Reflection: What to do whilst we're waiting.
At this stage of the final week before his capture, trial and execution, Jesus has stopped speaking to his opponents, and doesn’t even address the general crowd, but, instead, speaks only to all who are currently disciples and those who wish to be one. He relates three parables, one for each of the last three weeks of this church year before the New Year arrives with Advent.
These 3 parables refer to the future coming of the Son of Man, the Holy One who comes to consummate the kingdom of God on earth.
Today’s parable is about waiting, being alert and being ready for his arrival.
It concerns the 5 wise and 5 foolish bridesmaids (sometimes called the 10 virgins).
In understanding the parable, we have to remember that it’s set in a different culture and time period.
The marriage customs were exceedingly different from ours today. Today we expect bridesmaids to attend the bride. Not so these ten maids - who are attending the groom.
What’s more, today we announce a set date and time for the wedding.
At the time when Jesus lived, the time of the wedding was not specified. Some Bible commentators have suggested that it was actually considered smart to trick the guests by arriving at an unexpected hour.
Hence, in this parable, the bridegroom’s party chooses to arrive at midnight and catch some folk ill prepared.
These days, the maidens arrive with the bride and escort her. In Jesus’ time the groom was to be met by the maidens with their lamps shining, to escort him into the wedding ceremony and feast.
Whereas now everything might be well lit by rows of LED lights, in the time of Jesus, they relied on lamplight.
These lamps had a reservoir of oil and a wick.
In today’s parable, five of the girls neglected to have a reserve supply of oil. They had waited such a long time that their lamps burned low and began to smoulder. They tried to borrow oil from the other five, but to no avail.
At that critical moment, the bridegroom arrived. The wise maidens who had back-up oil went into the feast with the bridegroom. The other five, after rushing out to buy more, arrived back at the reception centre to find the door firmly shut against them. In a panic, they knocked at the closed door and cried: “Sir, sir, please open the door for us.’ However, the voice inside replied “Go away. I do not know you.”
They’d missed their opportunity. They weren’t prepared and ready.
That may sound somewhat hard-hearted, all very final and I think Jesus meant it to be so.
I think he’s telling us that we must make the most of our opportunities and be always ready to welcome him, whatever the hour. If we miss the moment, we’ll miss out altogether.
We need to remember that God’s timetable is not the same as ours.
Most of us would like to have a God who fits in with our wants and needs.
You know, one who is always on time for US!
Some stroppy churchgoers have even been heard to complain: “Where is God in today’s affairs?
What is he doing? We need his help right now.
Why doesn’t he show his love?
Why won’t he give us a hand when we most want it?
Why are we kept waiting?”
It’s easy enough to get weary when we hear about so much trouble in the world. The absence of God may seem prolonged indeed. It’s easy to grow careless and allow our lamp of faith to grow dim. We give up supplementing our supply with new reserves. We become negligent, apathetic - even faithless.
I guess we’ve all met people who complain about God’s tardiness.
Some will tell us: “Well that’s it! I gave him some of the best years of my life and what has he done for me?
Where was he when I desperately wanted him to come to my side?”
We notice their light is growing dim, or even going out.
They’re prone to start complaining about a lot of things in the church. Nothing seems right in their eyes.
Before long they’re just a smouldering wick, giving off a nasty, disgruntled, odour.
Or they fall asleep and miss out on the moments when the groom comes with abundant blessings.
It’s an all too familiar story to many church elders and ministers.
Some people can’t tolerate the fact that God has a different timetable to theirs.
I urge you, as Jesus said, to keep awake, for you never know the day or the hour.
All very well, I hear you say, but how do we top up our oil supplies?
How can we become numbered among the wise - who are ready whenever the Son of Man arrives?
Well, one thing we can’t do is to borrow it from our fellow Christians. We can, however, be encouraged by others. We may be inspired by the example of others, but we can’t actually borrow their faith.
But looking from other side, we should be reminding those who appear to be running low, to top up their reserves before they run out.
The good oil can be found in regular worship and in the reading of the Scriptures, in Bible study and prayer groups.
In these COVID times, we find it difficult to meet in person, but we can still communicate via other means (telephone, computer chat, etc.)
Our stock will also be replenished in our private devotional life, when we spend time in the presence of our Lord.
We need to seek for ourselves. Look for all the opportunities we can to assist others.
Things that will keep our faith alert and growing. Here are some of the time-honoured ways of doing this.
The “With Love to the World” booklets that Gaye orders in each month are a good resource if you’re looking for something to encourage this.
Another good method is to spend time in prayer and meditation with those who love the Lord.
But there are also some less recognised sources of oil for our lamps of faith. Some of us have received oil from most unexpected quarters.
It may flow from critics and unbelievers. Such unlikely folk can actually contribute to increasing our faith as we address their criticisms.
Sometimes our oil is replenished in the giving of ourselves to those in need, without any thought of reward. This type of love is called Agape, in Greek. We unselfishly care for others and, to our great surprise, discover the oil of happiness rising up within our own souls.
It’s in giving that we receive.
We find ourselves spiritually enriched by those whom we set out to serve, with no thought of a reward for ourselves.
And take note of this, because I know it’s true.
On occasions, our oil will be replenished when we undertake some task which we strongly dislike.
Those times when we loyally, yet reluctantly, perform some service for Christ which we find difficult.
The giving of undeserved love can be a strange source for the good oil.
When our oil tank is regularly topped up, only then will our lamps glow warmly.
They glow, not for our own satisfaction, but for the sake of those around us, and to the glory of Jesus.
It’s then that we can recognise the privilege and honour that is ours. Jesus once expressed it this way: “Let your light so shine before all people, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
That’s what it’s all about. Not for our glory, but God’s. But in return, we receive his love.
So, I encourage you to be alert and be ready. Remember that it’s God’s timetable, not ours.
You’d better keep awake, for you never know the day or the hour when you’re going to encounter Christ.
And while you’re at it, look around for others who may be dimming and then help them top up and be ready, too.
“May God’s love be in us,
Christ’s call be clearly with us,
and the power of the Holy Spirit
give us strength.”