November 12, 2017 – Pentecost 23A
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Okay. Let’s play a game. I’ll give you a word and you say what comes next. Macaroni and ____. Bacon and ____. Peanut butter and ____. Okay, maybe one that isn’t food related: Hurry up and ____.
Hurry up and wait. Waiting is perhaps the hardest thing for us to do. It goes counter to everything our culture is built upon – efficiency, economy, and politeness. To waste someone’s time is a grave disrespect. Yet, in our gospel reading, we hear a story of waiting. In ancient Israel, the groom would come retrieve his bride for their wedding whenever the preparations were done. They wouldn’t know when it was so, when the time was close, a bride and her bridal party would gather to wait. The wedding was near, it was imminent, it was coming, but it was not here yet. So they’d gather to wait, eager to begin the promised celebration and feast.
This kingdom parable tells us some important things, and it’s not to keep constant vigilance, but steadfast faithfulness. We see that both the wise and the unwise bridesmaids fall asleep. God doesn’t need us to wait like a sentinel, on constant alert. What we see in the wise bridesmaids is that the upcoming event, the arrival of the groom, informs the way that they live. The promise of the future changes the present moment. It changes the way we live and it changes the way that we see the world around us. This promise, this exciting promise, will change us. Everything we do is held up against the vision of the wedding feast to come.
But waiting is difficult. Christians have been waiting for the promised return of Christ for nearly 2000 years. That’s a long time to wait. We have lived in this in between for a long time, the time between “already” and “not yet”, the time between death and resurrection, the time between promise and fulfillment. We see this in our gospel reading today, too, as we see the wise bridesmaids were met with delays. The wise ones were patient enough to persist and remain steadfast to the groom who was coming. This promised wedding feast, the kingdom of God, will come in its fullness when all is ready.
So, what do we do in the meantime? What do we do when we are waiting? We get some of those answers in our other readings for the day. Amos reminds his hearers that God doesn’t simply want empty words and false praise, but wants the world to experience justice and peace, rolling down like waters, plentiful and strong. Paul, in 1 Thessalonians, instructs his readers to encourage and remind one another why we wait. In essence, we are told to wait and live as though the promise has already come. Because maybe, just maybe, the promise is made real when God works through ordinary, blessed, and broken people like you and me to bring about the kingdom. Imagine if we lived that way. Imagine what it would look like if, as we waited, we acted as though it were already here.
This is a deep, deep challenge, but is also a deep, deep comfort. Because the promises of God are trustworthy and true. The promise of God’s grace and forgiveness is true. The vision of God’s ever flowing justice is true. The new, eternal life in Christ is true. We can trust is because we see it in the life of Christ we remember and celebrate. In Christ, we see signs of God’s grace as he healed the sick, taught of God’s kingdom, and died on the cross rather than use his power for destruction. In Christ, we see God’s love for the broken, brokenhearted, and the forgotten. In Christ, we experience a newness of life that can only be described as a glimpse of the promise to come.
I think, when we encounter hard parables like this, that it’s important to remind ourselves who Christ is, what he did, and who he spent his time with. Because when the oil of our lamps runs out, when our faith seems to not be enough, when someone is pushed to the margins and told they aren’t good enough, that’s precisely when we’re likely to find Jesus. We see, throughout Christ’s life on earth, that Jesus spent his time with those exact people. In a way, Jesus’ life acts as a counter argument to the parable he tells. Which, when we lose faith, when the oil in our lamp goes dim, is another one of God’s promises we can cling to.
When Jesus tells us challenging stories like this, I want to remember that the one who tells the story is the same one who meets us where we are. The parable of the 10 bridesmaids is not just some moral fairy tale that can easily be categorized into a list of dos and don’ts. It cannot stand on its own because the kingdom of God, which it tries to explain, does not stand on its own. It stands on the love of God, the love that continues to draw us toward the core of God and the core of who we are. We don’t simply read this parable as a text book, giving us instructions of how to be a wise person; instead, we read this as a mirror that shows us who we are and gives us hope.
I know, personally, that as many times as I’d like to say I’m one of the wise bridesmaids, I can’t say I always am. Sometimes, my oil runs low and I strike out on my own instead of relying on the community of glowing lamps around me. And I know the same is true of all of us. But the one telling this parable is the one who continues to draw us in and opens the door for all of us who have found ourselves unworthy of the promise. Jesus, the man we rely on to be by our sides, is the one we see revealed in suffering and abandonment.
So don’t lose hope. The promises of God are sure. They are for you, free of charge, and they are endless. God, unlike the groom in this story, knows you, knows the inner most parts of you, and loves you more deeply than you can ever know. The kingdom of God is not restricted only to the feasts and joys of life, but also to the sorrows and pains of life. Christ has proven his faithfulness to the world and so, to best abilities, we live in the light of that promise.
In a world of “hurry up and wait”, Christ beckons us to rest and watch. Rest in the promise of unearned love and grace. Watch as God’s redemption and forgiveness are played out in the lives of people around us. Trust the promises and live in light of them. The light is winning, the promises are sure, and the bridegroom is coming. Thanks be to God. Amen.