Stay Awake, Justice is Coming

Parables & Prophets  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  19:06
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In covenanting with God, we find a reorientation to the way of justice in the world. We prepare ourselves for this consummation by getting the oil, resting, and remaining watchful of the signs of the times.

The New Revised Standard Version The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids

The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids

25 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 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.’ 10 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. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.


First, a little context and then some a question for us this morning: The terminology of bridesmaids and bridegroom needs just a little clarification. Bridegroom imagery is used repeatedly in the Scriptures and refers to the groom, the man, coming to meet the bride. Pretty simple, but a weird word can throw us off. In the Scriptural context, much of the time, we refer to Christ as the bridegroom or God as the coming bridegroom. In that relationship, God’s people are the bride, the ones who await the groom and the ultimate consummation of the wedding between God and God’s people. It is an image of covenant and celebration. The bridesmaids would be the attendants to the bride (as in a modern wedding). They’re the friends who prepare the way for the groom and bride. They’re the friends who help set up your wedding reception and help host. You want them to be prepared. Often, when I participate in a wedding, I ask the bride and groom if they have someone who will be running point on the day of. I do this to identify who the go to person is so that the couple can focus on the joyous matter of marriage. So, you want your bridesmaids to be prepared…ready to go when they are needed.
Now, for an obvious question:
Does anyone know how it feels to wait in anticipation these days? I don’t know, have any of us been hitting the refresh button again and again this week, waiting in anticipation of some important piece of news?
Our nation certainly has been in prepare mode for weeks now. We’ve wondered at the results of our national election and I hope each of us are finding our way to sustain the time of waiting and wondering that will mark us as prepared. Who of us is ready? Who of us has prepped the oil?
In today’s passage, there isn’t a question of whether the bridegroom will arrive. He will. These bridesmaids have prepared to usher him into the wedding feast, the celebration of the marriage of the bridegroom and bride. These 10 woman stand as heralds of his arrival and must be ready when he comes to light the way.
So who of us is ready? Who of us has prepped the oil? Who among us is wise?
If we consider how many of us have spent the week, waiting for the announcement of election results from states across our nation, we have to reckon with how prepared we were and are to handle the arrival of the results.
What if the election hasn’t gone your way? Are you prepared? What if the arrival of the news catches you off guard and unprepared?
It is so timely that we hear this passage today, because we feel the sense of how anticipation rests in our bodies and what it truly means to be awake and ready. Because it is so much bigger than whether or not we’re ready to handle election results.
What we are witnessing in this text today is a call to a posture of preparedness, a posture of wisdom that can discern the signs of the times and know how to act.
The posture the bridesmaids take, the wise ones at least, is readiness for whenever the bridegroom arrives.

