Powers and Principalities
Tue, Nov 14, 2017

Our Lamps are going out

Duration:17 mins 55 secs

Our New Testament text for today comes from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, verses 1-13. While we have spent the vast majority of the fall lifting up themes and theologies from the Protestant Reformation, it might surprise you to discover that after today there are only two Sundays left before the beginning of Advent. Yes, Christmas is coming soon. Our text for today points us in that direction. We find Jesus talking about the end of time and his certain return. Our text is the first of three parables in Matthew 25 which expand upon and explore this theme. Let us hear this Word of God.

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 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.’ 10 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. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

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

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

This is a parable about a wedding. The customs in first century Palestine are a little different than ours, so if I reframe this parable in more modern terms, it might go like this:

They were sorority sisters at the University of Georgia. All eleven of them in the same class. They were best friends through thick and thin, boyfriends and breakups. When one of them finally got engaged to be married there was no doubt that they would all be bridesmaids.

So they bought dresses, they found somewhat comfortable shoes, and they threw her a bridal shower. Everything went fine at the rehearsal the night before, they came to the church early for makeup and hair, and the photographer took their pictures. They had never been so excited.

The prelude began, the mothers and grandmothers were seated, the wedding director gave them each a cue in turn and they processed into the church as the organist played Pachelbel’s Cannon in D. The door to the narthex closed, they turned as one in expectation just as they had rehearsed. They had planned something special for this moment, and somehow the pastor had agreed to it. When they heard the first note of “Here Comes the Bride” each bridesmaid lit and held up a single sparkler. The website where they had ordered them said the sparklers would burn for four minutes – plenty of time for the Bride to make her way down the aisle.

The organist played but the door remained shut. One minute, two minutes, three minutes, and four. The song continued, the door remained shut, and one by one all the sparklers went out. They looked at each other, not sure what to do. The organist stopped playing. Murmuring filled the sanctuary. Then they heard a call, “Just a brief delay, she’ll be here in a minute.”

Five of the bridesmaids pulled out a second sparkler they had stashed in their bouquets. The other five panicked for they had only brought the one. If all had gone according to plan the one would have been more than sufficient. So they asked their sisters to share their sparkers, but no. They had not brought more than just one extra for themselves. But there was an unopened pack in one of their bags in the dressing room. Surely the five without could run back and get some more before the bride arrived. And off they went.

The bride arrived. The organ played. Five sparklers created a magnificent display when the bride reached the groom at the foot of the steps. You should see the pictures!

When the other five returned, the doors to the sanctuary were locked. The organ no longer played. The preacher was already preaching. They banged on the door in hopes that someone would let them in. But they heard the bride call, “This is my day, the ceremony is carefully planned, and while we are best friends, I won’t let you disrupt it now. I’m sorry, but you missed it.”

Does that retelling help you to get a sense of the real issues here? All the bridesmaids are invited to the wedding. They all arrived in plenty of time. They brought with them what should have been sufficient. All were prepared for the expected, for what they had rehearsed. But there was a delay that threw off all their best laid plans.

So for me, the place where this parable really draws me in is not as a Boy Scout motto “Be Prepared” kind of lesson. I don’t think the Christian life is designed to be fearful of every situation with the expectation that something is going to go wrong and we need to be prepared. No, the puzzlement in this parable comes with the delay. How is the kingdom of heaven like a bridegroom who is unexpectedly delayed? How do we hold onto the promise of the wedding when our lamps start to go out?

Because I can tell you that while I am a pretty patient person, waiting longer than I anticipate being necessary, is not my favorite thing. And I would suspect I am not alone in that. Some years ago, executives at a Houston airport faced a troubling customer-relations issue. Passengers were lodging an inordinate number of complaints about the long waits at baggage claim. In response, the executives increased the number of baggage handlers working that shift. The plan worked: the average wait fell to eight minutes, well within industry benchmarks. But the complaints persisted.

