March 31, 2019 Sermon
Journey to the Cross: Readiness
First Scripture Reading: Psalm 43:3-4
3 O send out your light and your truth;
let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
and to your dwelling.
4 Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy;
and I will praise you with the harp,
O God, my God.
Second Scripture Reading: Matthew 25:1-13
25 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Message – “Journey to the Cross: Readiness”
Would you be surprised to learn that today’s scripture reading is yet ANOTHER Judgment parable?
What is up with Jesus and these Judgment parables? Well, if you’ve been following along the past few Sundays, you already know the answer to this question. We’re in the midst of the season of Lent, a season during which we focus ever more on Jesus’ journey toward the cross and so a season in which the makers of the Narrative Lectionary (who provide our weekly scripture readings) focus on the last things of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the things Jesus found important and urgent enough to communicate to His disciples – including US – right before He knew He would go to the cross. And by now it should be absolutely no surprise that at the end of His earthly ministry Jesus was concerned with communicating exactly how this Judgment thing would work.
So far, we’ve discovered through two other parables that:
- Everyone who receives God’s grace will receive exactly the same gift of grace, the same eternal life with God as everyone else who receives grace.
- There will be some unexpected guests at the party of eternal life with God because God invites everyone, and everyone who accepts will gain entrance;
- And, God’s criteria for “acceptance” has to do with a faith that is more than mere spoken words, has to do with a faith lived out, and the determination of our acceptance is to be made by God and God alone – in other words, no human agency gets to grant or exclude anyone from eternal life with God;
I hope you can see that the issue of The Judgment, the issue of who’s going to enjoy the amazing party of an eternal life with God that’s compared to a great wedding banquet, I hope you can see that the issue of The Judgment was very important to Jesus as He neared the end of His earthly ministry. And I also hope you can see that the issue of the The Judgment was too big, too complex, to explain or set out in just one parable…so Jesus told many, each one building on the questions or issues that might have arisen from the deep truth of the last:
- Once Jesus explained that everyone who received grace received the same grace, people might have wondered exactly who would be offered this grace;
- Once Jesus explained that everyone would be offered this grace and all who accept with a faith that is more than spoken words, people might have wondered what constitutes “more than spoken words” and even WHEN the decision would be made. In other words, when do we have to start putting our whole lives into this faith thing to receive admittance?
And so Jesus offered yet another parable to provide the answer, another parable to explain another deep truth about The Judgment…this parable about the bridesmaids and the bridegroom.
You likely noticed that this story is most definitely from another time and another place in ways that are difficult to understand:
- What kind of strange ritual is this? I mean, why are the bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom? What’s supposed to happen when the bridegroom arrives and goes into a locked room with all these bridesmaids – the wedding banquet, I presume? And, oh, where is the bride?
- And who uses oil lamps when you can just flip on a light switch? This isn’t from our time.
- And if the bridegroom is so demanding about punctuality, why is he so late, himself? And why does he make the bridesmaids wait at all…since he seems to know they’re going to be there?
- And if the bridesmaids knew the bridegroom and knew that he cared so much for punctuality, why on earth would carrying an extra flask of oil make some bridesmaids wise? Just seems like a waste of oil if you know you’re dealing with a bridegroom who cares so much about punctuality.
Since a parable typically tells a story rooted in the real world and real world experience to share a deep truth about something nearly incomprehensible, we should expect this story to be based on some kind of real-world 1st century Judean wedding ritual, seemingly a ritual so different from our own experience that we can hardly relate…but I have been unable to find enough information about first century Judean wedding rituals to definitively say what portions of the ritual Jesus describes are typical and which are so different from what is typical as to be like giant flashing neon signs telling us where to place our focus.
So…we’ve got to try to look at the story as a whole, rather than seeking those neon signs, to find the single deep truth, and we’ve got to trust we’ll find the deep truth since we have little knowledge of the ritual Jesus was referencing. Fortunately, our task is not too terribly difficult with this parable. Jesus presents a story with 10 bridesmaids, calling 5 of them foolish and 5 of them wise. And Jesus provides no way of physically distinguishing between the foolish and the wise. Outwardly, they are all the same as the story begins: all of them arrived for the wedding banquet; all of their lamps are aglow in anticipation of the bridegroom’s arrival; and all of them are presumably wearing the appropriate wedding gowns. The only difference Jesus offers in the story between the wise and the foolish is a difference of preparation, of readiness; some prepared for an eventuality that may or may not have been likely, and they were called wise. Some made no preparation, and they were called foolish.
The difference between receiving entrance into the kingdom of heaven and not receiving entrance is all about preparation, about readiness, about living for God every minute of every day. THAT’S the deep truth Jesus tells in this parable: live a life of readiness. You don’t know when your time of judgment will come, so be ready ALWAYS.
But, what does it look like to live a life of readiness?
This is where things get difficult…because I’m pretty sure Jesus expects us to live lives of readiness by going back through the gospels, reading what Jesus said, and living in accordance with THAT…which would yield a pretty long sermon because it would mean preaching about everything Jesus said and did..right here, right now. (How many of you want me to do that?) It would mean:
- Going back to the Sermon on the Mount:
- And talking about the beatitudes, the place where Jesus told us all the different ways of being that would produce blessedness;
- And talking about salt and light, and anger, and adultery, and divorce, and love for enemies, and retaliation, and oaths, and almsgiving, and prayer, and fasting, and how we can’t serve two masters but only one, and about not worrying, and about not judging others;
- And y’all realize I haven’t even made it but about halfway through the Sermon on the Mount, right…and I haven’t actually said anything, I’ve provided topics for readiness but no substance? You get that, right?
