Tag Archives: eschatology

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.

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.” …

An updated version of this sermon for 2017 can be found here.

 

How’s the Weather? – Sermon on Luke 12:49-56

“It’s been a busy week in Lake Wobegon,” Garrison Keillor likes to say.  There have been meetings and e-mails, phone calls and road trips, people to meet, places to go, and things to do.  We’ve cooked meals, done laundry, had maintenance done, and fixed things that were broken.  On top of all that, some of us have prepared and taught lessons, or served in a multitude of other ways for Vacation Bible School.  We’ve attended funerals and weddings, bought groceries, fed the dog, and picked flowers.  Business as usual, right?  The constant hum of busy-ness fools us into thinking we have everything under control, as long as we can keep checking things off our “To Do” lists.

And in the middle of our long list of tasks to complete, Jesus shows up and calls us nasty names.  Just when we think we know what we are supposed to do and how we are supposed to do it, the King of Kings and Prince of Peace lashes out at us in shrill frustration at our blindness, our foolishness.  You think I’m making this up?  If a preacher were looking for trouble in a preaching text, this one has plenty.  Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel of Luke, twelfth chapter, beginning at verse 49.

Jesus said to his disciples:

49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!  51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!  52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens.  55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens.  56 You hypocrites!  You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? – Luke 12:49-56

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Not a very cheerful passage, is it?  Remember that Jesus and his disciples were on their final journey to Jerusalem.  As Jesus moved closer and closer to his destination – his death – a sense of urgency must have been rising in him.  There was so much his disciples still did not understand about the Kingdom he had been born to rule.  They were still looking for a Messiah who would be a military champion, someone to bring down Rome in a great show of armed strength.  They were looking for a king who would restore the throne of David.  They were not looking for a King reigning on the throne of heaven, or a king who would be a servant, or one who would be tortured and executed.  Not that kind of king.

It must have been very frustrating for Jesus.  Here he had been teaching with stories and parables about the way the Kingdom of God works, and they still didn’t get it.  Once in a while, there would be a glimmer of understanding, but it would quickly fade, as the disciples who knew Jesus best kept trying to put him into the box of their own expectations.  Can you hear the exasperation in his voice, as Jesus breaks out of his mild-mannered Clark Kent persona, and starts yelling – first at the twelve, and then at the crowds that were always gathering wherever he went?

Jesus, who only recently was rebuking James and John for wanting to bring down fire on some Samaritans who had not welcomed them[1], suddenly declares that he cannot wait to bring down fire himself.  (Can’t you just hear James and John complaining, “How come you get to when we don’t?)”

There is a difference between cleansing fire and fire that consumes.  James and John were eager to destroy, but Jesus is talking about cleansing, purifying fire.  He knows what lies ahead for him, and for his disciples, and he wants to be sure they have been refined and tested, so that they can remain strong when the time comes.

And that time is very near.  Very soon, Jesus will ride a donkey into Jerusalem while the crowds shout “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  A few days later, these same crowds will cry out “Crucify him!  Crucify him!” and he will be led to the place of the skull, hung on a cross, and crucified.  There isn’t much time left before the prophets’ words will be fulfilled.  The baptism Jesus is about to undergo is a flood of anguish, as he takes on the sins of the entire world.

The Jesus we see in this passage seems out of character with the Jesus who loves and heals and cares for the poor.  This is not the sweet baby Jesus for whom the angels sang, “Peace on earth, good will to all” back in Luke 2.  No, this Jesus announces division instead of peace.  His rant sounds more like John the Baptist than the Beatitudes.  On the other hand, Jesus has not come to validate human institutions and the values those institutions promote.  Jesus has come to set into motion God’s radical will for the world.  The stress Jesus is under is not anxiety, but a total absorption in his mission.  That mission is to redeem a broken world.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus pits “peace” against “division,” treating them as opposites?  We often think of the opposite of peace as war, and the opposite of division as unity.  But here Jesus turns the dial a notch.  It’s as if Jesus is saying any division is war, and there can be no peace without complete unity.  He is not satisfied with half measures.

But maybe the confusion and tension of Jesus’ teachings here cannot, and should not, be resolved.  If we look at this passage in light of the whole gospel story, perhaps we find it may describe rather than prescribe division among us.  That is, it is not Jesus’ purpose to set children against their parent or parents against their children, but this sort of rupture can be the result of the changes brought about by Christ’s work.

Did you notice that all the divisions Jesus lists are between generations?  Jesus is not saying that it is his intent to separate family members from one another, but that family ties no longer determine a person’s identity, vocation, allegiance, and status.  Instead, they will be determined by whether or not that person accepts or denies Jesus as Lord.  What ties believers together is not the covenant of ancestry, but the covenant of blood, poured out for those who find fellowship in the family of God.

