This is the sermon I preached last Sunday, Nov. 12 at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran churches. The gospel text was Mathew 25:1-13.
This wedding doesn’t sound like any we’ve ever been to in this country, does it? While we wait together in the sanctuary for the bride to come down the aisle, we have an idea of how long we will have to wait. We don’t sit there for hours.
While living in the Holy Land, I was with a group of women who had the opportunity to wait together, not knowing exactly when the bridegroom and his men would arrive. We’d hear a sound. Excitement would fill the room. Maybe it’s him. Is it him? Someone would look to see. No, it’s not him. We’d wait longer and longer and longer. It seemed the groom would never arrive. Then there was a shout. There he was! Finally! Much like the bridesmaids in today’s gospel, we did not know exactly when the groom would arrive, only that he would.
In biblical times, a wedding was about the communal celebration of the promise of new life and commitment. Typical of Jesus’ parables, Jesus is not talking about actual people, but instead is making a spiritual point. In this case, it’s about the kingdom of heaven, God’s reign. The use of the wedding imagery suggests joy and fulfillment, not sorrow or dread. We see so many scary movies about the end of time that stir up fear within the watchers. Jesus is talking about the end, but his return is meant to engender joy and not fear for believers.
Both chapters 24 and 25 of Matthew’s gospel are about the final judgment and the return of the Son of Man, or, the establishing of God’s reign on earth; and teachings about delays.
Right from the beginning, we’re told that five of the bridesmaids were foolish and five were wise. All ten look and act the same, but only the wise ones were prepared.
Was the issue really about having enough oil? I think the heart of the matter is what the ill-preparedness of the foolish bridesmaids demonstrates. They had their own time schedule of when they thought the bridegroom should and would arrive. Everything should go according to plan, according to their schedule. No delays. They did not anticipate a sudden change of plan. It’s not like someone could phone ahead and let the women know they were running behind.
Another way to translate “delayed,” is “a long time coming.” Delayed presumes a pre-arranged, expected, set time when the bridegroom would arrive. At Jesus’ time, there was no such custom. The unprepared bridesmaids were determining the timeframe in which the bridegroom could be honorably welcomed with lamps fully blazing.
The foolish bridesmaids’ lack of preparation was disrespectful and insulting to the bridegroom.
They had not prepared for every possible eventuality to be sure of their presence at the wedding feast. Their concern was more for themselves and their convenience than for the bridegroom. They had not factored delay into their equation of waiting. “The feast was everything. This bridegroom was worth feasting with” (Mark P. Bangert).
What shall we do while we wait for Jesus to return? We are to wait faithfully. For the bridesmaids, it was a case of having enough oil for their lamps. For us, it may be the good works that our relationship with Jesus encourages in us. This is faithful and obedient discipleship.
The oil could represent the power that produces good works. Throughout scripture, anointing with oil was symbolic of God’s Spirit being upon the person. When we baptize someone, we also anoint them with oil, saying “…child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” We wait faithfully when we walk faithfully with God, allowing God’s Spirit to work through us.
That kind of faith-life indicates intimacy with God, the power behind our lives. In baptism, God entered into relationship with us, making us his own. But have we nurtured that relationship? Are we as invested in it as God is? God feeds us and gives us drink in holy communion. It is the body and blood given “for you,” for us. I love how personal and intimate that is.
The bridesmaids were all tired of waiting. It was not only the foolish, but the wise as well that fell asleep. We get sleepy while we wait a long time. This was certainly not what distinguished the wise from the foolish.
In the final verse of today’s gospel reading, we hear, “Keep awake…” Another way to translate this is “watch out.” The verb is present tense, meaning it’s to be an ongoing activity. It means “seizing the day, loving God and loving neighbors in each moment, not a passive or speculative stance that soon despairs of a delayed return” (Cousar).
Prepared? Me? Sometimes it’s hard to be prepared. We procrastinate or we just miscalculate the amount of time a task will actually take. It’s not such a big deal if we’re not ready on time for some things, like a few minutes late for a social engagement. But if we’re late for work every day, we may lose our jobs. What about if our lives depend on our readiness? They do.
We can participate in and celebrate the many comings of Jesus—his presence in the Word, in the Sacraments, in gathering together, in our sharing the good news with others, his presence when we minister to those in need. These connections keep our lights bright for witness and service.
What if while waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom, the women I was waiting with had given up? What if the bride said, “It’s really been too long. I can’t expect you to wait with me any more. It wouldn’t be right. Go home.” And what if we did? We would have missed out on a wonderful wedding celebration.
It sometimes seems as if God is delayed in his actions or hiding from us. Martin Luther described this as deus absconditus, the hidden God. God is at work, but we cannot see him. We would love just one little sign that he cares. We let down our guard because of this. Whether we are like the wise or foolish bridesmaids, we still must wait.
Especially in our violent day, when it seems like week after week there is a new tragedy. This week’s victims were people at church. We wonder why God waits so long to show up on the scene—and yet, God already has, in the cross of Christ. In the midst of the questions, suffering and pain of our lives, God is there with us and with all those who suffer.
But do our neighbors know that God is with them? We wonder what we can do differently as a church to be more attractive to a culture increasingly disinterested in organized religion (Lose). What if we offer ourselves as a community that will wait with those who are waiting? “Can we offer ourselves as a genuine community in a world where more and more people feel isolated? A community that celebrates together. That slows down to prepare together. And that waits together, making sure when the waiting is the hardest part that no one—not one person—has to wait alone?” (Lose)
I have experienced such faithful waiting from each of you. You know how long I had to wait for approval for surgery. You know how long I had to wait to come back to this pulpit and regular worship with you. You prayed for, encouraged and comforted me and my family. Now let’s kick it up a notch and keep on doing that with friends, neighbors and strangers, that all may be welcome into the wedding banquet of our Lord Jesus.
Mark P. Bangert, Homilies for the Christian People
Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV- Year A.
David Ewart, holytextures.com
Rob McCoy & Eric Fistler, pulpitfiction.com
Rob Myallis, lectionarygreek.blogspot.com
Brian Stoffregen, crossmarks.com