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21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ 22 Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 ‘Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 ‘At this the servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go. 28 ‘But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded. 29 ‘His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.” 30 ‘But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32 ‘Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. 35 ‘This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
Joseph Stalin’s biographer said this of his subject. 'Stalin never forgot nor forgave an injury done to him. He bided his time and in the end always hit back.' The death of countless millions can testify to the murderous intent of Stalin's unforgiving heart. He turned the energy of a grudge nursed into the fullness of evil.
In my first parish, one of my members, a GP, ran a workshop on the topic of forgiveness. She began the workshop by quoting this statistic from a Christian psychologist which shocked me. “Non-forgiveness, resentment or bitterness is the leading cause of death in the U.S.A.” She went on to explore the physical effects of not forgiving others: depression, which can be internalized anger, and anxiety, for which people may resort to drugs or alcohol in order to cope. Resentment requires energy, and this comes via the adrenal gland, which pumps out hormones. We know it as the fight or flight response, but when it's perpetually primed, it can suppress the white blood cells and the antibodies which fight illness.
I’m certain that each of us know in our own lives the heartache of an issue that remains unresolved. Perhaps it's a long estrangement between family members. Or a simple dispute with a neighbour that has taken on the form of an ongoing, unresolved border dispute. Or perhaps someone we trusted has passed on something we told them confidentially, and now we refuse to have anything to do with them.
To suggest that the solution to all these issues is forgiveness is seen by many people to be the easy way out, featherbedding people who deserve to suffer for what they’ve done wrong. Witness the ‘law and order’ debate that comes around every election time. Some states have what is called ‘mandatory detention’ of defenders after a 3rd offence, ‘three strikes and you’re in’ legislation. The third conviction places a person in jail, no matter what the crime.
Perhaps this is the origin of Peter’s proposal to Jesus. “Lord, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Seven is more practical than three, given how much we offend against each other, but it still involves keeping tally of people’s faults. It just requires better accounting and a more powerful memory. Then I can wipe them out of my life.
Jesus replies: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Peter does the maths and rocks back on his heels, and perhaps he wonders whether Jesus is another one of these do-gooders, blind to the potential of human beings to hurt each other. That’s when Jesus decides to tell a story about kingdom accounting. The numbers in this parable are mind-blowing. A slave comes to the king owes the equivalent of a middle-size country's gross national product. His debt is infinite. A talent was the largest coinage known. And ten thousand was the largest number conceivable.
Amazingly, unbelievably, the king is moved by his servant’s plea for mercy. There’s nothing in it for the king. The debt will never be repaid, but in his compassion, he forgives it. He throws the abacus out of the window. What to do now that life has opened up again. Aren’t you shocked that the freed servant chooses the way he has just escaped from? How could he once again account for other people’s wrongs against him, when he has been forgiven so much? Our anger begins to rise at his audacious behaviour. “Seizing his fellow slave by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe…he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.” A big debt, no doubt, 100 day’s wages, but minuscule in proportion to the one he had blithely walked away from.
What was he thinking? Forgiveness might be good for God, and the do-gooders around the place, but it doesn’t work in the real world. You can’t let people take advantage of you. You’ve got to show them who’s boss.
But the king, the one has just pardoned him, gets to hear about what he’s done, and is shocked, and mightily angered: If you’re not into managing with mercy, then nor am I. Pay me what you owe. Two can play this game. “In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.”
Do you and I get stuck in accounting mode? Even though we know that we have been forgiven by God, do we transfer this grace across to the way we treat those who have wronged us? This is where Peter starts this conversation: he asks Jesus for a number. He wants to know just how much forgiveness is reasonable. And so he suggests what he thinks is by all accounts is a more-than-sufficient amount of forgiveness.
In turning forgiveness into a transaction, we dismiss grace. And we leave people locked in the prison of our hate. Who have you imprisoned? Who do you still want to punish because they hurt you? What can’t you let go of because it seems unfair that your hurt will be forgotten and therefore not validated?
We’ve all been stuck in a place like this, and these thought and emotions become a prison which entraps us. An unforgiving and unrepentant attitude causes harm to ourselves as much as it does to others. It’s corrosive to faith and it sets us on a collision course with God who has treated us so graciously in the forgiving way he has embraced us through our baptism and blessed us with a living relationship with him.
