Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
But I am poor and needy. Come to me quickly, God. You are my help and my deliverer. Yahweh, donít delay.
We are racing toward the end of the church year; as much as we donít want to admit it, we are quickly nearing Advent and Christmas. During the last few weeks of the year we look toward the future, not tomorrow, the coming holidays or even next year. We will be looking forward to the fulfillment of all Godís promises, the coming day of the Lord and the eternity that is ours by faith in Jesus Christ.
Come, Lord Jesus.
There are certainly as many ideas about the end times as there are people discussing them. Whole systems of theology have evolved around the study of eschatology, much of it with confusing language and troubling imagery. There have been charismatic leaders who have taken their understanding of the end times to such an extreme that whole communities have died in their leadership trying to force Godís hand. We can name some of the more famous false messiahs who have led their people to the grave following orders down a path of destruction and death.
Some people look forward to the end times with giddiness and expectation. They believe that they are so right about what the end times will look like that they flaunt their salvation and blessedness in the faces of those who believe differently. They believe that they will be saved, that they are a lonely remnant in the world that will be destroyed for lack of belief. They stand up against anyone that disagrees, often to the point of violence. The charismatic leaders have such control over their people that they are willing to even die for their sake. When the leader says, ďDrink thisĒ they drink, believing that it will take them to heaven.
I cry out to the Lord almost daily, ďCome, Lord Jesus,Ē but we have to be careful about looking forward to that day with giddy excitement. Some want the end times to happen now so they do what they think will make it happen. They try to force Godís hand; ďSee God, we made everything ready for you. Come!Ē They invite God to run on their schedule, to ensure that they are the generation who will see the fulfillment of the promises. To be honest, I wouldnít mind to see Jesus coming on those clouds. Iím ready to dwell in Godís presence for eternity. However, no human being knows the mind of God so well as to direct Godís hand. We are called to trust in Him, not to test Him or demand that He satisfy our expectations.
Amos says, ďWoe unto you that desire the day of Jehovah!Ē We have been reminded in the past few weeks that while we are saints with faith in God, we are still sinners in need of salvation. Eternity for us is both a present reality and a future hope. We have no reason to believe that the judgment that awaits us at the end of all days will be pleasant for us. We donít deserve to be protected from times of trouble, for we are as guilty as those that we believe deserve to be left behind.
The message Amos took to his people is one we need to hear also. We have forgotten to live thankful. We are comfortable in our worship, attending services on Sunday but forgetting about God the rest of the week. We ignore the needs of our neighbors. The true life of faith is not that which offers sacrifices because it is our duty or because we want Godís blessing. He desires mercy, not sacrifice. We are to walk in faith because we are thankful for Godís grace.
Thatís the best way for us to prepare for the coming of the Lord: to live thankful.
Jesus tells us what it will be like in todayís parable. Ten virgins will be waiting for the bridegroom. Five were prepared for a long wait, but the others expected him to come quickly. The bridegroom came in his time. The wise virgins had extra oil, enough oil. They were patient, trusting that the bridegroom will be faithful. The other bridesmaids were unprepared. They did not expect a delay and were disappointed when the bridegroom did not come. They ran out of oil when he did not arrive on time. Their hope was lost. Hope can die; our light can dim, if we do not keep hold of the promise. The five wise virgins believed the bridegroom even when it seemed like he was never going to arrive. The five foolish virgins ran out of oil; they became confused and disappointed because the bridegroom did not fulfill their expectations. They believed in the bridegroom but their faith rested in their own understanding which failed them in the end.
The people in Amosís day had faith in the things they were doing. They thought their worship and their offerings were enough to guarantee Godís blessings even in the Day of the LORD. Amos told them a different story. They had lost sight of wisdom. They were not humble or obedient. They did what they thought was right according to the way they understood God. But their understanding was not simple or wise; it was based on the complicated interpretations and rules established by the religious leaders. In the end, they would find that the Day of the LORD would not be what they hoped for; it would be darkness and gloom, a judgment of their failure to be just and righteous. They were like the unwise virgins who werenít properly prepared for the coming of the bridegroom. Like those virgins, they would be very surprised when He came.
