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Readings: Third Sunday before Advent; Remembrance Sunday

31 October 2014


Amos 5.18-24 or Wisdom 6.12-16; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-end; Matthew 25.1-13 

Almighty Father, whose will is to restore all things in your beloved Son, the King of all: govern the hearts and minds of those in authority, and bring the families of the nations, divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin, to be subject to his just and gentle rule; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

AS LAST week, geography is important. This is another message from the margins, where things look different from the perspective at the centre of power. Amos was from Tekoa, a fortified wilderness hill-city, ten miles south of Jerusalem, from which King Jehoshaphat once defeated neighbouring enemies who had ended up killing each other (2 Chronicles 20.20-30). A century later, that triumph of Jerusalem's king was remembered vividly.

Now, in mid-eighth century BC, there was over-confidence in Jerusalem, where another king, Uzziah, had won battles in this wilderness region where he built towers, and, loving the soil, farmed the lowlands west of Tekoa (2 Chronicles 26). Meanwhile, north of Jerusalem, King Jeroboam of Israel was also consolidating his nation's security. Both kings were long-lived, and archaeological finds confirm the biblical accounts of widespread prosperity, at least for the upper classes.

Yet the Chronicler records tersely "[Uzziah] became strong and grew proud, to his destruction" (2 Chronicles 26.16). So, enter Amos, like King Uzziah a herdsman and arboriculturist (Amos 7.14). The occasion seems to be a harvest festival (Amos 8.1). Amos's message was as devastating as it was unexpected, given the pervading sense of well-being in both nations. But Amos, like Micah soon after him, saw below the surface to the rotten heart of both nations, to the oppression of the poor by the rich, which he spelled out in gruesome specificity (Amos 4.1, 5.10-13, 6.1,4-7, 8.4-6).

About 30 years before the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom, Amos voiced God's lament over its future fall (Amos 5.1-3) before pleading for the people to seek God and live. God had not changed; yet justice was perverted amid the people's prosperity. He warned them not to seek refuge through offering sacrifices in Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba: places of previous theophanies and displays of God's power (Amos 5.4-5, 4.4).

Then came the dire, vivid warnings we heard, effectively, of being thrown out of the frying pan into the fire. Announcing God's absolute hatred and rejection of sham religious observances underpinned by injustice and unrighteousness, Amos pleaded for justice and righteousness to roll down like rushing waters.

This Remembrance weekend, we describe ourselves in the collect as nations divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin. We are all too aware of the complexities of world situations that lead nations into wars, with rarely clear political answers. Yet Amos insists that there are clear ethical answers: the prosperity of nations cannot be allowed to conceal the suffering of the poor, worse their oppression, behind a façade of well-being. No one can seek the day of the Lord in the future as the alternative to pursuing justice now.

So Amos calls us to dare to live faithfully in, and responsively to, the world and national situations in which we find ourselves. He shouts that our God is coming with justice. As the centenary of the First World War reminds us all too cogently, this makes enormous demands on us, whether we live in the UK or Iraq, Syria, or African nations where there is injustice.

Jesus, teaching his disciples privately (Matthew 24.3), touched on this in a different way. The scene was a typical village wedding, but the focus was not so much the centre of the festivities - the coming of the bridegroom - as how people managed the consequences of his delay.

That was also the issue for the Thessalonians: did they live expectantly and appropriately? Weddings took place at night, and, as now in Middle Eastern cultures, for a woman to be out at night without a light was unthinkable; yet five of the bridesmaids risked their reputations and their participation by being unprepared. With echoes of Matthew 7.21-22, they were locked out.

We can debate the details of the parable, and whether we should read it allegorically, but the point is clear: how we act now must express our vocation to be utterly faithful to God, who is coming among us with justice. There are consequences for the future, and our pilgrimage begins with the first step.

I am reminded of the evocative title of Eugene Peterson's autobiographical book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.

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