Remember to Take the Oil!, Matthew 25:1-13
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, November 8, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
Even during “usual” times, those who are planning weddings need to prepare for the unexpected.
There were 3 weddings that I was a part of this year, for which the planning of each began pre-Covid. All 3 couples had to reschedule dates or locations; they planned once, then had to plan again (and again), and pretty much—up to the day that each wedding occurred, they had to tweak, adjust, adapt, and think of alternatives to their alternatives. Each of the brides and grooms met these challenges with grace and a sense of humor, though I know there were stressful moments in the unexpected and ever-changing developments in this pandemic season.
I have mostly been lucky enough to have the unexpected happen well in advance of the weddings I’ve officiated, but my husband has a particular wedding story that he remembers from early in his ministry.
It was a large wedding party: the couple had invited several hundred guests, with relatives from across the country.
The appointed time came and the organist began the processional. Scott led the groom and groomsmen in: they went to the front of the sanctuary and turned around at the communion rail, expecting to see the bridesmaids in place. But to their surprise, there were no bridesmaids to be seen.
They stood there with no idea of where the women were, until the organist finished the processional. When she started to play it again, Scott decided he’d better investigate. He walked back to the narthex and found the bride in tears. Her sister, the maid of honor, had broken the zipper of her dress only minutes before they were to walk into the sanctuary, and they were frantically trying to sew her into her dress. Scott told them to come as soon as they were ready, and returned to stand with the men, assuring the groom that he didn’t have a runaway bride.
As it turned out, on the third playing of the processional, everyone was ready and the ceremony continued with no further trouble.
Jesus is teaching his disciples about the end of the age, telling several stories about how they—how we—are to live until that time. The story we read this morning is about ten young bridesmaids, five of whom are wise, while five are called foolish.
It may be helpful to know a little bit about first-century Jewish weddings.
In an Eastern culture the bridegroom is often a more important figure than the bride and frequently paid for all the expenses of the wedding.
A Jewish wedding had three parts or stages to it. First, there was the formal engagement/betrothal which was almost always arranged by the parents of the future bride and groom.
Later (up to a year or more) came the formal religious ceremony at the bride’s home. This was a religious service similar to our wedding service.
Third, there was the wedding banquet (feast), usually at night, at the house of the groom that generally lasted about seven days. It could take place right after the ceremony or weeks later. The bridegroom would go to get his bride from her father’s home and they would walk together to the wedding. It was an elaborate affair that cost a lost of money. It was, therefore, a social event that their friends would be anxious to attend.
As the bride and groom walked down the street, their bridesmaids would take part in the “welcoming ceremony” by lighting the way with lamps. It would be a major faux pax for anyone in the wedding party not to be by the road ready to welcome the bridegroom and bride.
Well, for some reason, for this wedding feast, the groom is delayed. Maybe the bride’s zipper broke or it’s taken him longer than expected to make arrangements with the bride’s father, negotiating the bride price, or the dowry. We don’t know. But as they wait, the bridesmaids fall asleep. There’s no harm in that: it’s late in the evening, the sun has gone down and it’s been a busy day of preparation! The bridesmaids are human, and sometimes a nap before a special occasion is the reasonable thing to do.
What isn’t good, is they hadn’t all prepared for their wedding responsibilities before falling asleep. They’d put on their wedding clothes and met together at the appointed time. They enjoyed conversation and helped the maid of honor rehearse her speech for the banquet, but they didn’t think about checking on how much oil they had. Earlier, they could have easily stopped at the store to buy some so they’d have plenty. But they didn’t. It seems they didn’t think about it. It would be like a pastor coming to church for a candlelight service, and not bothering to check to see if there were any candles. Candles are kind of important for a candlelight service.
Being ready is important.
There are all kinds of things to think about when you’re planning for a big event, but you can’t lose track of the main thing that you’re called to do.
Five of the bridesmaids forgot their “main thing.”
In a panic, they turn to the five who had thought ahead and said, “Give us some of your oil! We’re out!”
But the five who had planned ahead could see the groom was on his way and knew if they gave their oil away, they’d all have some for a while, but then everybody’s light would be out and the last part of the journey would be walked in darkness. No one would be able to see the dancers. No one would be able to see the happy couple. Their mission (that they had chosen to accept!) wouldn’t be accomplished. They would embarrass themselves and disappoint the bridegroom. They knew they didn’t want to do that.
