A sermon preached by the Reverend Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, August 7th 2022
This week’s question is, ‘How do you feel about the future?’
Last Sunday the morning the question was, ‘What’s life all about?’ We heard Jesus’s parable about a rich landowner whose plans for a future of business expansion, accompanied by eating, drinking and merrymaking, came to a crashing halt due his unexpected death: his future arrived in the here and now; that very night. (Luke 12: 31-21) Things would have turned out better for him had he thought of God first, others second, selves third in his approach to life in the here and now.
Today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel follows on almost immediately after the story of the foolish, rich landowner. In between, there are a few well-known verses where Jesus encourages people not to spend all their time striving for things in the here and now: ‘Consider the ravens … consider the lilies … they neither toil nor spin.’ (12:22, 27) Be confident, Jesus says, that God will care for you. Spend your time striving for God’s kingdom. (12:31) That brings us to today’s Gospel reading, and the question: ‘How do you feel about the future?’
Maybe, like Abram, in our reading from Genesis, you’re a worrier about the future. He was worried about who was going to inherit his possessions when he died. Maybe you’re the more optimistic type, always hopeful that the premium bonds or the national lottery are going to pay out big-time … even if they have never bought a bond or a ticket! Or perhaps you are just careless about your future, never giving it a moment’s thought.
Jesus continues his teaching with a call to those who will listen to take the future seriously. For Jesus, taking the future seriously means investing in the things that have eternal value. For Jesus, investing in the things that have eternal value affects what we do with material things in the here and now. For Jesus, investing in the eternal, which affects what we do with material things in the here and now, is best done today, not tomorrow.
Investing in the things that have eternal value: Jesus says, ‘make purses for yourselves that do not wear out.’ (12:33) That reminds of the old Ealing comedy, ‘The Man in the White Suit.’ Alec Guinness plays the hapless scientist who invents a material which seems not to stain or wear out, thus threatening the existence of the entire textiles industry. Of course, as it turns out in the movie, after a while the material falls apart. In this world nothing is forever.
And that’s what Jesus means by talking about making purses that don’t wear out. He immediately adds that it’s ‘in heaven’ that purses last for ever; that in heaven ‘no thief comes near, and no moth destroys.’ (12:33) Jesus urges us to focus upon God; to invest in heaven; to make the will and wishes of God our guide and goal. What we invest our hopes and lives in matters, because, as Jesus puts it, ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ (12:34)
So taking the future seriously means investing in the things that have eternal value. That all sounds very laudable but rather vague; something that does not relate to life as we know it; something we can put off thinking about until another day. For Jesus, though, investing in the things that have eternal value affects what we do with material things we possess in the here and now: ‘Sell your possessions and give alms he says.’ (12:33) That certainly sounds like something that would affect me in the here and now – selling my possessions and giving to others.
What might that mean for us today? As a congregation are we supposed to hold the biggest ‘Granny’s Attic’ sale of all time, selling our possessions in order to support others? It doesn’t sound likely to me. But then we live in a different economic setup to those in the time of Jesus. People did not have bank accounts. Their wealth tended to be hidden under the bed or tied up in possessions, like land or jewellery. If you wanted to raise cash to give to others then probably you needed to sell something. For us, the situation is both simpler and more challenging at the same time. Jesus would not have to challenge most of us to sell something for the benefit of others. He’d simply tell us to set up a standing order, make a donation online or write a cheque if we’re ‘old school,’ or go to ‘hole in the wall’ that coughs up cash for us whenever we ask nicely.
You see, Jesus says that God is generous to you and me and everyone else: ‘it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’ (12:32) Eternal values, heavenly values, in the here and now, are to be found in being generous toward others. For Jesus, investing in the things that have eternal value affects what we do with material things we possess in the here and now. And then, for Jesus, investing in the eternal, which affects what we do with material things in the here and now, is best done today, not tomorrow.
For Jesus, there is an urgency to all of this. We are to be like servants, alert for the return of our master, so that we ‘may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.’ (12:35-36) It’s hard for me to hear those words and not think of that painting by Holman Hunt, ‘Light of the World,’ which portrays Jesus, lamp in hand, knocking at a door, seeking to enter in. We’re to be like ever-alert servants, says Jesus, or alternatively, like wisely cautious householders: ‘if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.’ (12:39)
All of this is intended to remind us that the future – whether we are optimistic, concerned, or careless about it – might arrive tomorrow, or even today. ‘You also must be ready,’ says Jesus, ‘for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’ (12:40) At some point, God will bring all things in heaven and on earth together and we don’t know when that will be. Given that two thousand years have passed since Jesus spoke about the return of the Son of Man it takes an act of will and imagination to believe that this might happen within our lifetimes, within our here and now.
But we don’t have to worry about timing. What we have to do is get on with life in the here and now, based upon the eternal values of the future. Seek to live your life in the here and now with God-like generosity, and God will take care of the rest of it. And, for the rest, be assured, be reassured, that at the end, God desires and intends to sit us down, like guests at a feast, where we get to enjoy the treasures of heaven, having lived our lives as followers of Jesus here on earth.