Ready, Steady, Go
“Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Luke 12.40)
Jesus clearly wants each one of us to be ready at all times to be His disciple and to do His will. In this parable, He uses late-night imagery to get his point across. He uses two predawn pictures in particular: first, a master’s arrival home in the wee hours after a very long wedding reception, and second, a home invasion by an unexpected bandit. Jesus’ intention is to rouse us to readiness.
These stories beg the question: what does it look like to a Christian to work the night shift?
Jesus gives us three “readiness directives” - first, we must keep our “loins girded”. Second, we must keep our lamps burning. And third, we must keep watch all through the night. If you’re following the outline in your bulletin, that’s “Keep your Gird Together”, “Keep Your Lamp Hot”, and “Keep Your Watch Wound”.
First, if you want to be ready when the master comes, you must Keep Your Gird Together
This implies both doing good & being good. Being ready for Jesus requires that we exhibit both social justice and personal virtue. Keeping your gird together means both serving others and exercising self-control.
Most modern translations try to clean up the awkwardness of the original Greek, which is unapologetic: Jesus said, “gird your loins”. And that literally means what you think it literally means. I believe we lose something in translation when we safely say, “be dressed and ready” instead of “gird your loins.” Let’s examine that phrase so we can understand Jesus better.
Until the last 150 years or so with the invention of sewing machines, clothing was very hard to come by and therefore very expensive. Consequently, most people owned very little clothing, and in the time of Jesus, it is likely that many people who heard him had just one tunic and one robe. A tunic is basically a long t-shirt that extends below the waistline, like a nightshirt. A robe was essentially a blanket that would be draped over the tunic for warmth and in some cases, if you could afford it, color and fashion.
While that outfit was good for wearing around the house and to the market, it was definitely not suited for hard work. For men in particular, this loose-flowing outfit made any kind of strenuous activity quite uncomfortable. And so most men also had one additional long strip of cloth they used for work, which they would wrap around their waists, and elsewhere, to keep things together. This was the equivalent of putting on work clothes.
And so when Jesus says, “gird your loins”, he’s basically saying, “Get your stuff together so you can get to work.” He is telling us to get ready for physical action, for service, for work – in other words, we must be actively serving: which means doing good.
But we’re not done yet. There is another implication to “girding your loins”, and that is self-control, or the notion of being good. Today, most passionate and devout Christians fall into one of two errors: they either promote being good over doing good (“so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good”) or they promote doing good over being good (attempting to cover up reckless and immoral personal lives with the whitewash of social justice). As I read the scriptures, virtue demands both - doing good and being good. Galatians 6.9 says:
“And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. (Galatians 6.9)
This is one of thousands of scriptures exhorting us to do good deeds and to care for those in need. But the scriptures also have much to say about morality and personal virtue. 1 Peter 5:8 warns us:
“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” (1 Peter 5.8)
So when Jesus says, in effect, “Get your gird on,” He is confronting our complacency which avoids doing good deeds and our apathy which brushes aside the higher road of being good: of virtue and personal morality.
Second, Jesus also warns us to Keep our Lamps Hot
Today we also lose something in the translation “keep your lamps burning” - but this time it isn’t the language that gives us problems, but our modern culture and the convenience of cheap electricity. Ok, it’s not cheap. But it is cheapest between the hours of midnight and 6am now in San Diego. I won’t comment further on the new 4pm to 9pm rate hike.
Like my father and his father before him, I have discovered that I, too, have a special nerve that my children drill mercilessly when they leave the lights on. Or the computer, or the fan, or the TV. I take no joy in the fact that I am paying to provide precious electricity to our very special guest who I have learned is named, “Wasn’t me.” We wouldn’t want “Wasn’t me” to stub their toe in that well-lit room in the middle of the day, now, would we? Let’s just leave the lights on for our special houseguest. And here, “Wasn’t me”, maybe you’d like to play a little Fortnight while we’re all at work and school, so we’ll just leave the computer fired up and running, all day, just in case, just for you. But I digress. Sigh.
No, we certainly don’t think about lamps the same way that people in Jesus’ day did. What did it take to keep a lamp burning in the old days? Oil. Lots of oil. If you want to turn on the lights, you would fill a little bowl with oil, put a piece of cloth in it and hang it over the edge, and light the end. Let there be light! But it took work – and it took even more work to keep the lamp burning into the night. Why? Because oil is consumed. It runs out. Like a car needs constant refueling, so does a lamp.
