Sunday, November 9, 2008
The Light is coming...
I suppose that often we are not very good at listening to, and heeding warnings. When sitting down for a meal and being warned not to touch the plate we have just been given because it is hot, our first reaction is often to touch that plate to see how hot it is! When driving and we are confronted by a speed sign that tells us that we should not drive at a speed greater than 50 km an hour (the implication being that it would be rather unsafe both for us and others about us to do so), we often think we know better and drive above that speed limit. When leaving school or university to start work, young people are wisely advised to start thinking abut getting a pension organised but many do not heed that warning thinking that they are going to live forever and “why do today what you can put off until tomorrow”! And what about all those economists who were warning of the need to save and put Government tax money aside during the years of plenty in order to make life easier once the Celtic Tiger had run its course!
So I don’t suppose that it’s too much of a surprise then that even Jesus’ warnings all too often fall on deaf ears. In our Gospel reading for today (Matthew 25:1-13), the background is that of a Jewish wedding. Now we’ve probably been to weddings that we think went on a bit too long. I went to one once where the meal went on all through the night with a new course each hour finishing up with a final course, which was breakfast! But even that is short compared to the celebrations of a Jewish wedding, which lasted for at least a week. The couple would not go on a package holiday to a Greek Island for their honeymoon; they would stay at home and welcome family, friends and neighbours. It was very relaxed, there was no set time when the bridegroom would come to the house of his bride, either to eat the wedding feast there, or more frequently take her to his own home for the wedding feast. There would be much joy, feasting and music. In the parable the ten young women were waiting for the bridegroom to arrive at the brides house so that they might accompany him into the ceremony and feast.
The ten young women are divided into two groups, the wise and the foolish. The wise ones were prepared for the possibility of the bridegroom being late, so they brought spare oil with them in case they should need to keep their lamps lit for longer. The foolish ones brought their lamps with oil in them but not enough to last should the bridegroom not come quickly.
And guess what? The bridegroom was a very long time in coming, so long in fact that the young women fell asleep. At midnight the cry rang out that the bridegroom was coming. Panic ensued as the foolish young women realised that they were running out of oil. They asked the wise young women if they could borrow some of their oil – but there was not enough to share – so the foolish young women had to run off and find an oil seller, which at that time of night would have been tricky! While the foolish young women had gone off to find oil the bridegroom arrived. The wise young women with the oil for their lamps went in with him to the wedding banquet and the door was shut behind them. Later on when the foolish young women returned they found that the door was shut. They banged on the door and pleaded to be let in, but the bridegroom insisted that he didn’t know them; it was too late to join in the wedding feast.
So what is this all about? Well I don’t think it’s too difficult to see that the bridegroom represents Jesus. He will of course one day return to earth, the Bible makes this clear (e.g. Matthew 24:30), but of course no one knows when it will happen. The young women, the bridesmaids are Christian people. Five of them are ready five of them are not. The scary thing is that they look the same, they are dressed the same and are carrying identical lamps, the only difference between them is their state of readiness. Only half of them were ready for the feast and went in to enjoy the festivities with the bride and groom and the others tragically and terribly are shut out. Looking like a Christian, going to church and even behaving like a Christian are not enough – do we know Jesus as our Lord and Saviour? That is what it is about. Surely the most terrible words we could ever hear would be the Lord saying to us “I never knew you”, before being forever shut out of His presence.
We learn too that holiness is not something that we can borrow. It’s no good thinking that because we come from a Christian home and are surrounded by others who know and love God that we will be okay. It is no more possible to borrow holiness from others than it was possible for the foolish young women to borrow oil from the wise young women. Holiness is of course not something that we can buy or even earn by being good. It is the gift of God for all who put their faith and put their trust in Christ (Ephesians 2:8).
I will never forget something that I witnessed on the London Underground when I was a teenager. I had just disembarked the train and was walking up the stairs and away from the platform. As I looked down, I noticed a mother had put her child in a pushchair into the carriage and had got back off to train to retrieve a bag she had left on the platform. As she did so the doors shut and the train began pulling away. To the horror of the many onlookers the mother ran at the moving train and tried to prise open the doors letting out a terrible cry as she did so. The train kept moving and disappeared into the tunnel with her child on board with the utterly distraught mother crying out in hurt that her child was on the train. Of course I’m sure that things turned out well - as soon as the underground staff were informed they would have been able to rectify the situation and reunite mother and child quickly, but there was a awful moment of despair and pain in that poor mother that I will never forget.
But I suppose that is nothing compared to the pain of the foolish young women in the parable and even more so, the desolation of being shut out from Heaven, of realising that we weren’t ready because we had never truly committed our lives to Jesus, we had never allowed Him to be our Lord and Saviour…
The last day will come for each of us. C.S. Lewis sums it up in this way: That “we do not and cannot know when the drama will end, the curtain may be wrung down at any moment”(1) . “When the author walks on to the stage the play is over … (When the Lord returns he will be) without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side … That will not be the time for choosing: It will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realised it before or not. Now, to-day, this moment is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that last chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it.”(2)
Are you ready?
(1)C.S. Lewis Index p.177
(2)C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity p.62, 63
Matthew for Today, Michael Green, Hodder & Stoughton, 1989