Tag Archives: being prepared

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

November 12, 2017

We had an All Saints detour last week, as we flashed back to hear the familiar words of the Sermon on the Mount. Just a few verses after the Beatitudes we heard last week, Jesus teaches, ‘let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’ (Matt 5:16). At the end of that same sermon, Jesus says, ‘Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven’ (Matt 7:21).

Today we pick up the story where we left off a couple of weeks ago, as we hear Jesus teach his disciples through a series of parables. And the first parable has a lot to say about shining our light and claiming Jesus as Lord.

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. Jesus was introducing the idea that the kingdom of God is present among us now, already working to transform us, and the broken world we live in.

But now, as Jesus teaches his disciples, he tells them, “the kingdom of God will be like…” As he prepares them for the future, Jesus wants his disciples to be ready for the coming of the fulfilled kingdom, whenever it might occur. This kind of preparation requires more than a quick trip to the store to stock up on necessities, or putting clean sheets on the guest bed when company is on the way. Jesus is 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.

It doesn’t take a lot of in-depth study to notice 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, just because they come to the party late – this is the same guy who kept them waiting for hours, remember!

The parable is full of problems and puzzles, and trying to explain every one of them could send us down lots of different rabbit holes. So let’s stick to the basics.

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 bridesmaids waiting for a bridegroom, to set before us two options – wisdom or foolishness. 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] Because the world is watching us.

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, we may serve on committees, we may be the first ones signing up to provide desserts for potluck meals. 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 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 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 living a Christian life, without making a full commitment to discipleship?

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. An unexpected death in the family reminds us of our own mortality.

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. When real struggle surprises us, 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?

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 spiritual practices that will strengthen our faith, such as Bible study, prayer, and fellowship, 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?”

The question carries with it an expectation that something should be happening that isn’t yet. “What are you waiting for” has an air of dissatisfaction tucked inside.

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 God can use even our worst failures for his good purpose?

What are you waiting for?

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?

And this reminds me of the real problem with those foolish bridesmaids. It isn’t just that they forgot to bring extra oil to the party, that they came unprepared to wait as long as necessary. The real problem is 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. It’s more like the spiritual toolkit we use for living in this time before eternity, than a ticket for entrance into eternity.[3] 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.

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 our Lord and Savior. Jesus is waiting for us to follow him as fully devoted disciples.

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.

[3] Mark Douglas, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, 288.

Be Prepared – Sermon on Luke 12:32-40

Last week, we considered what it means to be “rich toward God” and this Sunday’s text picks up almost where we left off.  As we join the disciples in trying to figure out how to be rich toward God, Jesus continues to teach us what the Kingdom of God is like, and how different that Kingdom is from anything we might imagine.  Jesus must have noticed some looks of concern around him as the disciples tried to grasp this up-ended view of how the world should be.  He addressed this concern with assurances that we each matter to God, so we can stop worrying about our basic needs, because God will provide for us.  If he feeds the birds and clothes the flowers of the field, God can be depended on to care for every detail of our lives, because God loves us so very, very much.  Let’s join Jesus and his disciples again, as they travel toward Jerusalem, and the story continues.

Hear the Word of the Lord.

32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.39 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” – Luke 12:32-40

This passage offers us three things to consider, as we continue to learn how to be rich toward God.  First, do not be afraid.  Second, store up heavenly treasure, and third, be ready for the Kingdom of God.  I have to tell you that this might be the first time I’ve ever preached a standard, three-point sermon, and on the surface, it may seem that these three points have very little to do with one another.  In reality, they are closely connected.  Let’s figure out how.

