“Here, But Not Yet”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
November 12, 2017
Amos 5:18-24 & Matthew 25:1-13
There is a right way and a wrong way to respond to parables like the one we’ve heard from the Gospel of Matthew today. Let me tell you about the wrong way, first.
The drive between Princeton Seminary in New Jersey and my parent’s home in Maryland is a straight shot down Interstate 95, exactly one hour and 55 minutes from door to door. It is one of the prettier stretches of 95 on the East Coast, particularly as it passes through Philadelphia. I made that trip something like 150 times in the three years I was in seminary. In May of 2011 I made the trip home to celebrate my mom’s birthday, and as I approached the outskirts of Philadelphia I noticed billboards I had never seen before. They said things like, “Judgment Day is Coming,” and “Save The Date for Christ’s Return,” and “Judgment Day: The Greatest Day Ever.” There was a little gold seal in the corner of each like you see on a diploma or certificate that said, “The Bible Guarantees It.” They were everywhere, making it nearly impossible to miss then.
Each billboard showed the same date for the cataclysmic event: May 21, 2011. Taking a quick glance at my watch, I saw that that was less than two weeks away. And for a split second I felt a little anxious. I h
ave never been one for doom-day prophecy, but this still made my heart jump a little. I was coming to the end of my second year in seminary, with only one year to go; I was working in a great little church in New Jersey, learning and practicing ministry with some of God’s saints; life was good, my family was in a really good place, and we were all happy. Could it be true? Could it be that the world was going to end on May 21, 2011, in just a few weeks?
I put it out of my mind and drove the rest of the way without giving it another thought. But on the way back to Princeton a few days later, there they were. I decided that once I got back at school, I was going to do a little investigating. It turns out that about 2,000 of these billboards had been purchased in major cities all over the US by Harold Camping and his media company Family Radio. You may not know Harold Camping, but he had been in the business of predicting the end of the world for about four decades. I say ‘business’ because predicting the end of the world was quite lucrative for Camping and his associates, with each earning several million dollars a year in salary almost all from private donations. The radio station was just the tip of the iceberg, too: Family Radio has a publishing company, a sign company, two Political Action Committees, and several non-profit shell companies that have been investigated for money laundering. The billboard campaign reached from Philadelphia to San Francisco and it cost a total of five and half million dollars, all of which was donated by Camping’s followers.
The fact that we’re here today is testament to the accuracy of Camping’s prediction. May 21, 2011—which was a Saturday—came and went without incident and I remember sitting in church the next morning mildly amused at how wrong Camping had been. But in the week that followed, the amusement quickly faded. It faded quickly because The Philadelphia Inquirer ran the story of a family who had followed Camping for years, and who had given up everything in preparation for May 21, 2011—the parents had quit their jobs, the kids were pulled out of school, they had sold their house and cars, and had emptied their bank accounts and given the money to Camping. But they weren’t alone; in June and July of 2011 several more families came forward with stories of how they had given it all up because of Camping’s prediction. It would be easy to judge these folks as naive or unintelligent, but we’ve all bought into schemes before—the difference is we may not have lost as much as they did. When the media confronted Camping, he blamed the false precision on his poor physical health and he said that he would not return any money because the end of the world was still coming. Camping died in December of 2013 after spending the last year of his life saying that predicting the end of the world is a sin condemned by the Bible.
This is the wrong way to respond to parables like the one we’ve heard this morning. It is wrong because it is predatory. Our Lord promised that one day he will return to the earth and bring with him a new age of peace and justice, love and mercy, healing and hope. He told us that God’s kingdom is here, but not yet; he told us that there are glimpses of God’s kingdom all around us, but that the fullness of God’s kingdom will come at an unknown time in the future. Deep down inside, whether we know it or not, we yearn for that day. And why? Why do we have this yearning? Well, because the world as we know it is not the world as God promises it will be; nothing everything we see is in line with God’s perfect will. We get weekly and daily examples of how far things are from how God intends for them to be; we got a clear picture of that last Sunday from the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX. There is constant war and famine and disease and bigotry and hatred and exclusivity and deadly policies and a growing amount of apathy. It is true that we can see glimpses of God’s kingdom in these things, but its not yet, its not fully here. And so we yearn for that day, for that day when Jesus will come back and make it all right. Camping and his goons, and so many more false prophets, preyed on this yearning, prowling around looking for a way to exploit and mislead God’s people. And they did just that: they preyed on and exploited and took advantage of, and instead of bringing people to God as we are all called to do, they pushed people away from God, maybe forever.
