How do you get yourself in shape for the return of Christ?
A childhood friend who is now a Catholic priest met me at a restaurant to celebrate my 40th birthday. In the course of the dinner, he challenged me to run the Marine Corps Marathon. I had no experience as a runner, and the prospect of 26.2 miles was daunting, but I needed a midlife challenge. So I accepted.
The priest had already run several marathons, so he recommended I begin my training by doing a combination of walking and running. Over time, I could decrease the walking and increase the running. “If you can run two hours, you can run four hours,” the priest said. “If you can run four hours, you can do a marathon.”
He was right. Six months after beginning my training, I finished the Marine Corps Marathon in four hours and 12 minutes. I felt as though I’d been through boot camp, but my exhausted elation at the finish line made the pain worthwhile.
Jesus encouraged his disciples to prepare for the long run with the words, “Be dressed for service and keep your lamps lit” (Luke 12:35). He wanted them to be ready to go, like runners in expensive shoes and high-tech running clothes at the start of a marathon. “Keep your lamps lit,” he said, like people in good shape from many months of training.
But what was the oil in their lamps? In the Jewish tradition, oil was a symbol for good deeds. New Testament professor M. Eugene Boring says that oil represented “deeds of love and mercy in obedience to the Great Commandment” — feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison.
Such deeds are not a sprint, done at the last minute. Instead, they are a marathon of loving and merciful acts. Jesus wanted his servants to adopt a marathon mentality, so that they would be like servants who are alert and ready when their master returns to see them. “You also must be ready,” said Jesus, “because the Human One is coming at a time when you don’t expect him” (verse 40).
Jesus challenges us to prepare for his return through a regular discipline of loving and merciful acts: Food drives for the hungry, work days to renovate the homes of needy neighbors, mission trips to developing countries. We need to train for the moment we will meet Jesus, in the same way that a runner prepares for a marathon by running 10, 12, and even 20 miles at a time. When our master arrives, we want to be well prepared by the good efforts we have made in the world.
Train me, Lord, to meet you, through regular acts of love and mercy. Amen.