Hearing Jesus’ story about the ten bridesmaids and their lamps, about the five who bring enough oil and the five who run out, we wonder….will we have enough left in the tank? Will we be enough, when the bridegroom arrives?
But what if it’s not about having enough? What if, as Jesus says, it’s actually about keeping awake for the party….the all night party?
[Sorry, persistent technical difficulties are preventing posting the audio, but the text is below.]
22nd Sunday after Pentecost (Year A) – Sunday, November 9, 2014 – Matthew 25:1-13
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
“Party All Night” – Pastor Evan Davis
It was already a long engagement, could the wedding take any longer? The preacher went on and on while everybody was standing there, dressed to the nines. Not to mention the whole thing started 45 minutes late because the bride was still getting ready. [Been there? Thought so.] Now…how many pictures could they take? Sketches, of course, in the first century… 🙂 Everybody is standing around at the bride’s family’s house, ready to party, sipping their drinks, waiting for the bridegroom to arrive. People have been up all day, they’ve waited through the whole wedding service…are you even kidding, bridegroom, about making everyone wait that much longer?? The bridesmaids, probably the sisters and cousins of the bride, have had a particularly long day, as you can imagine…cleaning and decorating the home, preparing food, getting the bride ready for her big day, calming her nerves, standing right there by her side….but their day isn’t done yet. They’re also the ones told to go wait outside with lamps lit to give the bridegroom a warm welcome. All of them grab their lamps, which are filled with enough fuel for a normal evening’s wait (especially if the bridegroom arrives when he’s supposed to!). Half of them are those over-achiever types, though, or they’re just a little skeptical of the groom being on time, so they bring extra oil too. They’re all out there standing with their lamps, exhausted, probably cracking jokes at the happy couple’s expense, but before too long, they all nod off to sleep, lamps beside them, still burning.
Eventually, when the tardy groom decides he’ll finally grace his bride and her family with his presence, somebody gives a shout to wake up the sleepy bridesmaids. They all get up and trim their lamps, but all the lamps are running out of oil. And apparently, he’s still a way’s off. The over-achievers refill their lamps, but the ones who were simply prepared for a normal time of waiting ask their sisters a reasonable question…”wouldn’t you share? It would be better if all ten of us were here with lamps burning, wouldn’t it? We only need to keep going until the groom gets here.” But no, they have theirs and they weren’t going to risk running out, even (or especially?) if it means giving their sisters the cold shoulder. For them, following the rules, being seen as the good, wise, responsible ones, was more important than having compassion for their sisters.
Now remember, Jesus is telling this story.1 Jesus. The same Jesus, who, as Matthew records earlier, taught this: “give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (5:42). Hmm. The same Jesus who said, “beware of practicing your piety before others, in order to be seen by them,” in other words, it’s not about just looking good (6:1). Or how about “do not judge” (7:1), or “in everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (7:12). Or “why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (15:3). Or simply, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (22:39).
We’ve usually heard this parable and thought the Boy Scout motto, “be prepared,” or else. Now I’m an Eagle Scout, and that’s a good principle for your life, but is Jesus really holding up these ungrateful, cold, selfish, probably hypocritical bridesmaids as examples of what it means to be his disciples? Of what the kingdom of heaven will be like? They send their sisters out at midnight to go buy oil from the dealers. And give those five sisters some credit – not only do they go, they’re successful! They somehow get more oil at midnight and they come back only to find the bridegroom has already arrived and shuts them out. What’s the requirement here? Hold stock in Exxon Mobil for that inside oil connection? Be prepared somehow for God’s coming in Jesus Christ? Often we’ve translated that to mean – have enough faith, enough good works, enough personal commitment to God to be prepared for his coming. How can we ever have enough trust in God that we will never run out, never have any doubts or despair? What about all your sisters, and brothers, your beloved ones whom you fear may not have enough left in their tanks? Do you have enough left in the tank?
There’s no adequate preparation for God’s coming into the world in Christ! When Christ came as a baby in Bethlehem, no one was ready for what God was about to do. No one knew what this meant. No one was worthy of his arrival. And the same goes for his second coming. Good thing Jesus says that’s not what it’s about!
What does Jesus say?? He says, “Keep awake, therefore…”2 Not “be prepared, therefore” or “bring an extra oil tank, therefore…” That’s not the lesson! He asks us to keep awake, to keep our eyes and ears open to what God is doing, to be aware of his coming in Jesus. To be awake and alert so we can see and participate in what God is doing in world even now.
In the very next chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ story comes to life. Jesus asks his disciples to stay awake with him as he prays in the garden of Gethsemane, to keep vigil with him the final night of his life on earth. But every last one of them falls asleep. Just like every one of those bridesmaids fell asleep during the long night of waiting for the bridegroom. Just like we all fall asleep to God coming to us all around, every day. But did Jesus hold it against those disciples when he finally arrived, when he emerged from the empty tomb, risen again? No! This was not “Jesus 2: The Revenge!” When the risen Christ appeared, he wasn’t saying “you fell asleep! You betrayed, abandoned, and denied me!” but “peace be with you,” and “I will be with you always, even unto the end of the age.”
When Jesus returns, he’ll be saying, “ready or not, here I come!” He’s saying all of us who fall asleep…who aren’t ready, I’m coming anyways. From the perspective of salvation, of being made right with God, we’re ready the day we’re baptized – when Christ makes us ready by washing us in his mercy and love. And when Jesus comes back to his disciples, the locked door didn’t stop him, he passed right through.3 And no matter which side of the door we find ourselves on…outside with those excluded, or inside with those who looked out for themselves and left their sisters out in the cold, Jesus will pass through whatever doors separate us so we can be with him and with each other, whether we’re ready or not.
We’re all here together, waiting, for the glorious arrival of our Lord Jesus Christ, when the new heaven and new earth will descend, when all of us will rise from our graves to meet the Lord in the air, when death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more.
But while we’re waiting, in the long night of our lives, why don’t we stay awake? We know how great it’s going to be when he gets here, so why don’t we have a stay-up-all-night party to wait and watch for Christ to return? We have our whole lives, or at least until he gets here. It’s all a gift of time. So let’s party! Let’s taste-test the wedding banquet, let’s celebrate a foretaste of the feast to come! Let’s practice the life of the kingdom. What are we waiting for?!?! Cue the music. Set the table. Be sure to welcome all the guests. If someone needs oil for their lamp, for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, give it to them!!!
And keep your eyes open. Keep awake. Because we know neither the day nor the hour…when Christ will show up as a person hungry or thirsty, as a prisoner, as a stranger….when we’ll have the opportunity to share the light of the gospel, even in dim reflection, with a smile, a warm act of compassion, a moment to stop and listen, the strength to forgive. Here’s how you can live your faith this week: tell me where you see Jesus. Tell me where you’ve gotten to shine the light of the gospel. Facebook post? Email? Bulletin board….seriously. I really want to know. And please, would somebody keep on a pot of coffee? Amen.
1Peter Lockhart, “It’s not about the oil!”, http://revplockhart.blogspot.com.au/2014/11/its-not-about-oil.html (accessed November 6, 2014). Pastor Lockhart’s approach underlies my entire sermon.