Puzzled, the airport executives undertook a more careful, on-site analysis. They found that it took passengers a minute to walk from their arrival gates to baggage claim and seven more minutes to get their bags. Roughly 88 percent of their time, in other words, was spent standing around waiting for their bags.
So the airport decided on a new approach: instead of reducing wait times, it moved the arrival gates away from the main terminal and routed bags to the outermost carousel. Passengers now had to walk six times longer to get their bags. But complaints dropped to near zero because they did not have to stand around and wait for them.

Yes, we do not like waiting. My friends, I don’t know about you, but I am getting tired of waiting for the kingdom to come. Once again, the flags of this country were lowered to half-mast after a deadly mass shooting. Whether it is at a school, a nightclub, a concert, or a church, I lament this kind of violence in our culture. Even more I mourn the expectation that more violence or at least the threat of it is lifted up as the appropriate response. The kingdom has been delayed and our lamps are going out.

When even one person in the Christian community appeals to scripture as a justification for alleged sexual assault against teenage girls, the kingdom has been delayed and our lamps are going out.

When political rhetoric encourages division and the common good has disappeared, the kingdom has been delayed and our lamps are going out.

When cancer strikes another person of any age, the kingdom has been delayed and our lamps are going out.

When children go hungry in a week we call Thanksgiving and serve ourselves lavish meals, the kingdom has been delayed and our lamps are going out.

Didn’t Jesus promise his disciples that he was coming and coming soon? That was two thousand years ago. The kingdom has been delayed and our lamps are going out.

Yes, how do we hold onto the promise of the wedding when our lamps start to go out?

According to this parable, we focus our efforts not on preparing for every possible circumstance, but by bringing what is necessary. The bridesmaids didn’t need to pack a lunch or an extra dress or directions to alternative wedding locations. No, they needed just one thing, the necessary thing, they needed oil. When the delay and waiting leads to our lamps going out, we need one thing – we need more oil.

According to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew the oil of Christian life is not just to say that we believe. That is important, but insufficient. For to believe that Jesus is Lord and Savior is to start living today in the kingdom that he inaugurated even as we wait for it to come in fullness. I think we got a glimpse of the kingdom today in Alex’s baptism, didn’t we?

Yes, living in the kingdom means dedicating time to prayer, to nurturing a conversation between you and God, not just when you have a crisis or a particular request, but every day. Prayer is oil when your lamp is going out.

Living in the kingdom means studying God’s Word not just on Sunday morning as you read along while it is read in worship, but every day. Scripture is oil when your lamp is going out.

Living in the kingdom means committing to a Sunday School Class, Bible Study, or Small Group. Corporate Christian education is not just for children and teenagers. It is your responsibility as a disciple of Jesus Christ to gather with your brothers and sisters in Christ to pray and study every week. Bible Study is oil when your lamp is going out.

Living in the kingdom means using your gifts and talents to serve in this church and in our community. We still need children’s Sunday School teachers despite my pleas about that two months ago. We need chaperones for youth retreats and summer trips. We need help with set-up and clean-up of congregational luncheons. We need folks to prepare food to serve at the Fisher House tomorrow night, and the Masters Table once a month, and GAP Ministry once a quarter. The list goes on of places where you can serve. Serving the Lord is oil when your lamp is going out.

Living in the kingdom means getting to know new brothers and sisters in Christ. It is easy to just hang out with those we already know, those in our same age and stage, those who seem like us. But the church is diverse and we need each other. Yes, community is oil when your lamp is going out.

Living in the kingdom means not being satisfied with the world as it is. When violence reigns, work for peace. When falsehood is proclaimed, tell the truth. When divisions are encouraged, work for reconciliation. When children are hungry, give them something to eat. Justice flowing down like an everlasting stream is oil when your lamp is going out.

For parables like this one remind us that history is going somewhere. And someday, sooner or later we do not know when, but someday it will be too late even to believe. The delay will be over. The shout will go up and the bridegroom will come. And we will have the oil we need for our lamp or we will not.

But take heart, my friends, and remember that what we are watching and waiting for is a wedding; it’s the grandest party you’ve ever seen. With flowers and music and joy and laughter and peace! I bet there will be plenty of sparklers too. And the one who brings the party is, as Canadian theologian Robert Farrar Capon reminds us:

not someone coming to see whether her wedding-present china has been chipped. He is a funny Old Uncle with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: