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Matthew 25:1-13

Published: 3 years ago- 10 January 2021
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The Gospel as a Wedding?

Do you like a good wedding? Most people do. Even if weddings are complicated by awkwardness between the families and stress with the arrangements, they are joyous events. They’re times of shared delight in the happiness of the bride and groom and of course, feasting! And this is precisely why Jesus likens the Gospel to a wedding not once, not twice, but three times in Matthew. What God holds out to us in his Gospel is like a wedding. It’s a promise of shared joy. And maybe that’s the one thing you need to be reminded of this morning. It’s easy to forget this. The Bible describes following Jesus as a long-distance race, as a wrestling match, as hard labour. Following Jesus is certainly all of these things, but Jesus also promises us a wedding. Maybe that’s what you need to hear this morning. What’s interesting in Jesus’ use of this word-picture is that he doesn’t always use it the same way. In chapters 9 and 22 of the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says believing the Gospel is like receiving an invitation to a wedding. It’s like being a guest. But in chapter 25, Jesus says something different. He says that it’s also like being one of the bridesmaids. Well, what does that mean? To understand what Jesus is saying, we need to understand what exactly bridesmaids did at weddings in Jesus’ day.

Silly and Sensible Bridesmaids

So, has anyone been a bridesmaid? Surprisingly, I haven’t. But I’ve been to a few weddings and there are a few important differences between what bridesmaids do in Australia and what they did at ancient Jewish weddings, and these differences really effect how we might understand Jesus’ story. At an Australian wedding the bridegroom usually waits for the bride and the bridesmaids to arrive in a big white car. But at an ancient Jewish wedding, it was the other way around. The bride and the bridesmaids would be at the venue and everybody would be waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. This is the key difference that you need to understand to get what Jesus is saying. The groom doesn’t wait for the bridesmaids. It’s the other way around. The bridesmaids are waiting for the arrival of the groom. Once you get this, it’s easy to see how Jesus’ story works. Jesus likens his followers to bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom because he is telling them that they will need to wait for him. This is the theme of chapters 24 and 25 of the Gospel according to Matthew. Jesus tells the disciples that he is coming again, but it’s going to be a long wait, and, they need to be ready. But there is something particular that Jesus wants to teach us in the story of the bridesmaids. Did you catch it in verses 1 and 2? Jesus says, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise” (Mt 25:1-2). Jesus is saying that in the meantime some of his followers will be foolish and some will be wise. Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “Of course! Some Christians are very foolish. I’ve seen Christians put milk in their coffee. Who would do that? I get it. This parable is about the coffee cart. It’s about the free barista coffee you get on your first visit to MPC. Well, there are regular displays of folly at church coffee carts all over Brisbane every Sunday, but this is not what Jesus is talking about. The silliness of the silly Christians has nothing to do with how they take their coffee. It has to do with what made the silly bridesmaids silly and we’re told this in verse 3. In verse 3 we read, “For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps” (Mt 25:3-4). So, what made the silly bridesmaids silly? They didn’t take any extra oil. Now, why would you need to do that? I remember as a small boy I had a pocket money job at our church. It was my job to set up the church for weddings. I had to put the cushions out at the front, put the ribbons on the end of the pew, and hand out the hymn books at the front door. And almost without fail, the guests would have filed in, they would all be sitting in the church, all the hymn books were handed out, my work was done. I would be standing at the front door of the church, waiting, waiting, waiting. Sometimes the bride might be half an hour late, sometimes even longer. Now, in Jesus’ story, the bridegroom is spectacularly late. It’s far worse in Jesus’ story than it ever was at my wedding job. The groom is so late that people are falling asleep! Can you imagine that? The guests been waiting for so long that they are actually nodding off. So, here you see why the bridesmaids needed extra oil. The bridesmaids are waiting, waiting, waiting, and, of course, their lamps burn out. And they too fall asleep and hours later, there is a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! You’re up!’ The bridesmaids get up, rub their eyes, and try to turn on their lamps, but they’re not working. They’re not working because they’ve run out of oil. The sensible bridesmaids grab their flasks, prime their lamps, and they’re right to go, but the silly ones don’t have any extra oil. In verse 9, they say to the sensible bridesmaids, “Give us some of your oil!” But there is simply not enough to go around. The only thing they can do is to go to the village and buy some more. But here’s the catch. While they are gone, the groom arrives. The sensible bridesmaids go out to greet him and he enters the celebration with them and then the door is shut. Now we see why not having extra oil was so silly. When they eventually make it back to the wedding, the front door is locked. They knock on the door, but now they look like wedding-gatecrashers. The guy at the door is surprised to hear someone arriving so late. He says, ‘Who is it?’ They say, ‘Let us in, we’re the bridesmaids!’ The guy at the door scratches his head and thinks to himself, ‘They can’t be!’ But he goes and tells the bridegroom, ‘There are people at the door claiming to be the bridesmaids.’ The groom thinks to himself, ‘That’s pretty weird. The bridesmaids are already here.’ And he says, ‘I have no idea who these people are.’ So, can you hear Jesus’ warning? Don’t be a silly bridesmaid. But what exactly does that mean?

