Asleep and Awake (Worship 11/6/11)

Asleep and Awake

Matthew 25: 1-13



I try to listen carefully whenever Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven.  He’s not describing what heaven is like, as in that “place” we go after we die.  But he is describing how God sees things and how God means for things to change, to be on earth as they are in heaven.  When Jesus mentions the kingdom of heaven, he’s giving us a glimpse of the map so we have something in mind as we travel into unfamiliar territory.  He’s giving us a sneak peek at next week’s show, so we’re anticipating the plot twists hinted at in those images.  He’s saying “spoiler alert” and then launching into a parable, saying This is how it’s meant to be – do you see it? Do you want to come along and help make it happen?


It’s harder to hear Jesus this way because it demands something of us.  If we believe that Jesus is not just telling a nice story about life on the other side of death, but that he’s urging us into abundant life right here and now, that changes how we listen.  It might even wake us up.


In today’s parable from Matthew Jesus says that this is what the kingdom of heaven is like:  Ten bridesmaids waiting on the bridegroom, waiting with their lamps for him to show up.  They all fall asleep while they are waiting and then awaken to a shout when he approaches at midnight.  As they wake up and stand up, the 5 wise bridesmaids are already ready.  The brought along extra oil and have full lamps burning brightly.  The other 5 are called “foolish.”  Their lamps are empty and they didn’t bring extra oil.  The wise ones don’t have any extra for the foolish ones.  So the foolish ones go off to try and buy some oil at midnight and they miss the bridegroom’s arrival.  When they get back he’s already gone inside with the wise ones and locked the door.  When they bang on it and ask to be let in, he says through the door, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you” and Jesus ends the parable with “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25: 12-13).


There really isn’t much difference between the wise and the foolish, is there?  They’re all waiting with lamps.  They all fall asleep after a while.  They all wake up in a scurry to greet the bridegroom.  The only difference is how prepared the wise ones were for the long haul.  They brought more oil than the foolish ones.  That’s the only difference, but it’s a substantial one.


And the kingdom of heaven is like this.


One of the things I love best about this parable is that all 10 bridesmaids fall asleep.  Though some are prepared and some are not, none of the wise ones is so hyper-vigilant that she stays up all night, adjusting her flame, trimming her wick, and trying to see out into the darkness for the very first glimpse of the groom.  Maybe that’s what happens when you are prepared:  you can relax wherever you are and know that, while you have done your part, God is in charge.  It’s ok to rest; God’s still awake.


It also seems important that the invitation was open to all 10.  Nowhere does it say that there were only 5 bridesmaid openings and the best won.  These are not highly competitive bridesmaid summer internship slots.  If they had all been wise and ready, all 10 would have been welcomed in.


So if there is something we can glean from the parable to help with our daily living as disciples, it is not that we are in competition with other disciples, other people.  We are all invited into the wedding feast; there is room for everyone at this party.  But foolishness can hold us back.


It’s interesting that the bridegroom, talking with the foolish bridesmaids from the other side of the door, says, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you” (v.12).  Let us in!  But I don’t know you. That’s not a harsh response, is it?  The groom doesn’t say, No oil, no party for you!  Oh, snap! It’s not a retort or a put-down or a reprimand.  He simply says, I don’t know you.


In a couple weeks, in another passage a few verses later in Matthew, we’ll hear the people say basically this same thing to Jesus:  But we don’t remember knowing you or helping you. Jesus talks about separating people like a shepherd separates sheep and goats depending upon whether or not they have welcomed the stranger as Christ, giving food and shelter to those in need.  Neither group remembers having seen and helped Jesus so he breaks it down for them:  Just as you helped or refused to help one of the least of these, you did the same to me (Matthew 25: 31-46).


I don’t know you.  It’s a statement of fact.  It is not necessarily a judgment – unless we are commissioned to go into the world everyday and see it and live in it as the kingdom of heaven.  Which we are.


We’ve been shown a glimpse of what that looks like and we’re told to help make it happen.  We’re told to expect to see Christ in the places we are still least likely to look for a savior – a prison, a shelter, the check-out at Wal-mart, the next cubicle, in line at Starbucks, the loud annoying person who walks behind you all the way to class talking on a cell phone, the person you don’t like but are stuck with anyway, and in a cold, hay-filled manger.  All of these are opportunities to see and know and serve Christ.  All of these are the lamp-filling moments that prepare us for his next arrival and that allow him to recognize us when we knock on the door or show up in a pile of sheep and goats.


Why did the wise bridesmaids bring along so much extra oil?  No one knew how long the wait would be, so they prepared themselves for a long one, just in case.  Biblical scholar Stanley Hauerwas says, “The wise bridesmaids…had prepared for a long night of waiting.  The bridegroom arrived at an unexpected time.  The foolish bridesmaids failed to understand that in a time when you are unsure of the time you are in it is all the more important to do what you have been taught to do”  (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible:  Matthew, pp. 208-209).


What have we been taught to do?  Love God with all we have, and our neighbors as ourselves.  Feed the hungry.  Heal the sick.  Clothe the naked.  Visit those in prison.  See Christ in the stranger.  Live now as if the kingdom of heaven is already here in its fullness.  In fact, living like this is what helps to bring it about.


I don’t know you. Knowing someone takes time.  Even if a 24-hour lamp oil stand had been there beside the door those foolish bridesmaids were banging on, I don’t know if obtaining the last-minute oil would have made for a different parable.  Discipleship is not a crash-course in love.  Or a checklist to hurry through and finish up (Feed the hungry?  Check!  Did that in November!)   It’s a life built on learning to love and it takes an entire lifetime.


It’s never too early or too late to take this call seriously, wake up, throw off our foolish habits, and prepare for the long haul of love.   And this time of year – right now with Thanksgiving ahead and the crush of the semester’s end, right now on the cusp of Advent is a perfect moment.  Advent is not the season of the shopping list and the mad rush.  It’s the season of attentiveness, wakefulness, and watchful waiting.


It would be easy to sleep through this, especially in college.  I know, I know, you never sleep.  I mean the kind of auto-pilot of exams and papers and stress and Christmas carols and plans for break.  It’s too easy to be dazzled by the lights and forget about trimming your wick and stocking up on oil.  It’s too easy to forget that our most important call is to look for Christ and to make ourselves known in return.


Don’t take the easy, foolish way.  Live as you’ve been taught.  Keep prepared.  Keep alive in hope.  Keep a picture of that kingdom road map in mind.  Because the inbreaking of the kingdom of God has begun.  Are you paying attention?  Are you keeping your lamp burning or are you putting off that oil purchase for some other time when it’s more convenient, less of a hassle, exams are over, or some other great-sounding excuse?   We see a glimpse, receive a taste (right here at this Table), and are reminded in parable and through the journey to that manger that God comes in the most unexpected times and places and guises.


Be watchful, be ready, bring oil.


Thanks be to God!


© 2011 Deborah E. Lewis



Weekly Meeting Schedule
  • Sunday
    • 11:00 Morning Worship at Wesley Memorial UMC (next door)
    • 5:00 Sunday Night Worship
  • Tuesday
    • 6:00 Tuesday Night Dinner
    • 6:45 Forum — Discussion/speaker on a variety of faith topics and student life.
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