‘Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?’ We heard these words just a few moments ago. They come from the book of Amos, one of the prophets in the Old Testament, and those are not necessarily words I would choose as words of comfort, let’s say during a hospital visit. These are dark words, uncomfortable words. Now Amos is a very uncomfortable guy, like most of the prophets. He lived in the 8th century B.C. and was originally a farmer. But then he received a call from God to prophesy in the kingdom of Israel.
And it seems that not all was well in Israel at that time: the rich were getting richer, and the poor were exploited and getting poorer. People would give lip service to God, but not live according to their faith, or according to God’s commandments. And those commandments included: to take care of the weak: the widow and the orphan, the foreigner. From the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures, we get the idea that a society can only live in peace and prosperity if all are taken care of. That inequality and injustice weaken society as a whole, because any kind of dissatisfaction and frustration about a less than perfect status quo lead to division, and division makes the whole body weaker.
And haven’t we also seen this over the last years in this country? And especially this past year? The elections may be over, but as a country, we are still a big mess. There are plenty of issues that we – yes, we, and not just elected officials – have to deal with if we want to bridge the gaping chasms between people that have deepened and widened over the last few years.
But back to the 8th century B.C. God is not happy with the people of Israel, especially because of the economic disparity among the people, and Amos is not shy to share God’s message very clearly and bluntly – some might even say rudely – with the upper class, religious leaders among them. ‘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 a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’ Thus thunders God using Amos about 2,800 years ago, and this voice echoes through time and space. This voice still has a lot of relevance today, and it still makes us uncomfortable, as it should. God’s voice still hits us today: Let justice roll down like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
We are, for the most part, not very comfortable with this justice thing. We may think it’s too political, and isn’t faith all about our personal relationship with God, and about deriving comfort from it? We are much more comfortable with charity than we are with working for justice – and don’t get me wrong, charity is important – but charity can only be a temporary band aid as we make society more just for all. God is very clear about that. Faith may be personal, but it calls for faithfulness, as we serve God – and the people of God.
We are close, very close, to the end – to the end of the church year, that is. End-of-the world themes abound in our lectionary for the church right now, themes we call apocalyptic. Now the term apocalyptic, with the help of Hollywood, has taken on a life on its own, and we tend to think of alien attacks or some nuclear disaster, and the remaining people on this planet fighting ruthlessly for survival – but the word originally means, ‘to unveil’, which is to reveal, to uncover, to make known. Apocalyptic times are literally times when things become clear.
Amos is one of those apocalyptic prophets who help shed light on all that’s wrong in the Kingdom of Israel. And God, through Amos, is urging the people: make an end to it! Change your ways! Otherwise your behavior, indeed, spells apocalyptic doom a la Hollywood. And, just as an aside, the Kingdom of Israel with its capital Samaria is conquered by the Assyrian super power roughly 40 years later after Amos’ prophecies and ceases to exist.
Today’s gospel has an apocalyptic theme as well. It talks about the end times and the coming of the Lord. And it is not a story of triumph and glory and joyous trumpet sounds, but a story that also talks about the day of the Lord as a day of darkness, as in today’s lesson from Amos: the Lord will come again like a bridegroom in the night. Keep your lamps lit at all times! Stay awake, stay alert! Otherwise you might miss the moment, like those foolish bridesmaids.
Now this is a concept that may not be that easy for us to comprehend: that God cannot only be found in moments of joy and glory, in nature, in worship and song, but that God is often to be found in dark times and places as well. That it is in dark times that God is waiting for us, challenging us: are your lamps lit? Do you shed light on injustice? Are you prepared to uncover unrighteousness? Are you alert as god-less things happen around you, and maybe in you as well, and help bring about God’s love, peace, and justice where they are missing? Do you see that Christ only waits to be revealed and discovered in the suffering and need of your neighbor?
I think we have to keep asking ourselves these questions in the times we’re in. As I already mentioned, the elections may be over, and roughly 50% of the people in this country may think that, now, things miraculously will fall into place, and all will be well, since the person they see as the savior of this country was elected. And the other roughly 50% probably think that the U.S. will fall into the abyss over the next 4 years.
But whatever our position is on that, we can’t just lean back – be it either because we are satisfied with the outcome of the election, or be it because we are despairing – or even worse, indifferent. We are first and foremost followers of Christ, and bound to his command of love. We are called to shed a light on every injustice, committed by anyone, far left, far right, and anywhere in between. We gotta stay on our toes, at all times – for the sake of Christ, and for the sake of our neighbor who is disadvantaged or underprivileged. We have to stay awake, under all circumstances.
The end is near. Christ is on his way. Maybe not in the way of one last and definite appearance as the heavens are rendered open and things suddenly and radically are changed – but rather each and every day, each and every night, as Christ is waiting to be welcomed into our lives. And this daily and nightly coming is apocalyptic, and it marks the end – the end of something. Indifference. Ignorance. Hubris. A false sense of security that we derive from the idols that are worshiped so openly and blatantly in this country and around the world – money, power, privilege. It may be hard to have all these things come to an end, because they make our lives so much easier.
But our comfort here on earth is not the goal of our existence. The goal is God’s kingdom, in which everyone is reconciled with God and with one another. Christ came and continues to come to proclaim that this kingdom is near, and that we shouldn’t stop praying, ‘Thy kingdom come’.
We may grieve or even resist endings, but if we have learned anything from the story of Jesus Christ, it is that in each ending, there is a new beginning. Christ’s death on a cross on Good Friday leads to his resurrection on Easter Day. Yes, the coming of Christ and the apocalyptic, the revealing moments that follow closely should make us uncomfortable – at least a little. Are we ready? Are our lamps trimmed and lit?
But at the same time, it also is a reason for comfort and joy. The groom is coming, the wedding party is about to start! A party, to which, as Jesus Christ points out over and over, all are invited, even and especially those whom nobody else thinks to invite. We are invited.
And so we can embrace any kind of end, and sing – and we will do this at the end of this service:
Rejoice, rejoice, believers, and let your lights appear;
The ev’ning is advancing, and darker night is near.
The bridegroom is arising and soon is drawing nigh.
Up, pray and watch and wrestle; at midnight comes the cry.
Our hope and expectation, O Jesus, now appear;
Arise, O Sun so longed for, o’er this benighted sphere.
With hearts and hands uplifted, we plead, O Lord, to see
The day of earth’s redemption that sets your people free!
And may God’s people say: Amen!
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