A sermon preached for Preston High Street Uniting Church on 4/11/20 for Proper 27 (32), Twenty-Third Week after Pentecost, Year A
This is an anxious age. We were already an anxious people, but the state of the world is making it worse. Just as one thing recedes, another arrives into our frayed awareness. Just as the Coronavirus pandemic is beginning to seem as though it might be under control in Melbourne, Europe seems to be headed back into lockdowns. And, of course, tonight the counting is underway in the United States in the culmination of a hard-fought, divisive election which both sides claim to be the most important in a generation.
We look at disbelief at the world which God created and for which Jesus died, and we ask ourselves: How do we live? What are we to do? It’s as though we are up to our waists in the sea, shockingly cold waves breaking over our heads. How do we keep our feet in the surf of this stormy world?
Which brings us to the reading tonight. What on earth was going on in this wedding that the bridesmaids were hanging around until the middle of the night? Were there really twenty-four hour oil dealers in ancient Palestine? And, most importantly of all: what does it have to do with our world here and now?
Matthew seems to have been writing in a situation with a lot of problems. Just like ours. The emerging Christian community is being expelled from the synagogues. Jerusalem has been sacked and the great temple razed to the ground, exactly as Jesus said it would be. And Jesus had not returned.
Let’s take up this last point: we don’t really know what people in the early Christian movement thought about Jesus’ return– though it seems likely that they began by expecting it soon, and the delay raised questions for the community. That seems to be the background assumption of tonight’s passage.
A lot has changed since then. But we still live in the in-between times, in the tension of the “now” and the “not-yet.” This seems particularly obvious in times like this. COVID19 still a reality, even though we’re freer than we were a week ago, it is still lurking like a lion outside the camp. The hard fought elections in the United States which make us wonder whether the economic and political settlement which has brought us peace, security, and prosperity for generations is breaking down. And, of course, we still can’t open our churches to gather in a normal sort of way.
Sometimes life feels like it’s sort of chugging along: other times it’s distracting in its intensity. And today is one of those intense, distracting days, where the itch of what we long for is definitely not being met by the scratch of what actually is.
That must have been what it was like for the church of Matthew’s age. Terrifying, epoch defining things had happened – the great uprising in Israel, with thousands dead, and the complete destruction of the temple, the very house of God. Surely with these cataclysmic events on all sides, the end was nigh?
We too feel as though the Lord’s return is very much delayed. We too can feel as though the world is rocking on its axis, as though we can hear the faint sound of trumpets, as a friend said to me today.
I just need to make a brief diversion here to talk about those people who seem very, very confident that they know when Jesus is returning. There have been many such throughout history, and it seems like the unsettled times we are currently living through has brought them to prominence. Two things to remember. Number one: Jesus literally says “‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” So trying to predict it is automatically off limits for Christians.
And number two: this story is one of a number which tell us that Jesus will come at an hour we do not expect, and thus what we ought to be doing while we wait. And I don’t think I’m spoiling the ending by pointing out that it does not include anxiously trying to figure out the time of his coming: After all, the bridesmaids fall asleep while they waited, which suggests a fair degree of confidence in the outcome.
Let’s have a bit of a look at the text.
The story seems to be an analogy – Jesus is the bridegroom, the bridesmaids are believers, and the long wait as night draws on is this in-between time in which we live; the time between Jesus’ ascension and return.
There are a couple of odd things in the story. For instance: where is the bride? It’s not much of a wedding if only the bridegroom shows up. And why do the well prepared bridesmaids suggest to their badly prepared friends to go to the oil dealer to buy more oil? Generally in analogies everything stands for something, but no-one seems to have any idea about the oil dealers and what they might represent. It seems to break the analogy a bit, so why include it?
A more troubling question is why the well prepared bridesmaids didn’t share their oil. Surely that goes against one of Jesus’ key teachings? For instance, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, what Jesus thinks of his disciples is precisely whether they have shared what they have with the poor. In the context of this analogy, the ethics of the young women are, strictly speaking, irrelevant.
Which is, of course, why we have a whole Bible, not just this analogy, which wants to make a specific point.
Finally, the wedding banquet. It might seem a little arbitrary, but it was commonly used image in the Bible for God’s union with his people. For instance, here it is in Isaiah where the bride is Israel.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.
And here it is in Revelation, where the bride is the church.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
It’s an image of celebration and of covenant. The point of marriage is of two people joining their lives together. In the Scriptural image, God is the bridegroom, and the bride is the people God has chosen. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it’s Israel. In the Christian Scriptures, it’s the renewed Israel, the church.
We need to think of it in terms of one of those huge Bollywood weddings, with thousands of people, going on for days, and involving amazing song and dance numbers, and indeed elephants. It is a very big deal indeed.
That is the appropriate image for the final consummation of all things. The return of Jesus, is going to be like a huge party, a celebration of the union between Jesus and his beloved.
Which is to say: us.
But what is the oil? Why couldn’t the well prepared bridesmaids share their oil with their less prepared friends?
There are a lot of things community can do for us, many ways in which it can hold us. But, just as we say that God has no grand-children, the Kingdom is like a potluck supper: you have to bring something to share. We spend quite a bit of time talking about the communal aspect of salvation: This reading suggests that there is something central about discipleship which you have to do for yourself. The question in this passage is something like: how do we persevere in the life of discipleship?
Each of us individually needs to make our own choice to participate in God’s redemptive work in the world. We have to do what we need to keep our lamps full. I don’t have earth shaking suggestions about how to do it: prayer and scripture reading and the sacraments and participation in the beloved community, and all those other traditional things.
This, it seems to me, is the key to keeping our feet in unsettling times. We need to be like the wise people who built their houses on the rock. We need to be like the wise bridesmaids who laid in enough oil. We have to root and ground ourselves in God, and in the transformative work of his love for us, and for the world. To not let the too and fro of contemporary life sweep us of our feet and dunk us, the whole weight of history in a single wave. We need to dig into our faith, and to remember, remember with the very core of ourselves, that God is both faithful and sovereign. We need to learn to find our own small stories in God’s big story – the biggest story of them all, that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’
We aren’t in charge. We are the bridesmaids, not the bridegroom. Our job is to keep our feet. To wait in readiness, relying on God’s promises, safe in the knowledge that we have been personally invited to the wedding feast of Jesus, and that he will welcome us in to the great celebration.
 Or whoever wrote the gospel which bears his name.
 Eugene Boring The New Interpreters Bible: Vol XII(Abdingdon Press Nashville, 1994), p.450.
 Matthew 25:31-46
 i.e. God