Hope and Obedience

12 Nov, 2023

By the Rev’d Jim Lam

Season: 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Readings: Joshua 24:1-3a; 14-25 | 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 | Matthew 25:1-13.

When I first sat down with today’s three readings, I asked myself, was there a common factor among the three? Okay. The passage in Thessalonians and the parable in Matthew appear to be somehow inter-related. But how about the story of the Israelites renewing their covenant with the Lord in Joshua? It seems totally unconnected. But is that really the case?

Let’s take a look at this Old Testament passage. Joshua urged the tribes to fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. As leader of the people, he testified that he and his household would serve the Lord.

It is noteworthy that Joshua did not tell the people that serving the Lord was mandatory. Rather, the people could choose for themselves whom they would serve (v.15).

From the words of Joshua, it is easy to conclude that at this point in time, the Israelites were not quite steadfast in their faith. Some served the gods of the Amorites living in Canaan. Some served the gods their ancestors worshipped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt. Yet after recounting the great goodness of the Lord to his people, Joshua warned that they could
not serve foreign gods and the Lord at the same time. He also warned that if the people forsook the Lord and served other gods, their Lord would turn and bring disaster on them.

Scriptures clearly recorded that after hearing Joshua’s words, the Israelites promised to serve the Lord their God and obey him. The people must be at one of the peaks of their faith. After renewing this covenant to serve God wholeheartedly, the Israelites began a new era of life. At long last, they were living in the land the Lord their God had promised their ancestor:
Abraham and his descendants.

But what is obedience?

Is it repeating verbally multiple times what the Lord has commanded his people to do? Or attempting to package it in a politically correct way? If I must give a description, I would say that obedience is the courage to face squarely one’s wrongs, plus the willingness to make corrections so as to live a life pleasing to God.

Turning to today’s Epistle, a very noticeable word is “grieve”. It appeared in the very first sentence. Why were the Christians at Thessalonica grieving? They had been waiting for Christ’s return. They thought that it would surely happen very soon, probably during their lifetime. There were those among them who had seen with their own eyes Christ’s ascension and heard with their own ears Jesus’ promise to return. But many of them died. And Jesus had yet to return. Their hope was dwindling.

What is hope?

Broadly speaking, hope can be defined as an emotional state that promotes the belief in a positive outcome. What creates such positive emotions? The story of the Israelites we heard this morning can serve as a good example. After decades of wandering in the desert, they had a land to call their own. They were overjoyed. They had a vision of a bright future. And so,
they were happy to obey the God that had delivered them from slavery and led them into the
Promised Land. They were full of incentives to do so.

How about the believers in the Early Church? They had a vision of Jesus returning soon. Therefore, they were willing to sell all they had and share everything with fellow believers. They were willing to make an all-out effort to spread the gospel, even risking their lives in doing so. But as the second coming seemed to be delayed indefinitely, its relevance in their daily lives was diminishing. The vision was no longer a positive force that propelled them forward. They grieved. Many of them lost hope. Perhaps some among them still clung to the hope of Christ’s return and made preparations for it, just like the bridesmaids in today’s parable.

And we, in the 21st century, are also facing the same situation. Christ is still yet to return. This is why the parable of the ten bridesmaids also serves as a good reminder for us.

In the parable, the foolish is juxtaposed with the wise. What distinguishes them? I don’t think it is a matter of IQ. But rather their vision and hope about the future.

All bridesmaids shared a vision for the coming of the bridegroom. They had been checking day after day for this to happen. But then, since his coming had been delayed, some might even begin to question whether this would really happen. They might think, unless there was solid proof that the bridegroom was on his way, why should one be ready with the oil?
Perhaps this could be considered a case of vision giving way to practicality. And such an attitude was described in the parable as foolish.

Contrarily, the ‘wise’ nurtured the hope that the bridegroom was indeed coming. He could even be coming at that very moment. They were holding on to the belief that the realisation of Jesus’ promise could even happen then and there. And that God would realise the plan of salvation any moment now. God had not abandoned the world that he loved. Therefore, they
made sure that they had flasks of oil ready with their lamp.

Muhammad Ali said, “Don’t count the days, let the days count”. Perhaps the wise bridesmaids shared a similar value. They lived every day fully and worthily, well-prepared for the coming of the bridegroom, for the coming of the new heaven and earth.

At the end of the parable, the Lord urged his listeners to be watchful. He said, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (v. 13). To keep awake is, like the wise bridesmaids, to persist in keeping alive the vision of the coming of the Lord in our hearts, so that we can keep a balance between this vision and our daily lives, living a life that is true to
our faith and true to our God.

Therefore, what the three readings today tell us is that hope is closely connected with obedience that, in turn, is intertwined with keeping awake. We are willing to obey because we aspire to the values of faith that is higher than our mere existence. Come to think of it, if we are happy to live only for the moment, can we really say that we have a vision for the future? And without a vision for the future, can we really say that we have hope? After all, it is only a vision for the future that can be the incentive that motivates us to be faithful to who and what we believe in.

And so, are we ready to take a good look at ourselves to see who we are more like in the way we live? The bridesmaids who live for the moment so much that they have no spare oil for the future? Or the ones who are well-prepared for what the future might hold? May God guide our minds and our footsteps so that we can set our hope in God and not forget his works but keep his commandments while we make our choice on who we would rather be.


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