Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sermon: Matthew 25: 1-13 The Wise and Foolish Virgins

I'm getting married in the morning! Ding dong!
The bells are gonna chime. Pull out the stopper!
Let's have a whopper! But get me to the church on time!

So sang Alfred Doolittle in the film My Fair Lady. These days, it’s normally the bride who gets to the wedding late - and sometimes when ministers get together, they share their horror stories of brides over an hour late! For the groom, it can be an anxious time - I was best man for my brother-in-law, who walked up and down the church wondering if she wasn’t coming at all...

Yet in the story that Jesus tells, we find that weddings in his day and culture were a little different. You see, it wasn’t the bride that everyone was waiting for as she got the hair and makeup and dress and whatever all else sorted. Rather everyone is waiting for the groom. He comes to the bride’s house, and the wedding banquet can begin.

In Jesus’ story, though, the focus isn’t actually on the groom. Rather, the camera focuses in on the group of bridesmaids (or virgins, in other translations). I’ve been to some big weddings, but here there were ten bridesmaids! They are waiting outside the venue to greet the groom - who could arrive at any time. There’s no time on the wedding invite; he’ll come when he’s ready. The bridesmaids are ready, they’re waiting, and they’ve each brought their oil lamps with them.

The only problem is that five were foolish. The five wise bridesmaids brought their lamp as well as an extra supply of oil - just in case... but the foolish ones only had the oil in their lamp. It wouldn’t matter. Surely he wouldn’t be late? Were they a bit like the people who keep driving when the petrol light comes on, thinking that they’ll make it, the gauge must be faulty?

And so the bridesmaids wait. They’re excited, they compare their wedding finery, they chat about the wedding and the happy couple, but there’s still no sign of the groom. It’s getting dark, their eyes grow heavy, and one by one, they fall asleep.

Have you ever had a time when you’re fast asleep and then you’re wakened suddenly? The phone rings at 2am and you don’t know where you are. The baby cries and you’re up and ready to do the needful. As these bridesmaids sleep, suddenly the cry goes up ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’

The lamps are gathered up, they’re trimmed ready to show the way for the groom as he comes to his wedding feast, except, there’s a problem. The five foolish ones have no oil left. Their lamps are going out. [It’s a bit like finding the batteries in your torch are done when there’s a power cut] They ask for a loan of some of their friends’ oil. But they need it themselves.

So off the foolish bridesmaids go, to the twenty-four hour Tesco to get some lamp oil, but at that very time, while they’re away, the bridegroom arrives. The wise bridesmaids with their burning lamps greet him and go in to the wedding feast with him. The door is shut, the party begins.

After a while, the bridesmaids with their lamps now burning arrive at the door. There’s no one around. They knock on the door. They expect to get in, but they get a surprising answer. ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ ‘But he replied, Truly I tell you I do not know you.’ The foolish bridesmaids have missed out.

Now why did Jesus tell this story? He wasn’t just sharing a minister story of a wedding he’d heard tell of or been at. Nor was he just giving some advice to wedding guests to (in the words of the Scout motto) be prepared. What’s the point of the story?

We find a clue in verse 1. Jesus says as he begins the parable ‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.’ It’s a story that tells us something about the kingdom. Now, if you remember in the distant past of this time last year, we looked at some of Jesus’ other kingdom parables, from Matthew 13. They were about how the kingdom grew and developed (the sower and the soils; the weeds and wheat; mustard seed; leaven; treasure hidden in a field). That was chapter 13. But now, in chapter 25, Jesus is in the week leading up to the cross.

He’s teaching his disciples in the leadup to his crucifixion, preparing them for their ministry after his death and resurrection and ascension. As they’re walking out of Jerusalem, the disciples are awed by the temple buildings, but Jesus says they’ll shortly be destroyed. The disciples can’t imagine this - it would be like us being told the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey would all be in ruins. They ask ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ Jesus is answering their questions in chapters 24 and 25. 24 is mostly about the destruction of Jerusalem (which happened in AD70) and 25 gives us three parables of the end, of Jesus’ return.

So in this story (and on the next two Sundays), Jesus is teaching us about his return. This is what it will be like when Jesus comes and his kingdom is finally revealed. Jesus, the bridegroom is coming. It’s the moment we are waiting for; the wedding supper will begin.

We know that Jesus is coming. Yet it seems as if he is delayed. He hasn’t arrived yet. Are you ready to meet him?
On the surface, all the bridesmaids looked the same. But only half of them were welcomed in.

The foolish bridesmaids thought that everything would work out all right. If need be, they could borrow someone else’s oil; and surely they would we welcomed whatever time they landed up. But the door remains closed. The party is inside, and they have missed it. They’re outside.

There’s no second chance when the bridegroom has arrived. You see, some people think that they’ll live life the way they want and convert on their death bed at the age of 101. But which of us is guaranteed today, let alone another twenty or fifty or seventy years? The Lord Jesus could return this very day. Rather than delaying, Jesus urges us to be like the wise bridesmaid, to be ready and waiting, eager to greet him when he comes.

That’s the message Jesus has for us today - which we find in verse 13. They’re words that some preachers would love to have painted above the pulpit: ‘Keep awake’! ‘Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.’ We don’t know when Jesus will come, but we know that he is coming. Our task is to be ready to greet him, to be like the wise bridesmaids, with lamps burning.

This morning as we join around the Lord’s Table, we find the foretaste of that heavenly wedding feast. May we all be gathered around that heavenly table, and not find ourselves on the outside when the bridegroom comes.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 11th August 2013.

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