“The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt, and let him go.” This word “pity”
is used by Matthew to refer only to God’s love. God was wiped the slate clean. In the words of Psalm 103, “as far as the east is from the west; so far he removes our transgressions from us.” But in choosing to remember and account for each wrong, we are rewriting our history. We are throwing back in God’s face the fact that he has rescued us from spiritual bankruptcy. And if that’s what we want from God, then sadly that’s what he will give us. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive a brother or sister from your heart.” If you and I want to keep count, so will God. And he has a far better memory than us.
But this is not the way of full life that Jesus promises those who trust in his love and grace. God is ready and waiting for us to return to him to seek his forgiveness, and to pray to him for strength to forgive those who have hurt us. And this can be immensely difficult, for forgiveness is not the easy way out. It is much easier to ignore other people’s hurts, or underestimate the pain they’ve caused us. But when we do that, we file the hurt away, and we brood on it. It grows and develops a life of its own, and we can’t resist the desire for revenge. But this isn’t love in the name of Christ. Remember what Paul says in the famous chapter, 1 Corinthians 13. “Love keeps no record of wrongs.”
Forgiveness is powerful. It’s not a cop out, nor a helpless acceptance of what happened to us.
In his book, The Art of Forgiving, Lewis Smedes outlines the process of forgiveness. It has four steps, if you’re counting:
1. Acknowledge the hurt
2. Gently confront the person who has hurt you; something has happened that makes it impossible to carry on relationship as if nothing has happened. “Forgiveness is not saying, ‘What you did I understand and it’s all right with me…Forgiving is going to a person and saying, ‘I don’t understand. I’ll never understand. And it wasn’t OK and it isn’t OK. But I forgive.”
3. Decide you are going to live with the scales of justice unbalanced. It means not engaging in the cycle of revenge. It means that you choose to live the prayer that you daily pray: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” You also choose to live in obedience to God’s word through Paul: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
4. Begin to revise your feelings toward the person who has wronged you. The person who hurt you gradually rejoins the human race. God has dealt with both your sin, and the sin of the person who has hurt you through the cross of Jesus. You stand on the same ground.
Forgiveness is not delayed retribution. It’s not a strategy to bide our time. It’s bringing our rightful hurt and pain into God’s heart, and seeking the healing that he wants to bring, to us and for the person who has wronged us. Forgiveness is the oil that lubricates the wheel of Christian community. Forgiveness is a human need, but a divine endowment. “In Jesus we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.” And in our forgiving, “we set a prisoner free. We discover that the prisoner we set free is ourselves.” Free as God intended us to be in Christ.
Father, give us the power to do what you have done for us, so that we might live in harmony with one another, and at peace with you and ourselves. Amen.
Click here to watch the [Worship Video](https://bit.ly/2wOdI3l) for Sunday 22 November.
Many of you will immediately recognise the person in this picture. It is Mother Teresa or perhaps more accurately Saint Teresa. She was well known for her work amongst the poorest of the poor in India – feeding the hungry, caring for the dying as well as providing other forms of assistance. Her life revolved around living out our text this morning.
While searching for the picture of her that is on the screen, I came across one of her many quotes “At the end of our lives we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made or how many great things we have done. We will be judged by; I was hungry and you gave me too eat, I was naked and you clothed me, I was homeless and you took me in.”
She certainly lived by those words and actions like that are an important and wonderful part of the Christian life.
You might even think that quote sums up what our text today is saying, but there is small part of that quote which is not quite right – and that one little thing makes all the difference.
Feeding, clothing, and finding homes for the homeless are things that we as Christians are called to do to show we have a living faith. We are reminded of this in James 2. ‘What good is it, my brothers and sisters if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them “Go in peace, keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way faith by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead.’
A living faith which shows itself in actions is an important thing, but if we were judged simply by our actions how would we know if we had done enough to be sorted with the sheep rather than the goats? Do you need to devote your life to it as Mother Teresa did – and how can you be sure even she did enough. How does your life compare to that of Mother Teresa?
If we look at the text like that, there is no comfort for us, we can never be sure that we have done enough. Indeed, if we look to our own efforts, we will always fall short of the perfection that God requires.
Thankfully it is not our actions that decide if we will be numbered with the sheep or the goats. That is determined simply by what we put our faith and trust in – do we look to the cross where the Son of God took on the punishment that should have been ours, where he suffered and died for your sins, where you are clothed with the righteousness of Christ and enter into a restored relationship with God. Or do we look to what we do and our actions to earn our salvation?
Putting our faith and trust in Christ the good shepherd is the only way to be numbered with the sheep, through it we have total certainty! It is not up to us and what we do because, Jesus has already done it.
