The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 27, 8 November 2020
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16
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.
Background: Advent’s Shadow
If we carefully look at the readings at this end of the Church’s Year, we will be able to detect a shadow of a much longer Advent. In fifth century Gaul, a season modeled on Lent began to emerge, a season that prepared for the Nativity of our Lord. This model was also known in northwest Italy, and later in Spain as well. The readings during this period emerged from Reginensis 9, a listing of readings that dates from the seventh century, probably from Milan, and the Ambrosian liturgy. With the emergence of a centralized Roman rite, these localized celebrations were reduced to four Sundays. It’s not too early then to launch into the Advent themes of the end of time and the beginning of the new. The increasing darkness of the season, and the moodier themes of the readings are ripe materials for the preacher.
First Reading: 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.
In a moving ceremony in which Joshua leads the people in a renewal of their covenant with YHWH, he first gathers the people together at Shechem, and then rehearses the history of that relationship. The first verses of that rehearsal (1-3a), begin at Ur and with Terah, the father of Abraham. In the elided verses (3c-13) that history is traced through the patriarchs, the sojourn in Egypt, the prophetic work of Moses and Aaron, and the leading of Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness. There is the blessing of Balaam, and the crossing of the Jordan, and the confrontation with those who already lived in the land of promise.
The renewal begins in the present time – “Now, therefore…” The root of the covenant is seen in the evidence of the history past. Its provisions were simple, and the question that Joshua asks on this day is primary: “Choose today whom you will serve.” It serves not only as a question for Israel, but one for our time as well. Whom shall we serve in this time of division and trouble?
It is interesting that the covenant is renewed, and is made again, between Joshua and the people. Usually the heavens and earth are called upon to be witnesses of the covenant made, and the blessings and curses of the agreement. It was the community that sheltered the agreement – the community of Israel, and the leadership of Joshua. In later verses (27), a stone is set up as a witness to this agreement, for future generations to see and to witness. It will be the history of the community, however, and their leaders, that will be the real witness. Whom did they choose to follow, and how were their lives led? Something for us to think about.
Breaking open Joshua:
1. What are the most important choices that you have made in life?
2. How did you choose God?
3. How do you continue to choose God?
Psalm 78:1-7 Attendite, popule
1 Hear my teaching, O my people; *
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
2 I will open my mouth in a parable; *
I will declare the mysteries of ancient times.
3 That which we have heard and known,
and what our forefathers have told us, *
we will not hide from their children.
4 We will recount to generations to come
the praiseworthy deeds and the power of the Lord, *
and the wonderful works he has done.
5 He gave his decrees to Jacob
and established a law for Israel, *
which he commanded them to teach their children;
6 That the generations to come might know,
and the children yet unborn; *
that they in their turn might tell it to their children;
7 So that they might put their trust in God, *
and not forget the deeds of God,
but keep his commandments;
Following Psalm 119, this is the second longest Psalm in the collection. It is a rehearsal of the history of Israel, and God’s acts for them in their liberation from Egypt, and their wanderings in the wilderness. For other examples of psalms such as this you may want to look at Psalm 105, 106, or 136. It is psalm in which praise of God is given in remembrances of God’s mighty acts for Israel and is especially good in accompanying the first reading for this morning. It recommends to the audience, which is noted in the first verse, “O, my people”, that they recount these deeds, and this history to their children. “That the next generation might come to know, children yet to be born.” The covenant is not fixed in time but is carried on by generation after generation. It is a debt owed to our children, and those who follow after us. Why?
“So that they might put their trust in God, *
and not forget the deeds of God,
but keep (God’s) commandments…”
Breaking open Psalm 78:
1. How has God been present in your history?
2. How have you made your history known to those who follow you?
3. How have you made God known to them?
The First Reading: Wisdom 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.
This reading comprises the end of the first section (1:1-6:21 of the Book of Wisdom, the so-called “The Book of Eschatology.” We need to look at Wisdom 1:1 in order to remind ourselves of the author’s purpose, “Love righteousness, you who judge the earth; think of YHWH in goodness and seek God in integrity of heart.” And thus, our pericope begins, “Hear, therefore…” It is an address to those who rule, those who choose to or are chosen to lead. It is a warning about the consequences of the acts of unfaithful and unrighteous people. It is unequivocating in its judgment. Verse 6 that leads up to our reading gives us pause, “For the lowly may be pardoned out of mercy, but the mighty shall be mightily put to the test.”
The actual verses of our reading are bright with the praise of Wisdom, so it is good for us to remember the author’s intent. Wisdom seems to be the redemption of impious and dangerous acts and thoughts. Apparently, we only need to be not only aware of Wisdom’s advantage but of her ubiquity as well, “Because she makes her rounds, seeking those worthy of her.” That God and Wisdom should be desirous of us is a wonderful thing – good news, in fact.
Breaking open Wisdom:
1. How have you and your acts been put to the test?
2. Are you one of the lowly, or are you one of the mighty?
3. How have you sought out wisdom?
Note: The Revised Common Lectionary leans over backward to offer readings from the Apocrypha, but also leans over backward to not force parishes to use them, hence the reading from Amos. Both of these readings are excellent, and perhaps both of them ought to be read – fine material to not only be heard, but to be preached as well.
First Reading: Amos 5:18-24
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.
