Today in the Spirit: Proper 27A

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For us as worshipers, the next few weeks of the Sunday lectionary readings in Pentecost make for a pre-Advent period of preparation before the new church year. The focus of our attention is moved to the theme of right living in readiness for the end times. In Year A, that shift takes place with the assignment of three consecutive readings out of Matthew 25, two parables, and a vision of God the King at judgment for Christ the King Sunday (the last Sunday after Pentecost). For Proper 27A, we have a Gospel reading out of Matthew 25:1-13, the Parable of the Ten Virgins, at the end of which Jesus concludes with the summary teaching, Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour (13).

The appointed OT reading from Amos 5:18-24 provides something of a counterweight to the teaching of the Gospel with the warning, Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD (18), an OT name for a day of judgment predicted in some prophetic books. We do not wait for the end times by idly looking up to the sky for signs of its coming, but by living faithfully for God, without idols, and in just relationships with our neighbors. So, let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (24). The assigned Psalm 70 is a song of petition with “David” praying repeatedly to YHWH, make haste to help me! (1). 

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The sequential NT readings in 1 Thessalonians move now to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, in which, appropriately for a pre-Advent period, Paul addresses the saints’ apparent preoccupation with the eternal state of those who die before Jesus’ coming (which they thought was imminent). He teaches emphatically: For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep (15). The Collect, fittingly with the readings, affirms that Jesus “came into the world” for our salvation and petitions for spiritual preparation for “when he comes again.”   

The Collect

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.

I Will Not Accept Them (Amos 5:18-24)

“I hate, I despise your feasts,
    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 peace offerings of your fattened animals,
    I will not look upon them.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (23-24).

Amos’ oracles delivered to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel reveal YHWH’s terrifying knowledge of the inner man. The people of Israel showed enthusiasm for fulfilling religious duties and customs but without hearts turned to him in the spirit of true worship. Notice, first, the emphatic refusal of God to accept their rituals: I will not accept them and I will not look upon them and I will not listen. Note, then, that there is no escaping judgment for Israel, not in this passage or anywhere in the Book of Amos. (There is a call to repentance in the previous chapter, but never a hope of escaping exile (5:17). Much like the foolish virgins in the Gospel parable assigned for today, they will learn only through their destruction that they have ignored what is right and just in their covenant relationship with the One God.

One warning for us here, devotionally, is to guard against the trap of empty ritualism in our own worship. Christian churches of any tradition can degenerate that way. Pastor and author Adam T. Barr describes our frightful tendency to ritualism this way: “But more fundamentally, ritualism is difficult, like faking a laugh. In extreme cases, it can be deadly, like mistreating a disease.” Of course, unlike OT Israel, the Christian church operates in the age of grace and the Holy Spirit. See how Peter’s preaching on repentance in Acts, unlike that of Amos, offers hope: And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (2:38); and, Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus” (3:19-20).

Today, by your Spirit, dear Lord, reveal to my church any empty ritualism that lurks inside us like a mistreated disease, knowing now, by your grace, our repentance can transform us inside and out.    

You Are My Help and My Deliverer (Psalm 70)

Make haste, O God, to deliver me!
    O Lord, make haste to help me!
Let them be put to shame and confusion
    who seek my life!
Let them be turned back and brought to dishonor
    who delight in my hurt!
Let them turn back because of their shame
    who say, “Aha, Aha!”
May all who seek you
    rejoice and be glad in you!
May those who love your salvation
    say evermore, “God is great!”
But I am poor and needy;
    hasten to me, O God!
You are my help and my deliverer;
    O Lord, do not delay!

This is the only Sunday in the three-year lectionary for which this short psalm is assigned. These words were probably lifted from Psalm 40:13-17 to be used separately in a liturgy for the memorial offering (see Leviticus 24:7). As we give voice to these words on Sunday, we are meant to be impressed by how supremely confident “David” is as he utters one strongly worded invocation after another, two against his enemies and two in favor of the people of God. (Look at all the exclamation points put into the ESV translation)! The bond of the covenant relationship between YHWH and Israel is so keenly felt that the king will call on God’s name to bring down protection and prosperity from on high.

Devotionally, this is one of many psalms to help us through dark periods of humiliation (note: not just humility in general, but mortification). A project of yours “fails” at work, and everyone looks to the one in charge for explanations; a child of yours misbehaves badly at school, and everyone blames the parent; a ministry project you have advocated results in the congregation shrinking instead of growing, and everyone looks to the pastor. How shall we respond? Like David, calling upon God to crush the spirit of those who say, “Aha, aha!” and to call upon God for help when we are feeling the most poor and needy. Here is the faith of the persistent widow in Jesus’ parable. Much as David does in the psalm, she pleads with the unjust judge, “Give me justice against my adversary” (Luke 18:3). And hear Jesus’ conclusion to the parable for all his followers to hear:And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:7-8).

In the power of the Holy Spirit, today, let me find the faith of David displayed in this psalm through my season of humiliation at present. 

Always with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words (16-18).

Notice: not “we will all be with the Lord,” but we will always be with the Lord. As Paul tried to reassure those who believed that those who died before Christ came might be left out of the resurrection, the first statement might have been more to the point: all will be with Jesus. But Paul the pastor anticipates the deeper question: Will all those who are caught up together with the Lord stay in the presence of Jesus? 

The mechanics aside as to how the resurrection of the dead will work, our deepest longing is to know for certain we will be with him always, to remain with him. I think, in a similar manner, our Lord presents the Great Commission to the disciples. Any number of questions could have been raised about the command to “make disciples of all nations,” but all anxiety about the details falls away with that final statement, And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). What are some of the how-to questions you have about this life or the life to come? How can I lead my kids to faith in Christ? How can I have more impact in my ministry? Will I recognize my loved ones in heaven?

Today, Holy Spirit, do your work with me as you did through Paul with the Thessalonians: Let me rest assured that we will always be with the Lord Jesus.

Watch Therefore (Matthew 25:1-13)

But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour (6-13).

Jesus’ listeners would have recognized by his telling of this parable that these ten virgins would not have been official members of the wedding party. If they were, they would not have been waiting outside late into the night for the passing of the wedding procession to the bridegroom’s home. They were hangers-on. Their participation at the feast would have been perfectly acceptable and welcome, but the initiative to get there would be all on them. Some of them were wise in that situation; others were not. 

One issue for our discipleship here is that of remaining on watch (keep watch NIV, be alert NASB) with God when it is off-season, when we are in the routine, and our participation is informal. It is easy to be ready for the formal occasions when the appearance of holiness is expected. But how are you doing otherwise? 

To me, a good summary of what Jesus means by keep watch in this parable comes from Paul’s words in our NT reading of a few weeks ago: Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality (Romans 12:9-13). That’s a lot, especially when it is dark outside, and we get sleepy. The grace of God through the ministry of Christ and the power of his Holy Spirit is our light both to give energy and to show the way.

Today, in the Spirit, hearing this parable on Sunday, I confess to you my own frequent lack of readiness in the times of waiting and informality. Empower me with the wakefulness to watch at all hours.

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

View more from Geoff Little

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