That is where Mother Teresa despite all her wonderful care and compassion got it wrong. We will be judged by: if we look to and put our faith and trust in Christ and his saving work.
Our actions flow from our faith in Christ. While they are important, and they serve and show love to our neighbour, they do not in any way contribute to our salvation.
So, does this mean that we can just live as we like and not worry about other people? Certainly not! Our faith needs to be lived out – through the power of the Holy Spirit we are to reflect the love of Christ in our lives – as St Paul puts it in Galatians - faith expressing itself through love.
It is the faith in Christ and what he has done for us that comes first and that is source of our salvation. Our efforts to provide for people’s physical well-being is the Holy Spirt working through us responding to what Christ has done and continues to do for us.
However, meeting people’s physical needs is only part of the equation. People have spiritual needs as well. The verses I read from James highlighted that you can’t just address a person’s spiritual needs, similarly simply addressing a person’s physical needs isn’t enough. Feeding a person may keep them physically alive, but it is only through pointing them to Christ and bringing them to the Word of God, that they can be fed and saved spiritually.
So, let’s go back and look again at our text today, this time reading it with a focus on people’s spiritual needs.
35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,
36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Each day we meet people who are spiritually hungry and thirsty. People who stand naked before God with their sin exposed, people who go through life spiritually alone without a heavenly home to look forward to. That was us before Jesus entered our lives.
You see, this text isn’t just talking about people’s physical needs it is talking about their spiritual needs as well.
Therefore, we need to consider both a person’s spiritual and physical needs.
But we can’t meet a person’s spiritual needs in the same way that we meet their physical needs. We can only direct them to Christ by passing on the message of forgiveness and salvation through his life, death and resurrection and entrust them to his love and mercy.
To equip us to do this, we need to spend time with Jesus ourselves.
That is why we gather together for worship. As we read in John’ Gospel – Jesus is the bread of life, he comes to us in a very special way in the Lord’s Supper and he offers the living water which we received in our baptism. It is he who feeds and sustains us.
Once we have been feed through Word and sacrament, we are strengthened and empowered through the Holy Spirit to bring his love into other people’s lives and by doing so, pointing them to Christ.
We do that secure in the knowledge that he is there to forgives us when we fall short of what is asked of us in our text today. Therefore, we don’t have to worry if we have done enough. We don’t have to compare ourselves with Mother Teresa, we can instead look at her and be inspired by her example.
We bring nothing, we simply cling to the cross of Christ! That is what covers our nakedness. Yes, Jesus died for you. That is what puts you back into a right relationship with God. That is why we have the certainty of being sheep and not goats.
And there’s more! Jesus didn’t just die for you - on the third day he rose again! Therefore, all those who put their faith and trust in him will also be raised. So, we have eternal glory to look forward to.
Consequently, we can enter into the new church year with hope and joy seeking to care physically and spiritually for our neighbours whoever and wherever they are, not to earn our salvation, but instead to give glory to Christ through whom we have salvation. And there is nothing sheepish about that!
G’day What time is it where you are right now? Some of you might recall the childhood game: What’s the time Mr Wolf It’s a great group game. One player is chosen to be the wolf and stands with their back to the rest of the players. The players then line up around 10-20m behind the wolf and call out, “What’s the time, Mr Wolf?”. The wolf replies with a time for example, “It’s three o’clock!” Then the players move forward the same number of steps before asking the question again, “What’s the time, Mr Wolf?” T he game continues until the players are very close to the wolf. Finally, the wolf replies to the question with the answer “It’s dinner time!
Immediately the wolf turns around and chases the players. Whoever gets caught becomes the wolf and the game starts again. I wonder what God would say to us if we were to ask: What’s the time God. Well in the Bible God does tell us w hat the time is: The Bible says: The day of the Lord is near This is the time we continue to live in. Let’s listen to Zephaniah 1:7,12 18 and discover what will happen at that time:
Be silent before the Sovereign LORD for the day of the LORD is near. The LORD has prepared a sacrifice; he has consecrated those he has invited.At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent, who are like wine left on its dregs, who think, “The LORD will do nothing, either good or bad.” 13 Their wealth will be plundered, their houses demolished. Though they build houses, they will not live in them; though they plant vineyards, they will not drink the wine.’ 14 The great day of the LORD is near – near and coming quickly. The cry on the day of the LORD is bitter; the Mighty Warrior shouts his battle cry.15 That day will be a day of wrath – a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness – 16 a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers. 17 ‘I will bring such distress on all people that they will grope about like those who are blind, because they have sinned against the LORD. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their entrails like dung. 18 Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the LORD’s wrath.’ In the fire of his jealousy the whole earth will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live on the earth.
