Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Amos 5: 18-24
I Thessalonians 4: 13-18
Matthew 25: 1-13
“…The day of the Lord can generate the confession that even in the midst of terror God prompts or releases words that become the pathway to the restoration of life within the community and between community and God. Such a community plainly admits of its inability to know how to walk the path of faithfulness and gladly looks forward to God as a teacher of God’s ways. Yet, those who stand in the way of God’s intent will finds themselves moved to exclaim over their undoing.”
–Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey, Living in the Language of God.
As I write this, it is Wednesday, the day after the 2020 election. I and most Americans have probably spent the day on the edge of our seats, waiting to hear the final results of the election. We are hoping and probably praying that our candidate wins and may even be fearful or frustrated or angry if the other fellow wins. The fear, of course, is that the other fellow will bring on the apocalypse.
On the other hand, if my candidate wins, happy days are here again, to quote another long-ago presidential candidate’s slogan (and also a Volkswagen ad). It’s the beginning of a new age of bliss and hope, or perhaps the continuation of an age of bliss and hope. Perhaps it is even in some small measure the arrival of the Kingdom of God on earth.
To sum up: Either the apocalypse or the Kingdom of God. Heavens to murgatroyd, the 2020 election in the United States of America must be the most consequential event in all of human history!
Just the same as the last election. And just the same as the next election.
And so Amos brings us up short with this disruptive, upsetting reminder:
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It’s a good question. Why do we want the day of the Lord? What I mean by that is why do we infuse so much cosmic meaning into certain events? Why does it seem to us that certain events, in our lifetime, events that either affect us or that in some way we cause, must be so fraught with meaning that they must be consequential for all time? And why is it that in some way, we long for those events—we want them to happen in our lifetimes—in this particular way—in this particular event?
Perhaps it’s inevitable human egocentrism. At some level we want history to be all about us, so we expect the most cosmically important things to happen in our lifetimes. We laugh at the people who believe that Jesus is returning right now, at some predictable time within our lifetimes. It always cracks us up when the Hal Lindseys of the world get the date wrong, but then we’re mystified by how quickly he and his followers can just adjust their message to prove that even though they are wrong, they are right. But really, how are we any different? We infuse cosmic meaning into events in our lives, imagining them to be harbingers of the in breaking of the Kingdom of God, for good or for ill. If it doesn’t go the way we predict, then we just adjust our thinking in a way that still means it went the way we predicted. It is the apocalypse, just like I said. It is the Kingdom of God on earth, just like I said. We want it to be the day of the Lord, and no one can tell us otherwise.
Really, in many ways, our perspective about the Day of the Lord is skewed by our deep, very human desire to control history, to control destiny, to control God. Yes, to control God.
It is that narrow, blinders-on, it’s-all-about-us egocentrism that is exactly the target of God’s ire in the book of Amos. What you think, God says, is that the Day of the Lord will prove that you are right. It’ll be the big “I told you so!” you get to shout to the world. What you think is that it’s about you, or about human destiny. What you miss is that it isn’t about you at all. It isn’t about your political party winning or losing or your supreme court justices or whatever it is you think makes all the difference. It isn’t about this moment being some pivot point in all of history.
It’s about the Lord. It’s about what the Lord wants.
Our scriptures today are about perspective. In Jesus’ parable, for instance, ten bridesmaids are all going to meet the bridegroom at the gate. I don’t need to give you a primer on Jewish wedding practices in the First Century. The parable is self-explanatory. The bridegroom could arrive at the venue at any time, and the bridesmaids are supposed to have their lamps ready and lit when he arrives, probably also ready and lit. But as it stretches into the night, they burn down the oil in their lamps, and suddenly it becomes clear who had the big picture and who was sort of wrapped up in the moment. Some bridesmaid brought extra oil. They came prepared for anything. Some bridesmaids only brought enough for the moment, but since it didn’t happen on their timetable, they were unprepared when the bridegroom actually arrived. After all, the wedding wasn’t about them, and their job wasn’t to get their way. Their job was about the bridegroom. They forget that.
We forget it, too. At some level, it’s inevitable. The consequential moments of our history matter a great deal to each of us personally, because our time is limited on the earth. Our personal sense of history runs about a hundred years, and it’s done, so it seems to us that all the events of our history is all there is to history. But thinking that way is only bringing enough oil to light our lamps for the moment. Scripture reminds us that we are, by the grace of God, involved in a much larger and far more cosmic sweep of history than our mortal five-score years; and it both invites us and warns us to be prepared for the long haul. After all, history is not about our moment on this earth. It’s about the Lord, who transcends all moments, whose work is far larger than the most important events of our lives and the most important thing the most important one of us living in this important moment right now will ever do.
It isn’t about us, it’s about God.
One of the ways that our own apocalyptic way of thinking is clearly evident and plays out in our national conversation is the way we have aligned so severely to one side or the other. It’s an illustration of black and white thinking. Black and white thinking is a hallmark of apocalyptic. Always we believe we, represented by me, what I believe is right and true and godly, is aligned against the wrong, the untrue, and ungodly, represented by them, on the other side. Apocalypticists have to have a demon to fight, someone or something we can point to as the embodiment of evil. We’ve done that to one another.
But a true “Day of the Lord” is unlikely to confirm how right I am. A true “Day of the Lord calls us to humility, to an humble knowledge of our inadequacy, our arrogance, our failure to truly be God’s people. As our parish associate Warner Bailey puts it in his book “Living in the Language of God,” the day of the Lord creates a community that…
… plainly admits of its inability to know how to walk the path of faithfulness and gladly looks forward to God as teacher of God’s ways. Yet, those who stand in the way of God’s intent will finds themselves moved to exclaim over their undoing.
This community admits that we don’t even have the words, much less the actions, to honor God, to live according to the Lord’s command in Amos to
let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Let me humbly suggest that the closeness of this election, whoever wins, is a call to humility for all sides and for all of us. There’s no clear uncontestable winner in this supposedly apocalyptic battle. It seems that our black and white thinking has proven to be pretty gray. Let me suggest that it is quite possible that no matter how absolutely fixed and certain I am that my side is right, God may consider my side just one marred side of the same bad coin.
Perhaps it is time for all of us to admit that none of us really knows what God wants–and to turn in humility to the Lord that God would give us the words and the actions that are needed in this time to heal our nation, not only of our very real health and economic and social justice illnesses, but of our deeper national spiritual malaise. Instead of insisting so hard that we are right, to confess our inability either to know the right or to do it, and ask that the Lord give us the humility to admit we’re all in the same boat and need God’s wisdom to do what is best for ourselves, for each other, for the world, and to God’s glory.
Last night I participated in a Zoom post-election prayer session led by my friend the Rev. Jack Crane of Truevine Baptist Church. Our prayer group was mostly a mixed-race group of men from Truevine. To help us keep perspective, Jack shared ten things that will still be true after the election is over. Among them:
God will still be on God’s throne.
Jesus will still be Lord.
The tomb will still be empty.
The cross, not the government, will be our salvation.
God will be with us always—God will never leave us or forsake us.
These are the truisms that transcend every supposed “Day of the Lord” we experience and that always define God’s TRUE “Day of the Lord.” The Day of the Lord is the day that God is proven sovereign, that Jesus is proven Lord, that the cross and the resurrection are clearly posted as the true and only crisis point of history, and that God is shown to be always with us and will never leave us or forsake us. Any day of the Lord that does less than that isn’t the ultimate day of the Lord. Anything that distracts us from those truths isn’t a day of the Lord.
The only day of the Lord that matters is the one that teaches us that this day, and every day, is always and only the Lord’s.