"Are we waiting with lamps filled and ready to light, or are we waiting in the hope that last years oil will still be up to the job."
In our Old Testament reading from Amos, the writer certainly didn't mince his words. This was certainly one sermon that his listeners were going to remember for a very long time.
I can imagine them, a sizeable congregation maybe, meeting together regularly for worship and quite content with their lot. There's a small music group led by some harps, they sing hymns of praise and worship, regularly bring their offerings to the alter along with the required sacrifices. They celebrate all the appointed feast days and seemingly fulfil all the outward requirements of a close-knit and successful church. In fact it sounds like quite a nice church to belong to, doesn't it.
Yet what does Amos have to say to these poor folk?
What would we say to a preacher who stood up at the front of one of our chapels and basically said
"This is the word of the Lord to you ..I can't stand the way you worship. I refuse to listen to any more of your hymn singing and music, I've had enough of your so-called offerings, I don't want them any more."
I reckon we'd be just a little bit offended, don't you?
Even the prefix to that tirade "This is the word of the Lord" wouldn't really make much difference to our anger at someone coming in and criticising the way we worship.
So what on earth prompted Amos to feel that this was the harsh judgement due to the people of Israel?
It seems to have been tied to two things.
Firstly, Amos addresses his message to those who long for the day of the Lord. Nothing strange in that really, because the people of Israel were continually looking forward to the time when God would once again draw his people to him, a time when he would visit and redeem his people. A time when all peoples would acknowledge their God as Lord of all, and a time when God would judge his people.
And the worship that they offered, the sacrifices and offerings made, were a part of the people's response to that hope. They were, hopefully, a pleasing offering to their Lord.
So here's Amos, speaking in the person of God telling them that the very things they thought that God would find pleasing are in fact causing Him much distress. Truth be told He finds them hateful. All those festivals, the special services, ritual sacrifices, singing and instrumental music are useless.
Because there is no "justice"
What an odd word to use in the context of worship.
"But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream."
What's he mean by "justice"? Surely that's what the people appointed Judges and leaders for. That was their job, and better to let them get on with it.
That's not the way that things work with God, says Amos. Yes, you're looking forward to the day of the Lord; yes, you're being watchful and doing all the outward things that the Law requires. But there's something missing, and it's all contained within those words Justice and Righteousness.
Now, aren't those words that we associate with God himself?
God is a God of Justice, he is a "Just" God. Righteousness is an attribute of God. And now Amos is saying that these are things that mere humans ought to be concerned about. That they're not the domain of God, or leaders or judges only, but something that mankind should concern itself with and has chosen to ignore.
Now the dictionary defines justice as being "the moral principle that determines the fairness of actions", and righteous as "characterised by, or in accordance with the accepted standards of morality, justice, or uprightness"
Do you see how they are linked by definition.
We see them as characteristics of God, of leaders of men, of judges and magistrates. God sees them as characteristics of everyman.
And Amos tells the people that they are not showing these characteristics in their lives, that their faithfulness to God's commandments does not extend to showing justice, or fairness in the way that they deal with others. And that could simply be by staying silent, turning their backs, apathy, all of these are an abdication of responsibility and no excuse before God.
In fact, says Amos, without Justice and Righteousness in their lives, everything else, all their worship, singing, music, offerings and sacrifices mean nothing to God. In fact they mean even less than that.
Is that a message for today?
What are our priorities when we consider our faithfulness to God. Is it the number of services per year that we attend, the amount of polish we apply weekly to the woodwork, the size and quality of our offering. Or is it something much more fundamental, something that goes back to Jesus' own summary of the Ten Commandments "Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself"
What God wants, says Amos, is a worship that goes beyond the four walls of a chapel and pervades our lives from day to day. That we live lives that encompass those Godly qualities of Justice and Righteousness in our dealings with others.
Yes, we must continue to look forward to the Day of the Lord as the people of Amos' day were doing, but we must not forget that we live in the present, and must show God's love, justice, righteousness, and peace in our daily lives.
That's the worship that pleases and is acceptable our Lord. It is the offering of our lives.
So what has Matthew's gospel to say to his audience that links with the message from the OT that we heard earlier?
Well, the themes that run within it are in fact very similar, and they are again vigilance, faithfulness and judgement.
