(Amos 5:18-24, Psalm 70, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
25 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
We have all at one time or another in our lives found ourselves waiting for someone or something to happen. We’ve waited for dad to come home from work. We’ve waited for the test results to come back. We’ve waited for the water to boil for tea. We’ve waited for a friend to call us back. We’ve waited for the bus to come to the stop. We’ve waited for the bathroom to open up. The list could go on and on but you get the idea. The point is that we’ve ALL waited for someone or something to happen. In fact, one might say that the act of waiting is a basic part of life. We must ALL experience it. Sometimes waiting can be good and sometimes it can be bad. Some of us use that time to prepare ourselves for whatever it is we’re waiting for. We primp and preen, fuss over the best way to present ourselves. We’re able to get ourselves in the right frame of mind, body, or spirit to handle the encounter or event that is about to happen. We’re then able to greet it with the best possible welcome and we are grateful for having been given the extra wait time. Times of waiting can be good for these reasons.
Of course, the primping and preening, fussing and worrying while waiting can cause great anxiety for many of us as well. Wrestling over how best to present ourselves can get us all worked up, nervous and doubtful. At the heart of such anxiety is this great fear of the unknown. We don’t know exactly what we will be facing…who we will be facing. Because we don’t know exactly what or who we’re preparing for, it’s all the more difficult to prepare ourselves. How does one prepare for the unknown? Better yet, how does one know they’ve prepared enough for the unknown? Questions like these tend to attack us during times of waiting and our anxiety can rise. Times of waiting can be useful times of preparation but they can also be anxious, tense, fearful times.
In a few weeks, we will begin our annual Advent journey during which we will await the birth of our Lord, Jesus. The assigned lectionary for this week and the next couple weeks serve to prepare us for our Advent time of waiting. All of today’s readings offer insights into the times of waiting in our lives. The prophet Amos cautioned the people of Israel in their time of waiting. “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord? Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” Amos could see that the Israelites had become a disheartened and unfaithful people. They had waited for God’s guidance and hadn’t received anything. In their waiting, the Israelites had lost their faith in God, overcome by fear and anxiety. Their offerings and praise to God had become fake. They no longer believed in the sovereignty of God and their fake praise and offerings only insulted God. God used Amos to proclaim words of judgment upon the unfaithful Israelites. “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” The Israelites misused their time of waiting, misused their time of preparation, and God spoke condemnation to them through His prophet Amos.
Similarly, King David lifts up his song for help because he is overwhelmed by fear and anxiety in his time of waiting. “Let those be put to shame and confusion who seek my life. Let those be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire to hurt me.” David’s enemies sought out desired to hurt him. As he anxiously waited for them, he cried out to God to deliver him from them. He no longer used the waiting time to prepare himself for the battles that laid ahead. David was afraid and pleaded with God to help him in his time of sorrow. David’s time of waiting had gotten the better of him. But unlike the Israelites that Amos prophesied to, David maintained God’s sovereignty and genuinely pled for help. Unlike the Israelites, David wasn’t completely overwhelmed by fear and anxiety in his time of waiting. He still lifted genuine praise to God. “Let those who love your salvation say evermore, ‘God is great!’”
The apostle Paul lifts up words of encouragement to the people of Thessalonica in their time of waiting. Fear and anxiety had crept into their time of waiting for the return of the Lord. The people began to wonder if the Lord would ever return. Paul reassured them of the Lord’s imminent return with powerful imagery similar to last week’s words from the book of Revelation. Paul writes, “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air and so we will be with the Lord forever.” Powerful imagery of a great reuniting with our Lord and Savior! The Thessalonians would have been hard-pressed not to be inspired by Paul’s imagery and get back to preparing for the imminent return of the Lord.
The imminent return of our Lord, the most assured return of our Lord, is what the parable from Matthew speaks to. Like the people of Israel, like King David, like the Thessalonians, we as Christians live our lives in a time of waiting for our Lord to return. Like the bridesmaids, we know neither the day nor the hour when our Lord will return. We are left in a time of waiting. But what does that mean for us? What’s the good news about our situation? The parable offers answers to these questions. Jesus, ever the wise teacher, teaches us how to live in our waiting.
