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Sermon for 24th Sunday after Pentecost

First Reading: Amos 5:18-24

18Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light, 19as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. 20Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? 21“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. 23Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. 24But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”


Psalm 70

1Be pleased, O God, to deliver me; O Lord, make haste to help me. 2Let those who seek my life be ashamed and altogether dismayed; let those who take pleasure in my misfortune draw back and be disgraced. 3Let those who say to me “Aha!” and gloat over me turn back, because they are ashamed. 4Let all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; let those who love your salvation say forever, “Great is the Lord!” 5But as for me, I am poor and needy; come to me speedily, O God. 6You are my helper and my deliverer; O Lord, do not tarry.


Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

13We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Gospel: Matthew 25:1-13

1{Jesus said to the disciples,} “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”


What if Jesus Came Today?

There’s a piece of church humor that’s been around for some time now in the form of a “good news bad news” type story.  The scene is the Vatican in Rome.  A cardinal rushes in to see the Pope.  “Your holiness,” says the cardinal excitedly, “I have some good news and some bad news.”  The Pope replies, “Well, give me the good news first.”  The cardinal responds, “I’ve just received word that Christ has returned to earth.”  “That’s wonderful,” replies the Pope, “but what’s the bad news?”  The cardinal answers dejectedly, “The call came from Dallas, Texas, from the North American Lutheran Church.”

Behind the humor of this little story lies a profound theological question.  What if Jesus were to return today?  Who would be happy and who would be sad?  It has nothing to do with being a member of a particular denomination, your sex, or ethnicity.  It has nothing to do with your economic status, or your standing in the community.  Who rejoices, and who laments, has to do with your belief in who Jesus is, the acknowledgement that you are a sinner in desperate need of God’s mercy, of your obedience to God’s commands, and your reliance on God’s unmerited grace.

Our readings for today seem like an odd mix until you take them one at a time and place them side by side.  Our First lesson comes to us as a warning; just because you’re part God’s chosen, this doesn’t mean that everything is automatically going to be good on the “day of the Lord.”  In our Gospel reading, Jesus is giving us a clear warning, we must be ready, and the day and time of Jesus’ return is unknown, so we must be prepared at all times.  And in our Epistle reading, St. Paul is reminding us that Jesus is coming soon, and that His promise of us joining Him again is certain.  The common thread in all our readings is to be obedient and be prepared.  So, we must ask ourselves, if Jesus should return today, who would be rejoicing?

Now for some sitting here, and you may be thinking, there’s only one obvious response to this question, of course we’d be rejoicing.  However, we must be careful.  The answer may not be as obvious as you may think.  The people of Israel in the time of the prophet Amos were piously looking forward to the day of the Lord.  Amos warns them, “Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord.  It’s as if a man escaped from a lion, only to meet a bear.  The day of the Lord is darkness and not light,” he warns.  There will be some surprises.  Again, this might seem like a strange response from God’s prophet until you consider what was going on during Amos’ time as God’s prophet.

Amos most likely spoke his messages sometime around the year 760 B.C.  Setting aside the threats coming from the Assyrian empire, the Northern Tribes were enjoying a time of prosperity that hadn’t been seen since the times of kings David and Solomon.  People were enjoying life and their worship of God and religious obligations had taken a back seat to all the other things in their lives.  It was into this time of prosperity that God sends Amos to announce God’s holy judgment on the Kingdom of Israel.

God was calling His chosen people to repentance, and to turn from their self-righteous sins and idolatry.  God raised up the prophet Amos, as an act of His great mercy to a people who repeatedly shunned and disobeyed Him.  Amos’ proclamations can be divided in this way: Chapter 1-3, Amos came as the days of the wicked Northern Kingdom were winding down.  The people were outwardly religious, but their worship was sadly superficial.  Amos also announces that the neighboring nations would be punished.

