“Therefore, Keep Watch”

October 12, 2014 Matthew 25: 1-13
W.M.P.C. Willow Spring Dr. Duane Hix

If you were able to travel to a Palestinian village today – not one caught up in the violent Middle East conflict, but maybe an isolated village up in the West Bank, an area that time has largely forgotten (and there are such places, even today), you might just catch a glimpse of a wedding ceremony like that described by Jesus in Matthew 25.

When a young couple married in ancient Palestine, they didn’t go away for a long honeymoon. They stayed home, and welcomed guests to a banquet that could last on and off for days. Before that banquet, however, indeed before the marriage ceremony itself, there was another wedding custom. A group of young women (we might call them bridesmaids) would dress in festive garments and dance through the streets to the bride’s house so they could wait with the bride until her groom came to take her to his own home and the ceremony. Those young friends of the bride might stay at her home for hours, even for days, because no one knew exactly when the groom would come. It was even a playful custom of grooms to come at a time when they might catch the bridal party napping or in disarray, as in fact happened in Jesus’ story. The bridesmaids had fallen asleep, though they were supposed to keep awake and alert, prepared to accompany the bride on another journey through the village streets where the couple received the best wishes of the townspeople. Because that procession often happened after dark, the bridesmaids needed lamps. Now those lamps were only this big (show size, 3” diameter), so they didn’t hold much oil, and you needed an extra supply. All the bridesmaids should have known this, but only half, in Jesus’ story, were wise and well-prepared. The others, who did not bring enough oil, had to leave the procession to buy more. But they returned too late. Before they got back, the doors were closed and the ceremony and banquet had started. All that waiting, all that anticipation, was in vain. They returned to their own homes in deep disappointment.

Jesus obviously did not tell this story just so that we could have a record of ancient wedding customs. He begins the parable, and many others, by saying: “the kingdom of heaven is like….” That phrase means “this is how God acts”; “this is how God treats us. When we are in the kingdom of God, in the presence of God, these are hints about what will happen.” So Jesus is describing God’s nature, and also warning us what will happen when we act in certain ways. In this parable, God is the groom, and we, of course, are the bridesmaids, both wise and foolish.

Like those bridesmaids, we spend a lot of time waiting. Yes, we certainly have microwave meals and instant messaging and easy apps for our phones. Some things have leaped to lightning speed. But we still do wait for other things, the most important things. We wait for years, decades, for our children to mature into responsible adults, groaning inwardly at each setback, sighing with relief at each of their successes. We wait for our job to ease up a bit, or at least become less chaotic because the boss hires more co-workers or you gain more expertise. Most of all, of course, I hope we are waiting for God, waiting for God to come into our lives, not just in some grand end-of-time apocalypse, but in the everyday events and yearnings that could, if we were alert and prepared, strengthen our faith and allow us to experience the joy of his presence.

What is it like when we wait for God? What exactly are we looking for? Over the years I think I have recognized what church members are looking for from God, especially as they come to church buildings for worship or to attend studies and meetings. People come here wanting a smile of genuine friendship, which reassures you that not everyone in the world is self-absorbed or trying to outflank you on a business deal. That simple, genuine smile from a church co-worker can be uplifting, strengthening, encouraging. Or maybe people come here to worship week after week waiting for the occasional moment when something the preacher says in a sermon really clicks in their heart and mind, and they have to catch themselves from bursting out loud: “I knew the Christian gospel made sense! That idea puts things in perspective so well!” Maybe people come to church looking for some small indication, some fledgling sign, that international enemies will one day put down their weapons and be reconciled. Or on a more personal level maybe they come looking for a reason why the suffering their mother is going through as she dies is not without some meaning.

This is what we are waiting for, isn’t it, these signs of friendship and insight and reconciliation and meaning. We wait on God, patiently seeking hints and revelations that there is an eternal basis for our honesty and our commitments and our hopes. And even if it takes months or years before those signs and insights come, we are willing to wait, and watch, and stay alert, to pay your dues of time and effort, and make your annual pledge and show up regularly to worship. We do that because we believe those reassurances are out there, that God is out there, and those eventual breakthroughs of love and truth and beauty can indeed happen to us, if we just wait and watch.

But then we also know what can happen while we wait. You can drift off into daydreaming or full sleep. You can get completely distracted and not notice the opportunity when it does come. Or maybe you are just not prepared to take advantage of that treasured goal when it stares you in the face. It happened to the bridesmaids; it can happen to us. What keeps us from being ready when the bridegroom God makes an appearance and summons us to a banquet in his presence?

