Watch and Pray
In the film Spartacus which is still shown on TV from time to time, there is a scene in which the gladiators are training. There is a machine with two level swords, pointing in opposite directions. One of the swords is at neck height and the other sword is at knee height. The gladiator has to stand inside the length of the two swords while a slave turns the swords on an axle, beginning slowly and increasing the speed. The gladiator has to jump to miss the knee high sword and then duck to miss the neck high sword. If he stumbles or is not quick enough, the swords will either cut his legs off or cut his neck off. It was an extreme form of training.
Ezekiel’s call was a bit like that. He was to be like a watchman. He was to warn people of their sins. If he failed to do so - God would blame him for the sins of the people he failed to warn. If Ezekiel warned the people but they did not listen to him, they would perish but he would be absolved of blame. If Ezekiel warned the people of their sins and they changed then they would be saved and so would he. The passage indicates that Ezekiel was persecuted for telling the people what they did not want to hear.
In Jesus’ wonderful story, he teaches that Christians are always to be spiritually ready for anything. Christians are to be ready for Jesus Himself and Christians are to be ready for to meet God. Jesus speaks about a man who is away attending a wedding banquet. These could sometimes go on for days - longer than a meal, booze up and noisy disco at the Goth, Armadale. The servants could say to one another “Ach - who knows when he’ll be back - no problem” and they could relax their duties as security guards over the estate. Or, they could be dutiful and keep their watch with eyes peeled for any possible thieves. In the film Mrs Brown, John Brown is portrayed as a faithful servant - ever vigilant to the point of obsession for the safety of Queen Victoria. He checks and double checks all the doors at Balmoral. He stalks the grounds for intruders. He chases away journalists. He is first to spot a would be IRA assassin running towards the Queen’s carriage in London and prevents any harm to her Majesty. That is the kind of servant Jesus is saying we Christians should be for Him. Jesus says that if the master finds his servants vigilant he will tell them to have the evening off and he will make their meal for them and serve them himself as a reward. That echoes Jesus' gracious words of invitation which we use at services of Holy Communion and his washing of his disciples’ feet during his last days with them.
None of us knows when tests and trials will come. They often appear suddenly and we are often unprepared. People are always saying “It is just as well we don’t know what is coming to us”. Peter asks Jesus if this parable is for the disciples only or for everyone. Jesus gives another version of the story to answer the question. He talks of a faithful and wise manager who is put in charge of the servants. We can take it that he is looking straight at Peter and Peter is realising that Jesus is talking about him. The servants’ manager’s first duty is to look after the servants and make sure they are fed properly. If the servant manager is caring in doing this - he is given promotion. If, however, the servant manager neglects the servants and treats them cruelly, and uses their rations for himself, he will be dismissed. Remember Robert Maxwell. He raided his employees pension funds to try to keep his companies afloat. That’s the kind of person Jesus is talking about.
Jesus distinguishes those who should know better from those who don’t know any better. He says that those who have received a lot of understanding, and grace, responsibility and position must act accordingly. Peter, I surmise, got the message. The disciples were privileged to live with Jesus and to be taught by Him. But - in time - they would have to share in the proclamation of the Gospel. If - for any reason - they fell by the way, became disinterested or lazy - they would pay a high price. We know only of Judas who went wrong. It seems all the others were faithful to their calling as disciples turned apostles in the early Church.
It is always helpful to use sporting comparisons. Chris Hoy the Olympic cyclist is already training for the 2012 London Olympics. You’d think he could give himself a while to relax and take things easy and pick up his training maybe in 2011. No chance. He cannot let himself or his body go. Rebecca Adlington, the Olympic swimmer is the same. She had to decide weeks after winning her gold medal whether she would compete again in 2012 and if so, her training regime would begin now. Each year, footballers arrive back in late June for pre-season training from their one month holiday break. Some have let themselves go and have put on weight. They tend to vomit and faint during the early days of training. Some however, have kept themselves honed even while on holiday, running on beaches and exercising in gyms. They find the first days of training much easier to deal with.
Spiritually speaking, Jesus wants our attention all the time. We are to be switched on, ready and prepared - for anything. There’s no point in sugar-coating this message. It is about being prepared for eternity. We all know how suddenly this can come upon us - wholly unexpected - unjust- unfair - heart-breaking - and unavoidable.
The parable asks us whether our work is completed. Have we tied up the loose ends? Are there things we need to do for our family and for our Church? Have we put our affairs in order. I recently conducted a twice postponed funeral service where there was no will and dispute will continue for some time. If there is any task that you and I have to do let us attend to it. Jesus Himself was able to say on the cross “It is accomplished”. He had completed his Father’s will and His last moments were filled with peace.
We should also make our peace with anyone with whom we are in disagreement or dispute. If you have attended a funeral service here you may remember that I often include in the prayers the following words “Let us make our peace with so and so who has left our human family and company; let us make our peace with one another, let each of us make our peace with our self and in this sacred moment when earth and heaven touch, let each of us make our peace with God”.
One of the reasons I do not object to conducting parish funerals is that I do not know whether the person who has died has perhaps said a few last words of prayer. God knows. Suppose the person has and then the family are not made welcome to a church funeral service - there’s something wrong there. Another reason is to give people the opportunity to say ‘Sorry’ and find some healing for the guilt and anger, quarrelling and fall outs that often accompany family life. Jesus’ great parable of the vineyard teaches that even if someone turns to God in the last moments of life - that person is accepted.
Another message of this story today is that we should not be compartmentalising our Christian life and that is something that Church of Scotland people do quite a lot. They can live as a true Christian only for part of the time. They are happy and even keen to forget that they are Christians at other times. Indeed- this is a way of life for many church goers. And that is why the spiritual temperature of congregations can be low and why renewal and revival is kept at a distance. Unquestionably, this is an issue in the eldership of the Church of Scotland also. Jesus’ story is asking for greater all round faithfulness and commitment to the cause of Christianity. Take that to heart and respond to his challenge and invitation.
Lastly, the story warns us not to think that we can delay and procrastinate. Often I hear people say that there are things they must do - and they never get round to doing them. We are happy to think about future events, holidays and events in years to come. There’s nothing wrong with that. But we should not put off things that are important. While we have the opportunity, we should deal with them. One of the great regrets many have is that there were words they wanted to say to loved ones and they did not say them.
But the great message of today’s Old and New Testament readings is that we are to be watchful and continue to pray all the time. We don’t get a day off as a Christian or a holiday from being a Christian. We can’t opt out three days a week from being a Christian or even a few hours a day. You may not like that teaching and you may not like that pressure being applied. But if you want to follow Jesus Christ and be obedient to Him, then this is what He asks of you and me. It is good to be spiritually ‘on the ball’, ready, anticipating, optimistic and positive. That’s how the Church started and that is how it can survive and grow. That’s how your Christian life and mine should be.