23rd Sunday After Pentecost; November 12, 2017; Year A
Amos 5.18-24; Psalm 70; 1 Thess. 4.13-18; Matt. 25. 1-13
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the afternoon on Tuesdays, I generally head up to Dunn Brothers on the north end of Bismarck to meet with Sister Kathleen. Often times on the corner of State Street and Century Avenue there is a man sitting in a lawn chair at the stoplight. I’ve never seen his face because he blocks it with his sign, which reads: “Jesus returning soon.”
I will share with you my initial reaction when reading this sign, but first I invite you to notice what it evokes in you: “Jesus returning soon.”
Do you write it off, thinking, It’s been 2,000 years, I’m not going to see Jesus return in my life time. Do you think the man is silly, spending all his time in this way? Do you get a sense of anxiety or fear in your gut? Maybe you think when Jesus returns you aren’t going to fair so well for whatever reason. Or do you think, YES! Come Lord, Jesus, and set all things right.
I have to admit, when I have been waiting at the stoplight and reading this man’s sign, I think, YES! Come Lord, Jesus, and set all things right.
This has surprised me a bit because there was a time in my life in which I would shake my head at this guy’s effort and think: Quit scaring people already. I would think that his motivation was to get people, through fear, to jump to the question of where they might be going after death: heaven or hell.
But what if his motivation is not to scare people. What if his motivation is to simply remind us all of Christ’s promise to return? What if it’s to invite us to stop and reflect upon our lives, what choices we are making, whether or not we spend any time nurturing our relationship with Jesus, and whether or not we are ready to meet Jesus when he fulfills his promise to return to this world.
Regardless of motive, “Jesus returning soon,” does cause us to think about what that means and how we can be ready to receive him when he comes.
In our Gospel reading today Jesus tells a story in which 5 people were ready and 5 were not.
The closest scholars can come to understanding the 10 bridesmaids and their lamps in the historical context has to do with a wedding practice where bridesmaids would wait for the groom to come to get his bride. When the groom would show up at the bride’s home, the bridesmaids would then light the way and escort the bride and groom back to the groom’s home where there would be a wedding banquet.
Jesus uses this story to emphasize the point he clearly states in verse 13: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Jesus spends the entirety of chapter 25 speaking to his disciples about his return. He is answering their question that came just before in chapter 24: “… what will be the sign of your coming,” Jesus, “and of the end of the age (vs. 3)?”
They want to know: what signs will there be so they can be sure and be ready? I’m guessing they were disappointed with the stories that followed in chapter 25. Jesus answers their question with two unsatisfactory responses: He will be delayed for an unknown amount of time. His return will be unexpected and no one will know when it will be.
The story of the 10 bridesmaids is unique to Matthew. 5 are described as wise and 5 as foolish. What makes them wise or foolish is how they prepare. 5 prepare for the long delay by having enough oil; 5 are not prepared because they run out.
It is interesting to me that all of them fall asleep while they wait. Like the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane in chapter 26, Jesus asks them to stay awake and pray with him, and they fall asleep.
When the bridegroom comes all are asleep and taken by surprise. The bridesmaids get up and do what they are called to do, meet the bridegroom and provide light. However, 5 cannot fulfill their purpose. They have no oil left. They ask for some, but no one will give it knowing there will not be enough. They go to town to buy more and while they are away the rest go into the wedding banquet and the door is shut. They come back, but it is too late. They will not be let in.
There are a couple of troubling things about this story: Why didn’t the 5 who had oil share? And, doesn’t the closed door seem harsh? This story needs some unpacking.
Scholars, and myself included, are uncertain as to what the “oil” is in the story. Is it simply oil, or does it represent something, like our faith, or in relationship to the end of chapter 25, the ways we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit those in prison.
A question to ask in this is: could the 5 wise bridesmaids even share their oil if they wanted to? Maybe they literally couldn’t. What if the oil represents their faith? You can’t give someone else your faith. Or what if it represents the way they have lived their life? You can’t give that to someone else either.
The point Jesus is trying to make is that each of us will need to give an account of our lives. When Jesus returns at an unexpected hour, it is the point at which there is simply no longer time to prepare. There is no more time be more generous, or make a different decision, or be kinder to someone, or love our neighbor better, or forgive someone.
What Jesus is trying to say to us through this story is: Don’t wait to be more generous, or turn your life around, or love your neighbor. Start working on those things now. Fill the oil in your lamps by nurturing your faith and your relationship with Jesus through prayer, worship, reading Scripture, and service.
The thing about the foolish bridesmaids is that instead of falling asleep, they could have gone to town during the delay while they still had the chance and get oil.
Another important question to ask today is this: What time is it now for us in the parable? For us the door is not shut. It is still open. This is good news. Jesus has not yet returned. What are you going to do with his delay and the open door?
Instead of falling asleep and not taking the time to fill your oil, take the time now in this life to do that.
What if we were to show the same interest in faith and preparing to receive Jesus as we do other things in our life like fantasy football, creating our own image on facebook, learning about the right investments, or worrying about whether so and so likes us or not?
Our liturgy reminds us that we look forward to Jesus’ return every Sunday in various ways. We confess in the Creed that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. In the Eucharistic prayer we proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.
As Christian people, we are to long for and look forward to Jesus’ return. It’s true that Jesus may not return in our lifetime, but that doesn’t mean we should act like he might not. How might our life change for the better acting as if he may arrive?
How often do we spend time preparing for things and for good reason? We prepare for fires by doing drills. We study for exams. When it is winter we keep a winter survival kit and a windshield scraper in our car. If we are an athlete we train for a race or study plays for a big game. Some of us go to years of school to prepare for a job.
I know a daycare provider who rises an hour early just to pray for the children who will be in her care and to prepare for the day.
When we are baptized a candle is lit as a symbol of the light of Christ in each of us. Throughout our life that fire is fanned by the work of the Holy Spirit as we hear Scripture, as we pray, as we gather for worship, as we are fed at the table, and as we serve one another.
This is the good oil. It’s on your forehead, too, in the shape of a cross. Imagine what God can do through you with all that oil and that light inside you.
So back to our guy on the corner: “Jesus returning soon.” Well maybe, and maybe not. We don’t know. Nonetheless, keep your lamps trimmed and burning and you will be ready to receive him with joy and enter into the wedding banquet.