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Holy God, by the power of your Spirit, illuminate your Word to us this day,
so that we may hear again the promise of your coming kingdom
and ready ourselves to meet you face-to-face, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Before reading today’s parable, we should note its context in the gospel of Matthew.
Jesus is in Jerusalem during the last days before his arrest and crucifixion.
Tension has been mounting, conflict with the powerful rulers has been increasing.
Jesus has been speaking about the end times, about his second coming
and the judgment of the whole world.
This parable about the bridesmaids and their lamps is the fourth of six parables,
primarily about how no one knows the day or the hour when the Son of Man will come.
This section of Matthew was particularly important to early Christians
who had thought that Jesus would return within their lifetimes.
Since the second coming had not occurred before some of them died, as they had supposed,
they had to learn to live with more uncertainty about the future.
Each parable about the kingdom of God is like one puzzle piece.
This particular puzzle piece does not say everything about God’s kingdom.
We cannot extrapolate from this one parable a systematic theology
about who is included or excluded in God’s kingdom, or about the Christian ethic of preparedness.
Instead, we can perhaps grasp one nugget of truth about God’s coming kingdom,
which is that we do not and cannot know the timing.
In the ancient Near East a wedding engagement or betrothal happened early in life,
often before the young man or woman ever even met each other.
There would often be a formal betrothal ceremony, then, perhaps a year or more later,
the actual wedding would occur.
Everyone in the bride’s village would know the approximate day of the wedding
and would greatly anticipate the celebration, which would last for days.
Often, however, the bridegroom would be traveling from some distance,
so the local village would not know the exact hour of his arrival.
Can you imagine running a large wedding today without email or texting?
With no constant updates on location and arrival time?
Can you remember those days when you could not find out when someone was arriving?
In the ancient near East, wedding parties would sit and wait with excited anticipation
for the bridegroom and his party to arrive.
A grand wedding feast often became a public occasion for the whole neighborhood.
All who showed up prepared might find a seat at a table, and something to eat or drink.
In today’s parable, the bridegroom represents Jesus as the Promised Messiah,
the Savior who would deliver his people, the hearts one true love, who was and is to come.
Ten young maidens from the village wait all day for his arrival.
They have planned a torchlight processional for when the bridegroom arrives
and thus plan to enter into the festivities and find a place at the feast.
Hear the Word of God from Matthew 25:1-13.
“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.”
Her name was Mary Moynihan.
She was a widow and a retired educator who served on an adult education committee of her church.
The sacrament of holy communion was very important and personal to Mary.
Her love for the sacrament had begun at a young age, at a youth retreat,
when the youth pastor had served the bread and cup in a place and in a manner
that opened up a whole new understanding for her.
Mary kept track of the communion Sundays and would prepare herself to receive the elements.
Every time she was served communion, she was ready,
and most every time the cup was lifted and the grace and peace of Jesus Christ was proclaimed,
Mary shed tears of joy and gratitude. She shed tears of remembrance and of hopefulness.
At first glance, this parable about the bridesmaids could seem harsh.
The wise maidens are smug; they do not share their oil with their unprepared friends.
There is no mutual care or concern. But this parable is not really about Christian sharing.
At first glance, this parable may seem disturbing.
The kingdom of God is like a grand wedding feast when half of the young maidens
who wanted to provide a torch-light processional are locked out of the feast
because they missed the bridegroom’s arrival when they had run out of oil?
But, at heart, this parable is not about the ultimate inclusion or exclusion of the unprepared bridesmaids.
Yes, the young ladies may have missed out on the feast this time,
but who’s to say that there wouldn’t be another wedding feast in the village within a few months?
At heart, this parable is a simple illustration to drive home the point
that no one knows the day nor the hour when the Lord our God will arrive.
No one knows when the kingdom of heaven will break in unexpectedly,
when the Son of Man will show up to feast with us anew.
First century Christians thought that the crucified and risen Jesus would return within their lifetimes.
Jesus himself had said as much. When the second coming was delayed,
when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 a.d, and still he did not come,
they were confused. They began to raise questions and doubts.
Matthew’s gospel is addressed to those who had been waiting and looking
for quite some time for the bridegroom to arrive.
This parable reminded early Christians that we cannot predict the day or the hour.
No one really knows when the Son of Man will arrive, and thus, despite the unforeseen delay,
we should always be ready, always be prepared.
It is difficult to be ready and prepared for what is yet to come.
It is challenging to live with so much uncertainty about the future.
