The View that Changes Everything
This is the best text in the whole Bible. It is familiar to us, and it’s meaning is clear:
The time is the end of time.
The setting is the great judgment of all people on earth: God, the King is the judge.
The outcome is simple: there are two groups – winners and losers, sheep and goats, righteous and unrighteous.
This is exactly how everybody who heard Jesus tell this parable expected it to be. And if this way of thinking did not involve us in deep contradictions, it would be easy. But it does, and so, it’s not.
The central fact of our faith, that we depend on, is that God has been merciful to us, not on the basis of our good works, but solely by his grace. We are not saved by works, but by grace alone, through faith.
But this parable suggests the opposite: that the basis for God’s judgment at the end of time is precisely what we have done or not done.
To make matters worse, last week we spoke of the long, hard, dangerous period we are in – the period of waiting for Jesus, the bridegroom, to return.
Well, if we are to discern Jesus in every person who needed food, water, clothing, and support, then we are not waiting for him to appear, we are seeing him already. What is going on?
First, let us begin with the fact that this is a parable.
This is not to be read as if it were a literal description of a scene beyond the grave, anymore than the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (who, in the parable, can see each other from their two different locations in the after-life). Parables make make their points, sometimes by subverting realism.
This parable also subverts realism, but not at the beginning. It starts affirming the world that was quite familiar to Jesus’ audience. At the end of the age, God, the king of the universe sits as judge, determining the eternal destiny of all the people on earth.
Almost everybody is looking forward to this day: justice will finally be done; the bad guys, even if they died old, rich, and happy, will finally get what they had coming to them. Tyrants, murderers, liars, thieves, and brutal people will be punished.
And on the other hand, the people who tried to do what is right, who kept to the straight and narrow, who suffered, who were the victims of cruelty and injustice and evil will be vindicated.
The people who went to church, paid their taxes, and saw their children successfully into adulthood, even at great personal cost, will be rewarded. This is what everyone expects. That is how the parable starts.
But this picture gets subverted – albeit in a subtle way.
Yes there is a judgment, and yes it separates good guys from bad guys, but the criteria of judgment has become precise and focused.
It is not just about being a good guy in general, or about being a recognizably evil person either. In this parable, there is a set of actions at the heart of goodness and a set of in-actions at the heart of evilness that finally become the defining criteria of judgment.
And it does not start with: “Did you bow down to an idol, did you commit adultery, murder, give false testimony, dishonor your parents…?” – in other words, keep the 10 commandments.
The criteria here is all about people – how we treated other human beings. To be even more specific, it’s about how we treated the weak, the vulnerable, the unprotected and the forgotten; the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the ill-clothed, the sick, the condemned.
These people in particular are singled out as the subjects of Gods special care. This is God’s “special interest group.” The manner in which we treated them makes all the difference.
But that’s not all. The level of intensity goes up by a quantum leap in the picture the parable paints for us.
The king at the end of time, the judge of all people on earth, so thoroughly and completely identifies with these poor, weak, people that he takes personally everything that is done to them – or not done for them.
He takes it as a personal benefit to himself when a hungry person is fed, when a sick person is cared for, when a non-native is welcomed, when a condemned person is visited.
And he so identifies with these poor, weak people that he takes it as a personal affront to himself, when these people are neglected.
- a non-native stranger
- condemned and imprisoned – guilty of anything or not
- fed ME
- gave ME something to drink
- welcomed ME
- clothed ME
- visited ME
God so identifies with hurting people, that he takes personally everything that is done to them – by us.
How did Jesus come up with this parable?
Jesus had a vision of life as it was meant to be; life as it was created to be; a vision of “Shalom”, the way God’s will is done in heaven, in spite of how it is not done on earth.
Jesus’ vision comes right from the beginning; from Creation. You know the story: God, who is the source of all being, existed before the world existed.
God who is utterly transcendent, who cannot allow images of himself because he is a being nothing on heaven and earth could possibly represent with out limitation and therefore distortion, this God made a physical world.
He made the world good, and he blessed it and he pronounced it, in fact, “very good.”
He began by creating the spaces – the oceans, the dry land, the sky. Then he filled the spaces with life – starting with the simple – the plants and trees, and moving to the complex, birds of the air, fish of the sea, land animals of every description.
