Before I read the gospel lesson I want to share with you a story from the Palestinian countryside. Dr. J. Alexander Findlay writes, “When we were approaching the gates of a Galilean town, I caught sight of almost a dozen maidens gaily clad and playing some kind of musical instruments, as they danced along the side of the road in front of our car. When I asked our guide what they were doing he said 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 a fortnight’s time; nobody ever knows for certain.’ Then he went on to explain that one of the great things to do 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 into the street at any time to meet him, whenever the bridegroom chooses to come….” This story offers a slice of modern day life from a village in Palestine and reminds us of bridal traditions enduring through the centuries. Let us turn our attention to Matthew’s gospel and the story Jesus tells, listen now for God’s word to you. Matthew 25:1-13
I just went to the wedding of a dear friend’s daughter. Fortunately, we did not need to wait around for days and stay awake all night to wait for the bridegroom. Think of what the pictures would look like. But celebrating with Jessica and Ethan was so much fun, because we could see the love and hope in their eyes. The promise of their new life together!!! The faith and love and hope they shared was incredible. We no longer wait around for the bridegroom, but that practice still happens in Palestine. So, whether the wedding took place during Jesus’ time or in the twenty-first century, the message is the same; be ready, prepared and patient for you do not know when the groom will arrive.
In the parable, Jesus is telling this story with a different intent. In this parable, Jesus is of course the bridegroom; he is the one the early church awaits. He takes the familiar and warm time of nuptials and transforms it into a message for the early church. You see the early Christians were expecting Jesus’ imminent second coming, but their hope is waning. For up until this time they have had a very urgent sense of Christ’s return; believing it was just around the corner. But the people in Matthew’s community notice that the eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus are dying and still the return for which they wait is not occurring. They were losing hope. The church is faced with the challenge of re-interpreting its own expectations in the middle of adverse conditions.
I think we are doing the same. How do we have hope in the midst of our current situation? How do we find hope when our world feels so uncertain? How do we hope when 25 people and an unborn child are gunned down in a church, a church, in Texas? In addition to all of these shootings it feels like we are at an end of an era. For 70 years it feels like we have been moving closer together. Not in a straight line, but with the ups and downs of change. The formation of NATO after the WWII, the end of the Cold War in the 80’s, the International Space Station, the unification of Europe with the EU, the creation of NAFTA. Of course, hot spots remain, and ideologies still linger, but as I said to Parker the other day, it felt like we were moving closer to the idea of a Star Trek Federation. That one day we could build alliances that empowered all the peoples of earth. Now we look around at it feels like divisions are everywhere. Brexit, Spain, our own democracy under attack. Intensified nuclear threat, closing our borders, violent race relations.
On a personal level, we might be feeling hopeless- feeling like how am I going to get through this illness; with the many treatments and doctor visits, and just not feeling up to par. How am I ever going to have enough strength to care for my loved one, especially as he needs so much more attention right now? How in the world will I live without my beloved spouse, particularly with the holidays approaching? Or maybe life just simply feels overwhelming, you cannot even pinpoint a cause. A dark cloud can hang over head, blocking out the light, dampening spirits, leaving you with little hope.
No matter what the circumstance of hopelessness, there is always hope, we just might need help in finding it. Our hope is found in Jesus Christ. Now in the past that hope during gospel time was found in waiting for Christ’s immediate return. Today we might say, “When, if ever, will he come?” Yet Scripture declares that Christ will come again and our passage today affirms that truth. In the present, hope is for us, because we live in the reality of Christ’s promise. We get to be ready for Christ’ return, because when that time comes we will not have time to go prepare. Like the bridesmaids who went to go and get more oil, by the time we get to the wedding we might be turned away. And in the future hope is really about keeping the faith- for we do not know when Christ will come, but we have faith in his coming.
At times when we are in the dark places we need to reaffirm our faith, claim once again the promises of God and that is exactly what the Israelites were doing. They had wandered in the desert for 40 years, they had tested God and even watched their beloved leader Moses die. But now they are in the Promised Land, they have arrived, and God’s promises have come true. But they needed to recommit, they needed to reaffirm their devotion to God, they needed to verify their faith. They find their hope when they say, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” They turn away from the darkness of their world, they repent from the other gods and now they cling to their faith in the one true God. Then something amazing happens- they become witnesses to their own faith, to their new covenant, to their new hope. They declare they are witnesses, and at times that is exactly what we need to be for each other. We bear witness to the promises of God and we stand together in our faith. We verify what God has done and is doing and we verify our trust and faith in God. For when we are in our darkness, it is the comfort of a friend, the prayers of a fellow church member, the visit of a loved one that manifests God’s love, that proclaim Christ’s hope, that declares our faith. Standing with a friend in uncertainty we stand strong in our faith.
As we do, we will be ready for Christ, we will be living a life that says to the bridegroom, we are ready and we are coming to your wedding feast. The parable is really one about the coming of Christ, the time when Jesus will reclaim the world and transform our reality. Now some want to get all caught up in the end of times, in eschatology. But Christ’s second coming is not about the end, but about our beginning with our Risen Lord- our life in fullness of Christ. It is the completion of Christ’s work begun in Bethlehem and at Calvary. It is the vindication of God’s purposes as the Kingdom of God is ushered in. Now whether we meet Christ at his second coming or we meet Christ at the end of our life on earth either way we are to be prepared. For one should not wait until the last minute of their lives to recognize the Lord and be saved, but rather to enjoy now the promises of God. For our lives, our character, our personhood, our service is not a last-minute acquisition, but rather it is developed over time and through discipleship. The prospect of Jesus’ return, of meeting him face to face, is the basis for our hope, is the foundation of our faith and the joy in our hearts.
Theologian and preacher Tom Long, who was a Professor at Princeton and gave my baccalaureate address, writes of this parable, “The wise ones in the church are those who hold on to the faith deep into the night; who, even though they see no bridegroom coming, still serve and hope and pray and wait for the promised victory of God. Many will finally despair and turn away in disappointment, saying, ‘the bridegroom has left us standing at the altar, the banquet is off, there is no kingdom, life is just one cursed thing after another with not goal or end.’ But then in the middle of history’s long night, when the world least expects it, a cry will go up, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Here, at last, the long-expected Jesus. Come out to meet him.’”
Jesus is coming, we do not know when but we know it is true. No matter what the cloud, no matter what the problem, in this promise we are finding our hope and keeping the faith. Amen.