Homily delivered at St Luke’s Episcopal Church, November 12, 2017
The Lectionary for 23 Pentecost: Amos 5:18-24; Psalm 70; I Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13 “The Day of the Lord”
I think the year was 1975. My family was renting a mobile home at the back of some acreage owned by a retired farmer, with a field between us and the woods. We lived about a quarter mile from the small church that was the center of our lives and the hub of the isolationist end-times sect to which we belonged. We earnestly believed Jesus might return at any moment, and our ceaseless task was to be ready in case that happened, striving in vain to keep our hearts and minds continuously pure. As a young teen under such stressful conditions, I carried around a lot of extra angst. So, I spent as much time as possible being as alone as possible in that little trailer with two adults and three children crammed into it. A lot of that time was dedicated to the books into which I managed to escape, sometimes for hours at a stretch, shutting out the world as best I could.
One fine day, I was traveling to the center of the earth with Jules Verne when that part of my consciousness that was barely aware of outer reality noticed that our mobile home was unusually quiet. I put down my book and listened for a minute and thought, “It’s quiet. Too quiet.”
I got up and left my room to find that, as I suspected, the place, normally full of noise and life, was completely empty. Dad, Mom, Sister, Brother—even the dog—no one was to be found. Naturally I thought they must be outside, so I peered out the front and back windows, but I didn’t see or hear anyone. I opened the back door and looked out over the field toward the woods. Nothing. I opened the front door and checked the drive. Both cars were there. No one had driven off. But no one was around for as far as the eye could see. Hmmm.
I walked outside and looked into the sky. There were some pretty impressive thunderheads floating by, but were they impressive enough to be Return of the Lord thunderheads? I wasn’t sure. So, I waited.
I waited maybe a half hour, which was time enough to get me good and scared. I looked around again. Nothing. My heart began to race. Had it really happened? Had Jesus raptured my entire family and left me, a miserable sinner, behind with my books? I went back into my room and sat down on the edge of the bed, stunned and amazed, and said aloud, “What now?” I looked over at the Bible sitting on my desk and wondered if I shouldn’t start looking for some kind of loophole in the Rapture Contract.
Then I heard a faint sound.
I jumped over to the back door and looked out and there, emerging from the woods, was my entire family, dog included, with a neighbor who had been showing them something back there. I’m not gonna lie. I was pretty excited to see them.
I’ve heard all kinds of stories, many from my age group, from other people in the evangelical tradition who have their own account of being “Left Behind.” These stories serve to illustrate a lasting fascination with the idea of the “Day of the Lord” as described in today’s lectionary. The paranoia peddlers of the late 60s and early 70s, people like Hal Lindsey of The Late Great Planet Earth, the John T Chick comic tracts about the Rapture that terrified us as kids, the Left Behind series of novels, not to mention all the intricately detailed teachings about the Tribulation, the Millennium, the Coming of Christ, the Last Judgment—basically a whole cottage industry that endured for decades—but elements of these teachings date back to medieval Christianity.
Go to the centuries-old basilicas and cathedrals of Europe and you will find walls and ceilings painted or sculpted with lurid details of what awaits those who aren’t ready for the Day of the Lord, with horned demons and other monstrosities dragging naked people screaming into the abyss. Some of that imagery has made its way into sermons preached in our own time hundreds of years later. And their chief emphasis seems to be that the Day of the Lord is all about Divine punishment, about having the due reward of our sins visited upon us. And the message is always “Repent! The End is Near!”
Our scripture readings for today suggest that maybe our emphasis needs to be flipped. Yes, the Day of the Lord is about Justice. But our sense of Justice may be more tuned to our sense of guilt than it is to what Scripture says. And the real call to action here may have an altogether different focus.
Take the passage in today’s lectionary from Amos, for instance, not the most pleasant reading on a fine Sunday morning in autumn:
Amos 5:18-24 (NIV): The Day of the Lord
- Woe to you who long
for the day of the Lord!
Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
That day will be darkness, not light.
- It will be as though a man fled from a lion
only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house
and rested his hand on the wall
only to have a snake bite him.
- Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—
pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?
- “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
- Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
- Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
- But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
After all the dark warnings about leaping from the frying pan into the fire, there comes the line, “Let Justice roll down like waters,” words made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail. But what is justice here and to what does it refer?