And on the final day of creation, as he crowning achievement, he made the most wonderful, complex beings of all: humankind, male and female.
And the God who strictly forbade any image of himself, lest it diminish his greatness, himself said that they are made in his own image.
And God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God created he humans; male and female created he them. And God blessed them: and God said unto them, Be fruitful, (Gen 1:27-28)
Of all creation, the creatures that come the closest to being like God, the ikon or image of God, are humans.
Human life is sacred, and must be protected. Human life is God’s personal passion. He loves the creatures he so carefully made.
He loved us enough to become one of us, putting on our flesh, feeling – yes in spite of how cliche and banal it has become to say it – feeling our pain.
From the first cry of pain of separation from our mothers to the last cry in the night we make as adults, God hears, and holds our lives as sacred to him.
And when conditions on this earth force people to become hungry, and poor, he cares personally about them and how they are treated.
When people get sick, with cancer, with leprosy, with HIV/AIDS, or with depression – he cares personally about them and how they are treated.
When people are strangers, aliens, immigrants to other lands, he still cares personally about them and how they are treated.
Even people who wind up behind bars – are still people – human beings, made in God’s own image, about whom he cares personally, and whose treatment he takes personally – whether they are at the county-jail, on death row at Holeman, or in Guantanamo Bay; it makes no difference.
The fact that they themselves may be guilty of being brutal to other people-made-in-God’s-image and should be behind bars does not diminish their humanity – their image-of-god-ness. They too are the objects of God’s concern.
And so, when we feed the hungry who crowd into the Christian Service Center, their Creator takes it personally; we are feeding him.
When we provide medical care to sick people, we are tending to Jesus. When we welcome people who are different from ourselves, aliens to our way of life, strangers to us, we are welcoming Jesus.
When we go to Holeman death-row and say to those men, most of whom who have done terrible things, “God still wants to redeem you, to conquer evil with good,” we are witnessing about God’s love to whom? to Jesus.
Do you recall the witness that Rev. Jim Robey gave at the men’s breakfast, of the Leprosarium in India where the nuns say,- referring to the sore-covered patients for whom they care, “Now it is time to bathe Jesus”.
Now let us come full circle: Jesus’ vision of the end of time comes from his vision of the beginning of time.
Every time we pray, “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” we are praying that this world now would be more like the way God intended it from the beginning. We are praying to be filled with the vision of Shalom, the vision of the bountiful Garden to be realized in our world, as it is in heaven.
This is the vision we live-into – the vision that changes everything. This is the vision that motivates us and fills our service with joy and satisfaction: when we give a cup of water in Jesus’ name, we are giving it to Jesus!
In the face of every poor person, we see the face of Jesus.
In the face of every suffering person, we see the face of Jesus.
In the face of every one who is forgotten, discriminated against, left behind or different, we see the face of Jesus.
Not just in the nice ones, the polite ones, the ones who promise to be better next time, the ones who appreciate what we are doing for them – not just those – but every human being made in the image of God.
Now, I know that these are unusually difficult times for all of us. And they tell me that they may get even worse before they get better. Believe me, with the life-savings of a missionary and with a child ready to start college, I know that this is not an easy time.
But this was not a vision born out of the luxury of good times – not when Jesus first told it, and not when Matthew wrote it down. This is not bourgeois or utopian: this is Christian, right here, right now.
That explains why, in the hyperbolic terms of the parable, this is the criteria of judgment at end of time: God cares passionately and personally about all of his image-bearers, and we are not given options about how to treat them.
To be clear, we are acceptable to God because of his great love and mercy to us, through Jesus Christ – not because of our good works. That truth is absolutely essential.
And when God’s love is alive and active in us, we see the world through his eyes. We see his vision. We see Jesus, all around us, right here, right now.
“They also serve who only stand and wait” – Milton
You know how I always say, “this is the greatest text in the Bible”? Well not this one; this one is difficult.
- What kind of wedding is it in which the bridegroom keeps everyone waiting so long?
- Why, when he finally comes, are the five wise bridesmaids so selfish with their oil and refuse to share?
- Where do the five foolish ones think they are going to find an oil dealer still open so late at night?
- And when they come back and find the door shut, why does the bridegroom not recognize them and let them in?
