The First Sunday of Advent for Year B (November 30, 2014)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Isaiah‘s vivid text — it’s not actually all that comforting, as we sometimes expect on the first Sunday of Advent — turns on three moments, evinced by three expressions: O, But, and Yet. “O” opens the first section in which we are confronted by our feeling of distance, or separation, from God; in effect, the people of God admit that “it’s been a while” since they felt the presence of God in the ways they heard about in the past. “But” moves into the second part of the text, in v. 5, in which they admit that it is their own sin that has put this distance between them and God. Finally, it is the “Yet” of v. 8 that finishes the text in hope for God’s renewal. Though the prospect of being tossed about like clay in the hands of a potter is not really all that comforting (or comfortable), either, it does remind us that there is not really anything that God can’t “fix” or restore. Amen to that!

Psalm 80 has two repeated refrains that echo throughout the season: “Stir up your might…” (v. 2) is part of the prayers that will be offered in many congregations; “Let your face shine, that we may be saved…” is repeated throughout the text, offering an opportunity for personal and corporate response to God. “God, if we have any hope here, it will come from the light of your face — so, shine, please!”

The Corinthians are reminded that, whatever gifts they have received from God, the gifts have been given for a purpose. What you have is what God knows you will need — and it will be enough to fulfill the ministry God has for you. Don’t worry about what you lack; use what you have!

The gospel from Mark is, like Isaiah, somewhat jarring when read in public worship; it seems strange and a bit judgmental. Scary, even! But on deeper reflection, its purpose is quite the opposite — not to scare or alarm, but to comfort and strengthen. The world around us changes quickly (“passes away”) — it’s not the same as it used to be (insert here every harangue you have heard about “the good old days!”) But, we are reminded that Christ’s word to us never changes — Jesus, while seemingly absent for a very long time now, is actually still with us in the hearts and lives of his people. The word is still alive and doing its work in us (of course, I know that Jesus is the Living Word and should probably be referred to as He, but you get my drift.)

Be Jesus’ people; be Jesus’ presence in the world. I have always loved the concept that underlies “praying the hours” around the 24 time zones of our planet. Literally, as we join with the members of Christ’s body, the Church around the world, somebody is always awake and praying. I think that’s what we’re after here!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

One time when we were in college, my then girlfriend/now wife and I went from Chapel Hill, NC over to downtown Durham to the art-house movie theatre to see some European movie with subtitles.  We got lost several times and then had trouble finding parking and finally we rushed in and got a seat.

By the time we settled in, the movie had already started.  It was strange – the actors were really terrible and the dialog – such as it was – was in English, not Italian. We looked at each other with puzzled faces and then, almost at exactly the same moment, it dawned on us that we were in the wrong place and how really wrong that place was.  We got up and got out quickly and went for pizza instead.

Sometimes the First Sunday in Advent can have a similarly jarring effect on folks.  We have just finished the family warmth of Thanksgiving dinner and parades and football.  In many churches children are already practicing the Christmas pageant and the choir is working on a cantata and calendars are full of Open Houses and Christmas parties and such.  At home we’re getting decorations out and putting up the tree and getting the cards signed and sent out, etc.

And then we come into worship and the Lector gets up and the first words we hear during this warm and cozy season are:  “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” and more about things like mountains quaking and water boiling.  We think, “Well, that’s a prophet, that’s the ‘Old Testament.’  What do you expect?  Wait for the Gospel.”  But the Gospel lesson is worse; “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Are we in the right place?  It’s less than month before Christmas; what is this all about?”

Advent is designed to remind us of why Christ came.  The lessons and hymns during Advent were carefully created to help avoid rushing through December to Christmas Day without taking the time to ponder why we needed God to intervene in our lives and what we must do to be ready.

The text from Isaiah, which begins with those frightful words, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” was written in the midst of Israel’s exile in Babylon and the early days of their return to the devastated and destroyed promised land.  As they look at the destruction around them, the Children of Israel are profoundly aware that they brought this on themselves.  Their behavior, as individuals and as a nation, led to their destruction.  And they are sorry.  They remember the good things God did for them in the past, they remember how God led them and provided for the.  As verse 4 says, “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him,”

They remember the bad they have done which has led to their current predicament and they remember the good that God did for them in the past.  And they repent.  They are deeply sorrowful for what they have done – not sorrow as a feeling, as a sentiment, as an emotion – but sorrow as an action, sorrow as a positive move in a new direction, sorrow as repentance., sorrow as the act of turning from going their own way and turning to go in the way of God.

