Waiting for God
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 8, 2020
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Weddings in 1st Century Palestine followed a certain protocol. It was customary for the guests to gather at the home of the bride where entertainment was likely provided by her parents. Eventually the announcement would come that the bridegroom was approaching. The bridesmaids and the guests would go out to meet him with torches blazing. In the “festive procession, the entire party walked to the groom’s home where his parents were waiting for the ceremony and the extended banquet that would follow and continue for several days.”[i]
But in our parable from the Gospel of Matthew, for whatever reason the groom does not show up on time. Hours pass and after a while, some of the wedding party fall asleep. Finally, at midnight a shout is heard, “Here is the bridegroom. Come out to meet him.” The bridesmaids leap to their feet, trim their lamps, and head out to meet him. But 5 of the bridesmaids foolishly failed to bring extra oil for their lamps. They ask the others to share but there is not enough to share. Frantically the foolish bridesmaids set out in search of oil—not an easy task in the middle of the night. By the time they go to Target to buy oil and make it back to the party, it is too late. They bang on the door, shouting, “Lord, Lord, open to us.” But instead of a warm welcome they hear from the other side, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
Jesus begins the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids with these words: “The kingdom of heaven will be like this…” and then he proceeds to tell this unusual story. Over the years, when Christians have read this disturbing parable, they have often focused on what happens on either side of the locked door—some gain entry—some do not. And to not gain entry because of poor planning? That seems a little harsh. While this line of thought might be interesting, I want us to turn out hearts and minds to another aspect of the story. Since most of the action happens on this side of the door, let us consider the picture Jesus paints of a world that is waiting.
As God’s people, it is part of our very identity to be a waiting people. We wait with hope. We wait in anticipation. Despite the fact that Jesus is no longer with us in body, despite the fact that sometimes we get tired and nod off to sleep, still we wait. But what do we do while we wait? How do we wait? Not very well. Waiting is not now, nor has it ever been, one of our strong suits. I mean, really, who has enjoyed waiting for this global pandemic to end? Waiting to resume some semblance of normalcy? Waiting to learn the results of our presidential election?
Waiting is hard! Truth be told—we are annoyed by such things as a slow internet connection. We are upset when a 10- minute appointment with our physician is preceded by 30 minutes in the waiting room. As a society, we have grown to expect fast internet, fast service, fast travel, fast food, fast weight loss, and a fast track to the job of our dreams. It is as if the childhood travel expression, “Are we there yet?” has become our ever-present mantra. Sadly, too often, we apply the same expectations to our spiritual life. We approach God seeking quick answers to quick prayers. We want God to jump through out holy hoops. But, perhaps, we of all people need to learn how to wait on God, how to wait on the holy, and what to do to keep our lamps burning.
Our story today comes as an apt reminder that God will be God and with God it is best to be prepared for the wait. Being prepared for the wait is the one thing that separates the wise bridesmaids and the foolish bridesmaids. All of them dress for the wedding. All of them arrive in a timely fashion. All of them carry lamps that have oil in them. All of them fall asleep. But the wise bridesmaids have prepared for a possible delay. Somehow, they knew what to do “just in case.” So, when the bridegroom arrives later than expected, they have the resources they need. They have oil aplenty.
And what might the oil represent? Commentators suggest that the oil may be understood as “faith, good works, practices, or spiritual reserves that remain constant and shine during good times as well as times of waiting on God. That explains why the bridesmaids cannot share their oil. Just as we cannot share spiritual reserves…the bridesmaids cannot borrow the resources needed. Being prepared to welcome Christ is an individual matter…”[ii] We can be encouraged by others, of course. We may be inspired by another’s example, but we cannot borrow faith. We must seek for ourselves ways to keep our faith alert and growing. Spiritually speaking, the wise bridesmaids keep their lamps burning by doing deeds of mercy and kindness, spreading peace and love, with a faith that is steadfast and true. They have learned how to wait on God.
No, waiting is not easy—waiting for something that is long overdue—waiting that involves being prepared regardless—waiting that may begin to feel pointless. “How long do we have to wait, Jesus? How long before you return? How long before our prayers are answered? How long before you make a way where there seems to be no way? How long?”
During the waiting we may experience a mixed bag of emotions: anticipation, eagerness, dread, fear, longing, loss… We cannot help but want the waiting to be over. But, at the same time, as believers we trust that God will show up in our lives—on this side of the doorway into eternity—as well as on the other side. In the midst of our waiting, we anticipate the return of Jesus and that day when all things will be made right and good and holy—a new heaven and a new earth. In the meantime, we wait. But it is not a lazy waiting. It is waiting with purpose.
Matthew’s gospel, in its entirety, teaches of the need for readiness. Eager expectation and diligent preparation are needed because things are not as they seem. God is still at work in the world. God is still at work here in our midst even when “here” is a virtual worship space. As those whose identity is claimed in the waters of baptism, we journey with each other. We are nourished at the Table of our Lord. With each passing day we learn to forgive and love as Jesus forgave and loved. We seek avenues of peace and justice. We are replenished by a private devotional life of prayer, study, and meditation. We teach our faith to our children in hopes that they, too, might catch the flame. These things are not mere rituals or time-fillers. They sustain us in Jesus’ absence, when the hazards of life confront us.[iii]
Christianity is a “waiting” religion—but we wait with confidence—we wait in readiness. We keep our lamps trimmed and burning. Thus, we obey the instructions Jesus provides elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” That is what it is all about. Not our glory—God’s glory. Not our time—God’s time. That is what the kingdom of heaven is like!
[i] John M. Buchanan, Feasting on the Word, 286.
[ii] Lindsay P. Armstrong, Feasting on the Word, 287.
[iii] Matthew Skinner @http://www.odysseynetworks.org/on-scripture-the-bible/since-wait-wed-better-get-work-matthew-251-13/
*Cover art “Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins” Freidrich Wilhelm Schadow, 1838-42, Frankfurt, Germany. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition