Sunday, March 18, 2012

Entering the Joy of Our Lord - II : Serving God Expectantly [Matthew 25.1-13] (14 January 2001)

"Be vigilant therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."

In December 1995 I left India to come to Fuller. A few months earlier, I had fallen in love with this most incredible woman. When we had told each other how we felt and that we wanted to get married, we were immediately faced with a problem. I was headed for Pasadena to start a program that would take three years at the very least. I knew that three years was a long time to be away from the woman I loved. And I knew that it would be difficult for her too. So I warned her that she might probably see me only after three years. “Alice,” I told her, “you know that I might not be able to visit India till I complete my studies at Fuller. This will be a long wait.” I went on and on, painting the gloomiest picture I could. Though my words were directed toward her, I was warning myself as much as I was warning her. I left India for Fuller. And then began the period of relentless anticipation.

Last Sunday we dealt with serving God faithfully as a means of entering into the joy that Jesus has for NUPC. The passage we learned from was Matthew 24.45-51. We saw then that Jesus defended his practice of associating with people who were otherwise considered to be beyond God’s blessing. He ate and drank with gluttons and drunkards, tax collectors and prostitutes. We saw that the task for NUPC as we move to a new place further from the University and inside the community is to be the bearers of God’s love and grace to various groups in the community who we are told are beyond God’s love and grace—the poor, the homeless, single parents, pregnant teenagers, gangs members, drug addicts, pushers, prostitutes, people with AIDS, drunks, gays. That was what we learned last Sunday.

Today we will deal with Matthew 25.1-13 and next Sunday we will learn from Matthew 25.14-30. When I mentioned today’s sermon last Sunday I said, and I quote, “Next Sunday I will preach from Matthew 25.1-13, unless Jesus returns in less than a week.” The reason I did this was that today’s passage teaches us that we are in a state of relentless anticipation.

Relentless anticipation. What does that mean? It means two things. First, it means that we should anticipate the fulfillment of a promise at any moment. To fail in this would give rise to complacency. Second, it means that we should relentlessly hold on to the promise if any given moment does not prove to be the moment of fulfillment. To fail in this would result in disillusionment.

The Jews realized this slowly and painfully. If my eighteen month wait was torture, just think how painful their wait had been at the time of Jesus. Some scholars place Abraham in the eighteenth century BC. At the time of Jesus, the Jews had waited eighteen centuries from the time of their founding promises. Sure Abraham had been warned that his descendants would be slaves in Egypt for four hundred years. But that did not make their enslavement in Egypt any more endurable. Rather, they grew restless. For the promise of redemption had also been made to Abraham. How could they live restfully as slaves when exodus had been promised them? To live between promise and fulfillment is to live in a state of relentless anticipation.

And in the time of Jesus, the Jews were living in the promised land for sure. But they were subservient to the Romans. In the minds of many Jews, they were still in exile. Something drastic had to happen if God’s promises to them would prove true. God had to send a deliverer. And SOON! They were primed to respond to just about any person with messianic claims. God had promised them freedom. But they were prisoners in the promised land. How could they live restfully as the jailbirds of the Jordan when liberation had been promised them? To live between promise and fulfillment is to live in a state of relentless anticipation.

Into such a situation Jesus came announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God. He knew that the hope for God’s kingdom was a good one but that the shape it took in many minds would have to be altered. So he presented the kingdom to his hearers in the form of parables and miracles. When he began his ministry he painted word pictures to enable his disciples to recognize the activity of the kingdom. However, toward the end of his ministry, his parables took on a different flavor.

On the Tuesday before he was crucified, Jesus and his disciples were leaving the temple. At that time, his disciples brought to his notice the magnificent buildings of the temple that Herod was building. In response to that Jesus pronounces a curse on the temple. Then the disciples ask him “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" If you are able, please stand for the hearing of part of Jesus’ answer.

[Here read Matthew 24.36-25.30]

Please be seated.

There are some things to keep in mind. First, the disciples ask Jesus three questions: 1. When will this be—that is, when will the temple be destroyed; 2. What will be the sign of your coming; and 3. What will be the sign of the end of the age? Second, Matthew 24.36-25.30, which I just read, is part—and only part—of Jesus’ answer. Third, Matthew 25.1-13, the text we are learning from today, is a parable. We should avoid forcing meaning on every aspect of the parable.

What, then, is the parable about? One thing I really appreciate about Jesus’ teaching methods is that he often follows a lengthy discourse or parable with a short saying that captures the essence of what he was trying to teach. Here we have the statement, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
However, no sooner have we read this than we are faced with a problem. For in the parable all the bridesmaids sleep! It is best, therefore, to translate the last sentence “Be vigilant therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Be vigilant, be alert, be ready, be expectant.

Another problem arises when we try to identify elements of the parable. For instance, what is the oil? We might be tempted to say that it is the Holy Spirit. Or since the bridegroom answers, “I do not know you” we might say that the oil signifies a personal relationship with Jesus. However, that is not what the parable says. At the end of the parable the foolish bridesmaids return to the reception hall. Would they have returned without oil? Quite unlikely!