Here’s the point: in order to keep your lamp burning hot, you’ve got to keep adding fuel to the fire. In other words, Jesus is calling us to constantly refuel our lamps, to recharge our spirits, to draw from the wellspring of life, which is to walk in the Spirit. How do we do that? Happily, God makes an ample supply of oil for our lamps available through fellowship, through worship, through prayer (please come to the Wednesday night Bible study Paige will be teaching on prayer after her series on why God allows bad things to happen to good people), and through meditating on His word. All you will ever need is yours for the asking. But if we make the mistake of removing ourselves from His supply, each one of our lamps will die out quickly.
We all love to give advice and subject people to our opinions. But not all of our advice is worth giving, and most of our opinions are not worth airing. As Ed Poole says in The Porch, our wonderful small group study on Sunday mornings before church, “There are opinions, and there are considered opinions.” You can guess which one is preferred.
The simple fact is that you can’t give what you don’t have. A bright lamp requires a steady supply of oil. God’s light and truth and love cannot flow through you unless they first flow abundantly to you. Unless our opinions and advice flow from the wisdom that God provides, we’re wasting time and casting darkness, not light. If we want to be ready for the Master to come, our job is to constantly refuel our lamps by meditating on God and His truth and His love. As the psalmist said:
“When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches.” (Psalm 63.6)
Finally, Jesus exhorts us to Keep our Watch Wound.
One more cultural gap exists in this passage: Jesus mentions the “second and third watch”, which is a reference to the overnight shifts people worked in His day. Before modern locks and security cameras, people took shifts keeping a watch over a house or a fortress for security. In Jewish custom, there were three night watches of about four hours each. The first watch was roughly from sunset to about to 10pm, the second watch was from about 10pm to 2am, and the third watch was from about 2am to 6am when the sun came up.
You can imagine how hard it was to stay awake during the late watches! But what are the second and third watches in our day? Is Jesus telling us we need to stay up all night every night. No. Jesus is referring to the seasons of life. The first watch represents childhood. The second watch represents adulthood. And the third watch is that most perilous season known as old age.
I spent some time being instructed by weeds recently. I observed that weeds are experts at coming back. I suppose that’s what differentiates weeds from roses: you can kill a rose and it will never return, but a weed is forever. They are seed-producing wonders! So we’ve got to deal with them every spring. And if we let even a single weed grow to the point where it can germinate – which is when it’s seeds are ready to spread – watch out for even more weeds next year!
Do you think it is possible for weeds to grow in our hearts?
Can weeds get into our attitudes and our minds, and can we let them go so long that they germinate and spread, and grow out of control?
How quickly we turn from waving palm branches outside Jerusalem and shouting “Hosanna! Lord, Save me!”, to hiding in the rough like Adam and shouting “Whoa! Lord, stay away from me!” It’s only a week - less than a week, in fact - between Palm Sunday and Crucifixion Friday.
As we grow older and more established in life and in our ways, complacency threatens our spiritual existence like a weed. It is very tempting to let loose a little bit and cast ethical and moral vigilance aside. It is very tempting after a life of doing what is right to take it easy and to doze off, even when the Master is about to knock.
We have to remain vigilant as we grow older, and not grow weary of picking the weeds that crop up in our attitudes and our behavior. It is a cold seduction, becoming cavalier about sin and calloused when confronted by the suffering of our fellow man. But the faithful servant is vigilant. He is not slack. She does not doze off. Not when the night grows long. The expectant steward disciplines themselves to stay ready to the very end, straight on until morning.
“You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober.” (1 Thessalonians 5.5-6)
Ready or Not ...
There are no mulligans at the Masters. There won’t be time for a second serve in the final match. We won’t be able to say, “hold on a minute, let me find my girdle, I think it’s here somewhere,” when that eye twinkles.
We must be ready to go at a moment’s notice, living every moment as if he were at the door. Every temptation we face, avery crisis we encounter, every breath we take, he’ll be watching us. Every moment should be lived as if it is that moment. Knowing this should completely overhaul our speech, our actions, our thinking, our attitude, and the way we treat everyone around us, especially our enemies and those who mistreat us, who are just as much in need of God’s grace as any one of us.
His return is imminent. He will be here soon – and very, very soon.
And he said to me, “Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand.
He who is unjust, let him be unjust still;
he who is filthy, let him be filthy still;
he who is righteous, let him be righteous still;
he who is holy, let him be holy still.”