Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Crisis Hour and the Watchful Church - MATTHEW 25:1-13

November 6, 2011, 
Year A. 

MATTHEW 25:1-13
(See Text below)

The Lectionary Gospel reading for this morning opens to us Jesus' conclusion and warning of the impending national crisis facing the nation of Israel by the Roman Empire in the middle of the first century.

Jesus has identified the "birth pangs" of the crisis that is coming, those events which will culminate in the sacking of Jerusalem by Titus in 70AD, and so the text reads: 

"Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
Which we should take to mean, as the point of the parable that is today's text, that they were to be watchful and ready for the moment of crisis, the moment when the bridegroom would appear.

Having said that, we must ask, is there then nothing here for us? Is this text only historically determined? Actually, I think there is much here for us. I think it is not a stretch to say that, first, a generational crisis is always present, and that even the ultimate crisis of the world could also be present before us.

What do I mean?

It is difficult to read these words from St. Matthew and not think of our own situation and our own future. And to do that is to see a very serious situation, indeed. It takes no wise futurist to see that our world is destroying itself. Of course, there still exists beauty and truth, and our life is still a gift to be enjoyed, but clearly there is underway a horrible cracking of hope and truth, and we presently stand above a great fissure. 

In some ways this is how it has always been, but until now we did not have the ability to blow ourselves up and the madmen willing to do it. Sure, there was brinksmanship, but it was always assured mutual destruction that kept us from the edge. Now, mutual destruction is the goal.

Or, think about it in this way. A particularly powerful approach to judge the social strength of a people is to look at the culture they produce. For example, look at the art that is accepted. By any measure, art in the West is decadent (no sense of responsibility; no sense of restraint) and without human dignity. The human has disappeared. This has been especially true in the "high arts" for years, but has now also filtered down into popular culture. Examples could be endlessly multiplied.

The high humanity of the Renaissance, and the even the middle ages, has given way to mere protest and chaos. This occurred because of the great cultural shift, a shift of world views that finally expelled GOD and man made-in-GOD's image, from the cultural construction. This left only the banality of the brave, new world as the primary visual.

Or, think about the "nations rising up against nations and kingdoms against kingdoms, earthquakes, famines and fearful events" that St. Matthew offers as Jesus' description of the world at the time of future crisis in his day, and see how it takes very little to project those very traits to our day as well.

Are these the last days? I have had many tell me they believe it to be so? For myself, I have no clarity that it is. But two truths are fairly clear to me:





One thing we must do is to prepare ourselves for hard times. I hope I am wrong about this, but I think that the world, at least in the West, has sought for a long time its freedom from GOD. That is, at least the elites, do not want the Almighty as part of their lives, or part of the cultural construction, and I think they are now receiving what they wish.

When GOD judges a people, it's not fire and brimstone. Instead, the Almighty simply ceases restraint, letting people do what they want to do, and receiving in themselves the result of their defiant actions.

Notice St. Paul's words from Romans one, especially the last verse:

But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who push the truth away from them-selves. For the truth about God is known to them instinctively. God has put this knowledge in their hearts. From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see his invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God. Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn't worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. The result was that their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they became utter fools instead. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people, or birds and animals and snakes. So God let them go ahead and do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. (Romans 1:18-24)

"So God let them go ahead and do whatever shameful things their hearts desired." Use your freedom to worship things other than GOD, and as N.T.Wright reminds us, you become like that which you worship, and you loose your ability to be an image-bearer of the LORD.

In this way we can say that judgment is not coming, it is here on us all. We have a generation, maybe two, who have no knowledge of the LORD. We have a generation that lives by its own appetites and wits and has no godly wisdom, and has not the Word of GOD as even a memory.

Here I am reminded of Isaiah's indictment against the Hebrews when he writes: 

Israel has vast treasures of silver and gold and many horses and chariots. The land is filled with idols. The people bow down and worship these things they have made. So now everyone will be humbled and brought low. The LORD cannot simply ignore their sins! Crawl into caves in the rocks. Hide from the terror of the LORD and the glory of his majesty. The day is coming when your pride will be brought low and the LORD alone will be exalted.  In that day the LORD Almighty will punish the proud, bringing them down to the dust. He will cut down the tall cedars of Lebanon and the mighty oaks of Bashan.  He will level the high mountains and hills.  He will break down every high tower and wall.  He will destroy the great trading ships and all the small boats in the harbor. The arrogance of all people will be brought low. Their pride will lie in the dust. The LORD alone will be exalted!  Idols will be utterly abolished and destroyed.  When the LORD rises to shake the earth, his enemies will crawl with fear into holes in the ground. They will hide in caves in the rocks from the terror of the LORD and the glory of his majesty.  They will abandon their gold and silver idols to the moles and bats.  They will crawl into caverns and hide among the jagged rocks at the tops of cliffs. In this way, they will try to escape the terror of the LORD and the glory of his majesty as he rises to shake the earth.  Stop putting your trust in mere humans. They are as frail as breath. How can they be of help to anyone? (Isaiah 2:7-22)
But, it gets worse. Not only has society shifted and walked away from the knowledge of GOD, but the church has walked away from the calling of the Christ as well. Remember Jesus' assessment of the Church at Laodicea:

