(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
For the next two weeks we will be talking about the end of things, which may be a strange thing to talk about, but it is certainly a popular thing these days. Think for a moment about the word “apocalyptic.” What comes to mind? I think it is instructive that with a very few exceptions, it was not until humanity created the ability to annihilate itself with nuclear weapons that apocalyptic fiction rose to prominence as a genre. Think of classics like A Canticle for Leibowitz, or more modern works like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. You will certainly find apocalyptic themes in the Hunger Games books. And the end of things being a particularly compelling theme, there are more movies on this topic than I can count. In fact, let me show you these. You may not be able to see them, but later you can come see them in my office where they are prominently displayed. They are Bobbleheads of Michonne and Rick Grimes, two characters from one of my favorite television shows, the Walking Dead, which is a program centered on the idea of a zombie apocalypse.
You can’t get away from this kind of thing, and I get it; we live in a strange time technologically, culturally, religiously. If you’ve been in the church for decades you’ll note that the nature of the church is changing very quickly, shrinking in some places, losing much of what it has once been. So it is natural to gravitate to stories about the end of things, natural to look for guidance in the Bible about how this will all end. I think that’s a good thing. I wish people would look to the Bible when they made most of their decisions.
The problem is this. This focus on being left behind—the version of the end of things you read about in novels and see in movies—that version is not based in truth. It takes a few verses in what is a very large book and twists them to fit a system of belief that doesn’t match up with who Jesus was, who Jesus is. And sometimes it gets played as harmless entertainment, just a way to spend a couple of hours, but it is insidious, because it hides behind claims of being fiction while at the same time claiming to be Biblical. It claims to be Christian. And it really just isn’t.
For one thing, if you are newer to the faith, you may be surprised to know that this idea that people would be plucked up while others would be left behind to face supernatural forces—this is an idea that has really only existed as an idea for less than two hundred years. Jesus was around two thousand years ago, and he didn’t mention it. None of the Biblical writers mentioned it. Martin Luther never mentioned it. This idea stems from a misunderstanding of the book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, and a small handful of verses throughout the New Testament.
So you should know that this stuff wasn’t even really an idea until it was dreamed up in the early eighteenth century by a couple of Puritan ministers named Increase and Cotton Mather whose other claim to fame is that they are widely understood to have laid the groundwork that led to the Salem Witch trials. The word “rapture” simply does not exist in the Bible. And the book of Revelation, which so many people—including the people who wrote the popular Left Behind books—have turned into some sort of map of how the end of times is going to happen, that book isn’t a warning. It isn’t a map. It’s a love letter. It’s a book of worship. It is like Communion: a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. It uses symbolism because we worship a God who is bigger than our literal language. Revelation is a reminder that God is with us always, that life can be difficult and bad, terrible things can happen, but that all the suffering, all the evil, all the problems of the world are no match for God. It’s not about God leaving us behind. It’s about God being with us always.
Now, I don’t ascribe to the philosophy that a preacher ought to always show his or her work—you know, let me throw all these Greek words at you to show you how smart I am or whatever—but looking at the language this was written in is helpful, and the word we talk about sometimes in the church is parousia. Parousia. It means the coming of Christ to save us from all the difficult things in life, all the pain. And the Greek word parousia is most accurately translated as “presence.” Here we are focused on being Left Behind and the very word the Bible uses means Christ’s presence with us. That kind of misunderstanding would be ridiculously laughable if it weren’t real.
Christ will be present with us. You know, I may sometimes get to worrying about the state of things, but we are promised in scripture that this all ends well! One day, we read in scripture, Jesus will right every wrong, dry every tear, and justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!
So what I want to do with the rest of my time this morning is talk about the scripture that Anna read this morning and point out some things we can learn about the end of things. And then next week, we’ll talk about what God wants us to do while we wait.
In this morning’s scripture lesson, we find Jesus, and the authorities are onto him. He doesn’t have much time left, and so he launches into this long set of stories and teachings about how to be faithful. You know, in the months before my grandfather passed away, we knew it wouldn’t be long, so we started to gather more often for meals as an extended family, at these long tables because there are dozens of us, and we’d put Papaw at the head of the table and leave the other end open. And after dinner, my grandfather would sort of pat himself on the belly, and we knew he was done eating and it was time, so somebody would set up a video camera at the far end of the table and we’d ask him to remind us about stories we’d heard him tell—about growing up in coal country in Arkansas, about leaving his family as a child to find work, about his time in the War. And because he also knew he was nearing the end of his life, he wanted to share those stories with us, so that they would become a part of us. They weren’t just warnings, and they weren’t about how he was mad at us. They were stories he told us because he loved us, because when we saw him in those stories, and when we carried those stories with us, a part of who he was would remain with us.
