Be prepared - Matthew 25:1-13

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 15th July 2012.

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Had you been on the coast of Britain in 1845 you might have seen two ships being boarded by 138 of England’s finest sailors setting sail for the Arctic. Their task was to chart the Northwest Passage around the Canadian Arctic to the Pacific Ocean.

The Captain, Sir John Franklin, hoped that this effort would be the turning point in Arctic exploration. And so it was, not because of its success, but because of its failure. You see, the ships never returned. Every member of the crew perished. What was the lesson learnt? The lesson was this: Be prepared. Apparently Franklin wasn’t. Though the voyage was expected to last for two or three years, he carried only a twelve day supply of coal for the auxiliary steam engines. But what he lacked in fuel he made up for in entertainment. Each ship carried a 1,200 volume library, a hand organ, and china place settings for officers and men, cut glass goblets and sterling silverware. The sailors carried no special clothing to protect them from the cold, only the thin blue uniforms of Her Majesty’s fleet.

Of course the inevitable occurred. The two ships had sailed ill prepared into freezing waters. The seas froze and the ships became trapped. The sailors set out for help, wearing their uniforms and carrying their belongings, dragging a wooden boat across the ice. For the next twenty years, remains of the expedition were found all over the frozen sea. The silver knives and forks so ornately designed would later be found near a clump of frozen cannibalized bodies.

Franklin died on the boat. Search parties would later find a piece of the backgammon board Lady Franklin had given her husband as a farewell present.

It is strange, isn’t it? How men could embark upon such a journey ill-prepared, more equipped for afternoon tea than for the open sea.

Stranger still is that many Christians act in the same way as they travel on their hazardous journey from this world to the next. If the truth be known we sometimes act as if the Christian life is a retirement cruise. We have little fuel but lots of entertainment. We give more thought to the silver cutlery than surviving the journey. And so when the big freeze comes, when trials come our way, not least when it seems that the Christian journey is too long a haul, we step out onto the ice with the spiritual equivalent of forks, games and skimpy clothing. Far too often we are simply not prepared.

And it is as warning to professing Christians not to be caught out unprepared that Jesus tells this colourful parable of the ten bridesmaids or ten virgins. So what’s it all about?

Notice how Jesus begins: “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.”  What time is he talking about? Well, in the previous chapter Jesus has started teaching his disciples about the way in which God’s saving rule, his kingdom, will eventually be brought to full completion when Jesus returns to this earth in glory. And there are some aspects of that second coming which will be comparable to a typical Jewish wedding. What are those?

Well, first of all we have an astonishing claim. Jesus is talking about his return to earth after he has ascended back to the Father to receive all authority via the way of the cross. And who is the one who is being expected to show up in the story? It is the bridegroom. What is the big deal about that? Well, the big deal is that in the Old Testament it is God who is likened to a bridegroom. For example, in Isaiah chapter 62:5 the prophet says, ‘As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.’ This means that at least Jesus is claiming that in his person, God has already come to prepare for the great wedding feast at the end of time, gathering his wedding party together through the Gospel and when he comes again- that is when the festivities will begin in earnest and will last for ever. But the claim is unmistakable; it is a claim to divinity that Jesus is making. It is not possible to be related to God and enjoy the benefits of knowing God without being properly related to Jesus. Jesus is the one who is steering the whole course of history to this great and glorious climax. And so the picture of a wedding is brilliantly suited to capture this great end, and in some ways, great beginning-which is what a marriage is. And as with any wedding there is a tremendous amount of preparation which goes into making it a success, but it is possible to be negligent and so miss out which would be a tragedy.

