Year A — The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27)

Commentary for November 6, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
“Third time’s a charm!”

I’ve heard that all my life, though I’ve never thought much about the meaning (or original context) of the phrase. I suppose usually we mean it as either a token of good luck or persistence. Of course, I’ve also always heard that “the harder you work (persist), the luckier you are.”

Whatever the deepest meaning may be, Joshua makes the Israelites commit three times to follow Yahweh. I guess he didn’t want any backing up later…nobody saying, “Well, you didn’t tell us it would be this hard!”

Psalm 78:1-7
Gary McIntosh’s book, One Church: Four Generations was very helpful to me in understanding the challenges of “multi-generational ministry.” 

As we see from this psalm text, that concept has been around for a very long time! We must always be thinking of how we are doing at passing the faith along to the next generations — even “the children yet unborn.”

Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16
Wisdom is personified in Solomon’s writings — here as in Proverbs — and takes the form of a strong, authoritative woman. Interestingly, there would not be much of a cultural example of this type of character. Women were permitted very little share in the public discourse of the time, much less in teaching roles or roles of authority.

Another key that God’s wisdom is not like our human wisdom — you will most likely find it in places that you are not looking for it!

Amos 5:18-24
Verse 24 is oft-quoted from the prophet Amos; we think we like the idea of “justice and righteousness” rolling down like a river.

But, as faithful Amos reminds us, we also think that we want “the day of the LORD” to come, and that our worship must naturally be pleasing to God. Neither of those is what we seem to think it is, either!

Perhaps we ought to hold the headlong rush toward what we “think” God wants from us long enough to pause, reflect, and reconsider both our longing for God to hurry up, and the worship we offer in the name of Christ.

Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20
For those who use this text as scripture, these words continue the introduction to Wisdom given in the earlier reading. A “path of righteousness” of a different sort is laid out here.

Psalm 70
A classic juxtaposition — God’s greatness and my weakness. Hasten, indeed, O God…you are our help and deliverer!

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Paul gives the young Thessalonian church his interpretation of the “day of the LORD” — taking Amos’ themes of darkness and terror and viewing them through the lens of Christ’s coming again to unite God’s creation in himself.

We need not fear — whether alive or dead — at the ending of all things. Jesus is Lord, and God can be trusted. That’s pretty much that, whatever your personal eschatological interpretation of this passage. 

Matthew 25:1-13
“A day late and a dollar short.”

Since I began with homey colloquialisms today, let’s end with one.  I suppose you could just as well use, “Not much lead in the pencil” or “A few fries short of a Happy Meal.” All would be synonymous with “caught at midnight with no oil for the lamp.”

We are to be on the watch for the kingdom of God, always prepared to do the will of the One who has asked us to be ready.

After all, you don’t want folks to think “your cheese done slid off the cracker!”

 * Just for fun — a collection of colloquial expressions is found here on the “not too bright list” compiled by Dan Hersam

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Listen again to the words of the Prophet Amos:

Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why do you want the day of the LORD?
It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion and was met by a bear;or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.

These verses remind me of a Good News/Bad News joke. Not any particular Good News/Bad News joke, just that kind of joke.

As a matter of fact, I spent a great deal of time in sermon preparation looking for just the right Good News/Bad News joke to start the sermon.

The Good News is: I found one. The Bad News is: it isn’t very funny. The really Good News is I decided not to tell it.

A few weeks ago I was browsing in a bookstore and I ran across two books I had never seen before.

One is The Optimist’s Guide to History
The other is The Pessimist’s Guide to History.

While I was checking out, the clerk looked over her glasses at me and said,
“I’ve sold a lot of these books, but nobody’s ever bought them both at the same time.”

I said, “Well, I guess most people are either optimists or pessimists, but I’m just a preacher looking for sermon ideas.”

And the Good News is: I found one.

The books are organized in chronological order, beginning with Creation, or the Big Bang, depending on your point of view; and progressing to the present.

The Optimist’s Guide points out the positive events in history while the Pessimist’s Guide lists all the horrors that have ever happened.

As I read through these two books, I noticed two interesting things.

1) The Pessimist’s Guide is much longer than the Optimist’s Guide; (360 versus 260 pages)I don’t know what that means, I just noticed it.

