“Trimmed and Burning”
Matthew 25: 1-13
Rev. Barrett Ingram
November 8, 2020
In the life of faith, endings are often beginnings, and beginnings are often endings. The calendar year is quickly drawing to a close, and the liturgical calendar year ends even sooner. We have just two more Sundays before Advent arrives, and with Advent the new church year cycle begins again. For the next two Sundays, we are going to be looking at selections of Matthew 25. This part of the Gospel, especially chapters 24 and 25, has a decidedly apocalyptic edge. It’s about the end of time, the last judgment. We affirm this reality every week in the Creed: “He (Christ) shall come again to judge the quick (the living) and the dead.” So, the sermon this week is about being prepared for the time when Christ does return. My title comes from the refrain of the old spiritual. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, the time is drawing nigh. It’s in our new hymnal, and it is based partly on our Gospel lesson – the parable of the ten virgins.
It is really not news to say that technology has changed the way we experience our lives. After all, you are watching or listening to this worship experience through some form of technological device. We can all be thankful for the ways that technology has allowed us to say connected, even though we have to stay physically apart during this pandemic. Like all good things in life, there is another side that complicates things. A few years ago, I read and saved an article that dealt with attention span. The author made this statement: Digital life, with its vivid gaming and exciting social media, is a world of immediate gratification where practically any desire or fantasy can be realized in the blink of an eye.
“Immediate gratification…any desire or fantasy can be realized in the blink of an eye.” The author was writing about children, but it could probably be applied to many of us. “Have it your way, right away.” Burger King started selling customers on that philosophy back in the mid-1970s. So more and more, as a society, we have been led to believe that we can have whatever we what, whenever we want it – the sooner, the better. Preferably, right now! And not only can we have it, but we should have it. We are entitled to it. We deserve it! How many times do we hear advertisements selling us products by saying just that? “You deserve the car or your dreams.” “You deserve this new house.” “Use this or that diet product and get the body you deserve.” In our culture of instant gratification, we’re told to consume, consume, consume. And we’re indignant when we don’t get what we want. Since our society is rigged to give us what we want whenever we want it – the customer is always right, after all – we find that we’re left with a mountain of debt at both the consumer level and the governmental level.
A cruel ironic consequence of this culture of instant gratification is that it seemingly robs us of our sense of the future. Sometimes, we are so engaged with the pleasures of the present that we don’t concern ourselves with the future…. because we don’t have to. Once upon a time, if you wanted to buy something expensive that you couldn’t afford, you had to work hard and save your money. There was a goal aiming you to the future, something to work toward. But now we have easy credit. Charge it! Or think of travel. Our ancestors had to plan for weeks if they wanted to travel any distance, and the trip could take weeks or even months. Now, COVID concerns notwithstanding, we can fly across the country in half a day. Even more recently, in my lifetime, I think of the trips I made using an actual paper map. We had to plot out our course in advance. Now, we can just put the address in a GPS device, and it will tell us how to get where we want to go.
I’m not pointing fingers of judgment at our modern world, because I’m as much a part of it as anyone. But I wonder if the lack of concern about the future, if this shortsightedness, is not (at least in part) contributing to our spiritual malaise in Western society. Because unlike our culture, the Bible seems to be very much concerned about how our actions in the present influence our future. So, we come to a story like the one Jesus tells us, this parable of the ten virgins…and he starts by saying, “the kingdom of heaven will be like…” It’s in the future. Jesus is pointing us to a future, and he’s telling us to be prepared for it.
In ancient Palestine, weddings rarely started on time. They were usually held at night, when it was not so hot. Unlike our culture, where we wait on the bride (“Here Comes the Bride”), in that culture they waited on the bridegroom. Whenever the groom finally showed up, a messenger would announce his arrival in the streets and there would be a processional to the actual marriage. So, if you were a bridesmaid in that culture, and you hadn’t made the necessary preparations, then you would miss the party.
