Be Alert - Matthew 25:1-13

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 2nd December 2001.

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I wonder if you have ever been present when a king or queen has come to town. Perhaps the most spectacular visits nowadays are the visits of the President of the United States, since he is the most powerful man in the world at the present time. His visits are planned with military precision. Two or three months before the visit a 12 man team photographs all venues, checks out hotels, hospitals and local protocol. About six weeks before the visit about 30 officials examine airports, helicopter landing sites, land routes and media coverage. Ten days ahead, huge cargo planes deliver limousines, helicopters, communications vehicles band a backup war wagon containing a crack armed response unit. In the final week the secret service plans the "spontaneous events" like walk abouts, and up to nine hundred staff are brought in. And at last the President arrives on Air Force One, the presidential plane, itself costing $54,000 an hour to run. It is no surprise that Bill Clinton’s visit to Africa in 1998 cost a staggering $42.8 million! That’s what happens when the President comes to town!

Well today we’re thinking about another awesome arrival- But this is no human president, this is the King of kings Jesus Christ. And this is no political visit- this is the most important event in human history that is yet to happen- the second coming of Jesus Christ. Now today is Advent Sunday, a day when we begin to look back to Jesus’ first coming in humility as a little child in Bethlehem; but also on this day we look forward to his second coming again in glory. And it’s fitting that on this day we are beginning a three part series in the morning services looking at Matthew 25 in which Jesus is teaching his disciples about his coming and the end of the world. It comes in a sermon of Jesus’ which begins in Matthew 24 and goes through to the end of Matthew 25. And in those chapters Jesus is mainly teaching about his second coming. So when we come to 25 v 1, and Jesus says "At that time, the kingdom of heaven will be like this….." , he’s telling us this is what it will be like when he comes again.

And in chapter 25 Jesus uses three parables, three stories to make some very important points about this coming of Jesus. These passages are here to warn us. They show us that the second coming of Jesus is the most significant thing that is yet to happen in the world, and it will happen. And it’s so important because it is dealing with issues of life and death, eternal life and death. And it’s something the first Christians took very seriously indeed. It’s mentioned over three hundred times in the NT, that’s once every thirteen verses. They lived their lives in the light of the second coming, and that is something every Christian must to. So let’s turn to this first parable in verses 1-12, we’ll learn two very important lessons.


1) Be Certain of Jesus’ Return (Vv 1-7)

2) Be Ready for Jesus’ Return (Vv 8-13)

1) Be Certain of Jesus’ Return (Vv 1-7)

So the first lesson we learn is be certain of Jesus’ return. Verse 1: "At that time, the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom." Now the picture here is of a wedding. And Jewish weddings were rather different from ours. These virgins were probably the young unmarried women who attended the bride, rather like our bridesmaids nowadays. And what would happen is that the bridegroom would go the bride’s house, collect the bride and then go to his own house where the party would begin. And the party would often go on for several days. And these ten virgins would be waiting for the bridal party as they travelled from the bride’s house to the groom’s. It would probably be at night and so the bridesmaids would need their oil lamps to hand to escort the party. And here the bridegroom is the centre of attention. Today of course the bride gets much more of the attention- we are supposed to admire her dress, comment intelligently on her hair style, and say how radiant she looks. But in this parable the bridegroom is the most important figure. And that is because Jesus is the bridegroom. And the bridegroom was one of the ways of God described himself in the OT. He is the husband, the bridegroom of his people. And so Jesus here is claming divine status as he shows himself to be the bridegroom. It is his coming which is the centre of attention. It is his return we’re to be certain of.

But there are two things which Jesus intends us to learn about his coming or return. First, his coming is delayed. We can see that from verse 5: "The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep." The bridegroom was delayed. He took a long time in coming. Now we are not told in the story why the bridegroom is delayed. He may have been haggling over the price of the bride. Was she worth 10 camels or just 5? Maybe he was having second thoughts after meeting his future mother in law. Who knows. The point is: His coming is delayed. And it is clear throughout these chapters that Jesus intended us to see that his coming would be delayed. In 25 v 19, in the parable of the talents, Jesus says that the master of the house came only after a long time. And in 24 v 48, in another of Jesus’ stories, the wicked servant says to himself, "My master is staying away a long time." All these parables are making the same point. Jesus’ return is delayed. He’ll be away a long time.