We heard the opening phrase, “Do not be afraid” earlier this morning, in the reading from Genesis 15.  When God spoke to Abram, his very first words were, “Be not afraid, Abram.”  Just like Mary, when the angel Gabriel appeared to her, Abram probably was shocked when God spoke to him.  Just like Mary, Abram accepted the Word of the Lord on faith, “and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”[1]

The Greek verb phobeomai gives us the root for our word “phobia” and it means “fear” or “be afraid.” But me phobou means a bit more than “Fear not,” or even “be not afraid.”  A better translation might be: “Stop being afraid,” or “fear no more.”  We aren’t talking about hypothetical fear that might occur sometime down the road here.  This isn’t even a warning against becoming afraid.  The angel Gabriel didn’t say, “Heads up, Mary, I don’t want to startle you, but I’ve got a Word from God for you.”  We are talking about real fear that is already present, fear that has been with us for some time already, fear that won’t let go of us.  And Jesus says, “Stop it.  Stop being afraid.”

What are we afraid of?

Despite Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inspiring words, we’re pretty sure we have more to fear than fear itself, right?  We fear what we can’t see, what we don’t know.  We fear losing control of our lives, making ourselves vulnerable to someone else.  We fear getting hurt.  We fear what others might think of us.  We fear shame.

We may try to escape our fear by ignoring it, or by building elaborate fantasies to hide from it.  We may even try to escape our fear by “drowning our sorrows” or “getting high.”  We may try to stockpile comfort to offset our fear.  Maybe we overeat.  Maybe we seek attention, even if it’s negative attention.  Have you ever heard of “the law of the soggy potato chip?”  Back in the late 70s, Psychologist Fitzhugh Dodson wrote a parenting book called, How to Discipline With Love (1977).  His premise for the Law of the Soggy Potato Chip was that children would rather have negative attention than no attention at all, just as children would rather have a soggy potato chip than no potato chip at all.  But potato chips won’t get it, no matter how crisp they are.  None of these things will take away our fear.

Yet Jesus says, “Stop being afraid.”  Just stop it.

Fear motivated the rich farmer from last week to stockpile all his goods.  He was willing to tear down all his barns right before harvest, in order to build bigger barns to keep all his stuff for himself, remember? It’s easy to call him a fool, since Jesus did, but are we any better?

Bruce and I have been “purging” our belongings as we prepare to move to New Ulm from the house where we’ve lived for fifteen years.  At first, we carefully selected items that we thought might have value to someone else, and we sold many of them on eBay and Craigslist.  This weekend, we held a garage sale to get rid of even more things.  We have noticed that it gets easier and easier to let go of stuff, the closer we get to moving day.  We wonder why we didn’t do this sooner.  And we wonder how we managed to accumulate so much stuff in the first place.  Are we afraid we might need something and not be able to get it when we need it?

Yet Jesus says, “Your Father in Heaven knows what you need.”
And Jesus also says:

Store up treasure in heaven

Get rid of your fear

Get rid of your need to be in control

Get rid of your stuff

Instead, deposit your treasure into the bank of the Holy Spirit

Remember what Paul wrote to the Galatians?  “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”[2]

In ancient Rome, gifts were given to create a sense of obligation for repayment.  It was the way one climbed the social ladder – making sure others were in your debt and owed you favors.  But in Kingdom Economy, God lavishly gives away his entire Kingdom to us, and when we, in turn, give without expecting anything in return, we participate in that Kingdom and receive even more from God.  More love, more joy, more peace, more patience, more kindness, more generosity, more faithfulness, more self-control, more, more, more.

More … treasure.

Your treasure is the Kingdom of God, which he has already decided it is his pleasure to give you.  What stands at the core of this Good News is not the fear of shame, but God’s amazingly tender concern for us, his own little flock.  This is an invitation to trust that our future rests in the gracious promises and presence of God.  The Gospel invites us to put first things first.  The Gospel says, “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.”[3]

Because it was God’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom in the first place.

This is the same good pleasure (or “delightful decision”) that the angels announced at Jesus’ birth when they sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”[4]  It is the same good pleasure God announced at Jesus’ baptism when he said, “You are my Son, the Beloved;with you I am well pleased.”[5] And this good pleasure, or “delightful decision” has already happened.  God has already given us the Kingdom through his Son, Jesus Christ.  The Kingdom of God is not just eternal life in the sweet by and by; the Kingdom of God’s active and current reign over heaven has begun on earth through Jesus’ ministry, and continues to the present time.  It is here, now.

