First Read: Matthew 25:1-13
(” Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things…” Psalm 98:1)
This morning we continue with our search into a brief biography of God – that’s the name of the series of Sermons we’ve been working through this month – and today we come to the God who surprises! We do so by coming to this parable that Jesus told about a wedding day. This is one of the last parables that Jesus told – he told it to his disciples and to those around him shortly before his arrest and his trial and his execution. At this point in time things are beginning to get rather serious – Jesus was soon to face the cross – and he knew it – and he paused in the midst of his journey – to tell this parable.
There are a great many commentators who interpret the focus of this parable as being primarily a rather grim picture of upcoming judgment – and there certainly is that element present here. The previous chapter – 24 – has just ended with a parable which warned what will happen to servants who are unfaithful while the master is away. The parables that follow today’s parable in Chapter 25 includes the parable of judgment illustrated by the separation of the sheep from the goats – and the parable of the Talents which in Matthew’s version ends with these words from the Master: ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Even in our parable this morning the foolish bridesmaids end up locked out of the great wedding party – and you cannot miss the overtones of judgment on display here. But I want us to look at another theme in this parable today – one that we sometimes too easily overlook. This parable is about a wedding – and most of the time anyway, the overall tone of a wedding is sheer joy.
What is a wedding but a party?? In our day we have given the party part of the wedding the more formal term “reception” – but when you look at the heart of it – a wedding is a great excuse to have a party — and that was especially true in Jesus’ day. Notice that the opening verse of this parable begins with the words: Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom…
A little background here may help us to understand this a bit more clearly – for you see in Jesus day the wedding festivities lasted for an entire week. In fact the regular duties and even the religious obligations of the day were dispensed with, by law, so that the wedding party and all the guests could fully enjoy the occasion. They didn’t have to go to work – they didn’t have to go to synagogue – they didn’t have to do anything – they could break all the rules – for one week so that they could enjoy the wedding festivities.
In ancient Palestine a marriage normally had three stages:
- The engagement
- The betrothal – which was legal and binding
- And finally the marriage itself.
The high point of the wedding celebration was when the bridegroom came to the bride’s home to take her to her new home – to his home for the marriage ceremony and the banquet to follow. And this always turned into a great pageant – a great parade – down through the streets of the village. You see, the bride and bridegroom were treated like a king and a queen for that entire week. It was one of the most wondrous and joyful times in the lives of young couples.
There were some other great traditions that had grown up around this particular event – one of which is pictured in this parable. The custom was that the bride would ask 10 friends to be her bridesmaids. Now in the English translation of this parable we often read “10 virgins” – but the word really means 10 young women – in those days women were most often married when they were in their early teens – so these 10 young women were asked to be the bridesmaids. Now their primary job was to be part of the processional from the bride’s house to her new marriage home – this procession usually took place at night – it just seemed to heighten and make more exciting the event – because the major responsibility of the bridesmaids was to carry the lamps or torches that would light the way along the streets and so that everyone would see them coming and come out to join the wedding processional – and so it was all very exciting and everybody was really quite excited.
These lamps were most likely a kind of torch that was pretty much a rag tied around the end of a stick – which would be dipped in oil and then set on fire to provide the light – and then when it went out – it would be dipped again in oil and then lit up again and the processional would continue. So the bridesmaids really had one simple task – make sure you have a “torch” with you – and in a separate container make sure you have enough oil to keep lighting up the torch long enough to make it from the bride’s house to the groom’s house. The trick in all of this was that the exact time when the bridegroom would arrive – was always left as a surprise. That was part of the fun of it all. This no doubt drives us crazy in our wrist watch wearing – cell phone toting – culture – because In our day and age we know when the bridegroom is going to be there – or at least when the bridegroom is supposed to be there. You get a wedding invitation – it says the wedding is at 4:30 PM – you expect at 4:30 PM to see the groom & the groomsmen to come in and then the music starts – the bridesmaids process down the aisle followed by the bride and everything is under way.
