Two pastors stand by the side of the road holding up signs. One reads, “The End is Near!” and the other, “Turn yourself around before it’s too late.” A car speeds by and the driver yells out the window, “Leave me alone, you religious nuts.” A few seconds later the pastors hear the sound of tires screeching followed by a big splash. One pastor turns to the other and says, “Do you think our ministry would be more effective if our signs read, ‘Warning’ and ‘Bridge Out Ahead’?”
I came across a site that ponders how the covers of different magazines and newspapers might read as the end times approaches:
USA Today: We’re dead
The Wall Street Journal: Dow Jones plummets as world ends
National Enquirer: O.J. and Nicole, together again
Victoria’s Secret Catalog: Our final sale
Sports Illustrated: Game over!
Rolling Stone: The Grateful Dead reunion tour
Readers Digest: ‘Bye!
TV Guide: Death and damnation: Nielson Ratings soar!
Lady’s Home Journal: Lose 10 lbs by judgment day with our new “Armageddon” Diet!
The end of time never seems to be far from our collective psyche. Just this past August, a solar eclipse triggered a new wave of fret and dread capped off with rumors a mysterious dark planet was set to collide with Earth. There is in us a deeply rooted sense of our own fragility. We sense there are powerful and dangerous forces over which we have no control and so we live with a low-level of anxiety spawned by an overdue earthquake (the “Big One”), an extinction-creating asteroid, or a worldwide pandemic. Feeding into this anxiety are the things we human beings do to one another: mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and unsettling comments by powerful government officials.
Our own bible acts like yeast in the dough of apocalyptic thinking. Today, for example, each of our assigned readings describes what the prophet Amos calls “The Day of the Lord.” Every Sunday we people of faith confess Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” The bible does not give us a simple, complete picture of what this will look like. In fact, if you collected every statement about the end times in the bible, you would quickly discover many are irreconcilable. One has the faithful living in heaven, another describes a new Jerusalem coming down from heaven and being established on earth. One has the faithful being taken up into the sky, another has the faithless being taken away with the faithful being left to continue on. Rather than giving us details about the end times to be crafted into a timeline of historical events to come, I hold scripture gives us images and ideas to be crafted into a tapestry of wisdom; wisdom intended to speak to the anxiety we feel.
What wisdom do we find in today’s readings?
Amos is a shepherd and fig tree farmer living in the southern nation of Judah when God calls him to go and speak to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel. At the time, Israel has been experiencing an extended period of peace and prosperity, which has seen the gap widen between the rich and the poor. But now the shadow of the Assyrian army looms over all of this and the people of Israel turn to God for help. They believe if they really, really pour themselves into the appointed festivals and sacrifices, God will act on their behalf. They call this divine intervention “The Day of the Lord.” It will be the day when God rises up against the Assyrian army on behalf of Israel.
Amos, the southerner “not from here”, speaks up: “You don’t want the Day of the Lord because it will be horrible for you. Your worship and your sacrifices and your singing are not pleasing to God. What God desires is for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness to be like an ever-flowing stream.” While we may think of justice as being every person getting what he or she deserves, in Amos’ time it referred to caring for the poor, protecting the vulnerable, and welcoming the foreigner. These values are to be put in action not just when convenient and not just when we feel like it. They are to be an ever-flowing stream. Continuous.
So, what wisdom can we take from this? The more we live the right way and the more we do the right thing the less apprehensive we will be about the future.
Paul writes to the Christians in Thessalonica about a specific spiritual and theological concern troubling them. Paul himself is developing and adapting his own theology with the passage of time. The early church at Pentecost believed Jesus was going to return very soon, at any time. It could be today, tonight, next week, or perhaps next month. As time passes two things happen. First, some believers begin to lose their ardent zeal. You can’t stay at heightened alert for ten years. The bible’s response to this is an encouragement to “stay awake”. You don’t want to be slacking off and miss out when Jesus returns.
As the years go by a second thing happens. Faithful believers begin to die. In Thessalonica this is cause for much debate. Some hold those who die are gone and have missed out completely on being with Jesus when he comes again. In his letter Paul asserts the dead will rise again because Jesus himself died and rose again. His writing is as visual as a movie: Jesus will call out, an archangel will blow a trumpet, Jesus will descend, the dead will rise up, then the living will meet them in the clouds. I believe this fantastic imagery houses the deep truth of what is our ultimate hope of resurrection and reunion with all those we love but see no longer. I believe in this hope, but not in the imagery through which it is conveyed.
Have I confused you? A look at the gospel reading might make things a little more clear. Jesus tells a parable about his return and in it the kingdom to come is compared to a wedding feast. The wedding feast is the setting and the imagery. Is the kingdom to come actually a wedding feast? No, but the image conveys wisdom and truth. Will we literally meet Jesus and those who have died in the clouds? It’s possible, I suppose, but not likely. The fantastic imagery suggestions the grandness of our hope in the resurrection.
Jesus’ parable of the ten bridesmaids with their oil lamps raises so many questions that it is difficult to focus in on the plain meaning of the story. Who do the bridesmaids represent? Who is the groom? What is the oil that is so important? Why do some have enough and others do not? Why can’t the five with oil share? If the point of an oil lamp is to give light, why can’t the five without enough oil simply walk beside those whose lamps are burning bright? Why can’t the door to the banquet be opened? Why doesn’t the person in charge “know” the bridesmaids invited to the wedding? And finally, if the problem is not having enough oil, why does Jesus say the point of the story is “Stay awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour”?
Well, as I have said before, it is Jesus’ story so he gets to tell it any way he wants. The core truth of his parable seems to be the things we do today matter at the end. How we prepare, how we live, what we do and don’t do carries with us. Our participation in worship makes a difference. Our kindness, our generosity, and our hospitality form something in us that will endure into the life to come. Likewise, our coldness, our indifference, and our cruelty also matter. They create a barrier to the life to come. It is a message both hopeful and sobering. Hopeful because the good we do crafts something that will endure. Sobering because our inattentiveness to the things that matter cannot be undone.
All in all, our readings point to our hope in the resurrection and call on us to live today in a way that will build in us and in our world something that will translate into the life to come.