What is wisdom?
The Revised Common Lectionary includes as a choice for todayís a passage from the Apocrypha. I like to include these texts occasionally. Though they are extra-canonical, they serve as additional insight into God and His people. In todayís passage from the Wisdom of Solomon, we have words about wisdom. ďWisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. He who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for he will find her sitting at his gates. To fix oneís thought on her is perfect understanding, and he who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought. The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction, and concern for instruction is love of her, and love of her is the keeping of her laws, and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality, and immortality brings one near to God; so the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom.Ē (Wisdom 6:12-20, RSV)
In this text we see that wisdom is not complicated. She is easy to discern by those who seek her. The one who studies the scriptures easily finds wisdom, clearly revealed in the text. We might spend times seeking spiritual understandings of the scriptures, or seek to understand it based on intellectual and historical knowledge, but the bottom line when it comes to understanding God is that the simple answer is always best.
We live in a divided world. We donít agree with our neighbors on anything. We disagree about faith and politics. We fight on the football field. We even reject our neighbors for their choice of Coke or Pepsi. We argue with long-winded explanations that have no substance and make the argument personal. We get so caught up in the argument that we lose sight of the people. We lose sight of wisdom. We lose sight of God.
The text from Paulís letter to the Thessalonians is perhaps one of the most debated in our day. What does it mean when he says that those who are alive will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord? There are those who understand this to be a physical rapture. Others claim there is something spiritual about this. Yet others put a metaphorical sense on the text. Those who are giddy about the second coming of Christ look forward to the day when they will be caught up and taken away, leaving behind all those who disagree.
The people in Paulís day, perhaps even Paul, were getting nervous. They expected Jesus to return within their lifetime. They saw the second coming as an immediate response to what was happening, and every day that passed brought doubt and concern. The people who knew Jesus personally were dying. The first believers were passing away. Would Jesus come before they were all gone? Paul assured them that it did not matter. Those who were dead were not gone forever. Jesus would return, and all those who died in faith would be with Him at that trumpet sound. Paul shared his image of that day. It might not be the same as we see it or match the reality when it happens, but he has found comfort in wondering what it will look like. Many others have done the same. The image of Christ returning is a favorite of authors, artists and film makers. It is something I think about.
Paul tells us to encourage one another with these words. What does he mean? Should we be like those who look forward to the Day of the Lord, the Judgment day, expecting to be raptured away from the struggles of our world? Or should we, as Paul says, encourage one another with the hope that comes from believing that Jesus Christ died and rose again to give us eternal life? See, the point of this passage is not that weíll be taken into the clouds, but that we will be with the Lord forever. Our hope is not in some sort of rapture, but in the reality of eternal life with Christ. Will there be a rapture? Perhaps. Does it matter whether this passage is physical, spiritual or metaphorical? No. What matters is the faith we have in Christ that gives us hope in the midst of our sorrow. It is that faith and that hope that lights our darkness.
Todayís Psalm has been ascribed to David, and it is generally agreed that it was written when David was in the later days of his life. David was a mighty king, but even mighty kings face great difficulties. This is especially true when they are nearing the end of their lives. They are seen by enemies, both close and far away, as weakened and unable to hold on to their kingdoms. David chose his son Solomon to be heir, but Davidís other sons wanted the kingdom, too. Though Israel was threatened on all sides by foreign armies, the most difficult battles happened within the walls of his own palace. Davidís sons fought against one another and against their father. Amnon raped Absalomís sister, so Absalom killed Amnon. Absalom rebelled against David and was killed on the battlefield. Adonijah, as the then oldest son, expected to be heir but was rejected for Solomon. He tried twice to gain control, but was eventually killed by Solomon.
It sounds like the script from a soap opera, but it isnít unusual to hear stories about intrigue in royal families. Murder, adultery, greed, dishonesty and war are found in the histories and in the palaces of all civilizations. To many the end justifies the means and the end is always power. But in David we see a man who has learned what it means to be humble, to turn to God in times of trouble and to praise Him even if the circumstances seem impossible to overcome.
