Pentecost XXV, 6 November 2005
The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with the lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight the cry rang out: “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.” “No,” they replied,” there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.” But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. “Sir! Sir!” they said. “Open the door for us!” But he replied, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.” Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
LIVING AS THOUGH THE END WERE ALREADY HERE
Mystery tales can be told in either of two ways. One way is to leave the reader in suspense until the very end. Perhaps only on the last page does one learn the answer to the mystery thriller that has unfolded through many pages. The other way is to tell from the start who the culprit is, how the crime has unfolded in its end appearance, and let the reader in on all the suspects that will be culled through in order to determine the guilty party.
Either way requires the exercise of great skill on the part of the author in telling the story. If the narrator leads up to the resolution in the end, the writer must carefully craft a series of incidents that could easily mislead the reader into thinking that any one of several suspects is the guilty party, thus sustaining a surprise element to the very end of the story. The other way, however, requires the author to sustain a concentrated tension that keeps the reader on edge as the plot moves toward the resolution that has already been revealed. In either case it is up to the author to create an atmosphere within which the increasing tension of the story is given its shape and form as it moves toward its climactic ending.
THE END IS IN THE BEGINNING WHILE THE JOURNEY REMAINS UNCERTAIN
The biblical narrative is more like the second way of telling the story. It makes clear what the end will be long before the end appears. All must eventually return to the Creator who brought them into being. Try though the creation and those within it may struggle to make their own ending, that final ending of the Creator’s making is inescapable. The end is known from the beginning.
Yet the question always remains very real as to just how things will move toward that conclusion. Events leading up to the final end remain shrouded in mystery. Vague and obscure language foreshadows the way leading to that end, but it remains altogether unknown and unknowable through its human course of events even while it remains under the control and guidance of its Creator. Although the end is known, the story from beginning to end is being written daily with all the tension of not knowing how things are working toward the end we already know.
THE END IN TODAY’S GOSPEL
Today’s Gospel reading begins with the end in sight. The bridegroom is coming. It is because of the bridegroom that the virgins establish their watch. Their watch will not bring the bridegroom. He is coming whether they watch or not. They are present only because he is coming.
How do they know? Well, because he has told them he is coming. And they believe what he has told them. It is as simple as that. They did not just “sense something special in the air” and go out to see what might be happening. They are there because they have been invited to be present for the special moment of his arrival. They have instructions about what is expected of them. All depends on the bridegroom in this parable of Jesus . . . and the bridegroom is Jesus, himself.
THE TENSION ARISES IN THE WAITING, NOT IN THE END
Apparently the bridesmaids assume he will come in a given time period. It is said that “they went out to meet the bridegroom.” They thought the time frame was of their making. There is no suggestion that the bridegroom said when he would come other than the statement, “The bridegroom was a long time in coming.” Was he inadvertently delayed? Was he coming from a far distance and had misjudged his travel time? Did he simply delight in surprising people? We are not told. We know only two things: The bridesmaids thought they had the time of his coming figured out and he did not come on their timetable.
All they can do is to wait. Perhaps they, as we so often do, went out on the road, shading their eyes to see in the distance. Perhaps they went regularly to the window or even opened the door hoping to catch sight of him or even to discover him ready to enter. All this as though by their actions of looking and longing they could bring him there. But nothing worked. He simply did not come at their behest. He gave them no hint as to when he would appear.
In this sense their waiting is similar to Noah’s waiting, mentioned only a few verses before our text as another moment of waiting. The only signs that waiting had were the word that Noah spoke of a deluge to come and an ark in the making. Today’s First Lesson tells of Amos speaking about the Day of the Lord that would come upon waiting Israel bearing a surprise. They should, indeed, expect it because the Lord spoke of it to them through his prophet. When that day came, however, it would not be a day of deliverance as they expected. Quite to the contrary, it would be a day of judgment. The Thessalonians in the Second Lesson were also waiting, but the long delay in Jesus’ coming was wearing on their nerves. They had begun considering what the delay meant since they were already experiencing deaths in the congregation while everybody expectantly looked to the sky for Jesus’ return. Paul reassures them that the word of the Lord accomplishes its own purposes in its own time. Their deliberations would not affect God’s timetable.
Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. The maidens wait. And wonder. And grow weary. And go to sleep.
Is it not the way we all are? The church has heard of the bridegroom’s coming for twenty centuries and it has marked sign after sign after sign and listened to and believed promise after promise after promise. Still he has not come. Does not a wondering set in – a wondering about whether Jesus really means to come at all or if we are simply victims of a delusory hope? Do we not grow weary in the waiting and finally just drop off to sleep? Surely the Lord knows his people when he speaks in the way of this parable. But do his people know him? That is the question!
Now there is nothing wrong with sleeping, mind you. Nor is there anything wrong even in growing weary, for bodies do grow tired and need their rest. Sleeping was not the problem. Both the wise and the unwise virgins slept. For the wait had grown long and it was deep into the night . . . far past the time when reasonable people would have expected the bridegroom to arrive. Perhaps he has put off his coming until the morrow. “So let us sleep and be refreshed for when he comes,” they said to themselves. “Then he will find us prepared to give him a grand reception!”
Nor is there anything wrong with our waiting and sleeping and rising again today. Households must be sustained and businesses must be maintained and employment must continue. None of this in itself is a denial of the groom’s coming. He knows our needs and respects them. To know that the bridegroom is coming, that the end is a known factor, does not deny the need for writing the story between the promise and the coming. We contribute to the story in all our waking and our sleeping, in all our doing and our leisure, in all our words and in all our work. What happens in the waiting is part of the story -- and it will be a part of the end also!
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
But there are two different kinds of waiting that now become apparent – the one signified by those who had brought ample oil for their lamps in case of delay and the other signified by a lethargic or lackadaisical way of waiting in which little forethought for the unexpected delay was given.
Suddenly the announcing messenger comes in the middle of the night, crying, “The bridegroom is at hand! Prepare to meet him!” The bridesmaids awake, but dismay fills the unwise maidens.
The plea of the unprepared to those who were prepared for supplementing their meager supplies was refused lest all those waiting come up short as the bridegroom drew near. During their retreat to the nearest oil shop the bridegroom arrived, was greeted gladly by those with lamps full of oil, and entered the wedding banquet hall for the festivities, shutting the door tightly behind the wedding party. The appeal to re-open it briefly for those who had arrived late was briskly – even rudely, it seems to us – refused: “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.”
It is tempting to get all tangled up in the details of what seems to be strange twists in this story, and there are a number of them, to be sure. The hearers of Jesus’ day understood this story as authentically descriptive of weddings with which they were acquainted. To be distracted by them as questions of our day, however, is to miss the very obvious point that Jesus is making, and which he explicitly states: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” The meaning is really quite clear, is it not? It was for the people in Jesus’ day . . . and it has been for every generation since then. “Keep watch! The bridegroom may arrive at any moment! So have ample oil for your lamps to light the way for the bridegroom to enter the banquet hall!”
To the Jewish hearers of his day he is undoubtedly pointing to himself. “Do you recognize how near the bridegroom is right now? He is here in your midst! Do your lamps light the way of the one who stands in your midst? Are you ready to receive me as the one sent by the Father?”
He is asking us today, however, whether we are still awaiting his return, or have we grown weary of the wait and let our worldly doubts put us to sleep as though there is nobody to wait for any more. Having seen and believed in this one who died for our sins and the sins of the world, have we “had enough,” so to speak – and expect no more? “Don’t stop waiting,” he says. “Keep watch.”
WAITING AND WATCHING
How does one wait alertly? What does it mean to “keep watching,” in other words?
Perhaps we can take a cue from the parable, twisting its plot just a bit. Assume that the courtship of a young couple has culminated in a proposal leading to marriage. During this engagement period, there is a considerable measure of directed activity looking toward the day of the wedding. That activity probably becomes more concentrated as the day of the wedding draws closer. Both parties devote their intense attention to meeting that day in an appropriate way.
