Let’s recap: listen to how Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven:
Ten bridesmaids take their lamps and go wait for the bridegroom. They seem equal at first: ten lamps burning; ten bridesmaids sleeping, then all ten wake up, hearing the groom is near; and ten bridesmaids excited to get the party started. But, uh oh, only five have enough oil to keep their lamps lit. So while those five rush out looking for more oil, the well prepared bridesmaids go into the party with the groom and slam the door. The bridegroom refuses to open the door to the other bridesmaids who return, crying out, "Lord, Lord." But the door remains slammed in their faces with an unexpectedly rude, "I don't know you!"
So, according to this story, the kingdom of heaven is a place where you are out of luck if you are not well prepared? Is that the message?
Let’s put things in context here. Part of this story is about waiting and that’s what Jesus is doing. He’s in Jerusalem, waiting for his own death in a couple of days. In Matthew 24, right before this reading, Jesus says that we are all waiting for the end of time and describes an upsetting, apocalyptic scene: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes. Immediately after the distress of those days ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ “And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” (Note, they only gather his ‘elect’, God’s chosen people.)
Jesus goes on and on, describing a scary time when good folks are pulled up into the air while bad folks are left behind. When asked, ‘when will this happen?’ He answers: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place”. That leads up to our story today. Warning: there will be very similar stories for the next couple of Sundays.
The theme of all of these stories is the same: no one knows when the end will come so be prepared; stay awake! Jimmy Carter, says that "We should live our lives as though Christ was coming this afternoon.”
I’ve never been crazy about this part of the Jesus story but it’s a big part of our faith. Indeed, every Sunday we remember in our creed that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” And every Sunday, we also say this: “We celebrate his death and resurrection, as we await the day of his coming.”
It’s been two thousand years since Jesus made these predictions and we’re not are exactly sitting on the edge of our seats, awaiting Christ’s return. But try to imagine how these predictions felt to those friends who loved Jesus and knew the Romans were eager to kill him. Surely, hearing that Jesus would return to them soon must have been so comforting. He stressed, though, that no one would know the hour of his coming.
So why are there all those folks who predict the exact date and time of the coming apocalypse, then they have to adjust it to a little bit later. Then there are those crazy folks standing on street corners yelling: “THE END IS NEAR.”
Apocalypse? End of the world? I don’t know what to think about this but here’s what I do know, with complete certainty: We are going to experience our own personal end times. I will die, you will die, we will all die. For that, we can prepare.
And that’s the crux of our gospel today. It’s all about being prepared. If Kevin and I were in this situation, he would have brought along plenty of extra oil while I would have been sitting in the dark with an empty lamp. My boy scout husband is always prepared! But I also have no doubt that Kevin would have shared his oil with me!
In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, he is also talking about the return of the Lord. These folks are worried that they’ve not yet seen Christ’s return and now people are dying. Remember they believe Christ when he tells them that this generation will not pass before he returns … and now this generation is passing. Paul assures them that dead or alive, they will eventually join Christ. Then Paul tells the Thessalonians to encourage one another.
We all wait, either for the return of Christ or just for our own end time. How do we do at encouraging one another while we wait? Well, that is our role as the church. We wait with each other, wise and foolish alike. We share pain, loss, joy and sorrow. We give hope when hope is hard to find and courage when we are afraid. We hold each other in our hearts and in our prayers. This is how we encourage each other. We come together on Sundays to find hope and love through Christ’s promises.
I want to live in a way that when I die, my friends and neighbors say that I was a good person. As I age, I see just how easy it can be to turn into a cranky, judgmental old hag who yells at the TV. That’s not exactly preparing for a good end.
Instead, let’s prepare by bringing Jesus into our world today. Jesus tells us how to do that: ‘I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. I was in prison, and you visited me. I was sick, and you comforted me.’ We have ministries at our church that do all of these things. That’s how we bring Jesus into our world.
Henri-Frédéric Amiel, a 19th century philosopher wrote: "Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh, be swift to love, make haste to be kind."
Is the world ending? I don’t know but I do know that the Bible often says, “Do not fear.” We are challenged to work here, today, to bring Christ to others through our actions, through every act of compassion, sharing and justice. This is how we prepare, this is how we wait.
All this talk about dying reminds me of a joke: Ole died. So Lena went to the local paper to put a notice in the obituaries. The editor asked Lena what she would like to say about Ole. Lena said, "You just put: 'Ole died’." The editor said, "That's it? Just 'Ole died?' Surely, there must be something more you'd like to say about Ole. If its money you're worried about, the first five words are free. We must say something more.” So Lena thought for a few minutes and finally said, "O.K. You put 'Ole died. Boat for sale.' “