As we wait for the Day of the LORD, we may find ourselves in the midst of troubles and suffering, attacked by the self-righteous who do not seek Wisdom as she appears to the faithful. We are called to be like David, humble before God, seeking His face and being obedient to His Word. David is faithful and faith-filled. The one who knows Wisdom is also faithful and faith-filled. As we seek to know God, we will find Wisdom who will teach us and guide us in His ways. She will be vigilant and present in our lives. She is not hard to find, but as the writer of the lesson from the Wisdom of Solomon says, ďshe graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.Ē
For God, faithfulness and faith-filled lives are manifested in kindness and mercy and grace. That is the life that will be rewarded with fulfillment of Godís promises. Unfortunately, throughout the history of Godís people, we have repeatedly lost sight of the reality, getting caught up in our own expectations. Take, for instance, the understanding of the people in Amosís day. They did what they thought they had to do and they looked forward to the coming Day of the Lord. But Amos had bad news for them. They had a wrong image of what was to come.
People are merciful when they are thankful for the mercy they have received. We are generous when we are thankful for the things that we have been given. But there are times when we arenít so generous: when we are afraid and when we are comfortable. When we are afraid, it is hard to see anything for which we can be thankful. When we are threatened by forces outside ourselves, we hold on to the little we have, trying to ensure ďenoughĒ for tomorrow. We canít take care of the needs of others because we are too worried about our own needs. This is true of mercy as well as money. It is hard to be merciful if we are afraid that we will not receive mercy.
It is understandable that people are not generous when they are operating in a state of self-protection. We canít give a hand to someone else when we are hanging by a threat. Even worse, however, is when we are in a state of comfort. We forget to be thankful. We forget about those times when we were afraid or hungry or poor. In our comfort we see no need to be thankful. Our lack of thankfulness makes us blind to our neighbors and apathetic about their problems.
We can overcome our fear and apathy with an attitude of thankfulness, but even when we regularly attend worship and say that words of thanksgiving, we all too often forget to be thankful. We thank God in the immediacy of our salvation and our prosperity, but we do not continue to do so in the constancy of life. When we face the dangers that cause our fear, do we thank God for those times when we were lifted out of danger? When we are surrounded by the good things in life, do we remember the source of all our blessings? We wear the faÁade and we offer the sacrifices, but do we really trust and hope in God?
The wise virgins had lasting hope, a faith that believed that the bridegroom would come, even when it seemed impossible. They were prepared for the late coming of the loved one. Paul wrote words of wisdom to a people whose hopes were fading. Their loved ones were dying despite the promise that Christ would come again. Why was He delayed? Paul reminded them that the promise is for those who believe in Christ, whether dead or alive and that Christ would bring all those of faith together in His day. We need only be patient and prepared.
There is reason to hope. It is easy to fall apart when our expectations are smashed and we are disappointed by what we see happening in the world around us. It is easy to fall into the temptations around us, to conform to the world and to give in to our flesh. But we need not be afraid of tomorrow; God is looking at things much differently than our human hearts and minds. He does not accept the worship that is not founded in real sacrifice. He does not care about the blood of animals or the sweet sounding songs if there is no justice. Righteousness is not something that can be worn like a mask, but is a right relationship with the One who has delivered and promised to save His people.
What does it mean to be prepared for the coming of the Lord? What are your expectations for the end times? We begin to answer these questions by turning to God, seeking His guidance and deliverance, rather than relying on our own strength, knowledge and expectations. What do you think you will see on that day? Your expectations are really not important; the important thing is to remember that the promise is in Jesus Christ. Our hope is not that that Jesus will come at a certain time or do a certain thing; we hope in the promise that we will be with the Lord forever, whenever He comes.
As we look forward to His second coming, considering the apocalypse to come, we are called to encourage one another through the good times and the bad. Let us continually seek God, trusting in Him, rejoicing with thankfulness and gladness. The one who is prepared for that Day is the one who lives as if they have been blessed to be a blessing, praising God for all that He has done and dwelling in the hope that the bridegroom is coming!
A WORD FOR TODAY
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