This just in—Jesus is coming back. So look busy. You’ve seen those t-shirts. And the bumper stickers: In case of the rapture, this car will be unmanned. I’d take away that person’s license right now! Just kidding. But you know what I mean.
Jesus is coming back. That’s the promise he made. And today’s Gospel asks us to be ready for his return. “Let your belts be fastened around your waist and your lamps be burning ready. Be like those waiting their master’s return from a wedding, so that when he arrives and knocks, you will open for him without delay.” Does that scene spark any memories for you? It ought to sound a little like our Easter vigil. Gathered outside, candles in hand, we await Christ’s return. “Should he happen to return at midnight or before sunrise, it will go well with them.” That’s a vigil: waiting through the night for Christ to return.
Note that this vigil, both in the Gospel, and in our Easter observance, finds us waiting alert, but without fear. When you hear some people talk about Jesus’ return, you can hear fear in their voices. The fear that the world isn’t ready. That when Christ comes, he will bring harsh judgement. And underlying that, I think, is the fear that in the ensuing battle between Good and Evil, there is the possibility that we will be caught in the middle, and could be squashed like bugs.
But we don’t need to live with any such fears. We can be free of fear both because of what we know, and what we don’t know. What we don’t know is the day or the hour of Christ’s return. Jesus in the Gospels tells is that we won’t know, it’s going to be a surprise, and even he doesn’t know when he’ll return. So, any time you hear someone claiming to know the day of Christ’s return, walk away. They have been deceived. All of the parables of the last days, and the direct questioning of the disciples, make it clear that we cannot know the time of Christ’s return.
What we do know ought to relieve our fears. In today’s Gospel, what does the master do when he returns from this wedding banquet? Does he line the servants up and grill them on how they’ve been wasting their time? Does he demand that they run him a hot bath and prepare his supper? That would seem reasonable. But instead, he sits them down, and proceeds to wait on them. His return doesn’t appear to me to involve much harsh judgement. [In the longer version of today’s Gospel] there is some punishment to be meted out to the servants who were misbehaving in his absence. But that’s God’s justice at work. We expect those who do wrong to face God’s justice. That’s not harsh judgement. And it’s not something we ought to fear. What we have to do is stay alert for his return.
One reason we await his return without fear is that he’s never been entirely gone. We do not believe that God has ever abandoned the world to the power of evil. Christ has never left us alone. It’s not like God has had his back turned, and is going to whip around to see what we’ve been up to. Christ is present to us today, and every day. Christ is present when his disciples gather, present when we break open the Word together, and present when we break the bread. And we have the presence in our world—in our selves!—of the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit dwells in us, nurtures us, and guides us. With so many ways that God has chosen to remain with us, why should we fear his return?
Our preparation for Christ’s return, is to do what he asked us to do: to live in service of one another, to seek justice, to forgive one another, and to proclaim to the world the salvation that God offers us in Christ. We know what God wants; we hear it proclaimed every week. For those who hear, and understand, and make a choice to do otherwise, there will be consequences at the final judgement. For those who struggle to serve, to seek to forgive, and who share the love of God, there is no need for fear.
There’s also no need of any special preparation. We know that we should be living every day alert and ready for Christ’s return. We don’t have to retreat to a mountainside and wait for the Rapture to come and vacuum us all into heaven. Because, after all, Christ may not return this afternoon, but I could step off a curb and be hit by a bus, right? So, the right thing to do is to live each day, ready for Christ’s return, or for my return to Christ. That shouldn’t make anyone afraid. Today’s Gospel begins, “Do not live in fear.” But it should keep us alert, engaged in the world around us, using the gifts God has given us to carry out the work he has given us. That’s what is means to be a faithful servant, ready for Christ’s return.