November 9, 2014 – 22 Pentecost A, Proper 27
Wisdom 6:12-16; 1Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
One of my favorite roads to drive is highway 176 in western North Carolina. It leads up to Hendersonville from the foothills and, until the interstate was completed, highway 176 was the only way to get up the mountain. Even before I could drive it was fun to ride up the mountain with my father who grew up driving on that road and many like it. It was like a ride at the fair as he accelerated through the turns and it was always fun coming down the mountain to see how long he could go before he had to tap the brakes. My sister usually got carsick which somehow added to the thrill of the ride for me. While my dad focused on driving I could look out the window at the scenery which flashed by and was constantly changing with every curve we took.
Along with the wonderful colors in the mountains and the rock formations almost close enough to touch and the dramatic drop-offs just on the other side of the guard rails were those odd little hand-painted signs placed very close to the road at nearly every curve, sometimes several of them together. And with the exciting danger of the road itself the signs seemed to take on a little more meaning: Jesus is coming!; Get Ready; Repent!; The end is near; Turn or burn. Even as a youngster, the irony was not lost on me that some of the signs had been there for years and years, some of them rotting away so long had they hung there. The signs are still there and yet the extremely urgent message they bear has not yet happened.
There is a marvelous little children’s book entitled Wise Child about a young girl growing up in Scotland in a pre-modern time. Wise Child, the only name given in the book to the girl, is the daughter of a sailor who is always at sea and a beautiful woman who abandon her. Wise Child is taken by her grandmother, who is too old to raise her, to live with Juniper, a mysterious sorceress who lives alone. Juniper is misunderstood and feared by those in the nearby village but, though unorthodox in her methods, turns out to be a wonderful guardian and teacher of Wise Child. One Sunday morning, Juniper walks Wise Child through the woods to the village so that Wise Child can attend Mass, even though Juniper herself never went to church. On the way to the village the woman and girl came upon the plank bridge between two cliffs over a stream that had swollen with melting snow from the mountains. Juniper walks ahead, leading the way to the other side but, as she arrives on the far bank, she realizes Wise Child is stuck in the middle of the bridge, frightened for some reason and unable to move. Juniper walks back to the middle, picks up Wise Child, and brings her across and the journey continues. Throughout the morning and especially on the return trip through the woods, Wise Child gets more and more frightened about the bridge. They never speak of it but Juniper and Wise Child come to the bridge and Juniper takes the lead across. When she reaches the other bank, she looks back and sees Wise Child has not yet stepped onto the bridge. Juniper looks across at Wise Child and, this time, sits down on a log and waits. Wise Child, meanwhile, sits down on a rock hoping Juniper will come over and carry her across. But it becomes clear that she will not. Wise Child sits for a long time. She realizes she is cold and hungry and wonders why the bridge is suddenly so frightening for her. She looks down at the rocks and imagines herself falling from the bridge and dying there in the water below. More time passes and the image of her on the rocks remains in her mind, but after a while, she somehow accepts that she has to deal with her fear in a different way. She stands and walks slowly across the bridge. Juniper, when Wise Child, steps onto the bank, rises, smiles, and they walk on home. One part of me, Wise Child reflects, felt very relieved and rather proud. Another part missed the thrill of being terrified; it had been exciting in a way. How muddling everything always was.
The wisdom of our Christian faith teaches that the Messiah, the Christ, has already come. In Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God comes to live among us. He is crucified, dead, and buried. And in three days he is risen from the dead and ascends into heaven to sit at the right hand of his Father. And he will come again to judge the living and the dead, our Christian wisdom continues, and his kingdom will have no end.
Jesus coming again is a difficult notion for us. How will it occur? What will take place? What will be the purpose? And, as difficult as that notion is for us, it may be even more difficult that the second coming has not yet occurred. As hard as it is waiting for something knowing when it will come, it is harder still to wait for something and have no idea when it will occur. What are we to do while we wait?, is a hard enough question. But after a while we begin to wonder if maybe what we’re waiting for is never going to happen. And that makes the first question so much harder: just what are we to do while we wait?
Paul says to the Thessalonians that we are to wait in hope. The Lord will come again and he will raise those who have already died into eternal life. Then he will raise up the faithful living into eternal life. Just because it hasn’t happened, don’t think it won’t. Waiting and being ready is our assigned work.
What are we to do while we wait? The prophets remind us that the Lord is not pleased with shallow piety. God expects justice and righteousness from us. We are to be faithful and hopeful and we are to do good unto others. All this is hard to do and the delay in the Lord’s coming makes it all the more difficult.
The problem in the gospel lesson with the five foolish maidens is not that they are not ready for the coming of the bridegroom. They and the wise maidens are both ready for him to come. It is his NOT coming that the foolish are not prepared for. They have enough oil for the coming; they don’t have enough oil for the wait. Maybe an even better sign on highway 176 would be: Jesus is not coming right now. Repent. Get ready. Wait. That’s more where we live. We know that Jesus could come today. We know that he probably won’t. And we know we should live today as if it is the day on which our Lord will come. But the fact that today probably isn’t the day makes it harder to live like it is the day. We’re ready for him to come. It’s his not coming that we are not ready for. The times when we feel his presence are pretty easy. It’s the times when we don’t feel the Lord’s presence that are harder.
A few things seem especially important in our waiting. First it is important to remember what we are waiting for. We are waiting for the grand celebration. Jesus uses the biggest and best party image he can think of to describe the kingdom and does so on several occasions. Sometimes we think of the second coming as the cosmic critic coming down to tell us how bad a job we’re doing. What we await is celebration and eternal life with the Lord who loves us. It is a good thing we are waiting for!
We are to stay awake. We are to wait. We have work that is assigned to us and no one else can do my work for me. Wise Child had to cross the bridge herself. Though Juniper had carried her before, at some point Wise Child had to carry herself. In all the talk in scripture and in our tradition of Christ sacrificing himself for our sins and doing what we cannot do for ourselves, it is clear that there is very much that only we can do for ourselves. Each of us is expected to do that work, to engage the struggle, to embark on the journey, and to be faithful. And as we do our work of waiting it is good to remember that our Lord waits with us.
Another thing important to remember in our work of waiting may be related to the image of driving again. In our notion of the second coming perhaps we tend to think that only certain kinds of vehicles get in the kingdom. If we could become a better car maybe we would get chosen. I think the point of our parable today is more that we must always be close to the fuel source. All earthly vehicles need refueling. The maidens don’t need better lamps; they need fuel. They have run out. We need fuel and it is our relationship today with our Lord that is our fuel. We must stay close to the relationship.
And probably the most important thing to remember is that we are saved, not by oil, not by our abilities, not by our faithfulness, but by the faithful grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. The end of the world is not coming right now. So get ready and wait. Our Lord and Savior waits with us.