November 9, 2008
I have a Facebook account. For those of you who are not familiar with it, Facebook is what is known as a social-networking website, and I was assigned the account during my time as an interim chaplain at Big Ivy U. Many college and high school students love Facebook. It gives them a quick and easy way to stay connected, at least in one limited way, with their friends. When you log on to the site, you automatically see a page filled with updates from your friends, telling you all sorts of things. “John has donated to this cause.” “Mary had a bad day in class.” “Jenny wants you to vote for…” (you can fill in the blank!).
Naturally, this week many of the status updates referred to the presidential election… first, a massive “Get out the vote” effort (in which I confess to have participated!), and then lots of variations on the theme of “Yippee!” for some and “Boo!” for others. People often use Facebook to fly their political flags. But there were some “Boo!” status updates my daughter showed me that I found just a little startling. I’ll share one with you. This is an eighteen year-old girl speaking. “I am so upset about the election,” she writes, “I think it’s like something out of the Book of Revelation.” The other two were in a similar vein. In other words, these young people, all devout Christians, believe on some level that the election of Senator Barack Obama is likely to lead to war, Armageddon, the end times.
To be fair, I have no doubt there are supporters of Senator Obama who might have had a similar reaction to the election of Senator McCain. Politics can tend to make people passionate, and this was a hard-fought campaign, as we all know. But this tendency to draw apocalyptic conclusions intrigues me. If there’s anything the gospels tell us about these matters, it’s that we just don’t know.
We are talking about end times this morning. This happens every year at this time in our lectionary cycle. The readings take on a decidedly apocalyptic tone as one church year draws to a close and another one begins on the first Sunday in Advent. Jesus is talking about end times, and not just the end of the age or the end of the world. He is talking about his own end times. This story from Matthew’s gospel takes place on Tuesday or Wednesday of Holy Week… just a day or two before Jesus will celebrate his last meal with his disciples, on the very night when he will be handed over to those who will kill him.
And he knows it. Danger is in the air. He can smell it. He is going away, to face torture and death. There’s something I think we need to understand about Matthew’s gospel—in fact, about all the gospels. The story is always taking place on at least two different levels. On one level, we have the story itself: this is the last week of Jesus’ life, before he will die on the cross. But there is another level, too: the level on which the writer of the story already knows the ending. The writers of the gospels know that, by the power of God, Jesus will beat death—that he will be raised up again, and live—but then he will be taken up into heaven, out of their sight. So on both levels, people are grappling with living in a time when they believe they don’t have Jesus in their midst. The question on their minds is, “What shall we do while Jesus is gone?” Because, there is an assumption that he will return.
We Presbyterians share that assumption. We proclaim it every time we say the Apostle’s Creed. After witnessing to the good news of the resurrection and Jesus’ presence in heaven with his Father, we say,
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
According to our Reformed theology, we Presbyterians expect the return of Jesus as Lord and Judge. But we don’t talk a lot about this, maybe because Christians in other churches talk about it so much, and in such a way, that it makes us uncomfortable. Some Christians seem to expect that Jesus’ return will look a lot like the “Terminator” movies, which would assume that he has undergone a personality transplant at the right hand of the Father.[i] The Jesus of the gospels, who welcomes all, cures all, casts out all demons, feeds all, loves all… that Jesus comes back with guns blazing, according to the theology found in such books as Left Behind. Just for the record, that’s not how we Presbyterians see things.
I’ll be very honest with you. I don’t know exactly what the return of Jesus will look like, and I have no earthly idea when it will happen. The good news is, we’re not expected to know those details… the end of this parable makes that clear. But I am getting ahead of myself.
What shall we do while Jesus is gone? How shall we await his return? That is the question before us. And Jesus presents this enigmatic parable by way of an answer.
