The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 27, 9 November 2014
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Psalm 78:1-7 or Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16
Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20 or Psalm 70
I Thessalonians 4:13-18
St. Matthew 25:1-13
Background: The Shadow of Advent
A great deal of what we take for granted in the liturgical year, and in practice and ceremonial did not in fact originate in Rome, but rather in the provinces. It was Rome who later regularized and standardized practices that had developed in localities. Rome made the practices catholic, and Advent is a good example. In Gaul, in the fifth century, the practice of setting aside six Sundays prior to the Feast of the Nativity was the common custom. In more southern climes the practice was to set aside five Sundays. The count is not essential here, but the practice and content is. The season was largely penitential and modeled after Lent. This we can see in the choice of purple as a liturgical color for the season. It is the readings however, that give us the biggest clues. The readings are dark in tone, as they lead the faithful to see and pray for the second coming of Jesus. The Nativity had already happened, and its feasts were those of remembrance. The second coming, however, the primary theme of Advent, was that which was hoped and longed for. They form a corrective for us who have connected Advent too strongly to the Christmas festivities, and who have sidelined the notion of the second coming. They have something unique to say to our time. Eventually Roman reform regularized the Advent season to four Sundays, and in subsequent liturgical reforms the lectionary began to focus more and more on the Nativity itself. In these Sundays, however, there is still a purity of form in the manner of a more ancient Advent. Use it well.
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors-- Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor-- lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.
"Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River, and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD."
Then the people answered, "Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God."
But Joshua said to the people, "You cannot serve the LORD; for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good." And the people said to Joshua, "No, we will serve the LORD!" Then Joshua said to the people, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him." And they said, "We are witnesses." He said, "Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel." The people said to Joshua, "The LORD our God we will serve, and him we will obey." So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.
This reading comes at the end of the book of Joshua’s on-going narrative about the conquest of Canaan by Israel, and a continuous argument for monotheism. The book went through various phases of development and revision by several redactors (“the Compiler”, “the Editor”, and a “D” editor). This pericope underscores the view that it is God who accomplished not only the release from Egypt, but also the subsequent entry and subjugation of Canaan. Interestingly, in recalling the history of the people, especially of the father Abraham, the author recalls the polytheism of the societies out of which the forefathers and mothers came. This polytheism seems to be a tradition that was not totally discarded, and we see traces of it in the psalter, in the patriarchal history, and here in the covenant assembly that Joshua convenes. That it survives the editing and emendations of later periods, well into the exile, is a demonstration of the tenacity of folk religion, and the foundation of the preaching of the later prophets.
Breaking open Joshua:
- What gods do you have in your life?
- In what way is God in your life?
- How do you share God with the next generation?
Psalm 78:1-7 Attendite, popule
Hear my teaching, O my people; *
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable; *
I will declare the mysteries of ancient times.
That which we have heard and known,
and what our forefathers have told us, *
we will not hide from their children.
We will recount to generations to come
the praiseworthy deeds and the power of the LORD, *
and the wonderful works he has done.
He gave his decrees to Jacob
and established a law for Israel, *
which he commanded them to teach their children;
That the generations to come might know,
and the children yet unborn; *
that they in their turn might tell it to their children;
So that they might put their trust in God, *
and not forget the deeds of God,
but keep his commandments;
In much the same manner as the first reading from Joshua seeks to remind Israel of its ancient traditions and roots, and its covenant with God, so this historical psalm endeavors to do the same thing. It is a lengthy psalm, versifying a historical narrative that may have had a liturgical use. The preamble to the narrative (the first seven verses) comprises our psalm for this day. It makes the claim that it is an ancient song, “I will declare the mysteries of ancient times.” It reminds me of the series of Hebrew Scripture readings at the Great Vigil of Easter, and to some extent I think that it has the same intent. The treasures of the past are not the only focus of this psalm; however, “That the generations to come might know…that they in their turn might tell it to their children.”
Breaking open Psalm 78:
- How do you function as a storyteller?
- What ancient stories capture your interest?
- What do they impart to future generations?
Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16
Wisdom is radiant and unfading,
and she is easily discerned by those who love her,
and is found by those who seek her.
She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her.
One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty,
for she will be found sitting at the gate.
To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding,
And one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care,
because she goes about seeking those worthy of her,
and she graciously appears to them in their paths,
and meets them in every thought.
A quick comment on the provenance of this reading: it is not a work of Solomon, but rather represents an offering from the centuries that overlay the cusp between the common era and that which preceded it. One commentator declares it to be “one of the most Hellenized works of the Apocrypha.” Although the book is represented as a piece of wisdom literature, especially our reading today, it also represents other traditions such as the thought found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, with their apocalyptic outlook. You might wish to read through the classic text of Proverbs 8:1-21, for this seems to be the inspiration for this text on Wisdom, and her attractive attributes for any discerning student. One wonders, however, why the framers of the lectionary chose this text to supply commentary on the text from Joshua. Perhaps it was only to increase the availability of apocryphal texts within the RCL (oddly, the Track 2 reading also has a Wisdom of Solomon text as well, the continuation of this reading.) It may be a corrective the hyper-national nature of the Joshua material, the Wisdom text having a more universal appeal.
Breaking open the Wisdom of Solomon:
- Who is “wise” for you?
- How are you “wise”
- What is the heart of your wisdom?
Thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord:
Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why do you want the day of the LORD?
