Saturday, November 8, 2014

Waiting and watching

Amos 5 18:24; 2 Thessalonians 4: 13-18; Matthew 25: 1-13

I can honestly say that I looked at all the texts today, trying to find one to talk about other than the Gospel text. But, after our conversation at the Tuesday evening Bible Study, I found a way to talk about it that did not make me scream, “What about grace?” I’m not alone. On a Facebook page for ELCA clergy, a pastor wrote, “Will someone please tell me where the gospel is in Sunday’s gospel reading?”
I finally figured out that the best way to talk about this parable is to solidly locate it in Matthew’s community at the time of the writing of this book. Let’s begin with some dates. Jesus died in about 30 CE. It is estimated that this Gospel was written in about 85-90 CE, 60 years after he died and was raised.
Life expectancy at that time was 35 or so, unless you had money, which gave you access to good nutrition and medical care. If the disciples were the same age as Jesus or even a bit younger, say 20-25, they would have been dead by the year 45, 50 at the latest. By the time the Gospel of Matthew was written in 85 or 90 or so, two or even three or four generations have heard of him, have come to believe in him, and have waited for him to return. It’s beginning to look like his promise to return is not going to be fulfilled.
Most of us are not good at waiting. We want what we want when we want it, and we want it now, thank you very much! The early Christians have been patient, despite the challenges of following Jesus in a Jewish and Roman society. The longer they wait, the harder it gets to remain faithful. They are worried that they have chosen to believe in something that is never going to happen. Why, then, should they continue to believe in Jesus?
To encourage the folks to continue to be patient, to continue to be faithful, Matthew has Jesus tell this parable in this way. He uses the very familiar image of God as Bridegroom and the people as Bride. This image is as familiar to the people of that time as the cross is to us.
The bridesmaids are waiting to greet the groom and accompany the bride and groom to their new home. But, for some unexplained reason, the groom is delayed. He shows up, but long after they had expected him to arrive. In an age before electricity, everyone had oil lamps to light the way, much as we today would use flashlights if we are out after dark. Their lamps/flashlights have gone out from waiting so long. Just in case, some of the bridesmaids have spare oil/batteries, but some of them do not have a back-up plan.
Those without light run off to the all-night oil store – or the nearest convenience store  – to get more supplies. By the time they return, the party has commenced inside and the doors are locked. They are too late to join the party.
The story seems to be about those who wait patiently and attentively for Jesus’ return, and about those who are going along just for the party, but are unprepared to wait as long as necessary for it to begin. It reminds us of the wedding feast where the invited guests refused to come, so others were invited in. They all came, but one person was not wearing a wedding garment. He was kicked out of the banquet hall.
The parable seems to be saying, “If you have not made a complete commitment to be part of the group, don’t bother hanging around waiting for the party.” So, for me, the point of the parable is the need to make a commitment, no matter how long it takes, and how hard it is to stay committed.
Some things happen in the blink of an eye: a car swerves into our lane, and we just barely avoid a collision. The ladder loses its footing in the ground, and we grab the roof just in time to right ourselves. The oil spills over the pan and catches on fire; fortunately, we have an extinguisher handy. Such accidents cause our hearts to beat faster, and to remember how lucky we are.
We thank God that nothing serious happened to us. And for the next week or two, we are more closely connected to God. But after a time, we forget. God takes a back seat again. We forget that we are waiting and watching for God’s presence and activity in our lives. We have neglected to bring extra oil/ batteries in case we have to wait longer than we thought we would.
Twenty or so years after Jesus died, Paul was starting churches and keeping in touch with them through letters. The people in the church in Thessalonica were beginning to worry. They thought Jesus was coming soon, any day now, and they were tired of waiting. The first believers were dying before Jesus could come for them. “What is going to happen to them?” they wonder.
Paul writes to assure them that they have not been forgotten. They will be raised from their tombs along with all other believers who have died waiting for Jesus’ return. They will be gathered together with those believers who are still alive and taken to be with Jesus forever. None will be forgotten, none will be left behind by Jesus.
Of course, 2,000 years later, we are still waiting for Jesus to return in triumph. Millions of believers have lived and died, patiently serving, faithfully waiting for that day. We have filled and refilled our oil lamps and bought hundreds of fresh batteries, and the end has not come. Are we waiting in vain, do you think?
No, God’s promises will be fulfilled, in God’s time, and in God’s way. We make assumptions about what Jesus’ return will look like, but in truth, we don’t know. Some think it will look like the Day of the Lord that the folks of Amos’ time were hoping for: a powerful, cataclysmic event to prove that Israel was righteous in God’s eyes. Yet, Amos prophesied that the Day of the Lord was going to be disastrous for the people, not a joyful occasion, because they were far from righteous.
We must remember that God likes surprises. The ancient Jews were waiting for a Messiah, to gather an army and crush the Romans. Instead, Jesus came, and was crushed by them. No one – NO ONE – was looking for a Messiah who would get himself killed before he had begun. No one – NO ONE – was looking for an empty tomb.
As we wait today, let’s remember that God likes surprises, and keep our lamps lit so we can see God in our midst wherever and however God shows up. Let’s remember that the Holy Spirit waits with us, and will help us see God’s activity, if we are open to such surprises. Let’s wait faithfully, patiently, and attentively, so we don’t miss out on any of the fun.  This week, keep your flashlights handy, to help you see where God is and what God is doing, because I promise you that God WILL show up, if you are looking for God.
Please pray with me. God of surprises, we try to wait and watch for you, but it is easy to let our lamps go out and to get distracted by life. Forgive us when we fail to see you. Make us more watchful so we can enjoy your presence with us. And help us show you to those who are afraid that they are waiting for you in vain. Amen