What are we Waiting For?
When I think of the anxieties facing this congregation, I can’t say that worries about "the end times" rank all that high.
That’s not to say that the end of our earthly lives is a blasé topic. As a community we have faced enough illnesses and medical crises just this year to know how frightening it can be to contemplate the possibility of death. And the news of our world, mostly recently the senseless, preventable killing of 24 innocent people in Texas last Sunday, cannot help but weigh on us. We have lost the presumption of our own safety… even in a church.
We are conscious of the fragility of our lives, and the looming threat of death… and so the temptation – when faced with readings like we have today – is to preach an escapist sermon. To try to deflect our collective fears by saying:
“this life isn’t the point anyway. We just have to wait it out and be ready so when Jesus comes back we will be on the right side and get to enter the party – which is the whole point.”
Except, that I don’t think any of today’s readings are really about what happens in "the end"… they are about what happens during the waiting.
Which is why I have titled this sermon: What are We Waiting For?
This is a multi-faceted question, because there are at least three ways to ask it, with different emphasis.
First, WHAT are we waiting for?
This is the gist of the question that opens our reading from Amos: “why do you want the day of the Lord?” Amos’s question could easily be re-phrased as : “What exactly do you think you are waiting for?… because I expect that what you think is coming is not what is coming.”
The issue for Amos was that the kingdoms of Israel and Judah THOUGHT they were waiting for victory. They were small kingdoms, living in the shadow of Assyria. They had not yet been overrun and exiled, but neither were they experiencing the great deliverance of the Exodus or the mighty conquest of the promised land under Joshua. And that seems to have been their expectation.
This passage is actually the first biblical reference to “the Day of the Lord,” and in this context, it does not seem to be referring to the end of all time. Rather, it seems to be talking about an expectation that God will manifest God’s power at some moment in human history. And the people were longing for that day because they assumed this show of power would be for God’s people, to fight against their national enemies – bringing them military victory and vindication.
But in response to this Amos makes it clear that their expectations are deeply misplaced. They think that their worship and ritual, not to mention their established identity as God’s people, will guarantee that God fights on their side in national conflicts.
Their focus is on what they expect GOD to do for them.
But when God shows up, Amos warns that it will be a dark day because of what they have been doing during the waiting.
When God’s justice and righteousness come rolling down like waters, this people will be swept away in the flood. Because they miscalculated what they were waiting for.
They thought they were waiting for God to take up their fight, but that’s not what it’s about. The Day of the Lord – the revelation of God’s activity in our world and in our lives – is not about defending our priorities. It is about enacting God’s priorities.
And God’s priorities are justice and righteousness – the justice that protects the vulnerable and the righteousness that reverses systems of oppression. This justice and righteousness is described over and over in the Prophets. It is what God’s people should expect.
So, when we hear the question WHAT are we waiting for?… we should know the answer, just as Amos’ audience should have. God’s revelation is not about fixing things the way WE want them; it’s about addressing injustice and establishing God’s righteousness – a righteousness that is NOT about power and self-protection.
Which leads to the second way to ask our guiding question: What are we WAITING for?
What’s to stop us from working for God’s justice and righteousness now? The only way for the Day of the Lord to sound like good news, is if we actually want it to come. And if we want it eventually, then we want it now too, right? Because expectations change how we live.
That is actually the point of the larger argument from 1 Thessalonians from which today’s reading is plucked. Paul’s mystical vision of being caught up in the clouds when Jesus comes again is not intended as a prophecy about factual details from the future; it is intended as pastoral encouragement. Paul is painting this vivid picture of the restoration of the faith community, together with Jesus, as a source of hope, so that the church can live out the faith the way he will call them to in chapter 5.
The point of this passage is not about what is coming, it’s about how the hope of what is coming changes how we live during the waiting. That point is referenced even in the portion we read today, which starts with the call to “hope” (1 Thess. 4:13) and ends with the call to “encourage one another” (1 Thess. 4:18).
Because what we hope for is supposed to change how we live now… and specifically how we live in community, which is the concern of the Thessalonian church.
So, what are we WAITING for? We can treat each other now with the love and mutual care that we know will characterize our future in Christ. Because we have the encouragement of what Jesus has promised us, we don’t have to wait to start living by Kingdom rules….
That’s basically the gospel message.
But then we read today’s parable… and confront the me-first selfishness of the “wise” bridesmaids.
What are we to make of this parable?
Amos (and all the other prophets) have called us to justice and righteousness…
And Paul has called the church to mutually encouraging community…
And then Jesus describes as wise the people who refuse to share, and who value provision for themselves over the wholeness of their community.
It's not quite so scandalous when we recognize that this is another of the parables that Matthew introduces with a passive voice in the Greek. So, it shouldn't be translated as we read this morning: “the kingdom of heaven will be like this,” but rather “the kingdom of heaven with be likened to this. Jesus is not necessarily endorsing this view of how the kingdom works.
This IS clearly how plenty of religious people work, and it’s possible that Jesus is again telling a parable that shows people the consequences of what they expect God’s kingdom to look like… the consequences that might leave them out of the party.
But I think that we get the most out of this parable when we ask our guiding question with a third emphasis: What are we waiting FOR?
What’s the point of it all? Why are the bridesmaids waiting in the first place? Why do they need oil in their lamps?
All ten bridesmaids seem to think the point is just to have the oil. But the point of having the oil is to have light… to be able to see the bridegroom… to be able to join in the celebration.
One of my favorite seminary professors, Audrey West, says it better than I could:
“Throughout the parable, the behavior of the bridesmaids (wise or foolish) is so poor, one wonders how they managed to wrangle an invitation to the wedding in the first place. Not one of them deserves to enter through the door with the bridegroom. The wise women are selfish, while the foolish ones run off just when they should be present to welcome the groom. All of them operate on the mistaken belief that the most important thing about the procession is the oil, instead of the celebration itself…What sets the wise bridesmaids apart from the foolish is not the presence or absence of extra oil, but whether or not they remain in the company of the bridegroom. All ten could have walked through that door together. Imagine the celebration it would have been.”
That celebration – a celebration to which all are invited, meaning all of us who don’t deserve it – that is the point… THAT is what we are waiting FOR.
That celebration is the hope we hold onto when we do face the very real and reasonable fears about death that confront every human being at some point.
And that celebration is also something we don’t have to WAIT for, because justice and righteousness… and hope and encouragement… and sharing and light are also things that can characterize our lives of waiting.
When I first looked at this parable of selfishness and poor planning, I thought I could hardly have picked a worse Sunday for the second week of our Stewardship drive – the week where we call attention to the needs of our neighbors as part of our stewardship stories.
But after study and reflection, I realized that this parable is perfect. Because it’s not about the oil; and it’s certainly not about looking after number one, even when others are in need.
It’s about staying near to Jesus. It’s about having enough light in our lives to be able to recognize him, because that’s all it takes. Nobody earns their invitation to the party. It’s an invitation. We just need to be able to see.
And we can. We have the biblical stories to show us what God is up to, and to tell us we are all invited. What’s more, our light is in no way diminished if we share it, so that others can see too. And that’s what stewardship is.
So… what are we waiting for? We are waiting for Jesus – not because this life is just a waiting room for life after death, but because Jesus is what gives meaning to life AND death. And while we wait – anxious as the wait sometimes is – we can live in the light of our expectation so that everyone around us will be able to see it too.
Thanks be to God.
 See Jane Patterson’s commentary on this passage for Working Preacher: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3466; accessed 11/6/2017.