Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (St. Martin's Sunday) - Matthew 25:1-13
Jesus is the Bridegroom for whom we wait. He is the one which we keep our focus on, looking for, knowing that when he gets here the party will start. We wait in anticipation for Jesus to return because we know we need him. We know that all the other Jesus’s we create have fallen short. All the other bridegrooms we betroth ourselves to, money, security, time, health, power, politics, they all fade. They all turn to dust. They can all be taken away or destroyed by someone stronger, faster, bigger, richer, more powerful. And so we wait. We wait because we have nothing left to lose. We wait because if we don’t, the end could be worse than the beginning.
I hate waiting. I’m the one who gets up in the restaurant to go use the restroom, even if I don’t have to, just hoping that the food will come. I’m the one who will get out of line at Disneyworld and have someone save my spot because I would rather wander around than just stand there. I’m the one who will get out of rush hour traffic, take surface streets and even a longer time getting home just so I can keep moving and not stare at the back of the same car for 45 minutes.
I don’t think I am alone in this. I think I speak for many of us. When we wait, we get tired. We get bored. We get inpatient. What is worse, we look around us and start seeing things happening while we wait that we know shouldn’t be.
Waiting for Jesus, we look for the coming of a Kingdom of peace. Of life. Of love. Of redemption and forgiveness. Of mercy masquerading as justice and righteousness. Flowing down upon us like a morning shower to refresh our souls. But with the waiting we see destruction. We see many falling asleep in Christ. Grandma. Dad. A child. We see concertgoers massacred by a sinner with an arsenal. We see a congregation martyred by a sinner with a gun. We perceive senseless violence and cry for judgement. For revenge. For justice, however we define that word. Waiting becoming unnerving. Causing us to turn our backs on the one we wait for. Telling others we need to #dosomething, bad mouthing the mere idea of prayer. Coming to the moment where the one we wait for just may not be worth it.
All this waiting, if we aren’t careful, brings on a feeling of pointlessness. Waiting for a Jesus who said 2000 years ago, “Behold, I am coming soon.” Who promised a return imminently, and yet we wait. Jesus becoming fruitless, hopeless. The waiting feeding our own depravity to look at other things. To find other things more important.
For the virgins, or maidens, of the parable, the concern for each is different. Both have been invited to the wedding. Both have their lamps. Some brought oil and others did not. This passage has been interpreted in many ways over the years:
1. Keep the light burning. Be on fire for God, keep your faith wick trimmed and ready, and keep yourself full of oil.
2. Don’t be found empty, or missing on the day of judgement. Be ready, with your light lit for the King.
3. Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven. Keep it full of good works. Keep on doing.
These all seem plausible. They could preach. We have the descriptions – wise and foolish; intelligent and moronic. The wise have come prepared. They have the lamps and the oil in order to escort the bridegroom to the bride’s family home where they will make their trek to the new home they will be starting together. That was the custom. Taking the bride from the old and moving her to the new. That in itself can preach. Christ the groom. We, the church, the bride. Christ coming to us to take us from the old and move to the new. The picture of salvation. Of redemption. Of new creation in Jesus. Resurrection.
But this custom gets interrupted by the virgins who are called morons. That is what the Greek actually means. The word used to describe the foolish is the word we get moron from. Maybe foolish is nicer but they do some moronic things. Bring lamps but no oil. Like a flashlight without batteries. All the virgins fall asleep, so that is not held against them, but then they assume they can use someone else’s oil. They think they should have time, at midnight, to find a store open for business who can sell them some oil. Then they come back only to find the party started. The door shut. The bridegroom not recognizing the former guests who see business and buying more important than waiting.
All a sad story but one important for us. Important for patience and perseverance. Patience in the waiting. Perseverance in staying the course and not leaving the race because we turn our eyes toward something else. Turning our eyes towards the oil. Making the oil the big thing. Having to have the oil and be part of the procession. Playing at our religiosity like the Israelites in Amos 5 who go through the motions, but the motions have no impact on their souls. Playing at world and life change then becoming depressed when one does not change enough, when a sinner keeps sinning instead of being redeemed. Playing at history not realizing that the total of the New Testament was written by men in the midst of persecution that was more than a disagreement or getting your feelings hurt. The ancient church looking for the coming of Christ, not because they wanted the sweet by-and-by, but because their very lives depended on it. Where persecution meant certain death, dismemberment, homelessness, banishment.
When we make it about the oil, the Bridegroom means nothing. The escorting of the bride means nothing. The patience and perseverance mean nothing. Losing the very core of the faith we profess. The power of the saving work of Christ brought through forgiveness.
We begin to trust in ourselves or others. To trust what we must do. Or trust what others should so we don’t have to. Wanting to borrow their oil, their faith, their religiousness. Expecting that we can do everything necessary to make things good for Christ’s return. Or looking to the goodness of others as our anchor instead of Christ himself. Are you a Christian because the Holy Spirit has called you through the Gospel, enlightened you with her gifts and sanctified you in the true faith? Or are you Christian because your mom or dad were? Do you rely on me as your pastor to believe for you, or do you see yourself each day dying a little more to yourself, put to death by the Word, being turned more and more towards this coming King who seeks his bride?
So much of the Christian faith gets marred by the assumption that we rely on others to trust on our behalf, or rely on whatever we might buy for ourselves. Never thinking that the waiting is what is the key. The fixing our eyes on the end of the road looking for the One who came for your sin the first time, and the second time will come for you. The One who brings justice and righteousness in himself. The One for whom the oil is pointless apart from the waiting virgins and the wedding party. The actual sinners in need of resurrection and life.
Otherwise, we think the waiting is about doing things ourselves rather than relying on the one who said, “It is finished.” Calling Christ a liar - No way in hell you’re coming back Jesus. You’re taking too long. Rather than trusting that he says he will come, and so he will. Turning ourselves over to all the stuff. The religious goods and services. The worship for worship sake, rather than the one for whom we worship. Turning to buying and selling our faith like oil in the market place, hoping it looks something like loving God and loving our neighbor. Deciding ourselves what is justice, what is Christian, what is a good work, who is worth it, rather than seeing in this Savior a justice that consists of mercy for the unjust and righteousness for the unrighteous.
The issue of waiting is not how much oil. How cool the lamp. What kind of oil. What kind of lamp. The issue of waiting is the looking for Christ. A “being-watchful” kind of waiting. Being prepared, not knowing the hour. Seeing the day of the Lord come to you as a trumpet sound to open the grave of your unbelief that you might gaze upon the face of the One who rose from that tomb for your sake, and is coming back for the same.
When we look at the oil, or the problem of the door being shut, our eyes begin to stare at the very things that are meant to distract us from the goodness of Christ. The Christ who has no need or care for oil, for parades, for well-dressed maidens, or pomp and circumstance. Looking at the adulteress woman he says, “Neither do I condemn you.” To the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven.” To the thief, “You will be with me in paradise.” To Peter, “Do you love me?”
Christ’s work and call is one to bring people back from the dead. From the deadness of unbelief, of narcissism, of covetousness, of unclean hearts, of sin and death itself. We wait in growing anticipation as we look to the world around us, not in hopes that we don’t have to do anything to change it anymore, because that is the work of the Gospel to make life where death reigns, but so that we might never have to try to change the world again. Because the Bridegroom is coming for the sinners who need forgiving. Not for the sake of the oil. Not for the lamps, but for you. Thanks be to God. Amen.