So, they suggest to the ones who don’t have any oil that they go to the convenience store down the block and buy some. Since the wedding is a big deal, it’s possible there are some special vendors in town. But there’s also that chance that the store has a closed sign in the window, since the proprietor is headed to the wedding, too. And besides, it’s midnight.
There’s a lot of last minute anxiety.
But the five bridesmaids take off down the road to see what they can do. They return awhile later, but they’re too late. They’ve missed out. The processional didn’t play through 3 times waiting for their arrival. The wedding is already in progress, the doors are closed and they can’t get in.
They pound on the door. “Let us in!” The groom replies, “I don’t know you.”
Jesus ends the story, concluding, “keep alert because you don’t know the day or the hour.”
It’s a sad story, isn’t it? When we remember it’s a story about the kingdom of heaven, it gets even sadder because the bridesmaids are shut out of heaven. But, let’s remember it’s a story that Jesus tells to instruct his disciples…to instruct us. What his disciples will discover, and what we’ve come to know is that the Son of God (the bridegroom in the story) didn’t come back as soon as his first century followers thought he would. He still hasn’t returned, not yet. And so Jesus is telling us that our mission is to remain alert. To be prepared. To wait expectantly, to live faithfully, courageously and hopefully, so we’re ready when the end time comes.
None of us knows when that will be or how that will play out. But whether Jesus returns on a cloud from heaven for all of us at the same time, or we meet him individually after taking our last breath, Jesus tells us that we’ll want to be ready.
I think it’s important to note at this point that Jesus doesn’t tell the story to scare his disciples into submission…to make us fearful of what might happen someday if we aren’t living “right.” I remember when Scott and I were teens or young adults we went to see a movie (I think it was) “A Thief in the Night,” and it was awful. Not just the acting, but it was basically a horror film intended to scare a person into the arms of Jesus, and I guess it did, kind of, in a traumatizing and nightmarish kind of way.
Instead of trying to scare the bejeebies out of us, in this story, Jesus is calling his disciples to stay the course, to live faithfully. To keep in mind that our lives have a goal and a purpose, which I would say sounds familiar to us: to love God, to love others, to serve God, to serve others, to be a part of what God is doing to bring about the kingdom on earth. To do that, we need to keep replenishing the oil in our lamps, to keep them lit, so that we can light the way for Christ, the bridegroom, when he does return.
So, what is the oil? What does this mean for us today? The oil that keeps our lamps lit might include faith, good works, spiritual practices, community, worship, giving, serving—things that sustain us and build us up in this in-between time in which we live: the time in between Jesus’ coming into the world as a babe in Bethlehem, and the time he returns in all his glory. These things that keep our lamps lit aren’t something we “do” in order to get ourselves from point A to point B. They’re not hoops to jump through to make God happy, they’re things that we do to nurture our spirits, to prepare ourselves from the inside out so that when Jesus does come, we’ll be ready. So we’ll see him and be ready to respond. So we’ll be able to fully participate in the banquet, because we’ve spent time on earth in training. Maybe that’s why the five wise bridesmaids didn’t share their oil with the others—it isn’t because they’re being selfish or unkind—it’s because what they have nurtured from within isn’t something that can simply be poured into another person at a moment’s notice, even if that’s what they would like to do. We can shine our light and offer our best for another to see and to respond to, but we can’t “do” the work of preparing them from the inside. That’s something we must each do on our own.
Our text reminds us that timing is important.
We tend to think that we have all the time in the world to tend to certain matters: whether it’s rebuilding a relationship, learning a skill, offering thanks, achieving a goal, replacing a bad habit with a good one…or whatever it is we’ve always thought we’d like or need to do. But sometimes what we always thought we’d do, what we really meant or intended to do, can no longer get done. The person with whom we were estranged dies and your opportunity to reconcile is gone. The person who was once so generous and you would like to thank, you can’t anymore. Whatever it might be, sometimes a door really does close and you can’t do what you intended to do.
Timing is important.
And so, Jesus tells us that now is the time to get ready; to train, to prepare, so that when the groom comes, we’re good to go! We know how to do it! Later in Matthew, Jesus tells us what preparing looks like. It has to do with feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick and the imprisoned. It has to do with loving God, loving others, serving God, and serving others.
There are a lot of unknowns in our world. Unexpected things happening. Delays that distract us from what we’re called to be doing. And yet, our future is secure. Jesus came once and he’s coming again. May we be ready so we can fully and joyfully participate in the banquet.