What time is it? What are we waiting for? Are we ready? These are all questions raised by Sunday’s texts from Amos, Thessolonians, and Matthew.
If we are waiting for the Day of the Lord, then we better be careful what we wish for, according to Amos. The prophet Amos was the first to use the phrase “the Day of the Lord” referring to God’s dark day of Judgment. If we’re waiting for our enemies, “those people”, to get what they deserve, then we’d best be careful. It might just be we who receive our come-uppance. Amos warns it won’t be what one expects. Fleeing from a lion, one will meet a bear . . . or feeling safe at home, a snake is there waiting to attack. That would be a hard choice; would you rather meet a lion, a bear or a snake?!
Why does the Lord hate the worship sacrifices and offerings of the people addressed by Amos? All of the ancient prophets link social justice with proper worship of God. Oppression of the poor and the weak are the immoral acts of the worshippers most criticized by Amos. God rejects the gifts of sacrifice and songs of praise when offered by those who simultaneously oppress weaker persons. If God’s justice were to roll down like waters and God’s righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, there would be room and a place for everyone. For Amos, God’s justice cannot be separated from God’s love.
Amos and Matthew, though centuries apart in time, are in complete agreement that the fruit of having faith in God naturally and necessarily leads to acts of justice and righteousness on behalf of our neighbors. If worship leads to anything other than greater generosity with our neighbors on God’s behalf, then we’ve missed the boat. If we have received the love of God it’s going to show in obvious ways. “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” as the song states. . . . Fruits of the spirit will be evident (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) . . . these things will naturally flow and show in the lives of those steeped in God’s love.
Attending to worship details without attending to the needs of the poor is empty worship according to the word of the Lord through Amos. Worship that serves one’s own pious self-satisfaction rather than worship that glorifies God through love of one’s neighbor is not acceptable. Simply going through ritual motions without expressing compassion toward others does not meet God’s definition of worship.
There are so many ways to go astray in worship. We may develop strong personal preferences about placement of the altar, placement of the baptismal font, color of the pew cushions, should there be pew cushions?!, which version of the Lord’s Prayer should we use?, hymn selection, praise band questions, who is reading for Christmas Eve service and so on and on. That’s just a short list of some of the worship conflicts I have witnessed during 30+ years of parish ministry. NONE of those issues is on God’s list from Amos.
The only requirement God has about worship in Amos has nothing to do with placement of the baptismal font or any other such worship details; just “Show me your justice and righteousness toward those in real need!” Justice and righteousness flowing like ever-flowing streams in the desert. Worship is an empty ritual if not connected to living justice. Period. That is where our concern for worship needs to be as well. And hopefully we can have conversions about the peripheral matters of worship so that they don’t overtake the centrality of God’s generosity and grace.
So the outcome of the Day of the Lord’s judgment may not be what one is hoping for, according to the prophet Amos. It might even be a reversal of one’s expectations. Similarly in Matthew’s gospel, the return of the Lord cannot be predicted, although there are of course those who love to make predictions and platforms for themselves in making dire predictions. Jesus’ parable of the 10 bridesmaids reveals that no one knows the day nor the hour.
By the time of Paul’s writing to the congregation at Thessalonica, there has been a serious delay in Paul’s expectations of Jesus’ return. Paul goes on to say that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. So what are Christians to do in the meantime, while waiting for the Lord? Paul’s message is that we should encourage one another and build each other up with hope.
The wise bridesmaids in Matthew keep the vision of Christ’s return alive through their faithful waiting in the midst of delay. By preparing for the day, the timing of which no one knows but God, they proclaim that God’s promises are true. They act out their hope for that day when God will establish justice and righteousness and peace.
Even though waiting and “keeping awake” has a clear focus on the future, it is also a meaningful way to live in the present. For indeed if we act as though Jesus Christ is in our midst . . . he is! Wherever 2 or 3 gather in his name he is with us. Whenever we respond to the needs of the least among us, Jesus Christ is with us as well.