- And finally, why is the moral of the story “stay awake” when all ten of them, wise and foolish, had slept?
- And what in the world does this odd story have to do with us, today?
This text, as odd as it is, has a great deal to do with us today, and we need its message, so let us begin.
Have you ever been to a wedding ceremony during which a cell phone rang? Well that was one worry the ancient world did not have.
But on the other hand, without a phone there was no way to let the people at the banquet know your estimated time of arrival, as in: “Well, if he donkey keeps up this pace we should be there by midnight or so.”
In the mean time people are simply waiting for the bridegroom to appear. For some unexplained reason, he has been delayed. They wait.
This is exactly the situation we find ourselves in; waiting. At the heart of the faith that the church confesses is the bold assertion that our Lord Jesus will one day return.
The early Christians thought perhaps Jesus, the bridegroom would come back for his bride, the church, any day. There was even confusion in the churches about the Lord’s return that Paul had to sort out in some of his letters.
He seems to think, early on in his career as Apostle, that he will live to see the Lord’s return in his lifetime (1 Thes 4:15) – even Paul had expectations of a short delay.
But the delay grew longer, the generation of the original believers gave way to the second, and the third, and now, more than two thousand years later we still wait, like those bridesmaids.
Waiting is difficult. Long ago we promised that our younger son would get a cell phone on his 13th birthday. I doubt if any present has been more anticipated than that one. He begged to be able to open his gift in the morning, but our family custom is to open gifts at dinner, along with singing Happy Birthday and the traditional cake with candles. He told us that day in school was the longest day of his life; waiting is difficult when a cell phone is at stake.
When I read this parable I am curious: did the ten bridesmaids know what was at stake in that night of waiting?
They were concerned about the return of the bridegroom, some were concerned about it enough to make advanced preparations, others not, but did either the wise or the foolish anticipate the possibility of the lock-out at the end?
Those cold words “I never knew you” are as stark and serious as it gets.
Now, as you all know, parables are not just cute stories, they are serious engagements with beliefs; they are meant to surprise, to upset, to awaken listeners.
This one does it at the end. In a parable in which almost all of the characters go to sleep, the ending moment of lock-out is meant to disturb us, to wake us up.
Why do we need this shake up? Because nothing is more boring than waiting. And the longer it gets, the harder it is to keep focused – you need something to wake you up. This lock-out scene is meant to do just that – to wake us up. Waiting is dangerous.
Veterans day is Tuesday and many of you have served in the armed forces. Probably some of you can tell us stories about guard duty at night.
I imagine that night time is the hardest time to stay alert and focused as a guard – your body wants to sleep like everyone else, it’s quiet, dark, and dull – perfectly made for sleep.
But night time is also a perfect time for attack. Armies since ancient times have used the cloak of darkness and the shock of a surprise in the night as a strategy.
In my Sunday School class we are now reading the story of Gideon whose tactic was a night time attack several thousand years ago.
Waiting is difficult, and dangerous. The lock out scene is the surprise in the night: the stakes are far higher than you imagine; wake up!
What is at stake here and now, on our night-watch? Everything. Sleeping, loosing focus, inattention will mean we are vulnerable to attacks from all sides.
Why? Because evil is real.
The default position of the world is not kindness, goodness and justice, rather it is self-seeking and oppression and exclusion. It is injustice and discrimination. It is apathy and greed.
The currents of the world constantly push us to the dangerous and destructive belief that we are merely consumers whose value is measured in dollars, that we are helpless to change.
There is no such thing as staying in the same place, free-floating on this current, much less making progress in the opposite direction. Floating, like sleeping on guard duty, endangers our very souls.
Let us return to the parable. Both the wise and foolish bridesmaids slept – which they should not have done, but there was one major difference between them. Clearly, neither was prepared for the grooms arrival – so what was the difference between them?
The wise bridesmaids brought oil. It was not that they were prepared for the groom – they were prepared to wait a long time. Wisdom is being prepared to wait.
What does this mean for us? It is crucial that we are adequately prepared for this time of waiting. We cannot coast.
Our spiritual lives require constant care. How? Let me suggest several preparedness strategies: Gathering as a worshipping community is essential, which is what we are doing now.
