Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13 Oremus Bible Browser

In the of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

I remember sitting on a panel with another priest and being asked the question, ‘How do you explain some of the contradictions in the Bible?’. And he invited me to go first and so I started explaining some of the contradictions in the Bible. When it was his turn he just said, ‘There are none.’ And what made me think of that was the other bridesmaids when they came, saying ‘Lord, lord, open to us’, and he replies, ‘Truly I say, I do not know you’ - how that contradicts with ‘Knock and it shall be opened unto you’. And it’s some of those contradictions that create difficulty for us and the difficulty manifests itself in doubt and erodes faith. I encourage you to stay with the doubt, because doubt is where faith grows. And one of the things to do is never to ignore the contradictions but to seek to find them, because the contradictions we see will very often point to the contradictions that we are. And so they’re wonderful places to seek and to find.

We are rapidly coming to the end of the church year, and as we come to the end of things the other thing that happens is there’s another change takes place - we prepare ourselves, we gird up our loins, in fact, we prepare ourselves for loss. We’re going to get to the end of something and it will not be seen again, and we will experience loss. We do it quite naturally and normally in the course of our lives and it’s why we have things like New Year’s Eve parties and write ourselves off, or some people do. It’s why we do that - we need somehow, we need that, almost that wake, we need to acknowledge, because usually with loss there's the danger of a period of depression, you can sink into a trough. And so one of the ways to try and avoid that, or at least get around it, is to come up with resolutions - what is the resurrection that comes out of this death? As I come to the end of the year, rather than experience the loss, what I will do, I will resolve to... and so we have the idea of New Year’s resolutions. We will be doing that at different and various levels within ourselves as we come to the end of the liturgical year and begin a new year.

The readings, therefore, are set within a context of that. The readings are deliberately chosen so that we’ve got something to walk with us on the journey that we walk. As we come to the end of the year, the readings are telling us to prepare, to get ready. And as soon as the year ends, next Sunday, the feast of Christ the King, we will begin the new era and engage Advent. The period of Advent, which we’re already being asked to get ready for, what it asks of us then, is to expect, expect an encounter with the Divine at Christmas. So the readings that we’re hearing now are actually preparing to take us through that journey and to help us come out of that trough that we will sink into at the end of the year, the trough being that there is a another year gone and the kingdom is not yet realised. Everything that I’ve done in the year gone past, what fruit has it born? What expectations remain unfulfilled? All of that will come up, but even as we look at the readings, there is encouragement to say, maybe the year just gone was all preparing for the year to come.

That’s what we can work with as we come to and then walk through Advent, and the first reading today from Joshua is quite brilliant. For Joshua says, ‘Choose this day whom you will serve’ - choose this day whom you will serve. It really is worth a slow read through, because as you read through it, if you can hear that question being asked, the question is asked in an amazingly homey place. If you look up Shechem in a concordance and see all the things that happen there, who built altars there - it’s a place where movement was acknowledged, where great things could happen. It now becomes the place of question: choose this day whom you will serve. First thing to do is to strip off the notions that we have of serving. Serving in this context is the giving of self: choose this day where you give yourself. Joshua gives two choices: there’s the gods that your ancestors served and the other choice is the gods in whose lands you are living. The first choice perhaps for us is talking about the tradition, all that has been enculturated and all that has been institutionalised - the gods of our ancestors, the gods of an ordered systematic theology, the gods of our Sunday school, the gods of our parents, the gods who were created from a rural, a feudal and a patriarchal culture, the gods whom we’ve been given simplistically, literally; the gods that have helped us to discern right from wrong in a very simple way. They’re the gods of our ancestors and the the gods that our ancestors served.

And then we could go for the gods of the present world - success and status, the dollar, economic rationalism, security, protection, ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’. Joshua says, ‘As for me me, my household will serve the Lord’. He picks a third option, another way and invites us at the same time to make the same choice. As we go through then the transition of Psalm 78, it really again is quite helpful. The psalm just really echoes for us the purpose of the tradition and the scriptures. The story is told ‘so that they should set their hope in God’. If we make a choice to move away from the gods of our ancestors, what the psalm suggests is we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. It’s not that they got it wrong, but it’s the same message that we heard last week - listen to the scribes and the pharisees, listen to what they say because they’re reading from the scriptures, just don’t do what they do. We need to take the word in for ourselves and then discover to where our self-giving will be directed.

