First Reading Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Second Reading 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Gospel Reading Matthew 25:1-13
Sermon: “Ready, Set, Wait!”
Waiting is hard. We have all been doing a lot of waiting lately. Waiting for the pandemic to be over so we can get together again, waiting month after month, sometimes being tempted to just ignore it and go back to the old familiar ways, then watching the consequences role in and knowing that we have longer to wait. Vaccines are coming – sometime. We have been waiting for the election results to come in for days and days we waited. Now we wait longer for things to be certified and lawsuits to be decided. Waiting is hard, I don’t like it at all. Waiting a long time while being ready to go at a moments notice is almost impossible. Its the subject of today’s Gospel reading – Waiting in readiness. Ready?… Set! … Wait…. Wait…….. Wait……….. Now! Can I confide in you? I really don’t like this parable very much. It and several others conclude Matthew’s description of the final week of Jesus’ ministry and they all have sharp points.
The stage for this parable is set in the preceding chapter. The scene is the magnificent temple in Jerusalem. It was the largest and most ornate of any temple to any God in the world at the time. Jesus and his disciples were walking out it when they paused to marvel at all that surrounded them. Imagine their shock when Jesus said (Matthew 24:2-3 NIV) “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”  As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
Ah ha! – There is the question that Jesus is still answering when he tells us this strange parable. Already he had warned them about false messiahs yet to come, about wars and rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, of a great turning away, and of false prophets, and yet the promise that the gospel would reach the farthest corners of the world before the end. Then would come the time when the Son of Man would return in power and glory to Judge and rule the world. We can almost see the disciples leaning in – yes, yes and then what? When will all of this happen, how can we know?
Jesus’ reply has frustrated dedicated prognosticators for millennia now. He states it as plainly as can be. Listen to these selections from the verses that follow: (Matthew 24:36,42,44-51 NIV)  “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.  So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.  “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time?  It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns.  Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions.  But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’  and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards.  The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of.  He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Wow, this sounds like some serious stuff that maybe we ought to pay attention to, now doesn’t it? And yet Jesus’ own words caution against spending our time in idle speculation: “It will be good for that servant whose master finds him being faithful when he returns”
The parable of the 10 virgins takes its setting from the marriage customs of the time. Marriages then were a huge affair, with the festivities often lasting a whole week. The Cultural Backgrounds Bible has this to offer: “On the evening of a wedding, the bride and bridesmaids would wait at the bride’s parents’ home; the groom would then come with his entourage to escort the bride and her entourage, with music and dancing, to the site of the wedding. Because the exact timing was unpredictable, given the many preparations (and the bride’s relatives haggling over the value of the gifts given them), the bridesmaids needed to stay ready. This particular groom seems delayed more than usual, but a groom would normally come after dark to escort the bride to the wedding. Women could be married in their early to mid-teens; the bridesmaids were normally virgins who would want to perform their duties well, as they hoped to find husbands themselves soon. The small lamps of this period could be held in a hand, contained only a limited amount of oil, and so would need refilled periodically.”
It is easy to get caught up in trying to make this parable into a full blown allegory and try to assign significance to every last part and facet. That seems unwise here, in that it might lead to some conclusions that don’t jive with the rest of Jesus’ teachings. Its best to stick with the main point which is simply this: The coming of the bridegroom which we understand to be the second coming of Jesus from the setting, may take a lot longer than his followers think. Nevertheless. It is important to not give up, loose interest, become apathetic and forget why we are here. Maybe even take a nice long nap.
Now I said we weren’t going to shift the details, but there are a couple them that I feel deserve mention. For instance, Did you notice that even the “wise” virgins fell asleep for a time? That seems to happen to even the best of Jesus’ disciples from time to time – remember at the Garden of Gethsemane? Taking nap once in a while isn’t the problem. The part that always bothers me, and seems to teach the wrong lesson, is where the 5 with extra oil refuse to share and tell the others to go and buy more at shops that were surely locked up tight for the night and would have required some effort to get the shop keeper to open up for them. Naturally, by the time they could get back it would be too late and they would have insulted the bridegroom and not be allowed to join the party.
Since we know for certain Jesus’ position of the importance of sharing our resources from his other teachings, we know that cannot be what we are supposed to learn here.
Many folks have offered explanations of what the oil and the light might represent other than a practical and necessary item to participate in the wedding procession. True, Jesus did teach that we are to be light in a dark world and that might be part of what is indicated here. Others see a reference to the Holy Spirit in the oil. If so, that might be a an acceptable way out of the problem. There are some things that cannot be simply given or handed to another person, not matter how badly we might wish to do so. Faith and character are two such things. These must be cultivated within ourselves. A deep, abiding reliance on the Holy Spirit to renew and sustain us is another. Helpful habits of loving care for others is somethings else that cannot be had for the asking, they just be developed. For what ever reason. The 5 bridesmaids were not ready to fulfill their roles and so were left out.
No, that’s no quite right is it? They were quite eager and ready at the first. They were all dressed up, they were right where they were supposed to be and on time at that. They had their lamps and wicks all full of oil at first – cheerfully lit and ready to join the procession just as soon as the bridegroom called out – they started out well. They just had one problem. They hadn’t considered how long they would be left to wait. They were not prepared for the long haul. Its now 2000 years since Jesus first promised that he would come again to rule with glory and righteousness. Could the early church have possibly imagined it would take this long? I suspect they would have been astounded to think that it could possibly have been at least as long until Christ’s return as it had been from God’s first promise to Abraham until Messiah came the first time.
I also want us to consider a very individual aspect to this problem of being children of God for the long haul. Sometimes it is easy to get all enthused for a time – we come to faith, we get baptized, we join a congregation and then what? A life time of waiting to meet our Savior? I pray that is not where any of us are. Jesus would have us know that while we are waiting for the culmination of all things that there are important tasks we have been given. Living for God is the work of a lifetime with no retirement age. Loving God and loving neighbor is to be how we are known always. Seeking after the will of God and pursuing peace and justice is the clear command of scripture. Idleness in waiting is not our call – quite the opposite.
That said, the hours and days and years can take their toll if we are not seeking constantly to be renewed and refreshed in our faith. Only then can we reflect the love of God and shine for all to see. The grocery store may close for the night, but the Spirit of God is always available to anyone who asks. Ready? Set? Live in the light!