Sunday, November 9, 2008

Twenty-sixth Sunday in Pentecost
Amos 5:18-24 or Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16
Psalm 70 or Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

Wherefore comfort one another with these words.

The Book of Wisdom, or Wisdom of Solomon, is found in the deutero-canonical writings often placed between the Old Testament and New Testament books with which we are all familiar. Though the book was considered canonical in the second century, it was not included in the canon of the Jewish Bible which is why it is separated from other Old Testament texts. It was found in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) and was included in the Vulgate (a fifth century Latin version of the scriptures.) Martin Luther separated the deuteron-canonical books and placed them in a section called the Apocrypha. An apocrypha includes books whose canonicity is questioned.

There are a number of these books which are included as options in the Revised Common Lectionary. Though no one questions the authenticity of these books, they are unfamiliar to most modern Christians because most modern Bibles do not include translations of them. I had to use the NRSV translation for the text today because it was not translated for the American Standard Version. There is value in these texts and it is worth hearing what is said. Though today’s passage comes from a book called “Wisdom of Solomon,” modern experts do not believe it was actually written by Solomon. It may have been written by a descendent of David (the writer calls himself ‘son of David’) in the first or second century B.C. The beginning of the book talks about Wisdom as a divine characterization, text that has long been used by Christians as a type and foretelling of the person of Jesus Christ. The end of the book mirrors the Passover Haggadah, the text defining the religious ritual used in ancient Egypt during the Passover service. It tells the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt.

Since some may not have easy access to the text of Wisdom, here is what we read today. “Wisdom 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 one's 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.” (New Revised Standard Version)

The text from Wisdom is appropriate for this week’s lectionary because in it we see wisdom defined, not only as a divine quality, but also as a characteristic of those who live in faith and trust in God. Our scriptures are beginning to look toward that coming Day of the Lord, the focus of the last few weeks of our church calendar. As we look forward, we are cautioned to be prepared and to rest in the hope we have. These passages call us to faithfulness and faith-filled living. We live in faith and hold on to hope when we keep Wisdom in our sights.

Charles Spurgeon wrote in a sermon for October 29, 1871, “Young painters were anxious, in olden times, to study under the great masters. They concluded that they should more easily attain to excellence if they entered the schools of eminent men. Men have paid large premiums that their sons may be apprenticed or articled to those who best understood their trades or professions; now, if any of us would learn the sacred art and mystery of prayer, it is well for us to study the productions of the greatest masters of that science. I am unable to point out one who understood it better than did the psalmist David. So well did he know how to praise, that his psalms have become the language of good men in all ages; and so well did he understand how to pray, that if we catch his spirit, and follow his mode of prayer, we shall have learned to plead with God after the most prevalent sort. Place before you, first of all, David's Son and David's Lord, that most mighty of all intercessors, and, next to Him, you shall find David to be one of the most admirable models for your imitation.”

Today’s 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 David’s 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. David’s sons fought against one another and against their father. Amnon raped Absalom’s 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 isn’t 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. David is faithful and faith-filled.

I once did a bible study on the word “seek.” I quickly learned that trying to read every incidence of the word “seek” in the scriptures was overwhelming, so my focus turned to the story of King Saul and King David. I found, not surprisingly, that every time Saul sought something, he was chasing David and his own self-interests. David, however, was always seeking after God. That’s why Saul lost his anointing and David ended up with the blessing of God. Saul’s line would never last, but David’s would last forever. David was not perfect. However, David was faithful through it all, looking to God and seeking His help. He is an example we can follow, remembering that we too are imperfect but that God is present in our lives.

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 God’s promises. Unfortunately, throughout the history of God’s 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 Amos’s 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 aren’t 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 ‘enough’ for tomorrow. We can’t 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 can’t 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 façade and we offer the sacrifices, but do we really trust and hope in God?

God was not happy with the people in Amos’s day. 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. The 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 isn’t 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. God’s 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.

The relationship between God and His people is described as a marriage and the coming of Christ as the wedding when the bridegroom (Jesus) comes to get His bride (the Church.) We live in expectation of that day as a bride waits for her wedding day. Sometimes we respond like those who have lost sight of the purpose of the marriage ceremony, demanding the perfect party but ignoring the relationship a marriage requires. The expectation of the wedding day is upside down. They forget that the wedding is to join two together for eternity and make the day into nothing more than a party. Sometimes we forget who God is and what He has done for us. We look forward not to the fulfillment of God’s promises but for the fulfillment of our own wants. We lose sight of Christ and demand that God fit into our box.

The people in Paul’s 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. They 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 match our image, or even 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.

Jesus gives us an image also. 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 image 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.

Are they longing for a fulfillment like those in Amos’s day, and will they see what they expect to see? Or will they, like every generation since Jesus ascended into heaven, be disappointed that now is not the time?

There are still those today who live their faith as if we are the generation who will finally see the promise fulfilled. It is possible. We can look around our world and see the signs. But, every generation since Jesus has seen the signs. In every generation there are those who lose hope because they interpret the signs to mean that now is the time and when it does not come as they expect they turn from the promise. The oil in the lamp of the virgins is the hope we have as we wait for God to finish the work He began two thousand years ago.

In this story we see the wise virgins prepared for a long wait. They’ve come with extra oil, enough oil. The other bridesmaids were unprepared for the wait. They did not expect a delay and were disappointed when the bridegroom did not come. Their oil was gone. Their hope was lost. Hope can die out, our light can dim, if we do not keep hold of the promise. The five wise virgins held on to their hope even when it seemed like the bridegroom was never going to arrive. The five foolish virgins ran out of oil, but they also lost hope while they waited: they did not stand firm in the faith that the bridegroom would come, renewing their hope even when it seemed like He would never come.

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 was writing 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.

We are reminded in the prophecy from Amos that the Day of the Lord will not look like we expect. We have to hold on to the hope that God’s 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.

Finally, as we wait for the Day of the Lord, we may find ourselves attacked by those who appear to be living right and true lives, but who are not wise according to the ways of God. They are like King Saul, arrogant in position and authority, but forgetting the source of his blessing and power. We are called to be more 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, “she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.”

We might not have a brother or sister, son or daughter, threatening our lives and our kingdom, but we all face times of difficulty and people who wish to see us harm. How do we respond? Do we turn to God and seek His guidance and deliverance? Or do we try to go forward on our own strength. How do we see the coming of Christ? What do we think we will see on that day? Whatever our image, always remember, as Paul, that the promise is in Christ Jesus and that we will be with the Lord forever. As we think about His coming, let us encourage one another through the good times and the bad as we wait for the Day of the Lord. As we continually seek God let us encourage one another to trust in Him, rejoicing with thankfulness and gladness, always praising God for all that He has done, is doing and will do until that great and wonderful Day He returns to fulfill His promises forever.

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