Which brings us to our second point, a serious neglect: “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, (there is the key to the point of this story), and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’“Then all the virgins woke up and 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 us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’

Just let me fill in a little of the background as to what is going on here. This is a scene from Middle Eastern village life which would have been familiar to Jesus’ disciples, they would have been to dozens of weddings like this, in fact we know they went with Jesus to one in Cana where he turned water into wine. Now, these weddings would normally take place during the months of a hot cloudless summer and unlike our weddings, which take place on the same day- these weddings were long drawn out affairs. If the bride didn’t live too far away, maybe in the same village (as was often the case) or in a neighbouring village the groom would go over to her house to collect the bride and maybe engage in some last minute renegotiations of the wedding dowry, a bride did not come free nor was she cheap. Some bartering would perhaps go on between the groom and the father of the bride. It reminds me of the story of the wedding couple that got married in an Anglican church and it was during the signing of the register that the Vicar decided to sort out the fees with the groom. The groom asked how much was the wedding, which had just taken place, cost? The Vicar being a canny Yorkshireman said ‘Well, give me whatever you think your bride is worth’. And so the groom handed over £50. The Vicar took another look at the bride and gave him £40 change! Now while all of this was going on, back at the groom’s house everything was being arranged for the marriage feast, the wedding proper and once the groom and bride arrived back here these celebrations could go on for a week or more. And this is where the bridesmaids would be getting ready.

The bridesmaids were usually girls chosen from the town whose task was to greet the groom and bride as they entered into the village and form a procession back to the groom’s house. Now when it speaks of the girls having ‘lamps’ it could mean one of two things. It could be referring to small, oil filled lamps which would provide simple illumination. Alternatively, it might be referring to torches made up of rags and cloth soaked in oil, bound at the end of wooden stakes. These would then form a torchlight procession and may even be used in a festive dance along the road. But in both cases any bridesmaid worth her salt would bring along extra oil just in case it was needed. If it were a lamp, the oil would be carried in little clay jars and then added to the lamp having trimmed the wicks. If it were a torch, then once it had burned low, the burnt cloth would be cut away and the underlying cloth dipped in more oil and re-lit, again the oil having been taken from the special oil flasks that the bridesmaids would have brought along.

But for some reason the wedding party is delayed and half of the bridesmaids hadn’t done their job properly because they hadn’t brought along flasks of oil. Understandably, as they waited and waited in the hot sultry evening they all become drowsy and dose off. Nothing wrong with that, after all they have been hanging around for hours and it is now midnight. But that is when the shout goes out, ‘Here he comes, the bridegroom has arrived’, and that is when the panic sets in for the bridesmaids who have not brought any extra oil having allowed their lamps to burn out and are not in a position to re-light them and so are next to useless, in fact they don’t deserve the title ‘bridesmaid’ at all.

Now we have to try and appreciate what a big thing this was, how utterly devastating it would have been in this culture. This is the way one writer puts it: ‘To participate in their friend’s wedding was a great honour; as virgins, these young women were in a sense practicing for their own impending weddings around the ages of twelve to sixteen. But to have spoiled the wedding for her by failing to do their appropriate part was a great insult to their friend and to the groom and guests. This would be an offense they would not be allowed to forget.’ (Craig Keener) Remember, this is a shame culture and to feel shame like these bridesmaids would have done would have been almost unbearable, it would have dogged them for the rest of their lives. Fingers would have pointed them out in the streets and tongues would have wagged, ‘That’s the girl who ruined her best friends wedding, fancy being a bridesmaid without bringing along oil for the lamps-pathetic’.

And when they demand (not ask mind you) that the other bridesmaids give them some of their spare oil, the response is not based on meanness, ‘Tough luck go and get your own’, but prudence, ‘It would be irresponsible for us to give you ours for we might run out and so fail in our jobs too- go and buy some.’

So what is Jesus getting at? Who do the foolish bridesmaids represent? Well, they represent a certain kind of ‘Christian’, one who appears to be part of the group- a bridesmaid- someone who is looking forward to the benefits Christ brings- the wedding party of heaven- but who on closer inspection prove themselves not to be the real deal, not authentic. I don’t think we need to speculate about what the ‘oil’ or lack thereof, represents, is it the Holy Spirit who makes us shine for Jesus and so on. The point is, having a lamp and having oil to fuel the lamp was part and parcel of what it meant to be a bridesmaid. Not to have a lamp and not to have oil for the lamp simply meant that however good your intentions, however dressed up to look like a bridesmaid, you simply were not being one. And the sorting out of the genuine from the non-genuine bridesmaids came not at the beginning of the story when everyone was gathered together waiting, it came later towards the end when there had been a delay in the bridegroom turning up. In other words, whether we are genuine followers of Jesus, whether we are going to be ready when he comes again- after a 2,000 year wait to date- is shown by being in it for the long haul and getting on with the business of being Christians, as these folk were meant to get on with the business of being bridesmaids whether there was a delay or not. Do you see?

