Category: matthew

Podcast: Inheriting the Kingdom


Last Sunday I preached from Matthew 25:31-46, the story of the separation of the sheep and the goats. After Jesus places the sheep on his right and the goats on his left, he turns to the sheep and delivers this message —

‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Of course, that sounds like all we have to do is feed, give water, take in strangers, clothe people, visit the sick and those in prison and we get to go to heaven. But, who were those in the first century who were hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and imprisoned. Because knowing who they were gives us insight into why this is Kingdom work. Here’s the audio —


Palm Sunday Service Idea

Designing worship for Palm Sunday has always been a challenge for me. Either we focused on the joy of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, with palms and singing and celebrating; or, we focused on the Passion of Christ — His crucifixion, death, and burial.

Last year, however, we combined both the joy of Palm Sunday, and the pathos of the Passion into one service. Below is a draft version of the bulletin we will use this Sunday.

As you can see, the service begins with joy. We have children distribute palm branches to the congregation during the prelude, the choir sings a rousing “Ride On, King Jesus,” and we read the triumphal entry story from Matthew 21:1-11. We top it off with the congregation singing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” a wonderful hymn of praise.

After the children’s message, we shift gears. The offertory hymn is “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” I have a brief reflection on the events from Palm Sunday through Good Friday. The change in tone continues as four readers read the Passion Story from the Gospel of Matthew. These are the revised common lectionary readings for this year. Between readings, the congregation sings an appropriate hymn for the passage just read.

Finally, we sing three verses of “Were You There?” and we conclude with the verse that asks, “Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?” After a closing prayer, we depart in silence, reflecting on the sacrificial death of Christ.

Many of our members will not attend a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service. By covering the last week of Jesus’ life in one service, we remind the congregation that between the joy of Palm Sunday and the glory of Easter, the crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus are events to which we must pay solemn attention.



Podcast: Opening Graves, Restoring Hope


For the fifth Sunday in Lent, I preached on Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave, from John 11:1-45. After encounters with Nicodemus (John 3), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), and the man born blind (John 9:1-41), Jesus raises his friend, Lazarus from the dead. This is a rich story with many perspectives, but one very important idea: opening graves raises hope among God’s people. Here’s the podcast:

Palm Sunday: A Service of Lessons and Prayers

PalmSundayFor this Palm Sunday, we took a different approach. We combined elements of the Liturgy of the Palms about the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, with elements of the Liturgy of the Passion. This enabled us to move from the joyous crowds which greeted Jesus on his entry into Jerusalem, to the vengeful crowd that cried, “Crucify him!”

We took this approach because many in our congregation will not attend a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service. If they attended a joyful Palm Sunday service, and then a celebratory Easter service, they might miss the events of Good Friday and the drama surrounding the crucifixion. To solve this problem, here’s what we did:

1. For our first reading early in the service, we read the Gospel story of the triumphal entry into Jersusalem, from Matthew 21:1-11.

2. We sang appropriate Palm Sunday hymns of celebration including All Glory, Laud and Honor, and Hosanna.

3. During our children’s time, the children heard the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Then, they distributed palm fronds to each person in our congregation. When everyone had a palm frond, the entire congregation waved their palm branches and said in unison, “Praise God for the Son of David! Bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Praise God to highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9 – NLT). It was a little chaotic, but then the first Palm Sunday probably was a little chaotic, too.

4. Our organist provided a musical transition from the Palm Sunday celebration to the events after Jesus’ Passover meal with the disciples.

5. During the time alloted for the sermon, I read the following scripture lessons from the Liturgy of the Passion. Because the entire narrative moves from scene to scene, I separated each scene with a corporate prayer of confession. After I read each passage, I then invited the congregation to pray with me the prayer of confession. Here’s the sequence:

Palm Sunday Liturgy of the Passion

Reading: Matthew 26:14-30 — The Last Supper

All: Lord, we confess that just like Judas we have come to your table with thoughts of betraying you in our hearts. Like Judas, we have taken the bread from you hand and the cup from your table while harboring doubts about you and your teaching. Forgive us, O Lord, for this spirit of betrayal that presumes we know more about your Kingdom than you. Amen.

