Saturday, November 8, 2008

Expecting the Unexpected

New Hope Lutheran Church, Alvarado, MN
November 9, 2008
Matthew 25:1-13

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

You never know when Jesus will show up. That was, is, and always will be true….until God brings in the New Creation!

You never know when Jesus will show up. No one was looking for him or expecting him when he first showed up in Bethlehem’s stable. Most folks “miss” Jesus when he graciously comes to them in his Word and in his Supper. Jesus is always surprising us when he appears among us in the form of the lost, the last and the least.

And at the End of Days, when Jesus returns one last time, chances are just about everyone will be surprised.

Jesus comes in his own way, in his own place and in his own sweet time--and he usually catches us by surprise.

So how, then, might we want to live in the face of that fact?

This morning’s gospel reading offers at least one response. “The kingdom of heaven will be like this….” So begins this parable of the Ten Bridesmaids.

The future tense here is worth noticing. Many of Jesus’ parables are framed in the present tense: “The Kingdom of heaven is like…”

But here we’re dealing with what “will be.” Christians have taken this to be a parable about Jesus’ Final Coming among us, though I believe it imparts deep wisdom about every time Jesus comes to us in the near future, as well as in God’s final future.

The kingdom of heaven will be like this. It will be like a wedding celebration, in which ten bridesmaids were called upon to escort the bridegroom to meet his beloved bride.

Now, we don’t know everything we‘d like to know about wedding customs in 1st century Palestine. But we do know that they were big affairs involving all sorts of folks and lasting not just for a few hours but for days.

There was also a lack of specificity about just when these wedding celebrations began. They didn’t have anything like the “atomic clock” I keep by my bedside—a clock that actually syncs itself up continually with a satellite orbiting the earth!

No, far from it! People “told time” differently in the 1st century. You might receive a vaguely-worded invitation telling you the approximate day and hour of the wedding feast, but all of that was subject to change down the line. You would be summoned—you would receive a more updated invitation when the wedding was actually beginning.

This was true even for members of the wedding party. Ten young women, the bridegroom’s entourage, outfitted themselves to lead the festal procession from the bridegroom’s home to the bride’s home. Day or night, rain or shine, they would lead the wedding march—their lamps ablazing!

But the bridegroom was delayed, so the bridesmaids had to cool their heels, and the minutes dragged into hours, and pretty soon night was falling and every last one of the bridesmaids had drifted off to sleep.

At midnight they woke up with a start. The bridegroom had arrived. And not a moment too soon, either, because the lamps the ten virgins had been carrying were all burning low—their oil supplies nearly exhausted.

When five of the girls drew out reserve oil flasks to replenish their lamps, the other five girls asked if they might “borrow” some oil—they had forgotten to bring their own backup supplies.

But they were rebuffed by the wise, prepared bridesmaids: “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.”

That response sounds cruel at first, but keep in mind that the bridesmaids weren’t serving themselves. They were serving the bridegroom. Their job was to light his way to find his bride. Sharing the extra oil the five wise virgins had brought along meant that none of them would do what they had been called to do.

So you know how it ends. The five foolish maidens traipsed to the oil sellers, and by the time they arrived at the wedding hall, the doors were shut and the gates were barred. They were too late—and the bridegroom wasn’t in a “let bygones be bygones” mood. “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”

What shall we take away from this parable? Here’s Jesus’ own conclusion: Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

But is this story really about “staying awake?” All ten of the bridesmaids, after all, drifted off into slumberland. All ten of them—the wise and the foolish—fell asleep when the bridegroom was delayed.

What mattered wasn’t so much that they fell asleep, but what they did when they were awakened. And that depended on the preparations they had made before they fell asleep. The parable seems to be more about preparation than about “staying awake,” doesn’t it?

Preparation, or lack thereof, is what separated the wise from the foolish virgins here in the story. What did the wise virgins do to make them “wise?” They prepared for all sorts of possibilities. They made no assumptions about the morrow. They loaded themselves for bear, ready to meet whatever the future might hold. Rather than living for the moment, they anticipated all that might lay ahead—including, it would seem, the delay of the bridegroom.

The five foolish maidens had a flash-in-the-pan faith. They assumed the bridegroom was already on his way. Extra oil would only slow them down!

I think the question the parable poses to you and me is this: is ours a flash-in-the-pan faith, or a faith for the long haul—a faith that keeps us on the edges of our seats, every moment of every day?

Jesus will come again, of that we can be sure. Jesus will come again, every time the bread and wine of the Supper is served up, surrounded by Jesus’ own promise that he is there for us—there in the meal, there in the Word that makes the meal.

Jesus will come again, every time our neighbor in need turns to us, seeking our assistance. We’ll hear more about this two weeks from today, on Christ the King Sunday. Jesus our King will tell us, in no uncertain terms, that when we cared for the “least of these” we cared for him. Jesus meets us in the lost, the last and the least.

And Jesus will come again, one Final time, when God finishes his New Creation. This old creation, this dying age, will give way to God’s final future. The saving work God in Christ began at the cross will reach its goal, its destination, in a New Heaven and a New Earth.

The question this morning’s parable poses to you and me is this: how will we meet our Lord Jesus whenever he comes to us? How will we, how do we prepare for Jesus to show up in all the ways he shows up?

And that is the question, not of our salvation, which is sure in Jesus Christ. It is the question of our discipleship, our faithful following of the one who has fully saved us, in the here and now and in the future yet to unfold.

What does it look like to be prepared for Jesus’ coming amongst us? Maybe it looks like this.

It means practicing “sitting on the edges of our seats.” Jesus is arisen, nevermore to die again. God is alive and well and active among us. Being prepared means living in expectation that God has things in store for us right here in Alvarado, Minnesota. Your congregation, even at age 25, is still quite young in Christ. God has lots in store for you—God invites you to approach his future with hope and expectation and imagination.

Being prepared for Christ’s coming means faith-fully pondering everyone and everything that comes our way. It means persistently asking faith-filled questions, like: “What might God be trying to tell me right now? How might Jesus be meeting me in my neighbor”

Being prepared for Christ’s coming among us means tossing out most of our assumptions and living purely by faith. God alone knows when Jesus will show up next. It might be sooner, or it might be later. “Reserve oil,” for you and for me, involves patience with God’s timetable.

What does it look like to be prepared for Jesus’ coming amongst us?
It means expecting the unexpected. I know that sounds goofy—if you expect the unexpected, is it still “unexpected?” But maybe this is a truth we have to feel, more than we need to think about. Feel deep in your bones this profound truth about how Jesus comes to us: Jesus comes to us in his sovereign freedom, in moments when we least expect him, in utterly gracious encounters that always, always make us new!

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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