This is the text of the message I prepared for Newborough Uniting Church for Sunday 12th November 2017. It was the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost in Year A.
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
Today’s reading from the book of Joshua jumps us straight into an episode in the conquering history of the Hebrew peoples. Of course, if we had spent the last few weeks reading Joshua on a Sunday we’d be better informed of what is going on, but the lectionary and my choosing to not preach from the lectionary for most of October anyway did not allow for that. Anyway, the Hebrews have reached the point where they are preparing to seal the conquest of the land. The armies have been as far as they wish to have gone, and each tribe or half-tribe has a satisfactory allotment of land.
So, in today’s reading Joshua has gathered the leaders of the tribes and of the armies as well at Shechem in Ephraimite territory. Joshua is an Ephraimite so perhaps he has gathered them on his own land. Joshua’s address to the leaders reminds them of The LORD’s work among the Hebrews since the call of Abraham, and he cleverly asks them to declare their loyalty for The LORD one way or the other. As leaders they are to choose now and forever as they settle in the land promised to Abraham what they will do with the benefits of the covenant they have inherited. Joshua calls the nation to choose between worship of The LORD the God of Abraham, worship of the Egyptian gods from their slave days, and worship of the Canaanite gods whose worshippers have been overcome. Choose the lesser gods if you will, invites Joshua, but choose one way or the other with deliberate action. As for Joshua he chooses The LORD as his God.
The leaders respond on behalf of the nation that they too will choose The LORD: but Joshua warns them that The LORD will take them at their word in this and that if they fall away they will face the consequences of disloyalty since that is a breaking of the covenant. Once you have chosen The LORD he says, you cannot back out, so be very careful before committing your way to The LORD. Again, the leaders say that The LORD will be their God, and that they reject the Egyptian and Canaanite gods. Joshua erects a monument in that place as a physical and visible reminder of the promise.
In a place of pluralism, during a time of rapid societal transition Joshua seeks to ground the people on the firm foundation of worship of and trust in Israel’s God. Today we face a similar situation. Today as Christians we are called to love our neighbours as ourselves, (and therefore to love ourselves), but we must never fail to worship God foremost. We are to be compassionate and hospitable, but we are first to be faithful to the God of compassion and hospitality, the God of salvation and grace for all the world.
The Kingdom of Heaven is described by Jesus in a parable of ten bridesmaids waiting for a delayed bridegroom. The hour is unknown, but will be at hand: do not be unprepared. The task of the bridesmaids in this story is bearers of light; oil is a metaphor for faithfulness in discipleship which keeps the light aflame. The wise bridesmaids do not share their oil with the foolish because discipleship cannot be borrowed. You may have heard it said that “God does not have grandchildren”, we cannot rely on the beliefs of others to earn us salvation. In the same way each woman or man can only source her or his own light from her or his own faithfulness. The message of Jesus is that always faithful are always ready, the half-hearted or negligent in faith will be caught off-guard.
This parable has been used in the past to point toward lukewarm faith in the congregation. Much like the sheep and goats, or the wheat and weeds, this story points to how only some people in the Church are true disciples of Jesus while others who come on Sundays are just going through the motions. Like the foolish girls some Christians only have enough goodness to keep their lamps lit on a Sunday, going dark or at least growing dull during the week. Other Christians may not shine as brightly on Sunday, but they do shine all week. So, don’t be one of the blazing hypocrites, instead burn brightly for every hour of every day since you never know when God is watching or when Jesus might return a second time.
But in 2017, and alongside what Joshua said to the gathered tribes, I’m not so sure. Perhaps those half-lights are no longer in church at all. Churches these days are much smaller than they were a generation or two generations ago. Like many of you I wonder why that is: I have concluded that perhaps some of the decline is due not to society’s recalcitrance or the indifference of “the young people today”, but to the honesty of society. Many of the people my age, and younger, with whom I have spoken about faith say that they are no-longer prepared to live a lukewarm life, and so they don’t bother coming to church at all. “I’d come if I actually believed more strongly,” they say, “but I’m not interested in going through the motions any more”. Maybe the reason that there’s less than twenty of us here this morning is that we are the only ones with sufficient oil to last the week. The others who have only a day’s or an hour’s supply didn’t bother to come at all.
So, what do we do with that? Whilst we cannot share our oil, (our own relationship with God in Christ), since it is our own, the news of where to get more oil is in our hands. Rather than sending the foolish girls away in the dark, our job as bridesmaids and brides-mates is to make sure that everyone has enough oil before we set out.
The challenge extended by Joshua can be thought of as a choice for the best source of oil, and of the best oil too. All gods provide opportunities for worship, and all gods provide benefits to their worship. All oil burns, but some oils burn better than others. In terms of religion I’ve only ever been a Christian, so I have no personal experience of Buddha or Krishna, let alone Ba’al or Horus. However, I know that when I have allowed myself to put Jesus second for short periods of time, say for the Geelong Football Club, or a particular band and its CD, or a nice bottle of ale or shiraz, that there has been short-term pleasure in that. Joshua challenges the Hebrews to see that The LORD is the only source of filling, lasting joy. In our world of many gods we can say the same; but we must proclaim it with one caveat. To have the fullness of The LORD, to receive the overabundant filling of the Lord, we must give ourselves totally to The LORD. Someone coming to church at Christmas, or Easter Day, or an especially meaningful funeral, wedding, or baptism might get some temporary joy from church, even as I get temporary joy from the Cats winning a premiership or from my second glass of that amazing red. But if that person is not encouraged to seek more of God by seeking God more often, then she or he will assume that all there is to God is seasonal or short-lived.
When Paul wrote to the Christians at Thessaloniki he answered a question from some Christians there. They were concerned about loved ones who had died before the news reached them of the salvation won by Jesus on the cross, and others who had died in faith but would miss out on the immanent second coming of the saviour. Aren’t Christians who die before Christ returns just like the foolish bridesmaids? Will they be left rotting in their graves while the rest of us get Raptured away to Heaven? Paul assures the Thessalonians that all who die are safe in God’s hands. The grace of God is not limited by time or place: God can and will intervene to save whomever wherever and whenever God chooses to do so, even in the past. In all things rest assured that your hope is safe in God. Faith is empty without hope, so hear the words of God through Paul’s pen, you are safe to hope in God because God can and will deliver on the promise of salvation for all.
Paul’s response is good oil. Where the news of the depth of the gospel had not pervaded the Thessalonian Christians Paul proclaims the fullness of grace, and therefore puts more oil and better oil into their jars.
And so, this is our work too. We are not to lament that we have less bums on seats here today than we did a generation ago. We are not to lament that our friends and our children and grandchildren are spending Sunday mornings elsewhere than here, including sleeping of hangovers or a late night’s return from the Speedway or the MCG. Yes, there are legitimate concerns here, I’m not saying we ignore those situations. But our work is to speak to those living with less oil than us, and oil of a lesser quality than that provided by The LORD through the saving and salving grace of Jesus Christ. The way of Christ is a better way: choose now. Do you want to be full of Jesus? Then worship him. Or do you want to be full of Collingwood, or Holden, or VB? Make no mistake that if you do then you will worship those. Today I invite you to make your choice, make it stick, once and for all, and then tell others about the best choice.
But as for me, and for my house, we will worship The LORD.