I am glad that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ gave you all this kind instruction for my sermon. Although I wouldn't blame you for losing focus or dozing off while hearing such a confusing parable. This passage is difficult to understand, which is partly the point of parables. A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.
Jesus is getting the disciples, who do not know what is coming, ready for the end of the age. The only clear characteristic is that nobody knows the day or the hour. It will occur suddenly and unexpectedly, but they should not be caught off guard.
For many of us, our imaginations lead us astray with cultural notions of "apocalypse" and "end times." We can list off endless numbers of movies, television shows, and books that take our minds to visions of rapture and violence with some being left behind. Eternal separation and vivid imagery of mayhem. This makes me think of National Geographic Channel's "Doomsday Preppers," which showcases the tedious, expensive, and over-the-top preparations that ordinary civilians go through to be prepared for impending destruction. Hoarding canned goods, firearms, bottled water, and the like.
While such extensive examples might sound silly to some, why is it normal for us to take the posture of fear in the face of impending terror?
This is not the stance Jesus calls for in today's parable.
Here, Jesus is talking about a different kind of posture of preparedness: a watchfulness, a readiness.
And when we are prepared to see correctly it allows for us to be positioned to welcome Jesus in our midst.
By the time we reach this parable, we have already heard two others immediately prior and are deep into the "judgment discourse" of Jesus.
Jesus has taken his disciples aside after he had faced off with the Pharisees following his turning of the tables in the Temple.
Now here we are, perplexed with the disciples, listening to our teacher's apocalyptic words.
When I say "apocalyptic," I do not mean anything to do with Halloween two weekends ago or non-biblical notions of the "end times." I am speaking of "apocalypse" as meaning "revelation." Jesus is revealing, as he has been, what "then the kingdom of heaven will be like" (25:1).
Jesus is instructing his disciples on the right way to see and therefore the right posture to take in preparation for the future.
Since my arrival at Greenwood Forest Baptist Church, we have been in a sermon series that helps to paint a picture of what heaven will be like by answering the question, “To whom does the Kingdom belong?”
This passage answers that question by saying that the Kingdom belongs to “Those Who Are Ready for God to Show Up.”
We constantly need reminding to anticipate God's presence.
I had a nametag that was made for me. I wore it during weekly Sonshine Ministry meetings at the church I was a part of last year for my field education placement when people of varying abilities gathered to eat, learn, and fellowship together. A sticker placed horizontally across the “M” of my name read, “Be Ready For God!” This simple Gospel message has been preaching to me since my first invitation to shepherd that community. It is a reminder I desperately needed.
Each day I am learning to be expectant of our present and living Lord: to be ready for God. And what a difference this expectation makes.
What communities are you a part of at work, school, home, or church where you could be more vigilant to encounter Jesus in your midst and encourage others to see differently?
Although my nametag didn’t have my last name on in, which often confuses people who comment on my "two first names," in a way it did.
The word for "Keep Awake!" / "Be prepared!" - Γρηγορεῖτε - that Jesus commands of us, his disciples, is the root of my last name, "Greg." And although this word has special significance to me, it doesn't mean I am always diligent in my readiness to experience God.
Fortunately, our concern is not about missing Jesus once and for all, because we daily miss him! Our opportunity is to experience the presence of God here, now, and forever!
While it is essential to remember that the Lord is a promise keeper, whose final words were "I am with you always, to the end of the age," our bold confidence in the Lord’s presence expects something of us.
We call obedience to Jesus's commands discipleship. Being a disciple means acknowledging Jesus in all things.
As a church, we are constant in asking, “Where is God?"
So what does this parable have to teach us about being prepared for God?
While we could concern ourselves with many cryptic aspects of this text, instead we should look for the take away message that Jesus, the bridegroom, intends for his hearers.
Of concern for us today is what ultimately distinguishes the bridesmaids, followers of Jesus, from one another?
There is nothing obvious that clues us into what distinguishes those gathered.
They all went out to meet the bridegroom, they all had lamps, they all were trimmed, they all presumably were dressed for the occasion, and they all fell asleep. On the surface they are indistinguishable.
We need to be told by Jesus himself that five are wise and five are foolish.
We have to be told that when the foolish “took their lamps, they took no oil with them."
We have to be told that the wise “took flasks of oil with their lamps."
Ultimately the focus of the passage is on the preparedness of the bridesmaids for the presence of the bridegroom upon his delayed arrival.
At the end of the day, it was not even that the wise bridesmaids had oil in their lamps in order to see, but that they were there. The lamps of the foolish were going out after the arrival of the bridegroom had been announced with a shout to "Look!"