Reading: Matthew 26:31-56 — The Garden of Gethsamene

All: Lord, we confess that when you struggled in agony, we slept in apathy. When they came to arrest you, we betrayed your teaching by fighting back, and then abandoned you in your hour of need. When they accused us of being your disciples we denied ever knowing you. And when the cock crowed, we wept over our own failure to be faithful. Forgive us, O Lord, for our apathy, our fear, and our faithlessness. Amen.

Reading: Matthew 27:1-26 — Jesus Before Pilate

All: Lord, we confess that like the crowd gathered before Pilate, we have chosen Barabbas instead of you. Like the crowd that day, when Pilate asked, “What shall I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” — we have answered, “Crucify him!” Forgive us for our failure to choose you and the freedom you offer. Amen.

Reading: Matthew 27:27-66 — The Crucifixion and Burial of Jesus

All: Lord, we confess that we see ourselves in the faces of the Roman soldiers who nailed you to the cross; we hear ourselves taunting you as you hang silently before us; and, we feel the bitterness of one thief and the contrition of the other. May we be counted among those who, in great sorrow, lovingly laid you to rest in the garden tomb, hopefully waiting for God’s salvation. Amen.

I wrote the prayers of confession, so feel free to edit them for your use.

6. After the readings and prayers, our choir sang the anthem, The Hour Has Come, which was a solemn and powerful account of the last days in Jesus’ life.

7. When the anthem ended, the congregation left the sanctuary in silence, with a solemn organ postlude played during their exit. We included this note in the bulletin:

“In the tradition of the Liturgy of the Passion, there will be no benediction after the choral anthem. Please leave the sanctuary in silence as we contemplate the death and burial of Christ, and wait in hope for God’s salvation.”

Many people commented on how powerful and meaningful the service was for them. While it was hard for me to resist preaching on Palm Sunday, the narrative of the events of the last week in the life of Christ needs no explanation.

However you choose to celebrate and commemorate the events of Palm Sunday through Good Friday, give careful attention to including them all, including the betrayals, the trials, the mocking, and the crucifixion. The glory of the resurrection shines brightest when celebrated against the backdrop of evil, suffering, and death.

Podcast: Worshipping and Doubting

In Matthew 28:16-20, we usually miss verse 17: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” What did the 11 disciples doubt during this post-resurrection appearance of Jesus? Did they doubt that he had been resurrected? Or that he was the Messiah, the Son of God? Or did they doubt themselves and their ability to carry on after Jesus left them? The interesting point in this is that some of the same disciples who worshipped him, also doubted. What can we learn from the disciples’ struggle in the aftermath of the resurrection? Here’s the link —

Podcast: Our Responsibility For Managing God’s Gifts

The Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25:14-30 is often interpreted to mean that each of us should use our individual abilities — our “talents” — to serve God. But this is a parable about the kingdom of God, and Jesus is saying much more than what we usually have understood. Here’s the link to the podcast of my sermon, Our Responsibility For Managing God’s Gifts.

If you prefer, here is the direct download link –

Sermon: Our Responsibility For Managing God’s Gifts

Have you ever been told that the Parable of the Talents meant you should use your own individual talents for God?  Well, that is certainly true, but the meaning of this parable goes far beyond that narrow application.  Here’s the sermon I’m preaching on Sunday, November 13, 2011, from Matthew 25:14-30, The Parable of the Talents. 

Our Responsibility For Managing God’s Gifts

Matthew 25:14-30 NIV’84

“Again, it [the kingdom of God] will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. 15 To one he gave five talentsof money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. 17 So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. 18 But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’

21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

22 “The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’

23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

24 “Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

28 “‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. 29 For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

The Story of a US Treasury Bond and a CD

When I turned 16 I received several presents from my family, and some from Debbie.  I probably got my usual complement of sweaters. I always got at least one sweater, and usually from Debbie.  That tradition has continued down through the years, and we now have a collection of about three dozen photos from birthdays, or Christmases, in which the subject and pose is the same – me holding up my new sweater.

