November 12 2017 Sermon
‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids* took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.* 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7Then all those bridesmaids* got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids* came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.*
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
One of the least understood or examined elements of the Christian faith is the Second Coming of Christ. Yet this event horizon has fundamentally shaped the way in which the Christian Church bears witness to the love of God in the world. Each new generation of those who seek to follow Jesus have had to wrestle to understand how God will bring our story to its culmination. And they’ve also had to wrestle with how to live and wait faithfully for the fullness of God’s reign. What do we do while we wait?
How’s this thing going to end? And what does it mean to profess in worship that Christ will come again in glory?
Will it be as Charles Wesley penned in a well known hymn: ‘lo, he comes with clouds descending-the saints now will meet him in the sky?’ There’s no shortage of pastors over the ages that have dabbled in trying to anticipate with accuracy down to the day of Christ’s Second Coming. It’s a futile effort but amusing all the same.
Pastor William Miller proclaimed to his flock; ‘My principles in brief, are, that Jesus Christ will come again to this earth, cleanse, purify, and take possession of the same, with all the saints, sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844.”
When March 21, 1844, passed without incident, William Miller returned to his study of the book of Daniel. He believed that a prophecy by the prophet Daniel was pointing to the return of Christ if only he could get the math right. After further study, a new date was calculated for the Second Coming of Christ. October 22, 1844.
“I waited all Tuesday [October 22] and dear Jesus did not come;– I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was, but after 12 o’clock I began to feel faint, and before dark I needed someone to help me up to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I lay prostrate for 2 days without any pain– sick with disappointment.”
These accounts of trying to anticipate Christ’s return are an interesting counterpoint to Jesus’ telling of the parable concluding that the hour and day of arrival are unknown. In another Matthean account as Jesus teaches in the Temple, the Son of Man will come like a thief in the night, the hour unknown.
Like so many of our parables over the past two months, they are lifted from Jesus’ last week of public ministry. He processed into Jerusalem riding on a monkey, a hopeful expectation from the crowd that Jesus would be crowned king. He would do away with Rome’s occupation. Instead, Jesus drives the money changers out of the Temple and then offers a parting discourse with the Sadducees and Pharisees about who the Messiah is and what the kingdom of God is like. It’s not long after the conclusion of this parable and the following one about the separation of the sheep and the goats in Final Judgment that the High Priest plots to arrest and kill Jesus.
The kingdom of God is like a wedding in which ten attendants prepare for the arrival of the groom so the festivities can begin. Half of them are labeled foolish and the other half wise before the parable even gets underway. I think it’s an unhelpful designation. As the evening unfolds, the groom gets caught in traffic and all the attendants, not just one half or the other, fall asleep waiting for him. Then a shout goes out that the groom is arriving. The attendants awake and prep their lamps. Those who didn’t bring a surplus of oil to refill the lamps know that very soon their lamps will burn out. They make a reasonable request of those who brought containers with surplus oil. Will you share with us? We don’t have enough. No, you’re not getting any. You better go find some for yourself and so half of the attendants depart to find oil.
While they’re out running a midnight errand looking for oil, the groom arrives and the eternal wedding banquet begins. Then the attendants return, who knows if they had any success finding the oil they sought, and they request to enter the banquet. Entry denied.
Is the kingdom of God really like that? If you don’t have enough oil to make it through the night, then you’re up the creek without a paddle. You can’t expect your fellow attendants to share oil so that all might enter the wedding banquet when the groom arrives. And then to add insult to injury, when half of the attendants go in search of oil since no one is in a sharing mood, they’re told upon their return they’re a day late and a dollar short. You’re not getting in.
This parable cuts a little hard against the images of God’s work in the world that I lift up before you week after week. There’s no generosity. There’s no inclusion. There’s judgment and consequence that doesn’t seem to square with Jesus’ public ministry of bringing anyone and everyone into God’s fold. The door is shut when the feast begins rather than being left open for any latecomers. So what’s the good news about this cautionary tale that if you aren’t urgently waiting and prepared for Christ then you’re going to miss the banquet?
