“Awake and Ready”
Sermon for November 12, 2023 Matthew 25:1-13
I’m rewatching a television series all the way through for about the 6th time, I think. Do you all do this? I do it with movies, TV shows, and books. If I experience something and love it, I want to revisit it. I’ve done a fair amount of thinking about why that is the case. Just limiting myself to works of fiction here, I reread or rewatch for one simple reason: I want to breath the air of those fictional worlds. What I really want is to live there for a while, but since those worlds do not exist in reality, the only way I can get there is by rereading the books.
Imagine with me for a moment: What if one of those worlds could invade this one? What if your favorite book or movie world overlapped with this one? We don’t have to just be talking about my favorite places like Narnia or Middle Earth. We could be talking about the Old West in the old Clint Eastwood westerns or even one of those unnamed eternal Christmas towns you might find on the Hallmark Channel. Wouldn’t it be great if all the pleasantries of those worlds became a reality? What if I told you that, in some sense, this is precisely what the Bible teaches, except fictional worlds are not in the picture. God’s realm, heaven, we are told will come one day to us. His realm will invade our world. But we’re also told something else. The process already started in and through the person of Jesus. The kingdom he announced was the first incursion of heaven into earth and he told his followers that they could live as if heaven was already their reality, as if it had already come down in full. In other words, the thing that was to happen at the end of the Bible’s story has already happened in the middle. All Jesus’ followers, across the ages, are then called to live in such a way that they let others know about this foretaste and that the full banquet will come soon. They—and we—need to be ready.
I imagine most people, when they read the parable about the 10 virgins here in Matthew 25 will automatically think that Jesus is simply talking about the end of time and his 2nd coming. Now I do think Jesus is talking about the end of time, but I don’t think he is just talking about the end of time. There is a simple reason I think this: these parables from Matthew 25 are the continuation of a conversation that started in Matthew 24. NT theologian Ben Witherington III has a line that I enjoy (I think I shared it with one of the Bible study sessions recently). He says in several places something to this effect: “A text without a context is just a pretext for what we want it to mean.” We have to be careful when reading and understanding the Bible that we read the texts in the context they were placed. And if we read Matthew 25 in light of Matthew 24, it will make our understanding better and, I would argue, make this text more applicable to the church today.
So that begs the question, what is happening in Matthew 24? Honestly, it’s a rather confusing chapter, but here is the big idea. Throughout the chapter Jesus is warning his disciples that within a generation Jerusalem will fall again. The chapter begins with the disciples praising the beauty of the temple and with Jesus responding, “You see all these [buildings], do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2). That leads the disciples to ask about what the signs for this will be and the rest of the chapter is Jesus’ answer.
Matthew 25, then, is a continuation of Jesus’ response and instruction on how to live before, during, and after the world shattering experience of the destruction of Jerusalem. It’s a little strange. In the midst of this—which I imagine the disciples’ eyes are sort of wide open with shock and mouths gaped open in wonder after hearing this prediction—Jesus never tells them, “And because this will happen, make sure you get a good army going. Make sure you have the right politicians lined up.” Instead, he tells them a story about 10 girls, five of whom were wise and 5 were foolish. There are 5 wise girls and 5 silly or foolish girls. What Jesus attempts to d here is invite his disciples to understand their unique predicament in light of a bigger story. Jesus’ parable is modeled after the book of Proverbs, where some of the early chapters of that book ask readers to choose between two women, Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly. Of course, you know some of the famous lines from that book:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10)
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight. (Prov 3:5-6)
In Proverbs, Lady Wisdom is the character that symbolizes trust in God. Lady Folly, on the other hand, is what happens when humans trust in themselves and in the structures and institutions they have established. The parable is trying to get across a similarly simple idea. To be wise is to be prepared. Something earth shattering is going to happen. Will they trust God enough that they will be able to see God working in the midst of it and therefore be able to respond in faithfulness? The parable is asking this simple question.
What does that preparation include? For Jesus’ disciples it will mean that they will need to refocus their hope. A building like the Temple, as great as it is and as important as it was, it was never meant to be an end in itself. It was a signpost, a hint, a small taste of what God wanted to do for all the world. Yes, God lived in the Temple amongst the people, but God created a world where his presence was meant to fill all of it, not just in some room inside of a Temple. And with the Temple’s destruction (which did happen in the year 70 AD), Jesus was helping prepare his disciples that all their attention and focus could be shifted to him and the new thing that he was going to all over the world. A crisis is coming, so do what you need to do now in order to be prepared. In short, Jesus tells them, take your eyes off the buildings and refocus them on him and what he is doing, both right there while they were talking but also what he will do following his death and resurrection. A new world is coming, and they need to be ready. God is doing something, and even if they didn’t know exactly what that would look like, as long as they keep their trust in the God who promised to bring about salvation, they may be surprised, but they will be ready when the bridegroom returns from the tomb.
Here’s the thing: world shattering events will happen all the time. I’m not just talking about wars between nations, earthquakes, and all the things we think accompanies the end of time. Loved ones get sick; loved ones die. People lose jobs. Churches sell their building and become, so to speak, homeless. In the midst of these things, what grounds you? What tethers you so that when you live in days of uncertainty you can still act and live wisely?
I mentioned at the beginning that while this story is about Jesus’ second coming it is not just about Jesus’ second coming. This is why I say that. It happens on both an individual and a communal level, but Jesus shows up to lead his people throughout history. Jesus did say, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” so we shouldn’t be surprised if Jesus shows up to lead his people on a new adventure. The question is, are you ready for it? If Jesus showed up today and said here’s what I want you to do next, are your lamps full of oil? Have you done what you needed to do ahead of time so as not to miss out? If you are ready for Jesus to show up in these smaller moments, then we really don’t need to be concerned about when Jesus shows up fully and finally.
I do think that end-time speculation can be a distraction at times. We know Jesus will come again, though we have no clue when. So maybe let’s not focus on that so much. Let’s focus more on what Jesus wants to do here and now, and if we have our focus on Jesus here and now, then when he shows up here and now we’ll be ready for it. Have you ever heard the phrase, “So heavenly minded they are no earthly good”? So focused on the end that one forgets to look for Jesus in the present. That person is so focused on the kingdom that Jesus will bring, that they forget about the ways Jesus established his kingdom in the here and now. That’s what I want to avoid. I think that is what Jesus wants us to avoid. If Jesus is bringing a new heaven and new earth—which is what the Scriptures promise—then it only seems right that Jesus’ people live as if that is already a reality. In other words, to use the image from the beginning of the sermon, it’s as if that other world invade this one, with this major difference. The worlds I talked about at the beginning were all fictional ones. Heaven is the ultimate reality. If anything, this world is the fiction where all the untruths will be set right. This happens in small ways throughout history and it will happen in a big way when Jesus returns. This parable is simply asking us to be ready for both.
If we have the faith and wisdom to see Jesus working in the small ways here and now, we will certainly have eyes to see Jesus when he returns fully and finally. So be awake, and be alert. Our Lord is coming. Yes, at the end, but also here in the middle. May we keep our lamps full so that whenever he shows up, we will be ready to follow him when he calls for us.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.