Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
7 November 1999
Matthew 25:1-12 "At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight the cry rang out: 'Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!' Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.' 'No,' they replied, 'there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.' But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. 'Sir! Sir!' they said. 'Open the door for us!' But he replied, 'I tell you the truth, I don't know you.'
You have all seen the films in which a warship suddenly sounds an alarm and people fall out of bed and run and take up their positions. It might be that something has been spotted on the radar, an incoming missile attack, or a message may have been given to go to war. In a matter of seconds a ship becomes ready for action, everybody knows their place and the job which they have to do. It is a state of red alert, because something significant and life threatening is about to take place. The early church for the first 50 or so years lived in such a state of alert. They believed that the return of Jesus was imminent, they lived under the constant expectation that Jesus would come back to earth and his reign would begin, his Kingdom would come into being.
The life of the Christian in the first couple of centuries was very much like being at war. A Christian was in danger for their faith and could easily find themselves fed to lions or tortured by those who opposed the followers of Jesus. All of this accounts for a certain air of expectation which made people feel that they had to be in a state alert, a condition of preparedness. In many ways the first Christians were like those people on a warship, they lived in expectation of something very important about to happen. It was no good when Jesus came back being found doing the wrong things, 'don't be caught out!'
After a time this state of full alert slowly came down to an amber alert, and then gradually the church sank into the realisation that it was going to be a much longer period of time before Jesus returned. As Christians increasingly began to die, before there had been any sign of Jesus return, so there followed the decision to write down the teachings of Jesus so that they could be preserved for future generations. There followed also the institutionalisation of the church and the business of deciding how they were going to organise themselves. Life for the Christian became much more routine. Yet in the teachings of Jesus which they preserved and handed on, the first Christians wanted people never to forget that Jesus had promised that one day he would return. There would come a day when God's rule would come to pass and Jesus would take up his position of authority over his kingdom.
This teaching of the church has never changed and we still believe that Jesus will return. He has not abandoned the earth and its inhabitants forever. Of course the message for us then is that we must not think that we have been 'stood down' from active duty. We all have responsibilities to which we are called and we must live as though Christ might return at any time.
The virgins waiting for the bridegroom are meant to be us. The importance of this is that we might be prone to think of the foolish virgins as those who are outside the church, those who do not think of themselves as disciples of Jesus. This story is actually about our preparedness, not of those outside the church, but those inside the church! This parable is therefore told by Jesus to confirm the faithful in their perseverance. Jesus was no doubt only too aware that human nature inclines towards the easy ways and that the usual action is to weary over a long time, take sudden dislike and give up. It was to cure this disease that Jesus taught the disciples that they should maintain their endurance over long stretches. Enthusiasm over a short stretch is not enough.
How often have you known people young in their Christian faith, extremely enthusiastic, only to find them a short time after completely disillusioned and having given up. The sparkle has died off, they realise that it is hard work living the Christian life, it has demands and commitments and the task is too onerous. So, we must be ready to give account of ourselves when Christ returns, how we prioritise our lives. It is no coincidence that the next passage after this one in the Gospel of Matthew is the parable of the talents. How do we use the gifts which God has given to us in differing measure?
But of course there is another important message which we need to be mindful of. Yes, Christ will return, but it is not that simple. I remember how as a child in school we would sometimes misbehave when the teacher left the classroom. My mother tells me of a time when she did the same thing. During the war the children tied their gas masks to the curtains and pulled them out of the windows and the teacher caught them. I suppose that was really bad behaviour in those days. But we should not think of Jesus as an absent teacher, unaware of what was going on in the classroom pending his return. Jesus is present today with his church, we say in our services, 'the Lord is here!' We must be mindful of the proximity of Jesus, we abide in his presence.
As individuals and as a church we should be in a state of readiness with Christ at our side. The faithful Christian needs constant replenishment of power if they are to endure and not give up at the end. The supplies which the Christian needs are available as we watch and pray. AMEN
Family service - Show children an oil lamp, how it is easy to run out of oil. Show them how a torch with strips of cloth wrapped around - like that carried by Indiana Jones - might have looked. Try to allow them to picture in their minds how such a torch lit procession might have looked.