I think one way to go about finding the good news is looking into Matthew’s community who first heard this parable told. Matthew’s folks had seen the Temple destroyed by Rome. They were fighting with their Jewish cousins about who the Messiah is and what the Messiah was going to do for God’s people. By the time Matthew’s gospel was put together, a good number of folks had been kicked out of the synagogue over internal theological affairs. Folks were 2nd and 3rd generation followers of Jesus who were really beginning to wonder how the story was going to culminate?
Like when we read through Acts of the Apostles, if you think Christ’s return is imminent, then idrt makes some sense to sell the real estate, liquidate the nest egg, and give it all away. If Christ’s return is a bit further off over the horizon, it might be a wise thing to pace your generosity and cultivate practices that will nurture life with God over the long haul. In other words, is the Christian life like a sprint or an ultra marathon? You train differently based on expectation.
Matthew’s folks were wondering, how do we share the Christian life with one another while we wait for Christ? This parable spurns the community on toward urgent waiting and preparation for when the messianic groom arrives. We’re no different. Christ has not yet come to bring all things into God’s self. So what do we in the in between time while we wait?
Did you notice that all ten of the attendants got drowsy and fell asleep? It didn’t matter whether they were supposedly wise or foolish, all ten fell asleep waiting for the groom. It’s tiring work anxiously checking the clock waiting for someone’s arrival with an unknown ETA. But when the groom’s arrival is imminent, all awake from their slumber to light their lamps. It’s just that half of them didn’t do the work of preparation to carry a bit more fuel than they thought necessary to carry. They must have surmised they could make it on a little bit of fuel-they were wrong.
Do you think you can get by loving God and neighbor with only the oil in the lamp and none in a reserve?
A Christian with no oil, can’t be the light of the world for anybody, no matter how much they want to. So then we asked: what fills you up spiritually when you run dry? What replenishes your oil? Where do you find God, and how can you make sure that you get enough of that oil for your lamp, so that God can fill you up again? Because you will run dry. And when you do, you can’t be a light for anybody. Remember the safety speech we hear on airplanes? “In the event of an emergency, oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling; please be sure to secure your own oxygen mask first before assisting others.”
I am a Christian, and I know what it means to run out of oil, and I’m guessing you do, too. Your kid walks into the kitchen at 5:30 and says, “What’s for dinner?” and you say, “Meatloaf,” and your kid says, “What, again?”-and suddenly you have morphed into Godzilla, right there in the kitchen; and when you have finished ranting your kid looks at you calmly and says, “Let me guess. You’re out of oil.” It’s fairly simple. When the arrow on the gas tank points to empty, you are going to run out of gas. If a two-year-old doesn’t get a nap, she is going to crash. When you haven’t had a conversation with your spouse in three weeks that hasn’t revolved around carpooling logistics, your marriage is getting dry. If you have worked eighty-hour weeks for longer than you care to know, your relationships are going to suffer. It’s not really something any of us can avoid. There are some kinds of fuel that just are not negotiable.
There are some kinds of preparation we can only do for ourselves. There are some reserves that no one else can build up for us. You can’t borrow someone else’s peace of mind or their passion for God. You can’t say to your friend, “You have such a happy marriage, don’t you? Could you give me some of that?” It doesn’t work. You have to find it yourself. You have to figure out what fills you up, spiritually, and then make sure you have some to carry with you, every single minute of the day, because that’s how often you’ll need it. (Rev Dr Anna Carter Florence)
If you find yourself feeling like one of the attendants carrying around a surplus of fuel because your life with God is bursting at the seams, keep on doing what you’re doing. If you find yourself feeling like one of the attendants staring into the bottom of an empty lamp wanting your neighbor to fill you up, then maybe one of two things could help.
Maybe you need to take something up to nurture your life with God. An act of mercy-serving in the community so that our vulnerable neighbors are cared for. Or maybe an act of piety. More time in worship or study of scripture to see God at work in Jesus Christ. And if the idea of one more thing sends cold chills up your spine, then perhaps there is something you need to step away from. You can step away before you burn up the midnight oil.
Search your inner life and fuel it accordingly so that you can live faithfully and fruitfully until Christ comes again in glory. Amen.