Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 16 November 2014:
Texts: 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11
Lit up and ready for action?
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
One evening all the lights went off in our house. The first thing you do in that situation is, of course, to check to see if something has made the fuses trip. And we were prepared- we keep a torch on top of the fuse box. So I groped my way along to the cupboard where the fuses are, and felt around for the torch until I found it. I pushed the switch on top of the torch- and nothing happened. The torch hadn’t been used for a long time, and the batteries were flat. When I unexpectedly needed the light of the torch, it was not ready.
Which is pretty much also the plot line of the parable we heard from Jesus today. Jesus’s story is a bit complicated, because it refers to ancient Jewish wedding customs which are very different from our own. But the main points are clear- there are ten young women (the word can also mean bridesmaids) waiting for a wedding celebration, but they all fall asleep because the bridegroom is late in arriving. When, in the middle of the night, the shout is heard that he’s finally arrived, five of the bridesmaids are not ready. In an age before street lamps- and battery torches!- it’s their oil lamps that aren’t ready. Their lights don’t work when they needed them.
This is a parable about making sure you are ready. Sometimes we think we are ready. I thought I was prepared for an emergency by putting my torch on top of the fuse box. But I hadn’t checked it recently, so when I needed it, it was no use to me. The foolish bridesmaids hadn’t made sure they had enough oil. So when they needed their lamps, they were of no use to them.
Jesus often spoke about the Kingdom of God being like a banquet or a wedding feast (we heard a parable like that a few weeks ago). And at his last meeting with his disciples before his execution, he share bread and wine with them and says, ‘I will never again drink this wine until the day I drink the new wine with you in my Father’s Kingdom’ (Matthew 26.27).
For Jesus liked a party- some of his most memorable teaching and some memorable incidents we happened at dinner parties- a woman unexpectedly anointed his feet on one occasion; he criticised the seating arrangements at one dinner to teach about humility; he chided Martha for fussing too much over the cooking instead of enjoying the company. When he spotted the Zacchaeus, a corrupt tax collector, up a tree, Jesus invited himself back to Zacchaeus’s house for dinner.
In fact, people criticised Jesus for his sociability. Even although they’d thought John the Baptist a bit weird for not drinking wine, they condemned Jesus, saying ‘He is a glutton and wine drinker, a friend of tax collectors and other outcasts!’ (Matthew 11.18). And so Jesus said they were like children playing in the marketplace: ‘One group shouts to the other, “We played wedding music for you, but you wouldn’t dance! We sang funeral songs, but you wouldn’t cry!”‘ Jesus’ evident enjoyment of good company, food and wine is almost an enacted parable, showing us one aspect of what the Kingdom will be like.
So it seems that today’s parable is also bout the Kingdom, and being ready for it. Scholars are fairly unanimous in saying that for the first few decades after Easter, many in the young church expected Jesus to return very soon. Using ideas from the Old Testament as well, they had the idea that the Last Judgement was very close at hand. The community for which Matthew’s gospel was first written would have had many within it who had such an expectation. So this parable would be a powerful reminder to be ready for what was referred to as ‘the day of the Lord’, when the Kingdom would finally become fully present on earth.
Questions about the day of the Lord form the background to both of St Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. In the passage we read earlier, Paul teaches that there is no predicting when the day will come. Borrowing an striking image that Jesus himself uses in the Gospels, Paul says that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night- utterly unexpectedly. I find it strange that some way out sects and movements have tried to predict the date of the Day of the Lord, when the New Testament clearly states, here and elsewhere, that it cannot be predicted. Anyone who tries to tell you that they have a timetable for the end of the world- even if they tell you they got it from the Bible- has clearly not read the Bible properly!
It’s a pity that it tends to be those on the lunatic fringe who give so much attention to these ‘last things’- the return of Christ, the last judgement, the day of the Lord, the final and complete coming of God’s kingdom on earth- whatever you want to call it. Those of not so keen on these things are tempted to skip round it. And perhaps it’s that element of surprise that makes us a bit scared.
