A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on November 10, 2002.
Based on Matthew 25:1-13 (Proper 27, Year A).
There are 44 shopping days until Christmas. And if you take out weekdays, (because who has time to shop during the week?) there are 12 shopping days until Christmas. And if you want to avoid the mall altogether during December, there are 5 shopping days until Christmas. Of course this probably doesn’t concern most of you because I’m sure you have all of your Christmas shopping done already. I’m not trying to scare you. Really. But we have entered into a period of pre-Advent. We’re preparing to prepare. Not for buying and wrapping gifts but for the entrance of the Christ child into the world.
This year the first Sunday of Advent is December 1st, three Sundays from today. So why am I jumping the gun on this season of preparation and expectation? Because today and over the next three weeks a number of Advent themes begin to creep into the appointed readings. We’re not in Advent yet but we’re preparing to prepare. We can never begin preparing for Christmas too early. This doesn’t mean buying wrapping paper for the following year on December 26th (like my wife). It means serious reflection on the themes of Advent, including the ones that often get glossed over. Advent is ultimately about hope and expectation but it’s also about preparing for the Second Coming of Christ as Judge on the Last Day. We celebrate Christ’s first coming to a manger in Bethlehem and we await his Second Coming when he will return to judge the earth. The themes that creep into this season of pre-Advent don’t let us forget this aspect of the season. Maybe they get them in early so they don’t get lost amid the frenzy of holiday activity that will soon encompass our lives. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Advent actually does begin at this time of the year, which formally extends the season of preparation and allows all of the themes of Advent to be heard and addressed within the context of Christ’s entrance into the world. Not a bad model.
Nonetheless, the transition from All Saints’ Sunday to the march toward Advent that begins today is a bit jarring. Last week we heard the Beatitudes – “Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the meek, blessed are the pure in heart.” This week we get the sobering call to “keep awake” for we know “neither the day nor the hour” when the Lord will come. We’re jolted out of a reverie and into a watchfulness.
The parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids is used to underscore the point that we do not know when Christ will return in glory on Judgment Day. This was an especially important issue for Matthew’s community and for all Christians in the years following Christ’s death. As days, months, and years went by, it became clear that Christ’s Second Coming may not be imminent after all. And while there may have been initial disappointment and even disillusionment for people who expected the end of the world to come any moment, for the community to survive and thrive it had to come to terms with living in this tension. We, too, live in an in-between time. God in human form has walked and lived among us and in God’s own time, Christ will return to judge the earth. But until that moment we live in this in-between time, trying to keep awake and remain watchful while living out our lives to the fullest each day. It’s easy to lose sight of this context in the midst of our daily lives and routines. When the alarm clock goes off on yet another weekday morning, our first thought is probably not “I wonder if Christ will return today?” This season of pre-Advent forces us to focus on just that. We are preparing to prepare.
In the parable, the ten bridesmaids who went out to greet the bridegroom have one thing in common: they are anxiously awaiting his arrival. The difference is in the preparation. Five were prepared, five were not. Or as the parable says, five were wise and five were foolish. The challenging question for us is how we will choose to live our lives? Will we be prepared for Christ’s return or not? By living our lives as faithfully as we can, seeking to love God and one another, we live our lives as preparers. Preparers for a world we can never fully know in this life. All we can do is prepare to prepare. Fortunately our faith doesn’t ask us to be fully prepared, just that we do the best we can with our preparations. God’s judgment always goes hand-in-hand with God’s mercy.
Scholars aren’t exactly sure what to do with this parable. It doesn’t seem to fit in with wedding rituals found anywhere else in Scripture. And it does leave us with some questions. Where’s the bride in all of this? Why would the groom show up at midnight? What store would possibly be open in the middle of the night that just happened to sell lamp oil? 7/11’s didn’t exist in ancient Palestine. But if the particulars of the parable are a bit baffling, there’s no doubt as to the point the story plays in Matthew’s gospel. The bridegroom is Jesus at the advent of his Second Coming. The bridesmaids represent those of us who make up the Church. The bridegroom’s delay shows us that we are indeed living in an in-between time, a time in between Christ’s first and second comings. And finally the bridegroom’s arrival is itself the Second Coming. Some will be prepared for this event, others will not be.
In the wrong hands, passages like this can get twisted into fundamentalist judgmentalism. Please remember though, that it is God who sorts this all out, not we ourselves. The Second Coming is all in the context of God’s merciful judgment not on the irrational judgments humans make upon one another. Our job is to keep awake and to prepare to prepare during this season of pre-Advent.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2002