2) There are many things in each book which I, personally, would have put in the other book. Some things the authors counted as Bad, I saw as Good, and vice versa.

It would appear that whether something is Good News or Bad News is a tricky question.

It depends not only on whether or not you’re an Optimist or a Pessimist but also where you’re standing when you look at it.

Each of our Scripture Lessons makes reference to an idea that is referred to by several different names:
The Day of the Lord,
The Coming of the LORD,
The Second Coming,

And the question is: “Is the coming of the LORD Good News or Bad News?”

In Amos, The Day of the Lord is pretty much Bad News all around, for everybody.

This idea, that the Day of the LORD would be a bad day, was quite a shock to his hearers.

They weren’t prepared for this word of Judgement and didn’t accept it.

The people Amos was preaching to thought themselves to be pretty good people.

They went to temple, did the required sacrifices, lived by the Ten Commandments; except when it was inconvenient or seemed a little extreme or something, or got in the way of a good business deal or a good time.

In other words, they were a lot like us.

And they knew themselves to be God’s Chosen People, so the Day of the LORD would be Good News, right?

It would be a Good Day when God would give all those Godless other people who aren’t like us, a good licking for being, well, not like us.

So they were unprepared for Amos to tell them that their assumption of their own goodness was a dangerous thing.

It’s as if someone ran away from a lion and was met by a bear, or ran away from the lion and the bear into the safety of the house, then put his hand on the wall and was bitten by a snake.

Bad News becomes Good News becomes Bad News again.

First Thessalonians sees The Coming of the LORD as Good News for those who are dead and those who are still alive. This is what we’re talking about in the Creed when we profess the belief that Christ will “come again to judge the living and the dead.”

And in that judgement there is implied Bad News for those who are “not in Christ.”

And in the Gospel Lesson, the coming of the Bridegroom is Good News for the Bridesmaids who were prepared, who had oil in their lamps; and equally Bad News for those who were unprepared, not ready, who had no oil.

Since we know that the Church is the bride of Christ, it’s easy to figure out who the Bridegroom is in this story. What’s not easy to figure out is who we are.

We can’t take this story literally, securing our future fate by stocking up on lamp oil, like a bunch of Survivalists filling their basements with nonperishable food and machine guns.

What is the oil? What must we do to be counted amongst those who are prepared when the bridegroom cometh?

This is a place where a Lutheran preacher has to tread lightly. Our theology, quite rightly I think, is extremely cautious about telling anybody that there is anything they HAVE to do to be saved.

Justification by GRACE through Faith. Justification by GRACE through FAITH. It’s our mantra and it’s a good one because it’s true.

BUT, too often Lutherans (and a few other folks I’ll wager) have failed to recognize that there is more to being a Christian than being justified, than being declared righteous, Okay with God, by God.

Sometimes in bending over backwards to avoid legalism we have fallen over backwards into license and amorality.

We seem to have adopted Oscar Wilde’s position that, “God likes to forgive, I like to sin; it’s a nice arrangement.”

We have learned well the truth that “God loves you just the way you are.”
We have ignored the equally important truth that, “God loves you too much to let you stay that way.”

So, again, what puts oil in your lamp? What must one do to be ready when Jesus comes again to judge the living and the dead?

The key is responding to God’s mercy and generosity with mercy and generosity of our own.

The Christian life burns brightly when one comes to the recognition of how much God has done for us; and one becomes so grateful that generosity begins to burst forth in one’s life.

The oil in our lamp is the oil of loving action in response to God’s loving act of sending Jesus the Christ into our lives to save us, and to fill our lives with hope, joy and purpose.

The Bad News is all around us. Wars and rumors of wars, economic struggles and job loss, sickness and death, poverty and hunger, the list goes on and on.

The Good News is: God has done something about those problems and needs. God sent Jesus into the world to show us God’s love and to show us God’s way. And God has called a people to deal with those problems, those needs, those Bad News things that surround us. God has called us, we are that people, we are the Good News to a hurting world.

We are called to commit ourselves to keeping our lamps burning with the love of God, reaching out to the world with love on our lips, hope in our hearts, and help in our hands.

Amen. Come Lord Jesus!

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