Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 12 November 2017.
I think that all of us can recall a moment when we were alone and surrounded by angry and accusing faces. Some were threatening and many were shouting.
It could have been at school or even in the family, maybe at work but it does not really matter. What did matter to us was the sense of helplessness and isolation, of humiliation and in retrospect a desire for vindication if not revenge.
And what was probably true for us personally has also been true of nations and peoples who have felt that they have been badly handled by their neighbours and let down by their own leaders.
This is how the resentments leading up to war begin, but there are of course many other, more demonstrably rational reasons like competition for land or resources or even water.
And this is where we make our approach to Amos and his description of the Israelites’ desire for the Day of the Lord when they would be vindicated and their enemies humbled.
But Amos said something different: they were not to look for the Day of the Lord as if the judgment of God was to be reserved for their enemies while their own faults would be overlooked.
If there is to be a Day of Judgment, then all will be called to account and there will be no favourites. Indeed, those who know what is right but refuse to live it would be dealt with more severely than those who erred in innocence of the things and the holiness of God.
The lesson for Israel then and for us now is that we also need to be aware of our actions and of how we also stand in need of the mercy and forgiveness of God.
But writing to the church in Salonica, Paul offers a different kind of counsel for he wanted to reassure them of the comfort of God. These also had been expecting the Day of the Lord to come speedily and were anxious at the prospects for those who had already died. How would they fare come the Day of the Lord, the Day of Resurrection?
Well, Jesus was Himself the first-fruits of those who had died and of those who had risen from the dead. His death was in our stead as the atonement for our sins, and His resurrection was for our life and vindication under the mercy of God.
We also would rise again, for if we were living in Him and our lives were vested in His then surely our deaths would be glorified in His. So this would be the basis for their comfort and they would indeed be reunited with those who gone before them.
So yes, the lessons of Amos teach us not to presume, and of the letter to the Thessalonians, not to despair.
But the crux of it is in Jesus’ parable of the 10 bridesmaids, who were summoned to the wedding feast. Following the custom in which the bridegroom would collect his bride, bringing her back to his house by the most tortuous and ostentatious route possible, they were in for a long wait but would be expected to meet him and to celebrate his arrival.
And yes this is a parable for the church as it waits for the promised return of its Lord. It tells of how the Lord would surely return, but at the time of His choosing.
That aspect was never in doubt. Yet the church was expected to be attentive to its duty, and in all generations. And this is where the symbolism of the lamps and the oil comes into focus.
For light was very much part of Jesus’ teaching – ‘Let your light so shine that people may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven’.
Then there is the city set on a hill that cannot be hidden: all it has to do is to be itself and to keep its lamps lit.
Then there is John: ‘the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not’, and that light is the light of Jesus, the light of the gospel and the light shed by the church – provided of course that it had kept the light burning.
Common to all these is the theme of the light in the church which it is its responsibility to maintain. And so to the bridesmaids, some got tired of waiting.
Was the bridegroom real? Was His coming real? Were the lamps real? Was it all a folk tale to keep the people compliant and busy?
The seeds of doubt in their minds as they drifted off have not gone away and maybe they are putting forth roots and stems in our own generation.
Yet the promise is to those who make a point of keeping their lamps lit and who have prepared for times of waiting and even of disappointment: but that promise is sure and it is up to us to hold to it.
And that brings me to our own Remembrance-tide, as we remember with gratitude those who have died for our way of life, even if their sacrifices were forced by the circumstances of their times and not made willingly.
It is not a time for celebration but for recollection. But it is also a time to assess the threats that surround us, and those who really desire to bring warfare to our shores and cities.
Nobody desires the destructiveness of war – but then nobody desires crime in our streets, but nobody would disband our police forces.
Perhaps these are times for all of us to assess, coolly and unemotionally, our own times. It is perhaps time to ensure that our own lamps are prepared and that we also have the oil to fill them. And so we all need to seek the anointing anew of the Holy Spirit – one of whose symbols, is the oil of anointing.