Matthew 25:1-13 November 12, 2017
In the Meantime
Let me begin with a question this morning, and I am going to ask for a show of hands. How many people are prepared for an earthquake. I don’t mean just like me with a portable radio and thinking that there is plenty of food in the panty. I mean like having 12 litres of water per person stored up, a stash of cash in small bills, all of your documents in a grab-and-go container. Personally, I am amazed at how much I leave to chance when it comes to earthquakes. When will the big one happen? For many of us, it is something that looms on the horizon, but we don’t really think about it.
This morning’s Scripture lesson finds us still in the middle of some dire predictions by Jesus about end-times. Of course Jesus doesn’t come out with specifics but he tells stories, parables and allegories, to talk about the kingdom of God coming. Here he is answering the question which is in the minds of most of the disciples, “When is it going to happen?” It is a question of timing. When are all of these things that you have been talking about Jesus going to happen?
We assume they want to be prepared, just like we want to be prepared for the big one, but maybe, just like me, they don’t want to have to prepare any sooner than absolutely necessary. They are looking for some reassurance from Jesus and, in return, Jesus has given them a lot to think about.
Jesus tells a strange story of bridesmaids waiting for the groom to come. Scholars aren’t really too certain of the specifics of marriage customs in the small villages of Jesus’ day, but they believe that it was a two-step process. First, there was an agreement, not between the bride and groom, but between their families. Second, there was the fetching of the bride by the groom for the wedding ceremony followed by a celebration that could last for days.
The celebration was an important social occasion because it brought people together from various villages to mix and mingle. The arranged marriage wasn’t as arbitrary as we would think. It was at the celebration that a man would be looking over all of the prospective women for marriage. Remember that this is a highly patriarchal society. The women wanted to present themselves as favourably as possible. The young man would have an eye on a prospective wife and go home and tell his father his choice. Sometimes he got his wish and sometimes not.
Perhaps this explains why Jesus talks about these young bridesmaids, or virgins, as the King James Bible calls them, when they don’t wish to share their oil. Normally Jesus is big on sharing, but not here. This seems to clash with Jesus’ teaching on sharing and generosity. Maybe competition helps explain the odd actions of the young women.
However, the story isn’t about sharing. It is about being prepared. One scholar, Richard Swanson, an organizational theorist, uses this biblical example in his seminars. He thinks the word “prudent” might work better to describe the actions of the young women who brought enough oil. He describes prudence as “a well-honed ability to navigate in the real world, making the best of the quick decisions that end up guiding a surprisingly large church of a person’s life…a useful and practical wisdom.”
These young women had the sense enough not to be ready for the coming of the groom, but to be ready for the groom’s delay. For a moment take this thought and apply it to the Church and Christians today. There are a lot of Christians who say they are ready for the second coming of Jesus, but how are we prepared for the delay of the coming? How are we maintaining faithful watch in the meantime? How do we hold on to faith deep into the night when we see no possibility of the bridegroom coming?
The question is: what are we to do in the meantime? What does being ready look like for people of faith? The first generation of Jesus continued to gaze heavenward thinking that Jesus would return at any moment, yet after two thousand years, our expectations of the imminent return of the Christ are somewhat dimmed. How are we to live our lives being ready for Jesus?
When we look at the stories of Jesus, we see that they fall into two categories. The first is the one where God’s grace seems to pour out all over the place. This grace is quite often a surprise to the hearer. Forgiveness for the prostitute, the tax collector. Healing of those thought to be unclean. Embracing the foreigner. God caring for the sparrow. Ministers like to preach on those stories because they offer so much hope and promise to each one of us because we feel we are not as bad as those to whom Jesus so graciously extends love.
The second type of story, like the one here, is where there is a natural conclusion to something happening. These are the ones where there are no gifts and parties, just, as Jesus put it, “much gnashing of teeth.” These are the stories of justice. The person gets what they deserve.
I wonder if these “troubling” stories of Jesus are stories of warning. Many years ago, a friend of mine had a twenty-year-old son who spent his teen years going from one bad situation to another. He was in and out of juvenile detention and then prison. My friend deeply loved his son and out of his deep love, as things got worse and worse, he would tell his son that if he continued on this path it would end up in disaster. One night, my friend did the most difficult thing he had done in his life. He said to himself, “I have had enough.” He locked the door. He threw his son out. He loved his son, but it was tough love here. He didn’t hear from his son for years and his heart continued to be broken.
Jesus tells that story of the prodigal son. The son who returns. The hope in the story is that anything is possible. One day my friend received a call from his son. He wasn’t sure how to respond to the phone call. His son told him that lying in a drunken stupor in a dark alleyway one winter night he had met God in the form of a street Church worker. His son called him to tell him of a transformation in his life and that the son had decided to go to seminary and become a priest. Today his son is a bishop.
Does Jesus tell those stories of justice because there are times when we all need something drastic in order that we might turn our lives around or mend our ways?
This week the Faith Study group, in looking at this passage, mentioned that faith implies trust in God. Most of us would like a God who shows up in our lives with dead certainty. Just like the coming of the bridegroom. Come to me God with a real physical manifestation so that I will believe in you. However, if we had certain proof as to the existence of God, this then would preclude faith. Faith implies a trust in God without proof.
The slogan of our sister church in the United States, the United Church of Christ, is “God is still speaking.” How easy it is in life to be looking for big signs from God like the second coming that we miss seeing the ways God is acting and speaking today, in this meantime. Perhaps we look for or forward to the dramatic, even chilling, predictions of cataclysmic events over the day-to-day wonders of God’s handiwork in the world and our call to participate in that (perhaps) slow transformation? We are called to be God’s people in the world in the meantime. We are called to live faithfully and to serve with love, kindness and justice in this in-between time.
Faith is something we have that keeps us going in the meantime. One scholar, M. Eugine Boring, said that our faithfulness makes it possible to “lie down to sleep in confidence, rather than being kept awake by panicky last-minute anxiety.” We are called to have a faith that endures. God wishes us to have a faith not just for today but a faith that goes on year after year; a faith that enables us to face all of the trials and tribulations of daily life. The importance of being a Christian is not what we wait for but how we wait.