Almost every clergy person and church organist I know has his or her favorite awful wedding story. Some of them are quite funny. Others make your head hurt. Sometimes members of the wedding party, or an over-bearing relative, or a professional photographer who acts like the service is just a stage set for his stunning photos, or (God help us) a secular wedding planner who treats clergy and musicians like the hired help at her command, do things that show they have no clue and no respect for the sacred and spiritual nature of the service. Probably the most common bad manners at weddings are when the bridal party arrives late – very late, and the organist has played nearly a whole recital, and recycled her music several times, leaving the guests in a seemingly endless holding pattern, and the priest and groom wondering if the bride has bolted.
The parable Jesus tells this morning is about bridesmaids waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom at a wedding feast. A first-century Jewish wedding had customs that are different from ours today, but not so different that we don’t get the picture that Jesus is painting. The bridesmaids – the young, unmarried girls – were supposed to be waiting outside, in the lobby, for the groom to welcome him to the wedding reception. They waited, and they waited, and the groom was seriously delayed – enough that the girls all fell asleep. When they are finally wakened by hearing the groom on his way (maybe the best man texted them?), half of the bridesmaids had no more fuel for their oil lamps and ran off to the oil-dealers to stock-up. But while they were gone, the groom arrived and proceeded into the wedding feast with the wise and prepared bridesmaids, leaving the others shut out of the party.
There are a few things to remember here. First of all, this parable has lots of heightened imagery and rhetorical flourishes that immediately move us beyond any real-world wedding. A second point is that wedding imagery was used many, many times throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) to describe the relationship between God and God’s People. Theirs was to be a relationship of love, devotion, and joy.
The final perspective to keep in mind is that Jesus is telling this parable to his disciples, privately. For the last six weeks (with the exception of last Sunday) every Gospel reading we have had has come from those few days in Jesus life between his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and the Last Supper, most of his time teaching in the Temple, the holiest site in all Judaism. But now Jesus and the disciples accompanying him had left the Temple and withdrawn to the Mount of Olives just outside the city. And the disciples had asked him when it was that the Temple would be destroyed, and when Jesus would come into his own as the rightful sovereign of God’s world, and when would be the end of the present age of human rule – pagan and Roman, violent, corrupt and foolish in its rejection of God’s ways and God’s claim on the life of created order. Jesus answered their question in a number of symbolic stories and sayings, including this parable.
What should we hear in Jesus’ instruction? What is the take-away for us, nearly twenty-one centuries later?
Those who wait in attendance on the Lord Jesus – that is, those who love and follow him – need to be ready for the fact that God’s time is not our time. Our expectations and desires about the accomplishment of the Lord’s purpose do not and will not always match up with God’s way of doing things. Jesus told the disciples that the fulfillment of God’s plan (the wedding feast) might well take longer than they expected or wanted, but that they should be ready at any point to spring into action and welcome their Lord (the groom) with joy, prepared to move ahead with God, and not be left outside the proverbially door because we got complacent, or inattentive, or gut thought that we’d have plenty of time. The oil in our lamps, our spiritual fuel, needs continually re-filling so that we can be ready when God says, “Let’s go.”
Of course, there is a whole question here about the return of Christ – how, when, what will it be like – and most of that we will have to leave aside for now. But it is important to remember that the Lord’s return is an article of our faith. We proclaim it in the Creed every week: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” As Christians we know that heaven and earth are intimately bound up together, and that nothing that God has made will ever be lost to God. And so we look forward to Christ’s return with eagerness, anticipation, and joy.
But we can get weary, and spiritually sleepy and sluggish, and oh so tired of waiting. Sometimes that causes us to give up, to say that life will never follow God’s pattern, other times we actively neglect our souls and the Holy Spirit’s life within us, and in other cases we lose interest and wander away – our attention grabbed by too many shiny objects that make all sorts of glittering but false promises.
So here we are, in the 21st century A.D. – anno domini, the year of our Lord – and where is he? We are getting weary of waiting! And many of us probably look at the world around us and say, “Anytime, Lord. The world surely needs you now.” But if we are faithful, we wait – not withdrawing from the world in a sulk, not cooling our heels in the corner. We wait, and watch; our sight enlightened by the oil of the Holy Spirit who says that God keeps God’s promises. We may not be ready for the full banquet, but we get a foretaste of it – an appetizer, if you will – God’s Eucharistic feast. We wait and work – not for Christ to rescue us – but to prepare the world in goodness and wholeness and justice to be ready to receive its true Lord and Sovereign.
And what keeps us from getting weary and giving up? It is through our prayer, our dwelling in God’s Word, our praise, our gathering together as a community and in smaller groups to encourage one another, to support one another, to feed one another, to fill one another’s lamps with the power of the Spirit’s hope and joy and strength. We live in the in-between time; between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, and his return to bring God’s purposes to fruition in all God’s glory. We have a role to play in the redemption of the world, and God’s counting on us. Let us remain ready, watchful, and prepared. The best is yet to come.
Let us pray.
Dear Lord, help us to put aside the distractions of this world’s many gods, the things that weary and weigh us down. May the flame of your Holy Spirit burn bright within us, that we may be a light for others, and stand ready to greet you with joy. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
November 12, 2017