A Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
(Joshua 24.1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78.1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4.9-18; Matthew 25.1-13)
Recently, we have considered selected highlights of the story of Israel’s God-won freedom. You will remember hearing of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and more recently Joshua. Each of these contributed to the plan of God – a plan that stretched well beyond any one lifespan or vision.
We, encouragingly, are part of something much bigger than ourselves.
The mover in this story, and in ours, is God. Of course, the Israelite account remains the story the birthing of a nation. But still it remains, at every point, a story told and enacted by God.
Today’s reading sees the Israelites at rest in their new homeland. It is the culmination of a series of miracles. These are still celebrated today around our globe.
And Joshua, their leader, knows exactly who deserves the credit: God. Sure, this community has followed, fled, and fought, but this outcome is far from theirs.
God has led to the land of promise.
And so Joshua seeks a response to God’s grace-filled activity. He is – essentially – asking the people the vital question of priority.
Anything or anyone placed above this gracious and active creator – and here – re-creator – will lead them back into slavery. This is true not just of this new land and its riches. Residing in every good and God-given gift lies the possibility of distraction from God.
All things – apart from God – hold the potential to become an idol.
Joshua, here, epitomises the prioritising of God above all else. He is the faithful preacher, leader, and God-follower. His words and actions urge and inspire others to place God first. The listeners respond with a resolve to trust in God alone.
But, Joshua, I would suggest, knows the limited influence of his pep-talk. He can point the way, but he cannot force others to embrace God. If they need part ways, Joshua is content. He will guide where he can, but not beyond. He speaks for his family, but not the nation.
All this is expressed in his memorable declaration: ‘As for me and my family, we will serve the Lord’.
Joshua is a good and healthy example for us. He holds both a wonderful treasure in his faith and a deep desire to share it. I hope you do too.
But Joshua is not one to violently remove the God-given gift of choice. He urges, invites, and resolves to faithfully follow the God of freedom before the people – but he does no more.
And the Israelites choose to respond for God. They are found resolute. They rehearse together the acts of God that have occurred among them and are able to see that there is a rich wisdom in the words and ways of Joshua. Surely he has done little more than articulate what they already know.
Joshua is doing exactly what our Psalm urges us to do. He is faithfully, graciously, generously, handing on his discoveries about God to the next generation.
And so must we. For we hold a treasure to be shared.
I sincerely hope our ‘Dinner and Dreaming’ evening, and all the discussion that emerges from it springs from a deep desire to share this treasure we hold in these ‘jars of clay’.
The Thessalonians were clearly a loving lot. Paul sees that this community has seen God, in the person of Jesus, and the staggering, undeserved love that this creator continues to lavish upon them.
But their response is not to bask in the glow of this love. Rather, they imitate the one they have discovered. They have been ‘taught by God to love one another’. It is an important connection to make. We love because God loves.
And this love is manifesting more and more in this small community. Paul sees this and desires that it continue to become a catalyst for the re-ordering of every aspect of their lives. This God-love will change the way they live, work, rest, play, and serve. Like Joshua, Paul envisions a radical reordering – a re-centring – of their lives around God:
And the purpose of this re-ordering is missional.
Quiet lives of love and faith will empower them to behave ‘properly toward outsiders’. And it will also have a second significant effect: they will not be dependant on the systems of the world and the priorities of others.
Paul seems to insist on a generous relationship with all, and a distance from any practices that are not God-honoring. It is quite a balance.
But it is a balance worth our whole-hearted pursuit. There are good and healthy results of the humble, God-honoring, love-saturated life. Such a life maintains and grows our cross-won freedom to live the lives we were created to enjoy: lives characterised by this Jesus-won liberty and love.
The way we live is our echo the heart of God that sings across all creation.
And for Paul this radical freedom we are learning to live goes far beyond the limitations of this life. Paul moves seamlessly between discussing the way we live here and the way we will live beyond.
Paul speaks of a mystery – even he does not see or comprehend all that eternal life consists of. But he speaks of these things to offer words of hope and encouragement. They are a vision intended to add to who we are in the here and now. Heaven is a vision that changes us.
And then there is our Gospel reading: the parable of the bridesmaids.
Read it with care and there is little reason to go down the path of struggling with the oil-rich bridesmaid’s refusal to share their fuel. This is not a story about generosity. Other Jesus-stories do that.
Here, helpfully, there is a pointer to the parable’s purpose that sits immediately after our story: ‘Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.’
Our story is urging us to live lives of readiness, anticipation, and preparation for the coming of the Christ. Like Paul, Jesus is able to move seamlessly between the here-and-now and the hope of heaven.
And perhaps that is exactly what each of these passages asks of us: to live here from the perspective of heaven. Jesus said it most succinctly: ‘Your will be done on earth as in heaven’
Is it any wonder we have been known for millennia as a ‘peculiar’ people, a community, with echoes of ancient Israel, who ‘sojourn’ in a foreign land?
We belong, we long for, the coming reign of another king – Jesus our soon to return king. May each of us be found ready.