Worship Service, November 8, 2020 “The Wisdom of Wakefulness”
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The Wisdom of Wakefulness Matthew 25:1-13 November 8, 2020
In the parable Jesus tells, the bridesmaids had to be patient. They did not know when the bridegroom was coming or how long it would take for him to show up. As the night got later and later they may have been wondering if he was ever going to come. They may have been getting sleepy. They may have also been losing track of how much oil they were burning in their lamps.
We are told that some of the bridesmaids were wise and brought extra oil for their lamps while others did not bring extra. Some of the bridesmaids knew the wisdom of wakefulness. They had been awake and alert to the fact that it could be long time before the bridegroom showed up. So they had made sure they had more oil to burn if needed. They had been waiting and watching so that they were awake when the bridegroom came.
The other five bridesmaids, however, ran out of oil in their lamps and had to leave to go get more. As a result, they missed out on seeing the bridegroom and entering the wedding. Jesus concludes his story by saying that we are to “keep awake for you do not know the day or the hour.”
People across America this week have perhaps been staying awake more than usual as they have been watching for election results to come in. We have had to be patient as ballots continue to be tallied and votes continue to be counted. This may not have been easy for us who are used to fast food and fast internet speed that can give us fast answers when we search for information on Google.
But with more mail in ballots and different processes in different states, we found ourselves having to wait and wonder when the next numbers might come in. We have stared at diagrams of the US depicting the states and the counties watching for when there are new results. One mother on social media said she had stayed awake watching so much of the election results that her 3-year-old daughter complained, “Mom, are you going to watch the map show again tonight?”
It is hard to be patient not knowing when the count will all be done. It is hard to wait for something as an important as election results. The early Christians to whom Matthew is writing in his Gospel knew this feeling of dealing with the unknown. They too were waiting for something very important. They were waiting for the second coming of Christ. It had been several decades since the death and resurrection of Jesus and they were hoping that he might be coming back again soon.
The early Christians in Matthew’s community had gone through some very difficult times as they tried to follow the new faith Jesus had invited them into. There had been a rebellion in Israel and the Romans had responded by destroying the capital city of Jerusalem. Even worse, the Romans had burned down the temple where the Jewish people believed God had resided on earth. In addition to that, as the early Christian tried to share their belief that Jesus was the Messiah, they discovered that many of their Jewish brothers and sisters did not share their views and they were kicked out of the synagogues and places of worship. I am sure there were times when these Christians in Matthew’s community were thinking, “How long until Christ comes again to make things right? How long must we wait?”
This may have been why Matthew included this parable in his Gospel. He may have wanted to remind the early believers that Jesus himself said they would not know the hour or the day when he would come again. Like the bridesmaids, they were to stay awake and stay alert so they could be ready to meet Jesus when he came. But this waiting could be a long haul so they needed to be prepared so the light of their faith could keep burning bright.
In the parable, Jesus uses the imagery of trimming lamps and packing extra oil to talk about how the believers can stay prepared. Just a reminder for those of you like me who rarely use an oil lamp, a wick that is trimmed can burn longer and make more use of the oil in the lamp. An untrimmed wick in an oil lamp has more of its length burning. This results in the oil being used up faster. A wick that is too long, also flames out more quickly.
Even though I knew this about wicks and flame, last Friday due to my impatience, I forgot to be careful about it. You see, Friday is the day when we record the sermon and some other elements of the worship service. It is a hard deadline that needs to be met so our editor and producer can work on the video Saturday morning and I can review it before it goes out on Sunday morning.
Sometimes I meet the deadline in the afternoon, but there are times like last week, when it gets to be early evening and we are still recording. We were celebrating All Saint’s Sunday and I had this idea that I wanted to light candles for everyone who had died last year from Holy Trinity or who we knew was connected to a Holy Trinity member. I put out all the tea candles and started to light them. They did not light as quickly as I wanted them to. As I got frustrated that it was taking so long I began to let out more wick from the light which makes the flame bigger and hotter. I figured the extra heat would get those candles lit. My daughter who was filming, tried to warn me that might not be a great idea as she could see the flame getting bigger, but I didn’t listen. Soon the wick became so hot, it just burned out and burned off. A small part of it hit my hand and as I pulled back my hand reflexively, another small piece landed on the tablecloth, leaving a mark and even a little hole. I was so mad at myself for not being wiser. Fortunately, my daughter had more wisdom that evening. She kept the wick trimmed to a smaller amount so that it could light the candles without burning out.
Jesus tells his followers to stay alert and stay awake, but he doesn’t want them to burn out. He wants them to be able to keep the faith over the long haul. He wants them to keep an eye out for his coming long into the night, that is why he talks about how the bridesmaids trimmed their lamps and the wise ones had extra oil. We need to be able to stop and re-fuel with reserves once in a while if we are to have the strength to keep going.
This last week I was wondering how some of the newscasters were not burning out as they were staying awake watching and reporting on the election. One of the newscasters who was staying up round the clock was Steve Kornacki. His job is to stand at the electronic map giving up-to-the-minute information and to interpret what is happening in all the different states and counties. As the election night wore on, people were asking on social media if he had slept at all as they noticed he had been on the air for a long time. The news station later confirmed that Kornacki had not slept in 24 hours, but would soon be getting a break. They joked that they had forcibly removed him from the building. They had put him in a room with a pillow, blankets, and a cup of warm milk so he could get a nap.
The news station was being humorous, but they were not joking about the need for Kornacki to take a mandatory break. They did not want one of their best newscasters to burn out with perhaps many more days of reporting to do. While they appreciated his willingness to stay awake and keep watch for results, they still wanted him to have the energy for the long haul so they needed him to re-fuel, you might say, so his lamp could keep burning.
Earlier in the book of Matthew, Jesus tells his followers, “You are the light of the world.” He says that they are to “let their light shine so that others will see their good works and glorify God in heaven.” That’s why he wants us to pack some extra oil and trim our wicks, so our light can keep shining over the long haul.
So where do you find your extra oil for your lamp? How do you re-fuel physically, mentally or spiritually? Is it through exercise? Is it through a spiritual practice like prayer or a daily devotion? Is it by attending worship or talking with a supportive friend?
One way I think we can re-fuel the lamp of our faith is by being awake and alert to how the presence of Christ is already showing up in our world while we wait for him to fully come again. When we notice times of forgiveness or reconciliation, when we are attentive to people forming community or having mutual respect for one another, those can be times when we experience Christ’s presence and have the lamp of our faith re-charged.
A time when I felt the presence of Christ showing up this last week was when the news would show reporters going behind the scenes to the various election centers across the country and share stories of the countless everyday Americans who were giving of their time as workers and many as volunteers to make sure all the votes were tallied. I don’t know about you, but it can get a little depressing as we just keep hearing about how deeply divided our nation is. It can get discouraging as people keep pointing fingers or blaming others and trying to undermine the democratic process.
But in the midst of all the noise and conflict, there were thousands of people just doing their jobs to make sure the votes get counted and time and again the news reported that both Republican and Democratic observers were sharing that things were going smoothly and despite all the impatience we might be feeling, they were going to take their time to get things right.
There was one story I found particularly encouraging. One reporter at an election center was telling about the sense of teamwork that develops as the different workers tally the votes. He told about a Republican and a Democrat who were working side by side and because of their common mission and the long hours they spent together on their job, over the course of the night, the two of them ended up becoming friends.
Carrying on faithfully despite the noise of conflict, having mutual respect, and even developing friendship, to me these are examples of Christ showing up in the midst of us. This is God saying to us, “Don’t worry, I am still here with you, and when the night is getting too long I will bring you oil and help you re-fuel so that you do not burn out. I will send the Holy Spirit to keep filling your lamps of faith so that they might shine, and the world can see the light of Christ in you.”
-Pastor Erik Goehner