Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Matthew 25: 1-13)
I have this recurring dream – some might call it a nightmare, depending on how you look at it. The scenery and context change; but it is always Sunday morning, it is always right before worship, and I am going to be late. Now I’m at the church – I should say, a church – I’m just not in the sanctuary; and depending on the dream it’s different things that are keeping me from getting there. Sometimes it’s because people are stopping me in the hallway, one after the other, talking to me, needing something from me; and try as I might to press on I’m still held up. Other times it’s because I’ve lost something and cannot find it, despite my best efforts – my robe, my sermon. Kinda need those before I can go to worship.
All the while I’m supremely aware that the hour is nigh. I hear people gathering in the sanctuary. I hear the organ start playing. In one particular dream I hear someone leading the Call to Worship that I was supposed to lead, and then I hear the opening hymn. Meanwhile I’m still held up, still looking for my robe or my sermon. And I always wake up before I make it there.
Now I’m no Freud, but if you were to surmise that my subconscious does not want me to be late to worship on a Sunday morning, I would not argue that (my subconscious or conscious!) It’s notable, I think, that I’ve talked to more than a handful of pastors who’ve have this exact same dream. I think it speaks to something deep within all of us – we don’t like being late. We don’t like missing out. Most of all, we do not like being unprepared.
Preparations happen to be at the heart of our scripture reading today; this parable Jesus tells in the 24th chapter of Matthew. Jesus is on a parable kick of sorts here, three of them back-to-back; all of which have a common theme running through them – one might call it “watchfulness.” In fact, scholars have taken to calling these the “watchfulness parables.” Our passage today is the first of them; immediately followed by the parable of the servant who is left in charge (which we’ll dive into next week), which is then followed by the very familiar parable of the sheep and the goats.
Watchfulness. It’s understandable why Jesus would be lifting this up at this point in time. Like that dream of mine, he knows that the hour is nigh. He understands what lies ahead in his very near future; the forces of the world getting ready to descend and snuff him out. He knows what is coming. Just one chapter later we find him dining with his disciples, breaking bread and sharing the cup, a betrayer in his midst; quickly followed by a sham of a trial and his execution. The Jesus we find in Matthew’s 25th chapter knows his time is short, and the message he is intent on leaving with his closest friends before he goes is crystal clear: be watchful.
Now this parable that Jesus tells is not terribly familiar to us; it takes up residence in the shadows of the ones that follow. But it is very much a parable we should know.
The way Jesus tells it, there are ten bridesmaids who are waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom, anticipating the wedding that is to come. These bridesmaids bear lamps – torches, if you will – that will be used to light the bridegroom’s entrance into the house when he arrives. From all accounts these ten bridesmaids are alike in every way, save one: five of them have brought oil for their lamps and five have not.
The hour is late, and all ten bridesmaids wind up falling asleep. But eventually at midnight they are awakened with the news: the bridegroom is almost there! So the ten bridesmaids dutifully light their lamps. Not surprisingly, five lamps – the ones without oil – don’t stay lit for very long. In a panic, these five bridesmaids beg their counterparts to share some of their oil so they can keep their lamps burning. But their request is denied, as there’s not enough oil to go around. So the five run off to get oil for their lamps; and while they are gone the bridegroom arrives. The end result is that five of the bridesmaids, lamps fully lit, accompany the bridegroom to the celebration; while the other five return too late from their lamp-oil search and miss out on it all.
Throughout this parable we encounter the words “foolish” and “wise” to describe the bridesmaids, and it’s important to note what it is that makes them one or the other. It’s not that they fall asleep on the job – the way Jesus tells it, all ten bridesmaids do that. It’s not even that five of them ran off and missed the bridegroom’s arrival. It’s not about presence or attendance at the event itself.
No, the delineation between foolish and wise here has everything to do with who did and did not bring their own lamp oil. Who came prepared. These bridesmaids had one job – light your lamps when the bridegroom arrives. And five of them did not come prepared for that. Well, they came partially prepared, I guess: they brought their lamps. And that’s good, as one obviously cannot light a lamp if there’s not a lamp to be lit. But a lamp will do you little good if you cannot keep it lit. And a lamp that won’t stay lit for a bridegroom’s arrival does a bridesmaid little good. Five of these bridesmaids – the wise ones – were fully prepared. They brought their oil. The other five – the foolish ones – were not.
It’s a nice little story Jesus tells, but we know there’s more going on here, there always is. And so we cannot help but wonder what the purpose of this story might be beyond a word of caution for lamplighters. He is not speaking to the annual bridesmaids convention here. He is speaking to his disciples, the women and men he’s spent the better part of three years of his life with, days before his death. It is super obvious in this story that he wants them to be prepared. The question is – for what?
You know, there are all kinds of different preparations we encounter in our lives. There’s the kind of preparation that takes place when you’re getting ready to go on a trip. Last week, Lorie and I went to visit our oldest son in Boone for the weekend. In the days prior we had to make a series of preparations: packing our clothes, packing some food. In the Lindsley household, trip preparation always involves pet preparation: packing food for two dogs, packing their beds, setting up dog harnesses in the car, even making sure our neighbor across the street is good to feed the cat while we’re gone.