Being a community of prayer is indispensable, bringing the ourselves, each other, our country, and this troubled world before the Lord, seeking his wisdom and asking for his help.
Being prepared for the waiting means that we never stop learning together, studying scripture and deepening our understanding of our faith in the context of this world, this culture, this society and the issues of these times.
Come to bible study! Join a Sunday School class, participate in Presbyterian Women; learn, learn, learn – and your lamp will keep burning.
Serving the needs of others is also part of staying awake and alert in this time of waiting. There is no such thing as passive faith; genuine faith reaches out with God’s love and compassion in countless ways – serving the poor, the homeless, the victims of abuse and violence.
The oil that the wise bridesmaids brought was their active, intentional preparation for the long night; their lamps kept burning.
Let’s step back from the details for a moment to observe one more aspect of the time of waiting: hope. Waiting means the expectation that something will happen: the bridegroom will come – there is hope.
We are not hopeless people in troubled time of war, terror, and economic collapse. We boldly assert that we are people of hope.
We believe that the bridegroom will eventually come. Evil will not have the last word. The Lord will some day return, and finally justice will be done.
Even though the evil around us looks so strong, we know how the story will end: there will be a wedding, and we will be at that feast.
Parables are analogies – and no analogy can tell the whole story. There are places where the picture in the story is like our lives – bridesmaids waiting for the return of groom, and yet there are significant differences.
We are not left alone out there in the night as the story implies. We are waiting for the groom, but in the mean time – in this time, he has no left us without help. He has given us his Spirit to be with us as we wait.
It goes outside the bounds of this story, but an essential part of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples about the waiting time was that they were not abandoned. Jesus has sent us his very Spirit who is with us as we wait.
In every way that we act to be prepared for the waiting, his Spirit is actively there with us, helping us:
- His Spirit intercedes with our spirit as we pray;
- His Spirit opens our eyes to the truth as we study together;
- His Spirit empowers our witness and our service to people in need;
- And as we saw last week, sometimes his Spirit gives us the encouragement of a thin place – a momentary glimpse of heaven on earth, an experience of his presence in a powerful way that bolsters our faith.
When I was in seminary learning Hebrew, I remember the day when I discovered that the word for “wait” is also the word for “hope.”[yachal] For a Jewish person, to wait is to hope.
We are not burning lamps in vain. Against the darkness of the evil, injustice, and suffering all around us, we assert the testimony of the church throughout its entire history: the Lord is coming.
And this hope gives us the courage to refuse to be subsumed by despair or paralyzed by fear. We know the end of the story, and so we will live into that reality, even when, or precisely when it runs counter to the mainstream.
- We will champion spiritual values in a culture that thinks the world ends when we have a recession – or even a depression.
- We will be a people of faith in spite of wars going badly and terrorists on the loose.
- We will be a people of compassion even in the face of massive numbers of refugees and hungry people.
Because we are people of hope: the mystery of our faith is great indeed: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again! Prepare!
I have been told that there are places on the coasts of Scotland and Ireland that for centuries have been called “thin places” by the locals. They call them “thin” because the distance between heaven and earth is so “thin” you can actually perceive glimpses of heaven itself.
The Ancient Celts left us circles of stones at some of these “thin places”. At others, Christians replaced the stones with Churches, monasteries and cemeteries. People still today say that they feel the presence of God in those places in a powerful way.
When do you experience “thin” places?
Thin places are not predictable for me. I cannot go to a specific location and know that I will sense God there. But there are places where it does happen more often than others.
My terrace in the back of our home in Daphne is periodically a “thin place” for me. Our house is U shaped so the little terrace is surrounded on three sides. The open side faces a patch of woods, full of tall trees.
Sitting on the terrace looking up at a perfectly blue sky through the dense-leafed branches of oak trees and between the bottle-brush, fuzzy looking slender pines sometimes I am suddenly in a thin place – aware of the Great God of creation – and aware of his loving presence.
Sometimes, like just the other night, while doing the mundane chore of taking the dog out, I looked up – it was one of those perfectly clear nights, the sky was covered with points of blue star light, and I was caught off guard in a moment, not expecting to experience anything, and suddenly God was all around me.