In our century, everything is changing so rapidly, and the pace of change is accelerating.
Even plans that were made 10 years ago now seem hopelessly outdated.
I heard the president of Georgia Tech speak a few years ago.
He stated that “we are preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist,
which will use technologies that have not yet been invented,
in order to solve problems that we have not yet identified.”
Just last week, there was a commitment from Great Britain to ban new gasoline cars by 2040.
Is the world prepared for such a change?
Is the electrical grid of our city or our country prepared for such a change?
In the USA, we have transitioned from waterways as the chief mode of transportation over distances
to the use of trains to interstate highways and now to airplanes.
What is the next as yet unexpected mode of moving people and goods over long distances?
Just this past week on NPR, I heard the story about the future transportation option of air tubes.
Some of you will remember actually going to the bank to make a deposit.
Do you remember using the drive-through bank teller,
sending a paper check in a tube with a deposit slip?
Now, they are testing such tubes for people that could travel up to 700 mph!
One day, my son in Seattle might hop into a tube instead of an airplane
and be jettisoned to Atlanta in three short hours. Can you imagine!?
All of which is to say – we too live in a time when the future is uncertain.
Those of you in the business world live with uncertainty, with not knowing what the future will hold.
Those of you in academia, or in health care, or nonprofits live daily with uncertainty.
Can we get comfortable living with ambiguity?
Can we find ways to live faithfully in times of massive change?
There is so much we do not know about the future.
One thing that I have been saying is that even in the midst of tremendous change,
over the centuries, a few things have held constant within the Church.
Just as we did in the first century, I believe we will still in the 31st century do these things –
worship, study the Bible, gather in fellowship, and serve in mission.
These things the Church has always done, and will do, through whatever methods or media,
for generations yet to come.
Not knowing the future is the primary message of the parable.
Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matthew 25:13)
Be ready for the second coming, which could happen at any moment.
Be prepared for your own death, for which none of us knows the day or the hour.
Look for the in-breaking of Gods spirit into our daily lives,
which could happen at any moment.
Be prepared, Jesus says, lest you miss opportunities for great joy and celebration.
Be prepared, lest you miss opportunities for significant service or meaningful mission in God’s name.
Do you member the rich young ruler?
The one who asked Jesus “what must I do to receive eternal life”?
This young man knew the Hebrew law. He had kept all the commandments since his youth.
But when Jesus invited him to sell all of his possessions and follow Jesus along the way,
the young man was not ready.
He was too attached to the things of this world to become attached to Jesus.
John Greenleaf Whittier once wrote:
“for all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: it might have been.”
As we gather at the table, we anticipate the renewing presence of the risen Jesus Christ.
When we eat together this table we are made new,
we are made more ready to live in this world with all its challenges and uncertainties.
We do not know and we cannot generate when the kingdom of heaven will break in,
when the holy Lord of hosts will show up and invite us to feast with him or to follow him along the way.
What we can do, like Mary Moynihan, is to be ready, be watchful,
to look and pray for and anticipate his coming presence among us.
We can expect that our Lord our God will eventually show up.
If we need to go to work, then let us go to work.
If we need to sleep, then let us sleep.
If it is time for recreation, then let us enjoy ourselves fully.
But may our hearts always be ready,
ready to meet our Savior, the Promised Messiah, our strong deliverer, our hearts true desire.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
August 6, 2017
Allysen Schaaf graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia with a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Christian Education. Prior to that she received a Bachelor of Arts in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Rev. Dr. Todd Speed has served Decatur Presbyterian Church since August, 2007 and has been an integral part of the Decatur community ever since. As a part of his personal calling and service, Dr. Speed regularly serves on local non-profit or education-related boards, has led or co-led over 20 mission trips in various cultural contexts, and has participated in learning seminars on five continents.
Rev. Alexandra Rodgers was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. She grew up in a large Presbyterian church where she and her family were very involved. Alex has a degree in interdisciplinary studies from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and a master of divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.
Join us for worship on Sunday mornings at 10:30 a.m.
Worship is the heartbeat of Decatur Presbyterian Church, the most important hour of the week. In worship, we offer praise, receive forgiveness, listen to God's Word, pray for the needs of the world, and offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God.
The mission of DPC is to share Jesus Christ's love for the world.
Founded in 1825, Decatur Presbyterian Church has contributed in numerous ways to the cultural development of Decatur over nearly two centuries, transforming Decatur from a tiny frontier settlement to building the foundations of the city we live in today.
205 Sycamore Street, Decatur, GA 30030