Keep Awake

Matthew 25:1-13

The earliest Christians did not write down the Gospel of Matthew until as many as fifty years after Jesus died and rose again.  The first believers were convinced that Christ would return soon – like, within their lifetimes.  As the years wore on and the first generation of believers started dying, they began to realize that perhaps they were in for a longer wait than anticipated.  They started collecting and writing down the stories of Jesus’ life so the good news could be preserved and shared for generations to come.

Still, they heard the message loud and clear: Jesus would return.  They should not give up or get distracted.  Every day is a new opportunity to love your neighbor, live together in righteousness, and look for the coming of Christ.  They were to keep awake, never losing focus, not because they were afraid of Jesus’ return but because they wanted to be able to be there, fully aware and fully prepared when he came back.

We Christians in the 21st century have been trained to hear the idea of Jesus’ return very differently.  We don’t seem to joyfully anticipate it anymore; we seem scared of it.  We think of the rapture, the tribulation, the book of Revelation, mystical images and signs which you can decode to be ready for Christ’s second coming and all the trials that will come with it.  Do today’s text a favor: forget that stuff.  The idea of a rapture is remarkably recent to Christian history and is a distinctly modern American Protestant concept of dubious origin.  It’s not in the Bible.  Shake that stuff out of your head real quick, because it’s not where we’re going today.

Let us look instead to the context of this passage.  Jesus is teaching, a common event in the book of Matthew.  He teaches disciples that even the temple, the center of their faith lives, will one day be destroyed, and they’re horrified.  They assume that the destruction of the temple would be a world-ending event.  But Jesus warns them: not even the destruction of the temple will let you know that the world is ending.  Instead, Jesus tells them a series of stories about how very unexpected and surprising his return and the final reckoning will be.

Stop reading for clues and signs and codes.  Jesus is very clear that this isn’t what he’s about.  The question isn’t “how will we know when the end is near?”  The question is: “What do we do in the meantime?”  And on that, Jesus has some very clear ideas.

To answer that question, Jesus tells several stories, including the story of the bridesmaids that we read today.  In it, ten bridesmaids wait to accompany the groom on his ceremonial journey to retrieve his bride from her parents’ house and take her to his family’s home.  The bridesmaids are to welcome the groom and go with him to meet his bride.  In this story, the groom is very late.  He’s so late, in fact, that those who wait get tired and fall asleep.

That’s not the problem.  The problem is that when the groom finally gets his act together and shows up, only half the bridesmaids have enough oil in their lamps to light his way.  If they share, no one will be able to see where they’re going because they’ll all run out.  The foolish bridesmaids choose to try to find more oil in the middle of the night instead of fulfilling their duty to accompany the groom.  He doesn’t get to meet them.  It’s no wonder he doesn’t recognize them when they come knocking on his door later – they weren’t there when he needed them.

They got distracted.  They forgot their real job.  Their job was to welcome and walk with the groom.  And they got distracted by minor details like oil.  All of this could have been avoided by doing the work ahead of time and being ready in the first place.  There was no reason to expect they’d need that much oil, but because the wise bridesmaids so valued the opportunity to greet and guide the groom, they wanted to make sure nothing could keep them from doing their work and being fully present and ready.

So: what’s keeping you from being fully present and ready?  Jesus tells you to stop worrying about when he might come back.  If you want to care about something, care about living your faith now.  You don’t know when Jesus is going to show up – not just at the end of the world, but now, today, whenever the Spirit comes among us and lets us know that God is at work in and through us and the world around us.  Will you even notice him when he shows up?  Are you doing the work of faith now or waiting for a hard time to draw on a faith that you’ve never shaped and lived?  Because I promise you, if you wait until you need the support of your faith, you’re not going to be prepared to face that hard time.

It’s why we practice our faith.  It’s why Christians work on their faith practices – things like daily prayer, devotions, Bible reading, service to others, worship, giving, and more.  We practice our faith not because practice makes perfect, but because practice makes permanent.  You’re not praying and worshiping and serving so that if Jesus happens to return at that moment he’s gonna bust you doing something good.  You’re praying and worshiping and serving because these practices build and strengthen your faith, making you prepared and ready for whatever the day might bring, ready to do what is needed, ready to greet Jesus however he comes.

Having a strong, engaged faith life is the equivalent of having a little extra oil for your lamp.  You will not have to worry about whether you’ll be ready when God calls on you, or if you’ll be able to endure a hard time, or if you’ll be able to support someone in their time of need.  This is what you’ve been working and training for.  You’ll be ready to meet Christ during that real-life situation and accompany him in the work of the Spirit.  Without these practices, you’re not ready.  You’re not awake.  You’re not mindful of the ways Jesus is already among us, much less ready to meet him when he returns in glory.

Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.  And that’s good news.  You don’t know when Jesus will come or when you’ll be needed or when the world will end or whatever.  You don’t need to know.  What you need to know is that you’re practicing your faith, it’s continually guiding and teaching you, and you are awake to God’s action in the world.  For the honor of joining God at work in the world, we say thanks be to God.  Amen.

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