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Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost, November 9, 2014

I don’t like winter. I don’t like the snow. I don’t like the cold, and I especially don’t like the power outages. So I prepare as much as I can to face the possibility of bad weather. I have ice bags and frozen water bottles in my freezer so I can put food in a cooler if necessary. I have two old Fairfax County recycle bins on my back porch to store food in the cold weather and bricks to put on top so the raccoons will not be able to get in. The derechco a couple of years ago scared me even more than the winter. There was no cold place to store my food for the several days the power was out. Fortunately there was electricity at the church, and I put my food here. I also learned I had to prepare in another way – keeping my gas tank full because many stations were closed. I can now approach waiting for winter with more peace of mind.

People wait and prepare for all kinds of things – the birth of a baby, results of a medical test, a vacation, a presentation at work, news about college applications, the waiting for the slow death of a relative from Alzheimer’s. All of us are waiting and preparing for something whether it be near or far off.

Jesus is preparing for his hardest hours – his arrest, trial and crucifixion. He is in Jerusalem between Palm Sunday and Good Friday giving final instructions to his disciples. Jesus wants them to prepare for the Day of the Lord, when Christ will come again in glory to usher in the kingdom of God. He wants to give them a promise to hold onto in the dark days ahead. Jesus talks about the coming of the Lord being preceded by really scary things – false messiahs, wars, persecution, sacrilege, natural disasters. He tells the disciples to learn a lesson from the fig tree – you can tell it is going to bloom by watching for the green shoots. But Jesus also tells the disciples that no one knows when that will be except the Father, so it is their job to be watchful, to stay alert. Then he offers some parables about watchfulness. He talks about people doing their ordinary tasks, not being watchful, and one will be taken and one left behind. He talks about the faithful slave who works well for his master who is delayed in coming and the unfaithful slave who takes the delay as a chance to treat the other slaves cruelly. When the master returns, that slave is judged harshly. He will be cut into pieces and end up where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The wise and foolish bridesmaids is another story Jesus tells about being prepared. There is no difference between the wise and the foolish in their wanting to participate in the bridegroom’s feast. All the women are dressed for the celebration, they all have oil in their lamps because they expect the bridegroom to be late and they all fall asleep while waiting for him to come. But when they are told that the bridegroom is coming, it comes out that the foolish bridesmaids do not have enough oil in their lamps to help lead the procession of the wedding party from the bride’s house to the groom’s house. The wise maidens refuse to help them because they only have enough extra for themselves and tell them to buy oil. When they return, the procession has already reached its destination and the door is closed. There is judgment here too. Even though the bridesmaids are well known to the families, the groom refuses to acknowledge them and they are left outside. They were unprepared because they did not have enough oil. They were unprepared because they expected the bridegroom to come on their own schedule.

Jesus tells different stories, but the one thing he is certain about is that the kingdom of God is coming and that nobody knows when it will come. Our job is to stay awake, to be prepared and ready to welcome the Lord when he comes.

We are still waiting for the bridegroom to come after two millennia. The people of Matthew’s time were impatient enough, and some despaired of Jesus’ return since they had been told he would come back quickly. In the 21st century, in a scientific world, exactly what are we waiting for? Are we waiting for God’s kingdom to come at all or do we despair at the awful conditions in the world and wonder why God seems absent. Do we buy into the symbolism that Jesus and Amos and Revelation use about catastrophic events coming before the end, when many of those events are occurring daily? Do we think the kingdom of God shimmers in various places here and now and that’s all we’re going to get. After all this time, do we think the kingdom of God will come in our lifetime? And what about the judgment that is foretold. What do we think of that? It seems unduly harsh to us as we listen to it. What are we really waiting for?

Jesus has promised that the kingdom of God is coming, though how it will come and when it will come are mysteries known only to God. Those who are prepared get in, and those who are not are excluded. So we are waiting. We are waiting for a coming. We are waiting for Jesus to return in glory with the sound of trumpets to catch us all up who are in Christ and bring us to dwell with him. We are waiting for a coming of righteous deeds, where the poor are not oppressed, the needy not ignored and the sick and dying are given hope for the future.

We are waiting for completion. The promise of the coming kingdom signals a completion of God’s work, begun after the fall and continuing today to reconcile the world to God. It signals that God has put God’s mark on the world in Jesus, and that Jesus will return to lead us to the Father. It is the sign that the kingdom has fully come on earth as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer.

We are waiting for judgment. There is no doubt from what Jesus said that there will be a judgment – the faithful and unfaithful slaves, the wise and foolish bridesmaids, the sheep and the goats, all insist that some will be taken in and others will be left out. We may have come to believe something different over the years – perhaps that God will give everyone a chance for forgiveness and entrance into the kingdom – but there is still judgment.

We are waiting for a celebration. The wedding feast was the most celebratory event in Jesus’ time. When the kingdom comes, it will be a celebration of hope fulfilled, dreams come true and new life. It will be a time of joy for everyone who eats at the Lord’s banquet table.

If we are honest, we have to admit that preparing for the kingdom of God is not uppermost in our minds every minute of every day. There is so much immediate preparation that we must do for our life activities. But if we want to get in, Jesus says, we must be prepared. We must have enough oil in our lamps that we can let our light shine before people so they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven (Thomas D. Stegman, SJ). The kingdom is an uncertain but secure future (Lindsay P. Armstrong). We are promised it someday and encouraged to act on its behalf. Though we do not know when, we wait with hope and expectation. And we wait actively. We get ready to meet the Lord when he comes again. We do the Lord’s work, letting justice flow down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. We keep loving God and our neighbor, growing in faith and hope as we do each act of righteousness.

Sometimes, we forget that Jesus is coming and we all are subject to the unpreparedness of the foolish bridesmaids or the wicked slave or the goats. But the wonderful thing is that God is not only coming, God is present in our waiting (Karoline Lewis), helping us to keep on doing that which we need to do to stay prepared and excited about God’s kingdom coming, even though it has been and will likely be a long wait. So keep your oil flasks full with good works, wait patiently for the bridegroom and join in the eternal celebration that is the heavenly banquet prepared for us.

AMEN

     - Rev. Ann Barker

 

Works cited:

  • Thomas D. Stegman, SJ, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, Exegetical Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 285
  • Lindsay P. Armstrong, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, Homilectical Perspective
  • (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 287
  • Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, “How to Wait”, blog post, Sunday, Nov. 2, 2014