Being Prepared

Again, in the context of the wedding celebration, the issue here is about having the oil prepped so that it will last the night and illuminate the way of the groom. It is a long night, a night of celebration and consummation — so there needs to be plenty of oil and the lamps must be ready.
And here’s the problem for the unprepared, foolish bridesmaids: They don’t consider the need for extra oil.
I ran out of gas for the first time in my life last month. In my car, that is. I kept looking at that yellow light next to the gauge and thinking…on the next trip, I’ll fill up. I’ve got a few more miles. Just enough to run this errand and get across town…then I’ll fill up.
We all know how foolish that is, right? And I learned my lesson. Thankfully, the kindness of friends goes a long way and I was able to get refilled very quickly and move on with my day.
I ran out of gas for the first time in my life last month. In my car…that is. Notice, I didn’t say I’d run out of gas in life for the first time. Has anyone felt like they’ve run out of gas in life before? Because I know I have.
What is at issue in this text today is not about how we prep our oil and lamps or make sure our gas tank is literally full. We do those things, certainly. But it’s not about the oil. It’s about building up the stamina and the tools to sustain when the real work begins. The road is long, the work is complex and taxing, the journey is going to require a lot of us and we must be prepared.
That is what I see in this morning’s text. I see a strong caution from Jesus to his listeners that urges them to prepare for the long haul.
When we think of preparing for the long haul, for the arrival of the fateful day of judgement, for the time of apocalypse, I think we often think of prepping bunkers and supplies and weapons and taking security measures. How do you get ready for the coronavirus? You buy a bunch of toilet paper, right?!? We all know how that goes.
But so gracefully, Jesus is telling his hearers that it is not about “prepping” the goods, but rather about preparing the heart and mind for the arrival of a joyous festival. The wedding feast is a good time — we prep so we can celebrate. As we await our Lord, we prepare our hearts so we can enjoy the celebration. And we prepare because what will arrive with the celebration is the rushing waters of justice and redemption.
Consider this: The wedding feast is about love arriving and a covenant formed or renewed for God and God’s people. But that is only part of what arrives. What also happens is that justice shows up. And when justice shows up, there is work to be done.
I want to take us back into the present and consider the current season of our nation in this light. We are hearing the arrival of justice in our nation right now. Regardless of how you feel about the results of the national election, the work of justice is far from over. But it is arriving. It is showing up on our doorstep in the form of a watershed moment in racial justice work. It is showing up in the rising tide of climate change justice and renewal of the created world. Justice is showing up in how we will respond to the deep division we witness in our families and communities; division over politics, yes, but also division over how to respond to the global pandemic, how to care for the poor, how to ensure prosperity and education for all people going forward.
So, sure, the bridegroom is arriving and there is a wedding feast. But what happens after the feast dies down? The work of justice must happen.
How do we link justice with the wedding feast? That’s where our prophetic text this morning is helpful. Amos is a feisty one, isn’t he? In the perfectly hyperbolic language of the prophets, Amos unmasks the solemn assemblies, the noise of songs, the festivals like the one we’re celebrating in the gospel. Amos calls it like it is — the Lord hates these, at least hates them if that’s all they’re for, just celebration.
A consummated covenantal relationship must demand justice and restoration.
Here’s where we tie this together. A new covenant demands change and reorientation. You get married? Well, the justice is that you and your partner cling to one another and forsake all else — justice rolls in and says there is only one partner for me, one focus of my romantic love. All the injustice of longing and missteps and heartache — this is brought into completion by the justice of the wedding.
And a new covenant in our context demands work be done. We voice our votes in an election season — that is the festival, that is the celebration part. But the work of justice comes rolling into the party and says: alright — there is now work to be done. The work of God’s people is to stand upon the covenant with God and, from that position of security and hope, act in the world for justice. We must call our leaders to account. We must raise our voices for those who are unable to. We must advocate for justice in all spheres. Just because there is a festival, an election, a wedding, does not mean the needs of the poor are automatically alleviated. No! The work is just beginning. Solemn assemblies, burnt offerings, wedding feasts — these are just intermediary pieces. True, justice-aligned action is what matters now.

A note on missing oil and weariness

I want to close with a couple of notes, one on the foolish bridesmaids with now oil and one on the weary getting to rest.
First, if you’ll remember last month, we had a similar parable from Jesus about a great feast. Some people ignored the invitation and others got to participate. And the question I wondered at was: why didn’t the ones who were getting into the feast help the others along? Similarly, this week — why, in their prepping, didn’t the wise bridesmaids initially help the foolish ones know how to prepare enough oil? Think about bridesmaids getting ready for a wedding: if one of them notices that another hasn’t zipped up the back of her dress, what does she do? She doesn’t just let that woman look foolish and walk down the aisle with a bare backside! NO, she helps her sister out! So why aren’t they? We hear that they won’t budge and give away some oil — I get that, they know what they need and don’t want get caught short. But why not help out initially?
I want consider this once again through the lens of national elections: If the time for living out justice is now, then it is our work to call others into it. Not to ignore the outsiders and certainly not to say “I told you so” to the ones we disagree with. No, the work here for us as God’s people is to seek out “the other” and help them get the oil they need. There is plenty of work to go around and we need each other. Certainly, I’m sure there are those who refuse help. But on the whole, it is the work of God’s people to reach out and welcome in and call for all people’s participation. May we.
My second note is on the sleeping bridesmaids. Did you notice who sleeps? All of them. All of them are drowsy and all sleep. And then they all awake when the right time comes.
This is important because the work of justice is exhausting. The work of waiting is exhausting. The work of sustaining communities through a global pandemic and racial apocalypse and election cycle is exhausting. And in this text, we hear no condemnation for the need to rest.
And so today, I say to us all — take the rest you need. Be prepared, but also take the rest you need. We are no good in the work of justice if we have no oil, and that oil may very much need to be found in the practices of Sabbath keeping and resting our bodies.
I mentioned that I ran out of gas. I’ve run out of gas at time, physically and emotionally too. The work of justice is exhausting. And I know the real need I have to rest. Not because I’m lazy, but because in rest, I find wholeness and strength once more.
For us all, we must be like the bridesmaids who are ready to jump up and act for justice. But we must also be gracious to ourselves to accept the need to rest and prepare fully. We rest so that we may stay awake when the time comes to participate in God’s covenantal work.
May the Lord grant us this perfect rest as we are prepared for the vital work of justice here and now. Amen.
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