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.
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. 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.
 Matthew 7:24-27 (and Luke 6:47-49).
 Floyd Filson, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, 1960, 263.