November 10, 2002
Twenty Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Psalm 70:1-5 
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

[Underlined text will take you to another sermon]


"Who Shall We Be...     
In Light of What God Has Done?"

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

Have you ever had one of those times when a very difficult task has been completed and you stopped with all the people who had been involved with you in the work to celebrate?

One of my favorite memories is about a gathering like that. I was serving my first church as a very young pastor when a call came that one of our parishioners had been taken to the hospital. It wasn't just that he had become quite ill, this was a small rural community made up of farmers and Jake's harvest had not been finished. Without some help in getting the soy beans harvested, Jake Miller would loose his crop.

Within a couple of hours tractors and equipment began to show up at Jakes farm and in spite of the fact that all these families were tremendously busy with their own harvest - by the end of the day ten tractors and sixty some people including men, women and children, were seeing to the Miller's harvest. The work continued until some time after dark without a dinner break.

That's when I witnessed the power of Christian community!

It still brings tears to my eyes to remember the wonderful dinner that we shared in Jake's home. Although Jake was in the hospital and his wife and children were there  keeping watch with him, the Miller home was filled with friends, food and fellowship. (The three F's of successful church programming). As the hungry crowd feasted on an amazing dinner that had been prepared, people reminisced about the Millers and how Jake's grandfather had come to the area to set up his homestead. Stories of growing up were told once again, memories of good times and tough times were shared and there was hearty laughter and a few tears.

And woven throughout the conversations and the memories were references to the little church that had been a part of their lives and their grandparent's lives since any of them could remember.

I mainly sat there almost as though a stranger who had been invited in to witness the inner workings of a large extended family. It must have been close to midnight by the time the last person left after a prayer for Jake and the community at about 11:30 that night.

All of them would be in their own fields to work the harvest at five a.m. the next morning. I would drive sixty miles at six a.m. to get to class where I was learning the essentials of becoming a pastor.

As I look back, it was from Jake Miller and all his good friends that I learned most about Church and Christian community. This little church was filled with people who were close to the land, close to each other and close to the God who had seen them through the generations.

It is both humbling and renewing to remember how they listened to my sermons and my lessons with appreciation and respect. I learned a lot in seminary... but I learned how to be a pastor from them.

***

When we read our Old Testament lesson this morning and allow our own experiences of genuine community, shared memories and thankful spirits to set the scene --  there is deep-seated emotion and powerful commitment in the story.

Joshua gathers all Israel to join together. The leaders, the officials, the military brass and all the people come to "present themselves before God." The second verse of our text begins, "And Joshua said to all the people..."

What follows is important, but sometimes scripture takes on new meaning and fresh insights flow from the text when we try to look behind the scenes and read between the lines.

When I read the first verse where Joshua has called the people to gather to "...present themselves before God..."  and then verse two begins, "Joshua said to all the people..." I wonder about that great long period of time between the gathering of the people and Joshua's discourse.

Imagine if you will... There are people Joshua has known all his life who are gathering from all over the country. Warriors he fought with, families who had laughed and cried together, perhaps an old woman whose son's had been lost in battle and a troupe of young folks who were filled with energy and anticipation for the future.

The conquest was pretty much past and a bright future loomed before them. Joshua must have thought of the time when the venerable Moses had turned leadership of this whole nation over to him and he shook in his boots until God reassured him that he would never walk alone.

Now he was at the end of his journey, just as Moses came to the end of his. He would deliver a last sermon to the people and ask them to commit themselves to God as Moses had gathered the nation before him.

His heart must have been full as he began, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors..." And then he recounted how God had blessed them. Very much like Jake's friends recounted all that God had done for them over the generations.

