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Sunday November 7, 1999 ~ 24th Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon Text:  Matthew 25:1-13
Amos 5:18-24   *  1 Thessalonians 4:13-18  *  Psalm 70


Be's of Christian Discipleship
Be Vigilant

Are you ready?

I suspect you've been asked that question hundreds of times during your life.  "Are you ready for Christmas?"   "Are you ready for graduation?"  "Are you ready for my boss and her husband to come over for dinner?"  "Are you ready

Are you ready?

Whenever I hear that question, I think of a poster I once saw that said, "The hurrieder I go, the behinder I get!"    I would love to find a support group for people who are chronically "not ready."

Our scripture readings for today urges the question in a much larger way.   Are you ready?  The question every one of us is likely asking right now is, "Ready for what?"

"Are you ready for the Lord?"

Now I grant you -- there are a lot of people who would consider that question a bit strange.  Some might think it the question of a religious fanatic.  Others might consider it a more appropriate question for visits in a nursing home or in the intensive care unit of a local hospital.

However, that's not the case at all.  This is a question that needs asking in my life, your life and in the lives of most people we know.  Let me tell you why.

Some time ago, I had one of those weeks that is part and parcel of a pastor's life.  (I will tell you that there are some really peaceful weeks when calls are made, planning gets done, meetings are few and there is time to really wrestle a bit with what God might be wanting to say to us in the scripture readings.  But then there are those weeks when everything seems to come at once and you are left with little physical or emotional energy to burn.)

But this particular week was one of those really horrible weeks.  One of my favorite people and his wife went to play golf one afternoon --  two hours later he was in the hospital near death.  Almost at the same time, a young father in this congregation went to his job as a loading dock manager for a local trucking firm and was crushed to death between a truck and the loading dock when a parking brake failed.  Stopping at the church after the first hospital visit on my way to this new young widow's home -- my secretary informed me that one of the children in our Sunday school had been hit by a car and was taken to the emergency room.

The ramifications of that day are still bearing its effects on people's lives -- and the question was suddenly so very relevant -- "Are you ready for the Lord?

***

Our scripture reading from Matthew addresses one of the major myths that rob us of life's greatest treasures.  "There's always time."  We live with this sense that we will take care of the things that really count -- in time!   The reality is however, that time is a gift and that gift just might be taken from us at any moment.

When I arrived at the emergency room where the young lad from our sunday school was in x-ray, a resident was asking the mother if she "needed something" to help her cope.  She was shaken -- almost hysterical -- and her husband had not yet arrived from a very late day at work.   The lad's injuries were not life threatening, but they suspected he did have several broken bones.

When the father arrived, he went through all the usual "Who -- how -- when -- why" kind of questions, held his weeping wife close and then settled into a litany.  "I never took him camping."  His wife began to comfort him.  "It's okay honey.  You've been busy.  We'll go camping as soon as you have time.  But the father was inconsolable.  "I never took him camping."  Off and on -- over and over during that evening, he kept coming back to this one theme, "I never took him camping."

That experience passed, the boy recovered from his three broken ribs, broken leg and collar bone and the family life changed.  The father turned down a promotion that would have required a cross country relocation and accepted a salary cut.  They do a lot of camping these days and the father reflected on the whole experience with these words.  "I was simply not prepared for the fact that I could loose a child at any time. I told myself there would always be time for camping once I got my career on track.  Now I think in terms of the fact that tomorrow is a wonderful promise, but never a guarantee."

What great counsel!  Be prepared.  I can hear this re-born father saying to the bridesmaids in Matthew, "Keep those lamps full of oil... you never know when the Bridegroom will come!"  For him, having a full lamp has a whole new meaning these days.  It wasn't that he didn't love his wife and children -- it was more a matter of thinking that there would always be time enough to put that love into action when his life was more settled -- when things calmed down at work -- when he was able to save a little more money -- when... when... when...

It's like the foolish bridesmaids.  It wasn't that they didn't want to be a part of the wedding banquet or that they did not care for the bridegroom.  They just figured that they would have time enough to get the oil they needed or that the procession to the banquet would be during daylight hours.

***

Another myth that plagues our notion of relationship with God is what I call the "I'm Okay - You're Okay" approach to religion.  Essentially, this slant on faith says, "I'm a pretty good guy, I don't cause a lot of trouble.  I don't murder, rob banks or hurt people.  I'm a live and let live kind of person, I go to church and think this is about all God really wants of us.  When I get there, I think the Lord will see I've done more good than bad."

