11/12/17 “Keep Awake”

Matthew 25:1–13

Ever since Waterville Cub Scout Pack 101 delivered trunk loads of food for the Food Pantry last Saturday, I’ve been thinking about the boys who participate in scouting and the adults who give so generously of their time to lead them. That must be why the Boy Scout motto was on my  mind as I reflected on our story for today. You know what the Boy Scout Motto is: “Be Prepared.”  The Cub Scouts have one, too, but I had to do a little checking to find out what it was.  Since 2001, their motto has been “Do Your Best.”  I think Jesus would tell us that both of these mottoes are pretty much what he had in mind when he warned his disciples to “keep awake.”

The conversation that we overhear between Jesus and his disciples begins in Chapter 24.  They had entered Jerusalem at the start of what we now call Holy Week.  Jesus’ arrival had really stirred things up. Matthew reports that “the whole city was in a turmoil,” asking who Jesus was.  A lot happened over the next few days, with the religious authorities challenging Jesus and becoming angrier and angrier at his words and deeds.

When Jesus speaks the words in our passage today, he was outside the city, sitting on the Mount of Olives. I’ve been there. It’s a dry, sandy place, with the narrow, dusty green leaves of the olive trees casting scattered shade.  From the Mount of Olives you can look across the Kidron Valley at the city of Jerusalem.  Jesus would have been able to see the Temple from there. I picture him sitting on the sparse, prickly grass, maybe leaning against the gnarled trunk of an olive tree, recalling his arrival in the city on the back of a donkey while the crowds spread branches before him and shouted “Hosanna!”

As he sat there, I wonder if he thought back on his visit to the temple and the chaos that followed when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers. If it were me, I probably would have been second-guessing myself over that; do you suppose he might have been wondering if he had gone about that the right way?  Maybe his stomach was a little knotted up as he thought about the growing anger and animosity of the religious authorities over his own pointed words to them about hypocrisy and spiritual blindness and what they could expect when the final judgment came.

Perhaps his heart was breaking as he gazed at the golden-hued stones of the city—the place that should have welcomed him as the Son of God that he was, but instead rejected him just as it had rejected the prophets who came before him. Maybe he was wondering how the disciples were taking all that he had said about the temple being destroyed, and his warnings about his own impending death and resurrection. Maybe his throat tightened as he thought about what was coming.

I imagine Jesus sitting there, deep in thought and prayer, when his disciples come to him in rare moment when they were alone.  They needed some answers.  They wanted to know what to expect about the predictions Jesus had made.  And so, Jesus began to talk to them—about persecution and betrayal, about war and famine, and about the day when the Son of Man would come with power and glory.  He warned them that no one knows when these things will happen, not even he himself.

Then he told them some stories—stories that are stark and harsh, and yet reassuring in a way, because they are stories that say that even though no one knows when the time of judgment will come, it is possible to be ready for that day.  It is possible to live in such a way that, no matter when or how that day comes, those who are ready will have nothing to fear.

The story about the bridesmaids is the second of three stories he tells them.  The disciples might have scratched their heads a little as he told it, because it certainly would have sounded like a very odd wedding story to them.  Why were the bridesmaids hanging out at the groom’s house instead of being with the bride? And where was the bride, anyway?  Why was the groom showing up after midnight?  And who in their right mind would expect a shop to be open in the middle of the night for last-minute oil purchases in a place so unlike our 24/7 world?

But, this isn’t a wedding story; it’s a kingdom story. It’s not a bridesmaid story; it’s a disciple story.  It’s not a story about the end of the world; it’s a story about how to live in the world today, so that when Christ comes again, we’ll be ready.  Jesus wanted to teach his disciples, then and now, that faith in him is not simply a formula for getting into the kingdom of heaven after we die.  It is the path we follow in kingdom living now.  And that’s what the story of the ten bridesmaids has to tell us.

So, Jesus gives us ten bridesmaids, which Matthew tells us right off are evenly divided into two groups—wise girls and foolish girls. And, as he often did, he used a little bit of word play to get his disciples thinking.  The word he uses to describe the wise girls means pretty much what we would expect: they are intelligent and prudent.  But there is a little more to it: the word Matthew uses also suggests that they were mindful of their own interests.  They knew and did what was good for them.

The word describing the foolish girls also means about what we would expect, but with a couple of twists.  First of all, the word Matthew uses is moros, which is related to our word “moron.”  These girls weren’t just silly or flighty or ditsy.  They were, as the Merriam-Webster dictionary says, very stupid people.  And, second, there is another meaning for that word moros: godless or impious.

At first, we can’t tell the difference between the two groups of bridesmaids. All ten had been invited to be part of the wedding party. All the bridesmaids fell asleep as they awaited the groom’s arrival. All ten had brought their lamps, and apparently, all ten had started out with plenty of oil, because after the call came to greet the groom, the foolish bridesmaids reported that their lamps were just then going out.

