Burning the Midnight Oil

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, November 8, 2020
Matthew 25:1-13

    I know I look too young to vote to some of you, but believe it or not, I’ve been through enough presidential election cycles to see my favorite candidate both lose and win.  I know what it’s like to endure the discouraging news of defeat, thinking the world must be coming to an end, and also what it’s like to have the highest hopes in the new president, thinking that perhaps this just might usher in the second coming of the Messiah, only to also be disappointed that even after four years our country is not the heavenly utopia I’d hoped for.  This has been a difficult week for all of us, regardless of who you voted for.  And I’m increasingly disturbed by the violent unrest in our country, by the news that the blue states are getting bluer and the red states redder, highlighting the incredible divides we face as a nation.  I am concerned that we have made this presidential election into an idol, expecting an imperfect human being in an imperfect system to save us in ways no one but Christ the Son of God can.  I know that there are people here today who are happier and feeling more hopeful than last week, and people who are devastated, discouraged, and worried about our country and our future.  Today, we come to worship Christ our Savior and Lord, not a political party or candidate.  We come to receive strength and place our hope in Jesus the Christ to save us and this world, and that goes beyond any political system, but today, that’s a pretty hard thing to do.  So how appropriate that our readings for this morning are about patience, endurance and most importantly, keeping the faith.
    We are entering a time of year when our scripture readings focus on the end times.  As Christians, we continue to wait and watch for the second coming of Christ, who unlike any American president or Congress or Supreme Court justice will truly fulfill all of God’s promises to us.  Our first reading from Amos promises that justice and righteousness will flow like an everflowing stream.  Our Psalm promises that God is our helper and our deliverer right now and always. Our reading from 1 Thessalonians gives us hope for our ultimate future, answering the question of what happens when we die, and especially what happens if we die before Christ’s second coming, that all who are in Christ will be with the Lord forever. And then we have this parable of the bridesmaids in Matthew.  
    There are some difficult lessons for us in this parable from Jesus.  First of all, God doesn’t work on our timetable.  Christ will come again when he comes again, we know neither the day nor the hour, and we should stop demanding that God do what we want how we want when we want it.  A few years ago, Rich got to be a groomsman for one of his Sudanese friends.  The invitation contained a date but no time. When we asked, the groom told us to come to the church around noon.  Thankfully, we are somewhat familiar with South Sudanese culture, so we came about 1pm.  The only guests at that time there besides the wedding party were white and clearly not familiar with an African sense of time.  I laughed and told them they might want to do some shopping or run some errands nearby…it would be at least another hour before things got going.  Indeed, the wedding that was supposedly starting at noon started about 3pm.  The ceremony was two hours long.  The reception went well into the early hours of the night.  The point was to celebrate the marriage of these two wonderful people and to not worry about the time, but it’s hard to do for those of us that are used to looking at the clock and carefully scheduling our lives.  What I loved about this experience is that once I stopped worrying about the time and set aside my whole day for this joyous event, I enjoyed the day more.  God works on his timetable, not ours.  The wise bridesmaids know this and bring enough oil to keep their lamps burning well beyond when they “think” the wedding will happen.  
Having enough oil in our lamps may simply mean that we start each day appreciating the joys and the gifts that the day has to offer us, no matter what happens.  Martin Luther once said, “live as if Christ died yesterday, rose this morning and is coming back tomorrow.”  During this pandemic and election season, we have had to learn this lesson of waiting and watching and being prepared.  We can’t do some things, so we do other things.  We modify activities and do some things a little differently.  We wait for things to go back to normal but keep living our lives as best we can while we wait.  And most importantly, we draw from the flask of the oil of faith, trusting that God will sustain us from day to day.  We try to live as if Christ might come back tomorrow. You never know, he certainly could!  What would we want him to find us doing?  As followers of Christ, what should we be doing today so that when he comes tomorrow, we are ready?
    That question leads us to the second difficult lesson from this parable. We need to be prepared, and preparation takes time.  Our faith in Christ and our faith that he will come again is a long-term commitment.  You can’t cram last-minute for this exam or buy or bribe your way into the kingdom of heaven.  Once again, we don’t get into heaven on our own terms, but on God’s terms.  If nothing else, the time we are living in right now has taught us that we need to draw deeply from the well of our faith.  A shallow, casual familiarity with scripture or sporadic prayer life can’t sustain us in the long haul.  This fall, we have heard several parables from Jesus comparing the kingdom of heaven to a wedding or a wedding feast.  Christ is described as the bridegroom while the church is the bride.  The Old Testament also describes the relationship of God and Israel as a marriage.  A healthy marriage requires daily communication!  Nurturing a regular relationship with God through prayer, devotions, worship and service is essential to building a healthy relationship with God who is always available and always there for us.  When we tend to our relationship with God, God will fill up our reserves to get through difficult times where it’s hard to wait, hard to plan, and hard to know what’s going on.  That’s what makes the bridesmaids wise, after all.  They have enough oil. They have enough faith in God to keep their lamps burning well through the night when the bridegroom should have already come.  And living as if Christ rose this morning and is coming again tomorrow means looking for signs of his presence daily – in the faces of people we meet, even in striving to love our enemies and praying for those who persecute us, in serving our neighbor regardless of what kind of political bumper sticker they have on their car, because that person may have something to reveal to us about who Christ is and what Christ is up to while we are waiting for him to come again.
    Keeping our lamps trimmed and burning is having enough faith to believe that no matter what unimaginable things happen that Christ has conquered sin, death and the devil to bring us to abundant, eternal life, here and in the hereafter.  May the oil of our faith sustain us through this difficult time now and always.  Amen.