Extra Oil

Well, it’s still not entirely obvious, is it? Both the silly and sensible bridesmaids want to be at the wedding feast. Both were waiting to be admitted to the wedding feast. Both even fell asleep during the long wait. The only real difference between the silly and sensible bridesmaids is that the sensible ones had extra oil. They came prepared. There is a great show on Netflix at the moment called Doomsday Preppers. It’s American, as you could well imagine, and it’s a hoot. It features different people who are all preparing for different doomsday scenarios. My favourite episode so far is the guy from Nashville and his recipe for bunker stew. Now, we only got Netflix during the first COVID lockdown, and the irony is that after all those episodes of Doomsday Preppers we weren’t prepared when we suddenly had to go into self-quarantine just before Christmas. Nick and Lisa even had to airlift us a kilogram of coffee beans! Doomsday Preppers probably would have given us 37/100 and never invited us back on their show. But when all is said and done, it didn’t really matter that much. All our friends at MPC bailed us out. Sandy and Dave delivered a ‘cello. Tina and Cam delivered glass paints, and Jodie and Shane dropped off things you can actually eat. But it really will matter if you are not ready on the day that Jesus returns. And that makes the question pressing, what does that look like? What does it look like for us to be Wedding preppers? Jesus rounds off his story with these crucial words: Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” (Mt 25:13). Now, at one level, this really is quite confusing: keep watch. Didn’t both the silly and sensible bridesmaids fall asleep? They did. This is a great example of how some of Jesus’ parables can actually be very difficult to understand. The story seems simple but it can also be very hard to understand exactly what it is that Jesus is telling us to do. But we can clear this one up, if we see how these words point us forward to the following chapter. It’s in the next chapter that we get a clue. In Matthew 26 Jesus takes his disciples to a place called Gethsemane just before he is about to be arrested, tried, and crucified. And in Gethsemane Jesus tells them the same thing that they says at this point of our story. He says to his disciples, ‘Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation’ (Mt 26:41). To keep watch is to pray. The point of the parable, therefore, is, you will be ready for Jesus’ return, if you watch and pray. That’s what it looks like to be a Wedding prepper.