Wow these are strong words from the Old Testament. God’s judgement on sin is real. There is nothing that we can do to save ourselves from the fire of God’s Judgement Our riches cannot save us. Because of sin there’ll come a time when everything on earth will come to a sudden end. I can’t imagine what such devastation could be like. But this is the destination we and the world have created for ourselves out of disobedience. If that was the only message we were to hear we would feel trapped and cornered and have no hope.
But today we can also give thanks to God for God has provided a new way to deal with sin and to set us free from the eternal destruction that has come upon the entire world because of our sin. God has provided us with a sacrifice to take away the sin of the world. Jesus is the means by which God deals with sin, rescuing us from the destruction we deserve because of sin.
In Jesus death and resurrection God deal s with our sin and begins his work of restoring his perfect relationship with us and all things.
As we live in the world of sin, God’s Holy S pirit is calling us to put our hope in the Lord Jesus and the sacrifice he has made It is the sacrifice that Jesus has made that consecrate s make s holy and sets apart all who hear and receive his gospel invitation. Today, you can praise God the Father for giving his son Jesus as the sacrifice to save you You can Thank Jesus for dying for you to deal with your sin once and for all, giving you a new life. You can also ask the Holy Spirit to help you live holy lives of love and service.
So how will we live as the day of the Lord draws near Let’s hear how the scriptures call us to be ready for the Lord’s coming in 1 Thessalonians 5:1 11
Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety’, destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5 You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. 9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.
So what did you hear? I noticed in verse 11 that one thing we can do as we wait for the coming of the Lord is – ‘Encourage one another and build each other up…..’
In what ways are you encouraging one another and building each other up in your household? Your family, your community?
The good news is that God has appointed you to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes – Salvation is yours as a free gift. Jesus has dealt with your sin – you are free to live as forgiven people and make a positive difference in the world and in the lives of others. So as you receive this good news today, what else could you do to encourage others as an act of worship to God?
Our last scripture for today from Matthew 25:14 30, will help us consider how we can effectively use our time to bring greater blessing to all
Did you notice that the master gave to each of his three servants talents that were entrusted to them A talent was one extremely large portion of money. And each of these servants received at least one. Often when we look at this parable the first thing we notice is that each one received a different number of talents. We are good at noticing things like this. ‘Oh look my brother he has a bigger serve of food than me!’ W e love to compare and notice when one receive s more than an other.
When we look at this parable we often overlook the fact that each of them received a talent and no one missed out. Today I want you to notice that each of these three servants were appointed to put to work what they had received. Each of them was called assigned given the privilege of administering the gift they had been given. Each of them was invited to make a difference in the world by putting to work what they had received.
Before we go deeper, I also want you to think of one talent as the perfect measure of the Gospel. Think of a talent as the Good news that God forgives and saves and gives us eternal life. This is the talent we have all received in Jesus. And it is this gospel that we are invited to put it to work.
We put it to work by sharing it by speaking words of hope and forgiveness and future into the lives of each other by declaring God’s promises over one another We put it to work by living our faith out loud. Yes we are forgiven, Yes Jesus has given us a future! But when we look around us we quickly start to compare ourselves with others. We will always find someone else who has more of something than us Someone who is more capable, someone who appears to be more successful. And before we know it we become disappointed with life and we bury the gift we have been given. Much like the servant in the parable
Friends Be aware of disappointment. The evil one wants us to experience disappointment The evil one will seek to ensure that we have every opportunity to experience disappointment. The evil one will want to lead us towards disappointment and will use every trick and temptation to do so drawing us to focus on how someone or something isn’t what you thought it would be or should be The evil one will lead you to bury your gift.
When we experience disappointment we ultimately dis appoint ourselves. We loose sight of the appointment we have been given to be part of God’s solution in this world The Devil knows you are here for a reason. The devil knows you are a significant part of God’s plan to rebuild and bring hope to the nations He knows he can’t strip you of that power, but he is also aware that you can strip yourself of that power. That’s why the devil wants you disappointed.
When we think things have not worked out according to our plan what are we really doing? We are putting our trust in our own understanding and timing rather than trusting in the will and ways of God. You see God’s ways are different to our ways, God is good and he is able to bring about his final desired outcome from any set of circumstances.