It is darkness, not light;
as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
The oracles of the prophet Amos date, most likely, from the reign of Jeroboam II, (ca. 748 BCE), when Israel, and Judah both, were experiencing peace with one another, military success, and a high level of prosperity. It is against this setting that Amos pronounces his oracles, perhaps recorded by a secretary, and certainly set in order by a later editor. This is strong stuff, pronounced to a complacent and difficult age. In a sharp contrast to popular belief, Amos describes the “Day of the Lord”, which was thought to be a day of victory and the culmination of YHWH’s intents for the earth, rather to be day of darkness and not light. Amos declares, “It is darkness, not light – as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear.” This is the language of confrontation to a people who were self-satisfied and complacent. Even their piety is judged, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” We want, we need to ask - “What is it then that YHWH needs from us?” It is declaimed in a single word, “justice”. What a message for our time, when hyper-religiosity tramples the rights of others and speaks badly of the poor and needy. Amos would love our time simply for the opportunity that it represents.
Breaking open the Amos:
- How are our times like those of Amos?
- What would the prophet say to our religious leaders and institutions?
- What does justice mean to you?
Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20
The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction,
and concern for instruction is love of her,
and love of her is the keeping of her laws,
and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality,
and immortality brings one near to God;
so the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom.
Please see the commentary for the track 1 alternate Response above.
Psalm 70 Deus, in adjutorium
Be pleased, O God, to deliver me; *
O LORD, make haste to help me.
Let those who seek my life be ashamed
and altogether dismayed; *
let those who take pleasure in my misfortune
draw back and be disgraced.
Let those who say to me "Aha!" and gloat over me turn back, *
because they are ashamed.
Let all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; *
let those who love your salvation say for ever,
"Great is the LORD!"
But as for me, I am poor and needy; *
come to me speedily, O God.
You are my helper and my deliverer; *
O LORD, do not tarry.
Again, the ascription for the psalm has been left off, depriving us of some valuable information, and some insight into the psychology of the psalmist. It reads, “For the lead player, for David, to call to mind.” A similar phrase is used in Psalm 38, where the New American Bible translates it as, “A psalm of David, for remembrance.” Alter uses the “call to mind” phraseology, which seems to expand the psychology from mere recall to something approaching confession. The initial verses will quickly come to mind in our recall of the Preces of the Divine Office. They seem to underscore the confessional nature of the ascription, and set a stage of confession. Perhaps the framers of the lectionary saw this psalm as a reaction on the part of those who listened to the complaints of Amos in the first reading. But here there is hope in a God who hastens to be of help, who is called, “deliverer”, and “helper.” In light of the Shadow Advent comments in the Background article, the last phrase is quite instructive, “O Lord, do not tarry.”
Breaking open the Psalm 70:
- What kind of things do you recall in your life?
- Are some of them difficult to remember? Why?
- Do they lead you to confession?
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 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 forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
This is an interesting reading in that it follows our having kept the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. One commentator titles this section, “Concerning Those Who are Asleep”, a delicate and pastoral phrase. Paul, however, quickly takes up the topic of death, and its imprint on those who are left behind. Here Paul gets to press the real message of the Gospel, and to address the notion of “hope.” You may want to set the context for this reading by reviewing Paul’s comments in earlier chapters (1:10, 2:19, 3:13, etc.). This is an expectant community, and their question is a practical one, “what about those who have died before Christ comes again?” Specific to his answer is the use of the phrase “fallen asleep” instead of “died” as evidenced in our text. Those who have “fallen asleep” can be wakened, and that is the hope. So out of the fears of his beloved Thessalonians Paul supplies a pastoral response and provides a goodly amount of theological talk about the second coming of Jesus. The final statement is the best example of this attitude, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
Breaking open Thessalonians:
- What are your hopes in this life?
- What are your hopes at the end of life?
- How do you hope to “fall asleep?”
St. Matthew 25:1-13
Jesus said, "Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, `Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, `Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise replied, `No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.' And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, `Lord, lord, open to us.' But he replied, `Truly I tell you, I do not know you.' Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann’s comments on this pericope are very helpful in providing a corrective context for this parable of Jesus. They contend that the first verse of the pericope needs to add the words, “and the bride,” which is evident in some texts. Why is this important? The bridegroom would not have attendants, but the bride would. And who is the bride here? If the bridegroom is God, then the bride would be Israel, and the attendants would have been watching for the coming of the bridegroom to bring the bride into his home. So Jesus makes the analogy between his own messianic ministry to Israel, and the ancient understanding of Israel as the bride of God. In a way, this text functions much as the comments by Hosea and Amos on the shepherds (the priests and religious authorities) of Israel – who have been found negligent. Jesus is hoping for a vigilant people, on the watch for an imminent God. Here again we have the Advent Shadow, as we are called to be watchful for the one who is coming. Although the meanings that Jesus implies in this parable are clearly ones of waiting for the Coming One, the roots are not of the new covenant, but rather deeply seated in the old.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- How do you watch for God?
- For what are you looking? What are the signs of the coming?
- In what ways have you fallen asleep to God?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller
 See especially Martin Noth’s comments on the development of Joshua in Das Buch Josua, and Bright’s The Book of Joshua.
 Wilson, W (2010), “The Wisdom of Solomon” The New Interpreter’s Bible One-Volume Commentary, Abingdon Press, Nashville, Tennessee, location 21560.
 Albright, W, and Mann, C. (1971) The Anchor Bible Matthew, Introduction, Translation, and Notes, Doubleday and Company, Inc. New York.