Best fill ‘er up!

The Podcast

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

Ah, the tardy bridegroom.

Perhaps this is a stereotype… or perhaps an archetype. It’s a fine line, isn’t it? There’s no telling how many brides, some secretly, some not-so-secretly, have harbored the fear that their bridegroom would arrive late to the wedding, throwing all of their carefully made plans for the day into disarray. And these concerns are not invalid… sometimes bridegrooms are tardy. As I said, there’s a fine line between stereotype and archetype.  

Perhaps this is the reason that I was strongly counseled, on the occasion of my first wedding (back in 1981 when I was 22 years old), by the mother of my bride-to-be, as well as my own mother, to be at the church two-and-a-half hours before the service was scheduled to commence. Two-and-a-half hours! I guess they figured that having me thus corralled was one less thing for them to worry about. I, on the other hand, didn’t think much of the idea. How long does it take to put on a tux, after all? And I had another problem… a big one. The Student Union at Georgia State University was screening the entire franchise of James Bond movies, back to back and in order, on succeeding days of my nuptial month, and I had made it my sacred duty to attend every single one. Remember, this was before anyone except the exceedingly rich and famous had VCRs… you couldn’t just rent a copy, and watch it later… you miss one, and the chain is forever broken. Well, at least broken for a long, long time! And I had a lot invested! By the time of my wedding day I was, like, six movies into the series! Arriving at the church two-and-a-half hours early would have meant missing “In Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” the one and only Bond film starring George Lazenby.[1] Incidentally, that’s the one where, for the first time, Bond actually falls in love with one of his movie heroines. It’s also one of the less-frequently played Bond movies, and I really didn’t want to miss it. So, I made a counter offer: I’d be at the church thirty minutes early. A stony silence ensued, but eventually (amazingly), the matriarchs caved… or I should say acquiesced. So, I got to see In Her Majesty’s Secret Service and get married… all on the same day! How cool is that? And I wasn’t tardy. I was ready on time.  And here’s a funny thing: my Uncle Frank, who is a Harvard M.D. and someone I revere enormously, had travelled all the way from Boston to attend the wedding. When he learned of my plans, he asked if he could come with me to the movie. It was one of his favorites, he said. I was pleased and honored to accept his company, and we had a great time together. Only much later did it occur to me that, while it was very possible that Frank really was a fan of James Bond, another reason he had asked to tag along was to help make sure that I got where I needed to be on time. It takes a village, I guess.  

You know, I wonder if the Apostle Paul was beginning to worry that Jesus Messiah was going to be late to his own Second Coming. One of the hallmarks of Paul’s early teaching and evangelism was that Jesus would be returning soon! Forget about marriage and “all that jazz,” if you can contain yourself. And if you can’t, go on and get married, but don’t over-invest in it (1 Cor 7:8). You can work, for heaven’s sake… You gotta eat, you gotta earn your living (2 Thes 3:10-11). But all of that is secondary to what’s really important: Jesus is coming back soon! It could be tonight… or tomorrow… or next week… we don’t know… but we have to be ready! So, get yourself right with God! Today! There’s not a moment to lose!

Only, it seemed like Jesus was taking his own sweet time. In today’s passage from 1 Thessalonians, which most scholars believe is the earliest of Paul’s letters, it appears that the church in Thessalonica was concerned that several of their recently-deceased members might have missed their opportunity to be taken up to heaven with Jesus at the Second Coming. That wouldn’t be fair, would it? They had been faithful. It wasn’t their fault that their bodies had given out before Jesus came back to get them. It wouldn’t be fair if they got left behind. I wonder if the subtext of their complaints might have been: if people can be separated from God by death, despite their faithfulness during their time on earth, then what chance is there for any of us?  