Maybe, like the bridesmaids, we just grow tired, too tired of waiting to stay awake and alert. I certainly know that as I grow older I grow tired faster. No more midnight dancing and carousing! No more 12 hour work days for three or four days straight! I simply am not physically awake and mentally alert if those hard days without adequate rest continue. Don’t all of us know someone who comes home from a hard day’s work so tired that they eat their dinner, plop down in an easy chair and not get up again until bedtime? They are worn out by their routine existence and physical weariness.

Well, perhaps our spiritual strength is like that. Have we waited too long for God with few results, stuck in old ideas and practices that don’t energize us or refresh our minds? Do we just sort of plop down in our soul’s Lazy-Boy and doze our way through an evening when we could have been reading a biography that inspires us or debating an issue at a local town council, exercising and training our mind and heart just as physically weary people should be exercising their bodies to grow stronger and hardier? Have we grown tired over years of working in a church that never tries anything new, that resists the Spirit’s call to discover new dimensions of God’s truth? We can miss the coming of the bridegroom God if we are simply too weary, too uninspired to be awake when he comes. The bridesmaids fell asleep.

Some of the bridesmaids were prepared for the journey when they woke up and heard the bridegroom’s call. Others were not. Some knew that the wait for God and the journey to the banquet would be lengthy. Some thought they could get through the night with just the gas in their tank, as it were. They didn’t take extra precaution. And we can make the same mistake. After all, recognizing the presence of God in a world with multiple distractions and very little cultural support is not easy. It takes preparation. To discern the will of God we need to know the Bible and its accounts of how God dealt with people in similar situations. But if we spend five times as many hours taking our children or grandchildren to soccer and baseball games as we do talking to them about God or picking them up for Sunday school, then we are sending them into the world ill-equipped to wait and hope and search for the presence of God. And if we ourselves still, after all these years of church, can’t tell Jeremiah from Jonah or Luke from Lazarus, then we have shortened the wick and spilled the oil from the lamp of the Bible, which could have guided us through the full night and into the presence of the bridegroom God. Our greatest preparation for recognizing the presence and will of God is to consider the scriptures and relate them to our daily lives. That way we will be ready to walk into the night with him, prepared and hopeful.

The story of the bridesmaids reveals one more reason we may not find the reassuring presence of God. Notice that when the foolish maidens finally returned after going off to buy more oil, the door to the banquet room was already closed, and the host, the groom himself, sent them away, saying “I do not know you.” It seems that they had simply taken the occasion too lightly. If they had run out of oil, they presumed they could borrow some from the others. If they had come late to the wedding, they presumed they would still be let in to the feast. But neither happened, and that gives us pause to consider. After all, wouldn’t it have been kind and charitable of the other bridesmaids to lend some oil? And wouldn’t it have been compassionate of the groom to let them in even if they were late? Aren’t these refusals unchristian, ungracious, un-Christ-like? That was one of the questions asked at our Wednesday study and dinner, and it is a good question. Wouldn’t a gracious and forgiving God have been kinder?

But this passage is one of Jesus’ warnings that we should not take too lightly or too casually the invitation to come into God’s presence. Some theologians have cautioned that our constant insistence in Protestant Christianity on salvation by grace alone has led modern Christians to think of grace as cheap, as inevitable, as easy to come by. This parable’s ending, where the foolish bridesmaids are denied entrance to the banquet, is a warning against this tendency. Let us be continually reminded that grace is free but it isn’t cheap. It was bought at a high price. We should not take it so much for granted that it becomes an excuse for sloppy ethical behavior or sporadic activity in our spiritual disciplines. The wise bridesmaids weren’t being unkind. They knew that friends who truly loved the bride and honored the groom would have been better prepared, would have cared more to be real helpers. The God of Jesus Christ will indeed save all, open the door, to all who ask, but only if their actions do not betray their words. Some people miss the presence of God and the joy of his banquet because they did not care enough to be fully ready when it came.

We who are Christian believers are engaged in the most important waiting game on earth. Not only do we wait for the eventual second coming of our Lord at some distant time. We also wait for the many revelations of that Lord all around us now, in the faces of people we know and the actions of strangers across the world, in the insights provided by study of scripture, in the worship that grants glimpses into a divine realm. Let us not grow weary and sleep through the signs; let us not come unprepared and be unable to follow the Lord’s procession; let us not presume upon God’s grace so much that we neglect in our deeds to pay God the honor he is due. We keep watch; we stay awake; we come prepared. And when we do this, we are certain to hear the bridegroom’s call and feast in the banquet of the Lord’s joyous presence.