Rev. Don Beyers
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As the nights grow longer and the days shorter, our scripture lessons turn apocalyptic. Awaiting the return of Christ in glory, the Church’s liturgical calendar challenges us to ask whether or not we’re ready for the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God. While we may not know the day or the hour when our Lord will return, we begin to see hints of his future coming. We’re reminded we’re to be on guard and to ready ourselves for his swift return.
While our early Christian sisters and brothers were much more attuned to the the final resurrection and the fulfillment of God’s kingdom, we tend to have ambivalent feelings about the end times. Some Christians obsess over Jesus’ final coming, despite his admonition that no one knows the day or the hour: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mt. 24:36) Televangelists seem to have a particular enthusiasm for the study of the end times. Some seem to relish the idea that their enemies may suffer horrid consequences upon Jesus’ return. Other Christians grow uneasy when preachers begin to talk about the end times. Most priests know that if they want to get their parishioners uneasy on Sunday morning and stirring in their pews, we simply need to preach on the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. We’re uncomfortable with such language and prefer to keep ourselves firmly planted in the present moment.
I suspect our unease with the four last things and the final resurrection has much to do with the literary and artistic imagination of these matters. Although extremely popular, books such as the Left Behind series capitalize on our fears that we might not be a part of God’s chosen people and left to face a dim view of the end. Nobody wants to be left behind, let alone, left to face a perilous end. Our fears of the end have been stoked as well by past preachers who seemed to relish every opportunity to give a hell-fire and damnation sermon. Some, I suspect, likely used such sermons as a way to manipulate their hearers into action.
While I have no intention on making you uncomfortable today, I also don’t wish to ignore the scriptures which speak of Jesus’ final coming and the final judgment. As Christians, we need to read the entirety of sacred scripture and be attentive to Jesus’ teachings to his disciples. That being said, I also want to be careful not to sensationalize the end times, for then I think we will miss the heart of Jesus’ message. Therefore, over the next few weeks I want to spend a little time exploring and reflecting upon Jesus’ apocalyptic teachings. But first a word about apocalyptic.
When we think of the apocalypse, we often imagine a doomsday scenario in which the most horrific, terrifying acts of destruction will befall us. Many of you might recall in the 70s and 80s how the threat of nuclear war and holocaust gave rise to an apocalyptic imagination. I remember as a child watching movies, such as the Day After, in which the world was utterly destroyed by nuclear weapons. Such films played off our understandable anxiety and fear of what could happen.
Apocalypse, in the Christian tradition, has a much more nuanced meaning than what it is popularly understood. Taken from the Greek, the word means to uncover or to reveal. Apocalypse is less doomsday and more of a revelation of God’s work within creation.
While the Bible is full of apocalyptic literature, such as the Book of Daniel and today’s gospel lesson of Jesus’s parable of the ten maidens, most people are familiar with the Book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible. Revelation is perhaps one of the most challenging books to understand as it is a classic work of Christian mysticism. In fact, we ought to be careful not to read it in a literalist fashion, but understand it is a text that is rich in symbolism and speaks to the cosmic struggle unfolding before the author’s eyes at the time of its writing. Unfortunately, however, too many people have tried to read into Revelation an apocalyptic understanding that is less about the disclosure of God’s plan of salvation, and more of a terrible account of a devastating destruction of the world. This latter approach is not only dangerous, it is also not entirely faithful to the text or to the Church’s traditional understanding of the book.
When understood as literature revealing or uncovering what is hidden in God’s plan of salvation, scripture passages such as today’s epistle and gospel lessons take on an entirely new meaning. These are lessons not so much of divine wrath, but rather lessons revealing God’s ultimate disclosure of himself in the final days and what we need to do to be ready for his coming in glory.
The disciples and the early Christian community longed for the final revelation of Jesus in all his glory. They trusted in Jesus’ promise that he would come again and bring all things into completion in him. Initially, the community believed that Jesus’ second coming would be quick. However, as the years past after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the community had to reinterpret their original understanding. Thus we have many passages, such as today’s gospel lesson, where Jesus says that we will not know the hour or day when he will come. (Mt. 15:13)
Rather than concern themselves with the precise time of Jesus’ return, the community focused on the need to be ready for the day of the final resurrection. They understood the temptation humans experience when a deadline may seem far off in the distance: to take it easy and not worry about it. I think we can relate to this as we’ve all have had deadlines far in the future, only to find ourselves caught off guard on the day of their arrival. If we’re not ready, we can find ourselves in a lot of trouble.