And in verse 8, the prophet asks God to not only to forgive the people, but also to restore, renew, remake them.  “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

Advent is a time when we look at ourselves and at our world and recognize that we need God.  It is also a time for deep and serious reflection upon the way in which we live our lives, the ways in which our actions are either supportive of God’s will and way in the world, or are hindrances to it.  It is a time for repentance in the sense of reorientation, of redirecting our lives to be more in line with the way God would have us go.

Advent is a time to wait for God to come.  But this is not a hopeless and helpless waiting, alternating wishful-ness with moments of despair.  No, Advent waiting is, in the words of Jesus in the Gospel lesson, a matter of being “alert,” and “awake,” watching not the sky, but the world, paying attention to the times and places where opportunities for mission and ministry to present themselves.

Advent is a time to open ourselves up to the possibility that the God of all our tomorrows has a new and exciting future in store for us.  Rather than looking forward with fear, let us look to the future with faith and hope, spending our days serving “the least of these,” always on the lookout for more needs to fill and more people to love.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Reign of Christ (Christ the King)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

In Ezekiel, it is the Lord GOD who takes personal responsibility for shepherding the sheep (“I myself….”) We may note that this is because the earthly shepherds of Israel, aka the kings, haven’t really done the job God wanted them to do. IMHO (in my humble opinion) — this does not lessen the impact of the idea that God, sooner or later, takes on the job of becoming the Savior of the world. It is, after all, God’s world — all of it — in God’s role as Creator. Without arguing over the origin of evil, entry of sin into the world, etc., what we learn about God from this passage is that God assumes full responsibility for the “lostness” of God’s sheep. “I will save my flock….” Enough said.

Psalm 95 supports this reading of Ezekiel; we see God’s creative power detailed and God’s role as our Maker affirmed. That God is King is significant on this day, as well.

If you are going to ascribe a title to the Lord Jesus on this day, you could do worse than Paul’s phraseology in Ephesians. The man certainly knew how to stack up some power words: “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” As if that is not enough to describe this Christ, the King, we get this tidy summary: “God has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things….” That’ll do!

Matthew‘s gospel closes out the liturgical year with a description of the kind of life that is “fit for a king.” Feeding the hungry, slaking the thirst of those with nothing to drink, welcoming those without a voice and a place in the world, clothing those with nothing to wear. Add to that tending the sick and visiting the imprisoned (read, “undesirables.”) Jesus’ people do these things. Again, that is simply reason enough to consider them, don’t you think?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I saw a copy of the most recent People magazine.  There on page 11 was what I can only assume is a regular feature:  “Royals Round the World.”  The big picture was of the future king, Prince Charles, in a beige suit, twirling a handkerchief over his head while participating in a traditional dance on a state visit to Mexico. There were smaller pictures of Prince Harry in fatigues, Prince William and Princess Kate shaking hands with firemen or some such, and then a fashion shot of Kate, the caption of which mentions her invisible to the male eye “baby bump.”  Is she pregnant?  Somehow I missed that. Maybe because it’s none of my business.

Little wonder that it is so difficult for us to get a handle on the meaning of “Christ the King” when these people are almost the only modern reference point we have to go on.  (Okay, there is Burger King, and Elvis the King of Rock and Roll, and LeBron “King” James the basketball star, but those don’t really work either – believe me, I’ve tried.)

The Hebrew concept of “kingship”, at least in its purest and most prophetic form, had little to do with either the pomp, circumstance, and chivalry we associate with the great houses of Europe, or the images we’ve picked up from fairy tales, or the celebrity foolishness of the Windsors.  Biblical kingship had to do with justice and righteousness and a compassionate God.

This is shown to us by the fact that Israel’s favorite image for the king was as a shepherd.  Other nations and peoples saw their kings as gods or as fierce creatures, as powerful and destructive people bent on conquest and domination. While a shepherd could be fierce and war-like when protecting the flock from predators, it was a much more domestic and nurturing image.  A shepherd’s job was to protect the sheep from harm and to provide for their growth and happiness.  A shepherd had to think of his or her own needs last and the needs of the herd first.  This is the image Israel chose for their king.

Ezekiel shows us a God who is angry that the Hebrew kings have not been good shepherds.  In the first part of our text, YHWH boldly says – “Since I can’t trust the shepherds, I’ll do it myself.”  In this section we hear from the very mouth of God what a good king, a good shepherd provides, “I will make them lie down.  I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and strong I will destroy.  I will feed them with justice.” (3:15-16)  Then there is a shift and God promises a new king, an earthly king, a king, a shepherd, who will do all these things in God’s name and on God’s behalf; “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them.” (34:23) This is the promise that a descendant of David will come to take care of God’s kingdom.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus tells a story, not a parable, really, but a story,  really a vision of what will happen when the Son of Man, the descendant of David, comes “in his glory.”  This set-up ties into ideas that were then popular about a final judgment, and right being good, and left being bad, etc. etc.  Matthew turns this vision into both an opportunity for ethical teaching and a call to the young Christian community to take on its role as shepherds for all God’s people.