We all of us are tempted to want life to be not too surprising, if you don’t mind. The idea that Christ might suddenly arrive when we are least expecting him reminds us that surprise is at the heart of the Gospel. Nobody expected the Messiah to be born in a stable to a poor young woman. A rabbi who sought out and ate with and visited tax collectors and other outcasts was not really what you expected. A saviour executed on a cross is not what you expect.
And the Bible is full of stories of God acting in unexpected ways. Moses, a wanted murderer, meets God in the desert, as a burning bush tell him to go and set God’s people free. David, the youngest son, defeats the giant, Goliath. The prophet Jonah gets so terrified at being called to preach in the city of Nineveh has to be swallowed by a whale before he goes there, and then is surprised to find that the evil people of the city actually repent. And you would not expect a Pharisee, who persecuted followers of Jesus, to become not only become a follower of Jesus himself, but one of the greatest leaders of the early Christian Church- but, to everyone’s surprise, God called Paul to be an apostle.
God is not predictable and boring. God is surprising, and disruptive. Often we forget that- even in the life of the church. We are suspicious of new things, when they might be a way for God to develop our faith. We are suspicious of disruption, which might be a way for God to call us to new ways of understanding the Gospel. Many people today think that church is boring- and often they are right. But God is not boring- God is surprising.
And one day, the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, or a bridegroom arriving unexpectedly. And yet God’s kingdom is not just in the future. I said that Jesus’ fondness for a dinner party was perhaps a hint to us of what the kingdom will be like. Jesus brought God’s kingdom to life for people, in the here and now, reminding us that it would be like a celebration, a feast, a wedding.
But Jesus also had a sharp tongue- often his were words of judgement. He was harshly critical of religious leaders whom he regarded as hypocrites. He was unafraid to cause ructions at a dinner party by criticising those who took the best places for themselves. In Jesus, many people found themselves face to face with God’s judgement. For some, it was too much- like the rich man who was told to give all his wealth to the poor, who went sadly away. But for Zacchaeus, the little tax collector up the tree, meeting with Jesus changed his life for the better, as he promised to pay back those he’d stolen from.
Jesus brings us face-to-face with the Kingdom. He shows us that it will be joyous, like a party, and he confronts us with the demands of God’s justice. And he reminds us to be on our guard, as we cannot tell the day and the hour, to be prepared for God doing new, unexpected things- even bringing history to an end.
But how can we be prepared? Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids gives us some clues. When the midnight shout goes up that the bridegroom has arrived, the ten women wake up and start to trim their lamps. The foolish ones ask if they can borrow some oil, but they’re refused. If that sounds a bit mean, well, perhaps this part of the story reminds us that a borrowed oil won’t do. It’s up to each of us personally to be prepared for the wedding, to be prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom. Faith is a personal commitment, something we ourselves need to take responsibility for. No-one else can do it for us- we cannot borrow someone else’s faith, there is no such thing as a second-hand commitment to Christ. We ourselves need to be prepared.
So the foolish bridesmaids go off to market to buy more oil. But they miss the ceremony of the arrival of the bridegroom, and when they get back the celebrations are in progress and they can’t get in to the party. The foolish bridesmaids had not prepared properly to celebrate.
Most men have watched as a daughter or a wife gets ready for a night out. It seems to take forever- there’s all that careful preparation, getting the right clothes on, mysterious things involving hair and make-up. We men can only watch wryly as time to go gets ever closer and our daughter or wife seems fixed to the dressing table chair. But gentlemen, do not disturb all these preparations. The women are getting ready to party.
As we get ready for the kingdom, we should be filled with anticipation, for we are getting ready to party. The Day of the Lord will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night, but for us the day of judgement will be a day of joy. We are, as Paul says, children of the light. So the Day of the Lord, the day of God’s judgement, is a day we can anticipate with enthusiasm, for we know that for us it will be celebration, a time of great joy.
So often, Christians seem like grim traditionalists, fearful of change. We think our faith is about things being unchanging, no surprises, and little joy. But Christians should be getting ready to party. We should look to the future, not with foreboding and fear, but with joy. Because we know that the future is God’s hands, let us celebrate today in anticipation!
Ascription of Praise
Glory to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now,
and shall be forever, Amen.
BCO 1994, p586
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo