Sunday, November 6, 2011

Emergency Preparedness

Text :    Matthew 24:36-44; 25:1-13

   ANYTHING WORTH DOING IN life needs to be prepared for.  You all had to prepare to come to church this morning.  I made preparations so I could be with you to share God's Word.  You prepared when you got married and when you had your children.  People prepare to do their jobs, to go on vacation, to retire.  At least, they do if they're wise.  

        Then there are the kind of things that are bound to come into every life, but we can't know for sure when or how.  Sudden illness or the loss of a job.  And what about those life emergencies we hope won't happen to us, but might?  Nobody plans to undergo natural disasters like floods or wildfires or devastating Fall snowstorms, but it's still wise to be prepared.

    Emergency preparedness is preached to us from all quarters.  Have enough food stored up!  Formulate a meet-up plan for your family!  Buy gold and silver for when the market collapses!  But for the ultimate emergency this world will ever see, how can we be ready?  What do we need to do, what do we need to lay up for ourselves to be prepared?     

    In chapters 24 and 25 of the gospel according to St. Matthew, our Lord Jesus tells what it will be like when the Kingdom of heaven finally emerges in all its stupendous grandeur, on that day when Jesus Christ Himself will return in glory to judge the living and the dead.

    In the portion we read from chapter 24, we see that His coming will indeed be an emergency.  For the most part, people will be living life as normal when the Son of Man returns.  "As it was in the days of Noah," Jesus says in verse 37, people will be eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.  That's not to say there will be no signs of His coming; no, it's just that we humans have an amazing capacity to be blind to anything that threatens our everyday routine.  When Jesus comes again, believers and unbelievers alike will be going about their ordinary work, making a living, doing what people do.  Two men in a field: one taken, one left.  Two women grinding grain together: one taken, one left.  Incidentally, the Greek word rendered "taken" in our modern translation has a positive meaning in Matthew's gospel; the idea is of taking someone to be with you, not taking them off to destruction. 

    Whichever category we fall into, the coming of Christ will be an unexpected emergency, and Jesus says we believers need to be prepared.  "Therefore keep watch," says Jesus in verse 42, "because you don't know on what day your Lord will come."  In fact, for those who are not prepared, Jesus' second coming will be like having your house broken into in the middle of the night.  "So you must also be ready, because the Son of Man will come when you do not expect him."

    So what does it mean for us to be prepared for His coming?  Jesus tells four parables to help us understand.  The first is the parable of the faithful and wise servant, which Matthew relates in verses 45 to 51 of chapter 24.  We didn't read that section this morning, but it shows us that a big part of being ready consists in doing those acts of service towards one another that Jesus Himself commands for us day after day.  This parable is especially addressed to pastors and elders, whose responsibility it is to give the Master's other servants their food at the proper time-- the food of the Word of God.

    But what happens when we've done all we can to be ready,  and all we can do is wait?  The second part of today's reading helps us with that question.

    If we want to understand the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, it will help to know a little about first century Jewish marriage customs.  The practice was that when a young man took a fancy to a particular young women, he, or his father on his behalf, would approach the girl's father and make an offer for her hand.  The men would settle on the financial arrangements, then the young woman would be brought in to see if she agreed to have the young man.  If so, the marriage covenant was sealed with a glass of wine and the engagement was made.  As we know from the story of Mary and Joseph, this engagement had the effect of marriage, and a formal divorce was necessary to break it.  The only difference was that the couple would not come together for a year or more after this.  The girl continued to live in her father's house, and the young man would return to his father's property, to build a dwelling where he and his new bride would live.  Then, when all was ready, he would come by night with his groomsmen to the bride's house, in a torchlight procession to take her away to be with him.  When they approached her house, the best man would shout out, "Look! The bridegroom has come!  Come out to meet him!"  The groom would lay claim to his bride, and her bridesmaids would join the torchlight procession back to his home and the home of his father, where the marriage would be completed with the formal ceremony, the consummation of relations between the bridal pair, and a week of feasting by the family and their guests.

    Now, it is said that some grooms liked to take their brides totally by surprise.  But in this parable, Jesus says that at the time of His coming, the kingdom of heaven will be like ten bridesmaids who have gotten word that the groom is coming  sometime very soon.  Five are wise, and five are foolish.

    Let me say that with Jesus' parables, we must be careful not to turn them into allegories.  An allegory is a story where every last detail symbolizes something specific, whereas the point of a parable is, well, to make a point.  It is proper to say that the bridegroom who is coming is Jesus the Son of Man Himself.  But the point of this parable is preparedness, especially, preparedness for an event that we know definitely is coming, but we don't know exactly when.

