In Bible Study on Wednesday, we had a spirited discussion about the return of the Lord, a subject that shows up in the letter of James—“Wait patiently, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.”
And today’s collect reminds us to be always thankful for God’s loving providence; and grant that we, remembering the account we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of God’s good gifts.
The idea of giving an account is nerve wracking, conjuring up visions of a grumpy old God with a scoresheet somewhere far away in heaven keeping track of our every move and checking the Good/Bad columns under our names throughout our lives.
It’s easier to say, “God has saved us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and therefore, our judgement has already taken place and so we have nothing to worry about.” That is true, but still……
To give an account we will have to do, because the final judgment is yet to come.
Jesus himself, in the 25th chapter of Matthew, describes the day when he will come in his glory, and all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people from one another, as the shepherd divides the sheep from the goats.
And this division will be made according to what we have done in our lives for our neighbors—the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick, and those in prison, and this caring extends to creation itself, because creation is also our “neighbor.”
Loud and clear. We are to care for our neighbors. What we do for one another and for creation matters now– and will continue to matter– right through eternity.
Today’s passages also give us valuable information about God, our ultimate judge.
God loves goodness and abundance. God want us to benefit from the goodness and abundance of creation. In today’s passage from Deuteronomy, God is the one who is bringing God’s people into a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, where God’s people will lack nothing.
And in the praise psalm, Psalm 113, God is transcendent, far above the heavens and the earth, and yet, this transcendent God is the one who raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap. God, who created this universe, cares intimately for the least of these.
The New Testament starts with the four gospels, the story of Jesus and how Jesus cared for the least of these, including us, throughout his life. Today’s gospel is a great example of Jesus caring for the least of these—people who had come from long distances to be with him, had gotten hungry, and couldn’t really make it back home without something to eat. So Jesus fed them, right there in the wilderness, just as God had fed the Isrealites in the wilderness when they were hungry and had no idea where they’d get anything to eat.
The gospels also describe Jesus’ death and Jesus’ resurrection, and how these events make possible eternal life in God’s presence for us, starting here and now.
The book of Acts tells about how knowing Jesus and being filled with the Holy Spirit gave the disciples the power to go out and spread the gospel far and wide.
And then we get the letters, all about how we are to try to live as followers of Jesus.
Just as the early Christians did, we continue to wrestle with these instructions, because for the most part they are a challenge to follow.
In the reading from James we heard today, James urges us to be patient, to have strong hearts, and to endure.
In this era of impatience, we Christians are to be patient. Especially in this culture, we have been led to believe that results should be instant and that having to wait for anything is an assault on our humanity and a reason to take deep offense at whoever or whatever is causing us to have to wait.
In addition, we are to have strong hearts. How many of the things that happen to us in our lives bring us to our knees, weaken us, make us want to stay in bed all day, because why bother? And yet, part of waiting on the Lord is to wait with a strong heart and to keep on keeping on, as that old cliché puts it.
And we are to have endurance. James mentions Job as an example of endurance. Job, remember, is the one who went through all those trials and hardships.
And Job did not just hunker down and never question God. Job had plenty of questions. In fact, he railed against the injustice of all that had happened to him. He even wanted to bring God to trial.
But in the end, Job never lost his faith in God. And that’s endurance. Sometimes the things in our lives just seem so overwhelming that the temptation is to think of God as disinterested and uninvolved in our lives, and because what is happening in our lives has got us discouraged, we just give up on God.
But faith in God, even when God seems to be nowhere around, gives us endurance and strong hearts so that God can lead us through the hard times in our lives, even when we can’t see God.
When things are going well in our lives, we are also tempted to forget God. Look how successful I’ve been—look at all I’ve accomplished. Look at all I’ve done for the least of these because I’m such a good strong person.
But giving ourselves all the credit is a pitfall to avoid.
God warns the Israelites back in our Old Testament reading, “Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.”
But instead, “Remember the Lord your God, for it is God who gives you power to get wealth.”
So here are some helpful adjectives to describe who we are to be as we wait for the coming of the Lord.
Thankful. Patient. Strong of heart. Persistent. Faithful.
What are some other adjectives you would add to this list?
These adjectives also apply to us as a church. For the next few weeks we are giving some attention to stewardship—as we ask ourselves how we want to use our time, our talents and our money for the work of the church in the world, specifically through this church, St Peter’s.
The church as we know it is in decline. Those of you who went to St George’s for the stained-glass tour got a rare glimpse into the workings of another church—yes, pledge payments are down, attendance is off in some services even in that big church, although the effects in a big church aren’t as noticeable at first as they are in a church our size.
In fact, conventional wisdom these days is that “regular” church attendance is considered attendance at a church service twice a month rather than every week.
I worry about the long-term future of our church. We are fine now. We all support God’s work through this church. What a generous congregation! But our attendance is down, no doubt about it. And who is coming after us? When we are dead and gone, who is going to come here to worship? Who is going to give generously to keep this church going so that it can continue to do the work of God’s hands and heart out in the world? I don’t see any obvious answers to that question.
So today, I’m looking to these scriptures for inspiration. What we can do as the church is to be thankful, to plant our seeds, and to be patient while we wait for God to give the growth. We can have strong hearts. Important—we can resist the temptation to grumble against one another, but to endure together, helping each other along.
In seminary, one of the things we learned about preaching was never to use the word “Must.” Well, I’m getting ready to use the word “Must,” repeatedly.
Most of all, we must remember.
We must remember that God is always in the process of making all things new.
We must remember that God is not some grumpy judging being far away, watching our every move, but the God who created all and is so far beyond our comprehension is also God–right here with us.
We must remember that God, who will judge us in the end, is unfailingly compassionate and merciful.
We must remember that God cares deeply about the very people and parts of creation that we tend to misuse, overlook, or forget, and God expects us to change that behavior.
We must remember that God will feed us when we get hungry in the wilderness, and will give us strength and endurance when we find that we can’t go one step further on our own.
We must remember who God is, because remembering who God is helps us remember who God wants us to be, with God’s help.
We must remember that we are the seeds that God has planted on this earth. We are God’s precious crop.
And when the harvest comes, as that beautiful thanksgiving hymn puts it, we can rejoice and give thanks, because God our judge will free us from any sin and sorrow that still lingers around us, and will gather us in and bring us home, God’s own glorious harvest.