What I said this Sunday – 3rd before Advent
We are now into what is often called – though not officially – the Kingdom Season. The colour has changed to red and the themes of the readings reflect issues such as the return of Jesus, judgement, and so on. Here’s my sermon for this week.
Wisdom 6.12-16; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-end; Matthew 25.1-13
Like most people I’ve been a guest at a few weddings in my time. Mostly they’ve been fairly standard affairs – one bride, one bridegroom, one church, one or two bridesmaids, or perhaps a couple more, followed by a reception, including one particularly memorable one on the Bluebell Railway. I have never, though, and I’m sure neither have any of you, been to a wedding quite as strange as the one pictured in today’s gospel reading. Here we have a bride who clearly couldn’t quite make up her mind about who to have as a bridesmaid and who to disappoint, so we have ten bridesmaids. No doubt all done up with garlands and beautiful gowns and eagerly awaiting the wedding. But not only is there a preponderance of bridesmaids, the bride who presumably chose them all is strangely absent from the proceedings. Who has ever been to a wedding without a bride? On top of that the wedding is taking place in the middle of the night, which was unusual, to say the least, even for Jewish weddings at the time. Nor are we told to whose house, whether the bride’s or the bridegroom’s, they were going. Then there is the harsh conclusion, “Lord, Lord, open the door to us” and the reply, “I do not know you”. A bit like a bouncer turning people away from a nightclub because their faces didn’t fit.
We have to remember, of course, that this is a parable and in parables not all the details are important. Jesus may have been using a popular story as the basis of his parable. Perhaps it was even based upon a joke that was doing the rounds – one can almost imagine someone at the village in turning to his neighbour: “Have you heard this one – there were these ten bridesmaids…” His intent was to use a light-hearted story about some silly bridesmaids to convey a serious point. The first Christians thought Jesus would return straight away. Matthew, writing to a church community toward the end of the first century is telling them – okay, he hasn’t come yet, but he will – so stay prepared. And if we put the gospel in the context of today’s collect and readings, we find that its message is very clearly about the end-time, the end of the world, the time when it was expected that God’s kingdom would be ushered in.
In the second reading, Saint Paul is speaking about the resurrection of the dead when we shall be with Jesus who, after his suffering and death, rose again to be the source of eternal life for us. It is important to understand the truth about God and Jesus and to look for the coming kingdom. The reading from the book of Wisdom echoes this – in this context Wisdom is a personification of God – and the truly wise person will seek God. And God will make himself known. But the wise person will be someone who rises early to seek Wisdom (that is, God) and who is vigilant. It carries that same sense of being ready and alert that Jesus talks of in the parable. We find the same if we remember that this parable comes in this gospel after a long chapter about the end-time. Then will come the sorting out. Those who have sought the Lord, those who have desired to be with him, those who have listened to his word and lived by it, will be welcomed into the kingdom. This meaning is suggested by a passage in Saint Luke’s gospel. There Jesus says: Strive to enter by the narrow gate. Many will try to do so but will not be able. They will stand outside and knock on the door, saying, “Lord, open to us. We ate and drank with you”, but the Lord will say, “I do not know where you come from”. They have not listened to his word, they have not tried to live by it, they have gone their own way and have done wrong.
What then are we to do? As in all the gospel discourses about the end-time, there is a sentence that comes right at the end of our passage today: Stay awake, for you do not know either the day or the hour.
Stay awake like the wise bridesmaids who were prepared with oil in their lamps and something over. That does not mean that we must always be thinking anxiously about the hour of our death or about the end of the world, but it does mean that we must be aware of God in our lives. And it means that we must remember that we expect Jesus, one day, to return – maybe even tomorrow, or today. The end-times, if we are like the wise bridesmaids, if we are properly prepared, are nothing to fear, our readings tell us. Staying awake then, and being on the alert, seems to mean that we should have a desire for God, a desire that we express in prayer, as well as a desire to welcome Jesus when he returns for which we should also pray. As Saint Augustine taught, prayer is fundamentally a desire, for we cannot pray all the time. Prayer is a desire for God and this we express in spoken prayer from time to time and so remain aware of God in our lives. As Saint Augustine also said, prayer does not consist of many words: to use many words is one thing but a continuing desire is another, and that desire for God can be expressed in the actions of our daily life and shows that we are ready for Jesus when he comes.
The desire for God – does that mean that we reject the things of this world? Of course not – rather it means rather that we should see this world and all its business as transient. The world is destined to pass away, the world is imperfect and unfinished, and we are imperfect and unfinished. We are destined for something greater than this world can offer. We are destined for God, and in him we shall find complete fulfilment. As we seek always to move towards Jesus, to desire him, to know his presence in our lives, let us make another saying of Saint Augustine a prayer that will sustain our desire for Jesus until the end of our days or until Jesus returns – whichever comes first: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.”
If we make that our prayer we shall always be aware of Jesus, we shall always be awake to him, always on the alert for his coming.