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Sermon for Sunday 8 November 2020

First Reading                                        Amos 5:18-24

18Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light, 19as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. 20Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? 21“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. 23Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. 24But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Psalm                                                              Psalm 70

1Be pleased, O God, to deliver me; O Lord, make haste to help me. 2Let those who seek my life be ashamed and altogether dismayed; let those who take pleasure in my misfortune draw back and be disgraced. 3Let those who say to me “Aha!” and gloat over me turn back, because they are ashamed. 4Let all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; let those who love your salvation say forever, “Great is the Lord!” 5But as for me, I am poor and needy; come to me speedily, O God. 6You are my helper and my deliverer; O Lord, do not tarry.

Second Reading                  1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

13We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Gospel                                             Matthew 25:1-13

1{Jesus said to the disciples,} “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

The Tragedy of the Unprepared Life

There’s a true story that comes from the sinking of the Titanic.  A frightened woman found her place in a lifeboat that was about to be lowered into the raging North Atlantic.  She suddenly thought of something she needed, so she asked permission to return to her stateroom before they cast off.  She was told she had three minutes, or they would leave without her.

She ran across the deck that was already slanted at a dangerous angle.  She raced through the gambling room with all the money that had rolled to one side, ankle deep.  She came to her stateroom and quickly pushed a side her diamond rings and expensive bracelets and necklaces as she reached to the shelf above her bed and grabbed three small oranges.  She quickly found her way back to the lifeboat and got in.

For those of us listening to this story, that seems incredible, because just thirty short minutes earlier she wouldn’t have chosen a cache of oranges over the smallest diamond.  But death had boarded the Titanic.  One blast of death’s awful breath had transformed all values.  Instantaneously, priceless things had become worthless.  Worthless things had become priceless.  And in that moment, she preferred three small oranges to a crate of diamonds.  There are events in life, which have the power to transform the way we look at the world.  Jesus’ parable about the ten virgins offers one of these types of events; this parable is clearly a warning about the suddenness of the Second Coming of Jesus.

As we read this account, we first realize that Jesus doesn’t come right out and say the parable is about His ultimate return.  Rather, He lets the story describe it for Him.  The woman on the sinking Titanic understood, in the light of her current circumstances, that she must be prepared for what might come from living on a lifeboat.  Diamonds would not satisfy hunger, only the precious resources of an orange were good enough.  Likewise, in our time, this parable has yet to be fulfilled.  Therefore, because Jesus could return at any moment, this parable continues to warn us, we must be ready.  Weddings are one of these kinds of events.  

Every time I prepare a couple for their wedding, I remind those in the wedding to be prepared, to make a special effort to be ready on the day of the ceremony.  I plead with them to arrive early and be dressed and ready to go.  Most of the time it works out.  On rare occasions it does not.  Another point of interest in this prophecy is that Jesus’ parable about a wedding isn’t told from the vantage point of the bride and groom, but of the ten young maidens who had been invited to the happy occasion.  As we learn, five of them were foolish, and five of them were wise.  Thus, we are left to ask, what was the measure of their wisdom?  In a word, planning; they prepared for a delay to ensure they could be a part of the event.

It’s important to note, all of the young women had good intensions, they all had oil in their lamps, but five had an additional supply.  This is, of course, foreign to our concepts of weddings today.  Weddings in our society are announced for a specific time and place, and if things are late in getting started, those invited guests begin to fidget a bit.  But in first century Palestine, a wedding could happen anytime within several days.  The uncertainty was considered a part of the excitement of the wedding.  The bridegroom hoped to catch some of the bridal party napping.  But fairness required that some announcement be made, so just before the big event, a messenger was sent through the streets shouting: “Behold the bridegroom commeth.”  Those in the wedding party who were alert would respond, and the others would be left behind.  In Jesus parable, the cry came at midnight.

This was often the case; most bridegrooms chose to come late at night.  The sleeping attendants were awakened.  It was then that they realized that they didn’t have enough oil in their lamps to get through the night.  Panicked, they attempted to borrow some from the other bridesmaids.  Now as an amusing anecdote from seven months ago, who remembers the panic over toilet paper?  For those who had a habit of keeping stock of certain essentials, there was little concern.  For those who hadn’t anticipated such an event, they were left scrambling.  And if you tried to obtain toilet paper from those that had some, you might have gotten the same answer the five less prepared virgins received.

The five prepared maidens responded, “If we give you our oil, (if you want you can insert the word toilet paper here), there won’t be enough for us.  Hurry out to the dealers and buy some yourself.”  So the five foolish maidens hurried out, but by the time they returned the door had already been closed.  They knocked on the door and pleaded to be a part of the festivities, but the groom said: “If you belonged at this event you would already have been present.”  Jesus concluded: Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.  Now, the astute follower of Jesus should be asking, what does this parable tell us about how we’re to live, about how were to be prepared for Jesus’ return?

For one, Jesus’ warning tells us that some things in life that cannot be borrowed.  You and I cannot live on someone else’s oil.  We can help one another in so many ways, but at some point, we’re required to be on our own.  This is especially true when it comes to faith.  The gate and road to life, as Jesus warns us is narrow, and few find it (Matt. 7:14).  This narrow path can only be walked two at a time, you and God.  Your parents cannot walk it for you or with you.  Husbands cannot depend on the devotion of their wives.  Over the years I’ve had more than one husband laughingly say to me: “My wife handles the religion in our family.”  Remember the warning from St. Paul: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor 5:10).  And like judgement, faith too is given individually.

Faith is given to each individual by the Holy Spirit.  Certainly, others can help us reinforce and strengthen our faith.  They can encourage us.  They can pray for us.  They can bring us up in the way we should go, but in the end, we must exercise it ourselves.  No one can do that for us.  The five foolish maidens in this story were foolish because they thought that they could rely upon the resources of others to get them through.  What they discovered was, there are some things in life that cannot be borrowed.