And throughout history there have been no shortage of people queuing up to ridicule Christians. "He’s not coming back," they say. "You don’t really believe that old rubbish do you? He’s conned you! Look at how long it has been. Two thousand years. Give it up!" And I guess not a few of us would be tempted to think the same. "Is Jesus really coming back. I mean it has been so long. Why the delay? Has he given up his promise?" Well the answer to the scoffers is a resounding: "No!" God has not given up on his people. Rather he is patient with the world and he wants as many as possible to become Christians before Jesus returns. That’s the answer Peter gives in 2 Peter 3 v 3: "First of all you must understand that in the last days, the time between Jesus’ first and second comings, scoffers will come scoffing saying: ‘Where is this coming he promised?’" There’s nothing new under the sun is there! Scoffers then, scoffers today! Peter goes on in verse 8: "But do not forget this one thing dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." That’s why God is delaying the return of Jesus. Oh, there is not doubt it will happen. But God is patient. He longs for more to come to know him. I’m thankful that Jesus did not return in 1979. Because I became a Christian in 1980. I’m thankful that God was patient that extra year. And if you became a Christian in the 1990’s then be thankful that Jesus didn’t come back in 1989. He was patient.

His return is delayed. It didn’t seem to bother the Reformers who wrote the prayer book for the Church of England in the sixteenth century. In that book there is a chart which helps Christians to work out when Easter will be in each year, and they cover the years right up until the year 8500. Clearly they thought Jesus might not come back for at least eight millennia. But they never doubted Jesus’ promises. He will return, we can be sure of that, but his return is delayed because he is patient.

But while Jesus’ return is delayed yet it will happen and when it does it will be sudden. Be certain of Jesus’ return- It is first delayed, but secondly it is also sudden. That’s Jesus’ point in verse 6: "At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’" Often in the NT Jesus shows us that he will come back when we least expect it. In this story, the bridegroom returns in the middle of the night. No-one would have guessed when he would have returned. And while we don’t know the date and the time, even though some try to convince us they do, we can be sure that Jesus will return, even though he is patiently delaying. There will come a time when Jesus will return.

I used to have a French teacher at school who would forever come to lessons and then disappear again saying that he had some important things to see to, which was actually code for watching the cricket on TV. He would set us some work and then disappear. But the thing was you could never be sure when actually he would return. Sometimes the delay would be for 35 minutes, but at other times, the delay would be just five minutes. He would be delayed, but he would always return, though suddenly. And not a few times, we were caught out throwing things at each other, or painting someone’s ear with tippex.

And in the same way, though Jesus’ return is delayed, he will come back suddenly. Be in no doubt. Now let me ask: Do you really believe that? Do you honestly believe that Jesus will come back? Do you really believe that the second coming is an historical reality? And if so do you really believe he could come back today? For there is no reason why it couldn’t be! His coming could be at any time. That’s why gospel work is so urgent. Time is short. We live in urgent days. We don’t know when Jesus will return. But we do know he will. And that is why every new day is a sign that God is patient and is giving us a fresh opportunity to tell others about this rescuer Jesus before it is too late. Some of the most effective workers for the kingdom of God have been those who have truly lived in the light of Jesus’ return. Lord Shaftsbury, the 19th century reformer, was one of those. He said that for forty years of his life he began each day by thinking of Jesus’ return. And he did great things for God. He lived in the belief that Jesus could and might return at any moment. And he was greatly used by God. Don’t believe the scoffers. They are wrong. Of all the things that Jesus promises, only one is yet to be fulfilled- his return. And if he was right about the others, then he can be trusted on this one too. He will come back- make no mistake. Yes his coming is delayed, but it will happen suddenly. Be certain of Jesus’ return.


2) Be Ready for Jesus’ Return (Vv 8-13)

But then our second lesson from this parable is be ready for Jesus return. We must be certain of it and be ready for it. You may be able to remember some years ago those Yellow Pages adverts which featured a young man whose parents had gone away for the weekend and who had left him in charge of the house. Well this of course was the perfect opportunity for a party. So he invites all his friends round and has a wild time. But the next morning he awakes in a blurry haze to discover carnage in the house. The very precious family portraits are now wearing glasses, the vanilla carpet is now a deep shade of red, and the prize mahogany table is decorated with a huge scratch. And to cap it all his parents are only hours away. They are coming back. And he will have to face their wrath. How can he be saved? Yellow Pages. So round come the French Polishers and the picture restorers and the carpet cleaners and all is pretty much OK. The near return of his parents makes him get ready. And that is Jesus’ point in this parable. Jesus is coming back, so get ready. See how he puts it in verses 13. This is his application: "Therefore, keep watch because you do not know the day or the hour." Keeping watch doesn’t mean scanning the skies waiting for Jesus to come back. It means to be prepared, be ready for Jesus’ return.

But why should we be ready? What is it about Jesus’ return that makes it something that we should get ready for? Well two things. First, Jesus’ return divides.