This does not mean, of course, that they do nothing other than make wedding plans. They continue to go to their work, to attend to family matters, to enjoy moments of play, to do all the things they ordinarily did even before the engagement. But everything they do now is suffused with the anticipation of the wedding day. Everything they do in the ordinary way is saturated with an attentiveness to what is coming. They never forget their engagement even while it is not always on their mind. They can “sleep,” to use the words of our text, even while they are engaged in quite a directed form of activity all the time. Yet their engagement governs all that they do in a sense.
So it was with the bridesmaids. All were equally aware of the coming of the bridegroom. The wise virgins, however, busied themselves with preparing for his coming while the others relaxed their watch, concerning themselves only with their own pursuits. Both waited, but only some watched!
Can one not with relative ease translate this into the daily lives of the children of this earth? Not all even know the bridegroom is coming, but even many who know and even believe it in a casual way live as though it were all a myth, an unreal story about a dream that means nothing. Their lives are governed by little else than what their momentary need might be, the satisfaction of personal wants, the careful cultivation of comfort that will make possible a personally contented sleep. It is something of a nihilistic vegetation, sleeping as though all were well and nothing mattered except their sleep itself. Nobody is coming. All is here right now. There is no real need for more than what is . . . or what we can manufacture out of the vacuum of today.
For those of us who know and believe that the bridegroom is truly coming, however, everything looks different. We wait in anticipation and let our whole lives – everything we do, whether with family, on the job, in the neighborhood, at play, or even at rest – be soaked through with this awareness that we live as those who are, so to speak, in the very shadow of the coming bridegroom. Does that not change the way we conduct ourselves, the way we think, the way our very lives are governed in everything that we do? The bridegroom is coming and everything we do is done in one way or another in anticipation of that great moment. The end is known – and it governs everything we do leading up to that time.
THE OIL IN THE LAMPS
What, then, is the oil with which the wise virgins filled their jars alongside their lamps? Oil is never kept for the sake of the oil. It is always being used up if it is to serve its function. Therefore it also needs constant replenishment.
Once again, taking a cue from the parable but twisting it to yet another purpose, suppose the wedding has now occurred and the marriage consummated. Is there nothing left for the bride and the bridegroom now that the waiting is over and life has settled down? Surely there must be oil to sustain the marriage! If either thinks that now all the necessary “watching” is over, the terrible lethargy of the unwise maidens sets in. A marriage must be constantly renewed. Each must woo the other in a myriad of ways in the days and weeks and months and years after the vows have been made to one another. Otherwise a lamp once burning brightly will only bear a dismal soot.
So it is with those of us who have hailed the coming of the bridegroom. Here we catch a glimpse of what the oil is. Oil must be constantly replenished if the joy and excitement of the moment is to be sustained. The word of promise, even when it comes to fulfillment, fills the hearts and lives of all who are waiting. That word must be reviewed, renewed, revisited regularly as the oil for the lamps of those who await the bridegroom. Do not even the halls of heaven, where the promise is now filled full, ring with joy and praise? Having arrived at the banquet hall, things do not fall into silence as though all is now completed. Actually, all has just begun, so to speak, when the bridegroom arrives!
The word of promise is so certain in its proclamation that it is already as though it were all accomplished --as though the end were already present in the journey. This is at the heart and core of our living in the today of the journey. When this word was joined to the waters of our baptism the promise hung like a colorful rainbow over our lives. When this word is joined to bread and wine it becomes the food for the journey. Just as one does not stop needing nourishment once born, so the oil is nothing less than the body and blood of our Lord, given and shed for us, renewing the lamps of our lives regularly. Faith renewed; prayers prayed; love showered; life lived as God’s children – all are both using and replenishing the oil at the same time.
Jesus taught us to pray regularly, “Thy kingdom come.” The promise is sure. The bridegroom will certainly come. We eagerly await him. The end was written from the beginning, but the story is still unfolding and our lives are another chapter in the story. So we say, “Amen! Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus!” For we are waiting and watching and shivering with excitement!
Hubert Beck, Retired Pastor