But on this particular birthday I received a gift from my Aunt Betty Jackson, my father’s youngest sister.  Aunt Betty sent me a United States Savings Bond with a maturity value of $25.  The savings bond was enclosed with a note that said that my father, who is about 10 years older than she is, had given her a $25 savings bond on her 16th birthday.  She was returning the favor and continuing the tradition.

I think her note went on to celebrate the importance of saving, and how in only 8 years or so I could cash the bond in for its full face value of $25.

I of course took all that to heart, including the very touching story of how her older brother, my father, had sent her a savings bond, probably while he was still serving in the Air Force during World War II.

I also read with interest my aunt’s counsel to start saving now, and to use that bond as the beginning of a life of frugality and thrift.

But, of course, I was 16.  Debbie and I probably had a date for that Friday night, and my financial condition was in its usual state of insolvency.

You have to remember that in 1964, when I turned 16, both of us could have dinner at Shoney’s, see the latest feature film at the Tennessee Theater in downtown Nashville, and get a banana split afterward for less than $15.

So, of course, I cashed the savings bond.  I remember the teller counting out $18, and I also remember thinking that I would have had to wait 8 years for another $7 bucks!

But there’s more to the story.  When our oldest daughter, Laurie, was a teenager, she began working part-time jobs at places like McDonald’s, and then the local dry cleaners.  Laurie was very frugal with her money, and we kidded her about being so cheap.

One day she told me that she was going to take some of her hard earned cash and buy a CD.  I instantly thought “compact disc” and assumed that like any teenager she was going to buy her favorite band’s latest album.

But when I asked her which album she was going to buy on CD, she quickly corrected me by saying, “Not that kind of CD – a certificate of deposit!”

To this day, we do not know where she got those genes, but needless to say Laurie was always the one in our family who had money.  She still is.

A Story About Financial Management in the First Century

Which brings us to our story today. This parable is commonly called the Parable of the Talents, although Luke has a version of it also in which some translations use the word “pounds” to describe the amount of currency the servants received.

But for our discussion today we’ll stick with Matthew’s story.  Jesus tells the story of a man going on a journey for a long time.  This man is obviously quite wealthy, and before he leaves he calls his servants together.

To each of three servants the master entrusts his property.  The implication is that the master gives them most of his estate.  While the term “talent” doesn’t mean much to us, those in the first century who heard this story would have known immediately that it was a tremendous sum of money.  A talent was the equivalent of 20 years’ wages.  So when he gives 5 talents, 2 talents, and 1 talent to each of the three servants, the master is putting them in charge of about 160 years’ worth of wages.

Obviously this is a sum that none of them will be able to make good on should their stewardship fail.  Matthew tells us that each receives according to his ability, so the master is sensitive to the fact that some can handle more responsibility than others.

Matthew says that “after a long time” the master returns to settle accounts with his servants.  We don’t know how long a “long time” was, but it was time enough for them to have managed the assets entrusted to them, and to receive a return.

You know how the story goes.  The master calls the servants and asks for an accounting.  The servant who was given 5 talents reminded his master that he had received 5, but then also reported that he had earned 5 more, for a total of 10 talents.  That’s a 100% return on investment, which is great by any measure.

The master is thrilled.  “Well done.  You are a good and faithful servant.  Enter the joy of your Lord.”  Which is a very first century way of saying, “Way to go, dude!”  Or words to that effect.

The second servant, who has received two talents makes the same report.  “You gave me two and I have earned two more.”  Again, the master gives him a high five, and a well done, and invites him to share his joy at this report.  But note also that the master makes no distinction between the first servant who earned 5 talents, and the second one who earned 2.  Both achieved a return of 100%, both are praised, and both are invited to celebrate with the master.

