1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
November 9, 2014
Grieving people often find 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 helpful. It gives permission to grieve while assuring them of God’s hope, even when the timing seems all wrong. They had expected Jesus to be back momentarily, and they were afraid people they loved who were dying would miss out. Paul assured them those who had died would be the first to rise and meet Jesus.
As I read the news about Brittany Maynard ending her life rather than wait for brain cancer to take her, I thought about what I might say to her if I was her pastor. I know nothing about her faith, which was not mentioned in the news. As a pastor who has walked with many people on this sort of excruciating journey, I am content to let God handle any judging. However, to help someone sort out their decisions, I would ask questions such as: which is the path of patience or impulsiveness, of courage or cowardice, of love or selfishness, of faith or fear?
A genre of consolation literature developed around the Civil War. Books like Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ The Gates Ajar and Beyond the Gates assured that beloved sons and husbands who died in battle were enjoying themselves in a Victorian America, only better. DaVinci gave art lessons and Beethoven composed oratorios.
In contrast, today’s Scriptures teach that as we pass through life’s often uncertain events, we wait with hopeful readiness for Jesus to appear.
I can understand how as those early Christians remembered Jesus’ words, they might think he’d be back in just a few days, but they seemed not to remember how many times he told them to expect him to delay. That certainly is the thrust of Matthew 25:1-13. The surprise in this story is not that the bridegroom appeared suddenly but that he was delayed.
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But 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.’ 10And 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. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
In our impatient society, we don’t like to wait. Our computers go faster and faster. We like self-check-out at some stores so we don’t have to wait in line for a cashier. We pay a premium for next day delivery of what we purchase on line at any hour of day or night. Since Jesus has delayed his appearing 2,000 years we either write it off as unreal or scour the news to find clues that match biblical hints that it could be threatening soon.
The Left Behind movies and books seem to be trying to increase spiritual readiness by convincing us that we are living on the verge of apocalyptic crisis.
However, the focus of today’s Scriptures is not on intense events but on our relationship with Jesus. The wise bridesmaids go with the bridegroom into the wedding banquet. 1 Thessalonians 4:17 does not focus on explaining a sequence of events but on being with the Lord forever.
We are always in transition. We are always waiting for what God has next. Yet, we are never standing still but are always moving. We wait with hopeful readiness for Jesus to appear.
We easily grow impatient waiting for healing or problem solving for ourselves or a loved one, or longing for spiritual awakening in someone dear to us.
I’m feeling some impatience waiting for the repairs from the water damage in our children’s wing. I suspect some of you are growing impatient waiting for a new pastor.
The worship ministry team is planning for Advent, and I worked on Advent sermons this week. Advent is all about waiting, waiting for Christmas. Our commercial society is already trying to sell us Christmas junk. For the Church to wait for Christmas with Advent anticipation is a counter-cultural discipline that sharpens our spiritual readiness.
Whether it is not rushing through Advent to get to Christmas or grieving with hope at the death of a loved one, seeing past “The End” empowers us to wait with hopeful readiness.
Wanting to know what happens to us and our loved ones when we die is only natural. The New Testament gives only a few tantalizing and puzzling hints, and the Hebrew Scriptures are even more cryptic. As in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, the focus of the New Testament is on the hope of resurrection to eternal life at Jesus’ appearing. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul goes into great and exquisite detail. In many creative ways, such as we heard today from his story in Matthew 25, Jesus affirmed that his delay will end, and he will appear, and we will be with him forever.
We keep ourselves ready for Jesus to appear in all the glory of his Kingdom, by living as people of Jesus’ kingdom now. Whether you are pleased, disappointed or confused by last week’s election, Jesus reminds us that is temporary and calls us to look past “The End” to practice and advocate the righteousness and mercy, justice and peace of the Kingdom of God with patient confidence that Jesus ultimately brings after the delay and he appears.
Since we are waiting for our relationship with Jesus, we cultivate our hopeful readiness by nourishing our life with Jesus now. Several years ago I heard Father Thomas Hopko, then dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York, explain it well. He said when growing up his mother told him that to grow as a Christian he should read his Bible, say his prayers and go to church. Now that he was training people for ministry, he told them that for them and their congregations the key to spiritual growth was to read their Bibles, pray and go to church.