Let me put it like this. Jesus calls us not simply to make decisions- ‘I want to be a Christian’, any more than five of these girls were called to merely have the title, bridesmaid- he calls us to discipleship. Starting off in the Christian life, when all seems fresh and exciting, surrounded by others who are as excited as us, as no doubt these bridesmaids were, is relatively easy. To to come along to a place like this which is vibrant and attractive is one thing, but to keep on going when there are set backs, when the initial excitement begins to fade, when the surrounding society becomes more hostile to Christianity, or when you just get plain tired- then it is easy to free wheel, go through the motions of appearing to be a Christian. But because you have no spiritual reserves, you simply don’t make it to the end. In other words, you have the outer appearance of being a Christian without the inner reality. You are attracted to Christ but not properly attached to Christ.. You have just enough oil to keep the lamp of religion burning on Sundays but not enough for the rest of the week. Could I ask: is that you? Jesus certainly thinks it is a possibility amongst those who would follow him which is why he told this story. Like those sailors who set out on their perilous journey in 1845, you see, full of excitement, many professing Christians are not prepared for what lies ahead.

And what is that? Our third heading, an eternal consequence, v10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’

There will come that point when we will all meet with Christ –the groom comes. For some of us that will be in death. The question is: will you be ready? Grace, like this oil, can’t be transferred, God’s forgiveness can’t be passed on- it has to be received personally. And will you notice what the bridegroom, Jesus, actually says, ‘I don’t know you’-there is no real relationship there, they appear to be bridesmaids but they have proved to be anything but, they don’t have the proper credentials- the shining lamps. And if there is no real relationship with Jesus on earth, then there will be no real relationship with him in heaven. There is a dreadful finality captured in those five words, ‘And the door was shut.’ It is too late, the bridegroom has arrived, and there are no second chances.

So what are we to do? We are told in verse 13, “Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour’. So let me end by telling you about someone who did do just that, Count James von Moltke. Moltke was 26 years old when Adolf Hitler came to power. He could easily have gone abroad as did many of his contemporaries but instead he decided to stay. An international lawyer by training he was drafted into the service of German Intelligence. And it was here that he dedicated himself to countering the deportation and murder of Jews and the execution of captured soldiers.  

Eventually he was betrayed and on January 19th, 1944 he was arrested. Moltke was a Christian. His letters home to his wife, Freya, while in captivity, have been preserved and it was the closeness of God that he experienced which is reflected in his very last letter home. In part it is a love letter because he knew it was his final message to his wife, he wrote: “You are not a means God employed to make me who I am, rather you are myself. You are my 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians. Without this chapter no human being is human.”  But the letter was also the final word of a believer waiting in the departure lounge for eternity. And so he writes: “I always imagined that one should feel shock, that one would say to oneself: now the sun sets for the last time for you, now the clock only goes twelve twice more, now you go to bed for the last time. None of that is the case. I wonder if I am a bit high for I can’t deny that my mood is positively elated. I only beg the Lord of heaven that he will keep me in it, for it is surely easier for the flesh to die like that.” Facing death at the age of 37 he acknowledged, “Now there is still a hard bit of the road ahead of me.” But from beginning to end the letter is one of hope and trusting, “Dear heart, my life is finished” concluded Moltke, “This doesn’t alter the fact that I would gladly go on living and that I would gladly accompany you a bit further on this earth. But then I would need a new task for God. The task for which God made me is done.” A few months before the war ended Moltke was executed. A fellow conspirator commented, “Right to the end he was completely free in soul, friendly, helpful, considerate, a truly free and noble man amid all the trappings of horror.” Now there was a man who was prepared. Let us pray.

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