Sermon for St. Mary’s Anglican
Date: Nov 8, 2020
Scriptures: Amos 5:18-24, Psalm 70:1-5, I Thessalonians 4:13-18 and Matthew 25:1-13
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts together, be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
The Wise and the Foolish
When I began my preparations for this sermon on Monday, the sun was shining brightly and the temperature was +16. It is November so I knew that the autumn weather would not last and that the cold winter weather would come – I just didn’t know it was going to come as suddenly as The Weather Network is predicting it will come. I am speaking this to you on Friday evening and as yet there is no sign of the blizzard but when it comes, there will be no doubt that one season is ending and another is beginning.
In Matthew chapter 24 Jesus also talks about an end and a beginning: it is the “end of the age” and what is in the future is the “the coming of the Son of Man”. These are chronologically imprecise phrases and Jesus does not make them as historically specific as his disciples would like Him to. Despite this, various Christians down through the ages have speculated as to when exactly all the things Jesus talks about in these chapters, will actually take place.
Christian scholars whose interest lies in eschatology – that is the study of future things or the “end times” – have written much about the prophetic sayings in Matthew chapter 24 and in other such passages in the Bible which talk about these events. So the prophecies of Daniel and Ezekiel as well as large portions of the book of Revelationhave been the subject of many, many books and sermons and lectures. Some have developed a whole theology out of these prophetic sections of the Bible while others have made charts and felt certain they had it all figured out. Often these individuals give scant attention to the fact that Jesus said “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
I noticed too when I read over chapter 24 s that Jesus did not go out of his way to tie the prophecies to specific historical events or historical figures. His emphasis was on being prepared. He talks about discerning the voice of God in the midst of difficult times. And he concludes by suggesting in verse 44 that “we must be ready for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
I therefore want to leave aside the challenge of trying to understand all that Jesus has in mind when He talks about the “coming of the Son of Man” in chapter 24 and the “judgment of the nations” in the last part of chapter 25. Instead I want us to consider the simple parable that Jesus tells at the end of his long description of horrible and difficult times that will come, someday, to the people of the earth. I do so not because these prophecies are not worth reading or thinking about but because I think Jesus told the parable so as illustrate the practical and fundamental issue that faces us in light of the certainty of these events: will we be prepared for what is to come? Will we be wise or will we be foolish?
Let’s look at our Gospel Text then: Matthew 25: 1-13. The parable or the story is simple enough and would not have struck his 1st Century Palestinian audience as unusual. William Barclay, a noted English Bible scholar, says that while this story may seem strange to us it would not have been so in the time of Jesus or even in some Palestinian villages today. A marriage celebration included a kind of procession to the new couple’s home but did so using a circuitous route so as to receive well wishes from as many as possible. There was no strict schedule and the whole process might even be extended over several days. The final act of the celebration though was the coming of the bridegroom to the banquet hall and upon his arrival, the doors of the hall were closed and the invited guests watched and participated in the conclusion of the marriage celebration.
In the final phase the bride waited for the bridegroom and in her waiting was attended to by bridesmaids. These bridesmaids had the additional role of “lighting the way”for the bridegroom as no one was allowed on the streets after dark without some illumination. It was common then to listen for the shout: “the bridegroom is coming, the bridegroom is coming”, especially so for the bridesmaids as that cry was their signal to light their lamps and usher the bridegroom into the banquet hall.
So when Jesus tells this parable he was not telling a fairy tale that had no connection to the world in which his followers lived: they knew this custom and I am sure could easily imagine just such a scene and perhaps had even been part of a similar marriage celebration. But this is a story nevertheless and one that Jesus tells to illustrate an important idea.
In his story Jesus says there were 10 bridesmaids with lamps and reminds his listeners that preparation was necessary and in this case it meant that each of the women were to have enough oil so that the lamps would burn for as long as necessary. Five of the bridesmaids, the ones Jesus calls “wise” took the precautionary action of taking “flasks of oil” along with their lamps and then began their wait. The other five, called “foolish” by Jesus, did not bother to take any extra oil. Was it because they assumed the bridegroom would come quickly or did they just decide to take a chance and hope they would have enough? We don’t know.