In his Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis discusses the Hebrew idea of justice, which is, of course, the one that appears most often in Scripture. Most of us know C.S. Lewis as a children’s author, but in his real job as an Oxford University professor, he studied a lot of ancient literature, including the Bible in its Greek and Latin versions. He was asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury, along with the famous poet T.S. Eliot, to help update the Psalter in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. But in case you’re wondering, the work of Lewis’ committee was never officially adopted, so the Psalter we recite today doesn’t reflect any of his edits.
I’d like to read the following fascinating excerpt from Lewis’ Reflections: “The just judge primarily rights a wrong in a civil case. He would, no doubt, also try a criminal case justly, but that is hardly ever what the Hebrews are thinking of. Christians cry to God for mercy instead of justice; The Hebrews cried to God for justice instead of injustice. The Divine Judge is the defender, the rescuer. Scholars say that the Book of Judges might almost be rendered ‘champions;’ for though these ‘judges’ do sometimes perform what we call judicial functions many of them are much more concerned about rescuing the oppressed Israelites. They are more like Jack the Giant Killer than like a modern judge. The knights of chivalry who go about rescuing distressed damsels and widows from giants are acting almost as ‘judges’ in the old Hebrew sense. So is the modern attorney who does unpaid work for poor clients to save them from wrong.”
This paragraph from C.S. Lewis had a drastic effect on my reading of Scripture. If Biblical justice is first about delivering the oppressed and helping the neglected and only “oh by the way” about punishing the evildoer in the form of the oppressor and the neglector…well, that has huge implications, doesn’t it?
Here’s the thing. If this view of justice is correct, then it is mirrored much more accurately by super heroes than by courtroom dramas. Marvel’s Avengers and DC’s Justice League are better analogies of Divine Justice than TV’s “Boston Legal” or “Law & Order.” Super heroes are our contemporary Knights of the Round Table, today’s version of Jack the Giant Killer. The fact that we are so intent on celebrating these kinds of values within our popular culture indicate that we still share a deep-seated yearning for that kind of justice, the kind that disregards our inadequacies and our weaknesses as it rises up on our behalf to defend us against evil. Scripture seems equally intent on conveying the idea that this is the kind of justice God cares most about. Who among us hasn’t echoed the prayer we read today in Psalm 70? “You are my helper and deliverer; O Lord, do not tarry!” (Psalm 70: 6)
There is no complicated theological point here. It’s pretty straightforward. A couple of weeks ago we heard the reading from Luke 4 in which Christ captured the essence of the Gospel by reading aloud from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.”
But in Amos 5, we find the context for the dread warnings about the Day of the Lord and the cry for justice in this unflinching judgment found only a few verses earlier: “you despise anyone who speaks honestly. … you make the poor pay taxes on their crops, … You torment the innocent, you take bribes, and you deny justice to the needy at the gate.” (Verses 11 and 12)
You could not find a more direct contrast between the spirit of Christ in Luke and the spirit of the age as described in Amos.
I conclude with this. Back when my family was part of that isolationist sect, it should come as no surprise that the parable of the bridesmaids in Matthew 25 was a favorite for our leaders, and we were strongly admonished to purify ourselves so we would be ready for the coming of the bridegroom, to be ready, to keep oil in our spiritual lamps. Otherwise, the door would be shut against us, like the door of Noah’s Ark, and no amount of pounding would open it when the time came! All we would hear would be the dreadful words, “I don’t know you!”
An instructive commentary on Christ’s true intent with the parable of the bridesmaids comes only a few verses later in Matthew 25, in which those divided on the left and reserved for eternal punishment hear the list of their sins—not the long catalog of evil one might expect—but that they did not feed Christ when he was hungry, they didn’t clothe him when he was naked, they didn’t invite him in when he was a stranger, they did not look after him when he was sick or in prison. And in answer to their self-righteous protest, he says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (V. 45)
Herein lies our call to action, doesn’t it? Christ tells his disciples at the end of the Gospel of John, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21) And by those words we know that we are to be instruments of justice in the world. We are to deliver the oppressed and care for the neglected. We are to share the hope that we have with those who have lost it. We are to see that people meet with justice at the gates.
Ultimately, as the Apostle Paul tells us in Thessalonians, we can look forward to a Day of Reckoning, not with fear, but with the hope, and the certain knowledge that God Himself will ultimately settle all accounts. And justice will truly, and finally, be done.
And Paul says, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (4:18)