Rev Sandy Robertson
Chaplain at Diocesan School for Girls
Homily Sunday November 12, 2017
Keep awake therefore
In our lectionary, we are in those happy weeks leading up to Advent when the readings foretell doom and the end of the world. In today’s Gospel we have the ten bridesmaids, half of whom are shut out in the darkness, and also the Prophet Amos telling us that the day of the Lord will be anything but happy. Let’s focus on Amos first.
Amos was a shepherd and livestock breeder from Tekoa in the southern kingdom of Judah in the 8th century. He was called by God to prophetic ministry in the Northern Kingdom of Israel in a time when many considered the society to be relatively peaceful and stable, and enjoying economic prosperity. The propaganda of the time in the Northern Kingdom, in fact in both the North and the South was that everything was ticking along nicely and all heading in the right direction.
Sometimes I have surveys sent to me from market research organisations asking about our society in relation to very similar things – do I think that our country is heading in the right direction? Financially, am I better off than I was a year ago? Do I think most people better off than they were five years ago? Do I think our government’s economic policies are making NZers more able to live well? As I think about these questions I see that our situation here in New Zealand, in fact right across the western world, is very similar to the situation Amos was faced with in his role as prophet to the Northern Kingdom of Judah.
While the generally accepted idea about society in the Northern Kingdom at the time was saying one thing, Amos was called to say quite another thing. Amos’ message from God was not particularly welcome and one of the priests, Amaziah actually challenges his right to prophesy as he doesn’t belong to any prophetic order, and tells him to go home. But Amos is defiant and reasserts that he is only a shepherd and herdsman who has been called by God to speak God’s message. So, what is it that Amos challenges in the Kingdom of Israel? He identifies the problem in this seemingly happy and prosperous society as a lack of justice. He claims there is a lack of righteousness in people’s lives, which is evident in the practices of debt slavery, seizure of property, seizure of pledges held as collateral for loans, sexual immorality, and corruption in the justice system. What Amos is speaking into is what God views as endemic corruption and systemic evil. On top of that, though, Amos gives a very clear challenge to those rich in the society who are living a vulgar, insensitive lifestyle given that there are so many poor.
Gosh, this is sounding familiar. In Amos’ time, the rich considered themselves to be rich as the result of God’s approval and favour, and considered the poor to be poor because of the disapproval and punishment of God. That sounds like the prosperity Gospel, doesn’t it? Amos pointed to the fact that the society was lacking in solidarity due to materialism.
There have been a number of voices here in New Zealand who have been making very similar challenges against capitalism and calling for a greater sense of solidarity among all people. Instead of the very rich in our society thinking they are in that position because of God’s favour, many of them think they have got there on their own, due to their own hard work, and they also perceive that the poor are poor because they are lazy and have not taken advantage of the opportunities given to them, nor made their own opportunities. Our culture in this country at this time is not so far removed from the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
Amos is essentially saying to the religious people in the north that a society which does not have justice and solidarity at its base is very far removed from the covenant religion of its ancestors. There were righteous people among the Israelites but they had remained silent in the face of the systemic injustice.
Those words could equally be spoken to our society and our religious people today. There is no justice in a society where the poor and powerless are exploited, where property investors make their living off the backs of people who are desperate for somewhere to live, where loan sharks position themselves in the poorest suburbs and lend money at exorbitant interest rates, where Maori who are only 14% of the population make up over 50% of our prison population, where we have one of the highest suicide rates in the world.
Amos is essentially giving the people a warning – that is, of course, what the prophets were for. He isn’t just challenging them to right their society, he is also warning them. This is what we heard in our reading tonight; that voice of warning. People of Israel, you are mistaken if you think the day of the Lord is going to be something for you to celebrate. God is not pleased with anything you have to offer. It is justice and fairness that God wants. He goes on to tell them about five visions of destruction he has had. They are going to be destroyed – only the righteous will survive and from them God will make the people of Israel great again.
Sort yourselves out and change your behaviour or only the righteous will survive.
Perhaps the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids is giving us a similar kind of message.
It was a custom sometimes used among the Jews that the bridegroom came to the house of the bride, accompanied by his friends, whenever he chose to arrive – sometimes late into the night. The bride, attended by her bridesmaids would have been waiting for him. When given notice of his approach, the bridesmaids would go outside with their lit lamps in their hands, to light him into the house with ceremony and formality. In our parable today, only five of them prepared properly so that they had enough oil to keep their lamps lit long into the night in case the bridegroom came very late. The five who did not have enough oil to keep their lamps lit were rejected by the bridegroom when he shut the door in their faces and said to them, “Truly I do not know you.”
The warning at the end of the parable is to, “Keep awake therefore because you do not know the day or hour.”
I wonder if the question for us today is, do we have the light in our hands ready to meet the bridegroom when he arrives? Are we going to be ready for the day of the Lord, the coming of the bridegroom?
What is the state of our society? How are we helping to build solidarity? Are we challenging the injustices and systemic evils in our country? Or are we just happy minding our own business, worrying about our own lives and what we have amassed? Is the Christian church in this country just a little too comfy in its middle-class-ness?
These readings are to remind us that the bridegroom is coming again soon. Christmas is only 43 days away and we have a lot to think about and reflect on during Advent. What more could we be doing? Are we listening to Amos and the challenge his words give us today? Are we going to end up like the foolish bridesmaids locked out of the wedding feast because we were unprepared for the arrival of the bridegroom?
May we spend the next couple of weeks thinking about our unpreparedness and what we need to do to prepare ourselves for the birth of Christ once more. May we do more than just focus on the religious rituals of Advent and Christmas and see it as a time to challenge the status quo here in our society, calling all people to justice and solidarity. When the day of the Lord comes, may we be worthy. Amen.