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November 8, 2020 is Pentecost 23A/Proper 27A/Ordinary 33A
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 – Joshua assembles the tribes at Shechem, telling them to put away the gods they worshipped beyond the Euphrates, in Iraq/Mesopotamia, where Abraham came from. Choose this day whom you shall serve… As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. The people agree. (So Joshua sets it up as a law and erects a standing stone.)
Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 – Wisdom is radiant and unfading… One who rises early to find her will have no difficulty.
Amos 5:18-24 – Woe to those who wish for the day of the Lord. It will be dark and disastrous. I despise your festivals, religious assemblies, burnt and grain offerings, and songs. Take away your songs and instead let just roll down like mighty waters and righteousness like a forever-flowing stream. ELW 717, 710
Psalm 78:1-7 – God set up a law in Israel. He commanded our ancestors to make his deeds known to their descendants, so that the next generation, children yet to be born, might know about them. They will grow up and tell their descendants about them.
Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20 – The beginning of wisdom is a sincere desire for instruction. The desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom.
Psalm 70 – Five verses: I am oppressed and needy. God, hasten, hurry up, and help me! Make those who say, “Aha! Aha!” be put to shame.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 – We don’t want you be uninformed about those who are asleep, or to grieve as those without hope. When the Lord returns, the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are still alive will meet the Lord up in the clouds, in the air.
Matthew 25:1-13 – The parable of The Virgins. The kingdom of God is like ten virgins, five foolish, five wise, waiting for their bridegroom, with their lamps. The wise brought extra oil. The foolish have to go buy oil and don’t make it back in time for the wedding banquet. ELW 677
Prayer of the Day
O God of justice and love, you illumine our way through life with the words of your Son. Give us the light we need, and awaken us to the needs of others, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Alleluia. Keep awake | and be ready,
for you do not know on what day your | Lord is coming. Alleluia. (Matt. 24:42, 44)
Children’s Song: Give me oil in my lamp.
New Heaven/New Earth
The earth had a beginning and the earth will have an end. The universe had a beginning, and the universe will have an end. As good practical theologians, let’s consider the end of the world in an interdisciplinary way.
Scientists did not believe this at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was commonly held that the universe was eternal. Constant. This static nature of the universe was conveyed in the equations of astrophysicists with the Greek letter lambda (uppercase Λ, lowercase λ).[i] Some scientists made fun of the creation stories in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as fanciful myths, rather than understanding them as archetypal stories conveying a common sense of humanity about the cosmos.
Einstein is later reported to have confessed to George Gamow, that belief in the cosmological constant was the “biggest blunder” in his life. Others have questioned this, but it is true that in 1917 Einstein believed the universe was static like everyone else (without some other force, why didn’t gravity bring the universe crashing in on itself?), and that later he abandoned the concept. It is true he used the lambda in his equations, then later removed it. Dark matter and black holes had not yet entered the equation.
In 1929, Edwin Hubble pointed out that stars when viewed through a prism shifted to the red end of the spectrum, which mean they were moving away from us. In fact, everything was moving away from us. The universe was expanding. If this was the case, if we rewind backwards in time, everything must have been very close together, into a singularity. An event dubbed “the big bang” got everything going. The universe had a beginning. Many religious people adopted this model as being consistent with the creation stories of various religions. By 1931 Einstein had abandoned the cosmological constant altogether.[i] Neil Degrasse Tyson even goes so far as to say Einstein was embarrassed by the cosmological constant.[ii] A mark of intelligence is being able to change positions when the evidence supports it.
In 1998, it was discovered that the rate of the cosmos’ growth is increasing. Where will all of this go? There are three theories: Some say it will continue to increase infinitely. It could increase until expansion=gravity and then balance perfectly, however unlikely. The majority view is eventually gravity will pull it all in on itself in some absurdly distant future, into a singularity, and we will have, you guessed it: another big bang. Another universe.
Frankly, none of this is inconsistent with Judeo-Christian thought about the cosmos, which is less interested in equations and empiricism than the relationship between God, humanity and the cosmos. Indeed, John’s Revelation (chapter 21) proclaims just such a new heaven and earth:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”
People don’t generally spend much time dwelling on the fact that the earth and universe have a beginning and end. It’s unlikely we will see it. The first century, the generation in which Jesus lived, and from which the New Testament eventually emerged, was flooded with thought about the end of the world, and the end of time. In this apocalyptically rich consciousness, every event took on cosmic significance. The destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. was interpreted as a portent. This end was imbued with mythical imagery.