You and I have been appointed to share the gospel with others The Gospel is the Good news that we are unconditionally loved by God in Jesus. But as soon as I start looking to compare myself with others I quickly say I’m not good enough and I bury what I have been given When I do this, I am dis appointing myself I am letting go of the calling and responsibility and privilege that has been placed on my life. And instead of doing what I am called to do I am tempted to do the opposite.
There will be many obstacles that come our way in life, and these may lead us to experience disappointment But today Jesus parable becomes a reminder to me and I hope to you too, to remember your calling. Remember your appointment you have been appointed to use the gift God has given you You may look around and feel that there are others who are more qualified than you You may look around and consider that t heir faith or capacity or resources may be stronger or bolder or brighter. But do not disappoint yourself by comparing yourself to others.
Remember you are appointed to be stewards of the gospel he has given you. And while the enemy's trap of disappointment causes us to dis appoint ourselves, the encouragement of the Lord that we can receive through each other in community will f ill us with the courage we need to put to work what we have received. The encouragement of the lord that we receive in community will empower us to lean not on our own understanding but instead lean into the Lord, trusting in Him no matter what!
So trust in the Lord with all your heart. Refuse to be disappointed. See yourself as an instrument that God can use to bring about his solution. We may be broken by our own sin, but God in his grace comes to us and claims us as his He says to use who are broken and rejected ‘You are mine I love you’. He encourages us and restores us as instruments though which his will can be done. Remember the gift he has given you, and put it to use in your own life this may mean learning to forgive yourself. Put it to work a lso in the life of those in your sphere of influence. You will never loose the gospel talent god has given you by putting it to work and sharing it. You can only loose it by burying it. As you speak the genuine gospel out loud into the lives of those around you it will multiply maybe in ways we may not see straight away but it will happen That’s what good news does! It multiplies simply by speaking it out
Speaking the Good news that we are loved by God and demonstrating our love for love one another, Announcing that we are forgiven by God and are forgiven by one another, declaring that we have a future together with God forever all because of Jesus These are the best way s we can use our time.
You have 168 hours each week. May you use your time wisely putting t o work the gift of Salvation that God has given you by sharing it with others. Time is running out for all of us We only have so much time on this side of eternity. Now is the time to use your time well. Amen
25 ‘At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. 6 ‘At midnight the cry rang out: “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” 7 ‘Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.” 9 ‘“No,” they replied, “there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.” 10 ‘But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. 11 ‘Later the others also came. “Lord, Lord,” they said, “open the door for us!” 12 ‘But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.” 13 ‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour. Matthew 25:1-13
I’ve conducted dozens of weddings over almost 28 years of ministry. I’ve waited for plenty of brides. Most were fashionably late, up to 15 minutes or so. Perhaps it was a courtesy to allow the guests who themselves weren’t on time to find their seats. Most of the time, I think it was designed to cause just the slightest shiver of concern for the nervous groom.
The longest I’ve ever had to wait for a bride to arrive was 55 minutes, made all the more remarkable by the fact that she was being driven to the church in a Ferrari 360. But even a Ferrari could not find a way through the dreaded Melbourne weekend traffic.
I’ve haven’t conducted any weddings this year. Both that were booked in had to be cancelled because of the COVID-19 restrictions meant that only a few family and friends would have been able to attend the wedding. I’m glad to report that both weddings are rescheduled for the new year, God willing.
Waiting. Not for the bride, but for the bridegroom. That’s the focus of the parable that Jesus tells us today. The bridegroom is Jesus himself, and he will, at the time of the Father’s choosing, come back for his bride, the church. And then there will be a wedding reception for the ages, for all eternity in fact. That’s the promise in the tail of the parable, although perhaps as we hear Jesus’ words today, it seems more like a sting: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” It all depends whether we are looking forward to Jesus’ return, or not? Or even whether we think much about at all.
I sense that the events of this year have made people ponder the really big questions: Where are we heading? Are our younger generations going to face a less well-off future? Are we entering a period of political instability, even conflict? And perhaps the biggest question of all: what will the changing climate mean for our global future?
The first people to read the New Testament didn’t need to be reminded about taking the promise of Jesus’ return seriously. And in part that’s because Jesus talked a great deal about it. The whole of the previous chapter of Matthew is dedicated to Jesus’ teaching about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the signs that point to the end of time, and Jesus’ own triumphant return. The language Jesus uses, and the pictures he paints, may seem strange and disconcerting to us, but for the first Christians they were words that brought them great hope and comfort, as they sought to be faithful followers of Jesus when there was intense pressure to compromise their confession that Jesus alone was Lord.