But then the third servant has to report. He had received only 1 talent.  But instead of reporting on his stewardship, he begins to talk about the master himself.

‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.  So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

This is not what the master wanted to hear.  The master replied, “Oh, you knew that I harvested where I did not sow.”  The implication in the master’s observation is “Of course, I harvest where I do not sow…that’s why I have you!”

Then, he commands that the servant who has buried his 1 talent and produced nothing by way of return, be thrown outside.  But, not until after the one talent he still has is confiscated, given to the servant who now has 10.  The master also calls the servant wicked and lazy for failing to produce any return on the master’s investment at all.

Doesn’t that strike you as strange?  I mean, in this day of uncertain economic conditions, with the Greeks, and now possibly Italy about to default on their international debt, shouldn’t this very conservative servant at least get the benefit of exercising caution?  Why does the master treat him so badly?  After all, he didn’t steal the one talent, he didn’t lose the one talent, he just failed to double it like the other two servants had done.

The Meaning of the Parable Then

Okay, let’s look more closely at this parable.  Usually we talk about this parable as one that encourages us to use the individual gifts God has given to us.  I have heard preachers say things like, “If you have the talent to play the piano or sing, you need to be using it for God.”

Of course, that’s true.  But that’s not what this parable is about.  If it’s not about using our individual talents responsibly, what is it about?

Let me answer that question this way.  First, this is another parable about what the kingdom of heaven is like.  Jesus’ announcement of the in-breaking of the kingdom of heaven is made at the beginning of his earthly ministry.

Secondly, we have to read this parable in light of all the other things Jesus has said, particularly in these closing chapters of Matthew, because Jesus is now in Jerusalem and will be crucified before the end of this week in which he tells this story is over.

I believe the parable of the talents can be understood like this:  God is the master, and God has gone away from the nation of Israel.  And, because the Roman army occupies the Promised Land now, it must seem like God has been gone a mighty long time from his people.

Third, the idea that God will come back to Jerusalem, back to the Temple, was a prominent theme in the preaching of the Old Testament prophets.  Jesus is the incarnation of Israel’s God who has returned to Jerusalem, and to the Temple.

But instead of Jesus’ coming as Messiah being a glorious event, an event that Israel could look forward to, this coming of the Messiah is one of judgment.

Remember what Jesus has already done?  He has cleansed the Temple of its corruption and defilement by driving the money changers from its courts.

And, Jesus has roundly criticized the religious leaders of his day as corrupt, evil, hypocritical, full of dead men’s bones like painted tombs, and he has also accused them of misleading the nation who depends on them for interpreting God’s Law to them.

So, God is the master, and the religious leaders of the day are the one-talent servant.  The servant with one talent is the one who receives the most criticism and to whom the bulk of the parable is directed.  Perhaps these are the Pharisees, or all the religious leaders.  Jesus has expressed his outrage with their hypocrisy and self-serving religious performance before.

Perhaps the Essenes represent the servant given 2 talents.  This servant has limited ability, and perhaps the limitations are self-imposed.  The Essenes were really big on righteousness, but so much so that they had moved outside the city of Jerusalem, and had given up marriage to live pure and righteous lives.  Many believe that John the Baptist was an Essene himself.  But, obviously, their movement would not last long if it never produced any offspring.

But whether or not I have the other two servants right, there is no doubt about the servant with the 5 talents.

Who then was the servant that had 5 talents, produced 5 more, and then got the 1 talent taken from the unfaithful servant?  These are the followers of Jesus.  They are the ones who get the whole idea of the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God.

They not only get it, they share it, and by doing so double their wealth, and their reward.

The Parable Today

So, here’s my take on this.  The parable is told about Israel, the people of God.  God is the master, God’s people are the servants, and some do a much better job than others of providing the master with a return on his gift.

This basically is a parable directed to groups, or communities within first century Israel.  Each of these communities has their own belief system, their own theology, their own mission.