Our reading from Amos decisively dashes that myth.  God is not looking for the most religious of persons or a passive, "live and let live" philosophy of living.  God is looking for people who will become conduits of divine justice and goodness in our world.  The words sound so harsh.   "I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies... Take away from me the noise of your songs..."  Yet the question demands asking,  "What is it that makes our songs of worship pleasing or displeasing to the Lord?"

The man who went to play golf recovered from a severe heart attack, but his life was changed. "Man," he said, "You never know... one minute you're swinging a club and the next minute you are face to face with the Lord."  As time went on, he said that the experience made him more aware of the people in his life, the world around him and his whole relationship with God.   He had always been a fairly committed "church person."  He was retired and enjoying the fruits of his long years of hard, but very successful work at the company he founded.  After his heart attack, he began to be plagued by a thought.

"Life has been very good to me," he reflected, "Now I find myself asking whether I've been good to life.  I find myself wondering these days, just how I can give something back -- how I can put something into the pot and not just take."

While his aim was once to golf six or seven times a week, he decided to spend two days a week as a volunteer at a local hospital.   During that time, he saw a disproportionate percentage of disadvantaged teens coming to emergency with drug overdoses.  The short form of the story is that he became a part of a group of business persons in Chicago who recruit and mentor young people from depressed communities.

He still does golf and loves it!  He simply has a new outlook he puts this way, "I no longer work on just my handicap -- there are more handicaps out there I want to see reduced!"

***

Our epistle reading from Paul takes us to those times when the worst has happened and there seems to be no hope left.  What remains when everything has been taken from us?  Is there any way to be prepared for the finality of our mortal existence -- especially when it comes out of the blue to someone in the prime of life?

The hard fact is that life can sometimes deliver the most devastating blow and almost none of us is ever ready for it.  Most of us don't even want to talk about it.  (As a matter of fact we tend to avoid those people who are chronically expecting the absolute worst!)  

The young woman who lost her husband in an accident that should never have happened, said, "I just can't believe that something like this could happen.  He was only 36 years old and we have two little kids.  Everything seems so hopeless."

The grief was profound and it can never be totally eliminated.  Things will never be the same for those two children and their mother.   But...  there is more to our life's story than its beginning and its mortal end for people of faith.  Paul's words in 1 Thessalonians does not take grief away or say that grief is lack of faith.  He does say however, that we Christians do not grieve "as others do who have no hope."

Jesus died, Paul says (at a very young age by the way) -- but he rose again and this means we are never going to be lost to the love of Christ.  Not even in death.  "... we will be with the Lord forever."

This is not to take away the pain or consequences of mortality, but it does make a difference in the way we look at life and living and death and dying.  We are to "...encourage one another..."   with the hope we have in Christ.  Even as we weep with those who weep and grieve with those who grieve.

***

The scriptures for today are a call to vigilance.  Not to doomsday saying or life denying negativism.  A call to wrap our lives more securely in the faith we profess.  To frame our days with prayers like, "This is the day the Lord has made -- let us rejoice and be glad in it."

As vigilant persons of faith, we will keep our eyes trained to see the Lord all around us.  We may see the coming of Christ is a child who is without a home, a family without a breadwinner, a whole group of people without justice.

May we keep our lamps and hearts full of expectation so that we may hear the call of Christ and respond whenever it comes.   May we let justice and good things flow from our lives to the lives of others.   And when the grief of separation by death comes to those around us, may we be there to share the grief and give hope and comfort.


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Texts

"Surprise!  The Lord has arrived!"  So Matthew's parable says.  "Surprise!  The coming of the Lord was not what you thought!"  So Amos' word jars the people of God. "Surprise!  Christ will come suddenly and bring those who have died!"   So Paul encourages the church at Thessalonica.

The one element that ties the scriptures together this week is the element of surprise -- the unexpected appearance of God.  While the texts focus on the "Day of the Lord" and the coming of Christ at the eschaton, there is strong exhortation here to vigilance in the Christian life in all respects.  Whether God chooses to wrap up history in our lifetime takes second place to the need for every Christian person to be always vigilant for the coming of the Lord in their living.

One of the things we explore in our full text sermon is the many ways we might be aware of God's appearance in our day to day lives.  In light of the fact that the Lord is near... the gospel, the prophet and the epistle point to three ways in which we need to be ready.  Matthew speaks to the issue of preparedness.  Amos challenges our notion of what it is that God wants from us.   Justice and right living come before rituals and observances.   Paul speaks to our readiness in terms of facing our mortality and brings encouraging words about our final destiny.  We address these three issues in our full text sermon.

