Sunday, November 9, 2014

Be Ready (a sermon for Nov. 9th on Matthew 25:1-13)

I’m not sure how many of you have seen the movie ‘Almost an Angel’ which stars Paul Hogan of ‘Crocodile Dundee’ fame. His character is a bank robber who gets knocked down by a car in the act of saving a little girl’s life. When he comes face to face with God in the afterlife, God says to him “You aren’t very religious, are you?” He replies, “I was planning to get very religious just before I died!” The problem, of course, is that he has died unexpectedly, without time to put his plan into effect. He was not ready.

The three parables in Matthew 25 all have to do with readiness. We might sum them up with three titles. The first parable, in verses 1-13, could be called ‘Be Ready’. The second, in verses 14-30, deals with using our gifts for the Kingdom, and we might entitle it ‘Be Faithful Stewards’. The third, in verses 31-46, is the well-known parable of the Sheep and the Goats, which we might call ‘Be a Neighbour to Those in Need’.

So today we want to look at this first parable: ‘Be Ready’. And we need to start by thinking about the wedding customs in the time of Jesus, because they were very different from our own. A wedding was a great occasion and the whole village turned out to accompany the couple to their new home. The procession would take the longest possible route so that the couple could receive the good wishes of as many people as possible. The newly married couple didn’t go away for a honeymoon; instead, they kept open house for a week, and invited all their relatives, friends and neighbours to join the celebration. There was feasting all week long – which, of course, is why the wine ran out when Jesus attended the wedding in Cana in John 2.

A man called Alexander Finlay witnessed a wedding in Palestine in the early years of the twentieth century. Here’s how he describes it:
‘When we were approaching the gates of a Galilean town I caught a sight of ten maidens gaily clad and playing some kind of musical instrument, as they danced along the road in front of our car; when I asked what they were doing, the guide told me that they were going to keep the bride company till her bridegroom arrived. I asked him if there was any chance of seeing the wedding, but he shook his head, saying in effect “It might be tonight, or tomorrow night, or in two weeks’ time; nobody ever knows for certain”. Then he went on to explain that one of the great things to do, if you could, at a middle class wedding in Palestine was to catch the bridal party napping. So the bridegroom comes unexpectedly, and sometimes in the middle of the night… so the bridal party has to be ready to go out onto the street at any time to meet him, whenever he chooses to come… Other important points are that no one is allowed on the streets after dark without a lighted lamp, and also that, when the bridegroom has once arrived, and the door has been shut, late-comers to the ceremony are not admitted’.
This gives us some real insight into what is going on here in Jesus’ story. The ten bridesmaids are waiting for the bridegroom to come, but his arrival is delayed. Five of them are prepared for that delay, but five are not.

It’s not difficult to read the main thrust of what Jesus is saying here. In the Gospels he often refers to the Kingdom of God as a wedding feast, with himself as the bridegroom. There will come a day, he teaches us – and no one knows when it will come – a day when he will come to take his bride, the Church, and carry her off to celebrate their wedding feast. As it says in Revelation 19:9 ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb’. And again in chapter 21:2: ‘And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’. The bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable are Christian people, or at least church members. Half of them are prepared for his coming, but half are not.

Why are they not ready? It’s not hard to understand this. A certain segment of the early church seems to have believed that what we often call ‘the second coming of Jesus’ would happen very quickly, within a few years of his Ascension. With this in mind the Church was very conscious of the decisiveness of the present moment; Christians lived every day with the thought that ‘It could be today!’ But as the years went by this hope began to fade, and some began to question it altogether. This is the situation Peter is confronting in his second letter when he writes:
‘In the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation”’ (2 Peter 3:3-4).
And if people felt that way in the time of Peter, how much more do we feel that way today after two thousand years of Church history!

But in fact the early Christians should not have been surprised at the delay, and neither should we. Jesus foretells it quite clearly in this parable. In verse 5 he says ‘the bridegroom was delayed’. But not everyone is prepared for the delay. Some Christians have signed on for the long haul and are prepared to be faithful over a long period of time. These folk are ready when the bridegroom arrives at midnight. Others, however, are caught unprepared.

There are three important lessons for us in this parable about readiness. Here they are.

First of all, there are some things you can’t see from the outside. On the outside these ten girls all looked alike. They were all waiting for the bridegroom; they all had lamps with them; they all got sleepy when his return was delayed. But there was one important difference between them, and that difference was decisive when the bridegroom returned: five had oil in their lamps, and five did not.

What might this mean for us? Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones was a Welsh Methodist preacher who for twenty-nine years was pastor of Westminster Chapel in London. Early in his life as a preacher, in the late 1930s, he came to Toronto for a summer to fill in at a great Baptist church for three months while the local pastor was away.

On Dr. Lloyd-Jones’ first Sunday at this church the local pastor was still there, and he led the service while Lloyd-Jones preached. In those days it was still common for people to go to church twice on Sundays, and so Dr. Lloyd-Jones announced that each Sunday he would be preaching two different sermons. In the morning, he said, he would be preaching to build up Christians in their faith, and in the evening he would be preaching evangelistic sermons aimed at helping those who had not yet found a personal faith in Christ to come to him and put their trust in him.

