In a few weeks time we will be launching out on the season of Advent. This is a period, like lent, when we should take time to examine our own relationship with God as we await a time when we believe Jesus will return to us in preparation for the coming of his kingdom, the place he has prepared for us. 'Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.' we say every week at least. Will we be ready for that time? Some people might take the view that with all the imperfections of our present world, all the suffering and persecution, all the exploitation and increasing stress of our modern lifestyles, the coming of what is known as 'the day of the Lord', the end times would be a blessed release. However, in the Old Testament reading from Amos, we are warned that when that time arrives it is not going to be all sweetness and light. It will be, he says, like escaping from a lion, only to be met by a bear, just as dangerous.
Jesus himself talked about the end times, when the son of man would come, when noone but the Father would know the day or the hour of his coming. Early Christians, like the Thessalonians, expected that time to be in their own lifetime. When some of their number died they were at pains to ask Paul what was to become of their dead friends, would they take part on that day? Paul's response, which formed part of the Epistle reading, was to draw their attention to the resurrection of Jesus. Just as we believe that Jesus died and then rose again we also believe that those who have died 'in Christ' will also rise with Him. It follows logically from this belief is whether we die first, or whether at this turning of a new millenium we are to be 'caught up in the clouds' as Paul puts it, is not as important as the way we live here and now. Our own death is itself an unpredictable event and may catch us by surprise in the form of an untimely accident or be held off for many years helped by the advances of medical research. So the way we live in the here and now, whether or not we live or die, 'in Christ' must be our utmost concern.
So will we be all right providing we go to church regularly? Providing we say all the right prayers, go to the special festival services, put our money in the collection? Well maybe, maybe not. Amos in that passage from chapter 5 mentioned earlier, talks of the Israelites who offered up all manner of sacrifice, who held 'solemn assemblies' and joyous 'festivals' with songs and harp music. But according to Amos all these rituals were to be despised, if they thought that following the services and traditions was in itself the aim of a religious life. The true religious life was to be seen as following personally the ways of justice and righteousness. Amos likened the people’s commitment to this deeper personal element of faith to the many rivers common to the dry areas of the Middle East, that flowed with water in a rainy season, but were often dried up for most of the year. I wonder if for us the seasons of lent and advent are our rainy seasons, when we, through study and prayer, refresh our relationship with God, only to have it dry up come the Summer, as we take holidays and enjoy taking it easy or in February with the breaking of our new years resolutions.
Jesus' five foolish maidens were like that. They were all of them committed to the idea of being married to the bridegroom. They had dressed up, and come prepared with a torch, ready to herald his arrival and go with him into the hall. But somehow their preparation had been incomplete. They had oil for their lamps when they started, but had not kept sufficient contact with the supplier of that oil in order to have had enough to last them the evening. When it came to trimming the rags from around the end of their processional torch they realised that they hadn't the resources to keep it alight. The wise maidens had made sure that they had enough oil to last and spare beside. The 'oil' in the lamp can be likened to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, which remains with us through prayer and through our attention to the justice and righteousness alluded to by Amos. The wise maidens could not share oil with the others in the same way that we cannot give the Holy Spirit to others. People must find the Spirit for themselves. Only they can welcome him in. We can of course point each other in the right direction to encounter the spirit, and one way of doing this is through collective worship and organised religion, but it must be seen that the purpose of worship is to strengthen our understanding of the worthship of God and encourage us in our own search to develop a personal relationship with God so we truly live 'in Christ'. By living 'in Christ' we can be sure that which ever comes first, our deaths or the 'day of the Lord' we will rise with Jesus and stay with him forever.