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According to Your Word – Sermon on Luke 1:26-38 Advent 4B

The gospel lesson we are about to read is so important to our faith that it appears in the cycle of readings every year for the Fourth Sunday in Advent. The story of Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel has captured the imagination of artists and theologians for centuries. It’s an amazing story. It’s a story filled with mystery. You have heard it already, in the annunciation hymn of this morning’s offertory, “To A Maid Engaged to Joseph.” Hear it now, as given to us in the gospel of Luke, chapter one, beginning at the 26th verse:

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. – Luke 1:26-38

The angel Gabriel doesn’t show up much in the Bible. We see Gabriel here in the first chapter of Luke, appearing first to Zechariah, who will become the father of John the Baptist, and then to Mary. Other than these two encounters, the only mention of Gabriel is when the angel appears to Daniel in a vision (Daniel 8:15-16, 9:21). This is an angel whose rare appearances always carry important news from God. So when Gabriel shows up, it’s a pretty good idea to pay attention. Gabriel is no little cherub with rosy cheeks and a sweet smile. This angel means business. Continue reading

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Hey, Mary!

“Hey, Mary! God thinks you’re great. God is with you.”

(What on earth  …?)

“Stop being afraid. You are going to become the mother of the Son of God.”

“Okay, how are you going to do this?”

Mary didn’t blink an eye. She trusted that everything the angel had said was true. She just wondered how it was going to happen. What’s the protocol for virgin birth? How does infinite God become a finite human?

“Okay, tell me what to expect,” was all Mary wanted to know.
“How exactly is this going to work?”

“Look, your relative Elizabeth is also pregnant. She’s well beyond child-bearing years. If God can do that, God can do anything. Nothing is impossible with God.”

“Got it,” said Mary. “I’m ready. Let’s do this.”

Luke 1:26-38

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Reach-Renew-Rejoice! Sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 Advent 3B

The first sermon Jesus preached, according to Luke’s gospel (Luke 4:16-30), was in his hometown of Nazareth. It was one of those “hometown kid makes good” stories. You know the kind. Promising young man heads off to college and comes back a multi-millionaire because he invented something called Facebook while he was in school. Or, kid goes off to study engineering and a routine homework assignment becomes a cottage industry to employ homeless people in the manufacture of pop up shelters. That cute girl with the dimples and long hair who played second violin in your high school string quartet becomes chair of the FDIC. It’s that sort of thing.

So here’s Jesus, who has built a modest reputation so far as a healer and worker of miracles, come home to visit the family. And, as was his custom on the Sabbath day, he goes to the synagogue to worship. The local religious leaders approach him the minute he comes through the door. Would he be willing to read from a book of the Prophets, and perhaps share some insight into those words with the people?

Sure, he shrugs. And they bring him a large scroll, which he carefully places on the reading desk. Continue reading

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“Preparing the Way” – Sermon on Mark 1:1-8 Advent 2B

Imagine you are in Palestine. War is everywhere. You are surrounded by violence. The military leader who just got promoted to imperial dictator happens to be the same general who was responsible for destroying your village last year. Friends and family have scattered, and you aren’t sure what you should do next. Someone bumps into you on the street, and presses a pamphlet into your hands. For a moment, your eyes meet, and you are struck by two things: first, the intensity of this stranger’s gaze, and second, by the fact this intensity does not seem to be rooted in anger or fear, but … joy. You glance at the pamphlet in your hand, and read the title: “Good News.” You could use some good news. Is the war over? Has the dictator been overthrown? You find a safe place to open the pages, and you begin to read…

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Continue reading

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Enriched in Every Way – Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 Advent 1B

When Bruce and I lived in Kansas City, we developed a holiday tradition that we loved. On a Saturday between Christmas and Epiphany, we held a party for all of our musician friends. We invited them to bring their holiday leftovers, and all the music they had missed playing or singing for the last month because they were too busy performing Messiah and Nutcracker. Serious music was welcome, but not required. Concert Black dress was strictly prohibited. We called it “The Little Jimmy Dickens Society for the Preservation of the Rebek, Sackbutt, and Other Instruments of Torture.”

We had a lot of fun. Our dining room table was crowded with food, and our living room was filled with music. But not all those who attended the Little Jimmy Dickens Society were musicians. Spouses and significant others came along, and sometimes they would join in the fun with non-musical performances.

