You Can't Cram for the Final Exam: A Progressive Take on the "Second Coming"
This sermon was preached at Knox Presbyterian Church on Sunday Nov. 12, 2017. The texts for the day were 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and Matthew 25:1-13.
Anybody here ever dream that they’re back in high school?
I used to have a recurring dream that I’m back in high school and I have to take a test to graduate, but I’ve missed almost all the classes in the semester so I’m not ready for the test. Sometimes, in the dream, I’ll remember that I’ve already graduated from college so my dream self will go to the high school office and try to convince the guidance counselor that there’s been some mix-up, and I shouldn’t have to take this test, and the my college diploma should be evidence enough, and that they should just pass me. Usually, I wake up very relieved that this is a dream. It’s very stressful! If you’ve had some version of this dream, you know what I’m talking about.
This kind of anxiety dream - a dream about not being ready for a test, or not being able to find the exam room, or that you’re late for school and can’t remember your locker combination - is pretty common, even among adults. In an article for Psychology Today, a neuroscientist says that the dream might be about not being prepared for something, or worrying about something in life we don’t want to forget to do, or even a reminder not to miss an opportunity. It might be a reminder to “be prepared” for something in waking life.
Being prepared and not missing the moment is the theme of the parable from Matthew 25:1-13. In this, Jesus is describing to his disciples what the kingdom of heaven will be like by using a situation common to ancient Palestinian weddings. Jesus is preparing the disciples for a time when he will be absent from them, and for the time when he will come again. The scripture that was read from 1 Thessalonians is also about being prepared for Christ’s return, specifically it is from the Apostle Paul reassuring the church that those who died before Jesus came back would not be left out of Christ’s promise to come for them. Both scriptures are about being prepared for Christ’s return.
There’s a couple things to note here:
One, I have not found that “being prepared for Christ’s return” is a topic explicitly talked about much in the progressive church but it’s a cornerstone of Christianity that goes all the way back to Jesus himself. According to the Bible, Jesus came once, died and rose, and will come again to set the the world right once and for all, resurrect all believers (who have died throughout time) to live with him - and people should be prepared for this event. 2 Thessalonians gives us one picture of what Christ’s second coming might look like. If you are a person who struggles with this idea...relax, you’re not alone. For today, you just really need to know that the idea of the second coming is important to understanding the point of the parable (and a lot of other bible stories).
Two, the “Kingdom of Heaven” that Jesus talks about in his parables is a time when a new phase on heaven and earth begins and the whole world will be renewed. God will rule everything, and a lasting, healing peace will come (one familiar image is the lion laying down with the lamb, or when we pray the Lord’s prayer - “thy kingdom come” - we are praying for God to set the world right). This will happen when Jesus comes again.
Three, it is very common for Jesus in the gospel of Matthew - to compare the kingdom of heaven to something such as: ... like a mustard seed, that grows to be very large (Matt. 13:31-32).... like a man selling everything he has to buy a hidden treasure (Matt. 13:44).... like laborers in a vineyard, who all receive the same wage, regardless of how long they worked (Matt. 20:1-16).
Now, in Matthew 25, Jesus is comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to bridesmaids who are waiting for the groom.
"The parable of the wedding attendants uses images from a typical Palestinian wedding to illustrate the point. Just like we would all know that when “Here Comes the Bride” starts playing we’re all supposed to stand up because the bride is about to make her big entrance, the folks hearing this parable would have known that part of the ceremony in a Palestinian wedding included the groom going to the house of the bride’s father to finalize the wedding contract. At the bride’s house, the groom would greet the family, exchange gifts, and have a bite to eat, and in fact, this is where he may have gotten delayed in the story we heard today. After that, he would return with his bride to his own house where the wedding would be finalized. This was all part of the ceremony." (quoted from here) The job of the bridesmaids in all of this was to wait outside to light the path and welcome the bride and groom to the house. This was, of course, in the days before everything was lit by electricity. The only light at night would have come from the moon and the stars above, and the small, hand-held lamps of the people below. So, the bridesmaids’ job was important.
Some of the bridesmaids - the “wise” ones - planned ahead. They brought extra oil with them, so when the groom was delayed, they still had oil for their lamps. The “foolish” bridesmaids didn’t bring enough - and have to run out and buy some - and missed the groom’s arrival. They were not prepared and missed the chance to light his way and were locked out.
Jesus finishes this parable with “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
This parable may be meant to warn followers of Jesus that they should live their lives in a way that prepares them for Jesus’ delay and his eventual second coming, whenever that is, even if the disciples fall asleep (possible a metaphor for dying) before he returns. They should be like the wise bridesmaids, and be prepared for a long wait with an extra flask of oil.
For us today, If we’re meant to understand that Jesus is like the delayed bridegroom, and we’re all the bridesmaids, then the bridegroom is very, very late. Perhaps, to us, it seems like he is two thousand years late. No wonder we don’t talk too much about the second coming of Christ. That’s a lot of years to wait.
To circle back around to test anxiety and dreams about not being prepared - we can remember that we are students of Christ - that’s what a disciple is - a student. As students of Christ, we can’t cram for the final exam because we don’t know when it will be.
The “wise” bridesmaids were prepared to let their lights burn for a long time. As faithful people, I think the call of the parable is for us to imagine ourselves as the people waiting for the groom’s return and to be prepared to light the way for Christ’s return, even if it seems like we’ll be waiting for ever.
I believe that in the waiting time, we are called to keep the vision of the kingdom of God alive. If we believe in God’s promise of a coming kingdom - and the coming kingdom of God is a place of peace and wholeness for all people - then we are called shine a light on that vision and to light the path to it for other people, too.
In each of our lives, is there a place where we can work towards peace and wholeness? For some of us, it might be in within our own hearts and minds. It could also be in our individual relationships with one another. We might also work towards peace in the community, or peace in the world. Each of us has different gifts and skills, and we are called to be brave and let our lights shine for a long time.
One of the ways we can light the path to peace and wholeness is to support the work of the church. The church is a unique place in that it is completely dedicated to spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The good news is that even though it feels like we are waiting a long time, we don’t wait alone. Jesus Christ sent the Holy Spirit to be with us as we wait, to guide and comfort us when we feel like we’ve lost our way.
The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that God gives grace freely and abundantly, poured out forever, and if we are like the wise bridesmaids who wait, our hearts are forever able to be refilled by God’s grace and mercy. May it be so. Amen.