Rev. VanBaren is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado. This is the text of the pre-synodical sermon, given on June 10, 1996.
Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning;
And ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord, when he will return from the wedding; that when he cometh and knocketh, they may open unto him immediately.
Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.
And if he shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants.
We have in this passage a summary of the larger, lengthier account of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. We have in these verses an emphasis on the central theme: the kingdom of heaven.
As we assemble here together tonight, and as the members of Synod begin their work tomorrow, we must do so in a deep awareness of that kingdom: what it is, what is involved in laboring in and for that kingdom. Christ, you remember, gave warnings in that regard, not only to the individual members but to the church of Christ as a whole. We are not to be as others who set their hearts on things earthly and material. The question always was, and still is today: “What shall we eat, what shall we drink, wherewithal shall we be clothed?” In all honesty, those questions often trouble us, too. Do we have enough? Will we be able to sustain ourselves not only today but tomorrow and next year as well?
The reminder of Christ is very much to the point: “Consider the lilies,” He said. “Consider the birds of the air. Did God not clothe the lilies with a beauty that we can only admire and never duplicate? Does He not feed the birds of the air? Shall He not take care of us, too, who are so often of little faith?” He gives that beautiful assurance, at the same time, “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
That assurance has comforted God’s little church throughout the ages. It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Nothing, no one, not the devil himself can change that Word of God. And he who labors in the consciousness of that fact will never labor in vain.
What we have in our text is in the form of a parable, reminding the disciples and the church and the synod concerning proper preparation. There is a calling to be prepared and preparing for the Lord’s return.
Notice, then, three things:
I. The Imminent Return of our Lord Jesus Christ.
II. The Slaves’ Preparation with a View to that Return.
III. The Blessedness of the Servants at the Time of His Return.
In this parable Christ speaks to His disciples of a great lord who was attending a marriage feast. That the lord was a prominent individual, probably a very wealthy, honorable man, is evident from several factors. First of all, he had many servants. There were not many people in the land of Canaan who could afford many servants. It appears, too, that he lived in a grand palace, or at least a very large home. This is evident not only because of the many servants, but also because of the many lights at his home. These lights were lanterns, oil lamps, that had to be kept burning. They had to be tended regularly. To have many lights would indicate a large home.This lord was attending a wedding feast, and the time of his return was uncertain. The servants, waiting his return, were not sure at what hour he would come. It could be, we read, in the second or third watch, representing the period of night. A wedding feast went on, sometimes, for a whole week. The master would return at the conclusion of that wedding feast. And the servants had to be ready for him when he came.
That he would come at night might be considered an inconvenience for his servants. They were slaves who, perhaps, had been working all day, and now at night they had to continue to watch in order to be ready the moment their lord returns. One would say it would almost be an imposition upon these slaves to expect them to work hard through the day and then continue to watch even through the night. But despite what seems to be an inconvenience, a great difficulty, the servants are there watching, at the door, for their lord’s return.
It does remind us, as Christ intended, of His own return on the clouds of glory. We know He is coming again. He came once to bear the infinite wrath of God for all of our sins, to die and then to rise again and ascend to glory. There He prepares for us a place. He is at that wedding feast, though much of His bride remains still on this earth.
His servants, slaves, are here on this earth awaiting His return. If they are faithful servants, diligent servants, they watch for His return. And they know that He is coming again soon. In the light of such knowledge, they are diligent, faithful. They are not lazy, nor are they of those who say, “But the lord delayeth his coming,” and then go about beating and maltreating the servants. They are not involved in all kinds of extraneous activities unrelated to the return of their Lord. They realize full well that they have a duty, a responsibility before their Lord: to be ready for His return.
And He is coming again on the clouds of glory, even as the angels testified to the disciples who watched Him ascend into heaven. When is He coming? Tonight? No! Tomorrow? No. But soon. The day and the hour we do not know, nor the month, nor the year. But His servants, His church, our churches and our synod are and must be watching, ready, at the door, awaiting His coming.
Christ reminds us, in the parable, of the preparation these servants make. There are three things that we ought to observe.
In the first place, they have their loins girt. It is a figure which was perhaps understood more easily in Christ’s day than in ours. The people of that day would often be clothed with a long, flowing garment. At times of leisure they could walk around with that garment flowing about their feet, with no problem. But, when they had to get down to work, that garment would easily trip them up, and interfere with their work. They could not carry out their duties properly and accurately. Consequently, those who would do their work would have a girdle, a belt, to tie about their waist in order to pull up that robe so that it would not hinder them. Jesus said, “That’s what those slaves did who were waiting for the coming of their master from the wedding feast.” Their garments were tied up so that they were ready to carry out the commands of their master. They couldn’t stay somewhere in the house telling themselves, “When the time comes, we’ll take our belts and tie them around our waist and begin our work.” No, they were ready — though they knew not the watch in which their master would return.
