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In the Shadow of the “End Times”, bearing the Light of Jesus

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 1:28 pm on Monday, November 13, 2017

A sermon preached on November 12th, 2017 based upon Matthew 25:1-13.

Jeff and Ryan nov 12

Considering you could have been across town listening to Tim Tebow I really appreciate your being here at the place we gather each week to listen for the word of the Lord, and in this instance we have before us one of the most difficult parables to make sense of that Jesus ever told.  (What, the wise maidens are those who refuse to share?!)

If we are to begin to make some sense of the parable it is necessary to put it in context, and in large part this means understanding the concept of the “apocalypse” as it arises in the Bible and its meaning for today.

The word apocalypse originates in the Book of Revelation, referring to a secret teaching regarding the ultimate victory of God over the forces of evil at the end of history. Apocalyptic literature is not limited to Revelation.  In three of the Gospels, after Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for what will be the last week of his earthly life, as everything seems to be coming unhinged Jesus takes time to talk to his anxious disciples about what are commonly referred to as the “end times.” He describes how things would get really bad, with increasing oppression and violence before the “Son of Man” — generally assumed to be Jesus himself although he doesn’t say this straight out – will return in glory at an unknown time.

Jesus describes a lot of scary stuff but basically tells his followers to keep the faith – to not give up hope and to stay alert – that they are in fact safe in the arms of God.  In Matthew’s Gospel this apocalyptic teaching occurs immediately before this morning’s strange parable so it’s safe to say the parable has something to do with the apocalypse.

The earliest Christians assumed they were living in the last days — that Jesus would return any day.  This belief brought a strong sense of urgency to their common lives.  “Jesus is coming soon so let’s not get distracted by the things of this world.  Let’s stay centered on living out the Gospel”.

This urgency gave the early Christians a clarity about the sickness of the larger culture.  There’s this story from early on in church history about this monk named Telemachus who came to Rome where at the arena he witnessed the spectacle of the gladiators fighting to the death, a perfectly acceptable form of entertainment in those days.  Horrified, he jumped into the arena in an attempt to stop the killing, and was killed himself.  But the emperor witnessed what he did, and shortly thereafter ended the practice.

As the years passed without Jesus returning the sense of urgency tended to get lost.

2000 years after his death and resurrection I tend to be skeptical of the literal notion that a day is coming when Jesus will come riding on the clouds, particularly when the Jesus imagined is one warrior king coming to kick the butt of his enemies – an image altogether different from that of the humble servant he was during  his earthly life – the one who lived and taught love – including the love of enemies.

The most common way I’ve made sense of such teachings is to interpret them on an individual level, because it’s as sure as sure can be that each of us will experience our own personal “end times” when our individual history on earth draws to a close when we die and go to meet our maker.   Not knowing the hour or the day, let’s stay awake, as Jesus said – not fritter away our days but instead live faithfully and lovingly in the present moment, knowing this could very well be our last day on earth.

But there is something different about the age we find ourselves living in that has made the word “apocalypse” one you hear spoken more often.

There has always been sin and there has always been violence, indeed in certain regards people in the distant past were often exposed more routinely to violence than most of us are today.  But what is different in the present age is that the means of violence have become vastly more destructive, whether we are talking semi-automatic guns or nuclear weapons or the range of other means of committing large scale violence that people have come up with.

There is also the reality of an altogether broader form of violence and that is that for the first time in human history we human beings have developed the capacity to do violence to the entire eco-system of our planet, and have done so already.

And so whether by the violence of more destructive weaponry or the violence of throwing the eco-system dangerously out of balance — for the first time ever the human race has the capacity to end human history, at least in any sense that it is presently recognizable to us.

We have the capacity to bring on an apocalypse.

A memory came to me as I thought of this.  When my first born child, Andrew was quite young — maybe 4 — I took him to a local carnival, probably the one St. Peter’s holds each year.  There was this little train ride that went around a track with up and down bumps. It was only for little kids; maybe just ages 4 to 9.  It looked pretty tame and Andrew wanted to go on it, so I let him.  Soon after it started, however it was clear it was a mistake because Andrew freaked out and started crying.  There wasn’t much to do but to wait out the sixty seconds that the ride lasted. I felt like a lousy parent even though he recovered soon enough and didn’t seem permanently traumatized by the experience.  He’d been afraid that he was going to get thrown off the train, but given the speed it was moving and the fact he had on some kind of safety harness on, that wasn’t really possible.

But what if the speed of the train was turned up several notches so that yes, the four year olds did begin to get thrown off, maiming and killing them? If you were a parent of a nine year old kid who was enjoying the thrill of the ride, you’d still have the responsibility to slow the train down.

It feels at times like our society is a train that is going way to fast – that it’s spinning out of control.   It feels like the world is coming unhinged when we hear of last Sunday’s mass murder in a church in Texas and other similar occurrences of random violence, and when we hear the saber rattling of nations with nuclear weapons.  The world feels unhinged when we witness the extreme divisiveness of politics and the breakdown of civility.

There are certain societal trends taking us in this direction.

