Sermon - 6th November 2011
Scripture - Amos 5:18-24 , Matthew 25:1-13
Rev Andy Braunston
The theme of both of our readings today is that of waiting. No doubt the compilers of the lectionary had this theme in mind as they looked towards Advent in a few weeks and as the evenings draw in and winter approaches. In Amos the long-promised day of the Lord will come and put all things right whilst the bridesmaids in our Gospel reading are waiting for the bridegroom to arrive. Some are wise, others are foolish and are not prepared for his arrival.
It’s easy to be smug at the foolish virgins but we’re not always prepared for what is about to happen as this video shows…..[Christmas flash mob] I like the way that some of those who were really shocked at first join in, whilst others just watch for a bit before they relax.
Amos was ministering during the reign of King Uzziah about 700 years before Jesus. He came from a humble background and his message was both stark and blunt: the worship of God and social justice are two sides of the same coin. The Jewish people of his time had fallen into the trap of believing that their nominal observance of the covenant would be enough.
They went to Temple, they kept kosher, they lived by the external signs of the covenant yet this wasn’t enough as they ignored all the commands in the Law which demand justice. A society riddled with corruption couldn’t be an heir to God’s gracious promises. The Day of the Lord, to which the people looked forward, would be terrible. It wouldn’t be primarily about God dealing with Israel’s enemies as they supposed but, instead, it would be a day of judgement on the people of God themselves. The Day of the Lord, for which Amos longed, would show the people how mistaken they were in supposing that nominal religion was enough. Amos realised that a radical commitment to follow God’s commands was needed and, for Amos, these commands were summed up with the ideas of justice and righteousness.
Bridegrooms and Maids
The waiting for the Day of the Lord theme is followed up, rather more obliquely in our Gospel reading. Here Jesus uses the image of a wedding to talk about his coming at the end of time. The metaphor doesn’t make much sense for us until we understand Jewish customs. A bridge groom would go to a bride’s house to negotiate the marriage with the father of the bride. In ancient times this was little more than agreeing a purchase price. Once the price was agreed the couple were betrothed. They were seen as married – a divorce would be needed to end the relationship – but the marriage wasn’t yet consummated. During this time the groom would go and prepare a marital home whilst the bride waited for her groom to return. This is the situation Mary found herself in when she encountered the angel Gabriel – betrothed and so legally married, but not yet fully married.
The problem was that one didn’t know when the groom would return. It might be soon, it might be some time. The custom was to surprise the bride who would be attended by her maidens – or virgins as some translations have it. Their job was to make sure she was ready and prepared for her journey to the groom’s home. The groom would always come and get her at night hence the importance of having lamps for the journey. But no one would know when the groom would arrive and his coming was announced by a shout to give a little bit of warning. The wedding party would be at the groom’s home and would last for some time. As time passed and women became more important the betrothal became less important and the greater emphasis was on the wedding feast itself – hence Jesus’ presence at the wedding in Cana and his illustration of wedding feasts as metaphors for the kingdom.
But Jesus hearer’s would have understood the image of the bridesmaids waiting and being prepared, or unprepared, immediately. The task of the maid was to be prepared, five of this bride’s maids weren’t really up to the job. They let the bride down and were excluded from the feast.
Jesus’ intention was to show his hearers that no one would know the day nor the hour when he would return but that we should be awake and ready for him when he comes. This is a familiar theme and one we return to each year at Advent, but what does it mean to be ready for his return?
So we have two inter-related themes from people who worked over 700 years away from each other; the theme of being ready and the theme of the Day of the Lord. For Amos it was a day when the wrongs will be righted and God’s justice will be proclaimed. For Jesus it was his return at the end of time where, also, God’s justice will be paramount.
We can relate to Amos’ sense of yearning for justice as we see it delayed time after time. The risings in North Africa and the Middle East were inspirational to watch and it was wonderful to hear of free elections in Tunisia, but we don’t know what’s going to happen next in Libya where there are fears of civil war and instability. Key players in Mubarak’s regime in Egypt still seem to be in power, Syria is getting ever more repressive, Palestinians still wait for justice, Israelis still live in fear. Amos’ sense that justice will come is as important to cling to now as it was for him then.
Jesus’ words on his return at the end of time further on in St Matthew’s Gospel make it clear that he is interested not so much in what we believe but in how we act – do we love the poor, visit the imprisoned, nurse the sick, give food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, do we clothe the naked? Again the link with justice is clear.
So how do we ready ourselves for an event that Christians have been waiting for almost 2,000 years to happen and which Jews have waited for even longer. It’s not just the foolish virgins who’ve dozed off in this long night of waiting.
I think the parable serves to remind us to be ready to follow the bridge groom whenever he comes. It’s not just about waiting for the end of time, but being ready to be surprised by the groom when the shout comes – and he often surprises us. The best planning exercises in the world come to nothing when God surprises us with a new task, a new need to meet, a new challenge.
Reading the signs of the times
Part of being ready is to read what Pope John Paul II called the “signs of the times”. We need to be more aware of what’s going on the world – not just the news, but the social trends, the way people live. In preparing for this service in my reading I found an odd comment that whereas people would often come to church early to pray before worship and prepare now they can’t cope with all that waiting and come at the last minute. I guess it was a frustrated minister that’s a bit controlling that wrote it. They clearly didn’t understand the pressures that people live with now around time. Reading the signs of the times might mean being even more creative about finding ways for people to engage with us online, finding ways to expand what we do with education and spirituality virtually so that people don’t miss out on what we’re about because of the distance they live away from us or the complexity of their lives. Philip really helps us with this and he is a pioneer with electronic communication means. We were the first MCC congregation in the UK to get a website and Philip designed it and has kept building it ever since. Reading the signs of the times means thinking about how people now communicate, listen to or read information and adapt what we do to ride those social trends.
Being responsive to God’s call to change
Reading the signs of the times is a sort of corporate activity, our next way of being ready is both individual and corporate. It’s about being responsive to God’s call to change. We find great security and comfort in our faith, but security with God is found not in stability but in following Him where he calls us to go. As a church we’ve been good at following – calls to move building, to be more creative in mission, to show practical love and compassion, and to get our hands dirty in practical, and effective, service of others. We also need to be more responsive to God’s call to embrace the newcomer, to change our hearts to welcome those who are new, to accept that growth brings great change to our church and that we can’t stay the same.
We can only effectively be open to change and read the signs of the times if we are nurturing ourselves and our own spirituality. It’s very easy to let these slip, to imagine that worship on Sunday will give us all the spirituality we need for the week. Clergy are, of course, the worst at this in my experience! All of us need to find ways to nurture our spirituality each day – that could be through listening to music which lifts us closer to God, by reading something which gets us thinking more deeply, by spending time being still in God’s presence, by walking and talking to God as we walk. When I walk my dogs I’m talking to God and trying to stop my little darlings eating exciting things they find on the pavement!
As a friend pointed out to me this week, we can be ready for the bride groom by having a set of skills which help us to respond to him and do his work. Reading the signs of the times, being responsive to his call to change and nurturing our own spiritual lives are just some of the ways in which we can do this and which will distinguish us from the foolish bridesmaids.