This is the second woe in a series of three woes in the fifth chapter of Amos. The first woe, verses 7-17,addresses those who “turn justice into wormwood”. The third woe, Chapter 6, addresses the complacent. Our reading, the second woe, addresses those “who yearn for the Day of the Lord.” This may be the first time that the Day of the Lord is addressed in the scriptures. It was a hope of the people that God would intervene in their history and redeem them. Amos says warily, ‘Be careful about that which you desire.’ The reading is filled with opposites, “darkness, not light, gloom without any brightness.” Amos wants to startle his readers with the reality of God’s presence. Having brought sacrifices and offerings to God, they expected God’s favor and delight. Amos wants his readers to look deeply into their own hearts, and the motives that moved them to make an offering. “I hate, I despise your feasts.” Amos wants us to see who and what we really are, and how we offer and serve in society. It is not the offering that God despises, but rather the true heart of those who offer and sing. There is an alternative that is offered, and it is one that we need to truly heed in these days, in our time. “Rather, let justice surge like waters, and righteousness like an unfailing stream.” Here is what needs to be offered not only to God, but to our neighbor and our community as well.
Breading open Amos:
1. How do you wish God would intervene in your world?
2. How might you be affected by God’s judgment?
3. What do you see in Amos’ use of the word “justice”?
Response: 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.
These are the verses that follow immediately after our reading (above). It is in praise of wisdom and the consequences of Wisdom: Discipline, Keeping the Law, Incorruptibility, and finally the Kingdom. What follows these verses is a hymn to Wisdom, composed by Solomon.
Breaking open Wisdom:
1. What are the disciplines of your life?
2. What do you understand the Law to be?
3. What is the kingdom?
Psalm 70 Deus, in adjutorium
1 Be pleased, O God, to deliver me; *
O Lord, make haste to help me.
2 Let those who seek my life be ashamed
and altogether dismayed; *
let those who take pleasure in my misfortune
draw back and be disgraced.
3 Let those who say to me "Aha!" and gloat over me turn back, *
because they are ashamed.
4 Let all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; *
let those who love your salvation say for ever,
"Great is the Lord!"
5 But as for me, I am poor and needy; *
come to me speedily, O God.
6 You are my helper and my deliverer; *
O Lord, do not tarry.
When we think about salvation, we most likely think of it in theological terms, not in terms of daily life. In this psalm, however, salvation is something that the author yearns for. It is everyday enemies that concern the author, “those who take pleasure in my misfortune.” That is a comment that has not been silenced in our time, as we live in a time and society where we actively desire that those we dislike or don’t understand to be treated badly. The author is unabashed in the description of the situation. “I am poor and needy.” That is not something that you admit to in this day and age. I always like Jan Bender’s translation of the first of the beatitudes, “How blest are those who know their need of God.” Indeed, the kingdom of heaven is theirs, and God is their helper and their deliverer.
Breaking open Psalm 70:
1. Who is it that seeks you harm?
2. Whom do you distrust or harm?
3. How has God been your deliverer?
Second Reading: I 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.
What an appropriate reading following All Souls’ Day (2 November). It is also a good example of readings representing the Advent Shadow discussed in the Background (above). It is rife with Paul’s eschatology, and the hopes engendered by Jewish apocalyptic. This is met by the Thessalonians’ real question as to what will happen to those who have died before the coming of Jesus again. Paul does not speak of death directly but rather assigns it a gentler term, “those who have fallen asleep”, although some English translations use the phrase, “have died.” His concern is one of consolation, and of promise as well. The expectation that he shares with them is of a coming-again Christ, and the reunion of souls with Christ. The closing passage is quite pastoral, “Therefore, console one another with these words.” Paul connects the death and resurrection of Jesus with what is promised those who follow Jesus – that God will raise them too.
Breaking open I Thessalonians:
1. What are your hopes and beliefs about death and what follows?
2. How do you articulate this hope?
3. Do you fear death?
The Gospel: 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.”
With this reading we have one of several “Parables of the Kingdom”, namely, “The Faithful Slave” (24:45-51), “The Man Going on a Journey” (25:14-30) next Sunday’s Gospel, and our reading today, “The Ten Virgins” (25:1-13). These are preceded by “The Coming of the Son of Man” (24:29-44), and followed by “The Judgment” the Gospel for Christ the King (25:31-46). It might be good to read all of these pericopes in order to explore the full context of Matthew’s eschatology.
Matthew’s focus is concentrated on the Bridegroom, so much so that it appears that he (or scribes transcribing his text) eliminated some words at the end of verse 1, “Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom,” ‘and the bride’! Several manuscripts have that as the ending to that sentence, and it follows, in that the attendants were assigned to the Bride, not the groom. That was the custom at the time of Jesus, and the times before. That is what the reader would expect. And who is the bride? None other than Israel. Jesus’ message here is that God is coming to claim God’s own, God’s chosen. We know Israel to be the bride, especially in Hosea, and similarly in Revelation we understand the bride to be the Messianic Community. The attendants, however, the ones who are to be watchful, awaiting the Bridegroom’s appearance, are of a concern. There are those who have been faithless, and those who have been vigilant. That is a picture of the community in which Matthew writes. There is no comparable scene in the Gospel of Luke, but you might want to look at Luke 12:325ff. Keeping watch is the order of the day both then and now.
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. Where have you been foolish in your life?
2. How have you been watchful and careful?
3. What are you expecting at the end of time?
General idea: Choosing and Knowing
Example 1: Understanding Joshua’s choices (Track One, First Reading)
Knowing when Wisdom chooses us (Track Two, First Reading A)
Knowing our Expectations (Track Two, First Reading B)
Example 2: What shall we choose to share with the generations following? (Track One, Psalm 78:1-7)
Knowing our poverty and neediness (Track Two, Psalm 70)
Example 3: Knowing what God intends (Second Reading)
Example 4: Choosing to and knowing how to wait (Gospel)
Questions and comments copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller
 ILCW, (1978), The Lutheran Book of Worship, Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, Canticle 17.