Sometimes we prepare for things we know are coming. But then there’s preparation for things we don’t know are coming, or don’t know when. I’m thinking of the person who has a tornado survival kit stored in a first floor closet, complete with bottled water, a flashlight and batteries, canned food, definitely a can opener. There’s no tornado in the forecast; and in fact waiting until the tornado is in the forecast would be waiting too late. There’s not even a guarantee that a tornado will ever come. But if it does, they will be prepared for it.
You and I, we can wrap our heads around preparations like these. We know what we’re preparing for. But how exactly does one prepare for something they do not yet know – or, more to the point, something they don’t know when? That’s what Jesus is getting at in his parable here; and because of that, the message to glean is less prescriptive and more symbolic. Which begs the question again: what are we preparing for?
Some time ago, I ran across an image in my Instagram feed; an ad, I think, for a non-denominational church nearby. The text at the top was a quote from our passage today, the closing line: Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour. The caption in the post itself read: “When Jesus comes back, you better not be napping!”
Sage advice, it seems. I’ve encountered this particular theological proclamation before, as I imagine you have. The part that created some disconnect for me, though, was the actual image itself. It was a drawing of the silhouette of a man standing, looking up to the heavens. Not doing anything else. Just looking up.
Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
And as I took in that post I thought to myself, is that what Jesus is calling his disciples to do in that perilous moment, when their whole world was about to be turned upside down? Is that what Jesus is calling you and me to do today? This idea, this suggestion that “waiting” means just standing there, looking up? Presumably, to see Christ break through the heavens and come down to earth. Just standing there, waiting. Is that the awakeness, the alertness that Jesus wants us to focus on?
Or – or, does Jesus want our focus to be somewhere else. Not what’s going on up there, but what is happening down here. The world we are living in. The things that are taking place right next to us. The people we see and hear, the brokenness we encounter, the needs that present themselves…
Keep awake – for you know neither the day nor the hour.
“Keep awake” does not imply that the disciples – and us – should avoid sleep, hold vigil through the ages, just stand there looking up. We’re reminded, in fact, that all of the bridesmaids, wise and foolish alike, fell asleep waiting for the bridegroom.
Jesus does not need our “looking up” – that does neither him nor us any good; he is going to come whenever he pleases, regardless of where we’re looking. In the meantime, though – in the meantime there is plenty that needs to be done here. Here is where our focus needs to be. Here is what we are preparing.
I wonder if you know the story behind the beautiful hymn we’re going to sing in a minute, the gospel spiritual, “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” It has its roots in the history of systemic racism and slavery in our country; sung by African Americans suffering under horrendously oppressive conditions with no redemption in sight. “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” is believed to have served both as an expression of spiritual encouragement as well as a way to communicate plans for escape at liberation.
And because of that, one thing that is noteworthy about this spiritual is that the lyrics are not about Christ’s return, as we might think it would be; but instead on what to do during the wait. Listen:
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, keep your lamps trimmed and burning
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, for the time is drawing nigh.
Sisters don’t grow weary, brothers don’t grow weary,
Children don’t grow weary, for the time is drawing nigh.
Children, don’t grow weary. It’s a call to stay awake, yes; but it is not a call to look up. Those suffering slavery did not have that luxury. Waiting is not about doing nothing. It is not a passive endeavor. It is deeply rooted in action. Our oil, if you will. The source of that flame that illuminates what is happening right here – down here – that informs us on what needs to be done.
You don’t need me to tell you that we are living in what feels like an in-between, Matthew-chapter-25 kind of time. The world is hurting, wars are waging, divisiveness and discord are seemingly everywhere we turn, and the promise of peace, wholeness, and even hope seem like far-off aspirations. Some might think the only thing we can do is just to look up.
But I’m pretty sure that is not the kind of waiting Jesus needs from us in this moment. I don’t think that is waiting well at all.
No, the “waiting well” that Jesus calls us to – when the world we’re living in is a mess, when we’re bombarded with more bad news than good, when apathy begins to settle in, when it is super tempting to just look away from it all and look up – the “waiting well” that Jesus calls us to is something entirely different. Because we’re not just waiting passively for Jesus to come and fix this mess. We might as well be sleeping.
Waiting well is an active waiting where Jesus comes into the world through us:
Jesus Christ comes when Christian people live in hope and never give up.
Jesus Christ comes when faithful disciples express love and compassion and work for justice.
Jesus Christ comes when broken people are embraced by their community and know they are ultimately safe in God’s love.
Jesus Christ comes when faithful women and men live in hope and give themselves to the work of the kingdom of God on earth.
Indeed, that might explain why the five wise bridesmaids did not share their oil with their foolish counterparts. It wasn’t because they were being stingy. You don’t keep your lamps lit, proverbially speaking, with oil. You keep them lit by the way you live your life, the way you embody the love of Jesus in your words and actions. The way you steadfastly keep your focus on what’s happening here. That is how we “wait well;” and that is not something you can loan out to someone else. They have to do it for themselves. We all do.
Beloved, as we live in this in-between space, we long for God’s love, hope, and peace to come. Perhaps our waiting involves embodying those very things we long for. If we want more love in the world, we need to be love. If we want more hope in the world, we need to be hope. If we want more peace in the world, we need to be peace.
Sisters don’t grow weary, brothers don’t grow weary,
Children don’t grow weary, for the time is drawing nigh.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.