Every year, our friend Leona would rise sometime during the evening, and read The Christmas Letter she had received from a friend she barely knew. It seemed that The Letter was never less than four pages long. We were always grateful that Leona’s reading only gave us the highlights, but even this abbreviated version of The Christmas Letter made it clear that the woman who had written it thought her family was probably more intelligent, more talented, and more interesting than any other family she knew.

first_week_of_advent_wreathAs we celebrate our Hanging of the Greens on this First Sunday of Advent, we get to hear the beginning of another letter, written by someone who knows how to write a good one. Maybe he learned the rules of good letter writing in the Roman equivalent of elementary school. Maybe he learned them in his studies as a Hebrew scholar. Wherever the Apostle Paul learned how to write a good letter, we can be thankful that he did. Though we call it “First” Corinthians, we know this was not the first time Paul had written to the church in Corinth, because he references an earlier message to them in chapter 5 (1 Corinthians 5:9). And this isn’t Paul’s version of a Christmas Letter, either. He doesn’t give details of his own activities for the friends who live in Corinth. This is a pastoral letter, and in it, Paul will chastise his readers for their arrogance, their disunity, and their lack of moral purity. But before he can do that, Paul follows standard letter-writing procedure for the first century. He identifies himself at the beginning, and then he sends his greeting and words of good will.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:3-9)

We didn’t get to examine this text in Wednesday night Bible study this week, so let’s take a moment to look at some of the elements of Paul’s greeting from a scholarly point of view.

“Grace and peace,” Paul writes. This is where Paul’s letter-writing skills combine the best of both his Roman schooling and his Hebrew training. “Grace” or “charis” was the standard Greek blessing to open a letter. “Peace,” or “shalom” would have been the Hebrew equivalent. Here, Paul includes them both, blessing the Corinthians with a reminder that they have received God’s grace, God’s unmerited favor, and God’s complete and full peace. Not only does Paul tie together an Old Testament understanding of shalom with a New Testament emphasis on grace, he connects the Old Testament God with the New Testament Christ by way of relationship. Instead of calling God “the Lord,” or “Adonai,” Paul calls him “the Father,” emphasizing God’s relationship to Jesus, the Son. Then Paul names Jesus as “Lord.” This term, ‘Lord,’ had both a sacred and a secular application, for it was also the title normally reserved for Caesar in the Roman world. Calling Jesus Lord was both a way to name him as God, and to remind the Corinthians that Christ’s authority overrules human authority.

It’s also interesting to note that the word we translate as “grace” is also the root of the word we translate as “gift” in verse seven. God shows us love we do not deserve by giving us spiritual gifts. Grace is a gift. Paul has packed a lot into these few words: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.”

But Paul isn’t finished.

Following the greeting, a first century writer would normally express gratitude for his own good fortune. Instead, Paul gives thanks for the Corinthians, and for the benefits they have received from God. He thanks God for the grace that has been shown to them, and for their spiritual gifts of knowledge and speech. But it’s interesting that Paul does not include their faith, love, or righteousness in his thanksgiving. These are areas he will address later in the letter. In fact, Paul is about to lambast the Corinthians for their arrogance and favoritism, yet here, he thanks God for them, and for the spiritual gifts that have enriched them.

I wonder, if Paul were writing to us today, what spiritual gifts would he be grateful to see among us? Would he praise us for our hospitality, or for our service to others? Would he commend us for our perseverance in the faith, or for our wisdom? What gifts would he leave out of our list?

Lucy Lind Hogan writes, “Paul … helps the community [to] understand why they have been given these gifts. Yes, it is to help them in the living out of their faith in the here and now. But more importantly, they have been given these gifts to help them for the long journey that lies ahead; the journey that will lead them to ‘the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.’”

Perhaps the church in Corinth had forgotten the promise that Christ would come again. Perhaps they were so focused on what God had already done, they were no longer waiting in anticipation of “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:8)

One problem the Corinthians faced was their own arrogance. They had become proud of their knowledge and their eloquent speaking, to the point of claiming that the gifts they enjoyed were actually of their own doing instead of coming from God. They had crossed the line between celebrating what God had done, and taking credit for the result of God’s work in their midst. They were no longer looking for Christ to be revealed. More to the point, they were no longer revealing Christ to the city of Corinth. This is why Paul’s greeting mentions Christ in every single verse: he wants to remind them that God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus Christ is ongoing, and they are to bear witness to that truth.

Just as the church in Corinth was called to give testimony to Christ’s saving power, so we are called to reveal Christ to the city of New Ulm. But we need to be careful that we don’t fall into the same trap that caught the Corinthians. It is only in God’s strength that we can be “enriched in every way, not lacking any spiritual gift” as we reveal Christ now, and wait for his final revealing when he comes again. God will be with us through every trial, through every challenge, keeping us strong as we wait for that revelation.

Dirk Lange writes that the revelation of Jesus Christ … “is an unexpected revelation. It is not waiting for another birth in a manger and not necessarily waiting for a second coming into time.” Instead, Lange goes on to explain, this waiting in the present time shows itself in the praying and thanksgiving, the singing and the sharing that changes us, forming us into people who are more and more like Jesus. That transformation happens here, in this community of faith. As Christ’s church, we are called to see “Christ ‘adventing’ in our very midst,” and to bear the testimony of that advent to the world.

From the introduction to this morning’s Hanging of the Greens service, you may remember that the word Advent means “arrival.” During this season of Advent, we emphasize Christ’s arrival in three ways:

1) Christ’s historic arrival in human form that we celebrate on Christmas
2) Christ’s redemptive arrival in the lives of His people , and
3) The Second Coming of Christ when He will arrive in glory to establish His kingdom, and to judge all people.

Even as we look back to the first Christmas, and forward to Christ’s Second coming, we can see that God is not done. God is not silent or inactive here in the meantime. God is working his purpose out, and we are part of that purpose. God continues to reveal himself to us, and through us, strengthening us with every spiritual gift for the work we have been given to do.

God is faithful and God is the one who calls us – not the other way around. God calls us into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ, so that we might stand blameless on that last day. Blameless! What an amazing promise that is!

Paul was writing to people who had “already engaged in quarrels, nourished scandalous conduct, doubted some of the basic elements of the gospel, questioned the authority of the apostle, and threatened to go off into extravagant fanaticisms. … yet here he states unconditionally that they will be blameless”[1] in the end.

God is faithful. Nothing we do can cancel that. God has called us into partnership with his Son. He has given us spiritual gifts, and the strength to use them, so that we can give testimony to the reality of Christ’s arrival.

This is the First Sunday of Advent, traditionally, the Sunday of HOPE. In another of Paul’s letters, he writes, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13 ESV)

Grace and peace and hope. This is what we celebrate as we hang our greenery and begin the four weeks of expectant waiting we call Advent. We receive God’s unmerited favor toward us, love we don’t deserve and could never earn. We offer peace as shalom to others, the kind of peace that can only be realized when we call Christ our Lord. And we look forward in hope to the time when Christ will complete the work he has begun in us, bringing in the Kingdom of God in its fullness.

Let us wait, remembering that Christ came in human form to save us, Immanuel.
Let us wait, actively using the gifts God has given us, knowing that we cannot take credit for those gifts, but we also dare not abuse them or let them go unused, for God is With Us.
And let us wait, bearing testimony to the world that
Christ has died,
Christ is risen,
Christ will come again.
Amen.

 

[1] William E Orr and James Arthur Walther, The Anchor Bible: I Corinthians, 145-6.

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Well Done! Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30

11/16/2014

We have some leftover business from last week. Have you been bothered about those five bridesmaids who got locked out of the party, just because they didn’t bring along an extra flask of oil? They came with their lamps, and their lamps had oil, but they didn’t bring along any extra. They thought they were prepared, but they weren’t. “Good enough” wasn’t good enough, after all. And instead of continuing to wait, even if it meant waiting in the dark, they went off looking for what they needed somewhere else. When they finally arrived, the door had been shut, and they were out of luck.

The nagging question left over from last week comes up again this week. Why isn’t “good enough” good enough? In today’s passage, Jesus tells another parable that forces us to consider this question from a different angle.

For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;  to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.   The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.   In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.   But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.  After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.   Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’   His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’   And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’  His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’  But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.  For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’  – Matthew 25:14-30

Why isn’t “good enough” good enough, as we wait for Christ to come again? What is it about following Jesus that requires more from us than we are often prepared to expect? Does the abundant life Jesus promises to us only come at extravagant cost?

