November 9, 2014
Once when I was playing a game of Trivial Pursuit, I received a question about a business in the United Kingdom called Q4U. The question was, “What service does this business provide?” I thought about it for a few minutes, and then the answer – remarkably – came to me. It’s a business where people stand in line. That’s what it is. People who are too busy or too impatient to stand in lines or queues for themselves can hire the good folks at Q4U to do it for them. I dislike standing in lines as much as anybody else, but maybe if I were being paid to do it, I wouldn’t mind so much. The idea that a company could prosper because they’re willing to wait in line for someone else is a reflection on a much larger issue. Waiting. I would guess that most of us don’t like waiting. I don’t like waiting in lines, whether standing or in my car. I don’t like waiting on hold. I don’t like waiting for my computer to boot up. I find it both funny and sad that we have technology literally at our fingertips that’s faster and more advanced than at any other time in history, but we still complain about having to wait. Waiting for the log-in screen to come up on my phone so I can take advantage of the free wifi and check the internet while I’m waiting in line at Starbucks seems like a lifetime. For many of us, waiting is not an easy thing to do.
While it may not seem obvious at first, I think that waiting is an underlying theme in our passage from Matthew’s gospel. One of the first things a commentator said about this passage in the weekly podcast I listen to was, “Well, I guess we can be glad there’s no wailing and gnashing of teeth.” As a preacher you know you’re in for a rough ride when even the credentialed, lettered, title-bearing theologians look at a passage of scripture and say, “Yikes! This is a hard text. I’m glad I’m not preaching this Sunday.” It is a hard text indeed. The gospel of Matthew is not a lighthearted gospel in general. But when it comes to judgment and the issue of who is really in and who is really out in God’s kingdom, Matthew is particularly hard-nosed. This parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids is no exception. Says Jesus, the kingdom of heaven will be like this. There are ten bridesmaids. Five of them are wise, and five of them are foolish. They all have lamps, and they are all waiting for the groom to arrive. But the five foolish ones don’t bring extra oil. The five wise ones do. This is the only real difference that’s pointed out about these bridesmaids. This is what separates them into the two groups, foolish and wise. All of the bridesmaids get sleepy. All of the bridesmaids actually fall asleep. But when the groom finally shows up, the wise ones are able to trim their lamps and meet the groom without their lamps, their lights, going dim. They brought extra oil. The five foolish ones didn’t, so they have to run to the oil dealers and get some more. When they return, the door to the wedding has been closed. When they cry out for admittance, the Lord replies, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” The final warning – “keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
It seems that the basic message we’re supposed to take from this is that we have to be prepared. We have to be ready and watchful for the day when the Lord does return. So make sure you have extra oil for your lamps and stay awake. If we were entering into the season of Advent or Lent, reading this particular passage from Matthew would make more sense. After all, those are seasons in the life of the church where preparation and readiness is emphasized. But this is just a Sunday in ordinary time. So why this passage today?
As I said earlier, I believe that the underlying message of this parable is waiting. Watchfulness, preparedness, being ready is essential. If the necessity of being prepared were all that we take away from our reading of it, that would be plenty. But New Testament scholar Karoline Lewis points out that there is one line in verse 5 that’s often overlooked; “As the bridegroom was delayed.” The bridegroom was delayed. They were waiting. Matthew’s gospel was written for a people who were waiting. None of the gospels were written at the exact moment of Jesus’ life. They were written after his life, his death, and his resurrection. They were written by people for people who were waiting. The first letter to the Thessalonians, which is where our New Testament lesson comes from today, is considered the earliest of all the epistles. Paul was also writing to a people who were waiting. Matthew’s gospel was written approximately 30 years after that letter. The people who believed in Jesus, who believed he was the Son of God, who believed in his resurrection, also believed that he would return to them soon; maybe not immediately, but soon. Yet here they were, generations after the resurrection and they were still waiting. You can’t really fault the bridesmaids for falling asleep. The bridegroom was delayed.
Here we are, some 2000 years after the resurrection and we’re still waiting. If you think about it, our faith is based on waiting. We are a waiting people living in the interim. We are living in the time between the times, waiting for the promises of God that were embodied in Jesus to come to final fruition. I’m not shy about saying that I’m not an apocalyptic preacher. I don’t focus on the end times. I disagree with the popular interpretation of the rapture, because I think that what passes for rapture theology is iffy theology at best. I often think that we get so caught up in looking for signs of the end times that we forget to be the people God calls us to be right now, here, in the present.
It seems to me that this parable challenges us to think about how we wait. It challenges us to consider how our daily lives connect with what we proclaim to believe. Waiting for the bridegroom isn’t a mindless state of being. Waiting for the bridegroom calls us to be intentional. It calls us to be thoughtful about what we do and how we live. Waiting isn’t passive. It’s active. No one knows when the bridegroom will finally arrive, so let’s assume that we are in it for the long haul. Let’s wait with intention.
What does this waiting with intention look like? In the parable, it’s about being ready. The prophet Amos chastises the people listening to him that they are more worried about correct ritual, then about caring for the least of God’s people. They worship in name only, but their hearts are not involved. It seems to me that waiting with intention is about trying to make our daily lives match up to the faith we profess. I’m not leveling criticism at one of us. It’s really easy to say that those two things should match; it’s another thing to actually do it. But that doesn’t exempt us from trying.
I also think that waiting with intention is about living with hope, even when all around us seems to be hopeless. Today we celebrated the baptism of two of God’s precious children. For all that baptism means, for all that it symbolizes, ultimately it is a profound statement of hope. We baptize these children into the body of Christ because we place our hope in God’s promises. We proclaim that God’s grace and love is real and works in our lives whether we know it or not. We live with hope that God’s love which found physical expression in his Son will triumph over all the suffering that we create for ourselves. To baptize is to wait with intention.
Some say that the good news of this passage is that even though it ends with judgment, in this interim time the door to the wedding banquet is still open. It is open to all who are ready. That is certainly true and it is most definitely good news. But perhaps the greater good news is that while we are called to wait, to understand that our commitment to follow Jesus, to discipleship in his name means that we are in it for the long haul, the promise of God’s grace means that God is also in it for the long haul. God promises that our waiting will not be in vain. So let us trust in God’s promise. Let us wait with intention and with hope. After all, God is in it for the long haul. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.