There were ten virgins (ten bridesmaids) in this story, invited by the bride to share in her special day. The story says that five bridesmaids were wise and five were foolish. It does not say that five were good and five were bad. In fact, there seems to be little in the way of difference between the two groups. So far as we can tell, they all had the same lamps and they wore the same dresses. And they all became drowsy while waiting, so they all went to sleep. But five we wise and five were foolish; five were prepared and had enough oil and five did not. So, when the shout at midnight came, “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” those five who were not prepared likely had that sinking feeling we’ve all likely had a time or two when we realized that we’re not adequately prepared for something we needed to do.
In this parable, the oil represents our inner, spiritual resources – the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen. In other words, the oil is our faith. It represents our trust that, in fact, the bridegroom is coming – even if it takes him longer than expected. Because you can’t just make up this loyal love for the bridegroom on the spot, you have to have a ready reserve – you have to be prepared. That’s why Jesus said, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”
This oil, this faith, is something that we have to have for ourselves. We cannot borrow someone else’s oil. The wise did not share their oil with the foolish, and it seems rather selfish at first. But when you remember that the oil is our faith, it makes sense why they couldn’t share their oil. The old saying reminds us, “God doesn’t have grandchildren. He only has children.” We can’t ride into eternity on the coattails of someone else’s faith. The faith of our best friend, our mother, our grandfather, or Sunday school teacher won’t save us. Our faith has to be our own. We can – and we should – share the story of our faith. We bear witness; we give our testimony. But, we cannot transfer our faith to someone else. Being prepared to welcome Christ is an individual matter, regardless of whether he comes more quickly or more slowly than expected. That’s why we need those extra jars of oil along with our lamps. We need that reserve so that we are prepared for our future, so that we are ready to meet Christ, whenever that time should come. “Because you do not know the day or the hour.”
One of the special privileges and challenges pastors have is walking with folks as they take those last figurative steps on their earthly journey. I suppose most new pastors remember that first person in the new congregation who dies, and I remember the first two. They died about a year apart. They were both elderly, both in their mid to late 80s. Both had been sick, so it wasn’t unexpected. But their last moments were so different, I have never forgotten.
The first lady was a real character; she was larger than life. I hadn’t been there long enough to get to know her well, but she was funny and charming. She had a deep faith, and she was generous and giving. On her last night on this earth, her daughter took her to the hospital, because she was having trouble breathing. Her daughter told me that her mother was her usual self in the ER. She kept the nursing laughing. At one point she burst into song. I can’t remember what the song was, but it was some big show tune from the 30s or 40s. And then, she got quiet and breathed her last.
The second was a man called Coach. He told me that he’d coached junior high football right after he graduated from college. He only coached for a few years, he said, but the nickname stuck. By the time I met him, age had taken its toll – but he was tall, and from pictures, it was easy to see that he had been a strong, athletic type. He still played golf every day, almost to the end. Coach was well liked and respected, and I never remember anyone saying anything negative about him. And as far as I could tell, and again I hadn’t been there very long, he was a man of character and faith. But unlike the first lady who died so peacefully, his final days were marked by what appeared to be an intense internal struggle. The day before he died, I remember the nurse saying to his daughter, “You father is a scared man.” But by that point, it was too late. The door of his consciousness had shut forever.
Now it is not within our power to judge the state of another human being’s soul, and we dare not attempt. But the force of a parable like this one is to remind us that we all have an upcoming appointment. And whether we are brought to that meeting by cancer, or a car crash, or just plain old age – or whether, as it says in 1st Thessalonians, “we who are still alive and are left [get] caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” – we must be prepared.
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, the time is drawing nigh. But why? What are all of these preparations for? …well, for joy. It’s a wedding feast, after all. We are preparing ourselves for God’s joy – to enter into the joy of the Lord. The kingdom of God is pictured as a banquet; it’s a party – a celebration. As Christians, we are not cowering before the wrath of God. Instead, we are getting ready for a not-to-be-missed party. In metaphoric terms, the church is referred to as the bride of Christ, and we are the bridesmaids. The Lord is coming, says the parable – so be alert, be faithful, get ready. It’s worth waiting for…you don’t want to miss it.