Sunday, November 6, 2011

Lectionary 32A or All Saints Sunday
Amos 5:18-24 or Wisdom 6:12-16
Psalm 70 or Wisdom 6:17-20
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13
Revelation 9:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

Woe unto you that desire the day of Jehovah! Wherefore would ye have the day of Jehovah? It is darkness, and not light.

October 21, 2011 came and went without the world ending events predicted by Harold Camping, the president of American Christian Radio. Heís made numerous predictions over the years. When September 6, 1994 passed without the expected judgment, Harold Camping claimed that he made an error in the numbers. He bases his predictions on numerology, using the Hebrew calendar and Jewish festivals, the lunar month and the Gregorian calendar. He reworked the numbers and discovered that May 21, 2011 would be the Day of Judgment.

May 21st passed and everyone made fun of Harold Camping. A few days later, he came out with a revision of the prediction, saying that the judgment was spiritual rather than physical. He claimed that no one could be saved from that moment and that the end of the world would occur in five months, on October 21st. That was always his expectation, but he thought that the five months would be filled with horror, a tribulation for those who did not have faith in Christ. Iím not sure what the point of a five month tribulation would be if not to help people turn to Christ before the end of time, but according to Camping it wouldnít matter: no one could turn after May 21st.

October 21st arrived, and the day went by without incident. As a matter of fact, news of the coming apocalypse was non-existent. The number of billboards used to warn people was significantly smaller than in May. People didnít walk the streets with brochures. Only a few people even referenced it on their Facebook pages and I donít think I heard any stories on the news about the prophecy. At the end of the day a few people joked about how relieved they were, and others joked about how disappointed. No one felt sorry for Harold Camping, though, who failed again.

The big problem with this story is the number of people that lost everything due to Harold Campingís predictions. In May, his followers sold everything, sent their money to American Christian Radio to use for publicizing the prediction or they spent the money themselves on signs and billboards. I suppose thatís why there werenít as many this time: no one had any money left. His followers didnít mind spending all their money; they didnít need it for where they were going. Except now they are penniless and homeless, without even hope.

How does Harold Camping respond to his failure? He recently announced that he is deeply embarrassed and that he would retire as president of American Christian Radio. Thatís all well and good, but what about those who are suffering because his prophecies failed? What is he doing for the followers who lost everything trusting in his supposedly wise discernment of Godís word? He is a ninety year old man who no longer has a job, but has more than enough to take care of his needs while he continues to live in this world. Where is the justice? Where is the mercy? Where is the grace?

The so called wisdom of Harold Camping is not wisdom at all, at least not the wisdom that comes from God. Harold Camping based his prophecies off a complicated series of numeric calculations. It was so complicated that he got it wrong the first time. In the passage from the apocryphal book the Wisdom of Solomon, 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.

In the case of end time prophecy, the simple answer is that no one can know the time. The one good and right thing Harold Camping has said since the failure of his prophecy is that we should always be prepared. That is simple and true. I love to dig deeply into the scriptures, to see the multiple meanings that God has buried within His Word, but true wisdom comes to those who are humble and obedient. She seeks out those who are worthy and meets them in their thoughts.

Now, I have to admit that I wouldnít have minded seeing Jesus on October 21st. I donít have a death wish. I donít plan on taking the matter into my own hands. I am not willing to set aside my life and work to sit around waiting for Him to come. But I would happily follow Him to heaven if He came to take me into eternity today. The life that is waiting on the other side is radically better than the best life in this world. I understand, especially in troubled times, how someone could grasp onto the hope of a prophecy like Harold Campingís, looking forward to the Promised Land where believers will live forever. Iím not so sure I understand the point of view that looks forward to the Day of the LORD, however.

Amos asks the question of the people, ďWherefore would ye have the day of Jehovah?Ē The people thought they were serving God. They worshipped. They presented their offerings. They did everything they were expected to do, according to the laws of their faith. Yet, something was missing. They were getting it terribly wrong. They looked to a day when God would come to save them, but God was prepared to come in righteousness, to serve justice, to give mercy to those that had been forgotten by their piety. It isnít enough to do the right ritual or offer the right sacrifices. God calls us to trust in Him, good times and bad, and to look beyond ourselves to His purpose in the world. The Day of the Lord would not be light and happiness. Godís people would not be prepared for the darkness and the gloom to come because they had lost sight with the reality of God in their world.

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.

In our texts today we face one of the most argued of Paul. 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.

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 shares 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 Harold Camping, looking 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 bodily 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.

In the Gospel lesson for this week, Matthew recounts a story Jesus told about ten virgins who went out to wait for the bridegroom on the day of the wedding. They expected him to come quickly, but were disappointed. He was delayed. Some were prepared for the long wait, but others were not. Paul wrote about the expectation that Christ was coming immediately. They were all waiting anxiously; they were sure that Jesus would return in their lifetimes. But some of the Christians were becoming doubtful and frustrated. Their loved ones were dying and Christ had not yet come. What would happen if they died, too? They thought they would see the fulfillment of the promise in their lifetimes. It is terribly disappointing to know that we will not see the promised hope realized when we want it to be. It is very easy to lose hope when our understanding is smashed. Yet, the Church has longingly waited for Christ to return for two thousand years; every generation has had people certain that they are the ones that will see the Day of the Lord.

I wish I knew some of the people who are suffering the disappointment of Harold Campingís failure. They need us now more than ever. They need to hear the reality of the Gospel message, which does not guarantee an immediate coming of Christ. But we are assured by the Gospel of Christ that Jesus has done all that is necessary for believers to be invited into the banquet. What happens, though, if we lose hope? What if our faith is shattered? Where will we be if the Bridegroom comes when we are no longer looking for Him?

In the story we see the wise virgins prepared for a long wait. They had extra oil, enough oil. They were patient, waiting in faith that the bridegroom is faithful. The other bridesmaids were unprepared for the wait. They did not expect a delay and were disappointed when the bridegroom did not come. And when he did not come, they ran out of oil. 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 fit their expectations. They did have faith in the bridegroom. 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.

We have to hold on to the hope that Godís promises are true. 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. We need not be afraid of tomorrow, but we are reminded that God is looking at things much differently than our human hearts and minds. He does not accept the worship that is not founded in a life of real sacrifice. He does not care about the blood of animals or the sweet sounding songs if there is no real 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. It takes the wisdom of God to establish and develop that kind of relationship. It comes from Him.

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

How will you prepare for the Day of the LORD? Are you looking forward to a physical rapture or something spiritual? How will you prepare for the coming of the Bridegroom? Do you have an expectation that will disappoint if it does not come to pass or are you prepared to wait patiently in faith for God to be faithful in His time and way? God blesses the humble and lifts up those who need Him. Instead of worshipping God with our rituals and offerings, letís keep our eyes on God and rejoice in His promises, for He will come one day to set us free to live in His light forever. As we wait with our eyes fixed on God, Wisdom will find us worthy and will lead us to live a life of justice and righteousness that will shine His light into the world today.

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