In chapters 4-8, Amos warns that Israel would be destroyed, and gives examples of this judgment.  Amos comes, announces God’s coming judgment to the Northern Kingdom and uses the phrase, “the day of the Lord” referring to God intervening to punish and judge the wicked city, which would eventually be exile by the Assyrians.  In chapter 5, Amos gives another famous warning, “Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and thus may the LORD God of hosts be with you, just as you have said!” (vs. 14).  Then in chapter 9, Amos tells of the restoration and hope of Israel, “In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David and wall up its breaches; I will also raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old” (9:11).

Does this pattern seem familiar in light of our readings today, a call to righteousness, a warning to be prepared, and a reminder that the day of the Lord is near?  So, in light of Amos’ prophecies, Jesus’ warnings, and St. Paul’s reminder of Jesus’ return, what if Jesus should return today?  For whom would this be good news?  Again, we might be surprised.  There’s an old story about a man who came to the gates of heaven and asked for admission.  The gatekeeper asked his name, and then asked him, “What have you done to deserve admission to heaven?”  The man thought hard for a minute or two.  “Well,” he said, “I went to church and Sunday school almost every Sunday.”  The gate keeper looks at the man and says, “We don’t keep church attendance records up here.”  Well, says the man, “I faithfully gave my tithe, and I gave to charitable causes.”  Again, the gatekeeper looks up from his ledgers and says, “we do not keep records of contributions up here either.”

Now the man begins to get nervous and replies, “Well-er-I took good care of my family.  I obeyed the laws and did my best to keep the Ten Commandments.”  “That’s all well and good, and you’re to be commended for that, says the gatekeeper, but simply doing what’s expected of you isn’t enough.  There are quote, end quote, good people in hell who did the same thing!”  The poor man gave up; he realized that he hadn’t done enough for God or for others, during his 90 years on earth, to earn his way into heaven.  As he was turning to leave, he remembered his Catechism and began to recite the Apostles’ Creed.

As he completed the Creed, the gatekeeper called out to him: “Just a minute.  Do you believe what you just recited?  And by the way, aren’t you the man who secretly gave to help families after disasters, and didn’t you help clothe, shelter, and feed the homeless in your hometown?  And aren’t you the guy who used to feed the sparrows in that little city park?”  “Why-yes. But what has that to do with it?”  “Come in,” said the keeper. “Come in.  The Lord of the Sparrows is waiting to thank you!”

When Jesus illustrated the content of right living, it was a cup of cold water given in His name or help offered to a man lying in a ditch who had been beaten and robbed.  It was feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the imprisoned.  Certain things are clear in His teachings.  Humble deeds of kindness and compassion, done in response to what God has done for us, matter far more in God’s kingdom than the size of our bank account or the polish on our personality.

How often do we miss that critical fact even in the life of the church?  What is it that makes for a great church?  Is it the size of the membership roll or the stateliness of its sanctuary?  For many people these are the sort of things that make a church great.  In Jesus’ eyes, a great church is one in which people care about one another, and about the world for which He died.  I’ve reminded you of this before: salvation is easy, you confess your sins and believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior.  Being a disciple, being humbly obedient and loving others no matter what, is much more difficult.  Salvation is God’s free gift; discipleship is what we do in response to God’s amazing grace.

A pastor tells of being in the home of a woman whose husband had just died.  She told of her husband’s long nights of suffering and how she had cared for him, not having the money to employ a nurse.  He wondered how she could have kept going, and she told him that the neighbors had kept their lights burning through the last few nights.  She said, “I knew that they were thinking of us, feeling for us.  I can’t tell you how, but I got strength from it.  It held me up.”  The fact that somebody is interested, that somebody cares, that somebody believes in us is often our strongest support.  That’s what being part of the church, the body of Christ is all about.  That’s what makes a congregation great.

It’s that time of year, Fall, and if you’ve been outside, you’ve probably seen the geese flying south in a “V” formation.  If you’re like me, you marvel at how they reach their destination without fail.  As I understand it, there isn’t one lead bird.  Rather specialists say that these birds can fly so far and so long, because each one helps the flock by taking his turn as leader.  In a wind tunnel, two engineers discovered what happens to the formation of flying birds.  Each bird, in flapping its own wings, creates an upward lift for the following bird, which gives the whole flock 71% more flying range than if each bird flew alone.  Leadership is shared because no bird can stay up there very long.