The hope of Jesus’ return is a thread of encouragement and hope that runs through the New Testament. Because Jesus has defeated the power of sin, death and Satan, we can live confidently and creatively in the face of what are ‘mopping up’ operations, as sin and evil thrash around in their death throes.
Jesus’ parable is set in the context of a wedding celebration, somewhat different from the way we go about things today. The bridegroom prepared for his wedding at his parent’s house. He then processed to the bride’s house, where the festivities began. In the early evening, the bride, groom and their guests would make their way to the groom’s home. But here the bride and her attendants are still waiting for the groom to turn up.
They did think to bring along their lamps. And five of them have brought jars containing extra oil for their lamps. But the other five didn’t. The ones who have extra oil Jesus calls ‘wise.’ These five have their head screwed on. The others he calls foolish. Moronic, in fact. We will soon see why.
Time passes, but nothing seems to happen. All ten fall asleep. I wonder what’s keeping the bridegroom?
Finally, the call rings out in the middle of the night at midnight. ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ So the bridesmaids trim their lamps. But the foolish, unprepared ones strike trouble. They’ve run out of oil. They ask the wise ones for some help, but they decline. “There may not be enough for both us and you.” They give them this advice: “Go and buy some of your own.” The foolish five comply, and off they go.
Wouldn’t you know. It’s right now that the bridegroom makes his grand entrance, and takes the five wise bridesmaids with him. The door is firmly shut and the party begins. When the five foolish bridesmaids return with oil in hand, no amount of pleading will get them in. There’s a chilling reply. “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.”
This is a word no one would want to hear. Who would want to miss out on the party to end all parties-the wedding reception of the Bridegroom and his Bride, the church? Yet if we go back to the Parable of the Wedding Banquet a few chapters earlier in Matthew’s gospel, many people did reject this invitation because there were just too many other, more pressing priorities. Here, all the bridesmaids received and responded to their invitation, but only the wise ones ended up at the celebration. What was it, then, that made the wise bridesmaids wise? The word Jesus uses to describe them gives us a clue: it’s a word that means practical intelligence, resourcefulness. What they know is oriented toward putting thought into action.
Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish builder in Matthew 7 helps us to unlock the meaning of this parable. Jesus uses the same words ‘wise’ and ‘foolish’ there too, to contrast the action of two builders. ‘Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.’ By contrast, the foolish builder is the one who heard but disregarded Jesus’ words. Jesus here links foolishness with disobedience, with listening to the word of God but not putting it into practice.
The five wise bridesmaids knew that waiting was a possibility. So they are prepared for it. They’ve stocked up with an extra flask of olive oil. We, too, know what it’s like to wait. We don’t know what held the bridegroom up in this parable. But we do have a sense about why we are still waiting.
The Apostle Peter says, “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” God’s patience means there is still time for the good news to do its saving work. And while we wait, God calls us to play our part in his mission.
So that’s what we do while we’re waiting. There have been two traditions throughout Christian history about what the oil in the bridesmaids’ lamps might mean. The first is that the oil is a symbol of good works, in the light of Jesus' words. 'You are the light of the world…Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good deeds and give glory to your Father in heaven.' Wisdom means putting into action what we believe in theory.
As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, just before the words about wise and foolish builders that we heard earlier: “Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
When Luther interpreted this parable, he said that the oil represented faith. Faith is what is required to get you through the dark night, especially when the bridegroom seems to be putting in a no show, and where evil seems to hold the upper hand. Faith means trusting in the persevering grace of God to renew his whole creation. There's no contradiction between these two interpretations. After all, faith produces faithfulness, and faithfulness works itself out in our lives in acts of love and service.
Why are we waiting? Because God has not yet finished with his creation. God is still doing his saving work, and he has commissioned us to be part of this task. Showing gracious and patient love in a world of stresses and strains. Inviting people to Jesus, the Bridegroom who will come, who has made his people holy, and will come to gather them to himself when he returns in glory.
Waiting is not easy, and never more so than in a world which contradicts the will and way of God at every turn. Who knows how long the bridegroom will be delayed? As long as it suits God, and as long as his patience stretches for a lost world. So our waiting is purposeful, and hopeful. We know that what we are waiting for-to be with the Lord when he comes. And in the meantime, we wait well by letting our light shine brightly. Amen.