It's very easy in a story such as this to try and read too much meaning into the various elements- to try an allegorise where there is no allegory. For instance, if we try and determine who the maidens stand for and what the oil represents, we have to acknowledge that both sets of maidens fell asleep, both had oil to begin with and when it ran out the foolish ones still had enough common sense to dash out and buy some more - thank goodness for 24 hour shopping.
What we have here is a straight parable which Jesus told to get across a fairly simple message, and one which Amos would have recognised as echoing some of his words.
Amos addressed his message to those who were waiting for the day of the Lord, and here we have Jesus telling a parable about ten virgins waiting for a bridegroom.
Amos talked about attitude. That the outward show of religion was not good enough if underneath in the heart there was not the commitment and faithfulness that was required. Here we have two sets of virgins. Both sets have lamps at the ready and to the outsider maybe look identical, but half of them have insufficient fuel to see the night through - they're just not prepared, can't be bothered, we might call them apathetic.
The message of Amos ends with a judgement. "Your outward show is insufficient because it's not backed up by the way you live your lives. It doesn't matter how much of a noise you make when you sing. I'm not interested in that, when your lives show where you really stand."
The message of Jesus in this parable also ends in a judgement. "Yes, I can see that your lamps are lit now, but where was the oil when it was needed. You held up a lamp, but there was nothing but a little bit of old and useless oil in it. You thought you could live like that and slip in at the last minute, but that's not acceptable because the outward show merely reveals what's lacking inside."
No, this is no fanciful story that Jesus was telling, he wanted to get across a very important point to his listeners. They were waiting, as Amos' listeners were also waiting, for the day of the Lord. They were looking forward to that Glorious day when their God would show himself again in power to the world, that day when he would fulfil his purposes, when he would reveal himself and call his people to account, when he would show his judgement.
Don't you see the irony in Jesus' message to those he was addressing. He was telling them of two groups of virgins waiting for the bridegroom to come, some prepared because they weren't too sure when he was going to arrive, others with empty lamps propped up somewhere just on the off-chance.
They were looking at the bridegroom that the story was all about. How many of them actually realised that? We don't know because Matthew doesn't tell us. He doesn't say that as Jesus was getting towards the end of his tale, several of the crowd started to look very embarrassed as they realised to which group they would have belonged - those prepared or those not.
He doesn't say that when Jesus finished speaking the penny finally dropped and the crowd, or maybe it was just his disciples, realised that here among them was the One whom they were waiting for. That the day of the Lord had begun and they were to suddenly discover what God's judgement and justice were really about.
There's a seemingly harsh piece of judgement in the final verse of the story. The foolish virgins had realised their mistake and gone dashing off to Tesco to get some more oil for their lamps, but when they got back to the wedding banquet they found that the door were firmly closed. It says that even more turned up late and got the same message from the doorman 'I tell you the truth, I don't know you'
And here of course is where we touch again our themes of vigilance, faithfulness and justice.
The bible is very clear, or maybe I should say unclear, on this subject. We don't know when Jesus will return. We wait as the people of Amos' day and the 1st century Jew did, either in a state of readiness in case he should unexpectedly appear, or with our lamps tucked away in the cupboard gathering dust.
It's no good assuming that the oil which kept our lamps alight some years ago will be enough to do the job today. Past experience of God's grace is not sufficient for the present or future need. What's needed is a present experience of God's grace in our lives that will keep our lamps continually filled.
What's needed, as it was in Amos' day is for the people of God to be faithful to his commandments, for this will then be reflected in the way that lives are led and love is shown in dealings with others, and God will see the justice and righteousness that was lacking in Amos' time.
What's needed is for Christians to become serious about their faith. The foolish virgins of Jesus' parable were identical to the wise ones in appearance, but look a little closer and you would find that their faith was as lacking as the oil in their lamps. They were waiting, but perhaps they weren't too sure why they were waiting, or they'd got a little impatient waiting, or maybe they'd got other things on their mind.
Whatever the reason, they were to miss out on the wedding banquet.
Where are we?
We need to ask ourselves the question as we read passages such as these, for they're as relevant to us as they were to the 1st century Jew and Amos' audience of around 760BC.
Are we waiting with lamps filled and ready to light, or are we waiting in the hope that last years oil will still be up to the job. Is our worship loud and tuneful in order to impress God, or is it carried forward into our everyday lives and our dealings with other people.
It's as individuals that we must answer these questions, because it's as individuals that we will be called to account.