A Reading from the Book of 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. 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. “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. 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.” Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; 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; 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.” 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. 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.” And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!” 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.” He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.
1 Hear my teaching, O my people; *
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
2 I will open my mouth in a parable; *
I will declare the mysteries of ancient times.
3 That which we have heard and known,
and what our forefathers have told us, *
we will not hide from their children.
4 We will recount to generations to come
the praiseworthy deeds and the power of the Lord, *
and the wonderful works he has done.
5 He gave his decrees to Jacob
and established a law for Israel, *
which he commanded them to teach their children;
6 That the generations to come might know,
and the children yet unborn; *
that they in their turn might tell it to their children;
7 So that they might put their trust in God, *
and not forget the deeds of God,
but keep his commandments;
A Reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians (4:13-18)
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew (25:1-13)
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 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.’ 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. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Two weeks ago, our first reading consisted in the final chapter of the book of Deuteronomy. That passage described the death and burial of Moses and introduced us to the next leader of the Israelites: Joshua, who was to bring them into and get them settled in the Promised Land.
Since we used a special set of readings last Sunday for the feast of All Saints, we skipped over almost the entire book of Joshua; and we find ourselves today at the end of Joshua’s life. As Dorothy remarked in “The Wizard of Oz,” “My, people come and go so quickly around here!”
At the time of today’s reading, Joshua’s life is coming to an end; but before he dies, Joshua confronts the people of Israel with a stark choice. He first reminds them of all that the God of Israel has done for them and then demands “Choose today whom you will serve.” Notice that he doesn’t say, “Choose whether you are going to serve or, as an alternative, be completely free and independent.” Joshua apparently knew human nature and the human condition well enough that he recognized the fact that their real choice was not whether to serve or not, but only whom they were going to serve.
Joshua was much more insightful than many of the people who have walked this earth during the three thousand years since he passed from the scene. There are always people, including many today, who live under the illusion that they can either serve God or live without a master, in complete autonomy. But the actual choice for all of us remains the same: it is not whether we are going to serve, but only whom we are going to serve. Some people serve their own passing interests: what makes them comfortable for the moment and helps them to feel secure and detached from the problems of the rest of the world. Others serve the values of the dominant culture that holds up, as the ideal, those who carefully guard and protect their own financial security and who criticize and denigrate those who are not as fortunate as they themselves are. Still others idealize and serve the illusion that I am what I am and I have what I have due almost exclusively to my own hard work and enterprise, refusing to acknowledge the many advantages that they have had in life but that countless other people have not enjoyed.
The scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments offer an alternative to all of these “masters,” to all of these other sets of standards and values They offer a life of serving the God of all creation, the God from whom all blessings flow. But notice that “serve” is the key word.
Neither Joshua nor Jesus (whose name, by the way, is another form of the name Joshua) – neither Joshua nor Jesus was content with calling people to believe something in an abstract, intellectual sense. That approach can leave untouched most of our lives.
Instead, both of them called on people to do something, specifically to serve God: to immerse their lives in God and in the ways and values of God. In fact, verses 14-18, which are the core of today’s first reading, use the word “serve” nine times; and it appears an additional five times in the rest of the chapter. Apparently, the author didn’t want us to miss the message; but somehow, we still do.
But even if we decide, at least in a theoretical way, to serve God and to dedicate ourselves to doing the work of God in our lives, our natural tendency seems to be to put it off. “I really am going to do that. I’m going to volunteer both at church and in other parts of the community to help other people. But this is not a good time. I am going to do it, but not now; I’ll do it later.” We tend to act like those five bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable who really and sincerely intended to go off and get the oil for their lamps; they just never got around to doing it until they missed their opportunity.
God provides us with many opportunities to serve, with many opportunities to act as Christians, with many opportunities to be Christians. Yet so often we choose to do other things instead, trying to convince ourselves that they are more important for now. We’ll get around to those works of service later.
Yet the words of Joshua never seem to fade away. Somewhere in the back of our consciousness, we keep hearing his insistent demand: “Choose today whom you will serve” – not whether you are going to serve, but whom; not when you are going to serve but today.” And over the next two Sundays, as we bring another church year to a close, Jesus picks up that same question and poses it to us in his vivid and probing parables.
These last few Sundays of the liturgical year focus on the so-called “Second Coming” of Jesus. The first generation of Christians, such as those to whom St. Paul is writing in today’s second reading, expected that Second Coming in the very near future: literally any day. While that sense is not nearly much concern to us, nearly two millennia later, it might still be an effective way to think about God and our service to God and to God’s creation.
Nearly a century ago, poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a series of letters to a young military officer who wanted to be a poet. This young man once shared with Rilke his struggle in losing his faith in God. Rilke (Letters to a Young Poet) suggested: “Why don’t you think of him as the one who is coming? …What keeps you from projecting his birth into the ages that are coming into existence, and living your life as a painful and lovely day in the history of a great pregnancy?”
Maybe we, too, can think of God as the one who is coming: as the one who is always coming into the world. And maybe, by choosing that God who comes and serving the world in God’s name today, we might find ourselves more and more open for that God to enter into us and our lives.