So, Paul had to paint a picture for them: a picture of Jesus descending from heaven… of airy apparitions of saints rising from their graves to meet him in the air along with (and just in front of) the living faithful… on the last day. That’s where the words of the song, “I’ll Fly Away” come from, you know. Grab a Baptist or Methodist hymnal and check out the lyrics. They’re all about breaking free from the shackles and chains of our earthly prison… and flying away to meet Jesus… on the last day. And as much as I love the song, I’m not sure I agree with the premise that the dead in Christ have to wait until the Second Coming to be with Jesus. Paul was doing the best he could to reassure his little flock, but I wonder if he had painted himself into a bit of a corner with all his talk of an imminent Second Coming… and had to figure out a work-around when Jesus seemed to be running a bit behind schedule. Remember, Paul had never met Jesus in the flesh… only in the flash… and the Gospels had not yet been written. Which means that Paul may not have heard about Jesus saying that no one would know the day or hour of his coming (Matt 24:36 and Mark 13:32) or that one of the thieves crucified with him on Calvary would be with him in Paradise on the very day of his death (Luke 23:43). In the Book of Revelation Jesus says, “See, I am coming soon…” (22:12), but he doesn’t say how soon and, in any case, Revelation wasn’t written until thirty or thirty-five years after Paul wrote his first letter to the Thessalonians. So, we don’t really know how Paul might have got it into his head that Jesus was returning soon soon… as in tonight, maybe. But that’s what he thought… at least he did at the outset of his ministry, though he began to dial back people’s expectations in this regard in some of his later letters.

So, how might this bit from 1 Thessalonians inform our understanding of today’s Gospel reading about the ten bridesmaids? First off, we have no evidence that Paul really knew any more than we do about when Christ will return. He was just trying to reassure his flock that death could not separate brothers and sisters who had lived by faith from the love of God (cf. Romans 8:38-39). And that’s true. And nothing in our Gospel lesson today contradicts that. But Jesus is taking our understanding of what it means to be faithful to a whole new level. Ten bridesmaids have gone out to meet their Lord. Five have carried extra oil to refill their lamps in case they should run low. The other five have not. Perhaps these bridesmaids thought their Lord would come immediately, so they’d have plenty of oil for the banquet. OR maybe they figured he wouldn’t come tonight at all. In any case, why go to the extra trouble and expense? And in the end, they came up short. The bridegroom came and they were not ready. They were not faith-full.  

Here’s the thing. Jesus, our Bridegroom, will not be late. He’ll be right on time. I know it doesn’t feel that way sometimes, but you can count on it. God hears the cries of his people and the Messiah will return at the time of the Father’s choosing, to ease his people’s suffering and bring them home. He’s always done that. That’s his nature. It’s all right there in the first five books of Hebrew Scripture, the Torah. Look it up. But here’s another thing… something we must ask ourselves everyday: Are we being truly faith-full? Are we carrying enough oil to keep our lamps lit throughout the longest, darkest nights, so that we will always be ready to share the light of Christ in a world that can sometimes seem to be a pretty-lousy place? That’s what we’re signing up to do when we accept our invitation to “the banquet,” you know. Acceptance incurs a cost. It’s a Kingdom Banquet, and we’re called not only to revel, but to serve. Or are we carrying just enough oil for “personal use?” To get us from “Point A” to “Point B” in this life, in the hope that that will be enough. It won’t be enough, I’m afraid. If all that we’re invested in on the last day is of this world, then when the kingdom of this world passes away, giving way to God’s Kingdom, the New Jerusalem, then we’ll be left with… nothing. There are no short cuts. We must let our lights shine… without reservation… without thought of cost… through the darkest night. In fact, we need to venture out into that darkest night… like the bridesmaids… and await the call which may come at an inconvenient hour… at midnight… or some other time that tries the soul. We must be ready. Always.  

Sounds like a lot of work, huh? But read the parables! They point to the way to salvation. “God’s time” will come. And it will likely come when we least expect it. And it’s not enough to be a light unto ourselves… or even to our families and friends. We need to be, like our Bridegroom, a light to the world.

So, best fill ‘er up.

[1] Apparently, Lazenby was “kicked to the curb” by the producer after starring in only one film because he was a bit of a “pill.”

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