~ 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6/Matthew 25:1-13 ~
Bad theology – I grew up with it! The apocalypse, ‘end-of-the-world’ stuff – ‘The Rapture!’ I went to bible school with a guy who wrote a best-selling novel series called Left Behind. A really bad movie was made based on the series. Much of this theology looks to this passage we just heard from 1 Thessalonians. “Like a thief in the night,” so goes the idea, Jesus will return to take all the true believers back to heaven so they won’t have to experience what all those left behind have to experience – the tribulation, the anti-Christ, Armageddon, all the really bad stuff we see in movies. The lesson is: do not fall asleep but keep awake and be sober. But, as I said, it is bad theology. The fact is there is not a single word of truth in this rapture idea. It’s a ghastly, destructive lie that has been messing up people for many a year.
Now I grant you, the idea of being prepared for the return of “the Lord” is quite prevalent in scripture. And our reading from Matthew 25 is one of them: The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids. So I guess we somehow need to come to terms with what “the coming of the Lord” means and what it means to not fall asleep but be ready. Reading from Matthew 25:1-13:
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But 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.’ And 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. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
The Word of God according to the Gospel of Matthew
One of the great, old spirituals is based on this story – Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning. Before I get into my sermon let’s hear the NVM Virtual Choir.
Anthem – Keep Your Lamps copy
“Children, don’t grow weary, for this work’s almost done.” Except our work isn’t almost done! OK. The way this past week turned out many of us might think that our work is done. That we can finally breathe again because we’ve been holding our collective breaths for four years. However, if we all take a realistic look at our world on this post-election Sunday, we do realize that our work is not done. There is, indeed, still much to be done. The import of the election has been very much on my mind this week as I grappled with this parable of Jesus as conveyed by Matthew. Is there any connection between the events of this past week and this parable of the Ten Bridesmaids? I think there is. And I’d like to prevail upon you to indulge me. But first I have to do a little de-construction on this story about ten bridesmaids at a wedding.
Ten bridesmaids took their lamps to meet the bridegroom. It is a scene of charming innocence. Picture ten teenage girls (for that is how Jesus’ listeners would have pictured it) giddy with excitement at the prospect of going to meet the bridegroom so they can go into the wedding hall for the banquet. There is a party and they are invited. Since this daytime wedding might go into the evening, they take their lamps with them so they can find their way. They certainly are not concerned that they will be snubbed. Cakes and ice cream and dancing are what they are looking forward to. But Jesus says five of them were foolish and five of them were wise. Why? It’s as simple as this: five of them planned ahead, five of them didn’t. Jesus says the foolish bridesmaids took no oil with them. The image is that of life lived on the ordinary, prudent basis of what is likely to happen. They had no reason to believe that they would need extra oil; what was already in their lamps would be plenty. The wise bridesmaids took flasks of oil with their lamps. Why would they need extra oil? Nothing is going to happen that they would need extra oil. How foolish to lug along extra containers of oil for seemingly no reason. What could possibly go wrong? Think maybe, oh I don’t know – earthquake preparedness kits!
But the point of the story is that, in this world, something always does go wrong. And so in the story, Jesus introduces just such a thing. “As the bridegroom was delayed,” Jesus says, “all of them became drowsy and slept.” Can you picture the young girls waiting? There they sit talking of school, and friends, and possible boyfriends, with giggling and carrying on. But as the evening wears on and the bridegroom still does not come, the wedding feast turns into a slumber party and they all fall off to sleep sacked out on the couches and the floor.
Suddenly there is a cry! “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” And thus we have the watchword of the church as it begins every Christian year with the season of Advent. “Behold the bridegroom.” The hymn we will sing after the sermon today, “Rejoice! Rejoice, Believers,” is an advent hymn based on this text. Seeing this parable from an advent perspective gives us a clue to what is at issue. This world is a mess; failures abound even amongst Christ’s disciples. And the unexpected does happen—regularly. The bridegroom was delayed. Who would have thought? And so it is only as we wait in faith that all of this mess ceases to matter and we are able to lay hold of the reconciliation that lies below the mess of history. God will do it – eventually. All we need is the faith to accept the reconciliation, no questions asked, from the hand of the one who brings it, no questions answered. And so the vital issue is not how alert we are to Christ’s coming or how diligently we are performing when he comes. The difference is faith.
This parable has been called a parable of judgment because there are those who get thrown out of the party at the end. But notice that the story is not about getting into the party. It’s about missing out on the party you’re already invited to. It’s about not believing that the party is already going on.
This parable is also about the seeming absence of God in the world. A central plot point is the absence of the bridegroom. Where is he? Why is he delayed? Oh, I’m getting so sleepy I think I’ll take a short nap while I wait. But I would suggest that the bridegroom’s absence should not be seen in a chronological way: One moment he’s not here and the next moment he is here. Rather it should be seen in terms of what is not seen and what is seen. It looks like he isn’t here but with the eyes of faith we can see that he is here, and that he’s been here all along.
Faith is the way we experience that presence. Faith believes the good news of the gospel, that we are, in fact, already reconciled to God. And faith lives on that reality. Remember, faith is not just an assent to a proposition. It is the living out of a trust-relationship with a person, Jesus. And so the logical question is: If Jesus has already done it all for me already, why shouldn’t I live as if I trusted him?
And so the bridegroom welcomes those who are waiting in faith for him into the wedding banquet. The foolish bridesmaids come too late and receive the ultimate—literally—slap in the face: The bridegroom says, “I do not know you” and closes the door. In a sense he is saying, I never knew you—because you never bothered to know me. There was no relationship on their part; therefore God just says as much and gets on with the feast.
“Watch therefore,” Jesus says. That can be pretty scary with the now-or-never urgency of faith and the once-and-always finality of judgment. But we need to take a deep breath and let it out with a laugh. Because what we are watching for is, after all, a party. We do indeed need to watch, but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.
Indeed, I would say, ‘watching’ is not the word. ‘Participation’ is the word. There is nothing to wait for. But, if you’ll indulge me, the party is not just for our own entertainment, our own enjoyment. The party is about engagement. It is about pitching in because there is much work to be done.
One of my favorite political blogger pundits is Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo. He reposted something a couple days ago he said four years ago: “Optimism isn’t principally an analysis of present reality. It’s an ethic. It is not based on denial or rosy thinking. It is a moral posture toward the world we find ourselves in.” I think it is a posture of faith.
As we consider the state of our world and what part we might play there is reason to be optimistic. But that optimism is not an ‘everything-is-gonna-be-alright’, ‘it’s-morning-in-America’ wishful thinking sentiment. Rather, it is a moral ethic of being the people of God getting the work done that needs to be done. Keeping on keepin’ on. Yes, these really are difficult times, fraught with considerable conflict and deep-seated antipathy. The election did not change that. This is the story we find ourselves in.
Maybe we can gain some inspiration from two travelers who found themselves questioning their roles in their story. Samwise Gamgee, the hobbit companion of Frodo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, tells us what he thinks of such things.
It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really matter, full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because after the end could you be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad has happened? But in the end it is only a passing thing, a shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those are the stories that stay with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. And I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances in turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something.”
“What are we holding onto, Sam?” says Frodo.
“That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”
Or, as the Apostle Paul puts it: “…let us not fall asleep…but let us keep awake and be sober.” So, lay off the wine. Amen.