End of Story: Waiting in the Dark – 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 teaches his disciples, he tells 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.

Over these last three Sundays of the church year, we will be hearing Jesus tell his last three parables in Matthew’s gospel. Before this month is done, Jesus will have said all he has to say. End of story.

“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. (Matthew 25:1-13)

There seems to be a lot wrong with this story. For example, there is no bride in the wedding party. And what decent bridegroom comes to his wedding hours after it was scheduled to begin? There’s the problem of the wise bridesmaids refusing to share their oil with the others. They seem more selfish than wise! 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 were late to the party after they left to find oil – this is the same guy who kept them waiting for hours, remember!

Despite its problems and puzzles, 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 be punished. 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]

Here, Jesus uses the image of bridesmaids waiting for a bridegroom. As the bridesmaids wait in darkness, it’s hard to tell the wise from the foolish. In the dark, they all look alike! But each of us must decide which type of bridesmaid we want to imitate.[2]

Sometimes, I think it is hard for the rest of the world to look at us Christians and tell the wise from the foolish. We may all appear to be ready for Christ’s return. We may “attend” church and serve on committees, or be the first signing up to provide a meal for the homeless. On the surface, we may all look the same, but who among us is spiritually prepared for the long wait in darkness, before Christ comes again?

Sometimes, we behave more like 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 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 God’s final judgment, and that’s what this whole final sermon is about. When the unprepared bridesmaids tried to enter the banquet, 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. As uncomfortable as this finality makes us feel, we have to face it.

“God is not willing that any should perish” (2 Pet 3:9), but when Christ comes again, judgment will be certain, and we must be ready, despite any delay. This mattered 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 come back as he said he would.

More than two thousand years later, it sometimes looks like our world has completely given up on Jesus coming again. We’ve lost the urgency of expectation. For many, the only concern when it comes to faith is what we can get out of it, how faith will meet our needs.

On the other hand, there are those who are sure the end times are nearly here. They see Doomsday in every natural disaster. Both groups 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. But like those foolish bridesmaids who fell 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 living a Christian life, without making a full commitment to growing more and more into Christ-likeness?

Carey Nieuwhof says the biggest threat to growth in our church right now isn’t the mega church stealing all our youth, or the church down the street that worships in person. The biggest threat to our growth isn’t in-person versus online attendance at all, and it isn’t the weather and it isn’t politics. The biggest threat to growth in our church is indifference.[3]

That’s what happened to the unprepared bridesmaids. They were indifferent. When the bridegroom arrived, the unprepared bridesmaids discovered they were nearly out of oil. In their indifference, their supplies had run low.

Sometimes our faith gets a “wake up” call. Maybe we are suddenly faced with health issues, or a personal financial crisis catches us unawares. An unexpected death in the family reminds us of our own mortality. A family member is admitted to the ICU with COVID-19.

Whatever the trigger may be, we suddenly realize that our spiritual reserves are too shallow to give us the strength and courage to stay faithful through difficult times. We need a deep and abiding faith to get us through the darkness.

But, if we wait until we need faith to get faith, we will be like those unprepared bridesmaids who went to 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 everyday trials, how can it get us through the dark night of waiting for Christ to come again in glory?

Waiting with patient endurance is hard. Waiting for something you aren’t even sure will come, waiting that requires preparation, when you aren’t even sure what it is you are preparing for – that kind of waiting can be exhausting. And 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. When will you come again and fulfill your promise of a new kingdom? What are you waiting for?

It’s also a question we may ask God whenever things we hoped for don’t seem to materialize as quickly as we thought they would. Like the psalmist who wrote, “How long, O Lord?” we might wonder when God will act on our behalf. “I’ve been praying and praying,” we tell God, “What are you waiting for?

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 us, or 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?

You see, this was the real problem with those foolish bridesmaids. It wasn’t just that they forgot to bring extra oil so their lamps could stay lit, no matter how long they waited. The real problem was that they went looking for oil somewhere else, instead of making the commitment to wait – in the dark, if necessary – so they would be present when the bridegroom arrived.

The oil in our lamps isn’t what gets us into the kingdom of God. But if we let our supply of oil – our spiritual reserves – run dry, we may be tempted to seek out substitutes for those reserves that will not work. They won’t keep our lamps lit. And looking elsewhere distracts us from the hard work of waiting. It makes us forget what it is we are waiting for.

For what are you waiting?

Are you waiting for someone to notice that you are hurting inside, that 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 indication that you are on the right path, as you struggle to hear God speaking into your life?

Are you waiting for someone to trust, someone with whom you can be completely honest? Can you see that none of these things will keep your lamp lit?

You see, 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 to claim him as Lord.

So, what are you waiting for?
The bridegroom says, “Come!”
The Lord Jesus Christ is waiting for you.

Watch a video of this Sermon for November 8, 2020, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost A

[1] Matthew 7:24-27 (and Luke 6:47-49).
[2] Floyd Filson, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, 1960, 263.
[3] https://careynieuwhof.com/growing-megachurch-isnt-enemy-this-is/

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