From today’s parable, it would seem that’s the case. In Luke’s version of this story, each servant is given a pound, but here in Matthew, the unit of measure is a talent. One talent was worth 6000 denarii, and we already know from previous stories that a denarius was the usual daily wage for a common laborer. So, one talent was worth about 20 years of labor. Here we have an obviously wealthy master entrusting huge sums of money to his servants, and even the least of these would have had to work for twenty years to earn as much as his master hands over to him.

This is extravagance on a grand scale. We usually think of a talent as some special ability or giftedness, and linguistic experts will tell you that the root of our word “talent” probably comes from the original Greek word we find in this parable. But they will also tell you that the meaning we give to “talent” today did not come into common usage until sometime in the 1500s. At the time Jesus told the story, everyone understood that a talent was a fortune, and five talents was an enormous amount of money, a hundred years’ worth of wages.

Why is this important to know? The traditional interpretation of the parable of the talents has focused on using our abilities while we wait for Christ’s return. Use your talents well, or you might lose them. God gave you special gifts, and you don’t want to be caught on judgment day having to explain why you failed to make the most of your talents. Because the master in our story gave to each “according to his ability,” people have made “ability” the central theme of this parable.

But if we realize that Jesus wasn’t necessarily talking about our abilities as much as the greatest treasure we can imagine, it puts a little different spin on the story. Now, instead of using our abilities as best we can, the question becomes, “how much are we willing to risk to get the greatest return on our investment in the kingdom of God?” And before we can even ask that question, we need to know what great treasure has our master entrusted to us?

If we use the parable of the ten bridesmaids as our pattern, we could consider that the great treasure entrusted to us is the faith God gives each of us. Some have more faith than others, some invest in their own spiritual development, and they see their faith grow. Others may try to hide their faith, and their faith shrivels away. But then we run into the problem of the one-talent servant who is cast into outer darkness, and we are left wondering if perhaps his faith was not real faith, or if it was not deep enough. And that idea doesn’t match up with the promise that “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

But what if the talents don’t represent faith, any more than they represent our God-given abilities? What if this great, immense treasure is something else entirely? Think, for just a moment, about what we as Christians can claim as our most precious treasure, worth more than we can possibly imagine. Is it not the knowledge that we have been made children of God through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ? The Good News of Christ’s death and resurrection is the most powerful and amazing story we know! Instead of teaching us to multiply our faith, or develop our abilities – good and worthy as those things are! – perhaps this parable is here to remind us that our greatest treasure, as Christians, is the gospel itself.[1]

Investing in the gospel means spreading the good news, so that others can come to know and love Jesus. Living into our faith, showing the world what a difference following Jesus makes in the way we live our lives, telling people about the ways God has transformed us – That is how the gospel multiplies and grows. Not by being buried in the ground, but by being shared. And sharing the gospel is a risky business.

Those first two servants understood the need to risk everything. They invested radically in order to double their investment. The third hid his in the ground, in order to return it risk-free to his master. And before we tell ourselves, “I would never do something like that,” we should keep in mind that the third servant was simply doing what was considered prudent at the time.

“Rabbinic law stipulated that burying was the best safeguard against theft and that when one buries entrusted money one is free from liability for it” (Boucher, 139, quoted by Alyce McKenzie.).

Two servant invest radically, and double their money. The third followed a perfectly acceptable course of action, with minimal risk. He did what would have been considered “good enough.” But it wasn’t.

Because if we are talking about the gospel, about following Jesus and being obedient to his teaching, we have to act on that teaching for it to do any good. And the reason we have to act on the gospel isn’t just because Jesus says so.

“Living out the gospel truth of mercy, peace, and forgiveness is wise because the future belongs to God and those are the values of the future. The master will return, the promised kingdom is coming, and its advent will render all the false values of this age obsolete. … What will stand at the end is the gospel and nothing else, and it is true wisdom to live out today the truth of God’s future.”[2]

There’s something else in this parable that we need to see clearly for it to make sense. The relationship between the master and his servants determined how they responded to the trust he placed in them. The two servants who doubled their investment clearly trusted their master enough to risk losing his money. He rewards them with greater responsibility, and invites them into his joy. The mutual trust between the master and these servants made it possible for them to invest fearlessly what had been entrusted to them. But the third servant does not see his master in such a positive light. In fact, the third servant’s conservative handling of his master’s wealth is clearly based in fear of what would happen should he lose it all.