But the real mission is to do what the master expects – to produce a return on the master’s investment.

To put is plainly, we as the modern day people of God are God’s servants.  And while it is certainly not wrong to say if you have musical talent, or any other kind for that matter, you are to use it for God’s glory, there is a bigger message and caution here for us as 21st century followers of Jesus.

Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God growing like a mustard seed – from the tiniest of seeds to the largest of trees in that area.

He also spoke of the kingdom of God permeating society like yeast permeated bread dough.  It goes all through it until it leavens the whole lump of dough.

And, he also spoke of the kingdom of heaven like light which by its very shining dispels darkness.

All of those images point to the fact that the expectation of the rule and reign of God is that Jesus’ followers will do what he did – announce, demonstrate, and live out the kingdom as a contrast society in this world.

God had given the religious leaders of his day a position of responsibility, the Law of God, and the Temple.  With those “talents” the Pharisees and Sadducees should have been able to produce the equivalent of doubling those who understood that God was the creator and ruler of all creation, that the God of Israel was the God of the Nations.

Its interesting to note that medieval mapmakers, working long before cartography became an exact science, often depicted Jerusalem as the center of the globe, with all the continents revolving around the City of God.

Their maps were obviously drawn as theological statements rather than geopgraphically-correct documents.  But the idea that God was in charge, to use N. T. Wright’s phrase, was evident in their mapmaking, even if their maps were not very useful for actual navigation.

That is what we are to do today as well.  Draw the maps of our lives with the kingdom of God as the center of our being.  With God in charge, with the kingdom of God as the guiding principle of all of creation.

While God gave the first century religious leaders the Law and the Temple, we have so much more.  God has entrusted us with the story of Jesus, with the Bible as the record of that story, with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, and with the insight of 20 centuries of Christian witness.  Our responsibility is greater than that of the Pharisees of the first century, or even Jesus’ first century followers.

If they are given the equivalent of 5 talents, and they produce 5 more, we must have been given by God the equivalent of 10 or 20 talents.  We know more, understand more, have the benefit of history, the mistakes and achievements of others, and the energizing presence of the Holy Spirit to both guide and empower us.  We have more, and yet often do less than the first disciples.

But that can and must change.  The kingdom is not our exclusive possession, nor is it our exclusive destination.  We have been given a gift to share, a gift to give away, and as we give that gift away it produces a return of 10-fold and more.  Our reward will be God’s joy that out of all the centuries, and all his people, that this generation understood what it meant to act so that God’s gifts were not merely preserved for the few, but announced to the many.  Only then will we hear, Well done, good and faithful servant!

Sadly, we in the 21st century have fallen into some of the same errors of the religious leaders of the 1st centry.  We confuse our limited understanding of God, which we call doctrine, with the God of all Creation, and limit ourselves in effective kingdom work with our own shortsightedness and misplaced self-assurance.

We are warned not to inhibit the growth of the kingdom, but to encourage it by our own actions. In doing so, we earn the reward of hearing God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your Lord.”

Podcast: Preparing For The Kingdom Then and Now

What if the parable of the 10 bridesmaids isn’t about just the second-coming of Christ?  What if it was about the coming of the kingdom of God in the first century, and how some were prepared then, and some were not?  Does the warning of Jesus to watch and wait mean anything before he comes again?  I think so, and here is the sermon I preached on Sunday, November 6, 2011.

Preparing for the Kingdom Then and Now

What if the parable of the 10 bridesmaids isn’t about just the second-coming of Christ?  What if it was about the coming of the kingdom of God in the first century, and how some were prepared then, and some were not?  Does the warning of Jesus to watch and wait mean anything before he comes again?  I think so, and here is the sermon I’m preaching on Sunday, November 6, 2011. 

Preparing For the Kingdom Then and Now

Matthew 25:1-13

One of the great benefits of the revised common lectionary is that over a three year cycle the readings cover all of the major themes of the Bible.  But, one of the shortcomings of the same lectionary is that sometimes you jump from one week to the next without an appropriate connection between the two.