But they did not do it that way in Jesus’ time – yes, the bridegroom was going to come – at some point in time – that was for sure – guaranteed — but the bride and her attendants didn’t know exactly when that was going to be – and that was the fun of it. So on the appointed wedding day — the bride and her bridesmaids were waiting expectantly for the groom to show up. One of the things that the bridegroom always tried to do — was to catch the bridal party napping – catch them looking at something else – not paying attention. Now no man in his right mind is foolish enough to want to take the bride completely by surprise on her wedding day – and so, to make it fair — the bridegroom was required to send a courier ahead of him who would say “Behold the bridegroom comes – come out to meet him!” And that’s when the bridesmaids would spring into action and be ready to meet him with their torches. But because the time of arrival was somewhat uncertain there was always a great deal of fun attached to the time of the groom’s arrival.
Now with that background in mind – let’s think again about this parable and what it reveals to us about who God is and who we are.
The first thing that it shows us is that God is not predictable – God is consistent – the scripture says that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow (Hebrews 13:8) – God’s nature does not change – God is still loving, full of grace and truth – God is holy and righteous – God is merciful – but this parable shows us that God also takes great delight in surprising us with the joyful things of the Kingdom of God. However, if there is one thing that we have to admit — it would be that his church – which is supposed to reflect what God is like – much too often – is just too predictable. What is the most common charge leveled against church? That it is boring. I get nothing out of it. You know — no one ever said that about Jesus – nobody ever called him boring – they might not have been willing to follow – they might not have been willing to live up to his challenge – to follow in his steps and take upon themselves the things of faith – but Jesus was never charged with being boring.
I think that part of our struggle as God’s people is that we simply do not appreciate the joy of God’s surprises in our lives — especially in our worship experience. Doesn’t matter whether it is the old style worship formats – or what is often called “contemporary worship” or if it is something in between – the truth be known – we Christians tend to want it to be the same – we want the right liturgies – we want the perfect worship format – we want it to be comfortable week in and week out – and the trouble is that comfortable too often turns into bland – into grumpy instead of joyful.
So tell me – how are you handling the worship sheet this morning?? Problems with the printer? Nope – this was intentional – I’m loving it (as they say at MacDonalds) – I’m sitting up here watching your faces – as you turn the bulletin this way or that way – or completely upside down. You see I wanted to know if you could handle a little harmless surprise in your religious experience today. A rather minor event in terms of the importance of the surprise – but a surprise none the less.
About 20 years ago, at the church I was then serving – one Saturday night I came into the sanctuary with a helper and we rearranged the pews. This was great fun. The pews in that church were not bolted down – they were free-standing – there were two main sections just like here – but instead of a single pew on each side – there were three shorter pews end to end on each side. So we took the inside pew on each side and pulled them to the middle so that the sanctuary now had three sections of pews – with two main aisles instead of one – and we didn’t tell anyone ahead of time!! It was great fun on Sunday morning to look at the faces. The ushers were the first – they didn’t know where to … ush … you know – there are only four of them – how you take up the offering with only four ushers – but 3 aisles and six pew ends?
And then it was such fun to watch the faces coming in – “where did my seat go??” How many of you always sit in roughly the same seat – come on – be honest – look at this. They came in that morning and went – ohhh – where do we sit?? It was even funnier to hear people coming up with the explanations for why the pews were suddenly this way. Some folks thought we were trying to save the carpet – some folks thought we bought more pews and we had to fit them in differently – others were worried about which aisle a bride would use if we had a wedding. It was funny to see the reaction – but it had nothing to do with any of these things – I just wanted to surprise them a little bit that morning – to see if I could catch them off guard. In some churches moving the pews or playing around with the bulletin is enough to start a war. Why do we allow such things to create such deep feelings in our churches? Does God really care about the location of the pews – about how many aisles there are? That’s the 13th commandment isn’t it? Thou shalt have 3 aisles – one middle and two on the outside.
Does God really care whether the type is right side up or up side down in the bulletin? Part of the fun – part of the joy of being a Christian is being open to the new events – the surprises that God brings into our lives – remember, God is not predictable. Not too long ago we were celebrating Christmas. There are an awful lot of people who never experience a surprise at Christmas – Christmas never means something new. They hang the same lights – on the same tree – with the same ornaments – in the same corner of the house – and they are never surprised by the presents they receive – because they tell others what they want – size, color, design, etc. – and you had better not vary at all from those instructions. Yet what was Christmas was about? – why it was a wondrous surprise. That’s what Easter was – what an amazing surprise. That’s what Pentecost was about when the Holy Spirit came in fullness upon the Christian believers – the disciples had no idea what hit them – God is not predictable – He is full of surprises.
