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Waiting with Lamps Lit

Updated: Jun 6, 2022

Sermon #207 St. James the Less #114 11/8/20

Jesus said, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Matthew 25:1-13


A lot of things have changed over this past week, and I’m not necessarily referencing the major thing that is on all of our minds. Early November is always a time of change and transition—it’s now getting dark before many of us get home from work. I’ll look out of my window around 3 and dread the thought that it’ll be dark in an hour.

Other than this unseasonably warm weekend, we’ve all had to start digging out our winter coats, and soon enough we’ll be scraping our car windshield in the early morning hours.

Megan and I went shopping yesterday for some art to put in our new house, and though I shouldn’t be surprised, I was still horrified to see Hobby Lobby covered in Christmas décor.

The leaves have been changing, but now most of them are falling to the ground meaning winter is nigh. And Canadian geese have been flying over our house for the past few weeks as they head south.

You may have noticed the change in our readings’ tone this Sunday compared to the last few weeks. We are now in the final stretch of the season after Pentecost; this feels like the 500th Sunday after Pentecost if I’m honest with you.

But every year on the church calendar after All Saints’ Sunday the readings take on a new sense of urgency as we move ever closer to Advent. The Advent themes of waiting and judgment, darkness and light, and most of all, Jesus’ second coming are all foreshadowed in the lessons we read in November.

There is a group of scholars and clergy called the Advent Project who have made the argument that Advent should be a seven-week season rather than four, and they point to this theological shift in our Sunday lectionary readings as one of their main rationales.

Now, we’ll hold off decorating the church in our Advent blue until the season officially begins at the end of this month, but in many ways, the great themes of Advent begin today.

And so, for the next few weeks, we’re going to be intentional about the Advent themes in this pre-Advent season.

Historical Context

For us to understand the parable Jesus tells in Matthew 25 of the ten bridesmaids we must have a little bit of cultural context. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been to a Jewish wedding, let alone a first-century Jewish wedding, so we need to know what’s happening and why.

Typically, in Jesus’ day and time, there would be a feast the night before a wedding which would be hosted by the groom’s parents. It was like a rehearsal dinner, minus the rehearsal. And like any good rehearsal dinner, it would have been a great event with lots of food and drink, and the whole town would have been invited. But none of the festivities began until the groom arrived.

"It appears that the groom with his companions would traditionally arrive at the ceremonial house first, during the night, to be received by a group of young women. Early the next day the friends of the groom would go out to bring back the bride, who would arrive in a sedan chair [a beautifully decorated chair] with the groom’s friends as her symbolic honor guard [carrying her in the chair]” (Archaeology Bible 1039).’’

And so, a major part of these ancient Jewish weddings were these processions: the procession the night before by the groom, and the procession of the bride the next day.

In our parable, the issue has to do with oil lamps and keeping a lookout for the bridegroom’s arrival. The bridesmaids did not know when he would arrive—there were no text messages from him saying that he was on his way; there was no one running ahead of the bridegroom telling them to get ready.

They were to stay awake and make sure there was oil in their lamp.

Now you may be picturing the oil lamps that you’ve seen in movies, maybe you’re grandparents had one sitting around in their basement from the olden days, or better yet, you might be thinking of the oil lamps that sit on every table at Cracker Barrel. But either way, that’s not the kind of lamp Jesus is talking about.

The first-century lamps were made out of clay and could fit in the palm of your hand. They almost look like a small tea kettle and the flame would come out of the spout. The wick would have been an old rag that they didn’t mind getting burned and there would be in a small reservoir filled with olive oil.

This was the only source of light at night and it was a constant process of checking the lamp so that the flame wouldn’t die. The rag/wick would become charred on the end and would need to be cut from time to time. And on top of that, these lamps consumed a lot of oil and they would need to be replenished every 15 minutes.

There’s no doubt the excitement of the bridegroom’s imminent arrival kept their energy high early on. They were taking good care of the flame, making sure they were ready at a moment’s notice, but then his arrival was delayed. Minutes turned into hours, and soon enough all ten were sleepy.

And then suddenly he arrives, but with his arrival is a reality check. During that long time of waiting five had prepared for a long delay in his arrival (just in case) and five hadn’t.

Beware of Moralistic Reading

At this point I want to pause for a moment. We could easily talk about the ethics that follow in this parable. The five bridesmaids who were prepared seem stingy because they won’t share their oil—that’s not very Christian of them. We could shake our heads at the harsh behavior of the bridegroom who tells them, “Ladies, I don’t even know who you are and shuts the door in their face.”

We could pick-a-part all the unreasonable and unfriendly things that happen, but I believe that is a slippery slope. That’s what we call a moralistic reading of the parable.

Jesus didn’t give us parables to critique the characters’ behaviors or to analyze them as if they are real people; rather he tells parables to teach a simple yet profound lesson. And the moral of this story is in the last line of the parable, “Keep awake,” he says “for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Anticipation & Waiting

The point is that we are waiting for the bridegroom to arrive. We do not know when he’ll show up, but we have to be ready to wait for a long time.

The ten bridesmaids represent the Church, that’s why we never hear about the bride in this parable. Jesus, as the bridegroom is arriving to sweep them up into his triumphal procession.

It is apocalyptic in that sense, referring to Jesus’ second coming in triumph and great glory. And we are stuck during the time in-between Jesus’ first and second coming. We are the ones having to wait.

If this week has taught us anything, it’s how difficult and even painful it is to wait. I think so many of us walked around this past week tense not knowing the election results. If you were like me, you were either on your phone or computer clicking refresh a million times: 90%, 91%. Wake up in the morning, check my phone, and scream, “How are they still only at 91%!”

We are lousy at waiting, but I think this week was a great example of that tension in our parable. By no means am I comparing the election to Jesus’ second coming, but it’s important to mark that feeling of anxiety and tension that we’ve all felt this past week (and some of us may still do) and connect that to this parable.

When you get home, you should flip to Matthew 25 and just write in the margins “2020 Election Week.”

This is the kind of anxiety the early Church was having—they were convinced Jesus was coming back at any moment. They had seen the Bridegroom ascend into heaven and they knew he was coming back in their lifetime…but then he didn’t. The apostles’ generation died off, and then the next, and then the next.

They had to come to the realization that the oil they had in their lamp would not be enough. The Church would have to change how it understood its place in the world if Jesus wasn’t coming back anytime soon. It would have to be the waiting and witnessing church.

They would have to plant roots in their communities, get to know the neighbors, and share the good news of the Bridegroom who was due to return when he so chooses.

Karl Barth said that the oil of the lamps “is the witness of the Spirit in the waiting church” (99). The Church would have to witness while it waited, and that is true for us today as well.

Two thousand years later we are waiting, we’ve never known anything else but that in our lifetime, the urgency of the Bridegroom’s arrival has faded, but we must continue to check our oil supplies, my friends.

As one writer said, “The Advent church, [the waiting church] assaulted by darkness, but rising up with all its lamps burning, and with plenty of extra oil for the long, long haul ahead” (98).

There is a lot of darkness in this world, there are many who are looking to the wrong things for hope, comfort, and security; and so as the waiting and witnessing church we must ask ourselves, “What’s in our lamps?”

The Bridegroom has vowed to return and he will bring us to the eternal wedding banquet with him, that much he has promised and we should trust what he’s said—until that glorious day how shall we wait? What’s in those lamps?

23rd Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 27. Year A. Advent by Fleming Rutledge.

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