Jewish apocalyptic literature proclaimed that the end would be ushered in by a Son of Man, who would come on the clouds, and judge the nations. Matthew 25 is a byproduct of this proleptic eschatology that was in the water that everyone was drinking.
The Apostle Paul himself believed that he would live to see the end of time, as evidenced by his writing in today’s epistle reading from 1 Thessalonians 4:
15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words. (The underlining is mine.)
“We who are alive” when the Lord comes will not precede into heaven those who are dead. Paul says it twice. Thessalonians is likely the earliest of the letters in the New Testament. It is Paul’s thinking in 50 or 51 A.D. Five years later, writing to the Philippians (1:21-24), he is more cognizant of this own death:
21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.
No doubt his earthly sufferings have been taking their toll. The persecution he has experienced have nearly been his end. He seems aware that his death may come before Christ does. By the time he writes his letter to the Romans, nearly a decade after the Thessalonian correspondence, this kind of thinking disappeared from this thought. His grappling with practical issues in the church seems to be gearing up for a long haul.
We do not know when Christ is coming. Jesus said even he didn’t know (Matthew 24:36). We do, however, know that our death is certain. Our end is only decades away, for some years. Maybe minutes for all we know. Readiness for this moment need not be contingent on any cosmic timeline. With these thoughts in mind, let us dive into the gospel reading.
But wait. One more thing. The idea of a new heaven and a new earth, if taken by some fundamentalists to mean any day now, can lead to a sense of a disposable earth. Why bother worrying about care of creation, if it’s all going to be destroyed any day now? Why worry about polluted rivers, oceans and air? There is a danger to apocalyptic thinking. We may need this cosmic vessel, our mother earth, for a good long time to come.
On this Sunday, November 8, it is only three Sundays until Advent. Advent 1 in November 29., 2020. These three Sundays we have three great parables from Matthew 25:
- Sheep and Goats
And, Advent was a season dedicated to the end of things, and the coming of Christ at the end of time.
Matthew 23-25 the last of Jesus’ five great discourses or sermons in Matthew’s gospel. It is sometimes called “The Olivet Discourse” because Jesus delivered it from the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24:3), overlooking the city of Jerusalem.
The Lutheran World Federation has a hospital on the Mount of Olives. I once visited this hospital with other ELCA bishops. All the photos here are from that 2009 visit.
Augusta Victoria Hospital[iv] is a church and hospital complex located on the southern side of Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem. According to Wikipedia, the compound was built in 1907-1914 by the Empress Augusta Victoria Foundation as a center for the German Protestant community in Ottoman Palestine, also building the slightly older Church of the Redeemer the tallest tower in Jerusalem’s Old City. The complex also includes the German Protestant Church of the Ascension with a 50-meter high belltower, a meeting center for pilgrims and tourists, an interreligious kindergarten and a café, as well as the Jerusalem branch of the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology.[v]
Augusta Victoria Hospital provides specialty care for Palestinians from across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with services including a cancer center, a dialysis unit, and a pediatric center. It is the second largest hospital in East Jerusalem, as well as the sole remaining specialized care unit located in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Because Palestinians cannot easily pass through the wall, pictured in a number of these photos, Augusta Victoria Hospital is a lifeline.
I know this is a bit of a tangent, but It is quite possible that Jesus was standing right here at Augusta Victoria when he spoke the words in Matthew 25.
Dr. Susan Hylen, Associate Professor of New Testament at Emory University in Atlanta, says that the uncertain timing of Jesus’ return is what necessitates readiness. She points out that this story is different from modern predictions of Jesus’ coming, because it is at an unexpected time, not an expected time (Matthew 24:44).[v]
In the first of Matthew 25’s three parables, The Parable of the Virgins, five foolish and five wise bridesmaids take their lamps to meet the bridegroom. When the bridegroom is delayed, it appears the wise bridesmaids have brought extra oil. The foolish have not, so they must go get some oil from the “dealers.” While they are gone, the bridegroom arrives. The banquet begins and the doors are closed. They are left out. The parable concludes with the point: “Therefore, keep awake. You know neither the day nor the hour.”
Already, by the time the gospels are being written, the church is dealing with the conundrum of the delayed Parousia. How are we to understand why our assumptions, even Paul’s assumptions that Christ was going to be coming back soon, have not come to fruition?
Our brains are wired for stories. So the Bible uses stories to convey theology. Jesus too.
The traditional interpretation, of course, is that the delayed bridegroom is Jesus. The virgins are the church. Some are prepared with enough oil for the long wait. Others are not.