The second thing that intrigues me about this particular parable is that the young maids are called “wise and foolish” – there’s a separation. Now why are some of them called “foolish”? They are called foolish because they know how weddings work – and they are not prepared for the surprise. They knew the bridegroom was coming – they knew it was a bit of a game – yet they weren’t ready – they were being rather dumb – they weren’t paying attention. And because of it – they ended up locked out of the best part – the wedding banquet itself. And we like surprises – well most of the time – don’t we??
Let me tell you a tale of two parties. After Seminary – Denise and I were at a church in a town called Irwin, Pennsylvania – and we were there for 5 years – and when we took the call to a new position – they decided to have a going away party for us. Actually there were two going away parties – the Session had a party – and the Deacons had a party. I was the Associate Pastor there and I worked a lot with the Deacons and it was kind of interesting because the Session decided that they would have a whole church party. And they wanted to give me a going-away present – and they knew I was looking to buy a camera – so they said “we’re going to buy you the camera. Now we want to give it to you as a present at the party – so you go out and buy it and give it to us in the box and we’ll give it to you – that way you get the camera you want.” And of course they gave me the camera in the box and I went, “Oh what a surprise – it’s just the one I wanted.” But it really wasn’t a surprise. And the whole church was there and it was a nice party.
The Deacons on the other hand set us up. They really did. We had some friends who said, “Let’s go out to dinner to this particular restaurant” and we got to their house to pick them up and the husband wasn’t there – the story was that he had to run an errand and would meet us there. We got there and there was the whole Board of Deacons and their spouses, sitting there, waiting for us. Laughing and smiling – ready to have dinner and to have a party in the party room. And they had a present for us we weren’t expecting. They gave us a wheel-barrow! Now you might wonder if that is a very good gift – but it was really a surprise – we were moving to our own house for the first time – it was something we needed. But there was more than that. They took a permanent marker and all wrote a note on the wheel-barrow – signing their names – and then they covered it with a clear lacquer. And for the next 15 years, whenever I would dump dirt or leaves or whatever – I could look and remember the people who gave us that surprise. Now both parties were fun – both parties were nice – but I really did enjoy the surprise.
Get ready – get set – God is going to surprise you – guaranteed God has surprises in mind for you — this day and everyday – all kinds of wonderful things – but you have to be prepared so that when it comes – you can enjoy it.
The third thing about this parable is that there is a word of warning in it. There is a tragedy at the end of this parable. Five of the bridesmaids were not ready – they had to run off and get more oil and by that time it was too late. I know what you are thinking – who can go to buy oil in the middle of the night – the shops are all closed by then? But not in a small Palestinian village when there is a wedding to attend – everyone is still up and quite excited about what is to come – so it was not unreasonable to think that they could still get more oil.
Remember some years back when New York City had the blackout and things went crazy for a while – and one of the quotes that came out of that blackout was, “We can’t borrow preparedness.” We live in Hurricane territory – I would hope we understand that phrase.
You have to be ready ahead of time – our hearts must be prepared for God’s surprises – they need to be open and ready – they need to be focused on important things – priorities in our hearts need to be right. If bitterness, if greed, if anger or envy or hatred or prejudice – if that kind of sin is overwhelming our hearts – then that is a state of being that will prevent us from being ready to experience and to enjoy God’s surprises. And if you miss it – it is gone. At the end of the parable the door was locked – and they banged on the door – but it would not be opened.
That’s the way weddings worked in those days – if you weren’t there on time – you didn’t get in. I know that’s not the way weddings work nowadays. I can almost guarantee you that as soon as the bride hits the aisle there will be some guest come through the door – there’s always one relative in your family who is habitually late – you know who it is don’t you — gosh I hope it isn’t you!! In that day and age – you would not make it in.
One expression of God’s Grace is this – for now the return of the bridegroom (Christ) has been delayed – so we still have the opportunity to wake up – to get ready – to enjoy the surprises that God has for us. Wise or foolish – which will you be??
In a few minutes as our closing song we are going to sing a different kind of hymn for this time of year – it’s Joy to the World – a Christmas Carol – to remind you about the great surprises of God. Joy to the World the Lord has come. Have you received the King – are you ready for his arrival – for him working out His purpose in and through your life – are you on board – is your torch ready – are you inviting others to his procession – like a little child playing peek-a-boo are you ready to laugh when He surprises you with a peek-a-boo?? What are the surprises that God has for you each day??