When an individual bird falls back, and begins to think nobody will miss him, he immediately feels the heavier load of flying alone, and speeds up to get back into formation.  Researchers feel that those who fall behind are encouraged by the chattering of their peers.  There’s an important lesson here.  We need one another.  The secret of success in any church is to work together, to share the load and encourage and support one another.  All three of these are important.  What if the Lord should come today?  Obviously, it will be good news to those who have confessed their sins, who believe that Jesus is their Savior and for those who are obedient servants.  Won’t it be nice to hear Jesus say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!  You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ (Matthew 25:21).

Being a faithful follower of Jesus is about selfless love.  It’s about sharing the love of God that we have received with others.  But sharing this selfless love isn’t learned on easy street.  Jesus warned us that there would be trials and temptations because we learn better in valleys than on mountaintops.  As we heard in last week’s gospel lesson, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4).  What strange and difficult words those are.  Yet for some people mourning can be the key to emotional and spiritual maturity.

A number of years ago the personnel director of a large New York department store called an employee into his office.  She was a woman that was loved and respected and a lifter of the morale of other workers in the organization.  The personnel manager wanted to know how she did it.  Her story was briefly told.  “When I was a bride of six months my husband was killed in a hunting accident.  Three months later I was crossing Broadway with my mother and father when both were struck by an automobile and killed.  I blamed myself for not watching them more closely.  I was in a sanitarium for weeks trying to fight my way back to reality.  One evening in my despair, I emptied a box of sleeping pills in the palm of my hand.  I had taken them from a nurse’s cart.  On admitting this, she paused.

After a moment she continued, “A voice spoke to me, but when I looked around, I was alone.  The voice kept repeating, ‘People need you.  People need you.’  No one needed me.  I had no children, no brothers or sisters.  Then I realized that it was the voice of God speaking to me.  I know it sounds crazy, but my hand opened, and the sleeping pills rolled out on my bed.  A great peace came over me, and I slept and slept.  God spoke to me in the days that followed.  As I was reading the Bible that was in my room, I came across the passage in Matthew 16 where Jesus said, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.  For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?  Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?  For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works” (vs. 25-27).

It was in reading this passage that I realized that if I were to live again, I must lose my life for the sake of others.  I had to take up my cross and follow Jesus.”  Do you suppose that after her experience, this lady was prepared for the coming of the Lord?  It’s a great question to ask.  Far too many lead self-focused lives because they haven’t turned their lives over to God.  Instead of following Jesus, they follow the ways of this world, and like the Hebrew people of Amos’ time, they were simply going through the motions of being religious.  What if the Lord should come today?

The powerful and prestigious may not really look forward to that day.  But the meek, the humble, the poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who serve simply to share God’s love with others, those who love God and love others, those who have sought to light a small candle in a world of darkness, those who know what it is to grieve and to be comforted, then to go out to comfort others, these are those for whom the coming of the Lord will be a grand occasion.

Amos lived in a time very much like our own.  Those who “lay on beds of white ivory” felt they were self-sufficient.  They were secure.  They couldn’t imagine that the day of the Lord would threaten everything they hold dear.  We can learn a lot from what Amos was trying to tell the people.  We need to wake up, heed the warnings and be prepared for the return of Jesus.  Jesus was clear, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.  But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.  For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.

Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left.  Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left.  Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming.  But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into.  Therefore, you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:36-44).

As we come to the end of this liturgical year and in two weeks we’ll celebrate Christ the King Sunday, perhaps the best thing we can do would be to question, are we really prepared to face not only our Lord and King but our righteous Judge as well.  If Jesus were to come today, would this frighten you, or would it be good news?

God’s gift to us includes not only the words of promise of the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting, they also contain the words of warning that remind us of what God expects: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:6).


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