What are the final aims and goals of the folk we serve?  What does it take for most people we know to have the sense that they have "arrived?"  Not "arrived" in an arrogant sense, but "arrived" in the sense of having accomplished some basic life goals or reached a level of achievement that brings a feeling of satisfaction.  The scripture lessons ask us to look carefully at our relationship with God and how that fits into our idea of what makes for an authentic final goal for our lives.

Matthew

The lectionary readings from Matthew skips over Jesus' whole eschatological discourse.  While the issue of eschatology is problematic, (not the eschaton -- but the discussion of it) the concluding gospel lessons from Matthew are very much contextually related to Jesus' discussion of the end of all things.  Without discussing the "particulars" of the end of history, we can say that there is an urgency to these concluding lessons that we need to communicate in our messages.

[A few of my favorite quips about the eschaton...
   Whenever someone asks me, "When do you think Christ will come?"
  
I like to answer,  "Not a moment too soon!"

When people ask my view of the millennium...
   "Are you a pre-millenialist, a post-millenialist, a mid-millenialist or an amillenialist?"
  
My favorite answer is, "I'm a pan-millenialist.  I think it will all pan out the way God intends it to happen."

Finally, there are always people who press past these quips and push for my view of how things will happen in the "end times."  To those folks I simply reply,  "I used to get quite involved in figuring these things out.  I had charts, maps and lots of people came to hear about these things.  Then I decided that God didn't need me to help with the plans.  I've resigned from the Planning Committee and have become a part of the Welcoming Committee!" ]

The story of the wise and foolish virgins (in light of the eschatalogical discourse) pushes preparedness because the coming of the bridegroom will be quite unexpected.  This translates to our contemporary living and it can be brought home with a simple question.  "Just when, do you suppose, the bell will toll for you?  Do you have plans for tomorrow?   Next week?  Next month?  Or even next year?  Think about it!   Do you have some kind of written guarantee for tomorrow?  Next week?   etc.  etc.

It strikes me that the image of oil and lamps is frequently a symbol of prayer in scripture.  It may be a bit of a stretch, but this brings to mind the fact that our personal life of prayer is one of the ways we stay "ready" and attuned to the presence of God in our living.

Amos

Amos is filled with bad news for the people of God.  In fact, I recall an O.T. professor who assigned an essay which we should give the title of, "Hope in Amos."    Try it -- you will understand why there were almost no essays!  Amos comes crashing in on the common expectation that the "Day of the Lord" would mean vindication for Israel.  There will be no sweetness and light -- God wants more than nominal participation in rituals and observances.

I recall a professor who translated this into contemporary terms.  If most of us were to use this in our pulpits only use the terms, church, worship, hymns, prayers, organ music, etc. -- we would have to head for the nearest exit.

Best approach.  Simply read the text and ask folks to try and imagine what Amos would say if he walked into most churches in our culture today.

1 Thessalonians

"We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters..."  In this case the teaching has to do with death and resurrection and the hope we have in Christ.  But, what great words to use in suggesting that Christian folk need to keep on learning.  Our education as the people of Christ does not stop with confirmation or CCD classes or Sunday School.  We had best not be "uninformed" with respect to the essential teachings of our faith.

This may be applied to the issue of "full lamps."  perhaps one of the reasons we are not fully prepared to meet the Lord in the daily events of our living is that we have not given enough attention to being "informed" about the major tenants of our faith.   People who followed Jesus were "disciples" -- literally, they were   "learners."  May we develop communities of people who are anxious to learn.  Learners are prepared.

This text is one of the great texts in the N.T. about death, resurrection and particularly the ministry we have with each other in times of grief.  Even in times when grief is not a factor, there are some absolutely wonderful words here that we can emulate in our life together as a church.

"Therefore encourage one another!"


Worship Helps

A Call To Worship  (Adapted from Psalm 70

Leader:   Lord, throughout our days we have sought you.
People:  And you have enabled us to find you.
Leader:   We have called upon you in troubled times.
People:  And you have always been our refuge and hope.
Leader:   We have come to rejoice and be glad in your presence,
People:  To celebrate the good news of your salvation!

A Prayer of Dedication

You, O Lord of life, are the source of everything that truly
matters. Apart from you there is no hope, or help or happiness.
We are blessed more than we could ever deserve and our gifts
are but the reflection of your love for us.  Bless us today as we
give and make us watchful for your coming in every detail of
our lives.   Amen