Second, this parable suggests that there are some things that cannot be put off until the last moment.  I don’t know if our church’s insurance plan covers earthquakes, but Earthquake insurance isn’t something you can put off until the last moment.  It takes as little as 20 seconds to do a tremendous amount of damage, and in those few seconds, we don’t have time to call a meeting of the council and shop around for the best rates.  Toilet paper, like diapers and wipes, isn’t something you can put off until the last moment.  In the few seconds it takes for a child to make a mess, you don’t have the time to go the store, figure out the size, color, and design, and get the proper quantity and dampness of wipes.  Likewise, properly studying for a final exam isn’t something you can put off until the last moment either.

On the morning of the exam, there is neither the time nor the sobriety to understand a semester’ worth of material.  When it comes to these kinds of decisions in our businesses and homes, we all understand.  As business owners, executives, educators, men and women and moms and dads we all understand that there are some things that simply cannot be put off.  Yet, it’s amazing to me how so many of us fail to grasp this concept when it comes to life’s critical decisions.

How many couples have we seen over the years who seldom if ever bothered to darken the doors of a church?  Then the marital problems come, or the death a spouse or child tears their life apart, they panic; they rush to the church because they see the church as the answer to the troubles of life.  Then they wonder why religion somehow failed them when in doesn’t fix the problem.  The bottom line is, if I can make a banking term, you cannot make withdrawals until, and unless, you have first made some deposits.  There are some things that cannot be put off until the last moment.

The story is told of a family who wanted their pastor to counsel their daughter in a decision she was making that they felt was wrong.  The pastor visited with the daughter for a half hour and did his best to point out some of the issues.  Yet, she still chose to go contrary to her parent’s decision.  Afterward, the mother said to the pastor that she was quite disappointed that he had not been able to have any success with her daughter.  She said, “I thought that you of all people would be able to turn her in the right direction.”  He thought to himself: “How can you expect me to accomplish in thirty minutes what you were not able to accomplish after thirty years.”

Why is it that we think we can put off life’s important decisions until the last moment?  It’s the foolish person who refuses to see down the long road.  It wasn’t that the foolish maidens lacked the desire.  They genuinely wanted to go and participate in the celebration.  It’s just they failed to prepare beforehand.  All too often we believe that heaven can wait.  Yet, it’s the wise person who doesn’t put off the matter of eternity to the end and hope for the best.  Proper preparation takes forethought, effort and patience.  This parable reminds me of what happened to me in 1990.

I entered the Air Force in December of 1979.  From day one, the Air Force spend thousands of dollars training me to do one thing, be prepared to “fly, fight and win.”  That was the phrase that was drilled into our heads.  From December of 1979 until August of 1990, I trained to do a specific job to ensure that when Seymour Johnson was called to fight for this nation, we could do so on a moment’s notice.  That call came on Tuesday afternoon August 7th

At 4:00 PM on the afternoon of August 7th, we were informed that we would be packing up our equipment and deploying in support of Desert Shield/Desert Storm.  By Friday morning August 10th, I was looking out the back of a C-5 aircraft on the runway of Thumrait, Oman.  In that short few days, Terry and I moved from one house to the next, my team had to pack up and ship some 33 tons of equipment, fly nearly 20 hours to the Middle East and then reassemble all that equipment and be able to operate in less that a week.  There was no time to think about getting the training I needed to operate in a hostile environment.  There was no time to figure out how to change filters in a gas mask or to properly don a chemical protective suit.  For 10 years, I was given the opportunity to train and prepare for war.  Tuesday afternoon, August 7th, was not the time to “get things right.”  On that Tuesday afternoon, I was either ready to go, or I was going to be left behind.

Third, the parable tells us that if we’re not prepared, we will miss our greatest opportunity.  The issue here is one of readiness when Christ returns.  When God holds His grand celebration, will we be ready?  Now, I’ll be the first one to forward that this theme has been abused over the years.  But, despite some bad theology espoused, despite the manipulative nature of how this theme is used, there is a genuine element to this teaching.  We need to understand that there is a warning, there is the truth of judgment in this parable.  When the foolish maidens arrived at the party, they were told: “The door was shut.”  When I read these words, I can’t help but think of the story of Noah and how he gathered his family into the ark and God closed the door behind them.  When the great flood came there were many who pounded on the door and begged to be let in, but the scripture says: “The door was shut” (Genesis 7:16b).  These are metaphors for God’s judgment.  They warn us that when God closes the door, no man can open it.  

Jesus is telling us in this simple parable about the tragedy of the unprepared life.  Jesus said that we’re to be prepared at all times: Jesus was clear, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matt. 24:36).  Fellow believers in Jesus’ final return, the best way to get ready for tomorrow, is to be ready today.  There will come a time when no further preparation is possible.

I had someone facing a difficult surgery sometime back tell me: Pastor, if everything turns out all right, that’s ok.  If everything doesn’t turn out alright, well, that’s ok too.”  That individual was speaking in the language of the five wise maidens.  They were prepared to live; the individual was also prepared to die.  Jesus tells us, “And behold, all of the maidens slumbered and slept.”  

But at midnight there was a cry: Behold the bridegroom.  Come and meet him.”  Those maidens who were prepared, Jesus called wise.  The warning in this story is clear, Jesus, the Bridegroom of the church, could return at any time.  For those who are wise and prepare will be invited in to enjoy in the feast that never ends.  For those who are not prepared, even though they have good intensions, the door will be shut and locked and they will be left on the outside.  Good intensions won’t get you in, we must be prepared and be patient.


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