Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
November 12, 2017
“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
— Matthew 25: 13
I don’t expect Jesus anytime soon. I live my life under the assumption that I will be dead before Christ comes again. I’m not saying that’s how we ought to live. I am telling you that is how I live. You see, I have life insurance. It’s meant to help my family pay the bills when I am gone. Well, who needs life insurance if the return of Jesus is immanent? So this whole thing about having enough oil seems rather arcane. What about you? Any life insurance?
And if the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids is hard to take in, it pales in comparison to the Epistle reading for this Sunday. We’re asked to turn to First Thessalonians 4:15-17 where we find this:
“…we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”
Float in heaven and meet Jesus? I don’t know, and to be honest all this isn’t very central to my faith. With a world in turmoil and children starving, I don’t think Jesus cares much about what I make of the Second Coming. Is there nothing, then, that the bridesmaids can teach us? Let’s see and as we begin, remember there are as many ways to interpret a parable as there are people doing the interpretation. What I am about to share is what I found. Is it exhaustive? By no means. But I’m the one who is supposed to have something to say this morning, so here it is.
First, there are 10 bridesmaids. That’s a big wedding. I’ve done hundreds of weddings and not once were there 10 bridesmaids. So this is no small social event. This was going to be huge or as some would say, “a blowout.”
Second, all ten bridesmaids are waiting for the groom. No difference between the wise and the foolish. These ten were not only invited to the wedding, they had been honored by being asked to be bridesmaids and they were all in a state of anxious expectation.
I remember one wedding I did where the bride showed up an hour late. The organist ran out of pre-service music and just stopped playing. The guests got restless. I didn’t know what to do because I had no idea what was happening. Turns out, they weren’t quite done with her hair. An hour late. I can tell you, I know something about anxious expectations when it comes to weddings!
Third, the groom was late or as the text puts it “delayed.” It was late at night. The bridesmaids fell asleep. No mention is made, good or bad, about them sleeping. So that’s not the issue. It seems that the human need for sleep posses no problem. God, it seems, doesn’t expect us to be super human, just ready. In one sense both the foolish and the wise were ready, right? Both had brought lamps. The wise, however, had brought extra oil. It doesn’t say why only 5 brought extra oil. I assume that the 5 who didn’t expected to see the bridegroom very soon and they wouldn’t need extra oil. The 5 wise ones? They didn’t know neither did they control when the bridegroom would come. They hedged their bets.
Fourth, everything unravels. It’s midnight when somebody yells, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” What do they do next? Remember? All 10 bridesmaids trimmed their lamps. I had to Google that one. It means: “A poorly trimmed wick creates a flame which is dim and smoky. A properly trimmed wick should come to a rounded point, or should be wedge shaped. When lit, the wick should burn cleanly all the way up to the highest flame it can make. The flame should be at least the width of the wick, and even, not ragged.” So both the foolish and wise trimmed their lamps. Each one of them did what was necessary to go.
Fifth, the foolish 5 realize that they do not have enough oil to travel to the party. If the bridegroom had only come in the morning, they’d be fine. And who travels at night? You can’t see. Remember. There are no streetlights, no ambient light from the florescent bulbs burning in the barn. You couldn’t see and there are critters that can kill you. It’s not what a thinking man does. But oh no, this bridegroom shows up at midnight. Who knew? No one knew, but I guess the foolish 5 didn’t think God would arrive at such an unexpected hour, thus, no need for more oil.
So the foolish 5 ask the wise 5 to share their oil. Now you might expect that good Christian folks would share, that we’d all make it to the party or we’d all go down together.
But notice number six, sharing doesn’t happen. The wise 5 refuse to share fearing that they would not have enough to make it to the party. The foolish 5 are told to take care of their own problem, go into town, wake up the clerk, and buy some oil.
Seven, and this really surprised me, the foolish 5 finally make it to the party but they were late. The door was shut so they shouted through the door and asked to be let in. And here’s the surprise. The bridegroom says, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Well, I can tell you this, this story Jesus is telling never really happened. How do I know? Because any bridegroom who turns away 5 of his wife’s bridesmaids is a dead man! So what are we to make of this story?
It might help if we consider what came right before Jesus tells this story. In the 24th chapter of Matthew Jesus is discussing the end times: when God will come and history will end. So this story has a context. Jesus is telling folks what to do before the consummation of history when God’s will is finally fully realized. Note, too, Jesus is talking directly to us, to those who are His followers. It is the disciples and not some anonymous crowd to whom Jesus is speaking. It is to the believers in His midst.
Here is the crucial meaning of this story for me. If the wise 5 brought enough oil, the question is did I bring enough oil to wait for the fulfillment of God’s promises? Can the flame of my faith last and guide me through the darkness of my life? The death of my parents. The loss of my brother who died of an AIDS related illness. The sorrow of dreams never realized. Oh, I have known darkness. And you? The struggle with addiction, the difficult days of parenting, the child that has gone astray, the loss of those you love, living with a debilitating disease, watching those you love suffer. My guess is that we have all known darkness and wondered if we had enough oil for our lamps of faith.
As a church we proclaim that God is always with us – in good times and in bad. So I seek out the needed oil to keep this flame of faith alive, enough light to get me to God’s promised rest. I find that oil in the personal blessings that have come my way. I find oil in the fall of apartheid in South Africa. I find oil in the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. I find oil in Rosa Parks’ decision not to sit in the back of a Montgomery, Alabama bus. I find oil in the stirring oratory of Dr. King. I find oil in the strength of women. I find oil in the depth of care you have demonstrated for one another. I find oil in the decency of the human character that helps others when all is lost. My flame burns. My faith lives and I await the promised party. Let us pray….
Matthew 25:1-13 Jesus said, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But 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.’ And 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. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”