The Rev. Denise Vaughn
The Joyous Celebration of LIFE
I am a planner by nature. I like to take time to think and plan through an event before it happens, whether it’s a dinner party, a holiday, an event at church or a special occasion like my daughters wedding. Weddings are usually one of the most important events in the life of a family. Much time is put into the planning and preparation so that every last detail goes just as planned. When my daughter decided to get married, I was in my first year at seminary in Austin, TX. My daughter Lacy was living in Fort Mill, SC just south of Charlotte, NC, some 1200 miles away from me. I had dreamed of this day and looked forward to being able to help her prepare for this joyous occasion. Best laid dreams, it was not possible for me be a part of the planning as I would have liked, but I am thankful for what I could do and for the most part, everything went as planned. The wedding and the reception were held outside under a tent and thank goodness for that planning, because as the reception was winding down and the last dances were being danced a nice big dark cloud showed up and the heavens opened.
In Jesus’ day, weddings were every bit as emotionally charged and joyous as ours today. The whole town would turn out. The guests would assemble at the home of the bride and were entertained by her parents while waiting for the groom. When the bridegroom approached, the guests, including the bridesmaids, would light their torches and go out to greet him. In a very festive procession, the entire party walked to the groom’s home where his parents were waiting for the ceremony, and the banquet that would follow, and continue for several days. In our gospel today despite the best laid plans, a crisis has occurred and it is significant I believe that near the end of Jesus’ life, he chose this most human, emotionally loaded event, a wedding, to use for a parable about the kingdom of heaven, he starts with saying “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.”
This section of Matthew, known as the Eschatological Discourse, or End Times Theology, is where we hear Jesus tell this parable about waiting and being prepared. It seems wisdom resides with those who are always prepared, always ready, awake, waiting urgently and well. Waiting is an act of faith but never easy. Hours have passed and many in the wedding party fall asleep for the bridegroom was delayed. Finally, at midnight, they are awakened with the shout, “He’s coming.” The bridesmaids leap into action, but five of them have used up all their oil and have none left. Frantically, they set out to borrow some from their wiser sisters and are rejected. When they finally arrive at the groom’s house, they are locked out and told “I do not know you.” Jesus says, “keep awake, You do not know the day nor the hour.”
In many ways, the meaning of the parable seems obvious: be like the wise bridesmaids be ready, wait purposefully and be prepared, have enough oil. If we are prepared, then Jesus will invite us into the banquet and the joy of the wedding feast is ours but if we are not prepared we will be locked out then, our sorrow will be great. Jesus had just finished telling his disciples about the signs of the end times which Matthew records in the chapter just before the one in which our gospel is found today. He impressed on them the necessity of being prepared. He said his coming again would be unexpected. He then compared the kingdom of heaven to this story about the wedding and the bridesmaids. When I put myself in the disciple’s shoes, I think how confusing this parable must have been for them. Jesus hadn’t even gone for first time and here he is talking about coming again.
So, to better understand this story it is important for us to remember that Matthew is writing his gospel long after the resurrection had occurred looking back through resurrection eyes. The early Christians were weary of waiting, Jesus has not returned as quickly as they thought he would. Matthew wants to stress the importance of being ready for that day, whenever it happens and the message has not changed even unto our day. The mission of Christians through the centuries who were waiting is the same as ours today which is to wait expectantly, to be ready, to live faithfully and hopefully. At the heart of our faith is the certainty that human history has a purpose and a goal and that until Jesus returns we are moving toward that eventual fulfillment and completion. We can’t really explain this understanding very well but there are plenty of people who have tried and sold lots of books describing the end of history in graphic and violent terms. We have been given some of the details in the word of God but the point is we have been told by Jesus that we are to wait expectantly, in hope and without fear.
There is a story about a priest who is waiting in line to fill up his car with gas. It’s the day before Thanksgiving. The attendant is working quickly, but still there are many cars in front of him. At long last, the priest is motioned to go to the vacant pump. “Sorry, Reverend,” said the young man. “It has been a long delay. It seems as if everyone waits until the last minute to get ready for a long trip.” The priest laughed, “I know what you mean. It’s the same in my business. We often we think we have all the time in the world to tend to certain matters. We put off for today that which we believe can be done tomorrow. The bridesmaids that did not have enough oil were not ready. They put off and were left out. As with so many things in life, timing is of the essence. In Matthew, the wise are those who know and tend to live without procrastination.
Our hope rests on trust that the God who created this world will continue to redeem and save the world, and until the bridegroom appears, it is our job to roll up our sleeves and work for the kingdom that is always coming and moving forward. To be prepared for the returning master is to be found in living faithfully and full of faith. With faith in God and active discipleship, the wise prepare for an unknown but secure future which the foolish do little to prepare for. One of the secrets Matthew teaches is that faithful action done now prepares us for whatever comes down the road, even as it prepares us for the joyous heavenly wedding celebration with Jesus and all God’s people.
Yet, there are still many who need to hear about this joyous feast and what God offers to each person. As Carrie Headington our speaker at Convention reminded us, God offers LIFE and this means unconditional love, identity, forgiveness, and eternal life. Who would not want to be a part of this joyous celebration? Therefore, we are to go out and invite everyone to the feast and as we wait for the Bridegroom and the joyous celebration to come, we must be wise and fill our lamps for use on this side of eternity and the next.