"The Long Wait"
The First United Presbyterian Church
“The Long Wait”
Rev. Amy Morgan
November 8, 2020
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2 And Joshua said to all the people, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors-- Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor-- lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. 3 Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.
14 "Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. 15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD." 16 Then the people answered, "Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; 17 for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; 18 and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God."
19 But Joshua said to the people, "You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20 If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good."
21 And the people said to Joshua, "No, we will serve the LORD!" 22 Then Joshua said to the people, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him." And they said, "We are witnesses." 23 He said, "Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel." 24 The people said to Joshua, "The LORD our God we will serve, and him we will obey."
25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.
"Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.
2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.
3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;
4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.
5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.
6 But at midnight there was a shout, 'Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.'
7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.
8 The foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.'
9 But the wise replied, 'No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.'
10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.
11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.'
12 But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I do not know you.'
13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Plague. Fires. Hurricanes. Social unrest. Murder hornets. Does anyone even remember the giant dust cloud that swept across the globe back in June? And are we even aware that Ethiopia is experiencing the worst locust swarm in 25 years? Thus far, 2020 has fulfilled every Christian fantasy writers’ dream of the Biblical apocalypse.
But the truth is, those ideas about the apocalypse are indeed fantasy. Yes, the images of plagues and locusts and all the rest are found in the Biblical apocalyptic literature. But apocalyptic literature is not predictive. It’s visionary, revelatory. It unclouds our eyes so we can rightly perceive the reality of God that is cloaked in the darkness of our present reality.
Apocalypse does not arrive in any time, place, or manner we could predict. Jesus says he will return like a “thief in the night,” at an unexpected hour. But apocalyptic vision offers hope in times of great distress, revealing possibilities of divine intervention. If everything is terrible now, the best hope we have is that Jesus will return and burn it all down and start over.
So in that sense, these are indeed apocalyptic times. Not because we are witnessing end-times events, but because we are in need of apocalyptic hope. Because of the unprecedented events of 2020, we are on the lookout for a deus ex machina, perhaps the return of Christ himself.
And so we wait, lamps burning, for this dark night to end, for joy to come in the morning, for the celebration that will arrive when God has set the world right again. The early Christians, in the midst of persecution, division, and oppression, adopted the Aramaic phrase, “Maranatha,” which means, “Come, Lord Jesus,” urging Christ to return in all his glory and institute his final reign on earth. That is still our prayer – Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus – as we hold up our lamps, expectantly. We shelter in place, hoping to flatten the curve enough to return to “normal” life. We cast our ballot, hoping to quickly discover that our candidates have won, our party is in power, our issues are resolved. We demand Jesus to come quickly and fix this. Maranatha. It is a command. We are tired of waiting.
Because the wait has been long. And we are exhausted. This week seemed like at least three months as we waited for election result to be tallied. And the wait through lawsuits and re-counts will extend that wait even more. Those who have waited four years for a change in leadership are exhausted. Those who fear they will have to wait four long years for another change in leadership are exhausted by the prospect.
This election-themed waiting comes on top of all the waiting that has already fatigued us this year. Waiting for a vaccine. Waiting for test results. Waiting for economic relief. And some have had even longer waits – for justice and equality, for empowerment and security. These waits have been generational, with no clear end in sight.
And so we have all grown weary. Like the ten bridesmaids, we have dozed off, gotten complacent, allowed our lights to grow dim and expire. The parable of the bridesmaids does not judge anyone for resting. All ten of them fall asleep, the foolish and the wise. It is not sleep that divides them into categories. They all need rest as they wait through the long night.
What does divide them into foolish and wise, however, is what happens when they wake up. Half of the bridesmaids came prepared for the wait to be long. They came prepared for their lamps to burn out, their resources to get depleted. They brought along reserves. And the foolish ones did not. They anticipated the bridegroom would return when he was expected to. They weren’t prepared to wait so long that they would fall asleep and need to refuel their lamps.
This parable is typical of how Jesus talks about the apocalypse throughout the gospels. Yes, there are signs and portents. But even so, no one will know the day or the hour. And the wait will be long. The wait will be long.
So Jesus advises us to keep awake, if we can. But if we must sleep, we must be prepared to refuel our lamps so that when the time comes for Christ to return, we will not find ourselves unable to rekindle the light to welcome him. We must be prepared to wait.