Back to the story. The bridegroom is on his way back, and we pick up the story at verse 7: "Then all the virgins trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise: ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ ‘No’, they replied. ‘There may not be enough for both of us and you. Instead go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’" Now if you had met these bridesmaids that evening, then you would not have noticed any differences between them. They were all wearing the same Dorothy Perkins’ dresses. They all had the same bouquets, they were all waiting in the same place for the bridegroom, they all had lamps. And they all fell asleep. There is no criticism implied in their sleeping. It’s been a long day and it’s no surprise the bridesmaids fall asleep. Rather the problem comes when they wake up. The cry goes up: "Here’s the bridegroom! Come out and meet him!" The trouble is only five are in a fit state to meet him. Only five have burning lamps. Only five have brought spare oil in the event of a delay. I don’t think the oil is supposed to represent anything. This is a parable not an allegory. Jesus doesn’t intend us to see all the details as representing something. Rather the point is this: Only five are prepared. The other five are not ready. That’s the only difference. But it is crucial. And it’s the return of the bridegroom that exposes the difference between the bridesmaids.

Jesus’ return divides. In fact, Jesus’ return is the dividing point of humanity. His return will show who is ready to meet him and who is not. And it is up to us to make sure we are on the right side of that dividing line. But not only does Jesus’ return divide, but there are even more serious consequences of this division which Jesus shows us in the last part of this parable. For Jesus’ return excludes. Verse 10: "While they were on their way to buy oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us.’ But he replied: ‘I tell you, I don’t know you.’" It’s very clear isn’t it? If you are not ready, you won’t get into the banquet. You cannot rely on others to get you in. It’s not that Jesus is teaching selfishness here. He teaches sacrificial giving elsewhere. Rather here he is saying that each of us are responsible for our own readiness for when Jesus comes back. You cannot rely on a parent’s faith. You cannot rely on a spouse’ faith. You cannot rely on simply going through the religious motions. Second hand faith will not do. You must be ready personally. For Jesus’ return excludes. When he comes back, time will have run out, and if you are not ready, you will not get into the party. And then the bridegroom will say: "I tell you the truth. I don’t know you." And the door will be shut. They are some of the most chilling words in the Bible. And if you have not prepared yourself for the return of Christ, then you’ll be found to be foolish.

It’s a horrible feeling to be excluded isn’t it? I remember once going to a big posh party at university, and the tickets gave a very specific dress code. And each guest had to make sure they were wearing the right clothes. And at the door as we entered there would be someone checking every guest to make sure they were wearing the right clothes. And if you were not, then you could not enter the party. And so it is here. If you are not prepared, then you will not be let in. That’s why we should be ready for Jesus’ return. Because his return is such a serious event. His return will bring all human history to and end and the new age will begin. At that time Jesus will judge the world as we’ll see in two weeks time. And those who are ready to meet him will go with him into the great feast. But those who are not ready will not. For a perfect God cannot feast with unforgiven, unclean sinners. "Therefore, keep watch, says Jesus, because you do not know the day or the hour."

And of course this begs the question, well how do I get ready? How can I be like the wise bridesmaids who were ready? Well Jesus will answer the question for us next week when we look at the next parable. The point of this parable is that we should keep watch and be ready. But lest we leave unsure as to what to do, and since the Lord has patiently given us today as another chance to explain the good news and for people to repent, then the NT tells us clearly what we need to do. In the first place we must come to Jesus for forgiveness. Advent Sunday is as good a day as any to do that. For today we remember Jesus’ first coming to die on a cross to offer us forgiveness. For God cannot have in his presence sinful people. That’s why there is an exclusion when Jesus returns. And yet he can have in his presence forgiven and cleaned up people. And we must accept that gift for ourselves. We cannot rely on another’s faith. We must come to Christ personally and receive his free gift. That is the only basis on which we can go into the banquet. And please do think you can leave it all till later. There may not be much later left! But also part of being ready is active Christian service. We show our true colours by our commitment to Christ and his cause of the gospel. That is how we prepare ourselves. We live our lives in the certain hope that Jesus is returning and that time is short.

So are you ready? Are you wise and have you made your peace with your maker, asking for his forgiveness and mercy? And are you seeking to love for your Lord as someone who truly is making the most of the time God is giving us? I think one of the most chilling things about this parable is that all the bridesmaids thought they were OK. And all of them on the surface looked fine. But only five were. So don’t be shown up as unprepared. Rather take Jesus’ warning serious. Get ready and stay ready. Be ready for Jesus’ return.

So be certain of Jesus’ return and be ready for Jesus’ return. Jesus is coming back- his return is delayed but it will be sudden. And his return divides and excludes. Such is the importance of this King. Human kings and presidents may cause a bit of a stir, but Jesus’ coming will bring to an end all human history as we know it. Do you believe he’s coming and if so, are you ready for that coming?

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