There are ten bridesmaids… ladies, literally, in waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. And five of them are wise and five are foolish (in the Greek, five are prudent and five are morons!). The five prudent bridesmaids have all procured oil for their lamps… lamps used to welcome the guest of honor, much as we might put lanterns outside our homes at holiday time. The five morons, the foolish bridesmaids, have no oil. They are unready when the bridegroom arrives, and instead of welcoming him joyously, they have to scramble and find a merchant and buy theirs at the last minute.
What shall we do while Jesus is gone? How do we await his return? The answer, according to the parable, is “People, get ready!” But how do we do that, exactly? Well, we make sure we have our oil. But what is the oil?
Oil is used in scripture in myriad ways. Our parable shows us one common use for it: as a fuel for lamps. This little light of the bridesmaids, they can only let it shine it if they have enough oil. Oil makes possible light in the darkness.
Another very common use for oil has to do with cooking… scripture is filled with simple recipes for bread, for stew, for roasted lamb, and oil is often an important ingredient. Oil makes things delicious.
The psalms are filled with images of oil. We pray, “you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows” (Psalm 23:5); we rejoice in “wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine” (104:15); kindred living together in unity are “like precious oil upon the head” (133:1-2). These are all images of well-being, of joyful company, of hospitality. Oil is a sign of welcome.
Oil is also used throughout scripture as a means of setting someone (or something) aside for a special office or purpose: David is plucked from whatever pasture he is tending the sheep in, and a horn of oil is poured over his head, making him Israel’s rightful king (1 Samuel 16:11-13). Oil is used not only to anoint Aaron and the other priests, but also as a way of consecrating certain offerings (Leviticus 2:16; 8:12; and others). Oil is a sign of holiness, which is another way of saying, whole-heartedness for God. Oil is a sign being set apart for God’s designs.
All these uses for oil begin to suggest something to us—someone to us—and as we consider the name by which we call Jesus—Christ—it finally comes together. Christ—which means Messiah—which means, anointed one. Jesus, the anointed one. Could the oil possibly be… Christ?[ii]
Jesus is going away. What do we need as we await his return? We need Christ. Welcome to scripture as Zen koan… bottomless paradox, full of mind-bending twists. In the absence of Jesus, we need Jesus to be ready to welcome him back. Of course.
It’s all beautiful paradox, if you think about it. We need Christ, whom we call the light of the world, and who assures us that we are the light of the world. We need Christ, who feeds us and nourishes us, and who requires that we feed and nourish one another. We need Christ, who makes all people welcome, and so we welcome all in his name…thereby welcoming him. We need Christ, the whole-hearted one, who urges us to be whole-heartedly for God. We need Christ if we’re going to keep our lamps shining, if we people are going to be ready.
I don’t think we acknowledge this most of the time, but it bears saying: I think this is why we have a church. The church exists because we need Christ. Didn’t Paul call the church, the body of Christ? We need a place where we can practice feeding one another and welcoming one another… not just the folks we know, but those whose faces and lives are strange to us. We need a place where we can practice the challenging work of reconciliation. After the bruising election we’ve all just been through, I think Christians are particularly called to this work. The news this week was full of stories of the aftermath of the election within the political parties… McCain aides blaming Sarah Palin for the ticket’s defeat on the Republican side, Joe Lieberman getting called on the carpet by Harry Reid, and maybe being stripped of a committee chairmanship, on the Democratic side. That’s politics, and that stuff happens, but you know what? We are called to something better than that, something higher. We are called to make peace beyond our personal comfort zones, not just when our guy won and we’re feeling generous. We’re called to be agents of reconciliation, beyond winning and losing and what will benefit us and which team we were cheering for. We are called to have Christ, and to let him dictate how we relate to one another.
People, get ready. Whether we live in Jesus’ end times or our own, there is work to be done in this world and in this church, and we need Christ to help us to accomplish it. We are called to be light for the darkness, to be nourishment and welcome for the stranger, to be whole-heartedly for God’s purposes. With Jesus in our midst we can keep our lamps burning and be ready for the great celebration. Thanks be to God. Amen.