What we do know is that the bridegroom was late and that the bridesmaids had all become drowsy and fallen asleep. At midnight there was a shout: “Look, here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Up jumped the 10 bridesmaids and trimmed their lamps so that they would give the best light possible. It was then that five of the bridesmaids realized they did not have enough oil to keep their lamps burning brightly for the bridegroom. They begged the other 5 for some of the oil but to no avail: “there will not be enough for you and for us – you better go buy some more yourselves” said the five who had brought extra oil. Hurriedly the five without enough oil ran to buy more but alas, by the time they returned, the bridegroom accompanied by the five bridesmaids with oil, had entered the banquet hall and the door had been shut.
So what are we to make of this parable?
In my mind the first thing to notice is that Jesus tells this story after he has talked about a very sobering picture of future events: there will be a major disruption, some people will suffer greatly and others will experience terror. It will be an uncertain time and Jesus makes it clear that it is coming. The prophet Amos in our Old Testament lesson warned of a time called the “Day of the Lord”, another futuristic term and concept that too was shrouded in terms of its actual date but adamant in its declaration that it would come. The “judgement of the nations” as described in verse 31 – 33 of Matthew 25 will also surely come; it will be a time when people groups and nations are separated just as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. While it will be a dangerous and confusing time, there is no sense of “maybe it will happen or maybe not” – in fact the opposite is the case: these dramatic times will come! The question is not IF this time will come, the question is WHEN.
To put it another way, I would suggest that what undergirds this talk of future events is the fundamental understanding that God is the one we will all have to deal with whether we are alive when the Son of Man comes or whether we meet God after our death.
Any thinking that ignores the certainty of the coming events or the certainty of having to answer for how we have responded to God’s revelation is foolish thinking. That is the first truth Jesus wishes his disciples to recognize and in turn it is the basic lesson for us even today.
The second thing to notice is that we are like the bridesmaids in that God gives us the opportunity to be part of something big and important. The bridegroom, namely Jesus has come and is coming again. We have been given his light, we have been offered salvation through his name and we have been given the Holy Spirit to both teach and inspire us to live well.
In fact, it is how we use our opportunities that will be the determining factor as to whether we will be welcomed into God’s kingdom or not. For the bridesmaids it was an opportunity to welcome and usher in the groom and then enter the banquet hall to witness the final aspects of the celebration. Five were wise and fully participated while five were foolish and missed out. In the verses that follow this parable Jesus tells another parable that makes it clear that we are to risk what we have to serve him.
And that naturally leads to the third point that I want to make in regard to our text this morning: we are wise if we live as prepared people and foolish if we do not. What was it that the 5 wise bridesmaids did? I suggest that they looked at the reality of the situation: the bridegroom was coming at some point – there was absolutely no doubt in their minds that this was true. They also took into account the nature of the situation they found themselves in – no doubt in their experience they knew that there was no certainty as to exactly when the bridegroom would arrive. What was certain was that he would arrive.
In addition they assessed their own resources and took responsibility for their own preparations. They are the very opposite of the foolish bridesmaids who appeared to shrug off the need for either checking how much oil they had or taking responsibility to prepare well. Yes they had their lamps and yes they were there when the bridegroom came but they missed out.
“Lord, Lord, open to us,” they cried. But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” The door was shut and they were on the outside.
In conclusion I would simply point out that both this parable and the one that follows are such a contrast to all the futuristic content of chapter 24. For many the future is much more fascinating and the idea of figuring out the various images and events that Jesus talks about and other prophetic parts of the Bible outline, is much more enticing than worrying about having enough “oil in your lamps”. Making sure you are prepared is more down to earth and absolutely necessary.
Our fall this year has been very mild, temperature wise. It has been so nice that I hesitated storing my patio furniture and taking in my flower pots. I even told myself I should have waited with digging up my potatoes and carrots. Nice weather makes these fall tasks seem less urgent, even though we know winter is coming. We simply cannot do so when it comes to doing the work that Christ has called us to; we cannot afford to be unprepared. So what can we do?
I would suggest that we prepare ourselves by participating with our hearts and minds and with faith in the liturgy of the church. Our “flasks of oil” are our regular confession to Almighty God, our acts of obedience and our expressions of love toward our neighbours and each other. It is fascinating to me that the description of the “judgement of the nations” in the latter part of Matthew 25 indicates that judgment will be made on the basis of how we lived: did we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and give the thirsty water to drink?
We can choose to be wise or foolish – the choice is up to us. May God grant us the grace to choose wisely. Amen.