Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
In the morning, I head off to North Wales on retreat. For the last couple of months, which have felt insanely busy, the prospect of time away has kept me going, a welcome promise of rest for a weary soul. Now that it’s tomorrow, I am feeling quite apprehensive. For the next 9 days there is nothing in my diary, just an empty expanse of time with no books or TV or social media to distract me, and no work to fuel my need to be useful. There’ll just be me, and God. And that feels like quite a vulnerable place to be in, because there’s nowhere to hide.
And parts of me don’t want to hide: there is a wonderful freedom in having unhurried time for prayer, and space to remember that I am more than the sum of what I do. But there is discomfort too, at least if my previous experiences of retreats are anything to go by, because spending time in prayer and contemplation, being caught up in the divine gaze, is where I learn that God loves me, and where I learn to love and desire God more; where bit by bit I learn to grow in Christlikeness. But to do that asks me to recognise all that is unChristlike in me. It asks me to bring to God for healing and forgiveness all the parts of me that are broken or sinful; all the bits of me that I prefer to keep well hidden, and would rather pretend weren’t there.
On retreat, with nothing to distract me, and no easy excuses for hiding in busyness or deadlines, there is only the nearness of God. And mostly I welcome that. But that hasn’t always been the case. There was a time when I would have found that unbearable, where the prospect of being seen and known by God was something to fear, and where I would have done anything I could to wriggle out of being in that place. Only as I’ve learnt to trust in God’s love, rather than fear his judgement, have I been able to bear being caught in his gaze, to welcome it, rather than flee from it.
The nearness of God provokes a decision for each of us. Our readings today all deal with this, in their different ways. For Amos, writing in the 8th century BC to a people who have grown complacent, the nearness of God provokes a crisis of judgement. The people, enjoying their affluence and paying lip service to God with their sacrifices, have neglected the poor and the needy. In prophetic tradition, the ‘Day of the Lord’ is a day of blessing and vindication for the righteous, and of judgement for the unrighteous. It describes the times when God draws near to his people to save and to judge. Amos addresses those who believe themselves to be among the righteous. But their behaviour proves otherwise. And their transgressions seem shockingly contemporary: legal aid is denied to the poor. Women are facing sexual abuse and assault. The needy fall straight through any social safety net while the rich grow fat. All the while, the rich believe they have God on their side; that the Day of the Lord will bring them yet further prosperity.
But the nearness of God in this case will bring calamity. Without repentance, without the fruits of justice and righteousness that flow from a life lived in faithfulness to God, the people will experience God’s nearness as judgement.
For Paul, on the other hand, writing to the Thessalonians, in what is the earliest part of the New Testament, the coming of the Lord is a source of encouragement. In the early 50s, when Paul was writing, the expectation was that Jesus’ coming again was imminent. For the Christians to whom he writes, a crisis of faith is provoked by the death of some of their number. What will happen to them if they have not remained alive to see Christ return in glory? Paul writes words of encouragement and consolation: ‘For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.’
To a grieving community he does not write ‘do not grieve’, but ‘do not grieve as those who have no hope’. For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead changes everything. In the light of it. Christians can look to the future with confidence; we can look forward to the coming of the Lord as the time when we will all, living and departed, be gathered together to share in the risen life of Christ. And that coming of the Lord can shape our lives now: it frees us to live out the promise of resurrection, where our perspective is shaped by God’s eternity, and by Christ’s triumph over death. For Paul, the coming of the Lord is seen as a source of encouragement: to live lives unbounded by the fear of death, and its attendant anxieties of irrelevance, impermanence, uselessness and vulnerability. The nearness of the Lord is an invitation to a different way of life, one drawn by love rather than driven by fear.
And that remains true for Matthew, although by the time he wrote his Gospel, the expectation that the Lord’s return was imminent had started to fade. He was writing for a church that was learning how to live in the between times – between Christ’s first coming and second coming. The bridegroom is delayed. And some of the bridesmaids have grown weary and dozy with the waiting. The oil in their lamps starts to burn dim when suddenly they’re interrupted from their snoozing by the arrival of the bridegroom. Then, all of a sudden, there is no more tarrying: those ready for his arrival are swept up into the procession to the wedding feast, while those who are unprepared are left hunting around for more oil. ‘Give us some of yours’, the foolish bridesmaids say to those who are wise. And we may think this is the right demand: that the bridesmaids who have oil should share it with those who have none.
But that’s not what the parable says. At the arrival of the bridegroom, we can’t ultimately depend on anyone else for our readiness. If the oil is the gift of grace within us, the life of Christ we are given at baptism, then keeping that flame of light alive is our responsibility. Others will help with that, of course: we are none of us Christians on our own. Others can build us up by their prayers and example and encouragement. But kindling that flame, responding to that gift of God in us, is down to us. The first salvation we have to work out with fear and trembling is our own.
In Amos the coming of the Lord stands as a provocation to repentance. In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians it’s a prompt to encouragement. In Matthew, it’s a call to persevere, to live faithfully and expectantly. For the light of Christ to carry on burning within us, we need to keep replenishing the oil: through prayer and the sacraments, through study and service. We are not lacking in sources of grace; what most of us lack, at one time or another, is the impulse or the urgency to use them.
As we move through the final weeks of the Church’s year, and into Advent, we are reminded again and again that when the Lord comes it will be unexpected, stealthy; that he may catch us unawares. From different periods and from different voices we hear today the same message: the Lord is near. So where is God calling you to repentance? How is he trying to encourage you? And how are you going to keep your lamps lit and burning brightly, so that when he comes, you may be found among the wise, and not among the foolish?