St Michael’s and St Barnabas 6th November 2011
Everyone loves a good wedding. As a vicar, I consider it one of the greatest privileges of my job to pronounce a man and woman husband and wife, and to share in the joy of the big day. But of course weddings don’t just happen. From the day the happy couple get engaged to the actual date of the marriage, there is just so much to sort out – from where it’s all going to take place to who’s going to pay for it, and what to do about Great-Aunt Agatha at the reception. It’s not too surprising, then, that a whole industry has sprung up to cater for every wedding need, and if you are prepared to pay silly money, all the details can be ironed out for you, from the dress to the flowers to 101 other things you probably had never even thought about.
Of course, even with the best preparation, weddings sometimes still go wrong. We had friends who got married three weeks after us. They had done far more planning than us, even down to timing with a stopwatch how long it took for my wife to walk down the aisle. But on the day a whole series of things went awry. First of all, the reader of the lesson couldn’t get past the bride and groom to the lectern. She was supposed to be reading from 1 John 4, about God is love, but judging from her puzzled expression she must have turned to John 4 instead – The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband! Later on, we all had to queue outside in cold April winds to get our photos taken. An hour and a half later the photographer still hadn’t finished, and we voted with our feet to get inside the reception. The reception itself was lovely, but there just wasn’t enough food. Us locals in the end all went home and got fish and chips. Our friends became a lovely couple, but we still can’t help smiling at all the things that happened that day.
Now today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel is all about a wedding that goes wrong. For a start, the bridegroom is late. We don’t know precisely why. Some think he may have been out celebrating with his friends, others that he may have been haggling with the bride’s family over the amount of the dowry. The point is, however, is that he arrives late at the bride’s chambers. So late in fact that the bride’s companions who should have been looking out for the groom fall asleep. They are literally caught napping when he finally turns up.
And there’s the incident with the lamps. The bridesmaids needed the lamps, of course, because it was dark and the plan was for them to process with the groom into the honeymoon suite. But half of them don’t have enough oil to light the way. They’ve forgotten to bring extra supplies and there’s no 24-hour supermarket just round the corner. So disaster of disaster, by the time they come back to the wedding celebrations the door is shut. After all, which bridegroom on his wedding night wants to be disturbed by people arriving late?
So that’s the rough outline of the story. But what is exactly all about? Yes, we know the song we sung at the beginning, Give me oil in my lamp but even that doesn’t fully explain why Jesus told this particular parable. Indeed the more you begin to dig into the passage, the stranger the story becomes. It’s a story about a wedding, but there’s no mention of a bride. It features some bridesmaids who unusually happen to be carrying spare jars of oil on the wedding day. It ends up with the groom even denying that he knows who some of the bridesmaids are. So how exactly do we make sense of all this?
One way to make sense of a story like this is to try and piece together who the various characters represent. First of all, and most easily, let’s think about the bridegroom. Who do you think he might represent? That’s right – it’s God, or Jesus. The disciples who were listening to Jesus would have been familiar with the idea of God as the bridegroom from passages in the Old Testament such as Isaiah 62:4-5:
No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah; for the LORD will take delight in you, and your land will be married. As a young man marries a maiden, so will your sons marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.
Like every other Jewish person of the day the disciples were looking forward to the time when God would restore the fortunes of His people, when there would be a time of great rejoicing such as is found at a wedding feast. And one of the many astonishing claims Jesus made in His teaching was that He was the bridegroom, come to bring peace and joy and salvation. So when back in Matthew 9 the Pharisees asked why His disciples did not fast, Jesus replied quite clearly: How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? (Matthew 9:15). Jesus knew He came to be the great restorer, to bring comfort to the deserted, and hope to the desolate.
But of course we still live in an age affected by the ravages of sin and sorrow and suffering. So while in one sense Jesus’ great work of salvation was finished once and for all upon the cross, in another it was the only first step in setting up a kingdom that will never perish, spoil and fade. That’s why, in the passages we’ve been looking at from towards the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes it clear that He will come again and this time His kingdom work will be complete. When He comes again as the bridegroom, then His final victory will be plain for all to see. The cry will ring out, and we will stop whatever we are doing to see Jesus in all His splendour, might and majesty.
And for some, Jesus’ coming will be a time of unimagined rejoicing as they are finally called home to share in life eternal with Him. For others it will be a time of unimagined misery as suddenly they realise they are excluded forever from His presence. As we read last week in Matthew 24:40-41: Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. There is, after all, nothing worse than finding out you haven’t been invited to the wedding you always thought you would attend.
This leads us on, secondly, to consider who the ten bridesmaids are, or as the NIV puts it, the ten virgins. Because whoever exactly they are meant to represent, one thing is clear. They were people who should have been included in the wedding celebrations. You just can’t have a wedding without bridesmaids, although I would suggest from my experience as a vicar that in our culture ten might be a few too many. Anyway, there are ten bridesmaids here in this story. Who are they? I believe they stand for members of God’s church, people who profess to believe in Jesus, people who say they belong to an organisation that elsewhere in the New Testament is called the bride of Christ.
