November 8, 2020 Twenty third Sunday after Pentecost The text is Matthew 25: 1-13.
“When the end comes, the kingdom of heaven will be like ten bridesmaids. They took their oil lamps and went to meet the groom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 The foolish bridesmaids took their lamps, but they didn’t take any extra oil. 4 The wise bridesmaids, however, took along extra oil for their lamps. 5 Since the groom was late, all the bridesmaids became drowsy and fell asleep. 6 “At midnight someone shouted, ‘The groom is here! Come to meet him!’ 7 Then all the bridesmaids woke up and got their lamps ready. 8 “The foolish ones said to the wise ones, ‘Give us some of your oil. Our lamps are going out.’ 9 “But the wise bridesmaids replied, ‘We can’t do that. There won’t be enough for both of us. Go! Find someone to sell you some oil.’ 10 “While they were buying oil, the groom arrived. The bridesmaids who were ready went with him into the wedding hall, and the door was shut. 11 “Later the other bridesmaids arrived and said, ‘Sir, sir, open the door for us!’ 12 “But he answered them, ‘I don’t even know who you are!’ 13 “So stay awake, because you don’t know the day or the hour.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus told a great number of parables to his disciples and others, explaining what God’s coming kingdom would be like. This morning he continues with these parables, this time speaking to what he calls, “the end times”. This is the biblical theme of ‘eschatology”, that part of theology that’s concerned with the final events of history, or the ultimate destiny of humanity.
And the picture Jesus paints this morning is one that seems rather out of synch with the generally inclusive tone his parables usually express.
Bear in mind that this is one of several parables in a row Jesus tells regarding watchfulness, readiness, and preparedness for the coming kingdom of God. A few verses before this morning’s reading Jesus teaches about the homeowner not knowing at what hour a thief might break into his house, followed by servants not keeping at their work when the master is away. And right after this morning’s story about the wise and unwise bridesmaids, we hear about servants who did, and did not invest wisely their master’s money while he was gone. These all follow the same theme; no one knows when Christ will return, but it would be in everyone’s best interest to behave as though it might be at any time
So, the lesson to take away from the parable of the foolish bridesmaids is that it’s less about potentially being excluded from the coming kingdom, and more about living a life of watchfulness while preparing for entry into it. If we consider that the “oil” in the parable is a reference to anything we must do to receive salvation, we then recognize that this is contrary to Lutheran theology. Remember, we are saved by faith in Christ, through grace; apart from “works”. The only way that this reference to lamp oil makes Lutheran sense is if we equate it to having sufficient faith. For we acknowledge that this faith in Christ is all that is needed to gain entry into God’s coming kingdom.
Thus, if we have sufficient “oil” in our lamps, if we maintain and practice a living faith, all we need do is wait. And perhaps this leads us to another way to view the manner in which both the foolish and wise bridesmaids acted. Note that in the parable all ten of them fell asleep. Now, this is understandable, since weddings in the time of the parable did not happen at a set time. There was great pomp and ceremony involved; the groom might come forth to collect his bride at any hour of the day or night. In today’s parable, the bridesmaids would be expected to wait for the groom to arrive and greet him, lighting his way in the darkness with their lamps. They would be either waiting at the brides’ home for the groom to come to her or at the home of the groom’s family where the wedding ceremony would take place.
All the bridesmaids are waiting with their lamps lit in expectation of the groom’s arrival, but he is delayed. In reality, a groom’s delay was not an uncommon occurrence. Potentially, there could be last minute negotiations between the groom and the bride’s family over the dowry. The bride might be taking extra-long to get ready in her wedding finery. The text doesn’t tell us why the delay happened. Either way, the delay should not have caught the bridesmaids by surprise; they should have anticipated that a delay might occur, for any of the reasons mentioned, or in fact, any other. In the parable, the groom arrived at midnight and it was at that point that the foolish bridesmaids hastened forth to purchase oil for their lamps. Probably not the best time to head out to make a purchase, especially when the whole town was likely to be involved in the wedding ceremony.
So, we find that half the bridal party engaged in poor planning and all of them grew weary in their waiting; signs of weak faith, all around. But to be fair, it can be difficult to wait, especially for something we are looking forward to happening. Who hasn’t been travelling in the car and not heard, “are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” I recall making this incessant plea the entire ride from New York to Florida when I was around eleven. I’m pretty sure my parents were sick of hearing it before we were fewer than 30 miles from the house. But who could blame me? We were heading to Cape Canaveral, to see the Apollo rocket that was going to go to the moon! I was filled with anticipation; this was something I was excitedly looking forward to, no way I was going to fall asleep.