The vision is of all people of all time being gathered before the “judgment seat.”  The king will separate the people into the sheep and the goats; sheep on the right, goats on the left. Then comes the explanation of the division.

It is noteworthy that the situations mentioned aren’t extraordinary and none of them are at all religious.  One neither has to believe in God, nor believe anything in particular about God in order to pass muster.  There is absolutely no mention of either theology or liturgy in this list.  These are realities all of us confront on a regular basis.  Hunger and thirst and homelessness and nakedness and sickness and imprisonment.  We are not asked to solve these problems.  We are invited to respond to the human need right in front of us.  Feed people, give them water, give them shelter, give them clothing, provide decent healthcare, visit and console them in prison.

The element of surprise is the key to this story. The sheep on the right were surprised to learn that they had done something for the king, something the king would reward.  They were surprised to learn that they were being singled out for being good – they had thought they were simply being human and humane.  The goats on the left were surprised to learn that they had failed to do something for the king, “Why, had I seen the king in such conditions, of course I would have taken care of it.  But I didn’t see the king, I just saw – – -those people.”

The point here is both ordinary and mystical.  The ordinary is the argument that atheists make all the time, and I agree with them.  They say, “You don’t have to believe in God to be moral.  You can be good without looking to gain a reward or avoid a punishment.” And that is exactly correct, and is truly Jesus’ point here.  Reward and punishment as a motivation for goodness is a dead-end street; we end up focused on ourselves and wondering if we’re being good enough, and if we’ve done enough, etc.  Jesus says, “Forget yourself and focus on doing what you can for the other, it’s that simple.”

And here’s the religious, mystical part.  We are called and empowered to do these things for others because we are the church, and Ephesians reminds us that as the Church, we are the body of Christ. We are the active agency and activity of God in the world, we are the ones who are fulfilling the role of “king/shepherd,” tending to God’s beloved children, who are, strangely enough, also the Christ.  The hungry, the thirsty, the homeless stranger, the naked ones, the sick and suffering, those in prison, all of them are Christ, and our call is to respond to their need with active love and simple compassion.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (November 16, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Judges 4:1-7
Well, first of all, let’s hear it for Deborah; it is nice to recover at least one remembrance of a woman in a place of authority in Israel. (Sorry for those who may still be caught in the “God can’t call a woman” trap…guess that’s exactly what God did here. But, I digress!)

Sisera, the villain of the story, is going to meet a painful end at the hand of another strong woman, Jael (see v. 21 in this same chapter.) But, the point of the story — as always — is that God is in control and will respond to the cries of God’s people.

Sure, there’s a little retributive justice that they have to go through first. But, God works through the circumstances of our lives to bring about God’s own good purposes, in God’s own good time. Thank God for the Deborahs and Jaels and multitudinous others who have listened and obeyed when God called.

Psalm 123
It may be a bit of stretch for most of us to truly understand what it means for a servant to look to a master for the OK to live, work and breathe. A “maid” depending on her “mistress” for sustenance and support doesn’t ring that true with most of us, either, I would suspect.

Regardless, we do look to God for relief in our distress…and for mercy when what we find in our world is contempt.

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Do we serve a “do-nothing” God? That’s the question that the prophet raises here. There are those that believe neither that God will do good, nor that God will do harm. The just don’t believe much about God at all!

I don’t know that the way to their conversion will be through blood-pouring and dung-flinging…but “the day of the Lord” is coming, nonetheless. What do we have to say about that, preachers?

Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12
I like the thought of God’s existence being “from everlasting to everlasting.” God lives in all of the time between the boundaries of eternity…and exists outside those boundaries, as well. There is simply nowhere — no place, no space, no time — that God is not.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Back in the way cool 1970’s, there was lots of interest in the ending of the world and the image of “the thief in the night” received a good bit of airplay in the popular culture. Hal Lindsey made a mint from the publication of The Late, Great Planet Earth (28,000,000 copies sold and counting!)

I remember lying awake at night, pretty much scared to go to sleep, wondering if I might snooze through the Second Coming and miss the excitement. (It wasn’t until a few years later that we learned from Tim LaHaye about being “Left Behind.”)