There is another time that is often thin for me – when I experience the nearness of God, but in quite a different way. It is when I am with a person who is nearing the end of their life on this earth. Whether the person is at home or more often, in a hospital or nursing home, it is a somber time, not many words are said, but I am often profoundly aware of God’s presence there.
There will come a time when I am the one on that bed, on that thin place between heaven and earth; I believe that I will be experiencing the presence of God at that moment in a powerful way.
As Christians, we know that we have a sure and certain hope that when our eyes close for the last time, we will not have reached the end; only the transition.
We will walk through that thin veil, and be in the presence of the God we have sensed in those thin places.
We take the time on this Sunday of All Saints day to remember the ones who have made that journey before us.
When it is our turn to follow them, we will be there with the support and help of their experience.
We have seen people in that moment without dread and panic, but with the peace that comes from hope – and their hope will inspire us to hope, their memory will strengthen our faith.
Here is our hope; here is the vision we have.
We read from the Revelation of St. John. It is a difficult book of the bible to read – full of pictures and metaphors – written in a style that is unheard of in our day – often puzzling and jarring.
But behind all the pictorial and symbolic language, several themes emerge.
First, there would be no vision if this life were the end. The theme behind every image in the Revelation is that there is a future life for which this life is only the preparation.
Nothing we experience here is ultimate or final; all of it is provisional. The status we achieve, the accomplishments, the fame or fortune, all of it will pass away, and none of it will give us a head start beyond the veil.
When I am finally and fully in the presence of God, many of the things that concerned me and consumed me will probably seem trivial.
On the other hand, the things that never show up on a resume, or a tax form will be the things that mattered;
- was I a faithful husband,
- a good father,
- did I make life better for other people,
- did I serve when needed,
- did I sacrifice when God called me to?
Our belief that this life is not all there is changes the way we think of our successes, but even more so, it changes how we perceive our suffering.
For most of us, life has been pretty good, here in America. But even a prosperous life can have a lot of pain.
- Loosing people we love, experiencing sickness
- or watching helplessly as someone we love is ill are all sources of pain.
- Financial hardship,
- the break-up of an important relationship,
- having to move away from a place we have called home can be painful.
And yet we do not measure the value of our lives in the pain we have managed to avoid. This life is not the end; it’s pains will pass away.
As John tells us, there will be a day on which “the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 7:17)
The biblical vision of the end of time helps us in other ways as well. It may be natural to think of heaven as a place full of people like us, suburban, caucasian Americans, but the bible shows a different picture.
In John’s vision, essential to the glory of that day is that the throng of people gathered will be from everywhere. He says,
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. (Rev. 7:9)
This fact has to change our values in this life. If I am going to be in heaven with Africans and Hispanics, with Asians and Middle-easterners, then I have no basis for despising them in this life.
In fact, given the sweep of history and the global facts now, we Caucasians will be minorities in heaven. It is the glory of our Creator to save people from all the people on earth.
It is a simple fact of human nature that we identify with our own kind more than with people who are different.
It is true that when Slobodan Milosevic was pushing Albanians out of Kosovo in his ethnic cleansing campaign, it was easy to feel sympathy with those refugees because many were blond and blue-eyed.
It is much easier to sympathize with them than with the refugees streaming out of the countryside in Congo in a vain attempt to find refuge in at this very moment.
And yet our vision of the end of time includes Africans by the tens of thousands who have made the confession that Jesus is Lord. That fact must affect the way we live in this diverse world today.
There is one more powerful way in which this vision gives us hope: this is a victory story. Evil does not have the last word. Evil will eventually be defeated.
Evil is powerful now. Sometimes it feels overwhelming.
The seven deadly sins:
- sloth, and
seem as powerful over humanity now as they ever were.
But there will be a day on which there will be no more:
- terrorism, no more
- addiction, no more
- abuse, no more
because evil will be defeated.
The lamb who sits on the throne has conquered evil. Even the last enemy, death itself, will be defeated.
This means that our struggles for:
- goodness, for
- justice, for
- fairness, for
- the dignity of people and
- the protection of the weak
– are not in vain.
There are many battles that we may loose, but we know which way the war will go. Evil will not exist eternally.
Jesus Christ has broken the power of sin and death; he has risen from the dead as the first fruits of a great harvest at the end of time.
And so today, we remember with joy the faith of those who have finished their race and now rest from their labors.
For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.