One of the - at this point I then thought, if we have an insurance policy or if we have any form of retirement planning or if we have acquired more than what we need - think that’s covered all of us - the one thing that we can acknowledge about ourselves is that we’ve hedged our bets - we’ve hedged our bets. And the purpose of that observation is not to then feel guilty about it, just to be aware of it. To be aware that yes, I’ve hedged my bets, because if I’m aware of it, I can actually re-choose to do it or to do something different. But if we don’t find that awareness, then the danger is that we will roll out of this year into the next year and not recognise that anything has moved. Something will move, we are moving and growing all the time. ‘Toward what?’ is always the question.

We then move on to the reading from 1 Thessalonians and it’s Paul urging the church again. This is Paul, giving his words of encouragement: ‘Keep going, keep going, keep going’, and again we’re getting them just as we come to the end of the year - don’t stop, keep going. And he says in verse 13, ‘We do not want you to be as others’. Another way of translating that is, ‘We want you to be different, we don’t want you to be as others, as others who have no hope. So he says, ‘Aspire to live’ - verse 11 - aspire to live. It could even be worth just taking that line, ‘aspire to live’, home and seeing how it fits. When I wake up in the morning do I aspire to live? What does it mean, where does it fit with me? Paul’s understanding was actually not given by referring to the word. Paul doesn’t say ‘Aspire to live, as it says in ... Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Genesis’, rather Paul incarnates, he becomes a part of the aspiration, he becomes a part of the direction in which he’s moving. What’s important he says, is love of brothers and sisters. In aspiring to live, relational and our relation to, becomes important. In verse 13 he asks us to look beyond death. The teaching that Paul gives us at the end of this reading about the death and the resurrection, about being caught up in the clouds with those who’ve been buried, what is this all about? This isn’t nicely trying to come up with some solution. What it’s saying is, if our faith is true, if we believe in our aspiration toward living in the Divine, then we will not die in it, for just as those, the saints which we sang about, just as all will be one in Christ, so we too must have that orientation. We must stay awake to that reality, that the aspiration of life that we have, needs to be beyond death - if we’re only going to look as far as our own death, then recognise that our sight will always be self-ish; if we look beyond we will have a new sight. If you hope for a comfortable old age and a healthy old age where you’re not coughing all the time, if you hope for an old age whereby you can do all the things that I really want to do now, then your orientation does move towards retirement planning, investments and all those other things. If you hope to leave the world a better place than you found it, very good, then your orientation will be towards other things, but if you hope to be fully alive to the glory of God, death is actually not one of the parameters that you need to factor in.

What we then need to do is to factor in the present moment, the present moment: attend, be aware of the moment, which really takes us to the Gospel reading - ‘keep awake for you know neither the day nor the hour’. Focus on the present, attend in this moment and in every moment. The interesting thing about using the image of bridesmaids is that this clearly is not a teaching about prayer, nor about worship, nor about going to church, nor about belonging to anything, this is a parable about the task that we have chosen or that has chosen us. It’s a parable about what we’re engaged in, in our doing, in our vocation, in our day-to-day activity. And the interesting thing about bridesmaids is what they’re engaged in - the work that they’ve undertaken is in support of another, they’re not in it for their own glory. It’s a wonderful parable about an important part of our own lives. What it asks us to do is to be ready in the present moment. One of the problems in the modern world is that we’re constantly encouraged to plan ahead and it’s based on a belief that we can control the future and we create our own version of it. And that itself, that very belief that underpins our modern culture, is being called into question by things like global warming. You think you can control it and have the future that you want? What about ...? These questions suddenly start popping out. The choices that we make in the present moment will obviously contribute to the next moment. Whatever happens, we will be and are complicit in the unfolding of tomorrow. Choices are always made in the moment, choices that will be fashioned by our orientation, to what we seek to give ourselves. The present day gods of the Amorites, the gods of our culture, suggest that we move toward a future that is comfortable for us and we will be given that version of what comfortable-to-us means through various advertising. But if we look beyond death and so beyond the self, to a self-less orientation in the present moment that is heartily inclined toward the Divine, then our in-the-moment choices will be creative of a new tomorrow, a tomorrow that is yet unseen and a tomorrow that is a promise that we have contributed toward realising.

It’s our preparation towards Advent - it is never, ever too late. We must be aware that the end of one year is coming, a new year begins, a new encounter with the Divine. Our choice: where will we give ourselves in this moment and the next?

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris