As you know, we have now entered the third week of Advent- already. Time sure does fly! I don’t know about you but I’m done with my shopping. I haven’t wrapped anything yet but I have finished buying Christmas presents. I do know that this can be a very hectic time in the lives of people who celebrate Christmas whether it has religious meaning for them or not. We run around shopping, decorating, baking cookies and special meals, going to choral concerts and puppet musicals, having Christmas parties, and for some of us, preparing for arrival of family and friends. In all that hustle and bustle the importance of the season of Advent may get lost on us. During this season it is vital for the Christian to prepare, be patient and persevere.
Preparation– In the parable I just read to you of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids, we don’t know why the Bridegroom hasn’t come yet, but he hasn’t. Still, the bridesmaids know that they ought to be prepared for the time when he does come so they can go into the great banquet feast with him. They each pick up an oil lamp with oil in it as part of their preparation. However, only some of them take extra oil for their lamps.
This parable is the second one of four Jesus tells about his second coming–for he promised he would come again. Why are we talking about the second coming during Advent? I talk about this now because this season prepares us for both the birth of Jesus Christ and reminds us that he will come again. Both occasions are the advent of the Christ, God breaking into the world.
The five bridesmaids who bring extra oil likely reason that they don’t know how long it will take for the bridegroom to come. That is why they are called wise instead of foolish like the unprepared bridesmaids. Both of them prepare for the advent of the bridegroom by taking lamps but only half of them think about the long haul. The waiting is long, even though none of them seem to complain. They do, however, get sleepy and fall asleep. They are suddenly awakened by a shout telling of the bridegroom’s coming. The five who had extra oil were able to proceed to the banquet and the other five were in the dark because they had lamps that went out from the long wait and no oil to refill them. They had to go find a 24-hour convenience store to buy more oil for their lamps–which would be hard to do because the bridegroom arrives at midnight— uh, oh! When they finally get back to the banquet, the doors are locked to them.
Advent comes at a time when it is getting close to the shortest day of the year. It arrives in the darkness of the winter. However, within this darkness there is light. We gather around the soft glow of light from the Christmas tree or perhaps a fire in the fireplace that pierces into the darkness. For those of you who come to the Christmas Eve 11pm service, you know we produce quite a bit of light as everyone–from the Co-Pastors and choir, to the people in the pews and the ushers–lights a candle during the singing of “Silent Night.” All the lights are out, but then light gradually builds as the candles are lit and then we raise them high in tribute to Jesus at the end of our beautiful Lessons and Carols service, at the midnight hour. It is that which we prepare for throughout the Advent season- the advent of the Christ-Child into our dark world bringing light to all who will receive it.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “I will prepare and someday my chance will come.” The five wise bridesmaids prepared and their chance did come as they entered into the banquet set up for them. In H. Jackson Brown’s inspirational book “Life’s Little Instruction Book” he states, “The best preparation for tomorrow is doing your best today”- simplistic but true. It is today that we prepare for the advent of Jesus, the Messiah, into the world as a tiny baby. It is today that we remember Christ said he will come again to bring all things to him. Are you preparing as much as you need to be? Preparation.
Patience– The bridesmaids in our parable did seem to be waiting patiently whether awake or asleep. We too know about waiting, especially waiting in lines at this time of year. We wait in line to buy Christmas presents; we wait for the online gifts we ordered to come in the mail; we wait in the car driving to this Season’s events; and we wait in long lines at the Post Office to mail our gifts and well-wishes to our family and friends. Waiting is a part of life. Yet we don’t always have the patience to wait. We hear of people pushing to the front of lines. They can’t wait to get the very few available special presents their child or grandchild or great grandchild want. Some wait impatiently to see loved ones returning from the military or a long business trip. Others wait impatiently for doctor’s test results. That kind of waiting isn’t easy. Yet Christians are called to patiently wait even for Christ’s return. This may especially apply to Christ’s second coming, for we don’t know when that will be. He told us we won’t know and so we watch, prepare and wait. “Keep awake,” Jesus concludes in our Matthew passage, “You do not know the day or the hour” of my return.
Now our patient waiting isn’t an idle time. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul explains that we “are children of the day,” of light, and as such we don’t sit on our hands and wait idly. We Christians realize that God has a purpose and goal toward to which we strive daily until he comes again. This is a difficult concept to explain but it boils down to this: we know that what God in Jesus Christ ushered in at his birth and then his life, death, and resurrection is happening now. At the same time, the new realm of God, the new age, will not be completed until Christ comes again. We are at the “in between” time and are to be prepared, waiting patiently and actively, not idly, striving to do our best today and every today.
