Sermon from November 12, 2017, on Matthew 25:1-13, Amos 5:18-24, and Psalm 70.
What is the longest you’ve ever waited in line for something? Anyone ever camped out overnight for something, maybe concert tickets, or a new phone, or a book?
The most fun I’ve had waiting in line was for Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith. We had tickets for the midnight showing and we got to the theater about 5 pm. We waited a long time to get in, but it was waiting with a few hundred other Star Wars fans, so there were costumes and lightsaber battles all over.
Usually, though, waiting is not fun. I don’t think anyone truly enjoys waiting in lines, waiting for something to happen.
Today’s readings are about waiting in a more cosmic sense, specifically, waiting for the Day of the Lord, the end of the world, waiting for God’s kingdom to be realized and Jesus to return.
The trouble with this kind of waiting is no one knows how long it will take. At least with a line, you can tell how much progress you’re making and maybe even see the end of the line, the destination. It’s hard to tell in our world if we’re getting closer to the end, or farther away from where God calls us to be.
The example Jesus gives here is a wedding. Weddings were a big deal in the culture of Jesus’ day, even more than they are today. The guests and wedding party would gather at the bride’s home and be entertained by her parents. After some time, the groom would come to get his bride, and the whole wedding party would light torches and go out to meet him, then they’d travel together to the groom’s home where the festivities would last for several days. (Wedding info from Feasting on the Word commentaries).
In this parable, they gather at the bride’s house, but for some reason, the groom is delayed, and the wedding party is kept waiting. In fact, they fall asleep waiting, only to wake up and hear the groom is almost there. Some of them, though, have run out of oil for their lamps. They used up everything while they were waiting, and now that it’s time, they have nothing left. While they’re out restocking, the groom comes and the procession leaves, and they’re left out of the party.
This is a tricky parable, because it’s hard to see what Jesus’ point is. He ends by saying “Keep awake,” but all 10 of the bridesmaids had fallen asleep. That wasn’t their problem. It’s not about who knows Jesus, because everyone in the story knows the bridegroom. The point is something about being prepared, but what does that mean?
The story is confident of this: The bridegroom will come. Don’t give up on the waiting. Remember we’re in this for the long haul, so don’t use up all the oil right away.
I think it helps to hear this Gospel story in light of the reading from Amos. At first, this passage from Amos looks even more confusing. He makes it sound like the day of the Lord that we’re waiting for is a terrible thing.
Not only should we not be impatiently standing in line for it; we should be running the other direction! It’s not easy to come to a worship service to hear God say, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.”
Again, though, this is about how to wait. The prophet Amos lived in a time of peace, and if you’re familiar at all with the cycle of Israel’s history, you know pretty much every time they were at peace, every time things seemed to be going alright, the Israelites would turn inward. They’d focus on themselves, not on obeying God’s commands. They’d decide God must be pretty happy with them, so they can do whatever they want.
This time, they haven’t forgotten about God, but they have forgotten what God calls them to do as the chosen people. They have continued the rituals of worship, but they’ve lost the point. Their tradition has lost its life.
They’ve looked around at the pain and suffering in the world, and they’ve decided it’s better to just wait for God to take care of it. The world is hurting? People are in need? That’s God’s issue, not ours.
When I say it like that, it sounds bad, but really, can you blame them? I’ve felt the same way sometimes. Haven’t you? In the last few months especially, it seems like there’s just one tragedy after another.
I said in a sermon a few weeks ago that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by fires and hurricanes and shootings, and since then, it seems like we’ve just had more, with last week’s terrible mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Sometimes life feels like just waiting for the next shoe to drop.
That Psalm we read feels appropriate, doesn’t it? “Be pleased, O God, to deliver [us], O Lord, make haste to help [us].”
Especially this time, there have been lots of people upset at the idea of people sharing “thoughts and prayers” after a tragedy. The argument is that prayer becomes a cop-out from actually doing something.
I believe in the power of prayer, and we will indeed pray for those involved in this tragedy in a few minutes, as we do after every tragedy. But without wading into the political debates, people who say the phrase “thoughts and prayers” feels empty have a point.
The point of worship is for us to gather together to praise God and be fed with God’s grace through Word and Sacrament, so that we can be sent back out into the world. Worship is a sanctuary, a time of renewal outside of our normal lives, but the point is that we are sent back out to serve God by serving our neighbors. We’re sent out to do something.
Amos is addressing a people who have become so wrapped up in the ritual and ceremony of worship that they miss the point. Worship has become a way to pass the time, a tradition done for its own sake, by people who have resigned themselves that whatever’s going on in the world is none of their concern.
But just waiting for the Day of the Lord to come is not good enough. We’re not called to sit in our nice church buildings and ignore the needs of the world, the needs of our neighbors.
We are the body of Christ. We are called by God to keep awake, to pay attention, to get involved. Pope Francis put it like this: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”
Praying rightly means asking God to change the world, and allowing God to change us. If our prayers and our worship and our rituals and our songs don’t change the way we live, than what’s the point? We gather to hear the good news of God’s grace and forgiveness.
We don’t need to do anything to earn that grace, but we are called to action in response to God’s action. The heart of worship is God’s grace setting us free to act, to love, and to serve. At the end of the service, we say, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” Worship ends with sending, a call to action.
For the next few weeks approaching Advent, we’re going to keep coming back to this theme of responding to God’s grace while we wait. Last week, we talked about living in an in-between time, where we know God’s promises, we know who holds the future. Because we are claimed as children of God, we have an eternal hope.
But in the meantime, while we wait and look forward to that hope, how shall we live? Will we be passive, falling asleep, or maybe doing just enough to keep ourselves entertained? When our companions run out of oil, will we shrug and send them off to get more?
Or will we keep awake together? Will we encourage one another as a community, as the body of Christ, to keep engaged, to be prepared?
In times of crisis, will we pray and then move on with our own lives, or will we bring the tragedies, the problems of our world to God, praying that God will use us as part of the solution, to make the world better?
Will our rituals mean something? Will they do something? Will we love and serve the Lord?
Amos ends his criticism with this: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream.” As we wait, may we get swept up in the stream of God’s justice.
May we cry out with the Psalmist, “Come to me speedily, O God! You are my helper and my deliverer; O Lord, do not tarry.”
And may we rely on the hope we have in the one who is coming, Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord, the one who sends us out to act as we wait.