Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, who took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.
During the summer and early autumn our lectionary texts for Pentecost have focused on what it means to be Church in this world. We’ve heard Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew teach us the parables of the Kingdom and be an example of how to do God’s work in the world. He has stood up against the leaders who wanted to keep the status quo instead of turning back to the God who they claimed to believe. The epistle texts from Paul’s letters to the Romans, the Philippians and the Thessalonians have helped us see how to fix our own failure to live according to God’s Word. The tone of our texts change for the next few weeks as the year of the Church winds down. Our focus now is on the end times, the second coming of Christ and the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises.
During the next few weeks we need to ask ourselves these questions: “What does it mean to be prepared for the coming of the Lord?” and “What are your expectations for the end times?”
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 God’s hand. We can name some of the more famous false messiahs who have lead their people to the grave following orders down a path of destruction and death.
It is amazing to see these communities as they look forward to the end times with a celebration of 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 their enemies, often interpreted to mean everyone else. They believe that the messiah will save them, 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, “Drink this” they drink, believing that it will take them to heaven even if the real motive of the leader is to protect him.
Some of the end times proponents don’t live in separated communities; they are our neighbors and friends. They follow a popular theology like that we see in many of the theological fiction books and movies that have been produced. I was in a bookstore one day and overheard a conversation between two women. One told the other that she has to read that popular series on the end times, “You have to believe, you want to be prepared. These books will tell you what is going to happen so that you will have faith in Jesus.” They believe that those books are based on biblical truths and use them as evangelistic tools, convincing people to become Christian because they don’t want to experience the horror that has been forewarned.
Again, they are almost giddy with excitement that Jesus is coming soon; they want the end times to happen now so that they do what they think will make it happen. They try to force God’s hand; “See God, we made everything ready for you. Come!” 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 wouldn’t mind to see Jesus coming on those clouds. I’m ready to dwell in God’s presence for eternity. However, I don’t think any human being knows the mind of God so well as to direct God’s hand. We are called to trust in Him, not to test Him or demand that He satisfy our expectations.
Amos says, “Woe unto you that desire the day of Jehovah!” 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 don’t deserve to be protected from times of trouble, for we are as guilty as those that we believe deserve to be left behind.
The people in Amos’s day were not living thankful. They were going to temple, singing hymns and following the rituals, but they weren’t worshipping God with their lives. They were perhaps both comfortable and afraid, looking forward to the great and terrible day of the Lord. They were doing what they believe is right—going to the temple and the synagogue on the Sabbath, singing all the right songs and presenting all the right sacrifices. But they had lost touch with the God they claimed to worship. They were not pursuing justice or giving mercy.
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. We are not 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.
I think sometimes we are even less generous when we are comfortable. We forget the times when we were afraid or when we were hungry. We celebrate our blessings without being thankful. We ignore the needs of others because we either blame them for their troubles or we ignore their suffering. How could anyone be hungry when there is such an abundance? We forget that God has blessed us to be a blessing; we forget that He has provided for us so that we can provide for others. We do not pursue justice or give mercy because our bellies are full and we are content. Why risk what we have worked so hard to produce? We don’t even realize that the question shows that we have forgotten the One who has blessed us. Our lack of thankfulness makes us blind to our neighbors and apathetic about their problems.
How many of us go to church out of fear or in our comfort and forget to be thankful for all that God has done? 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? Oh, I’m sure that many of us have been generous and merciful in times of great need, but do we live our thankfulness daily? We show mercy and compassion, generously giving our time, ourselves and our money. But, as time passes and the needs lesson, we stop thinking about our neighbors and return to our life of comfort and peace. We go back to our Sunday morning worship and become blind in our comfort again.
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—both out of fear for our future and in our comfort. But God calls us to always walk in thanksgiving, not to offer sacrifices according to our duty or when we are seeking God’s blessing. He desires mercy, not sacrifice.
That’s the best way for us to prepare for the coming of the Lord: to live thankful.
A few years ago a charismatic preacher thought he had the numbers all worked out. He thought knew exactly when Jesus was going to come again and he had a huge following who believed him. The people did everything they could to promote his ideas. They told their friends to be ready. They sold all their worldly possessions and used the money to buy billboards warning the world of the coming destruction. They quit their jobs to work full time in their evangelistic quest. Here’s the problem: the date came and went without an apocalypse. The preacher tried to convince us that he was off by just a few months, and a few of his followers continued to believe, however the second date came and went. He was wrong and many people suffered because they had false expectations of God.
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 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 will not be light and happiness. God’s people will not be prepared for the darkness and the gloom to come because they have lost sight with the reality of God.
Unfortunately, when we set our sight on God according to our expectations we are often disappointed. I wonder how many of those who have had faith in false prophets lost faith in God when things did not happen as predicted.
Jesus tells us what it will be like in today’s parable. Ten virgins will be waiting for the bridegroom. Five are prepared for a long wait, but the others expected him to come quickly, according to their schedule, but he was delayed. The wise virgins had extra oil, enough oil. They were patient, waiting in faith that the bridegroom is faithful. The other bridesmaids were unprepared. 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 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 Amos’s day had faith in the things they were doing. They thought their worship and their offerings were enough to guarantee God’s 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 weren’t properly prepared for the coming of the bridegroom. Like those virgins, they would be very surprised when He came.
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.
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.
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 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.
The Day of the Lord will not look like we expect. It won’t look like the images found in those books or movies. It won’t be like the false messiah’s and prophets convince their followers. According to Amos it will be darkness and gloom with no righteousness in it.
There is still 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.
So, how do you answer the questions at the beginning of this devotion? “What does it mean to be prepared for the coming of the Lord?” and “What are your expectations for the end times?” First we must turn to God and seek His guidance and deliverance, rather than rely 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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