The difference only becomes apparent after the bridesmaids begin trimming their lamps, knowing that the groom is on his way. The wise bridesmaids had thought ahead.  Even though they had no reason to expect that the groom would be delayed, they brought extra supplies. They were ready for the arrival of the groom, no matter when he came.  Surely it would have been unacceptable for a bridesmaid to be caught without oil in her lamp, so they thought ahead and made sure they were covered.  They knew it would be in their best interests to be prepared to fulfill their role well, no matter what.

But the foolish bridesmaids hadn’t thought ahead, even though they should have expected that the groom would arrive at some point.  Maybe they figured he’d arrive right on time, and they didn’t need to make any extra preparations.  Maybe they assumed they could always find someone to bail them out if need be. Maybe, in their hearts, they doubted that the groom would show up at all and thought he might ditch the bride at the altar, in which case, why go to the trouble of preparing for something that might never happen?

But they were sadly mistaken.  The groom did come, and they were not prepared.  They pleaded with the other bridesmaids for some of their oil, but there was no help there.  They took off on a last-minute dash to find what they needed, but it was too late. The ones who were prepared greeted the groom and joined him at the banquet.  The others returned to find only that the doors were shut tightly against them.

The moral to the story, Jesus tells his disciples, is to “keep awake.”  And, again, there is a bit of word play here.  For the word he uses for “keep awake” also means to be in constant readiness.  Like the Boy Scouts, the disciples are to “be prepared.”

What does it mean to be a wise disciple, prepared for Jesus’ coming?  How do we avoid being one of those foolish attendants? How do we make sure that even though we look like we’re prepared, we’re not actually holding empty lamps?

Each of the Gospel writers has a slightly different take on what it means to be a faithful disciple—on what it means to be prepared for Jesus’ return. Matthew focuses on action.  He focuses on “following.”  He focuses on doing. Don’t get me wrong: saving faith does not depend on what we do; salvation is pure gift.  But the evidence that we have received that gift is active discipleship, and we are reminded of this all through Matthew’s gospel.

Matthew tells us it’s doing what Peter and Andrew did when Jesus said “Follow me”; they got up, left their fishing boats and nets, and followed Jesus into a life of fishing for people.  It’s doing what Matthew did when Jesus said “Follow me”; he got up from his tax collector’s booth and followed.  It’s hearing the words of Jesus and acting on them. It’s doing the will of the Father in heaven.  It’s denying ourselves and taking up our cross as Jesus took up his.  It’s going and making disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them. Matthew’s discipleship is an active discipleship—one that puts hands and feet on faith.

This is most clear in the verses that come later in Chapter 25.  Jesus spells out exactly what wise disciples do. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Discipleship may begin in a repentant heart, but Matthew tells us it is lived out in action.

The wise disciple lives this out every day in preparation for Jesus’ return.  Jesus warned us that no one knows the day or the hour when he will come, just as the bridesmaids didn’t know when the groom would arrive.  We do the work of the kingdom now while we wait for the fullness of the kingdom which is to come. We keep our lamps full, and the wicks trimmed. We live as though he is coming today—every day.  We follow the Boy Scout motto to be prepared.

Sadly, some people have more in common with the foolish bridesmaids than the wise ones.  Some doubt that the groom is coming at all and see no need for preparation.  Some hedge their bets, gambling on the chance that there will be plenty of time to do what needs to be done when it is clear that he is approaching.  More, I think, start out with lamps that are full and burning brightly, but as time passes, the flames begin to flicker and even to go out.  These are the people who enter into the life of a disciple with great enthusiasm and many good intentions.  They are excited to be part of the wedding party and eagerly anticipate the arrival of the groom.

But as the days pass, and life’s demands press in, they gradually stop tending their lamps and their preparations fall off. Worship takes a back seat to a cozy bed on Sundays.  Having a little more cash for a Venti Pumpkin Spice Chai Latte becomes more attractive than putting more cash in the offering plate. Watching an episode (or two, or three) of the “Property Brothers” is a lot less work than working through a Bible study. Spending time with friends sounds like more fun than spending time in service to others. But, when the day comes, they will find that their lamps have gone out, they have no oil in reserve, and their better-prepared brothers and sisters won’t be able to help them out.

Better, then, to be a wise disciple—to keep awake, to be in constant readiness, to make the Boy Scout motto our own and be prepared. While we’re at it, we might as well adopt the Cub Scout motto as well.  We should do our best as we wait.  We should give our best. We should be our best, as we do the work of faithful disciples here in the heart of Whitehouse.  If we live as wise disciples every day, we won’t need to worry about when Jesus is coming.  We will be able to sleep peacefully, knowing we are prepared. Because we know that those who are ready will go with him when the wedding banquet begins.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young