Text: Amos 5:18-24, I Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Nov. 9, 2014
It was eleven thirty on Sunday morning. There I was standing in the pulpit ready to preach. Suddenly I remembered I had failed prepare a sermon for today. Can I wing it? What will I say?
Then I looked down. To my horror, I realized I had forgotten to put on my alb. Worse yet, I was standing there having failed to put on my trousers. I panicked. Breaking into a cold sweat I woke up.
We have all had them—these bad dreams. It is as if in our unconscious minds we stand unmasked, People are allowed to see us as we really are—and we are filled with terror.
Today's gospel is just such a nightmare. Put yourself in the shoes of one of the bridesmaids as the story unfolds. The scene starts out as be a joyous one. There is going to be a wedding. We are invited. In fact we are even asked to be part of the bridal party. There is going to be music and dancing, feasting and making merry. It is a time for celebration. But the bride and groom are late.
And so we wait.
What has happened? Are they at the photographers getting their pictures taken? Has the groom gotten cold feet? Did the bride decide that she wasn't ready for marriage? It is an evening wedding. We are prepared, we have taken our lamps along. Some of us even had the foresight to bring extra flasks of oil just in case such a delay occurred. But the rest of us laughed at these folks. We had brought something besides oil in our flasks!
The sun has set, dusk turns into darkness. We light our lamps. Still the bridal party does not show. One by one we fall sleep. While we are sleeping our lamps go out. We were awakened by a cry.
“The bridegroom comes! Go out to meet him.” Those with extra oil trimmed and light their lamps and proceed into the darkness of the night. The rest of us find ourselves without oil. We ask the others for some, but they tell us they have only enough for themselves. We rush off to town to awaken the oil merchant. Grudgingly he opens his store and we buy the oil.
Running back to the wedding, we find we are too late. The wedding is over and the party has started. Worse yet the door is shut and locked. We knock. Surely they will let us in.
“Go away,” someone shouts from the inside, “We don't know you.” They obviously think we are party crashers!
We start to panic. Then we laugh—this must be some sort of nightmare. We pinch ourselves to wake up. To our horror, we realize that we are already awake. We have become the children of the night.
All of the Scripture lessons today speak to a theme of the season which we will enter in a couple of weeks—the beginning of the new Christian year, the Season of Advent. Advent, our reflections generally focus on preparation for the birth of our Lord. But it also a time to reflect on His second arrival as well—the hope and expectation that at some time in the future, Jesus will return in person as the Church's Lord, to rule the world he created.
But does the Church—Our Church–the Episcopal Church—really believe in Christ's return? We know of such preaching from the edge of the crowd—from certain radio and TV Evangelists and from such best sellers as The Late Great Planet Earth. But we also suspect that these people are misguided and often understand the Bible to be a calendar that tells us from a distance of 2000 years ago events that will start to happen the day after tomorrow.
As Episcopalians, what we understand by Christ's return is this: Someday, the world of time and space which we know will give way to another and better world. We don't know very much about that world or life within it. The Bible speaks of it as the new heaven and the new earth.
Above all, we believe that Jesus Christ will be here to rule the social order and every knee will bow to him. His way of life will be ours. Rebellion will disappear. Truth and justice will prevail. The Bible speaks of this with rich imagery.
We will hear the archangel's trumpet. In today's epistle, St. Paul says we will be caught up to meet Christ in the air—that He will appear on the clouds visible to every living person. In today's gospel, we sit down to eat the marriage feast with Him. We appreciate these images and know that above all they speak to us of the coming presence of the crucified, risen and living Lord. They also speak of the prevailing power of the way of the cross.
In next week's epistle, Paul will go on to speak of the “times and the seasons” meaning the movement of history towards its conclusion in Christ's triumph over evil. Borrowing a term from Amos in today's Old Testament reading, Paul, calls this “the day of the Lord.” By this he means that at future day God calls us all to account under the terms of his Covenant. God summons the heavens above and all the earth, for the trial of His people. Paul says it will come like a thief in the night.
When that day comes, how will it find us? Wise or Foolish?
What does Jesus mean by wise and foolish in this parable anyway?
Who are the ones with oil? What is the oil that he is talking about?
Scholars have debated this issue and have come to various conclusions. As I have reflected on this text, I have come to the conclusion that Matthew gives us a clue.
This parable comes as a part of the last of the five sermons which Matthew records Jesus giving.
The first sermon and the last one have many common themes and tend to illuminate each other. At the end of the first sermon— We know it as The Sermon on the Mount— Jesus says, “not every one who says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father.” He continues: “On that day, (that is the day of judgment) many will say to me: "have we not prophesied in your name? have we not cast out demons in your name? And like our parable today, His answer to them is: “Depart from me, I never knew you”
Then He goes on to tell the parable about the wise man who built his house on the rock and the foolish man who built his house on the sand. The wise man, Jesus says is the person who hears what He tells him to do and does it. The foolish man, on the other hand, hears the same words and does not do them.
It is true that we are saved by God's grace. Nothing we can do on our own part will bring salvation. But Matthew and James remind us that the consequence of true salvation will be the desire to do the will of God.
I return to today's Gospel to make one final point. When the bridegroom arrives where is the bride? This question bothered the monks who copied the Bible.
Some of them added three words to the sentence “They went out to meet the bridegroom and the bride.” But these words are not in the earliest manuscripts we have. My own opinion, that is shared by many commentators is that the bridegroom is our Lord, He comes alone, because the bride is waiting for Him.
The ten maidens, some wise— some foolish— are God's people waiting to be united with Christ. They are the Church, the Bride of Christ.
It has been a long time since the Lord went away. Long enough for the excitement and anticipation to wear thin. We have gotten drowsy and snoozed away. But that's all right, all ten did that. It's not foolish to sleep.
For the wise who are ready, the wedding festivities will begin.
The image is first of all that of a feast when people eat together because they belong to one another. They share a common joy, and a common acceptance which enriches them as individuals.
Happy are those for whom that nourishing group is the Church. We know ourselves as God's family and guests at Christ's table.
But the image is also that of a marriage, with its sense of consummation, and its relationship of mystical oneness. This is also the Church's relationship with Christ— now not as guest, but as the bride herself, locked in mutuality, devotion and bliss.
As we look toward the soon coming of the Advent season, let us rejoice in Christ's coming among us to seek and to save— calling us to his table— offering his own body and blood as our food. And thus do we keep ourselves ready for his return, when faith becomes sight, when earth's wrongs are finally righted and every tear is dried.
Even so, come Lord Jesus. Amen.