Waiting And Being Ready
We have seen that the parables of Jesus were not fictions but reflect the life and society of Jesus' time. So too the Parable of the Ten Virgins. It also reflects life in Palestine to this day. The whole neighbourhood or village or local community took part in the wedding festivities. The bridal party didn't hire a Hummer limousine or an American stretch or even a horse and cart for their procession. They walked – together – to their new home and well wishers lined the streets and followed them along the way. It was a bit like Marie's Wedding in the West Highlands! 'Step we gaily on we go heel for heel and toe for toe, arm in arm and row on row all for Marie's wedding'. Couples in Palestine in Jesus' time and today do not go away on honeymoon. They stayed at home and kept an open house for visitors for one week. They were treated like royalty – a bit like our Gala Queen. They might even be addressed as Prince and Princess for that celebration week. Some of you might remember David and Victoria Beckham doing that at their wedding. They had thrones at their home which in self mockery they called Beckingham Palace and guests filed past to pay court. The Ten Virgins in the story are the girlfriends of the bride. Today they would have been to a Hen Night together in Blackpool or the Costa Brava. Here is an eye witness testimony of the custom in 20th century Palestine. Dr Alexander Findlay writes, “When we were approaching the gates of a Galilean town I caught a sight of ten maidens gaily clad and playing some kind of musical instrument, as they danced along the road in front of our car; when I asked what they were doing I was told they were going to keep the bride company until the bridegroom arrived. I was also told that the actual time of the wedding had not yet been announced. Further, I was told that one of the great things you could do was to catch the bridal party napping. The bridegroom might come unexpectedly even during the night. He was supposed to send a friend ahead of him shouting 'The bridegroom is coming'. But that too could happen suddenly and unexpectedly. No-one was allowed out on the streets without lighted lamps and latecomers to the ceremony were not allowed entry”. So there you have the context. Jesus' parable was not a made up fiction but based on reality.
In Jesus' parable, five of the virgins took their lamps out to wait for the bridegroom's appearance. The other five took oil with them to replenish their lamps. There was a long wait and those without extra oil asked for a share of the oil belonging to the other five. They refused and so those without enough oil had to go away to buy some more. It was then that the bridegroom arrived and the five with the lighted lamps escorted the bridegroom into the house and shut the door behind them. They were the ones who were ready, watchful and prepared. The others were not.
The central lesson is that the people of Israel were neither prepared or ready to recognise their Messiah, Jesus. It is fair to say that the people of Scotland by and large are not prepared and ready to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas. And so its meaning and blessing will largely pass them by. The Churches of Scotland do not announce and communicate the claims of God on the people. Any more. They once did. The Church of Scotland has an expensive public relations operation which puts good news stories into the media. There are four highly paid people, Communications Officer Cameron Brooks, Senior Media Relations Officer Nick Jury, Communications Manager Rob Flett and Head of Communications Seonag MacKinnon, former BBC Scotland TV News Education Correspondent. Last week they placed news about recruitment of new ministers. I wrote a short letter to The Scotsman as follows which they did not publish. 'So the Church of Scotland plc is recruiting salespersons. No doubt there will be much blue sky thinking outside the box going forward as training emphasises media awareness, networking, optimum targeting and seeking positive outcomes for stakeholders. Team players will be asked to create a vision of a transformational paradigm shift from a helicopter view of low-hanging fruit leading to a lighter administration footprint while outsourcing core values to business associates'. Our Church speaks management gobbledegook, not the Gospel of Jesus.
Jesus' parable had a sharp edge to it. It warns us that some things cannot be left to the last moment. Our relationship with God is too important to be an afterthought in our lives. We can't expect to make up for a lifetime of disinterest in God at the end of our lives. We can't establish a good personal relationship with God at the last minute. We can't be like the businessman satirised by David Frost on 'That was the week that was' many years ago whose last words as he was dying were 'OK God, I'll see you now'. Building a Christian life takes a long time. Working at a relationship with God is a conscious aspect of everyday life. When Queen Mary of Orange was dying her chaplain tried to speak to her about the way of salvation but she said 'I have not left this matter to this hour'. The truth is that many people leave this life without having known or loved Jesus Christ. Just the same we commend them to the forgiving love of God. Not a few people these days doubt that there is any afterlife or heaven. Others deny outright the existence of an eternal soul within each of us. Quite a few indulge in spiritualistic practices with deceitful claims to communication with the departed. Many think that they will be for ever where they were happiest on earth, Ibrox, Majorca, the Happy Valley pub, the bingo or just at home with the family.
Jesus' parable also warns us that we cannot borrow a strong Christian faith at the last moment from someone else. The people of this nation are living on the spiritual capital saved up by previous generations and members of our own families are selling off the family spiritual silver too. St Paul has a balanced and compassionate view on this issue. In 1 Corinthians 7:14 he says 'For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy'. But this inheritance is being squandered and when it's gone, it's gone.
Watching and waiting is a central aspect of our experience of God. It is central in the Bible both Old and New Testaments. Psalm 27: 13 and 14 says 'I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD In the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; Be strong and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for the LORD'. Psalm 130 : 5 & 6 says 'I wait for the LORD, my soul does wait, And in His word do I hope. My soul waits for the Lord More than the watchmen for the morning; Indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning'.
Paul wrote 'For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose'.
Christianity is a future hope. Even Jesus lived and died for a future hope which he did not see realised in his own lifetime on earth. Hope inspires us in many things. Hope is expressed in politics and in sport, in children's schooling and in the work place. Hope is present in all Christians churches and congregations. Do you have hope for the future of this congregation? For Christ's Church in Scotland, Britain, Europe, the world? You see how critical having hope is. Without it, you give up. If someone is unwell they hope to get better. If that person gives up hope it is unlikely that they will get better. Do we believe that the world will become a better place? We do for our children and grandchildren's sake. Is life better now than it was 50 or 60 years ago? In some ways it certainly is and in others it is not. Are humans better now than they were 100 or 1000 years ago? It does not look like it. Do we really believe that our Maker is in overall control of earth and humanity. Well – the earth keeps its precious place for sure and day follows night. There is food in abundance. Humanity though seems to be out of control, out of order and out of harmony. Yet there are many among earth's near 7 billion who pray through Jesus Christ for the good and peace of the world. We do. Because we have hope. We wait with a positive frame of mind.
Advent is about preparing for Christmas. I don't need to tell you that we've got it all wrong in our society and culture. We are not waiting for Jesus largely speaking. We are waiting for presents and meals and parties. The birth of Jesus is a contradiction of the way we celebrate Christmas. Mary and Joseph were humble, devout and pious Jews. They had a good relationship with God before all this happened to them. They were ready for God's coming into their lives. Even though they did not understand it, they were willing to go along with it through faith and hope and love.
Advent is also about the Second Coming of Jesus. It is a central doctrine of Christianity that Jesus will come again to earth. It is there in the New Testament and in all the creeds. Some Christians pray for His immanent return. Some actively wait for it. Some wrongly predict the day and time of Jesus' return. As I have said often enough, I do not think that Jesus will come back to rule the world from any particular place here. That is enough to make me unacceptable in some evangelical circles. I think it is more like what King David said about his new born child who died. 'I will go to him. He will not come back to me' (2 Samuel 12 : 23). I hope that we will go to Jesus. But I also believe that Jesus' Second Coming has happened since the day of his resurrection and return to his disciples. What he said came true. He did return to that generation. They saw him. Worshipped him. Believed in him loved him and served him. He is with us in power here today - Immanuel. This Advent let us wait and let us be ready to welcome him again into our hearts.