If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, November 6, 2011

You've Given Me Time: Matthew 25:1-13

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, OR on Sunday, November 6, 2011

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.

What would you do if you had only six months to live? Some of us might go into a deep depression, withdraw into ourselves, and do nothing. Others might methodically set out to make arrangements for their funeral, buy their casket, make out their will, and say their last farewells totally denying their inner feelings. Some of us might dare to take some risks and do some of those wild and crazy things we only dreamed of doing all of our lives; do our “bucket list.” Still others might not do anything different from what they have been doing all along. What would you do if you only had six months to live?

You know what? This is the God’s honest truth. All of us do have only six months left to live. We just don't know which six months. So, the real question becomes, "How are we going to live in the days before the end?"
The early church lived in eager anticipation of the End. But for the early Christians the End was conceived not so much in terms of the end of life, but rather the end of the present age. They viewed the End in terms of the return of Christ. They saw themselves as living "between the ages", between Christ's first coming in humanity and his second coming in glory. They believed that Christ was coming very soon, possibly even tomorrow. And they eagerly awaited Christ's immanent return. They saw Christ as waiting, as if just around the corner, ready to come back and receive unto himself the church as his virgin bride. Then, the door of time would be shut and the final judgment would take place. Believers would then be ushered in to sit at God's heavenly banquet table of blessing. The End.

But their expectation of Christ's immanent return was disappointed, as disappointed as Harold Camping’s followers after his two failed attempts at predicting the end of the world. Christ did not return. There were some early believers who were disturbed by the fact that some among them had already died. What would happen to them when Christ returned? Soon the church had to deal with how they were to going to continue to live, and possibly die, within the present world in light of the delay of Christ's future coming. They still expected Christ to return. But the more pressing question for them became, "How are we going to live in the days before the End?"

Today's parable of the Ten bridesmaids asks this same question in the form of a story. It is written in the language of the End Time. This parable is set within a section of Matthew's gospel dealing with the End Time. The parable likens the coming of kingdom of heaven to ten bridesmaids in a wedding party who went out in the evening, under the starry sky, to escort the bridegroom with their lighted lamps. The golden glow of their lamps lit their way. Five of them did not take along any flasks of oil to replenish their lamps, while the other five did. The bridegroom was delayed in his coming to meet them. All ten bridesmaids grew drowsy while waiting and laid down to sleep. All was still and quiet, except for the gentle chirping of the crickets. Ten sets of eyelids softly closed without a care in the world. Then, at the stroke of midnight there came a shout ... "THE BRIDEGROOM IS COMING!"

All ten startled bridesmaids jumped to their feet and began hurriedly preparing their lamps, which had been burning while they slept. Five of them were not prepared for the moment. They had not brought along extra oil for their lamps. So they turned to the other bridesmaids and said, "Please give us some of your oil, because our lamps are going out." But the prepared bridesmaids said, "No!•Then there will not be enough for anyone of us. You better head to an all-night 7-11 and get some oil for yourselves!" Five lit lamps are better than ten unlit ones.

While the five unprepared bridesmaids were out buying oil the bridegroom finally came. Those who were prepared followed him into the wedding banquet. Then there came a loud bang as the wedding door was shut tight. A little later the other bridesmaids finally made it to the wedding hall and saw that the door had been shut. So they hammered on the door pleading, "Lord, lord, open the door!" Then they heard a voice say from within, "I'm telling you the truth. I do not know you." And they all did not live happily ever after. The end.

Believe it or not, we are the waiting bridesmaids. You and I. The Christian community. We too live "between the times" of Christ's first and final coming. But, unlike the early church we live in an age in which the long delay of Christ's coming has dulled the once sharpened edge of anticipation. Waiting for over 2,000 years does not compel one to tiptoe in expectancy! If there is anything in these present days that threatens us with a sense of the end it is moments of ultimate crisis: The shuffling feet of the doctor with steel clipboard coming into the hospital room saying, "I'm sorry. But, it's malignant" or the nightmare of the button being pushed which launches the war to end all wars, and all life. But, until some voice shouts in our ear that we are near the end of our opportunities, our life, our world, we grow drowsy in the sleepy assurance that regardless of God's plans and intentions, these moments will go on forever.

Unlike the ten bridesmaids, we have come to expect delay. We live as if tomorrow never comes. Our priorities, our concerns, our use of time, our ways of living and acting, are molded by this mindset. We think that we will always have time to act, to decide, to believe, and to live our lives in service to God. And yet, the truth is that we are the ten bridesmaids who live in the shadow and the light, the promise and the threat of the End of the age, the coming of the kingdom, and Christ's return. Whether we think of the in breaking of the end in existential terms, as those critical moments of life's decisions or as the finality of death or whether we think of the End in the truthful language of the impending return of Christ, we all live our present lives before these finalities. And depending on our state of heart and soul, these decisive moments stand before us either as a welcoming bridegroom or a shut door.

The question that confronts us today is, "How are we going to live in the days before the end?" How are we going to live our present lives in the light of the finalities of life in our present world and the world to come. Right now the bridegroom's coming is delayed and the door is still open. We live "in between the times." In the light of God's coming kingdom, which presses in upon the present, how are we to live our lives here and now?

We can live in the present either foolishly or wisely. To live foolishly is to be caught unprepared, with no oil for our lamps. The foolish depend upon others to provide them with oil to replenish their burned out lamps. They trust the merchants to be up at all hours. And they believe that if they are late, the door will always be open to them. To live foolishly in the present is to believe that there will always be enough of life’s resources and there will always be time to act. It is foolish to believe that we will be guaranteed life's fullness, here and now or in the age to come, no matter what we do or do not do.