Christ says concerning these slaves, in the second place, that the lights were burning. (Not their lights, as we read in the KJV. The word their is in italics in most of our Bibles. But it was the lights of that palace in which the master lived.) They had to tend to those lights. At whatever time the master might come, they were ready.
And the third factor that Christ emphasizes is that these slaves are at the door. Now, if you are expecting a guest, even if you know approximately the time, you do not normally wait at the door. Yet these servants are doing just that. They are standing at the door, ready to open it — though the master might not come even in the second watch. It might be the third, late into the night. They are at the door, ready to open for their master. You can imagine them, not only standing at that door, but peering out the window. “Is the master coming now? Can we see him? Do we hear of his approach?” They are ready, waiting at the door.
That is quite something to live up to, is it not? To be watching, waiting, ready for Christ’s return with that degree of faithfulness?
That is required of the individual child of God, first of all. We can tell ourselves that that is the duty of a synod, or of a consistory. No — first of all it is the responsibility of each child of God. You can say that it might not be for five years yet, maybe not for ten years. But that is not the question. Are you ready for Christ’s return? Are you prepared, in all that you do and in all that you say and in all that you think, for Christ’s return?
You see the signs about you. You cannot help but see them if your eyes are open. There is unrest throughout the world, revolutions, wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, mighty winds, droughts and floods, diseases of every sort. There are signs of apostasy, of the sort we could hardly imagine twenty years ago: churches departing from the confessions of the church, the old paths.
And the child of God who sees these signs, and who hears the hoofbeats of the horses of Revelation, is ready, watching, loins girded, with lights burning, at the door ready to open.
Are you? Am I?
Watchfulness requires diligent study of God’s Word. How else can one watch, except through the spectacles of the Scriptures? We are called to watch by way of prayer, by way of earnest supplication to God for His guidance, for strength, for encouragement from day to day. Thus the child of God shows a readiness, an eagerness for the return of his Lord.
I ask you, are you watching for His coming?
That watchfulness is necessary for the church of Jesus Christ wherever it may be. But as far as we are concerned, we must be aware of the fact that we as Protestant Reformed Churches, and this week as the synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches, must show our concern and interest solely in the kingdom of heaven, and the return of its King, our Lord Jesus Christ, on the clouds of heaven.
There could be a temptation for the synod to think in terms of just the Protestant Reformed Churches. What kinds of decisions ought we to make in order to grow larger? What kinds of decisions ought we to make to gain the attention, or perhaps the admiration, of others? Let’s face it. We have a sinful nature that is all too inclined to think of self and of self-aggrandizement rather than exclusively of the kingdom and its coming. For that reason we need the reminder that synod, as it considers many things that will affect our churches not only this year but in the years to come, must make decisions which always show our great interest in the kingdom of heaven.
Our sole consideration must be: How will our decisions serve God’s kingdom cause? How do our decisions reflect our desire for our Lord’s return?
There are several dangers we face as we consider acting (or not acting), in light of Christ’s soon return. On the one hand (and that is not an unusual thought), we might say, “Since the Lord is coming again soon, there really is nothing more we have to do. We’ve done a lot in the past, we have sacrificed much. But our Lord is coming again, soon, so we can, if you will, sit in our rocking chairs, retired, inactive, looking heavenward, proclaiming to all who will hear, ‘Our Lord is soon coming again.'” But that is not the way Christ portrayed those slaves in the parable. They were not in their rocking chairs. They were ready. And we also must not be inactive because we know our Lord will return soon.
On the other hand, there is another danger we face. There is the danger of becoming extremely active but in wrong ways. We can say, “Our Lord is coming again soon. We must be involved, therefore, in bringing the gospel to all the nations of the world.” But we must not neglect the calling we have at home. We have mission work to do, and that is an important task. Yet, at the same time we all know that many churches in the past have placed the kind of emphasis on mission work which resulted in a neglect of their calling at home. As churches and as synod we must always remember that God continues His church in the line of our generations. We must be concerned about the training of our children and our children’s children. That must not be neglected while performing other tasks.
The apostasy about us seems increasingly to be touching us too. For that reason we must be faithful in the preaching and faithful in teaching our children as we look for Christ’s coming again.
