Proper 27 (November 6-12)
Texts: Matthew 25:1-13;
Amos 5:18-24; 1 Thess.
REVIVING AN URGENCY FOR READINESS
Talk to the kids about getting ready for big events — like Christmas. End with the Advent calendars we’re giving out in Sunday School.
Someone told me this week that Toys R Us started playing holiday music last Saturday, the day after Halloween. I think that’s also the day 105.7 FM started playing holiday music 24/7. Ready or not, the holidays have arrived.
But, perhaps surprisingly, there’s a similar phenomenon here at church. In this year that we feature Matthew’s Gospel, the last three Sundays — namely, these next three Sundays, beginning today — they give us a warm-up for Advent. And Advent is a warm-up for Christmas, so these next three weeks are a warm-up for the warm-up. If you are unfamiliar with the Church calendar, Advent is the season of four Sundays leading up to Christmas, a time of getting ready for Christmas. But today’s Gospel, still seven weeks prior to Christmas, is perhaps the quintessential parable about being ready. So three weeks before Advent even begins, we ask ourselves, “Are we ready?”
Actually, I kind of like the opportunity this provides, because in this time of Changing Church we need to ask this question anew, “Are we ready?” When I was growing up, we learned about Advent as getting ready for the Second Coming of Christ. Jesus came that first Christmas, and Advent is about Christ coming again. We need to be ready for Jesus returning. For most Christians, the background for the Second Coming is the final judgment that decides where each person spends eternity. So being ready has the sense of great urgency around your eternal fate. Will it be the joy of God’s heavenly home, or the suffering of eternal torture in hell?
Now, growing up Lutheran, we emphasize grace. We emphasize a loving God who promises to bring people of faith to heaven. So the hell part was underplayed, to say the least. There was never much doubt for us where my fate lies, with that message of grace alone. So I grew up wondering: ‘what’s the big deal about Advent? Ready? Sure, I’m ready. Whose not ready for an eternity of joy with Jesus in heaven?’
But you may be surprised — I know I am! — that I’ve come to have a problem with the Lutheran version of readiness. Perhaps the only thing worse than a message of fear and threat over going to hell, a message that Lutherans avoid, is a message that’s lost its urgency — the loss of urgency for being ready that today’s parable is meant to convey. I wonder, for example, if, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer tried to get his fellow Lutherans to respond to the challenge of Hitler and rising Nazism, he began to talk about “cheap grace” precisely because they had lost a sense of urgency for living as disciples. There was a huge threat facing them, and they did nothing to stop it. Rather, seemingly lulled asleep by their faith in going to heaven when they die, many Lutherans cooperated with the evil right in front of them.
In the years since Dietrich Bonhoeffer, many Christians are getting their sense of urgency back by beginning to read the New Testament in a very different way — a way that we hope is more faithful to what Jesus intended in the first place. We read a parable such as the one today not so much about Jesus returning someday but about being ready to respond the first time. This parable is among the last he told before dying on the cross. Jesus has tried to get his disciples ready, telling them no less than three times what was going to happen. But his disciples have been foolish bridesmaids. They will not be ready when Jesus comes. They will not be ready for a Messiah who comes to willingly suffer the violence rather than dish it out. So they will run off.
But here’s the incredible grace. It’s something much more than going to heaven when we die, as great as that is. It’s that Jesus came to change the world we live in now. Jesus came to change us. Going to heaven becomes simply a nice, restful interlude until the day of resurrection, when we will enjoy a whole creation renewed and fulfilled. But his coming the first time means that this project of renewal is already underway. It’s begun! And so you and I need to be ready not for Jesus’ return so much as his coming that first time. We need faith to understand his means of launching the New Creation, the kingdom of heaven, by suffering the violence rather than inflicting it. We need to understand the oil of the Holy Spirit that he brings for our lamps that we might ourselves become light for a world still in darkness.
I’m more convinced that Matthew’s Jesus tells his parables with it in mind that he has come himself to be a living parable. On the cross and in the resurrection, Jesus himself provides a different ending to many of his parables. His own disciples will prove themselves to be foolish bridesmaids. So what does he do? He himself suffers the violence of being left out. He joins them out in the night. He will let the Jewish Council and Pontius Pilate declare him an outsider, and he will voice from the cross his experience of being left out: “My God, my God,” he will cry out, “Why have you forsaken me?” But God hasn’t forsaken him, of course, nor he us. He comes back on Easter morning. If we must have Jesus returning, it already happened that first Easter. He returned from the dead. And what are his last words to disciples in Matthew’s Gospel?
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20)
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus returns to his disciples, who acted as foolish bridesmaids, and he commissions them to be lamps for the world. “Remember that I am with you always!” Jesus himself is the oil for our discipleship.
But that means we have a sense of urgency to shine in the times of the darkness. How does that work? Brothers and Sisters, here is the key point for today: Jesus didn’t come to save us from God sending us to hell in the afterlife. Jesus came to save us from the hells we regularly make for ourselves because of our sinfulness. He came as oil for our discipleship that we may shine light in the face of darkness. That’s where the urgency comes in. We see the looming evils in our day, and we find ways of choosing the path of discipleship which will help us from being left out in the darkness of another night of despair.
We’ve already mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his movement of Confessing Christians who stood against Hitler. They worked together with a sense of urgency to call more of their fellow German Christians to prepare for the coming night. How many were left out in the dark? Could they have survived the night another way if more had joined them to shine the light of Christ? How might things have happened differently if more German Christians had the same sense of urgency as Bonhoeffer and his Confessing Christian Movement?
What are the issues we face today? What if 99% of scientists are right about global warming? Can you and I follow as disciples of the One who launched New Creation in order to be ready the night of global warming? Can we be lights in the darkness that help us survive it with hope instead of fear? Are we ready to name and engage the powers of darkness in our time?
Next Sunday, our youth will be living their readiness in Famine 2014 as they learn more about the dark night of children who regularly go to bed hungry. They will fast for 30 hours in order to kindle that sense of urgency that Jesus calls us to make a difference, to shine the light of our faith in turning back the night.
In two weeks, we conclude this year of featuring Matthew’s Gospel with one of the greatest passages in all of Scripture: the judgment of the nations according to whether they help the least in Jesus’ family (the hungry and thirsty, the immigrant and underprivileged, the sick and imprisoned). Jesus promises to be with us always to the end of the age. Where will we find him? ‘I was hungry, and you gave me to eat. … Even as you do these things to the least of my family, you do them to me.’ Be with us as we conclude our year of reading Matthew’s story of Jesus, as we fire up our readiness to answer the call of discipleship, the call to make a difference, the call to be light in the darkness. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, November 9, 2014