After the service the two pastors greeted the people as they left the church. A particularly well-dressed woman approached, and the pastor whispered into Lloyd-Jones’ ear “That lady is a pillar of this congregation; she’s been attending here for years, and a finer Christian you’re never likely to meet”. But he was in for a surprise. The woman shook Lloyd-Jones’ hand and said, “Did I understand you correctly, that you intend to preach in the mornings on the assumption that you are speaking to Christians, and in the evenings on the assumption that you are speaking to people who are not yet converted to Christ?” When Lloyd-Jones confirmed that this was his intention, she said “Well, having heard you this morning I will come again tonight”. She had never attended the evening service before; only the morning. She came every week, morning and evening, during Lloyd-Jones’ time in that church. She later admitted to him in private conversation that although outwardly she looked like a fine churchgoer, inwardly she was desperately hungry and had never discovered a personal relationship with God. Everyone assumed that since she had been coming to church for years she had oil in her lamp, but in fact she was empty inside, and willing to admit it to a pastor she came to trust.

So yes, it’s possible to sit in church week by week and wonder, “Why aren’t I getting it? Why doesn’t God seem real to me?” If you are in that situation this morning, don’t just accept it. It doesn’t have to be that way! Cry out to God to make himself known to you; press on to know and love Jesus. Don’t be satisfied with just having a beautiful lamp; make sure it has oil in it as well.

There are some things you can’t see from the outside. The second thing the parable teaches us is that there are some things you can’t borrow.

Years ago I used to work on the Red Earth Indian Reserve in northeastern Saskatchewan. I taught religion classes in the school there and so got to know the teachers quite well. One of the teachers, Freeman, was a nominal Anglican, although he never attended church and hadn’t done for years. There was a Pentecostal church in Nipawin that was quite interested in Red Earth; they had tent meetings there and would often take converts down to the river to do adult baptisms. One day Freeman was talking to me about this and he said, “What do we believe about that, Tim?” I knew what he meant, but I couldn’t escape the irony: here was a man who was asking me to tell him what his beliefs were, instead of thinking them through for himself!

In the Old Testament we read that the people of Israel were afraid to approach God for themselves. When Moses went up the mountain and they saw the thunder and lightning they said “This god is too scary; you talk to him for us, Moses!” And this has always been one of the characteristics of religion; I call it ‘the cult of the mediator’. I don’t want to do the demanding work that’s involved in developing my own relationship with God, so I ask someone else to do it on my behalf. But what this parable is telling me is that I can’t get into the kingdom on the strength of someone else’s relationship with God. I can’t borrow someone else’s oil; I have to have my own.

That’s the explanation for a troubling detail in this parable. Weren’t the five wise bridesmaids being uncharitable when they refused to lend oil to the five foolish ones? Why wouldn’t they share? But that’s the whole point Jesus is making. There are some things it is impossible to share with others. I can tell you about my faith in Jesus, but I can’t give my faith to you. You have to find it for yourself. I can’t give you my oil; you need to ask for oil of your own from the only person who can give it to you, Jesus himself.

There are some things you can’t tell from the outside; there are some things you can’t borrow from someone else. The last thing we learn from this parable is that there are some things you shouldn’t put off until the last minute. It’s said that when Queen Mary of Orange lay dying in the seventeenth century, her chaplain decided he ought to explain to her the way of salvation through Christ. So he started doing this, but she stopped him right away: “Do you really think I’ve left this important matter to this late hour?” she said. She hadn’t put it off until the last minute. She was ready.

The words ‘Too late’ are terrible words. The job is lost; it’s too late now to say that you’ll work harder. The divorce has come through; it’s too late now to make amends and try to heal the situation. The exam is tomorrow morning; it’s too late now to start studying for it!

I once heard Bruce Smith, the former director of Threshold Ministries, tell a story of a young man who said to him “I want to become a Christian after I turn thirty – but I want to live first!” Tragically, of course, some people never reach thirty. Some people die a lot younger than that – and very few of them plan to do so. That’s why the words of Psalm 95 are so important for us: ‘O that today you would listen to his voice! Do not harden your hearts…’ (Psalm 95:7b-8a).

The point of this whole parable is found in the last line, where Jesus says ‘Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour’ (v.13). The Creed says, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’. But we don’t know when that’s going to happen, and neither do we know the hour of our own death. How ought we to respond to this situation? The answer is obvious: to quote the words of an old hymn, we ought to ‘live each day as if it were our last’.

So let’s remember the three things this parable teaches us. Let’s not be satisfied with going through the outward motions of a religious life; let’s press on to a living relationship with God through Christ. Let’s not be satisfied with second-hand knowledge of God – ‘borrowed oil’, to use the illustration of this parable. It won’t do us any good in the end, so let’s press on to know God for ourselves. And let’s not put this matter off until it’s too late; let’s make it a priority now to trust in Christ, to live as his followers, and to walk in his company every day. Or, to sum it all up in the words of my title, let’s ‘Be Ready’ for the day when Christ appears.

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