Sermon: The Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost (A) – 9th November 2014

St Aidan’s Anglican Church Epping 8.30am

Readings: Joshua 24; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:9-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Don’t miss out! We know how the advertisements work. Don’t miss out on this amazing bargain! Book now: don’t miss out on the great event! Arrive very early: don’t miss out on being inside the Town Hall at Gough’s service.

Of course we often do miss out on things. Sometimes we forget, or we’re running late, or something prevents us. Sometimes we miss out simply because we took things lightly, or we didn’t get around to doing anything, or we didn’t think it was all that important anyway. The theme of missing out is an important theme of today’s Gospel, and our reading from 1 Thessalonians.

Over the next three weeks, we shall be reading Jesus’ message in Matthew 25, as he tells three stories to illustrate truths about the Kingdom of God. And in today’s story his message is: “Be ready for the coming of the kingdom. Don’t miss out!”

He tells a story about a wedding, and about ten girls who went out to meet the bridegroom as he brought his bride home. In Israel in those days the exact timing of the wedding festivities was not a big deal: a few minutes, a few hours, perhaps even a few days didn’t matter all that much.

But this was the night the bridegroom was expected. It was the custom for the girls of the village to meet him in the street as he brought his wife back from her family’s home. The girls would have torches to give light and provide a festive atmosphere, and they’d hope to be asked to join in the festivities when they arrived back at the groom’s home. The torches were probably long sticks with a rag on the end which had been dipped in oil, so that the torch would burn brightly. There were ten girls in the group, but only five of them had taken account of the reality that the timing was uncertain. These five girls had brought a small flask of oil with them in case more oil was needed.

The evening went on later and later. Why was the groom so late? Wasn’t that what brides do? Actually they probably assumed that there was an extended argument going on about the size of the dowry expected by the bride’s family!

The girls got more and more tired, and began to fall asleep. That was fair enough: they would wake up with the noise as the groom got near. There was no point in being too exhausted to enjoy the party.

Finally the girls hear the shouts: “He’s on his way!” The girls get up and check their torches: more oil is definitely needed. Five of them get out their spare oil, and their flames shine brightly. But what about the other five?

“Have you got any more oil?” they ask. “Sorry, we’ve just got enough for our own. You’d better hurry if you going to get some!” Off they rush: the supermarket is closed, the convenience store is out of oil. And by the time they get back, the bridegroom has not only passed by: he has got home, and the girls who were waiting there with their torches have been invited in to the festivities. It’s too late for the other five: they’ve missed out because they weren’t ready. They had not been wise in their preparations.

And Jesus says that’s what it will be like for those who wish to enter the kingdom of God. Here were five girls who thought they would be at a wedding celebration: they thought they were ready, but they were wrong -and they missed out. It is a serious warning from Jesus. And it links up with our reading from 1 Thessalonians.

The members of the church in Thessalonica were worried about people missing out too. Paul had taught them about Jesus, about forgiveness and salvation, about judgement and eternal life. They knew that Jesus was coming again, and that it would be soon; and they looked forward to the promised fulfilment of the Kingdom of God.

But of course, “soon” is not an exact word. When we read in scripture that Jesus is coming soon, we have a completely different perspective from the Thessalonians. They expected it within weeks, months, certainly not many years.

Today we who believe in the second coming of Jesus don’t really expect it to happen in our earthly lifetime: perhaps we are inclined to take it in some sort of figurative way. It is easy to take the whole idea very lightly indeed! We might say it’s just around the corner, but it is not clear how big the corner is!

But the Thessalonians had a different problem. Some of their number had died, and Jesus hadn’t come yet. What would happen to these friends and family members who had already died? Would they miss out on the kingdom? Would these believers be left behind? Would they be at some disadvantage?

Paul reassures his readers that when Jesus returns in glory, both those who have died and those who are still on earth will be involved. No believer will be left out on that day. And he ends our passage with these positive words: “We will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” Paul’s message is that Jesus’ coming is for all people!

Of course, we still don’t know the date of Jesus’ return. Indeed, as Paul puts it in next Sunday’s reading from 1 Thessalonians 5, he will come like a thief in the night, without appointment or warning.

The point of both these readings is this: we need to live as those who are always ready. We don’t know when we shall die: so often death comes unexpectedly. And we don’t know when Jesus shall return. So we must live as those who are always ready. We can’t take things for granted as those five unprepared girls did.

Jesus brings us warning, while Paul brings encouragement. We need both. For instance, people can be tempted to say to themselves: “I am baptized, I have been confirmed.” But the realities to which baptism and confirmation point need to be lived out in our lives.

People may have had profound spiritual experiences: but if they are just experiences, they are just history – not reality. People may have grown up in a Christian household and had a strong Christian upbringing. But can we simply rely on these things when Jesus comes? We are called to be children of God, not grandchildren of God.

It is Jesus who by his grace enables us to be ready for that day. As the old hymn puts it: “On Christ the solid rock I stand: all other ground is sinking sand.” It is not our church attendance or our good character or our kind deeds that makes us ready, though they are important: it is Christ who enables us to stand. And it is as we trust in him, as we depend on his gracious love, that we open up to the blessings of the Gospel. By faith in Christ – not our own worthiness – we can be confident that we have a place in his kingdom.

Of course, genuine faith is always lived out. Faith is not a theoretical matter: it is never “believe, and do whatever you like”! If it is genuine, we will seek to live the life of faith. There are indications that some of the Thessalonians thought that faith meant sitting back and doing nothing. That inactivity gave them the opportunity to become spongers on the generosity of others, and to become busybodies and gossips.

But Paul makes clear that faith is to be expressed in purposeful living, in godly lives and in loving generosity to others. Yes, we must depend on Christ for our forgiveness and salvation: but we are not to take advantage of the generosity of others, using them to make life easier for ourselves.

Christ’s call to readiness is not a call to panic or frenzied activity. It is a challenge to keep trusting and following him. It is a reminder that life has a direction, life has a purpose. No, we don’t know that date of Christ’ return in glory. We don’t know the date of our death. But both are realities for which we are always to be prepared. Let’s keep going in our Christian lives and our Christian living. Let’s determine to be in it for the long haul – although in the light of eternity, it’s not all that long! Salvation is a gift, not an achievement: but we mustn’t take it for granted. Let’s keep trusting, keep following, keep loving. Amen.

 

 

Paul Weaver