Sunday November 8, 2020
Old Testament – Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
New Testament – Matthew 25:1-13
INTRODUCTION: So after doing more than a few weddings over the years, I have come to a realization.
While I am far from being a stylish person (I actually wear hand-me-down clothes Jonah has outgrown!), and while I am never going to appear on that TV show Project Runway as a contestant or judge (Michael Kors I am not!), I know this: bridesmaids often have to wear some of the most God-awful dresses I have ever seen!
And while the style of the dresses are often pretty bad in their own right, it’s the colors they also often come in that usually grabs my attention. Yep, over the years I’ve seen bridesmaids decked out in colors that I didn’t even know existed. You know, like one of those paint swatches with a color name that says Whispering Peach, which by the way, is an actual color that looks like somebody hooked an embalming needle up to a peach and drained it of all its juices.
So bridesmaids sometimes have to wear some pretty hideous dresses. It just comes with the job, I suppose. If you’re going to be a bridesmaid, then you have to accept that there is a good chance you’re going to end up dressed in some previously unknown color meant to make you look as drab and boring as possible.
And I get it. It is the bride’s big day, after all. And so it’s easy to see why bridesmaids aren’t usually decked out in fancy apparel. It’s just part of the job description.
ONE: Well, bridesmaids in ancient Palestine also had a job to do. While they didn’t have to wear Whispering Peach colored, frumpy dresses, bridesmaids in Jesus’ day were expected to do a lot of waiting.
You see, unlike us, folks back then weren’t really into having a set time for weddings to begin. There weren’t pictures taken in advance, there wasn’t an organist softly piping out Pachelbel's Canon minutes beforehand, and there wasn’t a grand processional for the wedding party down the aisle of the sanctuary at the appointed hour with cute little ring bearers.
Instead, according to some scholars, weddings would often get started with the groom showing up at the bride’s house sometime after dusk. And because his arrival was uncertain, well, bridesmaids were assigned the task of keeping watch for his coming. With their lamps lit, they were to greet the groom upon his arrival, and then everyone en masse would parade through the streets back to the groom’s father’s house for the actual hitching. And then after hitching? Well, a grand and festive celebration ensued.
And so it was important for the bridesmaids to keep vigil. Since they didn’t know the exact time when the groom might arrive, they needed to be awake and on the lookout for his coming at any moment.
TWO: Hardly surprising, then, to see such a real life situation turned into a metaphor for discipleship, right?
Yep, we hear about bridesmaids keeping vigil for a coming groom, and it’s easy to see why such a scenario would then be used to talk about the life of faith. For as Jesus likes to tell it, the kingdom of heaven can be compared to ten bridesmaids waiting on a groom to arrive so he can escort his bride back to his father’s house for the wedding.
But five of the bridesmaids, it turns out, aren’t the best at planning, while the other five, well, they’re apparently pretty good at trying to stay ahead of the curve. And what divides the prepared ones from the not so prepared, of course, is the amount of oil they have in their lamps.
You see, the bridesmaids that aren’t great at planning, well, they assume that the bridegroom is just going to show up sooner rather than later and so they don’t bother to bring any extra oil with them for their lamps.
The other bridesmaids, on the other hand, seem to know better, don’t they? Since they know there isn’t an appointed hour set in stone, they’re ready for just about anything to occur. And because of that, they have brought extra oil with them just to be on the safe side.
And sure enough, five of the ten bridesmaids soon find themselves in a bit of a jam. The groom is long in coming and so five of them are eventually forced to scurry off to the market to buy more oil for their empty lamps.
Unfortunately for them, though, they have to dash off to the market for more oil as the groom is approaching, and they end up missing the wedding and subsequent banquet as a result.
THREE: The parable, of course, is a cautionary tale for all of us, isn’t it?
It’s a cautionary tale about the need to always remain diligent when seeking to follow Jesus Christ. After all, waiting on the fulfillment of God’s promised new world can also be its own laborious affair, right?
Sure, we live with the promise that one day, someday, God will finish that good work begun in Jesus Christ. While we are assured that promised world of peace and tranquility for all will eventually be achieved by God, it’s not like the date has been penciled in on our calendars.
Or as Jesus puts it in our reading for today, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
During the Civil Rights Movement, Pete Seeger became known for his rendition of an old folk song called Keep Your Eyes on the Prize. The song, of course, was meant to encourage those in the Civil Rights Movement to “keep the faith,” so to speak.
It was a way to remind people that the struggle for Civil Rights was a long and hard one, and therefore, to stay focused on the goal. Or as some of the lyrics put it: “Freedom's name is mighty sweet/And soon we're gonna meet/Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.”
And so it goes for people of faith in general. We too are to keep our eyes on God’s promised new world by also remaining vigilant and focused.
One commentator sums the issue up this way: “Readiness in Matthew is, of course, living the life of the kingdom, living the quality of life described in the Sermon on the Mount. Many can do this for a short while; but when the kingdom is delayed, the problems arise.
Being a peacemaker for a day is not as demanding as being a peacemaker year after year when the hostility breaks out again and again, and the bridegroom is delayed. Being merciful for an evening can be pleasant; being merciful for a lifetime, when the groom is delayed, requires preparedness.”
And that, more than anything else, is what is meant when being told to keep awake and be alert. It’s to remain ever diligent in living the life of the kingdom. It’s to remain persistent and steadfast in giving expression to Christ’s life in our own lives despite the fact that the bridegroom is still delayed in coming.
Or as my favorite bumper sticker likes to jokingly put it, “Jesus is coming. Look busy!”
FOUR: While the Boy Scouts of America have fallen on hard times in recent years, many will still recall the group’s motto: “Be Prepared.”
Years ago, when the founder of the Scouts Robert Baden-Powell was asked what, exactly, a Scout should be prepared for, he reportedly replied, “Why, any old thing.” Or as Baden-Powell said at still another point when discussing the motto, “Be Prepared” means “You are always in a state of readiness in mind and body to do your duty.”
The larger idea, of course, is that Scouts were preparing themselves to become useful and productive citizens as adults, right? By participating and earning all those merit badges along the way, young Scouts were learning the behaviors needed to be good citizens later in life.
One man, when describing the merit badges he earned as a Scout, actually puts it this way: “Every one one of [the badges] related to something that adults had to do. And we were sampling the things adults had to do, getting prepared for that day when we wouldn’t simply be earning merit badges that gave us a taste of this in advance, but we would actually have to be doing it.”
Well, we can forget, I think, that the church serves a very similar purpose. The church, in other words, is the place where we are trained and taught how to be good citizens of God’s kingdom. By being asked to behave and act the way Christ behaved and acted, by seeking to be merciful, and gracious, and humble, and generous, and forgiving, we are learning how to be good citizens of God’s coming new world.
“Keep awake therefore,” says Jesus, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
CONCLUSION: Well, I wish I could give a date to pencil in on our calendars. I wish I could tell you for certain when God’s coming new world is going to be fulfilled. But I can’t. (And those people, by the way, who like to tell you they can give the date, well, watch out cause they are selling something!)
No. All we have is the promise - the promise that someday God’s gonna finish making all things new and right. And so until then, all we can do is prepare ourselves.
Prepare ourselves by living as if we are already citizens of that new world. We can work on living lives of grace, and mercy, and humility, and generosity just like Jesus did. That way, when God’s kingdom finally does arrive, we’ll know how to be useful and productive citizens. So be prepared, my friends. Be prepared.
Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.