Jesus likes to talk about weddings. In Matthew 25:1-13 he tells us about waiting for the bridegroom to arrive so that the wedding feast could begin. In the male dominated society of Jesus’ time, it was the groom who was the centre of attention. These days it is the bride. Everyone waits for her arrival. Even if she is late, sometimes really late, everyone is gracious and waits patiently because today she is the bride. When she arrives, every movement of the bride is photographed. Everyone stands when she enters the church. Everyone stares at her beautiful dress. The groom is just the guy sweating next the minister. He is the lucky one who has won the love of the beautiful woman walking down the aisle.
But in Jesus’ day, it was the groom for whom everyone waited with bated breath. It seems that often the bridegroom was delayed because he negotiated with the bride’s family about a gift to give to them in return for their daughter. Often, the negotiations would be delayed by the bride’s parents as a way of communicating that they thought their daughter was worth much more than the groom had offered by his initial gift.
In Jesus’ story, the bridesmaids are waiting through such a delay. But even though the groom was delayed, they were to be ready for his arrival and escort him into the wedding feast. Five of them, however, were not ready. They had time to get the extra oil they needed, but they did not feel the sense of urgency to do it right away. So when the groom arrived, they had to rush off to the store to buy more oil. The problem was that when they returned and sought entrance to the feast, they were considered no different than other uninvited seekers. The feast had begun, and the doors were locked. It was too late.
A preacher was telling the story, a parable, of the wise and foolish girls to a group of teenage boys. He concluded his address with a rhetorical question saying: "Young men, I ask you, where would you rather be? Here, in the light, at the feast for the bridegroom, or there, out in the dark with a group of foolish young girls?" One young man quickly responded, "Out in the dark with a group of foolish young girls, sir".
A very clever answer but not what Jesus had in mind. He is saying that it is not very clever at all to be caught unprepared for something that you know for certain is going to happen. All ten girls knew that the bridegroom would come and take them to the wedding feast. They didn’t know exactly when he would come but they knew that no matter how late it got that he would eventually come.
It has been pointed out that the girls who took along the extra oil (kerosene, if you like) for their lamps must have looked a bit silly. Weddings took place in the daytime, and at the latest, a groom would arrive early evening. Why lug along extra bottles of kerosene, just in case. Nothing could be more idiotic: they have complicated their lives by preparing themselves for something that is highly unlikely to eventuate. Those girls whom Jesus calls wise could be seen as a bunch of neurotic fuss-budgets preoccupied with what might go wrong. The other five maidens come along with enough oil to see them through to the time the bridegroom was expected to appear. Nothing could be more sensible.
But the seemingly neurotic girls in the end were the wise ones. They were prepared for the appearance of the bridegroom; the others were not. Those who had no oil for their lamps hurried to the corner shop to buy more oil. Remember, it’s midnight. By the time they got the shopkeeper out of bed, and bought more oil, it was too late. The door to the wedding feast was shut. They banged on the door, but time had run out. They begged to be let in. A voice replies. "Certainly not! I don’t know you."
What a disturbing end to Jesus’ story! Those who thought they had it all worked out thinking that the others were just too serious and neurotic, in the end were the foolish ones who were locked out.
What can we learn from this story of Jesus?
Firstly, Jesus, the bridegroom, is coming. This story, along with the rest of Scripture, leaves us in no doubt that Jesus is coming again. We don’t know precisely when he will come again but he is definitely returning. This may not be the most popular idea in our material and pleasure centred culture, and, we might look like idiots believing in the second coming of Jesus, but it will happen.
Secondly, it is clear that Jesus’ return has been delayed. It might seem like a long time between his first and second coming but in God's eyes 2 or 3 thousand years are nothing. The Bible tells us that without a doubt we are now living in the last times before Jesus will come again.
Thirdly, this parable of Jesus is all about waiting, being ready. Jesus is telling us that God has graciously given this time of waiting so that everyone has a chance to get ready.
Janelle was expecting Jeff to show up. She was dressed up and waiting patiently. However, by the time he was an hour late, she figured she had been stood up. So, she took off her makeup, put on her pyjamas, gathered all the junk food in the pantry and sat down to watch TV with the dog. As her favourite show was just coming on, the doorbell rang. It was her Jeff. He stared at her wide-eyed: "I’m two hours late, and you’re still not ready?"