The right response when we hear the promise of Christ’s return is right within the parable. Jesus says that ten bridesmaids took oil lamps to go out and meet the bridegroom for the wedding ceremony. But the groom is late and the bridesmaids have to wait. While they were waiting, though, some of the bridesmaids’ lamps ran out of oil. As they scrambled for more oil, the bridesmaids saw the groom approaching from off in the distance. The five bridesmaids run quickly to the market to buy more oil from the merchants. But while they were off buying more oil, the groom arrived and the party started. When the bridesmaids returned from the market and knocked on the door to be let in, the groom peeked through the hole in the door and said, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Those five bridesmaids had to sit outside and listen to the groom and the other bridesmaids and the guests as they feasted and celebrated.
Jesus is not asking us to literally keep lamps full of oil and burning until he returns. He is, however, telling us to let our light shine. Early on in his ministry he told the disciples, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.” In other words, Jesus is saying, “Yes, I’m going to be back. But until that happens, y’all have some work to do.”
It is really easy to get caught up in trying to predict the end of the world. It is going to be a glorious day—no more war, no more famine, no more disease, no more affliction, no more suffering. And for heaven’s sake, there have been days recently where it looked and felt like the world was coming to an end. But listen to Jesus: he says, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” This should not cause us fear or anxiety—this should give us great hope. It should give us great hope because while we don’t know the day or the time, God does, and because God does, we don’t have to worry about it. Instead, we can spend all the time and energy and resources we have on making heaven a place on earth right here right now. Instead of looking to the sky for Jesus to come riding back on the clouds, we can start looking at the people all around us, our neighbors, where we will meet and serve Jesus every day. Instead of preparing to be lifted up into heaven—which, by the way, is not actually mentioned anywhere in the Bible—we can lift up others with the love and good news of God. Instead of being so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good, we can get to work right now with acts of peace and justice that play a sweet prelude for the glory that is to come.
The prophet Amos had very little concern for anything in the future. His whole prophecy is grounded in the here and now, grounded in what the Israelites were doing day to day to live as God’s people. In the reading from his prophesy today, Amos goes after the Israelites because their worship practices have ceased to glorify God, and in ceasing to glorify God, they’ve stopped loving and serving their neighbors. The Israelites’ worship had turned into a side show, vapid entertainment that kept people busy when it should have been bringing them into closer contact with God. On God’ behalf Amos says, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in you solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Justice and righteousness—those are not things in the future, those are right-here-right-now ways of life, and they are God’s desire for our lives. What ever distracts us from that—worship that is just meant to entertain, or mission work that is just meant to make you feel good, or doomsday prophecy that costs you your bank account and your soul—its gotta go. Amos knows that God’s got the future under control; Amos wants to know what the Israelites, and you and me, are doing to build God’s kingdom right now.
The first fall I lived in my house in Enid was beautiful, a lot like the fall we are having this year. The Bradford Pear and the Maple tree in my front yard blazed with color for weeks, then dropped all their leaves. I told myself week after week that I needed to clean up the leaves. But week after week, something always came up: there was something at church this weekend, it was too cold that weekend, I didn’t feel like it the weekend after that. Eventually the winter came and went. We had a pretty terrible ice storm in February, but that gave way to a warm and beautiful spring and summer. When I eventually got around to cleaning up the leaves the next Spring, they had decomposed down and had choked the grass to death. That spring and summer I had no grass in my front yard and it took almost two years for it naturally grow back.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, the will of Jesus Christ for us today is that we attend to the immediate needs all around us that, left unattended, might lead to the death of God’s people and God’s world. The will of Jesus Christ for us today is to stop looking to the clouds and start looking around. The will of Jesus Christ for us today is to stop worrying about when he will come back and get to work doing the things he called us to do in this time and place. His will is that we continue to feed the hungry in body and in mind. His will is that we continue to educate his children. His will is that we continue to support those who are mentally and physically ill, and their caretakers. His will is that we continue to visit the elderly and shelter the homeless and put clothes on the back of the naked. His will is that we continue to stand up against senseless violence and speak truth to power when power is steam-rolling his people. His will is that we continue to worship and sing and pray together and rid ourselves of the distractions that take us away from him. His will is that we let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. We do that, we do all of this, when we love God and love our neighbor as ourselves, and leave all the other unknowable stuff to God.
He’s coming back. That’s the promise. When he comes, will our lamps be trimmed and burning, or will they be empty; will he find us with calloused hands and feet because of how we shared the Gospel, or will he find us sitting on the front porch with our bags packed. Let’s put away the distractions, let’s stop making excuses. Keep awake therefore, for we know neither the day nor the hour. Amen.