Sermon for 11-13-11: “Do You Want to Know a Secret? Part 9: The Ten Bridesmaids”

November 18, 2011

Olive trees on the Mount of Olives, from which Jesus spoke the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids

Here is the next to last sermon in our series on Jesus’ parables in Matthew, “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” This sermon focuses on a parable unique to Matthew’s gospel traditionally called “The Wise and Foolish Virgins.” More than anything, Jesus challenges us through this story to live our lives in such a way that we will be prepared for any crisis that comes our way, including our own death, the Second Coming, or Final Judgment.

As Rev. White reminds us in this sermon, however, we don’t have to simply wait for Jesus off in some distant future, because Christ is with us now through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Sermon Text: Matthew 25:1-13

The following is my original manuscript.

Recently, Lisa and I were going out with some friends. We wanted to see a movie. I was in charge of making the plans, which is never a good idea. I am not good at managing the social calendar. Since the movie was up in our neck of the woods, I helpfully suggested that our friends meet us at our house first, and we could decide together which movie to see and where to eat. It seemed like a sensible suggestion. I mentioned this to Lisa, and she said, “What? Are you crazy?Our house isn’t ready for company!” I’m looking around thinking, “It doesn’t look so bad to me.” It’s true that the dog has chewed up some dog toys, as the dog always does, and there’s dog-toy stuffing all over the living room, but that’s no big deal.

But sometimes the shoe is on the other foot. For example, sometimes my in-laws will drop in unexpectedly. Lisa will say, “Oh, Mom and Dad just called. They’re going to drop by in a few minutes.” And I’m like, “What? I can’t let have your dad seeing the yard like this!” Suddenly I feel deeply embarrassed because I’ve been busy recently and I’ve put off cutting the grass for a couple weeks or months or whatever. It’s embarrassing!

You know who your best friends are? They’re the ones for whom you don’t even think about picking up the house!

Of course, you know what the solution to the problem is, don’t you? Keep your house picked up each day. Maintain the lawn each week. Don’t procrastinate. But it’s hard because we’re so incredibly busy! We get so easily distracted by other priorities.

Jesus makes a similar point in today’s parable. The punchline of the story is verse 13: Jesus says, “Therefore keep alert because you don’t know the day or the hour.”

There is some debate in theological circles about what “the day or the hour” refers to. Jesus tells this parable as part of a sermon he’s giving on the Mount of Olives, which overlooks the city of Jerusalem. The disciples have been admiring the Temple, which is considered one of the most beautiful buildings in antiquity. Jesus tells them that as beautiful as this structure is, the day is coming when not one stone will be left on top of another. It will be destroyed. Around A.D. 30, when Jesus speaks these words, this is almost impossible to believe, but within a generation, in the year 70, Jesus’ words would come true. Rome laid siege to Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and caused massive bloodshed and chaos. It’s possible the “day and the hour” refer to that moment in history, which was in their future.

More often, however, the church has interpreted the “day and the hour” to mean the Second Coming and final judgment at the end of history—or the moment of our own deaths. I kind of think it means all three of these things. Because Jesus’ point is the same, whether he’s referring to a bloody war that took place in the first century, or the Second Coming, or our own deaths. The parable’s stern warning is for each one of us. Even if we present-day Christians are no longer in danger of dying at the hands of Roman soldiers invading our city, we know for sure that we will die at some point. Even if the Second Coming and the end of history as we know it don’t occur in our lifetimes, we know for sure that our own personal history ends at our death. Time is running out for all of us.

Just this past week, Stephanie and I had the honor of taking part in the funeral service for a member of our church and a frequent Vinebranch worshiper. He had a fatal stroke. It was completely unexpected. And he was so young—just a little bit older than me. I can usually handle death without getting too emotional; I think I’m kind of good in those situations. But, privately at least, this young man’s death shook me up a little.

I was talking about it with a friend, and I think I figured out why: Because I was thinking, What if that were me? Here I am going about my life, going about my routine, preoccupied by the things that preoccupy me, distracted by the things that distract me. I’m imagining that I’ve got plenty of time to sort out all the loose ends of life. I’m young, after all. But suppose it ends in an instant, unexpectedly, without warning? What words had I been meaning to say but hadn’t said? What things had I been meaning to do but hadn’t done? What unfinished business had I been meaning to finish but hadn’t finished?

All of these questions are really just another way of asking—when that unexpected moment of crisis comes—will I have oil in my lamp? Will I be able to handle it? Will I be ready? Will I be alert?

One thing seems clear: “Being alert,” as Jesus wants us to be, can’t simply mean living in a state of constant vigilance—constantly thinking about the end of the world and the Second Coming, constantly waiting for it, constantly expecting it. Obviously, some Christians spend a lot of time thinking about these things and planning on them and predicting them. Remember that radio preacher earlier this year who made national headlines because he knew the very day of Christ’s return? And when that prediction was proven wrong, he said he’d miscalculated and there was another day. Now that day has passed, from what I understand. Guys like that will always be wrong about the end of the world, and they so completely miss the point.

Think for a moment about our nation’s experience in the wake of 9/11. Remember how vigilant all of us were in the days, weeks, and even months following the attacks? We had color-coded threat levels each day. We were screened before going into football stadiums and concert venues. We were waiting for the next attack. We were expecting another attack. We were a little afraid to go to the mailbox for fear that some terrorist would mail us anthrax! What happened to that level of alertness?

