November 6 2011 Keeping Watch Matthew 25:1-13
Sometimes, when I start to work on a sermon, it can be helpful to read the passage I’m working with, and try to think of others that it reminds me of.
Often there’s a connection that turns out to be important. Or if nothing else, there’s an image or a metaphor that usually stands for something deeper, you know?
Well, I told you all that just to say that for the passage we’re looking at this week, I did the opposite…it was kind of fun and more than a little unsettling.
What would happen if we looked at some of the other things that Jesus taught, using this parable of the Ten Bridesmaids as a kind of ‘interpretive lens’?
I came up with some pretty interesting readings, with the help of the internet and another preacher who is more creative than I am.
For example, in light of this morning’s passage, Matthew 6 might sound like this; Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, [although to get there, you will need large oil reserves, so forget the first part of what I said; store up for yourselves oil on earth, so that you will have treasure in heaven.]
Or later in the same chapter, Jesus might teach the following…”Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body what you will wear.” [Worry instead about your oil; that’s the main thing. Worry about whether you have enough for you, and forget about everyone else; they are not your problem!]
Matthew chapter 7 might sound like this: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you”, [unless of course you’re late and the bridegroom answers, in which case, you might as well forget it].
And of course we can’t forget the golden rule. “In everything do unto others as you would have them do to you.” [Except when it comes to oil. Then all bets are off and it’s ‘everyone for themselves’.]
Obviously I’m speaking tongue-in-cheek…but it is hard to know what to do with this story, since it seems so out of place given the rest of what we know about Jesus and the kind of Kingdom he was establishing.
This just doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know.
Five get in and five are shut out…and the difference is the oil, right?
Five are rewarded for stockpiling resources and refusing to share.
Five are punished, presumably for eternity, because they show up a day late and a dollar short.
And that’s what Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of heaven.
I don’t get it.
There’s got to be more here than we see at first.
See, the problem with preaching from these later parables in the gospel of Matthew is, that it can feel like we’re jumping in the deep end without knowing how to swim, you know?
Our problem is that we’re too focused on the oil and the lamps and the outcome of this story.
We forget that books were meant to be read from beginning to end.
We forget that just maybe the 25th chapter of Matthew builds on the previous 24.
In a similar way, we forget that this was written for and to people who were with Jesus, people who were trying their best to make due in his absence, people who were friendly to the cause.
In short, this was written to and for the church…not the world.
If you have a red-letter Bible, you can look back where Jesus began this section of teaching at the beginning of chapter 24; and you can see that his words here were directed to the disciples in a private session.
This wasn’t a teaching that was open to the crowds; it was first spoken to his closest friends and allies.
So before we go warning the world about a fickle bridegroom who shuts people out of the banquet, let’s first take a long hard look at we who carry lamps.
There are ten Bridesmaids in this story.
All of them had lamps, which means all of them knew there was a wedding, they knew the bride well enough to be called Bridesmaids, and they presumably knew the bridegroom, even though he apparently didn’t know them.
The imagery is pretty striking when you consider the church as the bride and Christ as the groom.
The church is the bride.
We are the bridesmaids.
Or if you’re reading the NIV, we are the virgins in the story.
We know the bride. We are close friends of the bride; and I’m betting that most all of us consider ourselves to be close and intimate friends of the groom as well.
But the question I think this story should make us ask is, how well does the groom know us?
Knowing the bride isn’t enough; in other words knowing the church isn’t enough.
It’s vitally important; because the bride is the one who calls her bridesmaids together…but it isn’t enough!
We can know the church inside out.
We can be as committed to the bride as we are to ourselves, and we can take our place in the bridal party with our lamps in hand, ready to play our part.
We can hinge our future on the groom’s love for the bride; but will he know us when we knock?
The point of this story isn’t that God and God’s people are going to feast at the banquet while a vast and suffering humanity will be languishing outside.
If that were the case, we wouldn’t read what we do about the wedding banquet in chapter 22.
In that story, which just happens to be directed to a more public audience, including Jesus’ close friends, people who just wanted to hear him, and the religious leaders of that day…he speaks of a king who throws a wedding banquet for his son.
He sends people to call those who had been invited, but they find other things to do.
Some of them even beat and eventually kill the messengers he sends.
So to make a long story short, he sends his servants back out to gather in anyone who will come. “Invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet”, the king says to his servants.
And as if that wasn’t preposterous enough, it says they went out and gathered ALL whom they found, both good and bad… let me say that again…both good and bad; so that the wedding hall was filled with guests.
So that’s the picture of the kingdom Jesus gives to the crowds; a wedding banquet filled not with people who deserve to be there, not with the king’s first choice guests; but rather with the good, the bad, and everyone in between.
Nothing is said about lamps or oil.
But there is a catch with how they dress.
The guests are expected to wear a wedding robe.
Wedding guests are expected to be cloaked in a garment suitable for the occasion.
They are expected to be prepared.
Like the parable of these ten bridesmaids; there is an expectation that comes with the invitation.
The wise and the foolish.
They all fall asleep.
That’s because waiting wears you out.
And while you sleep, your lamp will burn out.
While you wait, your lamp will burn out.
Untended lamps will burn out.
Wise lamps will burn out. Foolish lamps will burn out.
The only lamps that never run out of oil are lamps that aren’t being used, you know?
We are the lamps. We are the vessels that carry the light of Christ who is our hope.
Like a wick draws the oil for the flame, so our lives draw fuel from the Holy Spirit of God who dwells within us.
It’s an inexhaustible source, but you’ve got to tend your wick.
It’s interesting to me, that five bridesmaids in this story are considered wise, and yet they don’t share their oil and they offer some pretty foolish advice.
How can you call someone wise who sends a friend off to buy oil in the middle of the night?
And were the others considered foolish because they listened to this advice and went off to buy the oil at midnight?
Regardless of our words, our actions speak louder.
They were wise because they were ready; not because they knew what to say.
They had the reserves to keep their lamps burning when the wait was longer than they expected.
And in the spiritual life, the kind of fuel we carry with us can’t exactly be shared in a moment.
Tending our wicks and making sure that we have enough oil; this is work we can only do for ourselves. Nobody else can do it for us.
All who have lamps are expected to tend them…and I would even venture to say that there are two dangers to avoid as you carry this light.
The first is always being full.
*If your lamp never needs filled, it’s probably because it’s not really burning.
Our lives catch fire when God’s spirit within us ignites against the world we’re in, and shines with flame into the midnight air.
Where does your deepest passion touch the world’s deepest need? That’s your point of ignition.
*The second danger to avoid is being found without reserves when the groom steps into our darkest hour.
In other words, you’ve got to tend your soul.
I don’t know what that might look like for you. I’m introverted enough that I can tell when I need some space.
Christine can tell you, I get grumpy and short when my oil’s low.
When my wick is burning out, I contribute more to the darkness than I do to the light.
At times like that, I really couldn’t blame the groom for not wanting me at the party.
See, it’s not that these women needed oil to get in to the banquet.
It’s that they weren’t ready when he finally showed up at the 11th hour.
All the women fell asleep.
All the lamps burned out and grew cold as the darkness grew and the groom kept his distance.
The difference was in their ability to tend their lamps.
How’s your wick?
I wanted to close this morning by showing a news clip I recently saw, that shows an autistic high school student who managed the basketball team throughout his high school career.
I don’t have that available, so I’ll describe it to you.
He ‘caught fire’. That’s the kind of light I think this passage is describing.
The kind where you shine when the moment comes.