If we think about our relationship with God in these terms, we must ask ourselves, what is our image of God, and how does that image dictate the way we act? Some time ago, I was invited to close my eyes and picture God in my mind, going back to my earliest childhood memory of what I thought God looked like. Try it for a moment. Think back to your earliest impression of God. What did he look like to you when you were much younger? What did his hair, and his face look like? His clothing? His posture? Was he smiling, or looking stern? Did he have a beard? I told the Bible study group on Wednesday night that the first time I ever did this exercise, I was surprised to discover that my earliest image of God, seated on a high marble throne, with his hands resting on large, squared off armrests, strongly resembled the Lincoln Memorial!

Those images we hold in our minds dictate the way we behave. If we see God as a stern ruler who punishes those who disobey him, we will act in fear, just as the third servant did. But if we see God as a loving caregiver who wants only the best for us, we will act in confidence that he will forgive us when we do wrong. Our image of God determines how we invest in his kingdom. Either we will share lavishly, or we will hide the good news where it does no one any good. It all depends on how we view God, and how much we trust the One who entrusts us with his greatest treasure.

And that trust is the key to understanding what this parable is really about. It isn’t about using the abilities we’ve been given, even though that is a worthy thing to do. It isn’t about believing that Jesus is the Son of God who came to save us from our sins, even though that belief is necessary for our salvation. But faith is more than simply believing something to be true. James 2:19 says even the demons believe in God, and they shudder. Faith is more than that.

Faith is trusting what you believe, which means becoming vulnerable, putting yourself at risk. Are we willing to invest extravagantly in the work of God’s kingdom? We have been given not only the great commandment, to love God and our neighbor, but also the great commission, to make disciples. Not just converts, but disciples who are fully devoted to a life of following Jesus Christ.

But in order to make disciples, we have to be disciples. It’s by what we do that people see the need to have Jesus in their lives. It’s the risks we take that show the depth of our faith. Not just belief, but trust. The master trusted his servants. Two of them trusted him back. The third one, not so much. Faith is more than just believing something to be true; faith means trusting in that truth to the point of greatest risk. That’s what Jesus did. That’s what he asks of us. Are you willing to trust him, to risk everything in order to hear him say to you, at the end of time, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master?’

[1] Thomas Long, Matthew, 281-282.

[2] Long, 282.

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What Are You Waiting For? – Sermon on Matthew 25:1-13

In 1961, my family moved into a house that was a model of modern innovation. The bedrooms had built-in desks with fluorescent light fixtures, and the closets had sliding doors. The kitchen was all-electric, and there were not only one, but two picture windows looking out over the golf course across the road. But the feature that set this house apart was not visible from the road, or even from inside that all-electric kitchen.

This house had its own bomb shelter, already equipped with blankets, flashlights, jugs of water, and food rations packed in barrels. It was the epitome of middle class preparedness for surviving a nuclear attack. Should anyone decide to “drop the bomb” on southeast Kansas, our family was ready for disaster. We were prepared.

As Jesus neared the end of his ministry, he wanted his disciples to be prepared for the time when he would no longer be with them. But he was also preparing them for something more. He was preparing his followers for the fulfillment of God’s promised kingdom, for “the end of the age.”

Jesus began many of his early parables with the familiar phrase, “the kingdom of God is like….” It is like a grain of mustard seed, like yeast worked through dough, it is like a lost coin or a buried treasure. But now, as Jesus taught his disciples, Jesus told them, “the kingdom of God will be like…” As he prepared them for the future, Jesus wanted his disciples to be ready for the coming of the kingdom, whenever it might occur. This kind of preparation required more than stashing some jugs of bottled water or food rations in a bomb shelter. Jesus was urging his followers to prepare their hearts.

“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.

On Wednesday, our Adult Bible Study group started our study of this passage by looking at everything that seems to be wrong with the story. For example, there is no bride in this wedding party. And what decent bridegroom comes to his own wedding hours after it was scheduled to begin? There’s the problem of the wise bridesmaids refusing to share their oil with the others. That doesn’t seem very gracious! And what oil merchant is going to be open for business at midnight? Finally, there’s the problem of the bridegroom refusing to open the door to the bridesmaids who had to go find oil in the middle of the night. The parable is full of problems and puzzles, and it would be easy to get stuck trying to explain every one of them.