Notice that Paul tells the Thessalonians, “but you are not in darkness;…that day will not surprise you.” (v.4) The purpose of this passage is encouragement, not warning (though I’m brushing up on my apocalyptic imagery, just in case!)

Matthew 25:14-30Like so many of the parables we have been reading during this stretch from Matthew’s gospel, this one has a bit of a tough pill for us to swallow at the end. We’re not fond of weeping and gnashing of teeth, when it comes right down to it.

As my colleague, Dr. Chilton is wont to say, “Jesus calls us to leave our fear behind and give ourselves over totally to trust and faith in God.” I believe that is, indeed, the message of the parable. Don’t worry that you might mess it up; go ahead and live life with the “talents” God has given you.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

When I was a child, we have week-long revivals at Slate Mountain Missionary Baptist Church. The revival preacher generally centered on issues of Jesus coming again in judgment, While he spent a lot of time on the lake of fire, most of his effort was put into the rapture and how the Christians would be taken up to heaven and the evil people left behind.

When I was 9 or 10, I was mighty shy and mighty scared of going to hell. If there was any way to get saved and accept Christ and avoid Hellfire other than going down to the front of the church during the invitation, I would have done it. But there wasn’t and I was too shy to go down there in front of all those people. So I prayed each night in my bed for forgiveness and please, please Jesus, don’t leave me behind.

One morning during the fall revival I awoke at dawn to a completely empty house. My parents and my four siblings weren’t there. Even the dog was nowhere to be seen. The electricity wouldn’t work. I immediately jumped to conclusions. Oh my God! Jesus came back, and took everybody else, and left me behind. I’m going to hell.

It sounds funny now, but I assure you – it wasn’t funny then. Imagine a nine year old boy, in his underwear, down on his knees in the frost covered backyard, tears streaming down his face, pleading with Jesus to spare him. It was an awful few minutes.

Then I heard a familiar sound, “Putt, putt, putt.” Our farm tractor. Suddenly the dog burst over the hill behind the house followed by the tractor pulling a trailer load of cured tobacco, my family riding along. They had gone to get a load of cured tobacco out of the barn and transfer it to the pack house, and decided that since I had the sniffles to leave me in bed. And, the power had gone out, which happened once or twice a month, for no known reason. Instead of the Devil coming to devour me, it was just my parents coming to fuss at me for being outside in my underwear and my siblings to laugh at me for being afraid.

When I read our Gospel lesson for today, the fear and terror of that morning came back to me. As I read the harsh judgment pronounced upon the fearful servant, the one-talent wonder who was so afraid of failure that he hid his talent for fear of losing it; I shook once again with the recollection of my evil and my failures and my fearful retreats into silence.  I thought to myself – “The ‘master’ will return some day and judgment will come upon me, unexpectedly, as Paul says, ‘like a thief in the night,’ when I least expect it. What am I going to do?”

This text is a warning against complacency, against merely maintaining the status quo, against quietly holding down the fort.  As our reading from Zephaniah says, “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs,” (1:12) Even the Psalm reminds us that “We are consumed by your anger; we are afraid because of your wrath.” (90:7)

One time in Lent I preached a sermon on the crucifixion and a man came out of church and complained, “I don’t come to church to hear all that negative stuff.  I come to church to feel better.”  Looking at these texts, I know exactly how he felt.  As a person and as a preacher, I find myself wondering “Where is the good news here? Where is the grace note?  Where is the positive word of forgiveness and love that will lift me off my knees and back into my life?”

Today, it’s not in the lesson from Matthew, but the letter of Paul to Thessalonica: – “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” (5:9-10) Though Paul too has just talked about the end times and the coming Judgment, he reminds us that our salvation is not in ourselves or in anything that we do or don’t do.  Our salvation is in God’s hands, in Christ’s death and resurrection. Here we are called upon to recognize our need to respond to God’s love with love and care for others without fearing that our failure to do that perfectly will land us in eternal flames.

For in the meantime, in the time between now and the eternal then, there are no small moments, no insignificant actions.  Whether we have five talents, two talents, or one – we are invited, encouraged and expected to use all for the glory of God.

John A Broadus was the first Professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, back in 1850. He was a recognized scholar of Classics and the New Testament. He had taught at the University of Va. and was well respected in all academic circles. When the Civil War erupted, the seminary closed and Broadus served as a military chaplain. After the war, in the fall of 1865, the school reopened with one student. But Broadus soldiered on, lecturing on a regular schedule to this one student, teaching him Theology and Bible and Preaching. He carefully prepared his lectures for his one student, and in 1870 those lectures became a book called A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons.  It is still in print, it was the standard preaching textbook in many American seminaries well into the mid twentieth century.