    At first, it looks like all ten of the bridesmaids are ready.  They've all heard the bridegroom is coming tonight, and they've  all taken up their positions in the street near the bride's house.  All of them have lamps-- torches, actually, it would have been-- for the procession back to the house of the groom.  They did all they could do, and now, all they could do was wait.

    So it is with us.  We know Jesus will definitely return someday.  We look around ourselves these days, and we think that perhaps, just maybe, the signs are right that He may well come back in our day.  In contrast to the faithful servant of the previous parable, this teaching is not so much about taking action or doing, but about our attitude of heart and mind.

    For Christ our Bridegroom, for His good purpose, does delay.  And we are weak and human, and like those ten girls we simply cannot be looking out for His coming all the time.  Sometimes we have to sleep.  We have to take care of the ordinary business of life.  Neither the foolish nor the wise virgins are condemned for sleeping; it's just a fact of the situation.  True preparedness is revealed when the emergency occurs, when they're all awakened by the midnight cry, "Here's the bridegroom!  Come out to meet him!"

    It's too late now to take thought about what they will do or what they need.  It's time for them to put their torches in order to light the bridal couple back to the father's house.

    But the foolish girls have brought little or no oil.  Their torches are going out as soon as they are lit.  "Give us some of your oil!" they demand of the others.  But the answer is no.

    Are the wise virgins selfish and cruel not to share?   This detail tells us that when Jesus speaks of "oil" He is referring to something belonging to each person, that can't be shared.  In Scripture, oil tends to signify the Holy Spirit and His anointing.  It'd be foolish of us, though, to think that the Holy Spirit were some sort of commodity, something we can have more or less of.  Rather, think of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in your life.  He's the One who brought you to salvation.  He's the one who confirms the grace of Christ to you in baptism and Holy Communion.  The Spirit illuminates the Word of God to you are you read it and as you hear it preached.  The Spirit causes you to have a wise attitude of heart, full of faith in your Lord Jesus, a heart that can persevere in any kind of trial, no matter how long He may delay. 

    But there are many in the church who simply are going along for the ride.  They think they can enter the kingdom of heaven on someone else's faith.  They believe, foolishly, that they don't need to know anything about Christ and what He has given to them in His death and resurrection.  Their Jesus is only a creature of their own imagining, a mascot to help them get along in this life, but no good for the life of the world to come. Those who are foolish are not really expecting Christ to return as Lord and Judge; even less, they do not eagerly desire to see Him appear as the beloved Bridegroom of the Church.  If that's your attitude, what do you need a heart and mind prepared by the Holy Spirit for? 

    But those who are wise do walk according to the Spirit. They take advantage of the means of grace that He provides them, so they will have light when the crisis comes.

    When Jesus returns, it will be too late to get ready.  The wise virgins literally are sending the foolish girls off on a fool's errand when they tell them to go find someplace to buy oil at midnight.  Interpreted, their words mean, "You should have prepared when there was time.  We cannot share with you; it simply isn't possible, and now you must take the consequences of your foolishness."  But those who are like the foolish virgins will actually think they will be able to purchase the ministry of the Holy Spirit in their lives at the time when Christ returns.  But it will be too late.  The very fact that they will attempt such a thing shows that they do not belong to Christ at all, however much they have appeared to be part of the visible Church, and the door to the marriage feast of the Lamb will be closed against them. 

    "I do not know you" they will hear.  This is not a statement of simple fact on the part of the Bridegroom, but a formal rejection of those who did not care for Him enough to be ready at His coming.

    What of us?  Are we ready for Christ's return, no matter how long He may delay?  Are we improving our baptism by heeding and following the Holy Spirit as He ministers to us in Word and Sacrament?  When the ultimate crisis comes in your life, be it death or the coming of our Lord to judge the living and the dead, will you be firm in your faith that He died for your sins and rose to give you life eternal?  This isn't something you can do in your own strength or your own effort.  This grounding of heart and mind can't be acquired at the last minute when the shout of the archangel announces that the Lord is near.  It is yours only by the gracious gift of Jesus Christ in His Holy Spirit.  Be wise and follow His leading as He strengths you by the Word of Scripture.  Let Him serve you with Christ and all His benefits at the Table of the Lord and as you remember your baptism.  May He confirm to you more and more each day that your Lord Jesus Christ is coming, He is coming soon, and that will be the most glorious, joyful day of your life.

    For although Jesus wants us to see ourselves in the bridesmaids in this parable, we must never forget that ultimately, we who are called and confirmed by His Spirit are also the Bride.  Your Beloved is coming!  Live the life on earth He has given you, but be ready, always ready to run to meet Him when He comes.

    Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly!  Amen.

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