This parable compares two types of believers – the wise and the foolish, or the prepared and the unprepared. We find similar comparisons throughout Matthew’s gospel, and especially in this final teaching about the End of the Age: one will be taken and another left, the sheep will be separated from the goats; the faithful steward will be rewarded, while the unfaithful one will suffer punishment. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus described one who builds a house on rock as wise, and another who builds on sand as foolish.[1]

Jesus uses the image of ten bridesmaids waiting for a bridegroom, but the number of wise and foolish bridesmaids isn’t really important. Jesus isn’t saying that only half the world will be saved! He’s simply setting before us two options – wisdom or foolishness – and each of us must decide which type of bridesmaid we want to imitate.[2] Will we choose to wisely be prepared, or will we choose foolishness?

Let’s say that the bridesmaids represent believers, or the church, and their burning lamps represent faith. All ten bridesmaids start out with burning lamps. As the bridesmaids wait in darkness, it’s hard to tell the wise from the foolish. In the dark, they all look alike!

Aren’t we, the church, a little bit like that? Sometimes, I think it is hard for the rest of the world to look at us and see which of us is wise, and who among us is foolish. We may all appear to be ready for Christ’s return. We may attend church, we may serve on committees, we may be the first ones signing up to provide desserts for Wednesday night meals. On the surface, we all look the same, but who among us is spiritually prepared for the long wait in darkness, before Christ comes again?

Sometimes, I feel more like one of the foolish bridesmaids, who are short on oil. These bridesmaids have come to the feast expecting a short wait, and their preparation has been minimal. They are like believers who have limited spiritual resources, whose spiritual reserves are shallow, without any staying power. When the night gets long, and faith is tested with waiting, their lamps start to flicker.

Flickering faith won’t do us much good in the final judgment, and that’s what Jesus is really teaching in this parable. This whole final sermon is about God’s judgment, which each of us must be prepared to face, because the consequences for being unprepared are severe.

The unprepared bridesmaids were shut out of the banquet, and when they tried to enter, the bridegroom told them, “I tell you the truth, I never knew you.” This was the formula a rabbi used to dismiss a disciple, and such a dismissal could not be undone. It was final. “God is not willing that any should perish” (2 Pet 3:9), but when Christ comes again, judgment will be certain. Whether the Lord comes sooner than we think, or his coming is delayed beyond what we expect, we must be ready.

The concern with delay was important to believers at the end of the first century, because they had expected Jesus to return within their own lifetimes. Now, the apostles were dying off, and some had begun to doubt whether Jesus would actually keep his promise to return. More than two thousand years later, it may seem that our world has completely given up on Jesus coming again. Our culture is so caught up in satisfying personal desires, we even view our life of faith in terms of what we can get out of it, or how it will meet our needs. We’ve lost the urgency of expectation that even the first century believers struggled to maintain.

On the other hand, there are those who expect the end times with great anticipation. Many have tried to determine when Jesus will come again, and their predictions have all proven false (so far!), because they have missed the point of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus said, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36). We do not know when it will happen; we only know we must be ready.

Verse five tells us that the bridegroom was delayed long enough for the bridesmaids to fall asleep as they waited. Do we sometimes “fall asleep” in our faithfulness to Christ? Do we find ourselves repeating meaningless prayers and barely skimming over familiar Bible passages? Do we just go through the motions of doing and saying what we think others expect of us?

When the bridegroom is announced at midnight, all the bridesmaids wake up and trim their lamps, preparing to join the processional. But the unprepared bridesmaids discover that they are nearly out of oil. Their supply has run low. They were not adequately prepared.

Sometimes we get a “wake up” call to pay closer attention to our own walk with God. Maybe we are suddenly faced with health issues, or a personal financial crisis catches us unawares. When the unexpected happens, we may suddenly realize that our spiritual reserves are too shallow to give us the strength and courage to stay faithful through difficult times.

When family members struggle with addiction, or our marriages begin to fall apart, we need a deep and abiding faith to get us through the darkness. If we wait until we need faith to get faith, we will be like those unprepared bridesmaids who had to go buy more oil in the middle of the night, and missed the bridegroom’s coming. If our faith is too limited to get us through life’s trials, how can it get us through the dark night of waiting for Christ to come again in glory?

In order to stay ready and be prepared for whatever comes, we must have adequate “spiritual fuel” to sustain our faith. John Wesley promoted spiritual practices to develop strong faith, and his list of spiritual practices can be divided into what we now call “works of piety” and “works of mercy.”

