Of course, Amos was writing in his own time, in his own situation, calling into question certain contemporary religious practices. And these practices are no longer our practices. We do not bring fatted animals. We do not make sacrifices of animals or offerings of grain. But does that let us off the hook? I rather think I know what Amos would say. I’m sure he’d tell us it doesn’t.
So we need to look at our own worship practice, in the light of what Amos was saying, and ask if we have anything to learn. It is difficult to know exactly, from this distance, what Amos was so angry about, but I think we can hazard a reasonable guess. He was convinced that the Israelites’ worship practices were more about what the worshippers wanted, about what served their perceived needs, than about what was actually pleasing to God. They had their rituals and ceremonies. They had their songs and the music of their harps. They had the places they considered sacred. And, I’m sure, it all looked very good. I’m sure it all felt very satisfying. I’m sure that those who worshipped in this way felt their needs met, their hearts uplifted, their obligations fulfilled. In other words, it had become comfortable; worship suited the worshippers, and what God actually desired had become lost.
That constitutes a challenge to any worshipping community. Is what we do for us, or for God? Does what is important become this – the singing the hymns and songs that we like, sitting in the places where we feel comfortable, doing things which, in their familiarity, are no longer challenging? For, if that is the case, if what we are doing is only what is easy and familiar and comfortable, then Amos tells us, in his shocking, angry way, that we are no longer truly worshipping. God does not want all the stuff which simply serves to make us feel good. What God wants, he says, is lives of righteousness, lives of justice. These things are neither easy nor comfortable. These cost us sacrifices greater than grain or money. But justice and righteousness are what God wants, are how God is truly honoured. Nothing else can substitute.
This is not a comfortable message. But this is not a comfortable day. This is a day on which we consider sacrifice, not in dispassionate, academic terms, but in awe of the sacrifices asked and given by generations past, by generations passing, and by young men and women of the present generations to whom the future should belong. Do our solemn assemblies, our festivals, honour them? Only, Amos tells us, only if we offer to God lives of justice and righteousness.
And that must mean lives changed by what we remember today. That must mean lives committed never to making again the mistakes made before. That means lives in which pride and privilege are not allowed to run rampant through our relations with one another.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells a story which contains a powerful image, the image of the oil lamp. An oil lamp which must be kept lit.
The lamp, or lamps rather, are in the hands of bridesmaids at a wedding, whose task it was to keep a look out for the groom coming to the bride’s house in order to escort her to his and to the great wedding banquet prepared there. From this scene, Jesus draws out an image of what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like and of how we ought to live while awaiting it. Clearly, we are supposed to live like the wise bridesmaids, not the foolish ones. But what does this mean?
Despite the last line in the story, it does not mean that we are to remain in a state of constant alertness. All the bridesmaids sleep, not just the foolish ones. A time of drowsiness is not what marks out the folly of the foolish ones. Neither does it mean that we are to be entirely self sufficient. The bridesmaids were only responsible for the lamps and the oil; the groom’s great banquet is provided for them, not by them. Rather, it has something to do with the quality of our waiting. And I would like to say two things about that.
First, we should not wait alone. As people expecting the coming Kingdom of God, we should gather together and wait together. And second, we should not be afraid to use the things we have, the oil in our lamps, so to speak. We live in hope that justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a never ending stream.
Today, we bear witness, not only to the sacrifice of the past but to the hope for the future – hope for a future of justice, of righteousness, of peace; hope for a future built from faith and hope and love. These are the provisions for living which God gives us now in the time before eternity, not tools for gaining entry into it. These things are the light of the lamps which today we seek to keep lit, the lamps of remembrance, casting the light of God, light which dispels darkness, which shines with his peace and his love.