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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Lectionary Scriptures:  Judges 4:1-7AND Psalm 123:1-4 OR Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 AND Psalm 90:1-12, I Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30


So what are we supposed to do while we’re waiting for the end of the world?


I grew up in a religious environment where we spent a lot of time worrying about the end of the world---whole denominations formed on the basis of minor differences of interpretation about the details of the days of approaching judgment.  At least, they seemed minor to some of us.  Who was going to survive and who wasn’t?  A few seemed to gloat over all those who would be left behind.  I used to have a Ziggy cartoon in which Ziggy is asked about a question about the end of the world.  He says he’ll take what’s worth saving, put it in a doggy bag, and stick it in the refrigerator.


Not very funny if one takes it seriously!  But I wonder whether most of us take such questions very seriously these days.


If nuclear annihilation doesn’t get us, destruction of the environment will.  Barring any other premature end, science tells us we can always wait to be enveloped by the expanding sun (some five billion years or so from now).


I’ve said more than once that I don’t find such speculation very productive, but the nature of end times comes under consideration in Christian theology and in various biblical texts.  We have only two more Sundays left before a new liturgical year begins with Advent on November 30th.  This is the time of year when the lectionary focuses upon the completion of history, so I guess we can’t entirely avoid the topic.


Some of this week’s texts take us in that direction.  Rather than get into discussion of details of how things might unfold, I’d rather ask the question of what we are to do in the meantime.  No matter what those details are, mortality dictates that your days and my days of earthly existence will come to an end.  Humanity may or may not come to a burning or cataclysmic end, but I personally don’t expect to live forever.  How about you? 

The reading from Psalm 90, in fact, graphically reminds us of our mortality.  You turn us back to dust, and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’  For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.  You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers . . . The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.”  (Psalm 90:3-6, 10)

So---what are we supposed to do in the meantime?


Before getting into that I observe a couple of things sometimes overlooked among those who speculate on end times.  More than once the Bible tells us that we can’t tie the details down, so why do so many keep trying?  The reading from I Thessalonians begins, “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.  For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”  (I Thessalonians 5:1-2)  Matthew gives us Jesus’ parable or workers entrusted with the master’s wealth who do not know when he will return.  Last week’s parable of the bridesmaids ends with the words, “ . . . you know neither the day nor the hour.”  (Matthew 25:13)  In the chapter just before, Matthew has Jesus speaking these words:  “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  (Matthew 24:36)


The other observation is that images of a judgment day (or hopes for one) often focus upon those who are rich and upon powerful oppressors.  Judgment Day is a day when things are set right, when those people get what is coming to them.  The reading from Psalm 123 cries out for justice.  “Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.”  (Psalm 123:4)  In Zephaniah, God’s judgment comes down upon “the people who rest complacently on their dregs . . . Their wealth shall be plundered and their homes laid waste . . . Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath . . .”  (Zephaniah 1:12-13, 18)


Now, back to the matter of what we are to do in the meantime.


First, although images of Judgment Day have often been used to frighten people, it is clear that fear is not productive.  As I read through the Parable of the Talents yet another time, I was struck by the inner state of the worker who received only one talent.  (Of course, while the talent is an amount of money, the parable is about sharing the treasure of God’s Good News.)  He was afraid, and fear immobilized him.  (Matthew 25:25)  Repeatedly God’s people are told to not be afraid.  I Thessalonians tells us, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation . . .”  (I Thessalonians 5:9)  What are we to do?  Begin by not being afraid!


Second, we are to stay awake.  Looking at last week’s parable, I realized the emphasis was perhaps less on the fact that some of the bridesmaids ran out of oil and more on the fact that they went to sleep.  The punchline challenges the hearers to “keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:13)  Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians, emphasizes staying awake:  “So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake.”  (I Thessalonians 5:6)  When Jesus prays in Gethsemane before his death he chides Peter and James and John because they cannot stay awake.  (Matthew 26:36-46)  The letter to the Ephesians quotes a poem which says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:13)


So what does it mean to stay awake?  I’m not sure these texts spell it out in much detail.  We know that we are capable of walking through life in something of a stupor.  These texts call us to be fully awake and aware.  The possibility of impeding troubles must not be allowed to immobilize us.  We are to keep on keeping on!


Psalm 90, with all of its gloominess, ends with a prayer:  “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”  (Psalm 90:12)  The parable of the talents tells us to take what we have and share it, use it in productive ways.  Continue to use the gifts we have that the love of God might take root and multiple in life.  The reading from I Thessalonians ends with the instruction, “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other . . .”  (I Thessalonians 5:11)


Don’t let fear overcome you,  Stay awake, encourage one another, and productively use the gifts you have been given.

That leaves the reading from the book of Judges.  It seems to be an outlier in relation to the other lectionary texts.  It is part of the story of Deborah, a female judge who takes her place in this history of Hebrew leaders.  It is another war story, this one dominated by strong women, including Jael who ran a tent peg through the head of Sisera.  (Judges 4:21)  At the end of the story we are told that there were forty years of peace.  (Judges 5:21)  Following the victory, Deborah and Barak, much in the tradition of Miriam and Moses, sing a song.  Given my topic this week, I was surprised to find these words in the middle of the song:  “Awake, awake, Deborah!  Awake, awake, utter a song!”  (Judges 5:12)  Granted Deborah’s story seems to have little to do with waiting for the world to end, does it suggest that another thing we might do in this interim time is sing?  Singing, even singing a new song in a new land, is very much a biblical activity, an activity that can lift up and encourage.


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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