In response to our second lesson of 1 Thessalonians chapter 5, the 20th century theologian Karl Barth, in his writings “Church Dogmatics,” explains: The first thing we have to say is that Christians … are those who waken up.” Just as the bridesmaids woke up when called, we wake up now and respond to God’s call to fruitful discipleship. Hopefully we are as prepared as the wise bridesmaids were. Christians are those who have been woken up and are awake, meaning not sitting about idly waiting. Instead, we reach toward the fulfillment of God’s purposes in and through our lives. Why? Because we have hope. The Advent message is one of hope. God’s promises will be fulfilled and are even now in the gradual process of fulfillment.
Again, as Paul explains, Christians are “children of the day.” For Karl Barth, that awaking is part of our patient waiting and it leads to motion in the world. He explains that Christians constantly need to be reawakened, converted again and again. This process is a continual cycle of repentance, transformation and renewal out of which our discipleship grows. We patiently wait in awakening motion, for we are Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
Paul explains that the believer doesn’t wait in darkness but must be awake and in the light to notice Christ’s coming. You see, the warning to the bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable isn’t about their belief. They obviously did believe or they wouldn’t have picked up their oil lamps and gone to wait for the bridegroom. Instead, he warned that those who didn’t participate fully in the preparation for his arrival may well not enter into his eternal feast. The warning is to believe and be prepared by producing the good fruit of our daily doings as Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
What does this waiting look like for us? We gather with others who also wait and stick together as one body. We share the many ways God is working in our lives with one another and others. We don’t worry about the timing of Christ’s second coming but live the best we can for today. We fill our lamps, metaphorically speaking, with good things. For example, the work we do through this congregation, the help we offer through charities and mission efforts, our prayers both personal and corporate, and the time we take to listen to those who need to be heard or are lonely. During Advent we know this is an important warning for us to be fully prepared and patiently, actively waiting for Jesus’ birth and second coming. We awaken again and again to who we are as God’s children, the children of the light. Patience.
Perseverance– Many people try to reach a level of perfection during Christmas. TV commercials explain how we can have the perfect Christmas if we buy these lights for our tree or these gifts for our children; if we bake this particular kind of cookie or bread or beef; if we all get together with big smiles as the snow gently comes down on our perfect Christmas.—- Yeah, right! Half the lights on the string around the tree go out, our cookies burn, and sadness over loss or illness, the state of this country or of this world, or simply not having friends and family to celebrate with creeps into our lives most acutely during this season. We are not, quite thankfully, perfect. Nor are we to be perfect but are to strive for the perfection we find in Jesus Christ our Lord, come as a tiny baby. That striving toward perfection, toward God, takes perseverance because too often we do fail, we do fall down, we do forget our prayers, we do say mean things, and we do make excuses not to come to worship or participate in the work of the church. We aren’t as prepared as we could be. Yet Christ has given us the Holy Spirit to strengthen and guide us to get up, dust ourselves off and strive toward perfection again.
Striving for perfection goes hand-in-hand with Karl Barth’s notion that we must be awakened and converted to our faith again and again. The bridesmaids had to be awakened from the slumber they fell into because they were waiting so long and some who patiently waited were prepared and some were not. Are you ready for the Christ child? We are never quite ready. That is why we must persevere in our faith, love and mercy in and to a hurting, sometimes dark world even though that world may want to reject us at times or we may feel like giving up. Perseverance.
In my study, many of the commentators on our scripture passages seemed to be saying that we can be one of two ways as we wait for the coming of Christ. We can be stagnate as in being asleep to God’s will and Christ’s way or awake to God’s will and Christ’s way. We are in motion in the world as Christ’s energetic disciples because we belong to a dynamic God who is constantly in motion in our lives and throughout human history. The coming of God is the dawn of a new day that awakens and energizes. We will be reawakened anew on this coming Christmas Day as we diligently prepare for that day and patiently wait for it, even as we continue to persevere and patiently wait for the second coming, the second advent of Christ into our world.
I encourage you to prepare, patiently wait, and persevere in the remainder of our Advent Season, for God will reward your faithful and loving efforts. Alleluia! Amen.