The wise were present, postured with oil and a stance of readiness to be able to be greeted by the bridegroom upon his arrival.
On the other hand, the five foolish were not there. They were not present. Nowhere to be found when the bridegroom arrived. They fled the scene upon the bridegroom's arrival.
When Jesus is "delayed" are we prepared to stick around and wait?
In our waiting, what does our posture look like?
The parable suggests that with the unexpected comes one of two responses exemplified by the bridesmaids: a posture of fear or love.
If you are anything like me, this week I have been feeling the delay of the bridegroom. I have joined countless others in lamenting the 27 deaths and countless injuries at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
We cry out with the psalmist:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
During tragic moments of senseless hate, we grieve the wake of death left in the path of evildoers. We do not see the Lord's face. We bear pain in our bodies and sorrow in our hearts. Our enemy the Adversary appears to have dominion and victory.
Tragedy opens us up and makes us vulnerable, like it or not. Wounds are opened.
In response, we choose a posture out of fear or love.
Fear looks like isolation. It looks like hiding from community. The particular closeness of this evil act makes us ask, "Do we flee community and stop coming to church and faith formation weekly? Do we depart from the table of sharing common goods and instead hoard symbols of illusory protection in stockpiled cans and bullets? Do we remove ourselves from worshiping in the glory of God?"
Do we bend in on ourselves and neglect to seek the presence of Christ?
Or, are we prepared to encounter Jesus in the unexpected?
In this house of worship, the Holy Spirit gathers us in unity. I was just told by a member last week that being here means something more than just being with any other large gathering of people in the same place.
We are the Body of Christ!
Instead of choosing a posture of fear, we must choose the posture of love. The psalmist goes on to say:
But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
We don't understand this love. This love Christ has for us. This love, as Paul says, that "at the right time Christ died for the ungodly" (Romans 5:6). We fail to be surprised that love takes the form of defeat. A cross. A death. But we trust in it!
This posture of love was unknown to the faithful righteous disciples and unrighteous disciples alike.
The 25th chapter of Matthew concludes with Jesus teaching his disciples to see this posture rightly:
"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." (25:35-36)
Like distinguishing the foolish from wise bridesmaids, the disciples had to be explicitly told by Jesus that he was present. They were equally in disbelief:
"Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?"
And Jesus answered them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." (25:37-40)
We tend to hyper-individualize passages like this where Jesus is teaching, but here Jesus is using the 2nd person plural “you all,” which in the South I have since learned is best translated as “y’all.” All y'all, the church.
"For I was hungry and y'all gave me food, I was thirsty and y'all gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and y'all welcomed me, I was naked and y'all gave me clothing, I was sick and y'all took care of me, I was in prison and y'all visited me."
Can you sense the openness of this exercise? It is endless.
Plug in whatever you do to another and Jesus is telling you it is truly done to him.
These acts of mercy are collective actions not only accomplished individually. The good news is that we are not asked to do this alone!
We hosted Family Promise last week, where more children than ever were cared for. If you recognized it or not, Jesus was served and you were served by Jesus. Our church provided temporary housing, meals, and transportation to families. To Christ. And Christ came to us. And we were prepared to greet, to welcome, to eat with, and to fellowship with Christ.
We often forget that discipleship, like a wedding, is costly. We are not always going to feel great all the time. Our pocketbooks are going to be emptied. Our patience will be stretched. Our homes will be crowded. Our stomachs grumblier.
Our stance of love, not of fear, allows for such preparedness to interact with Jesus, if we feel it or not.
The disciples were disoriented by the revelation that their ministry alongside Jesus was done not only in his name or by his authority, but actually physically to him!
We must ask ourselves if we believe that it could possibly still be true that we don't only spiritually minister to Christ, but bodily tend to him?
Do we come armed with a crucified posture of love: hands outstretched, wide open?
The Book of Common Prayer, which has aided Christians in assuming a loving posture of prayer for centuries, ends with reciting:
"Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake
we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace."
Ultimately, this is the preparedness we are called to. Not an anxiousness that keeps us up at night for fear of condemnation upon the Lord's return. Neither is it a constant vigilance that moves us to inaction in the world out of fear.
Our duty as disciples is to be prepared to encounter the living Christ in all the places God promises to meet us daily. In the ordinary and unexpected.
In our active waiting for Christ to dwell among us again, may we as the church be steadfast in assuming the loving posture of preparedness God has called us to.
What will it look like for you?