God has already given us the Kingdom. We respond by carrying out the values and standards of that Kingdom, which include getting rid of possessions, giving to the poor, and making purses that contain ultimate, inexhaustible, heavenly treasure.

Instead of getting rich by accumulating human treasure, our hearts are set on what God ultimately treasures, which is compassion and mercy for those in need.

Since God, in his own good pleasure, has already given us the Kingdom, we are called to be prepared for its fulfillment when Christ comes again.  While Jesus is certainly talking about the end of time, when he will come again in glory to reign over a new heaven and a new earth, we should not be distracted by attempts to pinpoint the day and the hour this will happen.  We should also not be lulled into passively twiddling our thumbs while we wait for Jesus to return.

Luke offers the certainty that Christ will come again, and the uncertainty of when that will be.  This certain uncertainty focuses on the point of this passage: instead of twiddling our thumbs – or, at the other extreme, living wildly – because the end is near, we need to be faithful and alert.

Stop being afraid.  Invest in the heavenly treasure of God’s kingdom, and be ready for Christ to return.

“Being ready for Jesus’ coming is less about any actual time and place and more about imagining Jesus’ activity in the world, when and where you least expect it or imagine seeing it.  In other words, waiting around, waiting for instructions is not going to cut it.  Being without fear, knowing the sources of your treasure – that is, your identity, your worth as a child of God – makes it possible to be prepared for full participation in God’s Kingdom.” In this passage, the focus is not so much on the end times as on the end ways.  The consistent message throughout the passage is not  “be ready so that you will avoid punishment,” but rather, “be ready so that you will receive blessing.”

It is like keeping your house staged like a picture out of Better Homes and Gardens, because you never know when the realtor is going to want to show your home to a prospective buyer.  This kind of “being prepared” is less about being on high alert 24/7, and more about focusing on the things of God, while developing our peripheral vision in anticipation of being happily surprised when the time comes.

Have you ever seen the kitchen of a really excellent restaurant?  Every tool, every ingredient, is within easy reach of the chef who prepares the food.  Everything has a place, and there is a place for everything.  What you may not notice is the army of prep cooks, dishwashers, and other staff who make sure that every tool, every ingredient is within the chef’s reach. Meals leave the kitchen with elegant precision because the kitchen is prepared to anticipate every guest’s order.  The room hums with activity.  Maybe you’ve seen the joke “Jesus is coming back soon. Look busy.”  Looking busy isn’t enough.  Our waiting is an active participation in the Kingdom.

Remember how Luke likes to flip the tables of our expectations?  He gives us one more image in this story to do this again in the short parable about the master returning from the wedding banquet.  To understand this parable, we need to know what it means when the master “Fastens his belt.”  Older translations called this  “girding the loins.”  This quaint term simply means to gather up your robe, your garment, and tuck it into your belt so you can run, or do physical labor.

According to first-century wedding customs, the bridegroom would go out to meet his bride and return with her to his own home.  His servants would be properly attired, ready to serve, and their lights burning as they waited eagerly for him to bring his bride back to his home.  But when he arrives, what does the master do?  He girds up his own loins, and serves his servants!

Look at the image of Jesus in our window here above the chancel.  Is he looking at you with love and compassion?  As you look on this image, has it ever occurred to you that you might be viewing the reverse side of it?  That maybe the direction of Jesus’ gaze is outward, over the city of New Ulm, as much as it is inward, looking down on us gathered here in this sanctuary?  The light shines through the glass in both directions.  Are we being bright enough in here to let Christ be seen out there?

Stop being afraid.

Know that your treasure is the Kingdom of God, which in his own good pleasure God has already given to you.

Be prepared for his coming, with all the spiritual tools and ingredients you need within easy reach, and your garment tucked up into your belt so you are ready to work.  Then look out the window and see who Jesus sees.  Be prepared. The Kingdom of God is at hand.


[1] Genesis 15:6

[2] Galatians 5:22-23

[3] Matthew 6:33

[4] Luke 2:14

[5] Luke 3:22