“Don’t Give Up!”

November 16, 2014

 

Amos 5:18-24

Matthew 25:1-13

 

Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

This morning’s Gospel lesson is often associated with the early days of Advent, because it speaks to those who wait for the coming of Christ. It is often connected with hymns like the one we just sang. The snow of this morning notwithstanding, Advent is still a couple of weeks off. But this parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids seems a fitting text for this morning as we finish the reading and proclamation of Matthew’s Gospel that we began back in June.

And if there were one biblical text that we need to hear in these mid-November days, I am convinced that this is it.

Jesus is in Jerusalem. He is speaking to his followers who, in a matter of days, will give up and desert him when he is arrested and taken off to be crucified.

He is speaking to early Christians who, having heard the good news of the resurrection, are seeking to be faithful followers even as ostracism by their community and persecution by the occupying Roman government are pressing them to give up and return to their previous lives.

And Jesus is speaking to us.

This is our situation: the fever of the election is over and so, too, apparently, our fever of fear about Ebola. The stock market is up and the temperature is down, perhaps a parable of the ways in which our constant pursuit of more is leading to changes in our climate that are close to becoming irreversible. We’re in that yearly slump between the excesses of Halloween and the excesses of Christmas. At the University there is neither the excitement of the beginning of the semester, nor the fun of homecoming, nor the energizing anxiety of exams. 2014, which started as all years do with the hope of January, just seems to be grinding down. We’re just kind of “on hold.”

The temptation is to give in, to give up, to stop out of boredom or despair.

And if I might speak personally for a minute, I should tell you that I’m kind of an expert on this. I am impatient and easily discouraged. I am often tempted to give up—either out of exasperation or exhaustion.

I often yield to such temptation.

A story from my childhood: I found a caterpillar and put it in a jar with some grass and poked some holes in the lid. I expected to watch the caterpillar for a few days and let it go.

Inside that jar, it made a cocoon. I’d never seen anything like that.

But, you know a cocoon isn’t much to watch. For all that’s going on inside, there’s not a lot of action. So after some time, I took the cocoon out of the jar and placed it in a garden and got on with my life.

A few days later, my father asked me what happened with the cocoon.

Nothing happened, I said. So I got rid of it.

And he told me that the last time he looked at it he had noticed some movement inside the cocoon.

“You know neither the day nor the hour.”

I like to think that a butterfly emerged, beautiful, strong, and flew away--although unseen.

This is the message that comes to us today: Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. Do not give in. Do not give up.

This morning we heard one final parable about the kingdom of heaven. And so I have one last opportunity to say this as clearly as I can: when Jesus talks—as he often does in Matthew—about the kingdom of heaven, his is not talking primarily about what will happen to us after we die. He is not so much concerned with our “going” to heaven, as with the realm of heaven—God’s realm—“coming” to earth. This is what he taught his followers to pray for and, indeed, this is what we pray for each time we gather in this place.

With all of his talk about the realm of heaven, Jesus is pointing toward the great value of this earth and of our life before we die.

Because we look in faith toward that time when God’s will is done on this earth as it is in heaven, our lives and what we do with them, how we live in the years we have—are of great and lasting significance. As the Anglican bishop and biblical scholar, N.T. Wright, famously put it: What is done to the glory of God in the present is genuinely building for God’s future. Acts of justice and mercy, the creation of beauty and the celebration of truth, deeds of love and the creation of communities of kindness and forgiveness—these all matter, and they matter forever.

And somewhere you knew this before you came here today.  You did not come here this morning to be told to be an idle spectator. You came because you sense your ability and want to use it. You came here because you wanted to hear again the good news that there is a powerful and forgiving love that will sustain you through all the discouragement and opposition and failure as you act in the world. And that is just what I am telling you.

This is the encouragement of the good news: Do not give up. Do not quit the god and valuable work that you are doing. While it may feel like it at times, especially at times like these, we are not on hold. What you are doing here matters.

What we are doing is of value in God’s now and in God’s eternity.

Through our efforts God is able to accomplish far more than we can imagine.