You say, 
I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.”
But the LORD says:
“You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” 
(Revelation 3:17b)

Where have we fallen? We have defied the most important aspect of what it means to follow the Christ. We have divided ourselves into groups and sub-groups, and we have done so in the name of the Christ who by contrast came that:
"through him [Christ & the cross] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things." That is, the reconciliation of all things, the making friendly again of all things was the key component of the cross of Christ! (Col 1:20)
Or, listen to Paul's words from Galatians:
...for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal.3:26-28)
Or, hear St.Pail's words from Ephesians:
Don't forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders by birth. You were called "the uncircumcised ones" by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from God's people, Israel, and you did not know the promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. But now you belong to Christ Jesus. Though you once were far away from God, now you have been brought near to him because of the blood of Christ. For Christ himself has made peace between us Jews and you Gentiles by making us all one people. He has broken down the wall of hostility that used to separate us. By his death he ended the whole system of Jewish law that excluded the Gentiles. His purpose was to make peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new person from the two groups. Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. (Eph.2:11-16)
Or, finally, we could visit the words of the LORD Jesus himself, who John quotes as saying:
"Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples." (Jn. 13:35), "My prayer for all of them is that they will be one, just as you and I are one, Father -- that just as you are in me and I am in you, so they will be in us, and the world will believe you sent me."(Jn.17:21)
Unless and until the church reconciles itself by dropping the hatred and competition, and opens itself to live out the reality that we are one in the Christ, the world will have no reason whatsoever to listen to us. Why should they? Why would they opt for the brokenness and judgment they see coming from us, which is just more of the same from within their own lives and families? 

What it means to follow the Christ, therefore, supremely, is reconciliation. And the reconciliation most clearly needed at this late date of church history is the reconciliation of the Body of Christ with itself. 

I said all this to finally say that this practice of reconciliation is what it means for us, today, to "stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour." This is what it means to watch, wait, to prepare with oil in our lamps for the coming of the Bridegroom.


Second, it seems to me that the LORD has tarried his appearing for a long time. We are two-thousand years into this kingdom project, and we seem no closer than when the whole thing started. 

Of course, this is only my point of view, but I wonder if our traditional interpretations of the "Son of Man's" appearing might have been miscalculations.  

Anyway, having said that, the point of Jesus' parable is just this point -- persevere, be ready, be watchful, get your lamp-oil early and continue vigil for the return of the Bridegroom.

I take this to mean that we must carry on the work left to us by the Savior and by the generations past who deposited the faith once delivered to the Saints in our care.

Think of the Communion table we are about to celebrate: What is the message of the LORD's Table? As we join all those who today celebrate this table, and all those of both the past and future who have our will do so, suddenly, that ancient event comes rushing forward to us and we are part of this great earthly family of GOD. (N.T. Wright) 

But notice this truth as well, each time we partake of the table "we announce the LORD's death," St. Paul says, "until he comes." This meal, this work, this proclamation, this announced message that there is a new LORD over the world, is our calling to fulfill to the very hour of our death, or until the Bridegroom appears. 

As we have repeatedly said, the Kingdom project the LORD has left us is supremely something to be done. It means we join the LORD in the reconciliation of all things under the LORDship of the Christ, not by crusades and inquisitions, but by the sacrificial service of loving others and neighbors as we love ourselves.
This is the work of the Kingdom.

I want to close, therefore with a text we have quoted so many other times before, but which opens to us the meaning of the lamp of full oil that we must have as we wait for the royal appearing of the risen and living Christ:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil.2:5-12)
But notice the next part of the paragraph:
12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. 14 Do all things without murmuring and arguing, 15 so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. 16 It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. (Phil.2:12-16)
Or, we could let St. Paul say it to us this way: 
"Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain."(1Cor.15:58)

MATTHEW 25:1-13

Jesus told his disciples this parable:
"The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins
who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 
Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 
The foolish ones, when taking their lamps,
brought no oil with them,
but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps. 
Since the bridegroom was long delayed,
they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
At midnight, there was a cry,
'Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!'
Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps. 
The foolish ones said to the wise,
'Give us some of your oil,
for our lamps are going out.'
But the wise ones replied,
'No, for there may not be enough for us and you.
Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.'
While they went off to buy it,
the bridegroom came
and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. 
Then the door was locked.
Afterwards the other virgins came and said,
'Lord, Lord, open the door for us!'
But he said in reply,
'Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.'
Therefore, stay awake,
for you know neither the day nor the hour."