Instead, we are to be vigilant and ready for Jesus’ return. Faith is not something that we only live and practise when it seems important to do so; rather, it must always be a part of our daily life.
Yet I think we’re all tempted to let our faith simply fade into the background of everyday life. It’s easy for us to let other things take precedence over our relationship with God and our living of his gospel. I know I wrestle with this; there have been way too many times in my life where I’ve not prayed as I ought and not lived the gospel life and proclaimed the good news of hope and freedom to those in need. Inevitably, I find myself all too often turning to God in prayer when things get tough, and not in the ordinariness of life. This always leaves me wondering if I’m truly living as a disciple of Jesus each and every day.
God and the faith life ought not be relegated to an hours time on a few Sundays, but should be central to who we are and what we are about. Those of you who joined me in morning prayer this past Friday heard what God had to say about those who were lukewarm in their faith. Needless to say, his words were harsh: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:16) The expectation of the gospel is that we are always attentive to God, always growing more deeply in our relationship with God and his people, and making God the centre of our life. Those who are faithful will in turn enjoy the faithfulness of God and inherit the blessings of his promise.
Simply put, if we yearn to share in the life of God, we must be willing to put more time and energy into that relationship than simply an occasional moment or two. Like all relationships, we must make a commitment to our relationship with God. If we don’t, we likely won’t even recognize God when God is in our midst.
To illustrate the need to be always ready for God’s coming among us, Jesus draws from the imagery of a typical village wedding scene. Unlike our modern weddings, the weddings of Jesus’ day were less precise in their timing. In fact, even in modern times one will experience this in the Middle East. A wedding will be planned, but the arrival of the groom will be uncertain. Moreover, as people worked during the day, a wedding would take place at night. In many Middle Eastern cultures, both of Jesus’ time and our own day, it was unthinkable for a woman to be out at night without a lantern. A woman risks her reputation if she is caught without light in the night. Therefore, it was necessary for everyone to be on the alert and ready for when the bridegroom would come, particularly the women.
Sadly, however, Jesus tells us that some of the women failed to prepare and instead trusted in the benevolence of their companions. Unfortunately for them, the bridegroom arrived in the dark of night and the other women didn’t have enough oil to ensure all would have enough light for the night. The lack of preparation and the carelessness by which the women approached the wedding feast ultimately brought great shame, embarrassment, and disappointment to the five maidens without lit lanterns. Such will be the case for those of us who fail to ready ourselves for the coming of God.
What I find so striking about this parable is the response of the bridegroom to the women who failed to be ready and who arrived to the wedding banquet late. When asked to open the door, the bridegroom simply responded “Truly, I do not know you.” (Mt. 25:12) It leaves me wondering if the women’s lack of preparation wasn’t due in part to their lack of familiarity with the bridegroom. Perhaps they didn’t care to prepare because they didn’t know the bridegroom. If this is the case, then the lesson of this parable hints at what will become of us who do not take time to come to know the Lord and live and proclaim his good news: we, too, will be left out in the dark, unknown to God.
The unveiling and the uncovering in this gospel is the revelation that if we wish to know God and to share in the abundance of his kingdom, we would be wise to ready ourselves today. Otherwise, we might not recognize God when he comes and we may be unfamiliar to him in the end.
I realize these words may sound harsh to us, but I also think it makes sense. How can we say we know someone if we haven’t tried to get to know them? How can we say we lived our baptismal vocation to proclaim freedom to the oppressed and hope to the suffering when we’ve never made an effort to know the suffering and the marginalized? Even worse, how can we say know God when we willingly allow God’s beloved poor to suffer, all the while assuming we are God’s favourites?
Many scholars suggest this gospel is a warning to the Church, not to those who may not know Jesus. The bridesmaids, they suggest, are symbolic of the Church. Like them, the news of Jesus’ coming has been made known to us, just as the bridegroom’s impending arrival was made known to the women. To whom knowledge has been given, much will be expected. As a Church, we must do all we can to know God and enter into relationship with God and serve God and his people in all we do. Otherwise, we are simply nominal Christians: Christians in name, but not in heart.
The imperative of this gospel lesson is for us to act, to get to know Jesus and those he loves, and to serve them with gladness. Then Jesus will recognize us on the day of his final coming. We are once again reminded of the need not to be passive observers of the gospel, but persons who actively live the life of faith. Only then will we be ready on the day of the Lord’s return in glory. Amen.