Pastor Richard Holmer/ November 12, 2017 / Pentecost 23/ First Reading: Amos: 5: 18-24/ Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18/ Gospel : Matthew 25: 1-13
As the church year draws to a close, the appointed readings for these November Sundays direct our attention to the end of time. As Christians, we believe this world had a beginning – and that it will have an end. The structure of the Bible undergirds this belief: the story begins with the original beginning in Genesis, and concludes with the end time accounts in Revelation. Unlike other religions, Christians believe that history is linear, not cyclical. The story has a direction, it moves forward, not in endless circles. There are seasons and cycles within history – but in the large scheme, history moves from beginning to end. Science affirms this understanding of how things are. The star we call our sun had a beginning, and one day it will finally burn out.
Christians understand our individual lives in a similar way. We have a beginning in our birth and our baptism. Our earthly lives have a physical ending. But our life as children of God continues beyond the grave. Our storyline extends into eternity. Christians do not believe in reincarnation, or some endless cycle of rebirth. We believe in the integrity of the individual soul – our personhood continues and is sustained into eternity. Week by week, through the creeds of the church, we express our faith in what the future holds, and who holds the future. The Apostles’ Creed reads, “Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead.” We believe that Jesus, who first entered our world as a newborn baby, will come again at the end of time. “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” We trust Christ’s promise of victory over death. His resurrection guarantees ours. The Nicene Creed affirms these same convictions. “Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”
You and I speak these words every Sunday – yet my sense is that most of us do not give a lot of thought to Christ’s Second Coming – or to the end of history. I know such things do not occupy my mind very much. There are good reasons why this is so. Most of us are quite busy simply trying to keep up with the demands and responsibilities of today – plus what we didn’t get done yesterday! Since it has now been almost 2,000 years that Christians have been expecting Christ’s return, that expectation is less conscious and urgent than it was in the first century. We have a natural aversion to contemplating our own deaths – and also the death and final ending of this world. Some of the biblical passages that speak of the end time can frankly be confusing and difficult to understand. The imagery and symbolism in books like Daniel and Revelation are not easy to interpret. Predictions and speculation about the end of the world have time and again proved to be misleading and wrong. There is a lot of bad information and bad theology out there concerning how and when this world will end. Jesus did speak about the end time. But he explicitly said that no one can tell when it will be. Furthermore, he urges us to concentrate on living here and now. In his sermon on the mount Jesus said: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Mt 6:34) And whether Martin Luther actually said it or not, this quote often attributed to Luther offers some practical wisdom: “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree today.” That is: do what is good and right today, regardless of what tomorrow may bring. This is how Jesus lived – fully in the moment. On the night before he knew he was to die, what did he do? Jesus celebrated the Passover with his friends, and gave to them and us the sacrament of Holy Communion.
What, then, can we glean from our readings today regarding how to think and live in light of the ultimate end of things? In our First Reading the prophet Amos gives a very loud wake-up call to the people of Israel. Amos prophesied during a period (about 750 BC) when Israel was enjoying unprecedented wealth and prosperity. Things were good for the elite in those days. But Amos decried the many ways the wealthy few exploited the poor and vulnerable. He warned them that Israel’s covenant with God would not shield them from God’s justice and righteous indignation. He announced that the coming Day of the Lord would be a time of darkness – and not light. To those who presumed that God was somehow obligated to be generous to his chosen people, regardless of their behavior, Amos sends the message that the Lord is not pleased with their unjust ways, and will not be placated by their religious rituals and sacrifices. In short, Amos tells them that God is not marked; all are accountable to God’s judgement, and that it’s foolish to presume that God will forever allow injustice and faithlessness to go unchallenged. The words of Amos speak to us, living as we do in a time of abundance and prosperity. We are called to remember the poor, to share our abundance – and to avoid presuming on the gracious favor of God. We are accountable – and God is our judge.