Even within a couple of years of 9/11, a country singer scolded us, asking: “Have you forgotten?” Which isn’t really fair. In a sense, we had forgotten… but in a good and necessary way. We can’t live our lives constantly reminding ourselves of that fateful day, constantly feeling anger, indignation, and a sense of loss. I can’t imagine that’s good for our health, physically or spiritually. We have to move on. It’s gracious that God has made us in such a way that we can move on and heal from even terrible tragedy.

Don’t get me wrong: I trust and hope that there are plenty of people who are paid to stay alert and on guard for another attack. More importantly, I trust and hope that systems are in place to safeguard against attacks, even when individual humans fail. Because most people, most of the time, can’t live their lives on alert. Even in this parable, after all, both the foolish and the wise bridesmaids fall asleep. What matters is that when they were awakened, some of them were ready.

So what do we do with this parable and its warning to keep alert? In a way, we have to do on a small and personal scale what our country did on a large scale following 9/11: It’s as if we have to build into the fabric of our lives a new system that will help us to be ready for any crisis that comes our way—including even our death or the Second Coming or final judgment. And this new system will help us be ready even during those times when the end of the world, or even the end of our world at death, is the furthest thing from our minds.

How do we build this system into our lives? No secret there. We do what the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, always said we should do: We “attend to the ordinances of God.” We pray. We gather together weekly for worship. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We read and study scripture. We fast. We give. We serve. We love. We make these mundane and often difficult tasks of spiritual formation a part of our normal routines so that when things aren’t normal—when unexpected, unpredictable, and unforeseen events occur—we’ll be ready.

Easier said than done. But why is that? Why is it so difficult to build these things into our lives?

Maybe because from the moment we wake up in the morning, we sense that there are about 498 more important and more urgent and more pressing matters than prayer, or reading the Bible, or going to church. Why? Because we have bills to pay. Because if we don’t get our work done, whatever our work is, we may get fired; or we may get a bad grade; or we may lose our scholarship; or we may get evicted; or we may get foreclosed upon. Because someone is holding us accountable for these parts of our lives. If we don’t stay alert and awake in these more visible, less “spiritual” areas of our lives, there’s a price to be paid!

By contrast, if we don’t stay alert and awake in these less visible, more “spiritual” parts of our lives—like prayer or Bible-reading or churchgoing or financial stewardship—who’s gonna know? Who’s going to judge us? Who’s going to hold us accountable?

Oh… Oh, yeah. That’s right… Our Lord is reminding us in this parable that he is holding us accountable.

One of the things that bothers many people about this parable is the fact that the wise bridesmaids were unwilling to share their oil with the foolish bridesmaids, who didn’t bring extra oil with them. And it bothers us for a good reason. After all, Jesus teaches us to give sacrificially to others, to set aside our own interests, our own comfort, even our own lives, if necessary, for the sake of others. That’s what Jesus did. That being said, wouldn’t it have been more Christ-like and loving for the wise bridesmaids to give some extra oil to the foolish—even if it meant that the wise ones missed out on the party?

But the fact that they didn’t share their extra oil proves my point: our Lord knows that we can’t take care of others if we fail to take care of ourselves. Why do you think so many clergy, not to mention a lot of laypeople, get burnt out doing church work? Because they give and give and give without remembering that living a successful Christian life also means taking time to receive. From God. We shouldn’t be so busy caring for others that we forget to care for ourselves. We shouldn’t be so busy making disciples that we fail to make disciples of ourselves. We shouldn’t get so preoccupied with saving others that we forget that we, too, need to be saved!

It’s like when your plane is about to take off and the flight attendants give the safety instructions about what to do in case of an emergency; and how your seat is a flotation device; and if you lose cabin pressure, these oxygen masks drop from the ceiling. And what do they tell us parents of young children to do? They tell us to secure our own masks over our faces before helping our children with theirs. Because otherwise we both might die!

Our Lord has everything we need to be successful and fulfilled and content and joyful in ministry and in life. He wants to give it to us. He wants to fill our lamps. Will we allow him to do that?

And Jesus can fill our lamps right now… today… Why? Because he’s with us right now. Today. He’s with us through the Holy Spirit. He’s with us when two or three gather in his name. He’s with us when we gather for worship on Sunday. He’s with us when we read holy scripture. He’s with us when we sing songs of praise. He’s with us when we pray. He’s with us when we feed a hungry person or care for the sick or clothe the naked or welcome the stranger or visit the people in prison. He’s with us when we hug a child’s neck or visit a lonely shut-in. He’s with us when we love our children and love our spouses and love our friends and even do something crazy like learn to love our enemies. He’s with us. He’s with us through good health or infirmity, through prosperity or poverty, through good or evil, through life or death. He’s with us!

I know that this present world and this present life aren’t heaven. We’re not at the wedding banquet just yet—and we won’t be until the other side of death and resurrection. But, brothers and sisters, if we give our lives to Jesus Christ, and we try our best to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, this present world and this present life aren’t bad! And every once in a while… Every once in a while that veil separating heaven from earth is very thin. And we can catch a glimpse of heaven right here and right now. I caught a glimpse of it at the funeral of a faithful believer like Jay Wiley. I caught a glimpse of it last Friday night at Coffeehouse. I catch a glimpse of it spending time with good friends or listening to great music or playing in the ocean with my kids. Or—get this—I even catch a glimpse of it at church! Often. 

We get a little bit of heaven right here and right now. And we get a whole lot of Jesus right here and right now. We don’t simply have to wait for him at death or the Second Coming. He’s here. He’s here! Invite him in. Invite him into your life today.

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