November 12, 2023
24th Sunday After Pentecost
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who is concerned about life right now. Amen
Our readings for today are deceptive,
they all seem to be about the END,
the day of the Lord, the day of judgment,
the coming of the Lord,
however you want to think about it,
and we humans do seem to think about it quite a bit,
we wonder when it will be,
what it will be like,
we try to predict who will be in and who will be out.
Sometimes we spend so much time worrying
about this nebulous future event
that we forget to be in the present,
and that is just the point that the readings for today are making,
focusing on life here and now,
dealing with the joys and sorrows of the present
is more important than worrying about
or even hoping for
God’s coming and what that will involve.
We start with Amos,
the book of Amos starts out with the prophet
prophesying against all the nations surrounding Israel,
naming their transgressions against God
and the punishments that will follow,
and it seems like the Israelites,
some of them anyway,
have started to think that the day of the Lord might be a good thing,
‘let God take care of all those pesky neighbors
with all those good punishments,
we’ll be okay, we are after all the chosen people
who know how to worship God in the right way.’
To which Amos says
“Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!”
the people of Israel are not exempt
from the judgments/ punishments of that day
and don’t even kid yourself about your religious practices
getting you off the hook for your own bad behavior…
“I hate, I despise your festival, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an every-flowing stream.”
The point is not the judgment and punishment of the day of the Lord,
the point is to live in harmony with God and others right now.
The punishment and judgment will only come
because of lack of justice,
because of broken relationships.
God would much rather
have people live in harmony with one another and creation right now
than have to come and rain down punishments
and God has given the people the tools to do this,
the commandments, the prophets,
even if it’s not perfect you can start working on the problems
God tells the people, don’t wait for me!
Now, waiting for Jesus is exactly what the Thessalonians
from our second reading are doing.
They have become believers in Jesus the Son of God,
whom they have been promised will return, and soon!
They have been waiting expectantly
but now time is starting to pass,
enough time that members of their community
have started to die before the return of Jesus,
and this has added to their grief,
because not only are they sad they lost loved ones,
they are sad because they think their loved ones have missed out on Jesus’ return
because they died before he came.
So Paul writes to the community
“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
and goes on to describe how when Jesus comes
the dead in Christ will rise first
and then those who are alive will be caught up in the clouds
and together all will meet the Lord
and be with the Lord forever.
It’s a beautiful picture
and the point of painting it
is not about that moment
but the present,
Paul ends the description with the admonition
“Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
The point is hope for the present.
To relieve the grief that the community is experiencing,
to encourage them to live in hope,
to continue to live full lives
even as they wait,
because as they are beginning to realize,
soon is a relative term,
what is soon for God
isn’t necessarily soon for humans.
Jesus tried to prepare his disciples for this reality in his teachings
telling them that the son of Man
will come at an unexpected hour
and that they will need to be ready,
he even taught them in parables like our gospel for today,
which like most of the parables is a bit of a head scratcher,
just what is Jesus teaching
through this tale of foolish and wise bridesmaids?
We are told that they all had lamps to light the way of the bridegroom
but the foolish ones didn’t bring any extra oil with them.
The groom is delayed and they all fall asleep,
now this doesn’t seem to be a problem
except for the passage of time
and perhaps that they didn’t extinguish their lamps before falling asleep,
because by the time the groom’s arrival is announced
all the lamps have burned down.
Now the so called foolish maids are in a pickle,
they’ve run out of oil,
so is this the main problem?
That they are out of oil?
They seem to think so,
they try to borrow some from the prepared maids,
and are told there’s not enough,
go buy more.
So they do
but while they’re gone
the groom comes and the party starts
and the doors are closed.
So is the point that if you’re not prepared for a delay
you’ll miss out on God’s party?
That seems pretty harsh,
not very gracious and merciful,
but that’s not the end of the parable,
the parable ends when they come back from buying oil
and try to get into the wedding banquet,
“Lord, lord, open to us. But he replied, Truly I tell you , I do not know you.’”
and here it is
the main problem of the parable,
the problem is not that they were late
it’s that the groom didn’t know them.
They allowed the problem with the oil
to distract them from their main purpose
which was to greet the groom,
they could have still greeted the groom without their lamps-
it wouldn’t have been as festive
but there were still five lamps with oil,
that would have provided enough light,
even if it did annoy the prepared maids.
But they got so distracted by the small details
that they neglected the larger purpose.
Sounds like what happens at a lot of weddings
so I guess that hasn’t changed in 2000 years…
this is something we humans tend to do,
get distracted by the small things
and yes it is important to be prepared,
but while extra oil and practical things are important,
even expecting a delay is important,
the most important thing is our relationship with the one who is coming.
We must keep the main thing the main thing,
and not be distracted by small details
that get in the way of our relationship
with the one who has come and is even now coming.
And how do we do that?
We love God and neighbor,
Not in the future
but right now.
The final parable in this section
is Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats,
the classic image of the final judgment,
and what qualifies those judged righteous?
The king tells them “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
And the righteous are confused,
when did we do this for you? They ask,
and the reply: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.”
In loving their neighbor
they loved God,
not in the future but in the present,
meeting the needs of those right in front of them.
This is what God desires
justice and righteousness lived out, now,
abundant life for all, now,
for us to stay awake to the present.
So that all may celebrate in the future. Amen