‘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.
One of my favorite things about anytime we hear a story from Jesus that starts with, “The kingdom of heaven will be like…” is that we never really know what, exactly, about the story is like the kingdom of heaven. In this particular story, is it the bridesmaids? Is it the wise and foolish ones? Is it the waiting or sleeping? Is it the shout of announcement? Is it the bridegroom himself? Is it the after party? Or, could it even be, the door being shut? For some, all of these questions can be too much. They’re too confused or they just don’t want to spend the time seeking out answers. But for others, these questions inspire wonder… What if the kingdom of heaven will be like those bridesmaids with the lamps? What does that mean? What does that look like? The scary part of this kind of wonder is that it can lead you to scary places. If I’m wondering about the bridesmaids, eventually I’ll be led to wonder, “what if the kingdom of heaven will be like the door slamming shut to the foolish ones, the ones to whom the bridegroom says, ‘I don’t know you’?” For me, that image of heaven is not just scary, it’s awful. It’s not what I want to believe, but it’s also not what I’ve learned elsewhere from Jesus. I mean… what about the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go after that one lost sheep?
What helps me, when I revel in this kind of wondering, is going back to the context. This context helps me uncover what the parable might really be about. What I found is this… Jesus shares this image of the kingdom of heaven one chapter away from the Passover… the Last Meal, the First Communion. This parable sits sandwiched between other images and discussion about “the kingdom of heaven,” some of which we’ll spend more time with in the next couple weeks before Advent begins. So that’s something to recognize when we hear this story. Jesus is at the height of his popularity and he has lots to say to these particular people.
This parable isn’t about Christ’s return as the bridegroom to meet his bride, the Church. This is one more parable, in a line of many, where Jesus describes the Kingdom of Heaven – now. It is an indictment of those who were not only unprepared, like the foolish bridesmaids without enough oil, but also those who were considered “the wise”, those who refused to share. We might even go so far as to say this story is a condemnation of the groom himself who was late to his own party, but then couldn’t be gracious enough to welcome the late bridesmaids. In this parable, Jesus was describing the world he was living in right then, a world where the long awaited Messiah was just days away from being crucified.
So if the kingdom of heaven is now, how are we doing? Do we recognize the resurrected Christ in our midst? Are we living the transformed lives of the faithful?
To be a lamp trimmer is a specialized position, someone who not only fills the lamps with oil, but also ensures an even and lasting flame. As you can imagine, before electricity, this was a very important position. When the light was taken care of, the rest of the world could continue their work and time together. It is interesting to consider that with the ways we are so heavily reliant on our electricity and our flip-the-switch lights, we are also a culture so wrapped up in what’s most exciting now. We are a flash-in-the-pan kind of society. I’m not just talking about hot fashion trends or who’s the new “it” girl. Even our news is fixated on what’s hot and what will get the greatest reaction from the public. Who has the most likes, retweets, followers… it’s everywhere. So with so much of our world trapped in these flashes, where do we find our constant?
To prove your skill as a lamp trimmer had to do with your ability to trim a wick in such a way that the light would burn evenly, without hot spots. The beautiful thing about a job well done is that it wouldn’t need attention for some time. That was the point. So, to be a great lamp trimmer was to be hardly noticed at all. That is a completely different message about greatness than what our world tells us.
I have never been a fan of self-promotion. I’m very sensitive to those who have to sell something to make it worthwhile, or prove its worth. Yet, this is our world. To prove ourselves. To be hot now.
This perspective is inconsistent with the perspective that Jesus teaches us. Jesus calls us to a life of transformation. In this transformation we can live a life beyond the whim of “the hot list.” We are transformed from the fickle to the faithful. A faithful life is one of consistency, practice, showing up, and letting God go to work. A faithful life isn’t a popularity contest. It’s about living with Christ as our center and following Christ’s call, even if it leads us to the scary places, or those places we would never choose to go.
It’s hard to believe that this is my ninth year serving at Advent. In that time, I have come to love this congregation and know how deeply faithful you are. In your consistent worship together, care for each other, and courage to try new things, like reading Red Letter Revolution in your book group or trying new formats to reach and connect with our children and families, you are trimming your lamps. We are serving together in a way that leads to an even flame, a constant light for a life-long journey with Christ.
For those of us who are older, we bring the gift of experience. It is you who call yourselves “seniors” or “retired”, “Godmother” or “Godfather”, “Aunt” or “Uncle,” “Mom” or “Dad”… you are the ones who can lead the younger ones to understand what it is to be a lamp trimmer. Your experience tells you that consistency matters. Your experience tells you that you can’t always make your decisions on what is easiest or what feels the best. Your experience also tells you the importance of encouragement and people who take the time to know you.
As a church, and as members of the body of Christ, we need each other to remind us of what’s important, what it is to live a faithful life. Our children and youth don’t have the lessons from experience that we have, so it’s even more important for us to teach them the gifts of our faith, the gifts of consistency and commitment. They are relying on us for our experience as we are relying on them to bring their fresh perspectives and energy, ideas and hope. They also have their very unique experiences to offer as well. Those who were born after 1982 live in such a vastly different world than those of us born before. There is so much to be shared, but we need each other to show up for it to be shared. We need each other to be ready, stay alert, and keep our lamps lit so we can be aware of the ways God is calling us to the world around us.
This foundation is already here at Advent. Now, it is time for us to own who we are and celebrate it. Now, it is time for us to intentionally reach out to each other, no matter what our age difference, and serve together as members of the one body of Christ.
A wise woman I know recently said something like, “Weekly worship is what every Christian needs.” Weekly worship is like being a skilled lamp trimmer. It is most effective when it has seeped so seamlessly into your life’s rhythm’s you don’t even notice the time. It isn’t about the big events that surround it, (something for us to especially keep in mind as we enter this holiday season), or the family brunch after the allotted 60 minutes at church. Weekly worship is part of who we are as a faithful people. If we are the body of Christ, weekly worship is the rhythm of our breath. It is just… who we are and what we do. And what God does, in every moment, is inspire us to live in love for our neighbor wherever we are.
The consistency of worship changes us. We really need it. Yes, I know we have our reasons for inconsistent worship attendance. I know many of you well enough to know you have been through some exceptional circumstances that really do keep you away from Sunday worship. Yet, I also know the allure of circumstances of convenience. Sometimes, we choose what is most convenient, telling ourselves it will only happen once, but then the next thing we know we have forgotten how gathering together in one place to worship our one God can really change our lives. We really, really need to remember that. We need each other to help remember that. We need it so we can face all of the other shifting, changing things of the world. We need it so we can push back against a culture that says our only worth is what we sell of ourselves. We need it for all of our many personal reasons, but we also need it for each other. We affect one another. We help each other remember what’s important. Worship is a form of service and we need you here to serve in the act of worship alongside us, raising our voices in song and prayer together, living the changed lives of the faithful in the world, living the kingdom of heaven NOW.