That’s the case this week as we read this passage about the wise and foolish brides maids.  Remember that last week we read the account of Jesus berating the scribes and Pharisees from Matthew 23:1-12.  Jesus warned his hearers that although the scribes and Pharisees “sit in Moses seat” – meaning that they teach the Law of God – they are to be heard but not emulated.  They “do not practice what they preach” Jesus said, which is exactly where we get that saying.

But today we skip ahead through the rest of Matthew 23, all of Matthew 24, landing at the beginning of Matthew 25, which starts out, “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like…”

Of course, your translation may have slightly different wording.  Some translations just begin Matthew 25 with “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like….”  Either way, the idea Matthew is trying to convey is that what has just been said before we get to Matthew 25 is important, and that Matthew 25 is a continuation of that same thought.

What is Matthew 23 and 24 about then?  Very simply, Jesus is laments for the city of Jerusalem, the Temple, and all that will go with its destruction including persecution, war, unrest, turmoil, and so on.

These passages usually are read as signs of the end of time, the second coming of Christ, and the judgment of God.  And certainly that is how we have most often understood them.

But the first rule of biblical interpretation, at least in my approach to Scripture, is “What did this passage mean to those who first heard it?”  And here’s where we need to step back from our 21st century understanding, and try to put ourselves in the place of those who heard Jesus in the first century.

The Failure of The People of God

We have been talking about this on Wednesday nights because on Wednesdays we have been studying Mark 13 for the last two or three weeks.  And, we got a taste of one of the themes of Matthew last week, but it also carries over to this week as well.  Let me explain.

Matthew has represented Jesus as the “new Moses.”  While it was common knowledge that Moses was the “law-giver” because he gave the nation of Israel the law after his encounter with God on Mt. Sinai, Matthew divides his gospel into five great discourses, mimicking the five books of the Torah.

Matthew also presents Jesus as a first century Moses through the Sermon on the Mount, which comprises the first of five discourses.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says repeatedly, “You have heard it has been said….but I say unto you.”

Each time Jesus said that, he quoted part of the Law of Moses, but then he reinterpreted it as it was intended, and as it is in the Kingdom of God.

For example, Jesus says, “You have heard that it has been said, ‘An eye for an eye’ but I say unto you do not return evil for evil.”  And then he adds, the famous admonition to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, give your cloak and your tunic as well.

You, I am sure, get the picture.  Jesus has come to announce the kingdom of God (Matthew usually calls it the kingdom of heaven), and then to teach and demonstrate what life is like in that kingdom.

One of the primary points is that the religious leaders — the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, priests, and so on – have failed to lead the nation correctly.  In turn, the people of God have failed in their duty and calling to be God’s unique people, and to be a blessing to all the earth.

Jesus mission was two-fold:  first, to announce that the kingdom had come among them; and, secondly, to point out how abjectly they had failed as God’s people.

Jesus then embarks on a three-year mission of teaching about and demonstrating the kingdom of God.  Jesus eats with known sinners because he wants them to know that the kingdom of God is open to them.  Jesus touches and heals lepers, the blind, the lame, and those with various diseases because in the kingdom of God everything is put right again.

Jesus feeds 5,000, then feeds 4,000 because in the kingdom of God there is abundance at the King’s table. Jesus shares table fellowship with all because that is how hospitality is shown and received, and Jesus includes everyone because the kingdom of God is open to everyone.

In other parts of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus uses parables to illustrate what the kingdom of God is like.  It’s like a pearl of great price, it’s like a treasure hidden in a field, it’s like yeast that leavens the entire loaf, it’s like a light that dispels the darkness, and so on.  All of these parables give Jesus’ followers clues as to what the kingdom of God is like, which is a world vastly different from their own.

But then the other shoe has to drop.  Jesus announces and demonstrates the kingdom, which is in contrast to the false religion, the hypocrisy perpetrated by the religious leaders.