And this is how I think it was with Jesus. The stories he tells can sound harsh—perhaps you have heard the one about cursing the poor old fig tree. But they aren’t about being upset with us any more than the end of things is about God leaving us once and for all, which of course it isn’t. They’re about love, about sharing a piece of himself with the disciples, and through scripture, with us. And so he tells the disciple a story.
Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took extra flasks of oil with them. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and fell asleep. But in the middle of the night, there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come to meet him!” And so they all got up and got their lamps ready, but the five that didn’t have extra oil saw their lamps going out. Those five had to go to the store—in the middle of the night, as if Walmart was around back then—and while they were gone, the bridegroom came. The half that were ready went to the wedding banquet. The half that weren’t missed the boat.
And he ends the story this way: keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
I mean, it does sound a little ominous. I get why people think of this stuff as harsh. Keep awake. If you aren’t paying attention, you may miss the coming of Jesus. And, to be clear, it’s one of those mysteries of faith that we don’t understand, but we do believe we worship a God who will wipe every tear, to right every wrong. When we talk about the end of things, this is what we are talking about.
What gets me, though, is that there is this whole industry of religious broadcasting and Christian novels that either take the events of the day and try to hammer them into something that looks like the symbolism we see in the book of Revelation or they create a story out of symbols and make it sound like it is Christian theology, when the whole point of this story is that you can’t anticipate when Christ will break through! You can’t look to the stars or whatever. You can’t count the number of times a word appears in the Bible and figure it out. There’s no use looking for some sort of Bible code. Christ comes in unexpected ways and in unexpected times. When Jesus says you know neither the day nor the hour, he doesn’t mean that it’s going to be some time in September. He means that the business of trying to game the system is completely unscriptural. It’s wrong. It keeps you from faithfully following Jesus, from faithfully showing love all the time, not just in front of the judge or whatever.
There is this episode of the Simpsons I love—I wonder when the last time you had a pastor who quoted the Walking Dead and the Simpsons in the same sermon—but it is an episode called Homer the Heretic, in which Homer Simspon gets tired of being bored every week in church, which I know is something none of you struggle with. And so he creates his own religion based on his own personal tastes. And his daughter Lisa sees him walking in the back yard dressed like a monk, and she says, “Dad, why are you dedicating your life to blasphemy?” And Home looks at her reassuringly and says, “Don’t worry, sweetheart. If I’m wrong, I’ll recant on my deathbed.”
It is silly, but how many people act like that, in one manner or another? How many people use Christian faith as a sort of last-ditch life-insurance policy, instead of actually living it? It takes the pressure off of us, for sure; it turns religion into something you can kind of just think in your mind, rather than doing the things that Jesus tells us to do: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless, welcoming the stranger, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Yes, we believe that one day, there will be no more sickness, no more hunger, for Christ will break through and, in the words of Julian of Norwich, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Yes, in the Communion liturgy, the congregation acknowledges that “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again,” that this is the great mystery of faith, but this isn’t a threat; it’s a promise! It is a promise of hope, and love. It is the promise of presence.
And, sure, it can be difficult to wait. It can be difficult to say, here I have lived my whole life trying to be faithful and it hasn’t cured my sadness, hasn’t cured my pain, hasn’t cured the fact that I keep losing people I love. But the Christian faith is not about doing good so that you can be rewarded. If it were, Mother Teresa wouldn’t have experienced so much doubt. Martin Luther King wouldn’t have been martyred. Jesus wouldn’t have been crucified.
The Christian faith isn’t about avoiding pain. It is about hope, about Resurrection, about acknowledging that the worst thing is never the last thing, which means there is something greater and more powerful than pain. And, yes, following Christ is about waiting patiently, not idly, but patiently, and productively, for the promises of God to continue to born.
When you look at it that way, this business about being ready because you do not know the day or the hour—that’s not a threat. It’s a promise. Being ready isn’t about crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s in case Jesus shows up to check your papers. It’s about sharing love in the meantime. It’s about the meantime. For if you love, you will have love in abundance, enough to fill your flask and your lamp and maybe even enough to share. You won’t run out, because if you love, you will have love.
Now, next week, we’ll talk more about what that means, about how we wait. But, you know, in the meantime, keep sharing love. In the meantime, let us be the presence of Christ for others. Let us keep our lamps burning, for thanks be to God, this isn’t a story about scaring anybody into belief, but about shining light while we wait. In the name of the Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.