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Be Prepared!

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Matthew 25:1-13
SMAS - 3rd Sunday before Advent

A mad-keen DIY enthusiast from Italy decided to install a toilet with a difference in his house. As well as enjoying DIY, 35-year-old Marcelos Cuban from Genoa was an avid collector of Roman antiquities, and his new loo was to be a combination of his two great hobbies. He designed the toilet himself, and converted a Roman sarcophagus (stone coffin) to use as a cistern. It had a Latin inscription on the side and, as it was made of stone, was very heavy.
Mr Cuban attached the cistern to the wall above his toilet before sitting down to tryout his new loo. When he had finished, he reached up to pull the chain, only for the sarcophagus to rip from its mountings and fall onto his head, killing him instantly. His shocked and mournful wife told reporters that she'd had the Latin inscription translated. It read: 'Good things always come from above.'

Acting foolishly is often treated light-heartedly but it is also a serious business! Although there’s a funny side to that story the consequences of his lack of wisdom cost the DIY enthusiast his life.

Human folly and lack of wisdom is a regular theme in the Bible – there’s even a whole book (Proverbs) given over to it. Jesus’ teachings were also given to fully inform us of the right and sensible way to live. He always used simple and relevant illustrations to get His message across but because the culture of that day is so different from now we don’t always get it. So before we look at this passage let me firstly explain some Jewish wedding customs of that time.

A wedding then had two parts. First, the bridegroom and his friends would go from his house to claim the bride from her parents. Then the bride and groom would return to the groom’s house for the marriage feast. When they got there the door would be shut - and this feast wasn’t just a one-off meal - but a protracted affair - the festivities could last for a week or two even and the guests would stay around! (becoming a bit like that today?)

In this story the suggestion is that the groom has already claimed his bride and is now on his way back home. Now, they could have returned at anytime - it could have been light, it could have been dark - as it was in this story. So those foolish bridesmaids who’d decided to gamble on not worrying about the fact that they had no oil and hoping it would be light were up the creek without a paddle! In fact when the bride and bridegroom appeared, half of them were unable to light their lamps because they had no oil. The bridesmaids who had oil were able to light their lamps and go into the wedding feast - but not the foolish girls who had no oil. And, remember, they didn’t just miss out on one meal but a whole week of festivities.

Now I’ve explained the customs behind the story let me explain the important part - why Jesus told this parable. Jesus always told stories that had important points to them - AND not just for then but equally for us today. Let’s look at what the various parts of the story stand for. The bible often depicts Jesus as the bridegroom with the church as His bride. Oil is usually a symbol of the Holy Spirit although here it could be the Word of God. The bridesmaids are believers.

So we have a story about the bridegroom who will come one day and claim His bride - the church. The difficult part is that we don’t know when that will happen. Christians who are looking on are like those bridesmaids - we don’t know when it will be and we don’t know if we will be ready. We may be hoping, even maybe expecting to be to be a real part of the supper and the festivities when they happen. We may be hoping on the day Jesus appears we won’t be caught out not ready with no oil in our lamps. This doesn’t mean we will have been being good. We’re very mistaken if we think that gets us in heaven.

How are we to be prepared - how do we have oil in our lamps? Being filled with the Holy Spirit and the word of God - and note these are things we have to work upon. We prepare for Jesus’ second coming by regular prayer, bible reading and worshipping God. That’s how we get filled with the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus was telling this story to the Jews He knew that they were not prepared. But Jesus hopes for better things from His church - the message is ‘be prepared’. Those who are ‘in Christ’ have nothing to fear - but until the crowning fulfillment of our faith comes we must not take for granted what lies in the future. Our lives in this world are given to us for a purpose - to be lived according to God’s will and commandments and with judgment to come on a day when we are not expecting it. No longer fashionable to be reminded of God’s wrath – all we hear about is His love nowadays - but we avoid thinking about it at our peril. If our ‘faith’ is mere lip service then we are in for a terrible surprise.

This parable has three surprises waiting us. The girls all looked the same, but they weren’t. Only half of them were ready for the feast and went in to enjoy the festivities. When they did so the door was shut - what a warning! It tells us that it is all too possible to be often in church and in Christian company and yet be a stranger to the Holy Spirit. It is possible to have a lamp that looks good, but has no oil in it. It is possible that one day Jesus may have to say, ‘I never knew you’. All that is a great surprise to churchgoers, in Matthew’s day and ours.

The second surprise is to discover there are some things you can’t borrow. Some things you must possess yourself. It’s not possible to rely on anyone else for holiness. It can’t be traded. If you’re not what you profess to be, nobody else can help you or stand in for you. The bridegroom will turn up and it will be too late.

The third surprise is that are sometimes when it’s too late. ‘Too late’ is a terrible verdict. You’ve got the sack; it’s too late now to say you’ll try harder. The divorce has come through; it’s too late now to make amends. The exam starts today; it’s too late now to revise for it. And those words ‘too late’ will be truly terrible to hear at the second coming. Make sure you don’t miss the party! That’s what Jesus means. Readiness is the key.

The story with its vivid details is essentially a warning not to be caught unprepared. This parable insists that delay in Jesus’ coming again is no excuse for not being ready at any time. Those girls slumbered and slept - no fault in itself, for both the ‘wise’ and ‘foolish’ did that. But during the ‘delay’ life must go on, we can’t live on constant alert. The difference was whether they’d already prepared for the summons, or had left preparation to the last minute, when it was too late. Physical sleep refreshes our bodies - but our spirits need refreshment too - by praying, reading the bible, worshipping God and being with God’s people.

‘Many are called, but few are chosen’, would aptly sum the point, it is not enough to just be ‘in on the act’. To be a professing disciple the disciple must be prepared for the ultimate encounter. And this parable says that we’re not to be just passively ‘waiting’ but engaged in the responsible activity of preparing. The period of waiting is not intended to be an empty, meaningless ‘delay’, but a period of active preparation and a period of learning.

Time and again Jesus’ teachings remind us of the certainty of God’s judgment to come, and we’re invited to choose eternal life rather than seemingly glittering but often shallow, delights of this world. The right time to decide is now, not tomorrow or when we’ve paid off the mortgage or retired. In the face of all the warnings that scripture contains, and for the uncertainty of tomorrow we cannot depend on the unfounded claims of those who say ‘what works for you’ or ‘just be good and decent’. How much better to be assured by a living faith that we are ‘in Christ’ and full of the Holy Spirit than to risk hearing for ourselves the awful words of the bridegroom, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you’. (Matthew 25:12)

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