*One is the increasingly isolating nature of human life in which less and less face to face contact takes place in which a connection and commitment to a larger community gets lost.  People detached from such bonds sometimes do terribly frightening things.

*Another is the fact that as time passes people have less and less contact with God’s natural world, and with this an increasing absence of soul-restoring times of stillness.

*Another is the fact that in spite of all our supposed time saving devices, the pace of modern life has simply become more hurried and frantic – the train is going way to fast.

All these trends contribute to an ever increasing sense of anxiety and fear, with the fearfulness breeding deeper and deeper division among us.  Along the way the weakest and most vulnerable among us are getting thrown off the train.

So to return to this strange parable Jesus told:

There is this wedding party that will begin when the bride groom arrives later in the evening, but for some reason he is delayed.  There are these ten maidens who have a job to do:  when the bridegroom arrives, they are to carry lamps that will light the way. As the waiting stretches out, the ten fall asleep.

Finally at midnight, the darkest hour, the bridegroom appears, but five of the maidens can’t do their job because they have no oil.  They ask the others to share oil, but they can’t or won’t.  The five go off to try and buy some, but when they return the door is locked and they miss out on the wedding party.

What it all means is impossible to say for sure, but it is safe to say that Jesus isn’t telling us we shouldn’t share because he spent a lot of time talking about sharing, including with the parable he told shortly after this one – a parable that isn’t hard to understand at all.    This parable tells of a judgment to come in which the sheep will be separated from the goats on the basis of whether or not they shared and cared and opened their hearts to those in need, the weakest and most vulnerable among us.

So what does the oil symbolize?  Well, the oil burns to create light.  We are to put here on earth to shine the light of God.  How do we do that?  Well by being a faithful and loving presence in this world.

Last week I talked about how sin is often described as “hard-heartedness” – and specifically the hardening of our hearts that keeps us from feeling the pain of others.

How do we run out of oil?  By developing a pattern of hardening our hearts – refusing to feel the pain of others, or to acknowledge responsibility for them.  Somebody whose heart over time has hardened into stone can’t enter the kingdom of God – their closed heart will shuts down the door.

What leads us to close down our hearts?  A big component is fear.  With society becoming unhinged, it seems justified to fill our hearts with fear when deranged men are going to church services or country music festivals or New York bike paths intent on killing everybody there.

But Jesus had a great deal to say about fear.  For Jesus being full of fear was essentially the opposite of being faithful.  When fear would overcome his disciples, he would say, “Why are you afraid?  Have you no faith?”

We were created out of God’s love for a purpose — to be the maidens whose oil-filled lamps shines the light of God’s love, lighting the darkened paths of this world.

If our hearts are filled with fear we cannot love.

The parable right after this one – the one we will hear next week – involves a steward  who is given a talent but because of the fear in his heart he fails to put it to use. Jesus was saying, Don’t be the steward who buries his talent out of fear.

But wait a minute.  Haven’t I been saying that there is a whole lot of reason to be afraid in the present age – that our culture is spinning out of control in destructive ways that conceivably could bring on some kind of apocalypse?

I did.  But it is precisely in such a time as this that the world needs people who recognize the destructive paths the world is travelling and in the midst of that knowledge can demonstrate what it means to trust God and love boldly.  And not just my people but all people, since God loves all people.

If we truly believe what we proclaim – that the Jesus who gave his life sacrificially in love wasn’t abandoned by God bur rather raised by God from the dead  – then in the end, we need not be afraid either – whether we live or whether we die we are safe in the arms of God.

This of course isn’t easy to do.  But it is the direction we need to try and move.

If society is a train that is going way too fast then we bear responsibility to slow it down.  We need to regain the urgency of those early Christians – like Telemachus – and see the madness of the world’s values.If we are going to call ourselves Christians – followers of Jesus – it’s not enough to simply be somebody who keeps his or her nose clean and doesn’t cause any trouble.  We have “to be the change we want to see.”

There are hopeful signs that perhaps the apocalypse can be averted.  All the stuff that has suddenly come out in recent weeks about how people with power – most often men – have been sexually harassing people has brought about a dramatic shift in our culture.  This stuff was hidden away in the shadows, largely accepted as just the way things are.  But suddenly there is a collective “No!” being shouted, saying this is not the way we treat people.  Women are not toys for powerful men’s amusement.

In this age we can’t just be about setting our sights on obtaining our piece of the pie.  If the American dream means nothing more than that each succeeding generation will have a higher standard of living – more and more stuff, more and more comfort and pleasure – then it’s time for the American dream to die, because the pursuit of such a dream is part of the reason the train is going off the rails.     To choose to simply stay the course – to let the current of the culture carry us along – is to choose to bring on the apocalypse.

We have to be actively engaged in slowing down the train, which involves living more simply, and in that simplicity to care about the most vulnerable among us.  To realize that we really are in this together — that each of us is far more frail and vulnerable and dependent on one another and God than we usually care to admit.

We are called to be a peaceful presence in a hostile world, refusing to get drawn into the fear and the hatred, to be a connector, a reconciler, a peacemaker.

We are called to witness to the true light – to Jesus our savior.

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