Augustine says in XLIII:
It is no easy question, who the ten virgins are, of whom five are wise, and five foolish… but if I mistake not this parable relates to the whole Church.
And again, later, he says:
In the “girded loins” is virginity; in the “burning lamps” good works… He who will not see what is evil, he who will not hear what is evil, he that turneth away his smell from the unlawful fumes, and his taste from the unlawful food of the sacrifices, he who refuseth the embrace of another man’s wife, breaketh his bread to the hungry, bringeth the stranger into his house, clotheth the naked, reconcileth the litigious, visiteth the sick, burieth the dead; he surely is a virgin, surely he hath lamps.[vii]
Augustine sees in burning lamps a burning faith that serves the neighbor in need.
Question: So what is this oil? Some run out of it. Others do not.
There are many different interpretations. What guesses might you have?
Many interpreters consider the oil to be good works, because of what Jesus said earlier in Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount: “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:15-16. The underlining is mine.)
If you think about it, however, Matthew 5 refers to the light given off by the lamp as good works. Let your light shine, so people may see…” If the light is good works, what might the oil be? What fuels good works? You can imagine what Luther said of course: faith. Perhaps Matthew is saying, “Keep the faith.”
Others have suggested that the oil is the Holy Spirit that empowers good works. Or the Word.
Augustine thinks the oil is love:
Some great, some exceedingly great thing doth this oil signify. Thinkest thou that it is not charity? This we say as searching out what it is; we hazard no precipitate judgment. I will tell you why charity seems to be signified by the oil. The Apostle says, “I show unto you a way above the rest.” Though I speak with the tongues of men and of Angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” This, that is “charity,” is “that way above the rest,” which is with good reason signified by the oil. For oil swims above all liquids. Pour in water, and pour in oil upon it, the oil will swim above. If you keep the usual order, it will be uppermost; if you change the order, it will be uppermost. “Charity never falleth.” (Ibid. The boldface print and underlining is mine.)
Irenaeus of Lyons has this to say in Adversus Haereses II.XXVII.2
And when the Bridegroom comes, he who has his lamp untrimmed, and not burning with the brightness of a steady light, is classed among those who obscure the interpretations of the parables, forsaking Him who by His plain announcements freely imparts gifts to all who come to Him, and is excluded from His marriage-chamber.[vii]
Where to go with the congregation, especially during a pandemic? Can we speak of this time of quarantine as a waiting period? We’d like it to be over, and some are predicting that it will all be over soon, but we really don’t know the day or the hour. And yet, are we not called to keep our lamps trimmed and burning? Can we speak of increasing love and good works during this time of pandemic?
Hebrews 10 says,
23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
However one interprets this, it might be a good opportunity to ask people, what fills your spiritual gas tank, or oil lamp? What gives you joy, love, generosity? What do you need right now, to keep your tank full, to get through this moment, and to continue to serve your neighbor?
What fuels good works in your life? Generosity? Compassion? Service? What keeps your faith, hope and love burning bright? Whatever it is, don’t show up to the party without it.
Ask people what they are waiting for? For what do you yearn, that is delayed? Justice delayed is justice denied. Is it coming?
When will Christ come? Matthew’s message is, we don’t know. But be ready.
Next week talents. Don’t bury your talents. Use them. For what?
The following week: Sheep and Goats: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome strangers. Visit those sick and in prison.
The light of faith is a free gift. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.
[i] “Investigating the legend of Einstein’s ‘biggest blunder,’” Physics Today (October 30, 2018). Accessed September 21, 2020. https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=investigating+the+legend+of+einstein%27s+biggest+blunder&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8.
[ii] Neil Degrasse Tyson. 2017. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 102.
[iii] Neil Degrasse Tyson. 2017. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 102.
[iv] “Augusta Victoria Hospital” The Lutheran World Federation, accessed September 21, 2020. https://jerusalem.lutheranworld.org/content/augusta-victoria-hospital-91
[v] “Augusta Victoria Hospital” Wikipedia, accessed September 21, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augusta_Victoria_Hospital
[vi] Susan Hylen, “Commentary on Matthew 25:1-13,” 2017. Working Preacher. Accessed on September 21, 2020. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3459
[vii] Confessions of St. Augustine, XLIII, accessed September 21, 2020. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/augustine/confess.xi.xliii.html
[viii] Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, II.XXVII.2, accessed September 21, 2020. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iii.xxviii.html#_Matt_25_5_0_0