The realm of heaven will be like this, Jesus says. And we’ve heard him say that many times this spring, summer, and fall. It will be like wheat and weeds planted together. It will be like a great feast with worthy and unworthy guests. It will be like sheep and goats being sorted out.

In the meantime—in our time—we don’t know. We don’t know the weeds from the wheat, the sheep from the goats, the worthy from the unworthy. We don’t know the wise from the foolish. What God is doing in our world and in our lives is neither easily apprehended nor easily described.

In faith we believe certain things about our lives and this universe: that God is present in the depths of human suffering; that God is made known to us in weakness, anguish, and despair as much as—if not more than—in victory and strength. We have a confident faith—or a doubting, struggling faith—that God is making something new even in the midst of everything that would tempt us to give up.

The ability to act for the benefit of yourself and the benefit of others is nothing less than the strength of God acting through us. Just think of what might be accomplished through you by that power.

As we come to know the power of God, we also begin to know the hope to which God has called us. Yes, it is the hope of the resurrection, and this, too, is not simply an otherworldly hope for an afterlife. God calls us to a hope that can see beyond the shadows and the resistance that we sometimes encounter. Because we can see by hope resurrection beyond death, we can dare through that hope to act for the good even when confronted by all that disheartens and discourages.

You see, hope is that vision of the future that allows us to act in the present.

It is not, “I hope that I’ll pass this test.” Rather, the hope of developing an educated mind, or scientific skill, or artistic talent is what propels us to study for the test.

It is not, “I hope I don’t get caught.” Rather, the hope for a good relationship, a good society is what encourages us to act in ways that are honest and honorable.

Hope invites us to look beyond failure, beyond despair, beyond fear and death to what might be—and to start moving toward what we see.

Keeping awake is how Jesus put it. Those who are wise will look ahead, see what is coming and be ready.

The wisdom that we need in these days is the wisdom all of us might gain when our eyes are open to the future, when we think beyond the immediate present. And that is difficult for a lot of people. Much of our culture tells us to keep our eyes closed—or at best, look to the past.

When we focus on present problems instead of defining and moving toward future possibilities we are like those who show up at a wedding with no oil for the lamps. The light grows dim. The joy of life diminishes.

“You don’t know,” Jesus says. I hear that and my spirit is flooded with relief. Yes, he’s right that we don’t know the day or the hour when the realm of heaven will come breaking into our lives. But there is so much more that we don’t know in addition to this. The prophets reminded us that God’s ways are not our ways. We don’t know.

So life becomes a time of expectation, a time of being prepared.

Following the advice of the spiritual, we keep our lamps trimmed and burning.

We can start by remembering we await a great joy. A banquet was the most typical image Jesus used to picture full communion with God. And a wedding was the most obvious occasion for a banquet.

So Jesus tells a story that takes place around a wedding.

The realm of God, if we look at it with fresh eyes, is a place of unbounded joy, of dancing and celebrating. Those who have lighted torches are ready to respond at any time to God's glorious invitation to be a part of this banquet--a big feast spread out for family and friends.

One writer suggests that this parable invites us to take the reality of God seriously once more. Listen for the music of the approaching party; if you haven't heard it clearly enough, await the good news of God's forgiving love with torches lit; and do this all with an eye on the future, not just the present.

Amos encourages us to keep our lamps trimmed and burning by the way we live in relation to others: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” We might not be able to get along with everyone. But we can seek right relationship with our neighbors, working to establish social structures that help support strong, independent lives rather than make more broken people. We can do what it takes to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, welcome the stranger.

The justice for which Amos calls is not an end in itself. We seek justice because it is what God desires. We seek right relationships to be ready on the day of God.

Listening to Amos and Jesus we feel a tension. Amos speaks of the day of God as “darkness not light, a day of gloom without a ray of brightness.”

Jesus on the other hand likens the day of God's coming to a wedding feast—a time of great joy. And the light on that day will come from the lamps that we have kept lit.

We do not know the day or the hour when God will break into our lives, our congregation, our world. It happens when we least expect it. Live in ways that bring justice and joy into the world.

Keep awake. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.

God has not given up on this church, this nation, this world. And let me make it even more specific: God has not given up on you.

Don’t give up! God has not yet finished working in us and among us.