The key to understanding why the foolish bridesmaids are denied entrance is to see how Jesus tells the parable. When the parable begins the bridesmaids are divided into two groups. The foolish ones take no oil with them. The wise ones take oil with them. Toward the end of the parable, the bridesmaids are again divided into two groups. The ones who were ready gain entrance into the wedding banquet. The “others”—the ones who were not ready—are denied entrance. So in some way taking oil with them qualified the wise bridesmaids as being ready. And that is the key. The ones who participate in the banquet are those who were ready.

What does it mean, though, that one group was ready? Does this mean that they alone were eager for the bridegroom to come? Hardly! All the bridesmaids were eager to receive the bridegroom. They wanted him to come. They wanted the festivities to begin. That is why they all trimmed their wicks when the bridegroom came. The foolish bridesmaids were not accused of a lack of enthusiasm. Oh they were eager to put on a great show when the bridegroom came. They wanted their lamps to shine brightly. They wanted to be part of the procession that accompanied the bridegroom into the banquet hall. They were not guilty of lack of zeal. Rather, they were found wanting in foresight. They were not wise. They were foolish.

What earned them this label? Why can they be called foolish? The only indication the parable gives us is that they did not take oil. Sure they managed to get oil later. But they were meant to welcome the bridegroom and participate in the procession. They had taken their lamps with the full intention of setting the night sky ablaze. But they had a time schedule in mind. Their lamps were lit and they expected the bridegroom to arrive before the lamps smoldered and died. While that expectancy in itself is good, they had not questioned their time frame. They had not entertained the possibility that the bridegroom might be late. They were foolish enough to think that they could dictate the time frame which the bridegroom should observe.

This calls to mind some of the end times cults and the books that accompany them. “Eighty eight reasons why the world will end in 1988.” “Eighty nine reasons why the world will end in 1989.” Both titles of books. Both proved wrong by history. Both proved foolish by Jesus’ parable. For it is foolish to try and dictate terms to God. We should approach every moment as the moment in which God might fulfill his promises but not attempt to imprison God’s purposes within it. To live between promise and fulfillment is to live in a state of relentless anticipation. It is a state of tension in which there are no easy answers.

But the foolish bridesmaids believed they had the answer. The bridegroom was sure to arrive before their lamps went out. Surely he was eager to meet his bride! How, then, could he delay? Ah, yes! The foolish bridesmaids had the answers. They did not consider the possibility of their being wrong. Even though the festivities belonged to the bridegroom and his bride they presumed to think that they controlled events.

“What? The bridegroom delay? You must be kidding! He will come well before our lamps go out. What’s more,” they probably say to the wise bridesmaids, “the five of you will be distracted with having to dispose your excess oil. After all, we are all environmentally conscious!” Yes, they believed they knew when the procession would begin. And they did not think it wise to stock up on oil.

But that is precisely why the wise bridesmaids are called wise. They thought ahead. “What if the bridegroom delayed? Our lamps would die an ugly death. But this wedding procession should be the best one ever. We want to put the stars to shame with the brilliance of our lamps. Therefore, we must take more oil.” The wise bridesmaids identified the issue correctly. The bridegroom might be late. And they were wise to plan for that possibility.

Both groups were anticipating the arrival of the bridegroom. Both groups expected to participate in the wedding festivities. When they first lit their lamps both groups were ready for the bridegroom to come. But the wise ones were ready when the bridegroom chose to come. By that time the foolish one were quite unprepared. They had to run here and there to get oil. And even when they did, it was too late. When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, time shall indeed be no more. There will then be no time to make amends.

Now if this parable is about the imminence of Jesus’ return, how do we apply it to our present situation at NUPC? Though it is about Jesus’ return, the difference between the two groups of bridesmaids is that the foolish ones presumed to dictate the agenda whereas the wise ones recognized that it is the bridegroom who dictates the agenda.

The Hebrew prophets looked forward to a day when God would act and deliver his people. They expected the deliverance to come imminently. However, they had to wait centuries. When John the Baptizer came along and repeated words from Isaiah, many Jews may have thought this was another instance of a prophet announcing imminent deliverance when there would be no deliverance. Only a few who were ready for the deliverance when it came—and, for that matter, the manner in which it came.

In the same way, we at NUPC are poised this year for wonderful things. We are moving to a new facility that will enable us to make a concerted effort to bring God’s love to the community. We will begin writing discipleship materials in about two months and begin one-on-one discipleship shortly thereafter. We have LIGHThouses in which brothers and sisters are maturing.

How soon do we see all of this come to fulfillment? I have given Mark, Steve, and Persida quite a detailed plan for all of this. However, what if God decides to act slower? Would we get disillusioned and just give up on all these wonderful things? And what if God acts faster? Would we hinder his work because he caught us unawares?

We need certainly to make plans prayerfully. But we must never set our plans in stone. We need to hold them lightly, always being ready for God to revise them. In fact, we should expect God’s hand to constantly mold our plans for we still see through a glass dimly.

When I warned Alice, I expected the warning to make the wait easier to bear. But in retrospect I realize that waiting is never easy. Just knowing that there was a promise waiting to be fulfilled was enough to give rise to a restless longing for fulfillment that gnawed at me every moment of the eighteen months that I was away from Alice. How could I live restfully as a bachelor when Alice had been promised me? To live between promise and fulfillment is to live in a state of relentless anticipation.

No comments:

Post a Comment