When I was in primary school I was encouraged to join a Boy Scouts Group in my community. I don’t think I stayed in it for a long time – then my family moved to Albany I got involved in a Boy’s Brigade which felt like the same thing only in church.
But I do remember the motto of the Boy Scouts, that Baden Powell knew was an important thing for us all to remember. It was “BE PREPARED.”
In a sense this will be a theme that is reiterated in our services over the next seven weeks in the run up to Christmas. Be Prepared!
Joshua, that great successor to Moses, just before his death, reminds the people of the wonderful ways in which God had shown his utter faithfulness to them since they left Egypt and had come to this wonderful “Promised Land” and that all God asks of them in response to his faithfulness is a commitment to similar faithfulness – and the kind of faithfulness he is talking of is the faithfulness in relationship that should exist between a man and woman who are married.
That is why the idea of foreign gods is so abhorrent. They are like a partner in marriage committing adultery – and indeed this term “adulterer” was frequently applied to the people of Israel by the prophets because they had fallen away from their One and True God – The Lord, who rescued them from the Pharaoh.
The covenant Joshua drew up to remind them of all this was really a kind of BE PREPARED Manifesto – be prepared to do all these things to show that you intend always to be faithful to God.
There are echoes of PE PREPARED in the Psalm as well. The Psalmist reminds the people that they took on an obligation to teach these things to their next generation so that they, too, would know and understand how important their faithfulness to God was.
The letter of Paul is also full of the BE PREPARED manifesto, as he encourages the people in Thessalonika to remember that those who die in Christ enter into a life in Christ and with God that cannot be taken away from them.
So let’s now have a little look at the Gospel in a way that we have not for a few weeks now. Here in this story of the ten bridesmaids we have a description of something of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like – “At that time the Kingdom of Heaven will be like this: …”
There are two important elements to the parable. Firstly there is that idea of BE PREPARED. We have the wonderful image if the bridesmaids awaiting but they had had to wait so long that the expected amount of oil necessary for their lamps had been exhausted in the waiting, and only five had thought ahead of this possibility and made sure they had some extra supplies – but not enough to share. There is nothing more to say here than make sure you are ready. You know the Bridegroom is coming – even if you can’t be sure when.
This provides a nice Segway into the other key theme in this story. I don’t know about you but this story goes rather against our cultural norms for weddings – it is usually the bride that keeps the guests waiting at a wedding. In fact my wife was physically constrained by her brother – he was driving one of the bridal cars – to make sure she was late, even though she wanted to be there on time.
But getting to the point it is obvious that this is a story connected with the Christian notion of Christ’s coming again on some great and wonderful day in the future. Other texts in the Gospels point to it. Various texts in the Epistles point to it, and the great thinkers of the church have pondered on this idea at great length down through the millennia. And so we have many ideas all blended together into what we make of this idea of The Second Coming.
When considering this story some might want to pick up on the sense of the unexpectedness of the moment when it happens – “You do not know the day or the hour.”
I want to offer a nuance on that idea. I wonder if the important idea for the readers here is that the bridegroom’s coming has been delayed – and that in the delay there is a sense of grace.
We know there are texts of Jesus giving the very clear impression that his “second coming” would happen in the lifetime of that generation. We know that Paul wrote at times warning of the imminent return of the Lord. Yet as time passed it seems that people had to gradually reorient their expectations in this matter.
Remembering that Matthew was writing his Gospel at least 40 years after Jesus’ at a time when average life expectancy might have been 45 or 50 (so he must have been a venerable old man) in this parable near the end of his story he is giving us a hint that there might be a delay in the Bridegroom coming.
And of course we are reading this story 2000 year on, so we know there has been a delay. While this delay has led some to consider that we have gotten this idea of a Second Coming wrong and even tried to construct different ideas of what the second coming might mean and that do not involve an event of signs and wonders accompanying the end of all time.
I want to offer the suggestion that in this delay we should see signs of God’s grace – for once the END has come upon us none else can enter into the joy of relationship with God into eternity.
This gift of time means that many more will have the time and opportunity to enter into this covenant of faithfulness with God by which they will be prepared for that final day. Some people, it seems to me, seem impatient for this Second Coming because they see in it the moment when God’s judgement and condemnation is brought down on those who are not ready. I am of the view that it is God’s will that none should be lost – and by his grace in this delay those who might otherwise be lost have been given more time to recognise their need to BE PREPARED.