Be Prepared

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 25:1-13

We need to get close to Christ now, not at some future opportunity that may not be given to us. We need to live for Christ now, letting our lights shine through the witness of words and works.

Do you know the motto of the United States Coast Guard? It is Semper Paratus which means “Always Prepared.” The tremendously varied duties of the Coast Guard include anti-terrorist activity, suppression of the drug trade, coastal patrol, search and rescue missions, but whatever the task, a high degree of readiness is demanded. Each time they report for duty Coast Guard personnel never know what might be expected of them or whether they might be called into harm’s way before their watch is ended.

Semper Paratus makes a good motto for the church of Jesus Christ, too. Whenever the Lord Jesus spoke of his second coming that is, his return in glory and power at the end of the world he always exhorted his disciples to be prepared. “Watch!” was his characteristic command. In a world that has grown drowsy and largely fallen asleep to the reality of God, a world that is no longer alert to the coming of the Lord Jesus and where people are no longer diligent and living lives that can stand up to his scrutiny, we need to hear Jesus’ warning call more than ever. Listen again to one of the stories he told to enforce the lesson of Semper Paratus.

Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Matthew 25:1-13, RSV

The Bridegroom Delayed

This parable, more than most of those told by Jesus, needs some explaining for us to get an accurate picture of what is going on. While many of the most familiar and best-loved of Jesus’ stories are fairly straightforward in almost any cultural setting, this one about the maidens and their lamps draws upon customs and practices which would have been familiar to all of Jesus’ original listeners. They are quite foreign to us. So we need to start by learning just a bit about first-century Jewish wedding customs.

Weddings, as any father of the bride knows, are one of those events where tradition still dictates how things get done. It’s no use arguing or objecting; a bride is not going to march down the aisle to a rock song wearing a yellow jump-suit. (At least, one would hope not, although nowadays I suppose anything is possible!) But even today, in our much more casual culture, tradition largely determines how we mark and celebrate the big occasions like birth, marriage and death.

That’s exactly how it was in first-century Palestine, and Jesus’ story reflects all the traditional details of contemporary wedding customs. The day of the wedding would have been spent in preparation. Then, with night coming on, the groom’s family got together with the bride’s relatives to agree on the presents that would be given in exchange for her.

Occasionally that bargaining session was extended, for it was considered unseemly for the family of the bride to agree too quickly to the value of the presents offered, which of course reflected upon the worth of their daughter. As a result, the groom might often be delayed, and everyone would have to wait until agreement was reached.

Once that happened the groom and his relatives would proceed to the home of the bride to pick her up. And after arriving there they would then all come in a great procession escorting the bride and her attendants back to the home of the groom’s father and family, where the marriage would be celebrated with dancing, feasting and merriment.

So we can picture the setting in the parable. It’s at the groom’s house, and everyone there is anxiously awaiting his arrival with his bride.

Jesus adds one more element to the story. Waiting outside the house for the bridegroom to arrive are ten young girls (maidens, or “virgins” as some versions literally translate). As New Testament scholar A. M. Hunter has pointed out in his book, Interpreting the Parables, these girls would not have been the bridesmaids, who would have all been with the bride. They were probably neighborhood girls (girls have always loved to go to weddings!) who would be welcome at the celebration, but who were required to provide their own oil for the lamps that lit their way.

When the cry was sounded of the bridegroom’s approach, they all jumped up and trimmed their lamps. But half the girls found their lights going out before the groom actually arrived. They asked for some of the extra oil from the five girls who had the foresight to bring some with them. But there wasn’t enough to go around.

So while the careless girls went off to buy oil the groom returned, the party began, and the door was shut. By the time they came back it was too late, and they were excluded from the feast.

That is the story Jesus told. But what does it mean? In general terms, it is a story about salvation, with a particular emphasis on readiness for the Lord’s return. We can understand what Jesus was getting at by focusing on some of the important details.

Notice that in the first place, the bridegroom was delayed; he “was a long time in coming,” Jesus says (verse 5). That immediately suggests that this story is about his second coming, specifically how the church spends its time in the interval of waiting between Jesus’ first coming into the world and his return at the end of the world. The bridegroom is Christ himself. His would-be followers are represented here not by the bride who is a symbol for the church elsewhere in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:22ff; 2 Corinthians 11:2), but rather by the girls who wait (cf. verse 1).

And then notice that all ten of them were awakened by a sudden cry. I think that this points to the suddenness and unexpectedness of Christ’s return. Notice that even the wise maidens are sleeping because no one knows the day or the hour when he will come, and so all should be ready always. Jesus is saying here that there will be no time to prepare when he is at the door. Even those who are looking for him will, in a sense, be caught by surprise, at least for a moment.

And then finally, notice that the door was closed with a decisiveness that no appeal could change. The Lord of the feast went so far as to deny any knowledge of those who clamored for admission after the time. There is a definite limited opportunity to respond; as the psalmist said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart.” (Psalm 95:76-9)

Therefore Keep Watch

But how do we apply the truth of this parable to our lives? Christ is coming, we must be prepared. We are always to watch. True enough. But what does that actually mean? How are we supposed to keep watch?

It’s obviously not meant literally. There have been occasions in the past when Christians who were excited about the Lord’s return actually stopped working, sold their possessions and literally sat down to watch the sky for the first glimpse of Jesus coming on the clouds. But they have always been mistaken. Remember in the story that even the wise maidens are overtaken by drowsiness and fall asleep. No one can live at a fever pitch of excitement and expectation for any length of time, nor are we supposed to. What was it the angels said to Jesus’ disciples in Acts chapter 1 after he had ascended into heaven, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing around looking up in the sky?” And then they added, “Get back to Jerusalem and get on with it!” (or words to that effect).

The best way to watch is to live close to the Lord in faith and obedience day by day. The old spiritual puts it just right: “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.” We need to get close to Christ now, not at some future opportunity that may not be afforded us. We need to live for Christ now, letting our lights shine through the witness of words and works.

The best way to watch and be ready is to get on with it, to do our jobs whatever they may be to the best of our ability, to raise our families, and to make it our business in all things to honor the Lord Jesus. Martin Luther once said that if you knew the world was going to end tomorrow, you should go out and hoe your garden today. I like these words of J. I. Packer in his book God’s Words: Studies of Key Bible Themes. He is talking about our readiness for death, but these words are equally appropriate when we think of the Lord’s return:

There is no mystery about it; common sense should tell us. Be wholly committed to Christ’s service each day. Don’t touch sin with a barge pole. Keep short accounts with God. Think of each hour as God’s gift to you, to make the most and best of . . . Live in the present. Gratefully enjoy its pleasures and work through its pains with God, knowing that both the pleasures and the pains are steps on the journey home. Open all your life to the Lord Jesus and spend time consciously in his company, basking in and responding to his love. Say to yourself often that every day is one day nearer . . . and get on with what you know to be God’s task for you here and now.

(J. I. Packer, “Death,” God’s Words: Studies of Key Bible Themes)