We find ourselves in the company of the foolish when we act as if someone else will take responsibility when our lamps run out. Others will be a lamp to our feet and light for our path. Others will provide us with the oil that fills our spiritual lives. Others will take the responsibility of being the light of the world. Others will share the oil of generosity. Others will fill those blanks on the church nomination ballot. Others will share their gifts, so I can relax, rest, and be unprepared. Others will cover for my lack of financial stewardship. Others will contribute to the health of the congregation. Others will share the oil of forgiveness, even when mine runs out. Others will teach that Sunday School class. Others will reach out to their neighbors. Others will be ready to invite friends to church. The good deeds of others, our family, our friends, our fellow Christians, our pastor will somehow make up for our lack. So, why should we worry or be prepared for the end? There is plenty of time. To live foolishly is to expect others to foot the bill of responsibility for our lives before God and the coming kingdom.

Even in the light of the kingdom that is coming, we may squander our present on foolish pursuits and fleeting activities that do not serve the eternal purposes of God. We can burn up our lives on that which does not last. But finally, there comes that moment, that hour, that day, that time when the opportunity to make a difference is gone forever. There is no more time to forgive and to reconcile with that person with whom we are estranged and bitter. There is no more time to do those things we promised God we would do “when we have the time.” There is no more time to change those old destructive habits. There is no more time to share our gifts and serve God in the church and community. There is no more time. The present is lost, the bridegroom comes, and the door is shut. The end.

But the story has not ended. There is time to change. There are opportunities to make a difference. We are still alive. We still have the present in which to act. The final kingdom has not yet come. We can be prepared, with lamps burning. We have been given time. Surely the delay of Christ's final coming is the most dramatic symbol of God's grace to our world and our personal lives. The image of the waiting bridegrooms visualizes for us the grace of an open door of opportunity to be ready to meet God in the here and the hereafter.

The present is therefore a gift. To live wisely is to always have our lamps full. It is to live our lives fully in the grace of the present moment with a kind of urgency. Living wisely is not sitting around speculating when the final whistle will blow, but rather becoming actively engaged in life in the present for the sake of the God who has already come to us in Christ and continues to come to us in our ordinary, everyday moments.

Last Friday evening Iris and I went to see the futuristic action movie “In Time” (not End Time). It reminds us that we all have been given a limited amount of time. In this future world everyone’s internal clock starts ticking at 25 years old marking one year left to live. The amount of time a person has left to live is digitally embedded in their arm. Time is money. Seconds, minutes, hours, days are bought, sold, stolen, and given away. Time can run out. Time is a precious commodity. Minutemen steal time from the poor. Timekeepers are like police who monitor the flow of time. The rich have more time, like money, than the poor. Time is not evenly distributed. Time can be wasted away.

One character, Sylvia realizes she has been given an infinite amount of time by her rich father. And yet, she has not really lived a day of her life. She joins Will and they become two Robin Hoods who steal time from the rich and give it to the poor.
The movie’s metaphors can remind us that God has given us all time. It is a precious commodity, a gift. Like oil in a lamp, time is limited. It is unevenly distributed. When we run out of time, that’s the end. But, unlike the movie, in real life the time we have been given is all that we have to use. So, we can use time wisely or foolishly.

To live wisely is to be a responsible disciple in the present. It is to take personal responsibility for the nurturing and fullness of our own inner lives, and to make sure we do not burn out. And a wise disciple will be prepared when called upon to burn their lamps on behalf of Christ. They will be ready to let their lights shine before others, so that they may see their good deeds and glorify their Father who is in heaven. The lamps of the wise will be filled up with the oil of being present to the lonely and hurting, sharing our food with the hungry, and using our gifts in service to Christ.

The wise see the present as both a gift and a demand. A gift in that we have been given time to respond to God's kingdom. A demand in that we are being called upon to respond and act here and now.

Wise persons live their lives fully in the present and are prepared for any kind of finality. There is a story that reminds me of those old threats the pious once used on Christians who enjoyed playing cards. The question that was designed to produce godly fear in the godless card players was; "What if the Lord were to come back at this moment?" Well, this story is a little different! Some Christian people were playing cards. And they were discussing what they would do if they knew for certain that death would come to visit them in the next hour. What would they do? One said that he'd go to church and begin praying; another suggested confession. But then one wise woman said that she would just go on playing cards, doing what she was doing in the present, and dealing, if it were her turn. It sounds like that woman's lamp was already full. She was prepared. Are you?

"You've given me time." These poignant words were heard from the lips of a dying father in a 1977 television Christmas special entitled The Gathering. In the opening scene the father, played by Ed Asner, is talking with his doctor. He discovers how few days he still has left to live. So, the father realizes that the time he has left is a gift. He says to the doctor, "You've given me time!" Suddenly, in the light of the end, it was not a matter of how much time he had but how he was going to use it. He spent his time healing, mending, and reconciling family relationships, which prior to the impending end of his personal life he had postponed or avoided. With the time he had, he chose to live wisely and fully in the present, because he saw himself as having been given time.

As Christians, who believe in Christ's coming kingdom, we can thank God that we have all been given time. The present time is our gift to respond, to act, to heal, to mend, to reconcile, to share, to love, to live each day in the light of God's kingdom. Those who are foolish will burn up their time and present opportunities rehashing the past, licking old wounds, wasting away their moments and days, burning up the little oil they have. Those who are wise will be prepared to meet the bridegroom, at whatever hour he may come. They will be ready when the celebration begins and the door of opportunity slams shut. The End.

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.

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