“Wisdom While We Wait”
(Those Drowsy Bridesmaids)
Matthew 25: 1-13, by Marshall Zieman, preached 11-12-2017 at PCOC

In the church calendar, the new year doesn’t begin in January.  It begins in Advent.  This year, Advent will begin on the first Sunday in December (and that’s why next Sunday we will have our annual Advent workshop, to make crafts that we will display and use during Advent).

So right now we are, in fact, winding down the church year, and our lectionary Scripture readings have been taking us through the end of the gospel of Matthew.  These last three sermons leading up to Advent will all come from Matthew 25, and I invite you to turn there now with me.

As Lynda taught us last week, all these Matthew readings are hard-sounding passages, and they have a judgmental tone.  Yes, Jesus taught these things, and he was not afraid to pull any punches.  If you have one of those red-letter Bibles (with the words of Jesus in red) then these pages of your Bible are very red, and somewhat harsh.

What Matthew is doing is grouping all these harsh teachings together, so what happens for us is, we get seven weeks in a row of rather stern-sounding lessons.  Now, the other gospels also teach some of these lessons, but Matthew’s take on them has a certain edge that the other gospel’s lack.  That probably has to do with Matthew’s intended audience, which scholars agree was focused on the Jewish community.

In these past few weeks, we’ve seen Jesus railing against the Pharisees and Sadducees, he’s told a story about being thrown into darkness if you weren’t dressed right for a wedding, and he’s even gotten into it about paying your taxes.  Today we will hear about the evils of not being ready for the coming kingdom, and we’ve still got two more stories left after this.

You can imagine the fledgling Christian community in the days of the Early Church.  You can imagine the reaction from the established Jewish community, watching the Early Church start to grow and spread right in their shadow.  Maybe the synagogue sat on this corner, and the Early Church met in someone’s house right across the street.  At first the Church was thought of as merely a sect, or a part of Judaism.  Matthew seems intent on helping the Early Church distinguish and separate themselves into the ek-klesia, the called-out New Society they are destined to become.

From Matthew 25, hear this teaching about the perils of not being ready for when the groom arrives for the big wedding. Jesus is talking about himself, and his return to earth one day.  Hear our gospel reading for today from Matthew 25.  Jesus says…

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.

The Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God!

In a nutshell, keep alert for the return of Christ, for we don’t know when it will be.

Now this story, taken at face value, is a curious one.  If you are one who likes to analyze details, you will find some holes in this story.  You might be left wanting for more particulars, like… Why couldn’t the first five just share some oil with the last five?  Did they really have 24-hour oil shops back then?  Why won’t the groom let the other five in?  Surely, he knows who they are.  And just where is the bride in all this?  Anybody notice that there’s no mention of her?  And why weren’t the bridesmaids attending to her all this time?

I think those are all valid questions, but the answers aren’t provided.  We are left to wonder about these things, but this lack of information doesn’t prohibit us from getting the main point, and, as parables go, we always need to look for that One Main Point, and not get messed up trying to make sense of all the finer points.  The Main Point here?  Don’t be foolish; be wise!  Be ready for Christ to return one day, even if you don’t expect him to return today; this could be the day. 

I noticed here that Jesus is already talking about his return, even before he leaves them.  He stresses to them: you’ve got to be ready for it, because you don’t want to miss the party. 

This whole story is really about waiting, or how we wait – what we do in the meantime.  It’s Wisdom for While We Wait.  Now the Season of Advent, of course, is all about waiting, so today’s lesson just helps us start getting ready for that, as will the readings in the next two weeks. 

After Christ’s resurrection, he appeared to various folks (people saw him).  Numerous appearances are recorded, and then he ascended into heaven, speaking of his return one day, even as he did in today’s passage, before his death.  The Early Church lived with this expectation that one day, Christ was coming back.  In fact, they believed he would surely return in their lifetime.  If you could have told them he would tarry over 2,000 years, they would surely not have believed you.

Now, 2,000 years later, does the Church Today still have this expectation?  Are we living with our lamps ready to be lit, or are we just drowsy?  Have we gotten used to the idea that the bridegroom has tarried so long that he must not be coming at all?

There are so many elements in this story that seem foreign to us.  Oil lamps.  Midnight weddings.  The word “bridegroom.”  The Return of Christ one day.  This story comes to us this Sunday, now that we’re starting to hear Christmas music in the stores and on TV, with the frenzy of the season beginning to percolate in the back of our minds, while we’re trying to hold on to Thanksgiving before the March to Christmas starts full swing.

Don’t forget Who We’re Really Waiting For.  If he comes today, are you ready?  The ones who are ready are called “wise,” and the ones who aren’t are “foolish.”  “13Keep awake,” said Jesus, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Now a detail I noticed in the story is that both the wise and the foolish ones got drowsy.  All ten were drowsy bridesmaids.  Getting drowsy wasn’t a sin in itself, but if you weren’t ready with your oil when you slept, then you had a problem.

The point of already having your oil was that it made you ready for the groom, whenever he showed.  While you waited, you were ready.          This seems to be the point Jesus is making – be ready while you wait.  Waiting for Christ’s return requires patience and vigilance and preparedness. 

Think of other things we wait for which require such diligence and anticipation. 

Certainly, the birth of a baby comes to mind.  If there’s a baby on the way in your family, everybody is focused on the grand event.  There’s a to-do list a mile long, and everybody’s counting down the days!

Or perhaps you’re waiting for the return of a loved one home from a tour of duty.  My wife sent a care package this week to a young friend of ours who is deployed.  This package is meant to sustain him and encourage him…we’re looking forward to the day he gets to come home.

Maybe you’re anticipating an upcoming wedding, or a graduation, and you’ve got the date cemented in your mind.

You’ve probably seen families in hospital waiting rooms holding vigils for days on end.

Or maybe you’ve sat beside the bed of someone on hospice, not with eager anticipation, but with attentive care, wondering how many breaths they had left.

We recognize that waiting, for almost anything, is often hard for us.  So is waiting for Jesus’ imminent return.

But as we’re waiting, let’s also be aware of the presence of Jesus right here with us.  This is a key learning in life that we’ll hear more about during Advent - recognizing that God is with you, wherever you find yourself.

Each time you help bear another’s burdens, you testify to Jesus’ presence.  Whenever you involve yourself with the poor (as today some will serve at Siena Francis House) we testify to Jesus’ presence among us.  When you reach out to befriend the friendless, or encourage those who struggle, or comfort those who mourn, or work for justice, or work to make this world God loves a better place for others, we testify that Christ is present with us.

Yes, waiting expectantly for anything is hard to sustain. We grow weary, frustrated or distracted.  On any given day, each of us may discover we are a foolish bridesmaid, not as ready to encounter what we thought we were prepared for.

That’s why church always needs to be a place we can encourage each other as we wait – in all kinds of waiting, as we all learn everyday what it means to live a Christian life.

We are those who help each other to wait, to prepare, and to keep the faith. anticipating that we will see Christ any day, every day, being alert, awake, and ready. 

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