The harsh sayings and indictments resounding in this text remind us that Jesus has not come to validate the social realities and values we have constructed.  Such social realities and values often end up favoring those who hold positions of power at the expense of those who are powerless. The radical purposes of God have completely demolished the status quo.  Jesus shatters it with his mission of compassion, mercy, and justice.  Staking our claim with Jesus will inevitably separate us from those who deny his Lordship.  Coming alongside Jesus in his mission will most certainly divide us from those who fear giving up their positions of power in order to bring peace and justice to others.  God’s divine plan for peace is not always welcome.

A watershed determines which direction water will flow.  The hills and ridges between two rivers set the boundaries between the two watershed areas.  The weather on one side of the ridge can be quite different from the weather in the neighboring watershed.  Some of you may have experienced this, since New Ulm has one of those ridges running through it, between the Cottonwood and the Minnesota Rivers.  I can remember driving from southeast Kansas to Kansas City when I was younger, and about the time we hit Fort Scott, Kansas, the weather would always change.  It would suddenly be colder, or hotter, or it would start raining, or the sun would come out.  We had climbed to the top of a ridge between two watersheds, and that dividing line made all the difference in what the weather would be.

We are quite interested in predicting the weather, aren’t we?  Even those of us who aren’t farmers will check the weather report before we go to bed, and again first thing in the morning, so we can order our lives accordingly.  The people crowding around Jesus were no different.  They could tell if it was going to rain by noticing the smallest cloud in the west.  And if the wind was out of the south, coming off the desert, it was going to be a scorcher.

Jesus is saying that it is nothing less than hypocrisy when the same skills are not brought to bear on recognizing that the day of the Lord is near.  In Luke 11, Jesus chastises the crowds because they keep asking for a sign that he is the Messiah.  Now, he chastises them for their complete inability to interpret the signs they are given.  We are faced with the ridge, the dividing line, between two watersheds.  On one side of the hill, the water runs toward destruction and ruin.  On the other side of the hill, the water runs toward the new age of Christ’s reign on earth.  If we can read the weather cues on either side of the dividing line, why can’t we tell what time it is?

The problem is not so much that we are unable to interpret the signs of the times, but more that we are unwilling to do so.  It’s interesting that Jesus uses this word “interpret,” because the root words of hypocrite – that nasty name Jesus aims in our direction – also refer to an actor, or interpreter.  Just as an actor puts on a character different from his own and interprets a role, so a hypocrite interprets the weather but not the more obvious current state of affairs.  This kind of interpretation is superficial, not authentic, just like an actor dressed in costume and stage makeup.  It is hypocrisy.

So what does the weather look like today, here in New Ulm?  What time is it getting to be?  What are the current concerns of the Kingdom, which Jesus is so eager to bring to completion?  How are we being hypocrites, acting out our own short-sighted interpretation of “the way things are,” and missing the point of the way things ought to be?  As I get to know you and the city of New Ulm a little better each week, I am discovering some of the things that we tend to ignore.  Maybe we think the problem is too big, like making sure there is enough affordable housing available.  Maybe we think the problem has been around so long, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  Division among institutions such as churches and their associated education systems is just easier to work around than it is to try to change.  Within our own congregation, there has been, at one time or another, division about worship styles, how to do children’s ministry, youth programming, discipleship.   While these issues may seem to have been resolved, there may still be scars and even unhealed hurts that remain.  On the surface, like an actor dressed in costume and stage makeup, we look fine.  But are we really paying attention to what time it is?

Sometimes, the presenting issue that divides us is not the real issue.

I suggested once that it might work better for the organist at a former church if the piano were on the same side of the sanctuary as the organ console, much as we have here at First UMC.  A flurry of opposition arose, and the senior pastor heard many complaints about the possibility of ruining the beauty and symmetry of the sanctuary.  But it wasn’t the piano that was the real issue.  When we said, “fine, leave the piano where it is.  Let’s talk about what’s really bothering you,” we learned that the real issue was confusion about a new contemporary service, being introduced at about that same time.  There was division, but it wasn’t about the piano.

Jesus holds division and peace in tension, and asks us to interpret the times through God’s clock.  What time is it?  The same time it was 2000 years ago.  Time to wake up.  Time to take off the blinders and see what God sees.  Time to repent of our complacency, our hypocrisy, our willingness to act one way in public and be something else in private, our willingness to maintain the status quo instead of moving radically into the demands of Kingdom living.  It’s time to take a good hard look at who we are, and what we do, and see how far it is from what Jesus asks of us.  It’s time to realize that the weather is shifting.  In his second letter to the church at Corinth Paul writes, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation![2]”  It’s time to become true followers of Jesus Christ.  The time is now.  The Kingdom of God is at hand.


[1] Luke 9:51-56

[2] 2 Corinthians 6:2