John Broadus did not teach his one student because he was afraid of the wrath of the “master.”

No, John Broadus taught his student because that was what God had called him to do. He never considered burying his talent.  He believed God wanted him to use what he had to the best of his ability and to leave the ultimate outcome up Divine Providence and Intention. Broadus did not prepare his lectures expecting to write a book. He prepared his lectures in order to teach his one student to preach.

So it is with us.  These texts are not here to terrify us. They are here to remind us to take ourselves and our lives as God’s people in the world seriously. We each have gifts from God to use in the world.  It matters not how many we have.  It does matter greatly what we do with them.

Amen and amen.

Year A — The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (November 9, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“Why do you want the day of the LORD?” (Amos 5:18)

The county courthouse is across the street from my church.  Some people park on the street behind my church and cut through the narrow sidewalk that goes between the church and the real estate office next door, passing two feet from my desk, just outside the window.  If it is a couple or a family, I often hear them talking as they walk along.  Sometimes I hear them coming and going; this is the most interesting, for they are usually talking about the case and you can pick up what they think is going to happen.  Many are delighted, anxious to have their day in court – believing in their heart of hearts that they are going to be vindicated and those other people are “going to get what’s coming to ‘em.”  And about half the time I hear the same people walking back to their cars, complaining bitterly that the system is rigged, somebody lied, the judge is an idiot; because somehow, unbelievably, they lost.

Why do you want the day of the LORD?”  In our first lesson, Amos has clearly shown the people their failure to be the people God has called them to be.  He has condemned them for trampling the poor, and afflicting the just, and taking the bride.  He has warned them that such behavior will result in judgment.  And in our text he takes on those who presume upon the Lord, who look to “the day of the LORD” as a time when God will come and do battle and defeat Israel’s enemies.  And so it is.  The only problem is the “enemy” is not who the people think it is.

After Admiral Perry had won the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812, he sent a report to General Harrison which became famous for its brevity, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”  In the 1960’s, the social commentary cartoon POGO purposely misquoted him by saying, “We have met the enemy and they is us.”  That is the point Amos is making.  We must not be like the people walking past my window and assume a day of judgment will be a good thing for us.  We are called to take a good look at ourselves in the mirror of God’s desire for justice and righteousness and to evaluate how much we fall short of God’s hope for us and for the world.

This is also the point of the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. “Delayed” is a key word here. (Matthew 25:5) This is about the “delayed” second coming.  Most of the early church had assumed that Jesus would be back quickly, in a few years at most.  Time went on, and he did not return.  The bridegroom was delayed.  People found themselves wondering how to live in a time of uncertain certainty. They were certain Jesus would return, but they were uncertain as to when.  Some were hyper vigilant, thinking of little else, others had stopped thinking about it and were going about their business as usual, the rest were somewhere in between.  The parable is a reminder to remain ready, to wait expectantly, but not anxiously.  Those with oil were ready – those without were not.

What is it this text is calling us to do? The Christians addressed in Thessalonians and in Matthew were at most a generation removed from the life and death of Jesus; here we sit 2000 years later.

What must we do to be ready, what is the equivalent of having enough “oil in our lamps” for us?

This is where we must go full circle back to Amos and the coming “Day of the LORD.”  Amos says that the LORD desires for us to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream.” (5:24) For Amos, “justice” was about due process and the fair and equitable distribution of resources.  So we are called to involve ourselves in making our society, our culture, our country a “just society.”  People of different political persuasions have different ideas about what justice looks like and how it is to be accomplished; and there can and should be open and free debate about that – but no Christian can deny that participating in the process by which we strive to become a more just and fair nation is both a Christian’s right and duty.

Righteousness, as used here, is about the integrity of one’s personal piety.  When Amos talks about the LORD despising festivals and solemn assemblies and the noise of our songs and musicians; he is not saying that God rejects our acts of public worship in general.  Rather, he is calling for a consistency between our orchestrated displays of love for God and our personal actions in loving our neighbors.  This is a consistent Hebrew Scriptures understanding of what it means to be a person of God.  As Jesus pointed out a couple of weeks ago – to love God with heart, mind, and soul (Deuteronomy) and to love the neighbor (Leviticus) are alike.  They are two sides of the same coin and you cannot truly, honestly and completely have one without the other.

Why do you want the day of the LORD?”

In the end we want the day of the LORD because we want Jesus. We want the day of the LORD because we want to honor the bridegroom.  We want the day of the LORD because we are ready to experience the pure justice and complete righteousness we have struggled with and for our entire lives.  We want the day of the LORD because we have no other hope than the hope of dying and rising with Christ.

Amen.