Sermons given by Rev Dr Brian Brown for the North Lake Macquarie Congregations
“READY AND WAITING” Joshua 24:1-3a; 14-25, Matthew25: 1-13
Presented to The Willows Congregation, 12th November 2023
Last week, when I spoke about leadership, I mentioned a few quotes that portrayed different opinions as to what good leadership looked like. The gentle Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu spoke of the best leaders as those who left people believing that they had done it themselves. On the other hand, we had a smile about the more stringent pronouncement of Ronald Reagan- “If they do not see the light, then apply the heat.”
Ironically, the tenor of today’s readings tends towards this latter Reaganesque emphasis. Both Joshua and Jesus display a strong sense of urgency in their admonitions to their respective audiences.
Different times call for different tactics. Joshua speaks to the Israelites in the days immediately preceding his own death. The leadership is about to change. This is no time for complacency in their attitude, or ambiguity in their allegiance to God. The Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is himself speaking to the people in his own dying days. His followers are about to be tested in the extreme crisis of his execution. This is no time to expect that they can sit back and let others take responsibility for charging their lamps with oil, of being prepared for cataclysmic change.
Be prepared! I remember embracing this motto when I was inducted into Cubs, as a young boy. You had to learn to tie a bowline around your waist without looking, in case you fell into deep water and someone threw you a rope. You had to know a round turn and two half hitches in case you had to secure the leg of an elephant to a nearby tree trunk. In these and many other ways we were trained, also later in the Boy Scouts, to be competent and responsible citizens, not expecting others to pick up after us, nor letting our lack of planning become someone else’s emergency. I also learned from my best friend’s father how to tie on a fishing hook using a half blood knot, and locking it using an extra loop. If the big one is going to get away, as some inevitably do, you do not want the extra mortification of a lazy failed knot.
It seems that at least half of the young female population of the Israel of Jesus’ day may not have had the opportunity to receive similar disciplined training or if they did, they did not take it seriously. When the time came for them to wait for the coming of the bridegroom, they did not have spare oil to charge their lamps. Somewhere along the line they had lost their focus, become distracted. They were not prepared and ready.
The judgment of them in Jesus’ parable seems unduly harsh. Is there no place of forgiveness here? Jesus often uses hyperbole in his parables to ram home his point, because the times are urgent, and people need to be ready for anything at any time.
Similarly, Joshua pulls no punches as he addresses the people about what he suspects is their less than wholehearted allegiance to the God of Israel. Three times he challenges them to put away the idols of the local deities of which they have become enamoured in their travels. Three times they insist that they are fully committed to the God of Israel. Even then he remains unconvinced as to their sincerity. As I read this again the damning words of the Spirit of Christ in The Book of Revelation to the Church of Laodicea came to mind “You are neither hot nor cold, and I will spew you out of my mouth.” Maybe Ronald Reagan had a point- “If they do not see the light, then apply the heat.”
In summary, the scriptures of the day carry a clear and pointed message- it does not pay to forget the basics. You will not get away with it. It does not pay to hedge your bets and have divided allegiances. God will not forgive you!
Well, there would be few people in the developed world who still have to remember to charge their lamps with oil. On the other hand, we all have to know how to charge our devices with electricity. Nowadays we do not mark our golf-cards with a pencil. It’s all done on our mobile phones. A few weeks ago I got to the course to find that I had not put my iphone on the charger overnight, and had to struggle get though the round on about 10% charge.
Even more exacting is learning the process of charging an electric car, including and remembering to do it at home on a sunny day.
So much for day-to-day practicalities. Jesus and Joshua had more on their minds than routine maintenance and preparedness. They lived in desperate days when anything could happen, even matters of life and death. Their exacting message is about the preparedness of the whole person, body mind and spirit, for the seen and unseen challenges that lay ahead.
In our day, as in theirs, it is not just a matter of getting prepared for what we can foresee to be looming crises. We may well bemoan the obvious increase in catastrophic climate disasters around the world. Well may we grieve the cataclysmic conflicts in Ukraine and Israel/Palestine. But these are all foreseeable given the scientific predictability of global warming, or the inevitability of the disgustingly lucrative international arms trade, where the liberal use of weapons of war is making big money for vested interests in human suffering. It is also about being prepared for the unforseen; knowing that anything can happen. According to ancient philosopher Lao Tsu “The superior man is on his guard against what is not yet in sight and is on the alert for what is not yet within hearing” (from the I Ching - The Book of Changes)
In the course of my ministry I have on many occasions been with people who were faced with sudden calamity, or had sustained a tragic loss that they could see coming, but even then found themselves unprepared for its impact. There are indeed some things about which no amount of preparation can protect us. The import of today’s scriptures is however that there are things that we can do, indeed we MUST do to prepare ourselves and our community for whatever lies ahead. One of these things, as Joshua emphasises, is that we are clear and strong about where our allegiances lie. “Choose this day who you will serve.” Among other things being disciplined followers of the way of Jesus ensures that when the chips are down, we will not end up on the wrong side of history.
There is also a further step, which comes though the words of Jesus “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” This is obviously not an instruction to forego our afternoon nap! It’s about the discipline of inner spiritual work, which engenders in its devotees a strength and fitness that is ready for anything. Those who have done the inner work are inevitably in a better position to cope than those who have not. Furthermore, those who are prepared in the sense that they have become part of a supportive community are almost always better off in facing a crisis than those who are alone. Where the stars really align is when the supportive community is one where there are resources beyond the physical presence of friends and family. They include training and instruction in spiritual disciplines; discipline that prepares us for the psychological and spiritual impact of the unforseen catastrophe, or simply major life changes that we must all inevitably face. The church, which at its best offers good religion to support and uphold its members through the storms of life, is an ideal environment. I am sure that many of you here can attest to that.
Now it’s time for a confession. You were kind, earlier in the service, to forgive me without knowing what for! I did the same for you, because we like to embrace the high ideal of unconditional acceptance. The fact is that I have always struggled to maintain spiritual discipline to the extent that I know is good for me. On my own, I am basically slack, and open to the idea of another cup of tea or some other distraction when meditation or study or an act of service is the more healthy option. What I know about myself is that this is probably not going to change much in the future, as I seek to sustain my good intentions for more than a few days.
What I also know about myself is that I tend to thrive in a group setting, or when I have a specific commitment to fulfil. For example, being in this time of Supply ministry, where my focus is on this church’s journey, is good for me as well. Sometimes we need to make ourselves accountable to one another in what we aim for in the spiritual life and the discipline of inner work.
What I am leading up to say is that as this church community moves across the Jordan and into a new future, being prepared and ready is going to make a lot of difference to how the transition is achieved. And it may well be a good thing for the newly elected Elders to contemplate how best to guide the fellowship into areas where spiritual growth is the main focus. Ideally I would like to work with you along those lines in the time I remain with you, though I hesitate to promise too much and then not be in a position to deliver.
Transitions are a part of life, and some are bigger than others. What I like to think is that where we are headed now will be more than simply a transition, but also a transformation of this community to a new day of ministry and mission. To miss the moment due to unnecessary distractions may not be unforgivable, but would be regrettable to say the least. I hope that we can all choose at least some level of commitment to the task, and express that willingness of the spirit as we sing our response in the words of Charles Wesley- “A charge to keep I have…” AMEN