Getting Sensible

So, when the groom arrives, will you have enough oil? The answer is simple: you will, if you are keeping watch. You will have all the oil that you need, if you watch and pray. Now, why is that? What is so special about praying? This is perhaps where we need remember that the Gospel isn’t just a wedding. Following Jesus is like running a marathon, it is like a wrestling match, it does involve hard work. Praying is how we receive the strength not to give up, and Jesus is warning us that before he returns, many will give up. Do we have some accountants in the room? Or maths teachers? I know Ben will be teaching our eldest son a thing or two in just a few weeks. Accountants and maths teachers, and anybody else who likes figures, did you notice that 5 out of 10 bridesmaids were not prepared. I think that’s 50%. If you remember, my professional background is in music, which means I only needed to be able to count to 4. But, 5 out of 10. Can you hear what Jesus is saying? Jesus is warning us that, not just a few, but many will give up. Many will get a stitch and stop running. Many will become disheartened at how much of the work is yet to be done and put down their shovel. And why will they give up? Because they did not keep watch. That is, because they did not pray. Praying is how we receive the strength we need to keep going. In the words of MC Hammer, ‘you got to pray just to make it today.’ I’ll spare you the dance, but MC Hammer didn’t quite get this right. You don’t need to pray just to make it today. You need to pray to make it to the wedding day, and the groom is running spectacularly late. The church has been waiting for nearly 2000 years for Jesus’ return, which is why Christ’s church really needs those flasks of extra oil. It really needs to watch and pray, if it is going to be ready for the day that Jesus comes again. We need to pray not just so that we will be ready for the great wedding day, but so that our children will be ready and our children’s children. Now, if you have habits of daily prayer and take part in church prayer meetings, this parable is like God giving you a ‘like’ on Facebook. It’s a big ‘thumbs up.’ Keep going! Pray without ceasing! You can count yourselves among the sensible bridesmaids. But if prayer is not a part of your daily rhythm, you need to hear Jesus’ warning. You are being a bit silly. You are risking not being ready. You might even hear those terrible words in verse 12, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.” Which is why you need to become a prepper. You don’t need a recipe for bunker stew, but you need extra oil. You need to pray. ‘But praying is not easy,’ I hear you say. ‘I don’t really know how to pray.’ The disciples had this problem, which is why Jesus taught them to pray back in chapter 6. This is not a unique problem. It’s a problem that every Christian encounters at some point in their life, whether as children or adults. Martin Luther realised that his barber had this problem. His barber, Peter Beskendorf, once said to him that he did not know how to pray. Now, Dr Martin didn’t simply refer his barber friend to the Lord’s Prayer. He did something even wiser. He wrote him a letter. Listen to how this letter begins. Luther writes,
‘I will tell you as best I can what I do personally when I pray. May our dear Lord grant to you and to everybody to do it better than I!’ (Martin Luther, A Simple Way to Pray).
The rest of it is Luther explaining, step by step, what he did when he prayed. This is how Luther transformed a silly bridesmaid into a sensible bridesmaid. This is how he taught Peter Beskendorf to get the extra oil he would need for the day that Jesus returns. Sometimes we need someone to teach us how to get started. You might like to take a look at Luther’s letter, but there are also more recent primers on prayer. A friend of mine recently gave me this one [Christ and Calamity]. It is like an instruction manual on dealing with the things that get in the way of prayer and has some pre-written prayers in the back. And it’s worth saying that booklets like these are not just for beginners. Sometimes we grow strangely silent in prayer and we need someone to teach us all over again. But I wonder whether the genius of Luther’s letter doesn’t lie in the careful instruction but in the fact that he was Peter’s friend. I remember being asked once to pray with a friend from church on a regular basis and that put into motion a long string of lessons in prayer. We both taught each other to pray. With whom could you learn to pray? Find someone! Ask them to tell you as best they can what they do. One of the curious things about my invitation to pray with this friend was that we hardly knew each other at the time. But we soon got to know each other. When you understand the urgency of prayer, it overcomes any awkwardness you might experience in getting started. We need to pray, not just to make it today, but to make it to the wedding. So, I’ll ask you again, do you have the extra oil that you will need when the groom arrives? One of the things we actually ran out of in self-quarantine last week was actually vegetable oil. But this didn’t really matter. If worst comes to worst, you can always boil your dinner. But being found short of oil on the last day holds devastating consequences. Without extra oil we will miss out on the wedding feast to which Christ has called us in his Gospel. And so we all need a healthy dose of FOMO. We need a healthy Fear-Of-Missing-Out on the joy that is set before us. Remembering this joy is perhaps the greatest motivation to keep watch. Why don’t we even do that right now. Let’s pray.