And if I’m right, then this story suddenly becomes almost painfully relevant to all of us sitting here this morning. We’ll come on to the question of the wise and the foolish bridesmaids in a moment. But before we do so, I want to draw attention to the fact that when the bridegroom came, all of them had fallen asleep. Because actually I don’t think any of us are adequately prepared for the possibility of Christ’s return. It may just be me, but when I start the week’s work on Monday morning, I don’t generally think how one day I will need to give an account to Jesus of what I am doing. Or that one day I will have to explain the way I behaved towards my family, my friends, the church in my care. None of us want to live with the thought that we will all appear before the judgement seat of God. It’s far more comfortable to think we have saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and carry on living as before.
Now please be very clear about what I am saying. I am not saying that we should be like those American fundamentalists who seem to spend all their time predicting when Jesus will return. Nor am I saying we shouldn’t rest on the saving work of Christ and trust in His grace alone. But I am saying that we need a far greater awareness that we belong to Christ, that in the end nothing matters more than serving Him and giving Him glory in what we think and say and do. That’s why Paul writes in our first reading from 1 Thessalonians: Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Paul knew how important it was to constantly seek God’s will for his life. He didn’t write these verses simply to give the church a boost in their prayer life. He wanted them, and us, to grasp, that we have an urgent and vitally important mission, and we should never, so to speak, be found sleeping on the job.
Yet even though all the bridesmaids were asleep, half of them were ready when they woke up. Half of them were admitted to the wedding banquet. Half of them saw the bridegroom face to face, and shared in His joy. So what of the other 50%? What was it that made them so foolish?
Verse 3 gives us the answer – well, sort of: The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. So later on, in verse 8, when the bridegroom finally arrives, they find their lights are going out, and they need some more. The key question, then, is how we understand the oil.
Well, we find several mentions of oil in the New Testament. Oil is used as a symbol of healing and wholeness, such as in Mark 6:13 where we read the disciples… drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. Oil also was used to anoint individuals as kings and priests, and in Hebrews 1:9 an Old Testament psalm about kingship is applied to Jesus where it says God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy. Oil, therefore, stands for the power and the presence of God, to heal and to set apart. It is, in short, a reference to the Holy Spirit.
And this being so, then we can begin to understand who these foolish bridesmaids represent. They stand for folk who claim to belong to the church, who say they follow Jesus, but have never actually claimed Him as their Saviour and received the Holy Spirit. Which is a serious issue because as Paul reminds us in Romans 8:9: if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. Full stop. End of argument.
So here is another huge challenge to us as a church. I would like to think that each and every one of us here has a living experience of the Holy Spirit, that if Jesus was to return today and survey the lives of all the members of St Michael’s and St Barnabas, He would discover that 100% of us are wise, and not just 50%, as in the story. But maybe there’s someone here this morning for whom all this talk about receiving the Holy Spirit is new and strange. Maybe you’ve thought the Holy Spirit was only for certain groups of Christians or people who’ve had a particularly special experience. Or maybe you’ve never grasped the importance of a living, growing relationship with Jesus as your Lord and Saviour.
If that’s the case for you, then let me urge you to think again what it means to be a Christian. You are not a Christian simply because you belong to a church. Jesus’ story of the weeds and the tares tell us that even in the church there are many who aren’t saved. Nor are you a Christian because you were baptised as a child, or went to a church school. Experience of a ritual, or a certain type of education, is no substitute for a personal faith of your own. Nor even are you a Christian because you serve on a committee, like the PCC or the synod or a school governing body. You are not saved by committee, but by commitment to Christ, by saying, “Jesus, help me to be ready to meet with you. By your mercy fill me with your Spirit and make new to live and serve you. Amen”. Because when the bridegroom returns to claim His own, all that matters will be a living, personal faith in Him. Do you, I wonder, have that faith?
And if you’re thinking, well, yes, I know Jesus and I believe I have received the Holy Spirit, please don’t think there isn’t a challenge here for you as well. After all, how many people here know someone who claims to be a Christian, yet rarely, if ever, goes to church and rarely, if ever, reads the Bible? Brothers and sisters, we are surrounded by folk who are foolish bridesmaids. They think of themselves as Christians and yet they stand in grave danger of hearing those words that Jesus says in verse 13: I tell you the truth, I don’t know you. If that thought doesn’t move us to prayer and to action, then I suggest very little will. And what will Jesus say to us then, when He returns?
Jesus the bridegroom is coming back. We need to live constantly in awareness of that fact. We need to seek more and more of His Spirit and aim to live for Him and Him alone. And we need a heart of compassion for those who are lost, yet think they are Christians. That is the message Jesus brings to us in our passage this morning. How will you, how will I respond?