When our hearts are full and the blessings of God are so evident when we gather to celebrate our convictions and our community, our spirits cry out:

"God is great and God is good. God has brought us from nothing to something. We have been blessed beyond all that we deserve." The Psalm for today says it well, "Let those who love your salvation say evermore, 'God is great!' "

Through Joshua, God says to the people, "I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many."  The point was very clear. Though it had taken generations, the promises of God are certain and faith in God's promises is - as the writer to Hebrews says - the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."  [Heb. 11:1] That is - if God promised it - it is as good as done.

***

Having gathered and having remembered, the central issue rises to the surface.

"Now therefore...."

The central question that comes to the gathered nation of Israel and that comes to us as the community of faith today is, "Who shall we be in light of what God has done?"

When you think about it, this is the key question that is present every time we gather for worship. We may not express the question in these words, but we do come together here to - in the words of Joshua 24 - "...present ourselves before God." 

Here's what Joshua says to the gathered people of Israel. {In light of all that God has done for you"Now therefore revere the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness..."

Amazing isn't it? Since the time of Joshua the world has changed in ways we can barely express and yet the same injunction is true for us today as it was for the people of God back then.

"Revere God and live faithful lives."

Now this is no lip service. Joshua drives the point home to his congregation by hammering home the idea that God alone is their strength and source of life and that there can be no waffling in commitment to God.

"Put away any other object of worship!"  "God is absolutely jealous of your ultimate affections - you can not have a little bit of God when it suits you and then do whatever you want until your next big need comes along.  God will not tolerate a divided heart or lip service."

It is necessary to make a choice. Moses said it, "Choose life so that you and your descendants may live."  [Deut. 30:19] Now Joshua says it, "...choose this day whom you will serve..."

***

Although community is central to the life of God's people, there is still a choice to be made by each of us. Our parents can not make the choice for us. Our brothers or sisters can not make the choice for us. The choice is not made for us by some kind of osmosis just because we come to worship or go through the rituals. There is a "choosing of God" that each of us must do for ourselves.

Joshua lays the choice before the people. "Revere the Lord and serve him faithfully." And then he expresses his choice, "As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord."

And as for you....?

***

Jake Miller and his friends had chosen the Lord over the years as their parents and grandparents had done before them. It occurred to me as I was driving to class that day after the Miller's harvest had been safely brought in - that the power of an authentic church is the most amazing weaving together of personal faith, and commitment to each other as the People of God.

When you add your faith to my faith and the faith of those who are joined in community with us, it strengthens my faith - which in turn strengthens your faith - which strengthens....    Well, you get the idea.

You might call this faith !

I would like to leave you today with this question for reflection this week. "Who shall I be in light of what God has done?"


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!"   "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 and the necessity for serving God faithfully as Joshua insists.  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.  Joshua calls for single hearted commitment to the God who has saved us.   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.

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!

Prayer of Confession

Almighty and most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you and have wandered from the way of life and light you have set before us.  We have not loved you with the whole of our hearts and souls and minds. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not kept these the most important commandments of all, O Lord and our hearts are grieved that we have brought grief to you.  and Amen [Adapted from the BCP]

Assurance of Pardon

Beloved in Christ, our God is merciful and full of grace toward those who truly turn away from their sin and determine to live in love and charity with their neighbors and intend to live a new life by the power of the Holy Spirit. As we have drawn near to God in confession, so now let us receive the good news that in Jesus Christ we are forgiven.  Amen.

Prayer of Thanksgiving

O Lord God Almighty, Ruler of all creation and Redeemer of all who truly turn to you, we are filled with thanksgiving on this Day of Pentecost. On this day you opened up the hearts of your people by the power of the Holy Spirit and the good news of your son Jesus Christ was given to all nations.

We pray that you would give us the joy of seeing our friends and the people of this city [town, village] come to know the joy of your salvation. Fill us with the self same power you gave to your disciples on the day your Spirit filled the apostles with your message for all peoples. By your great mercy, give us open hearts and willing spirits to love one another as Christ loved us and to love our neighbors as ourselves that the world might know you alone are the Lord.

All praise, honor and glory are yours.  Amen.

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