That about sums it up. Jesus is delaying so that everyone who has never heard of his dying and rising to life will be given a chance to know their Saviour. He is delaying to give all those who have heard but have rejected what Jesus is offering or have left taking Jesus seriously until another day, another chance to get ready. He is delaying so that no one can have the excuse that they didn’t have time to get ready for his return.
He is delaying his return to give the church, you and me, time to give every person in our community a chance to hear about Jesus and to respond to the Good News. Now is the time to talk to that neighbour who has no church connections, that family member who is in danger of not being ready for Christ’s return or their death, whichever comes first.
Now is the time to invite that person to your Christmas worship services, to help them to be ready for the coming of the bridegroom. If you are a lapsed Christian or you don’t know Jesus and what he is offering, then now is the time to do something about it. Paul expresses something of the urgency in all this when he says, "It is time to wake up. You know that the day when we will be saved is nearer now than when we first put our faith in the Lord. Night is almost over, and day will soon appear" (Romans 13:11,12).
It’s easy to think that we have plenty of time before we need to worry about the second coming of Jesus. Property owners don’t leave cleaning up the tall grass and cleaning gutters until a bushfire comes. Owners of cars don’t leave servicing their cars until they break down. We know how dangerous it is to leave bald tyres on a car and wait until you have an accident before something is done. We know how important it is to do these things, and yet so many people think that being ready for Jesus coming is not important. For all sorts of reasons people stop going to church until eventually God has stopped being part of life. Faith is forgotten and children grow up without anyone showing them who God is.
Paul says, "This is the hour to receive God's favour; today is the day to be saved!" (2 Cor 6:2). Be ready, Jesus is saying, honouring God above all other things, trusting Jesus for forgiveness and eternal life; getting to know God and his plan for our lives through reading and studying the Bible; diligent praying; helping and caring for those who need comfort, help and support. Or to use the imagery of the parable – keeping our lamps lit and ready, waiting for the inevitable coming of the bridegroom. There will come the day when Jesus will return. The dead will rise and enter eternal glory. The door will be shut. Then it will be too late. Those who are not ready will be left outside.
Then the dreadful sentence will ring in our ears, "I never knew you". He does not say, "I never loved you." "I never called you", "I never drew you to myself. He only says: "I never knew you - because you never bothered to know me."
This is hard hitting parable because it is a parable of judgement, it strikes at the core of our half-heartedness and luke-warmness. It hits hard at how uncommitted we are to Jesus and his Church. It strikes out at all those good intentions we have but never get around to fulfilling them. Good intentions like - One day in the future I’ll get serious about Jesus. One day we’ll get around to taking Bible study seriously. Someday I’ll get around to setting a time aside to spend with God in prayer .... When I retire, I hope to devote more time to church activities... There’s still plenty of time to get into religion more deeply and take it seriously ....
The words of Jesus in this parable shout at us saying that leaving everything to one day in the future may be just too late. "Watch out because you do not know when I will return," he says.
We will always be a lot like those foolish women and be less committed and prepared than Jesus requires. We are sinners and can’t help ourselves. And so we turn to Jesus, we ask for his help, his forgiveness for our failure to be a committed disciple waiting for his return. And it is only because of Jesus that we will end up on the right side of the closed door, the side where all the partying is taking place. We ask Jesus to keep us alert to living as members of his family, to forgive the times when we say, "Someday I’ll get around to it", to keep us awake to the fact that we need to be ready for the day you will return, or day we shall die.
Be ready. You just never know when Jesus will come again. Robert Capon says in conclusion, "We do, indeed, need to watch for him; because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun." (The Parables of Judgment, 1989, Eerdmans).
God of All Things – Andrew Wilson
Waiting on God – Andrew Murray
Vince Gerhardy Blog
The Parables of Judgement – Robert Farrar Capon
Still Waiting – Ann Swindell
Prayer – Awe and Intimacy of God – Timothy Keller
Waiting on God – Wayne Stiles