The people of Israel knew a thing or two about long waits. They had waited for years in slavery in Egypt. They had waited for 40 years, wandering in the desert, before finally reaching the promised land. And as they prepared to settle in the land, they still faced great uncertainties. The people in their new land worshipped other gods. There was a risk that they would abandon the God who had brought them up out of slavery and into the land. They had waited such a very long time, there was a danger that they had depleted their spiritual resources, that they would grow lax in their worship, that they would fall asleep and wake up in the dark.
And so the Israelites did two things. First, they remembered that they had been through other challenges. They witnessed to God’s faithfulness through other long waits and challenging times, delcaring it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land.
The second thing the Israelites did was renew their covenant with God. Acknowledging that God had kept God’s end of the bargain, they re-committed to their side of it. They would serve and obey God and God alone.
Again and again throughout the Hebrew scriptures, we see the Israelites remembering and renewing the covenant. This is how they continue to fuel the light they are promised to be to all nations. This is how they wait through the long nights of division and war, exile and oppression. This is how they wait for the first coming of the Messiah.
This is the pattern God’s people have set for us as we await the second coming of Christ. Not with plagues and fires and murder hornets. But with an unexpected shout for joy in the middle of a long, dark, night. If we follow the pattern of remembering and renewing, we will have the fuel we need to greet Christ with joy and celebration, whenever he arrives. If we remember all of God’s past faithfulness, and re-commit to our end of the deal, we will be able to endure the wait, no matter how long it takes.
But our waiting isn’t an idle practice. An apocryphal story about Martin Luther has him answering the question: “what would you do if you knew the world would end tomorrow?” His answer was, “I would plant an apple tree.” Luther’s answer illustrates what Todd Whitmore, an ethicist at Notre Dame, calls “reasonable apocalypticism.” In studying Christians who are living in conditions that are oppressive, destabilizing, and violent, Whitmore found that the most apocalyptic Christians, those who were deeply convinced Christ would return someday, were also the Christians most willing to work for the common good, cooperate with NGOs, and share what little they have. Because they believe God will come at some point in this dark night, they keep their lamps burning, for as long as it takes, and keep working through the night.
Biblical scholar Jason Byassee writes that “We should act on Luther’s advice: If you knew the world would end tomorrow, you should start an institution. Plant a church. Build a hospital. Start a university. Create something that will help millions. Spin off an act of creativity that would do proud the God who flung stars into space. Reasonable apocalypticism means God will gather up all things and make them not only good, as they have been since creation, but perfect.”
The wait has been long. And it will be longer yet. If we’ve grown weary, if we’ve fallen asleep, that’s okay. But we need to wake up. Because there is work to do. We need to be light for the world. We need to trust that God will intervene, Christ will come again. We don’t know when or how. But that is all the more reason for us to be about the work of God’s kingdom on earth. Our apocalyptic hopes lead us to invest in this world, not just the next, and to invest for the long haul.
So as we wait – for the pandemic to end, for the dust to settle after the elections, for the economy to recover, oh, and yes, for Christ to return – we are invited to remember. Remember that we have been through other challenges. Some of you have lived through wars and civil unrest, times of prolonged uncertainty and economic volatility. Christ has not returned in triumph, but God has been at work in the world, bringing healing and hope and peace. And as we wait, we are invited to renew our covenant with God in Jesus Christ, to choose whom we will worship and serve.
And when we’ve made that choice, we’ve got work to do. Work that witnesses to the reality that we are in this for the long haul. We are invited to practice “reasonable apocalypticism,” believing firmly in Christ’s return and recognizing honestly that it will possibly not come anytime soon. So let’s plant trees. Start an endowment. Do something that will help others. Build something that will last through the night, that will fuel your hope.
This is how we replenish our resources to wait for the long haul. Not just the long haul of election cycles, the long haul of this pandemic, or the long haul of justice. We must be ready for the very long haul of waiting for the reign of God to be complete on the earth. The very long haul of waiting for all things to be made new. The very long haul of Christ’s return, when God will dwell among us forever.
This is how we can keep the lamps burning for ourselves and the generations to come, those to whom we will pass the light, empowering them to wait, generation after generation, as long as it takes, until Christ comes again, until the final celebration can begin that will last for all eternity.
To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.