If we live lives expectant of the coming kingdom, we will find ourselves looking forward with joy to its arrival. Yet our faith, our “lamp oil” must be sufficient to enable us to bear the waiting. Like the servants being idle when their master was away, and the homeowner not paying attention to the security of his house, and yes, like the drowsy bridesmaids, we can’t allow ourselves to be complacent. Jesus completed his earthly ministry 2,000 years ago, and he himself has told us that even he does not know when the Son of Man will return. This knowledge remains known only to the Father.
So, we are to remain expectant, yet keeping a sense of readiness. I recall a bumper sticker years ago that read, “Jesus is coming, look busy”. Hidden somewhere in that rather snarky message is real advice for we followers of the Way. If we swap out one word, it might read, “Jesus is coming, BE busy!”
Along with this sense of a life of readiness, we ought to concern ourselves with watchfulness and preparedness. And perhaps, we might throw in a bit of much-needed patience. We live in in the very Lutheran concept of the kingdom of God viewed in two distinct ways; the “already here” and the “not yet”. The kingdom has not yet reached its fulfillment, God’s will for the world is not yet realized. This will happen after the “Parousia”, Christ’s Second Coming. This is the “not yet” aspect of the kingdom.
At the same time, we live within the “already here” perspective; that we are to live and act as those who have the knowledge of Christ’s salvation, and behave in ways that reflect our thankfulness for this gift of God’s grace. Like the bridesmaids, we should live in a manner that is expectant of Christ’s imminent return, while remaining aware that a delay might occur; and be prepared for that delay. But, beyond this preparedness, our actions must reflect a sense of purpose, of an awareness of the kingdom that surrounds us. We ought to strive to help usher in all those things that the kingdom promises; love, mercy, forgiveness, justice. These are all blessings promised by God in Christ; but, in the “already here” of the kingdom, we can’t allow ourselves to become drowsy and fall asleep. These are blessings that come from God, and we are also expected to grant these to the kingdom dwellers around us. We are to love God and one another, to show mercy and forgiveness, and to strive to secure a just existence for all. We mustn’t let our lamps of faith be extinguished.
The hallmark of the “already here” of the kingdom is God’s will for God’s people to share in life abundant. Truth be told, for many, for most of us, this abundance is being stretched rather thin these days.
The political climate in our country shows just how far apart we are in our views. No matter your political leanings you can be assured that there is someone who completely disagrees with you. I find myself avoiding social media at all costs these days. The Covid pandemic has decimated lives and lifestyles around the world, and here at home it seems that we are in for the long haul. It looks to be a long, dark winter is ahead of us. Family, friends, and activities we may have previously taken for granted now have greater importance and impact in our lives. Many of us are isolated, many are in fear, and some may have given up, allowed the oil of their faith to run out. Their light may be growing dim and they are feeling drowsy and tired. And it’s for times such as these that Christ’s people are called to share the “already here” of the kingdom with those who have felt the promised abundant life retreating from them.
It’s up to us as followers of the Way of Christ to let our lamps shine brightly, to illuminate the path for others to follow. To show love, mercy, and forgiveness to all whose patience, readiness, or preparedness may have waned. Unlike the bridesmaids who refused to share their oil for fear that all would go without, we know that the blessings we receive are boundless, are without limit. The joy and expectation we feel as we await the coming of the bridegroom who is the Christ, may be shared abundantly with others, without worry that our portion will be diminished.
The lamp oil of the faith that the Spirit has blessed us with will never run out. If we begin to feel that world around us is taking its toll, we can be assured that we will be refilled.
And if we acknowledge that our reserves cannot be depleted, we will be more than ready, be more than prepared to share our blessings with those whose expectation of the “not yet” of the kingdom may be faltering.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious and Holy God, help us to remain expectant, prepared, and patient as we await the coming of the One who will usher in your kingdom. Send your Spirit to supply us with the oil of faith so that we might be a light to others as we keep watch. And we pray these things the name of Jesus Christ, the bridegroom for whom we expectantly wait, with our lamps help before us, to welcome him. And the people of God say…Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.
(Preached by Minister Tom Houston at Grace Ministries when he presided at service there on Sunday, November 8, 2020.)