The works of piety include things like reading and meditating on scripture, fasting, attending worship, observing the sacraments, and sharing faith with others. Works of mercy include visiting the sick and those in prison, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, fighting oppression, and giving generously. It’s an impressive “To Do” list. Yet, Wesley encourages us to consider that these works of piety and mercy are the very things that build our faith. If we want faith that is strong enough to get us through the long night of waiting for Christ’s return, these practices will deepen our “oil reserves.” That’s why Wesley called them “means of grace.” Not only will these spiritual practices help us be prepared for Christ’s return, working on them also keeps us alert as we wait for that great day.

And that wait has already been a long one. Waiting with patient endurance can be hard. David Lose writes, “Waiting for something way overdue, waiting for something you’re not sure will even come, waiting that involves active preparation when you’re not even sure what you should be preparing for. That kind of waiting is challenging.”

So, while it’s important to be prepared for judgment day by making sure our spiritual reserves are deep, while it’s important to engage in those spiritual practices that will strengthen our faith, the real question might be, “What are we waiting for?”

That’s a question Matthew’s church might have been impatiently asking. “We’ve been waiting and waiting, Jesus. What are you waiting for? When will you come again and fulfill your promise of a new kingdom?” It’s a question we may ask, too, whenever things we hoped for don’t seem to materialize as quickly as we thought they would.

Whether it’s an impatient “What are you waiting for? Let’s go!” or an encouraging “What are you waiting for? You can do this!” – the question carries with it an expectation that something should be happening, and it isn’t yet.

But notice how different that question sounds when Jesus is the one doing the asking, instead of us? How does it feel to have Jesus expecting something of us that should be happening, and isn’t yet? What are we waiting for?

Are we waiting for God to work some dramatic transformation in our church? What needs to change in us for that to happen? How can we be prepared for that kind of change? Are we willing to step forward in faith, even if it means waiting in the dark? Can we trust God enough to try some things that might fail, knowing that failure can be a great learning experience?

What are you waiting for?

Are you waiting for someone to notice that you are hurting inside, and you have doubts about your own worthiness?

Are you waiting for someone to love you? To show you that you matter?

Are you waiting for some word of encouragement, some indication that you are on the right path, as you struggle to hear God speaking into your life?

What am I waiting for? I get anxious about the future of our ministry here at First Church. It seems I keep asking God to show us a vision, to tell us in clear and concise language just what it is he wants us to do and be, and I’m still waiting for that answer. I keep waiting for my own spiritual reserves to develop, so there is enough oil in my lamp to offer some light to you on your journey. I’m waiting for the Holy Spirit to move us all in a dramatic and unmistakable way toward fruitful ministry. I wait for lives to be changed, for someone to claim the promise of salvation so powerfully that it shakes the rest of us up a little bit, reminding us that the God we serve isn’t interested in a superficial faith. He wants us to depend completely on him.

And this reminds me of the real problem with those foolish bridesmaids. It isn’t that they forgot to bring extra oil to the party. The real problem is that they went looking for oil somewhere else, instead of hunkering down to wait in the dark, if necessary, so they would be present when the bridegroom arrived.

So, what are we waiting for?

It isn’t filling the pews on Sunday or attracting new young families to our church. We aren’t waiting for our lamps to get filled up with more faith or greater spiritual depth. We aren’t even waiting for God to give us a vision for ministry, to tell us in no uncertain terms what we are supposed to be and do.

What we are waiting for is Jesus. We are waiting for the King of kings and Lord of lords to heal our brokenness and bring peace to this hate-filled world. We are waiting for the Savior of the nations to bring in the reign of God. We are waiting for Christ to make all things new. We don’t know when it will be; we only know that it will be when we least expect it.

We can wait in fear, or in joyful expectation, but as we look for Christ to come again, know that Christ is waiting for us, too. He is waiting for us to prepare our hearts for that glorious reign of God to come in its fullness. He is waiting for us to commit ourselves completely to doing the work of the kingdom of God. Jesus is waiting for each of us to turn our lives over to him, and claim him as our Lord and Savior.

What are you waiting for?
The bridegroom says, “Come!”
The Lord Jesus Christ is waiting for you.
[1] Matthew 7:24-27 (and Luke 6:47-49).
[2] Floyd Filson, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, 1960, 263.