People have a tendency to dwell on the end of the world. Books have been written about it and movie after movie has been made about what is going to happen. There are some references to the end of the world in the Bible. The book of Daniel in the Hebrew Scripture and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament are good examples. Revelation, in particular, speaks of the pitched battle that will occur between the forces of good and evil and does so in the strongest of images.
Jesus spoke about the end of the world. In a couple of weeks we will read about the judgment on the last day. Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats and the way we treat each other is the basis for the decision Jesus will make about whether we are welcomed into heaven. But our readings today speak of the end of the world with less fighting and violence than all of those movies or of Revelation. Today we hear about being lifted up to Jesus and about a wonderful banquet.
How does the second coming of Jesus affect our faith and our actions today? The Christians of Paul’s time thought that Jesus would return to earth while they were still alive. They were worried about those who had already died. Paul reassured them that Christ will raise the dead as well as the living. The dead will be taken up first. Those that are alive will rise up and meet Jesus in the air. All followers will be reunited. This event will be accompanied by trumpets and archangels will be seen. What a lovely image for us to hear today. Paul’s conclusion is that all who have lived in Christ will be raised. He was confident in that because of the love of Jesus. Paul even wrote that he wanted them to encourage each other, to comfort each other with these words about God’s love.
Our sense of heaven has evolved and we often speak of joining our loved ones when we die. Perhaps our understanding has grown because of the writing of Paul. Our gospel lesson invites us to think about the church community as the bride and Jesus as the bridegroom. The coming kingdom of God is like a joyful wedding banquet. It will not be some huge battle but more like a celebration. I like that much better than the violence found in movies. As bridesmaids we are to be prepared at all times for the second coming of Jesus. Another way to think about this lesson is that we never know when we are going to die and we always want to be ready, to find ourselves in a holy place, to find ourselves with Jesus so that we can join the other saints in heaven when that day comes. It is as if we are all boy scouts and we should follow their motto, “Be prepared”.
Haven’t most of us stopped waiting? Jesus has not come back for a very long time and in spite of those who say the end of the world is coming soon, we really have no idea when Jesus will come back most likely not in our lifetime. That is why the most important words Jesus gives us is that the bridegroom has been delayed. We accept that Jesus has not come back yet but that doesn’t change our expectation that he will return. Worrying about the end of the world coming is not a healthy way to live. I find it difficult to be motivated by the fact that God will judge me when I die. I don’t think we should live in fear that we will make a mistake and not be in God’s grace at the end of our life. Something so distant, so far away that it is hard to prepare for.
I am reminded of some management training that I received many years ago. It was all about what makes people tick and about how to help motivate employees. The training suggested that people are best motivated when they know exactly what they face in the short term. The expression was that people will work on things that are personal, immediate and certain. Each of us prefers to pay attention to things that impact us as individuals. Even athletes know that while they play for a team their own actions matter a great deal. It is harder to envision that my actions will impact the outcome of a large corporation. Folks are more likely to work on something when the result is immediate. Finally, we are all willing to work on things when the outcome is certain or predictable. Imagine what it is like when you go bowling. Each time that you roll the bowling ball down the lane, you get immediate feedback about how well you did. You trust that the pins will fall if you hit them correctly. The results are personal, immediate and certain. On the other hand, a goal that is delayed or has a gamble associated with the outcome, is not very motivating. Imagine if you will, a smoker. At any given time, a smoker can decided that the possibility of dying from having one cigarette is not very significant. After all, the possibility of getting sick from smoking may happen a long time in the future. And after all, there are a few people who never do get lung cancer even though they may have smoked all of their life.
You see, it is a gamble as to whether or not I will survive and one cigarette does not change the outcome. Most smokers are more motivated by the satisfaction they get from that one cigarette because they know that the result of having that one cigarette is an immediate and certain satisfaction. That is why I worry about how we will interpret this parable. If the only way you think about this parable is that Jesus is telling you to be ready for the second coming, I don’t think that you will change your behavior in any way. Certainly it is better to be prepared. I could never give a sermon if I didn’t prepare. I just think we have to have some immediate feedback about the value of preparedness.
The feeling that I get when I have finished writing a sermon is so good, a sense of accomplishment. You see, just the writing of the sermon is a positive experience. I believe the same is true in our relationship with Jesus. When I find myself in God’s presence, when I am able to follow what I understand to be God’s will, then a sense of peace and comfort comes over me. Yes, I have some wish inside that I will be ready for the day I die, but the feeling I get today is much more valuable.
In the parable, some are identified as the wise bridesmaids for they brought along extra oil. Is that why they got into the banquet? I mean they were selfish, they refused to share their oil with the other less prepared bridesmaids. Jesus is telling us that the Last Judgement is too late to help others such as our neighbor so I want us to always think of our neighbor throughout our life. There must be something else going on here. I believe it is in the presence of the wise bridesmaids when the bridegroom came. You see, the foolish bridesmaids left. It is as if they left the presence of Jesus while the wise bridesmaids remained. The wise ones always sought to be there when Jesus came. I like to think that their satisfaction was not the welcoming into the banquet but the happiness that they felt throughout their time of preparation. For us, then, it is about the comfort and peace that we feel knowing that Jesus is with us always. I say this many times but I think it is about the love and grace that we receive each day from Jesus. Reinhold Niebuhr once said, that “Only a combination of serenity and preparedness can do justice to the whole of our life”. He encouraged us to remember that “both tomorrow and today are in the hands of God”. Let us be prepared for each day. Let us experience Jesus each day. Let us not live in fear about the bad things that will come but rather in joyful hope that the best is yet to come. It will be a time when heaven and earth will be united and a great party will begin. Amen.