So what does readiness mean? It’s fascinating to me that Jesus doesn’t give us a list…because, by golly, I want a list! Maybe someplace else Jesus gives us a list – so we’ll have to look in those places – but, at least here, Jesus doesn’t tell us what thoughts, words, or actions constitute readiness. No, he just tells us to be ready…to not put off living for Jesus until tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or even five minutes from now. And that’s ENOUGH for one parable, one deep truth. When it comes to living for Jesus, don’t put it off. Live for Jesus now, in this moment, while you’re thinking about it. Now. And now. And now!
And so, for today, THAT’S what we should be talking about. For today, readiness isn’t about the specific things we must do or avoid doing to receive eternal life with God. No, for today, readiness is about living every single moment for God, every single moment trying to do what God taught us to do through Jesus and, really, through the whole of the scriptures.
And while readiness – for today – isn’t about specific actions, specific checklist items, I will provide some general guidelines, some things to do in the moment, some categories of things that constitute readiness…because we can’t just call anything readiness, right? We can’t say buying a million dollars worth of silly string and having the world’s largest silly string fight is what Jesus was talking about, right? So there must be some ways to get ready. I’ve got some ideas.
- Readiness is partly about learning everything you can about Jesus. How can you follow Jesus if you don’t know anything about Him? How can you be sure you’re actually following the Jesus God sent us, the Jesus of scripture, if you haven’t read or studied the scriptures? Readiness most definitely includes spending more time than most of us do to get to know Jesus. So…if you haven’t yet read the bible, read the bible. If you’ve read the Bible but you’re not in a Bible Study, get in a Bible study. If, like me, you’ve devoted whole years of your life to studying the Bible – even gave up your job and just about everything you knew to devote 4 years to getting to know Jesus better, guess what, you still don’t know everything there is to know about Jesus. I know I don’t. I learn new stuff every day. So if you’re involved in a study but not really learning anything new from it, don’t think you know everything. Instead, find a different group, a different study. Find some people who know more than you know, and learn from them.
- But readiness is about more than simply learning about Jesus, learning about a guy who walked the earth 2,000 years ago on the other side of the world. Readiness is also about getting to know Jesus, the risen Christ, right NOW. In other words, readiness involves spiritual practices. Readiness involves prayer. Readiness involves spending time with God, and readiness involves LISTENING to God.
- So, readiness is about learning ever more about Jesus, and readiness is about getting to know Jesus better every single day. But that’s not all. Readiness also involves ACTING upon what you find when you learn about and get to know Jesus. Readiness is about looking for the need that is right in front of you and then doing what you can do about it. Sometimes, you’ve got the gifts, the abilities, to solve the problem. Sometimes you’re holding the glass of water someone else needs to drink. And sometimes, you don’t have a glass of water but you know who does…so your job is to connect the person in front of you who has a need with the person who can do something about that need. So looking for the needs right in front of you and doing what you can to meet them – that’s also a critical part of readiness.
- And if you forget everything else I’ve said, what I’m about to say wraps all these other aspects of readiness into one bundle. Readiness is about LOVE: loving God and loving other people. Loving God by actively, every day, maybe many, many times each day, doing whatever you can to draw closer to God and everything you can to learn what God wants from you and for you…and doing these things with intentionality. And loving people every day by seeking to serve others as much or more as you seek to serve yourself (and even your family)…and doing whatever you can to serve others with intentionality.
My friends, that’s how you live a life of readiness. Which gets me wondering: how ready do you feel you are? (This is not something to answer out loud, but, rather, it’s something for you to ponder – with God’s help – for your own life.)
It would be so easy for all of us to say that we’re so ready that we have nothing left to do. It would be so easy – since we’re the ones who are here on a Sunday morning out of love for God instead of doing something else out of love for something else or even out of selfish desire – it would be so easy to say that we’re already living lives of readiness. And yet, somehow, I imagine each of us could be even more ready, more prepared…which I’m pretty sure is why Jesus didn’t give us a checklist of what readiness looks like. With a checklist, we could mark items off that list:
- Attended worship once this month – check;
- Helped someone outside of myself and my family this month – check;
- Prayed a couple times this week – check;
- Read a few chapters from my Bible this week – check;
With a checklist, some of us would zoom through the checklist items on the first days of the week or month or year and then declare ourselves “done” – so that we can spend the rest of our time being selfish. How ready would we really be?
No, Jesus gave us a story with the point, the deep truth, that we should all be spending ever more time preparing, ever more time getting ready.
And, oh, guess what? Even though this IS another Judgment parable, it’s also something else. Remember how Jesus began the story? “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this…” When Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven, he typically wasn’t talking EXCLUSIVELY about the eternal life with God after we die on this earth place. So often, Jesus was talking about the kingdom of heaven – the place where people do what God wants – anywhere and anytime, even right here, right now. In other words, if you want to live in God’s kingdom while STILL on this earth, you’ve got to live a life of readiness. Love God, love others, and enjoy that marvelous place for which we all strive…and you won’t have to wait until you die to get there. BY your actions of love, your actions of readiness, you can bring there over here. Which is pretty amazing. Amen.