This is not to say that we must neglect the calling which Christ gave His church to carry out mission work and to preach the gospel where God would have us to go. But we must do this work in harmony with His Word. We pray tonight for the guidance of the Spirit and for instruction in His Word, so that our synod may make proper decisions, not such as would enhance our name, but that which must glorify the name of our God. The churches must be diligent and faithful according to the Scriptures.
That is a high calling. I am not here tonight to tell the members of synod what specific decisions they must make. I am here tonight to remind ourselves to pray earnestly for the guidance of the Spirit and for Divine direction that right decisions might be taken.
For servants (slaves, you understand, not just hired people) can expect at the same time a great blessing. Jesus said, “Blessed are those slaves, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching.” Blessed! It reminds of the Beatitudes, does it not? There the church of Jesus Christ is called poor in spirit, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc. They are blessed, Jesus said. That blessedness is measured according to the standard of God’s Word, not according to the judgments of men. People often mock children of God and charge that they only look for “pie-in-the-sky.” Many would have us concentrate only on earthly things. These are they who consider the cross to be foolishness.
But Jesus said, “Blessed are those who watch, those who look for Christ’s return.”
There are many whose eyes stick out with fatness, who have more than their hearts could desire. But the Word of God says that they are cursed. “The curse of the Lord is in the house of the wicked.” But you, slaves of Jesus Christ, blessed are ye.
Of course, we know that blessedness. It is the blessedness of Calvary. Did He not come to suffer and die for us? Did He not give His life’s blood; did He not bear the agonies of hell that His people might be blessed — now and eternally? Did He not send forth His Spirit to work in our hearts, turning us from darkness to light? Did He not bring us to the cross to cry out for mercy and grace? And does He not guideus by His Spirit and Word so that we walk that straight, narrow way of life? Does not our Lord prepare for us, even now, a place in glory? Does He not prepare for us that treasure which neither thief can steal nor moth or rust corrupt? Therefore, blessed are ye who watch!
The blessedness of faithful servants is portrayed again remarkably in the parable. The lord, at his return, finding his slaves watching, does what? Does he say to them, “You have done well. But now I want to sit at the table and eat. Prepare me a meal and serve me; make my bed ready so I can retire. And after I retire, you must clean the house”?
Look again at the parable. Christ said, “Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.” It is thrilling, unbelievable, unimaginable! Certainly it is nothing that one would expect to happen between master and slave.
Christ, elsewhere, speaks of masters who could demand that their slaves work all day in the field and at night come and serve them at the table. They are unprofitable servants. They must do all that the master requires but they have earned nothing. They are slaves.
But here, the master, a rich and powerful man who had many slaves, who had a great palace adorned with many lights, comes home and tells his slaves, “You sit down at the table. I am going to serve you.” He girds himself and serves them. One serving many is itself remarkable. It took many servants, many slaves, to serve one master. But one master comes and says, “I am going to serve many slaves.” If that really happened here on this earth, I suppose you would find it recorded in that old newspaper column “Believe it or not” by Ripley. But it did happen. The Master, the Word, the Lord of heaven and earth, the second Person of the Trinity, God of gods, entered into our flesh. He was born of a virgin. Through the power of the Holy Spirit He came, as He Himself declared in Luke 22:27, to serve. The Creator came to serve. The Master came into the midst of slaves and made Himself as the lowest of them. That is the wonder of the ages.
In His first coming, and at that last Passover Feast, He stooped down lower than any of His disciples were willing to go: He washed His disciples’ feet. So low! So humble! The Master serving slaves.
Even Peter could not take it. “Thou shalt never wash my feet,” he said. But Christ declares, “If I do not wash your feet, you have no part in Me.” He must be the servant of slaves.
Finally, and gloriously, He “serves” on the cross! There could be no lower position than that the Son of God in our flesh should bear the agonies of hell for all of His own. He must cry out, “Why hast Thou forsaken Me?” so that His slaves might eat at the banquet feast of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now we await His coming again. We must be standing at the door, our loins girt, the lamps burning. And all this we do, not because we shall earn something now, not because we would demand that He serve us. The watching, the longing, the praying for His return is a fruit of His grace. That we watch is our calling. When He comes again He gathers to Himself His people of every tribe, nation, tongue, and language. He brings them to Himself in that day of judgment and declares, “Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”
Then He serves His people, serves them by leading them and guiding them into all the joys of salvation. He is our Head and King who came to serve. What blessedness indeed! When we, as synod, labor in that consciousness, then that word “blessed” will certainly be spoken of us and of the work which we gather to do. May God grant it.