Paul wrote his letter to the Thessalonians around the year 50 AD – or roughly 20 years after Christ’s death and resurrection. Many believers had expected that Christ would quickly return following his resurrection – and the end of history would come. As time went on, some became anxious about when Christ would come – or even if he would return. They also worried about the ones who had died before Christ’s return – and what would become of them. Paul assured them that Christ’s resurrection is the guarantee on the resurrection of all who have died in faith. He urges steadfast faith and patience in the meantime. Paul does not want the Thessalonians to dwell on the end of things, but rather to “encourage one another and build up each other.” (Thes 5:11) In this same letter Paul calls on them to: “Seek to do good to one another, and to all;” “rejoice always;” “pray without ceasing;” “give thanks in all circumstances.” As we await Christ’s return, we will do well to do likewise.
For a number of reasons it is difficult to fully understand the parable in today’s gospel: the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. Rather than delve into all the complications and confusions, I call your attention to Christ’s summary statement at the conclusion: “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Once again we are reminded that there is no way to know the timing of Christ’s return. So we need to be alert, vigilant – and above all, faithful.
Along with the assurance in the creed and our readings today, there are three prayers in our service today that shed some helpful light on our path – helping us to live faithfully in the here and now, even as we acknowledge that an end will come: to our lives and to this world. The Eucharistic Prayer which is offered shortly before the Lord’s Prayer, speaks both to the reality of our tenuous circumstances and to the assurance of God’s promise. “Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal: surrounded by evil and bordered by death we appeal to you, our Sovereign, our Wisdom, and our Judge. We praise you for Christ, who proclaimed your reign of peace and promised an end to injustice and harm.” The prayer speaks to the reality of our current situation: we are “surrounded by evil and bordered by death.” The world is filled with many terrors: mass shootings, horrendous abuse, cruel oppression, willful neglect, heartless greed. In addition we face the evil of our own making, our own failures and bad choices. And every one of our lives is “bordered by death.” Death is the formidable boundary line that delimits our earthly lives – abruptly and finally. Because this is the nature of our reality, because we are all terminal – we reach out to the God who is both our Creator and Father, and our Judge. We give thanks for Jesus, who promised that peace will prevail, and that all injustice and harm will finally meet their end. Christ is the one who makes all things new, so we place our hope in him.
The Prayer of the Day for this Sunday acknowledges that there will be a final judgement – and that in that time of reckoning, we will depend not on the brilliance of our resume or whatever good deeds we have to our credit – but on the grace of God. “Lord, when the day of judgement comes we have no hope except in your grace. Make us so to watch for the last days that the consummation of our hope may be the joy of the marriage feast of your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” How will our hope finally be fulfilled? In the Bible, heaven is often pictured as a great wedding feast. (This imagery is suggested in today’s parable, where the bridegroom is Christ.) The holy wedding is between Christ, the bridegroom, and his bride, the Church (namely all of us). You could say that in the end, our long engagement with Christ as God’s people will be consummated in the glorious union of a wedding. And, by the grace of God, we will spend eternity on an endless honeymoon.
Finally, the post-communion prayer also alludes to this heavenly marriage feast. “Sovereign God, in this meal you give us a foretaste of the great feast to come. Keep us faithful to you that we, with all your saints, may at length celebrate the marriage feast of the Lamb, Jesus Christ our Lord.” In Holy Communion we get a preview, a sample, a foretaste of the goodness and blessedness that God has in store for us. And we pray that God will help us to stay faithful to the end, so that we may enjoy our place at the celebration.
So, as we ponder the reality of our own ending, the end of this world, and the return of Christ – what do we have to go on? For starters, it’s good to occasionally lift your nose from the grindstone and realize that our lives are part of a much greater story – even the wonderful story of God’s plan for salvation. As we recognize that our lives in this world will come to an end – and so will the world itself – because of Christ, death is not the end but a transition to peace and joy that will have no end. It is sobering to realize the impermanence of this world and all who live in it. It teaches us to recall what St. Paul; once said: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people to be pitied.” It is heartening to realize that our God is “holy and mighty and immortal,” and because of his love for us we have a hope that extends beyond the end of what we now know to eternal blessings which exceed what we can imagine. Because God who is the beginning will also be God for us at the end, our story promises to have the happiest of all endings. The final word is JOY.
Thanks be to God.