The religious and civic leaders, because both were intertwined in Jesus’ day, fit into one of two categories.  First, there were those who had sold out to Rome and were complicit in the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, Judea, and the surrounding areas.  Those that had sold out and were collaborating with the Romans included the chief priests, the kings who followed Herod, and the primary religious groups the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, priests, and so on.

Second, there were those who did not hold positions of power and influence, but who also sought to lead the nation.  These were the ones who longed for a nation not occupied by Romans, who wanted a real King of the Jews, and deliverance from the cruelty and tyranny of Rome, and their puppet kings and governors.  These usually thought that the only way out from under Roman rule was to defeat the Romans militarily.

Judas Maccabees, the hero of the Maccabean revolt, lived on in their memories as the last of the great Jewish kings, and the one who had about 150 years before Christ delivered the nation from Antiochus IV Epiphanes and his desecration of the Temple.

Many of these who longed for a military victory, and a messiah who would lead the nation, were called Zealots.  But beyond the Zealot party there were many others who had the same dreams and aspirations.  They thought the kingdom of God would come in just like the Exodus.  God’s messiah, just like Moses had done, would lead them to freedom from the tyranny of Rome.

A New Kingdom Where Heaven Meets Earth

For those of first century Jerusalem and Judea, heaven and earth met in the Holy of Holies, the most sacred room in the Temple in Jerusalem.  The High Priest entered that room only once a year, to sprinkle the blood of the sacrificial lamb on the “mercy seat” to atone for the sins of the people for another year.

The Yom Kippur ritual reminded the nation that God was in their midst.  That just as God had been present in the tent known as the Tabernacle with Moses, so he was present with them in the Temple.

While synagogues emerged after the Babylonian exile, and Jesus began his ministry in a synagogue by reading from the scroll of Isaiah, it was in the Temple that they believed heaven and earth met in sacred space.

But again, Jesus’ kingdom is not a kingdom of magnificent buildings.  Rather Jesus tells his disciples that they will see the Temple destroyed, not one stone left on another.  So disturbing was this news that the disciples come to Jesus and ask him privately how they will know when these things are going to happen.  In their minds, if the Temple is destroyed, the end of the world must be near.  Certainly the end of life as they know it.

That’s what Matthew 24 and 25 is about.  Being ready for the cataclysmic events that will reshape their world.  The Temple will be destroyed, Jerusalem will be laid waste, followers of Jesus will be persecuted, the good news will be proclaimed to every ethnic group.

Remember Jesus had taught his disciples to pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  In other words, Jesus was teaching his disciples to pray that heaven would meet earth, not in the Temple, but in their lives.

And to demonstrate that he, Jesus, was the place in which heaven meets earth, he will give his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.

The son of God, the savior of the world, the messiah of the Jews, the Anointed One of God, the Christ will suffer and die at the hands of the Roman Empire whose cruelty and ruthlessness know no bounds.  Complicit in his death are the religious leaders who have been bad shepherds to those in their care.

But God will vindicate Jesus.  God will raise Jesus from the dead.  The one whom the Romans mockingly placarded as “King of the Jews” is indeed the King of all creation.

When God raises Jesus from the dead, sin, death and the grave are defeated.  The good news goes out that “God is in charge” and the kingdom of God is visibly present.

The Ten Bridesmaids

Which brings us to our story today.  Jesus uses a parable again to explain what the kingdom of God will be like.  As I said earlier, we usually read this as a warning to be ready for the second coming of Christ.

While that warning is certainly appropriate 2,000 years after Christ’s first appearance, for Jesus’ hearers that day there is another message.  Get ready for the surprising appearance of the bridegroom.

In the first century, as I mentioned several weeks ago, the weddings took a year or more to be finalized.  As best we know, the betrothal marked the beginning of preparation for the actual wedding itself.

The bridegroom would proclaim his love for his intended, then withdraw from her for about a year to build them a house.  The house usually was built as an addition to his parents’ home, and work was slow and uncertain.

