of thing during COVID. For the first part of it I was a parish priest in Wembley. A truly unexpected thing had happened and the response to begin with was just shock but then I think it was a case of just doing the things that had to be done and needed to be done.
One of those was that every day, I rang members of my congregation just to see how they were, so they heard a friendly voice. It wasn’t particularly earth shattering but it was important.
The other thing was that I got to reflect on the important thins in life. I spent a lot of time in the garden. I found myself just loving sitting there watching the birds enjoying the clouds in the sky the trees and being peaceful. In a rather end-times way I was shocked from complacency into that sense of needing to be ready, to be prepared and despite all this allow myself to be at peace despite the uncertainty. Deep security that God is there with us every step of the way. We can be ready and at peace.
Although it has always made me laugh, it is the opposite of the car sticker I once saw when I was in California – Jesus is coming, look busy.
I think that’s one thing that we may all be able to do in the coming week. Be aware that nothing is permanent, and we don’t know when everything is going to end, but it might do; and if it does that means that we need to be ready and prepared and that means making good.
And so I leave you with a poem by the American farmer activist and poet Wendell Berry that I think sums up where I’ve got to and I hope it helps you focus and be prepared as well.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.