Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 8 November 2020.
• First Reading: Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-25 (Renewal of the covenant by Joshua at Shechem)
• Psalm 78: 1-7
• Epistle: 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 (Those who sleep in death: for we believe that Jesus died and rose again … and that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep)
• Gospel: Matthew 25: 1-13 (Parable of the ten virgins – ‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour’)
The changing of the guard at Buckingham palace is one of the tourist spectacles of London – when there are tourists to see the event.
But there has also been a changing of the times over the last several years: the banking crash of 2008 and the emergency action taken to shore up our national currency and payments system, the votes on Scottish independence and Brexit, and the movements on same-sex relations, gender recognition, me-too, black lives matter and so on.
But our lessons are also about three connected ideas: commitment, conviction and consolation.
First of all there is Commitment and it is expressed in the Old Testament lesson. Joshua had led the people of Israel into the Promised Land and now he was challenging them as to which god they would serve.
They could return to the deities of the other lands, who had done nothing for them, or they could serve the LORD, who had brought their parents and flocks out of Egypt, raised a new generation in the wilderness and then brought them into the promised land.
This was a God who had spoken to Moses and Joshua, provided food in the deserts and given victory over their enemies. There was evidence of their lives as against the stories of others.
But the people must commit to a lifetime of faithful obedience and worship, caring for one another and following the laws given to them but not imposed on them.
It would be easy enough to drift through life, taking the line of least resistance and following the crowd. But this kind of commitment was deep, active, and lifelong. It would take them into all aspects of life and they would be a kind of community that was unique in the world.
The second area is conviction.
In the parable of the 10 girls, Jesus was giving a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven. The wedding feast is an image of the final ingathering of the church at the end of the age and representing the church, the girls were attendants of the groom waiting for his arrival at the wedding feast with his bride.
If Pentecost is the betrothal of the church to Jesus Christ, signified by the giving of the Holy Spirit to equip its life and witness down the ages then Harvest-tide and the celebration of Christ the King point to the wedding of the church with its Lord.
And so in the parable there was a delay as the girls – or the church – waited for the Lord of the wedding feast to appear.
This was a time of preparation and alertness. It was a time for devoted commitment when nothing else seemed to be happening, when boredom, distraction and speculation seemed to be more entertaining than the ordinary business of waiting.
For some, waiting may sound like hanging around when nothing was going on. A time for daydreaming, banter and idleness.
But there is another form of waiting. Anyone who has been to a good restaurant will be aware of the waiters who guide guests to their tables, take the orders for food and drink, and bring these to the table when they are ready.
But they are also on the alert, watching their guests and looking to meet their needs and answer their questions, guide them to the washrooms, provide water, bread and butter, and so on.
These waiters are definitely not asleep or amusing themselves. They are watching their guests and alert to any needs that may arise.
For the church the task is also to wait but to be wholly alert while it is doing so. This is where the oil and the lamps come in for oil is also a symbol of the Holy Spirit, and to light their lamps the girls needed oil, and a full supply at that.
There is never any rationing of the fulness of the Holy Spirit. All that is required is a desire to receive, and a readiness to ask.
Where the need is there as we ask, then so the Lord will meet our need with His fulness – but we do have to desire His purposes among us.
Finally, there is consolation. In writing to the church is Salonica, Paul was wanting to give hope and encouragement to those grieving for their friends and family who had died.
Death of the body was never going to be the end of things and the resurrection of Jesus points to this. At the time of Paul’s writing the church was expecting the return of Jesus to the world to be so imminent that they would be there to see it. So what about the dead – had they missed out?
Paul says no, they have not missed out for Jesus would indeed return to gather together those ready and waiting for Him, and to unite them with those who had gone before them in death.
Thus, those who had died and those who remained would be united in the joy of the Lord’s return.
Today we are remembering especially those who have died in war for our freedom and our way of life. Those who died in the two world wars were of a generation that held to the Christian faith and Paul’s words to the church in Salonica are especially relevant.
But an age given to doubt, speculation, self-obsession and moral and spiritual drift has placed itself in a position of insecurity and alienation from itself and from God.
This is a time to ensure that if our oil supplies are running down, then to ask to for them to be renewed.