But as the year drew to a close, and perhaps with some secret arrangement, the groom and his party would set out from his new home to his future bride’s home one evening.  The groomsmen, if we may call them that, would all be carrying torches, lighting their way from his home to that of his future in-laws.

Along the way the groom’s party would sing and shout, all in great excuberant fun.  As they approached the bride’s home, the cry would ring out from within the bride’s home – “He’s here, the bridegroom is here!”

The bride and her party – parents, relatives, friends, and bridesmaids – would all emerge from her home and off they would go to the wedding feast which lasted 7 days and nights.  Finally, the wedding ceremony itself was completed.

Because the nights were dark, and each needed his own lamp to find the way, everyone had to be prepared in the bride’s home.  Clothes had to be kept in their best condition; and oil had to be procured for the lamps to light the way.

The story we read is about 10 bridesmaids.  Five were wise, and five were foolish.  The wise bridesmaids were prepared with plenty of oil for their lamps. They were ready for the surprise arrival of the bridegroom.

The foolish bridesmaids were unprepared.  They delayed purchasing their oil, lolled about the house, and were caught completely off-guard when the bridegroom surprised the household.

In the past Jesus has drawn on the books of Moses for his Sermon on the Mount.  And, Jesus quotes the books of the prophets often, reading especially from the book of Isaiah to launch his ministry and explain his calling.  But here Jesus calls on the Wisdom literature – Psalms and Proverbs – to distinguish those who are wise in the first century from those who are not.

Clearly, Jesus himself is the bridegroom.  The one who will come unexpectedly and catch everyone off-guard.  This has even more weight when we realize that in these last chapters in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is in Jerusalem during the last week of his life.

His warning to those who are listening to him is “Don’t be surprised at how and when the kingdom of God comes to you.”  Because, remember, they were either looking for the kingdom to come by their cooperation with the Romans (which meant they had really given up on the whole kingdom idea), or they were looking for the kingdom to come by their own hand in military combat.

Jesus was saying, “The kingdom of God will be like a bridegroom coming for his bride.”  It will be a surprise, not only as to time, but also in its appearance.  While many had some vague idea about God’s coming to redeem his people and rule his creation, none suspected the kingdom of God would come in the person of Jesus, who would be crucified as a common criminal, but vindicated by God in his resurrection.

So, the parable of the ten bridesmaids is a cautionary tale.  Not only are we to watch for the coming of the kingdom, we are to watch for how it comes as well.  And, we are to be ready.

But how do we prepare?  The same way those of the first century prepared.  By embracing the kingdom of God, as revealed in and through Jesus.

But, of course, we do, you might argue.  But the Pharisees thought they were embracing the kingdom of God, and it could not come through the likes of Jesus of Nazareth.

The chief priests thought they were ready for the kingdom of God, but their kingdom included the Temple, and an earthly king.

The Zealots thought they were ready for the kingdom of God, because they were ready to fight to the death for it. But their idea of the kingdom of God meant the annihilation of the Romans, and their collaborators.

How can we fill our lamps? How can we be ready for the kingdom both now and in its final coming?  By embracing the king of that kingdom, and all he taught.

Which takes us back to the Sermon on the Mount, to heaven meeting earth as we do God’s will, to our hearing Jesus reinterpret the Law of God, and then live it out.  To understand that the kingdom of God is not future, but present now; not spiritual only, but a living reality.

For if we do not, then we are no more prepared for the coming of the king of the kingdom, the bridegroom, than were the foolish bridesmaids.

May we be found ready, eagerly anticipating the future fulfillment of that which has already dawned upon God’s creation – God’s kingdom fully come in all its glory, justice, and mercy.

Podcast: The Kingdom and Your 15 Minutes of Fame

Jesus reminds us that although our culture values fame and fortune, in the Kingdom of God service and humility take priority.  Here’s the link to the sermon from Matthew 23:1-12 that I preached on Sunday, October 30, 2011.