The parable itself is somewhat of a tricky parable. It speaks of ten bridesmaids, five of whom are considered foolish and five of whom are considered wise. But why are the five foolish bridesmaids foolish? All ten of the bridesmaids brought lamps filled with oils. All ten of the bridesmaids fell asleep in their waiting for the bridegroom. Why aren’t they all considered fools for falling asleep? Well, because sleeping is a necessary part of most of our lives. We can’t stay awake all the time. It’s just not how we’re made. Our bodies, minds, and spirits need rest at some point. We aren’t meant to be alert all the time. What makes the foolish bridesmaids foolish is their unwillingness to account for their need for rest, their unwillingness to prepare for rest. They thought they had enough oil to keep their lamps going through the long night. As the parable reveals, they were sorely mistaken!
Times of waiting can either be great times of preparation or despairing times of anxiety and fear. What made the five foolish bridesmaids particularly foolish was that their time of waiting was neither filled with preparation nor fear and anxiety. They were completely oblivious altogether. As Christians, we are incapable of being completely oblivious. We know our Lord will return. We know neither the day nor the hour but we know he will return. So when we hear this parable, we mustn’t wrestle over whether we’re foolish or wise bridesmaids. Rather we must wrestle with how wise we are. We must find a balance of preparedness in our unknowing.
The key to finding true wisdom, to finding truly balanced preparedness, lies in faith. We acknowledge we can’t be alert all the time. We acknowledge we can’t know exactly how much oil to have in our lamps. We acknowledge we can’t know when the Lord will return. We acknowledge we CAN have faith to bridge what we know and can’t know. Faith in a good and loving God. Faith in a God that keeps His promises. Faith in a God that will not only return to us but is already with us today. Our Lord is resurrected, remember? Faith tells us he walks us among us already today. Faith tells us he will continue walking with us so yes, he will be with us in the future. Faith enables us to have enough oil in our lamps. Faith enables us to be alert all the time and recognizing signs of His imminent return. Faith enables us to live in the now and plan for the future. Faith bridges the gap between knowing and unknowing.
So how do we nurture faith? How can we become faithful? During our Bible study this week, I presented a list of attributes of faithful Christians posed in an article by David Sproule that helps to answer these questions. Sproule suggests there are six essential attributes of faithful Christians as found in Scripture:
- A faithful Christian loves the truth and obeys the truth.
- A faithful Christian expresses, through word and deed, love for brethren
- A faithful Christian increases and builds up his faith.
- A faithful Christian worships and prays regularly.
- A faithful Christian works his heart out for the Lord.
- A faithful Christian experiences godly sorrow when he sins, confesses his sins to God and seeks forgiveness.
If we work to achieve all six of these attributes, we will have achieved faithfulness. Believe it or not, God doesn’t want us to be perfect. We are created in the image of God. That doesn’t mean we are God. We aspire to be like God, to be perfected as God is perfect. No, God didn’t design us to be perfect. What God wants us to be is faithful. Faithfulness is key, not perfection. Faith gives us enough to run the race set before us. Faith keeps our lamps with enough oil until we are reunited with our Lord.
Faithfulness is necessary in all our relationships, not only our relationships with God. As I reflected on faithfulness this week, I came across a funny story about a woman whose husband had been slipping in and out of a coma for several months. Throughout it all, she stayed by his bedside every single day. One day, when he came to, he motioned for her to come nearer.
As she sat by him, he whispered, eyes full of tears, “You know what? You have been with me through all the bad times. When I got fired, you were there to support me. When my business failed, you were there. When I got shot, you were by my side. When we lost the house, you stayed right here. When my health started failing, you were still by my side. Do you know what I think?”
“What dear?” she gently asked, smiling as her heart began to fill with warmth.
“I think you’re bad luck.”
A funny story, remember?! The faithfulness shared between a husband and wife can be a strange thing though. A marriage is one of the few relationships that expects absolute faithfulness to succeed.
Important to notice about all six of the attributes of faithful Christians is that they are “action attributes.” A faithful Christian isn’t faithful by what they believe but by how they act. Faithfulness is achieved through loving, building, worshipping, praying, working, experiencing and confessing. Too many people believe faithfulness is inactive. They proclaim, “God will make everything right eventually” or “God will save me eventually” and do nothing to serve God. Their faith justifies inactivity. But this is not the case. True faith encourages activity. It encourages loving, building, worshipping, praying, working, experiencing and confessing.
So, as we enter into our annual Advent journey, recognize that it is a time of waiting. In our waiting, we are called to be faithful. We are called to actively love, build, worship, pray, work, experience, and confess. We are called to witness both a resurrected Lord and a coming Lord. We are called into preparation out of our fear and anxiety. Let us fearlessly but faithfully go into the great time of waiting. What are you waiting for?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.