Tag: lectionary year a

Sermon: Even When We are Unaware, God is Still at Work!

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, July 19, 2020, from Genesis 28:10-19. It’s the story of what we call “Jacob’s Ladder,” but there’s much more to it than that. The link for the audio of the worship service containing this messsage is at our church website here.

Even When We’re Unaware, God is Still at Work

Genesis 28:10-19 NIV

10 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran.

11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep.

12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

13 There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 17 He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

18 Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.

A Familiar Story with a New Twist
This is a familiar story to us. It’s the story from which we get the song, “Jacob’s Ladder.” But, before we go any further today, let’s stop right here because we need to remember the backstory behind it.

The story begins with Jacob leaving Beersheba to go back to his ancestral homeland called Harran.

But Jacob doesn’t just leave Beersheba for no good reason. He has to leave because his brother Esau is planning to kill him.

And why is that? Because these are brothers who don’t get along. These are brothers who, even though they are twins, are as different as night and day.

Abraham and Sarah’s son is Isaac. Isaac grows up and gets married to Rebekah.

When Isaac’s wife Rebekah gives birth, she gives birth to twins. Esau is born first. But his brother Jacob emerges gripping Esau’s heel, as if he – Jacob – is trying to pull Esau back so he can be first.

But Jacob is not the first born, which bothers him to no end as he grows up. To top it off, his mother, Rebekah, likes Jacob best because Jacob stays home among the tents.

Isaac likes Esau best because Esau is a hunter and an outdoors kind of guy. Plus Esau is ruddy and hairy, and a real man’s man. So, Esau and Jacob have not gotten along since the day they were born.

And, it gets worse as they grow up. One day Esau returns from hunting and he is famished. Jacob just happens to be cooking some stew, and Esau begs him for a bowl of it before he dies, which was a bit dramatic, but Esau was really hungry.

So, Jacob says, “Okay, you can have some stew, but give me your birthright.” Now the birthright is the right of the firstborn. It conveys the firstborn’s right of inheritance and blessing.

Have you ever been really, really hungry? Well, imagine that time when you were really, really hungry and multiply that by maybe a zillion and you get how starved Esau thought he was.

So, Esau says, “Why not? What good will my birthright do me if I’m dead?” Again, a little dramatic, but he was really, really hungry.

But it gets even worse.

After Jacob takes advantage of Esau, and gets Esau to trade his birthright for a bowl of stew, he and his mother, Rebekah, conspire to deprive Esau of one more thing.

Their father Isaac is really old and blind by now. Isaac knows that he is going to die soon. So one day, Isaac asks Esau to go hunting, and then make a meal for him of Esau’s famous stew so he can eat it one more time before he dies.

Then, after he has eaten, Isaac says to Esau,  that he will give Esau the blessing of the firstborn, which is rightfully Esau’s

Rebekah, the mother of both Esau and Jacob, overhears Isaac asking Esau to go hunting and them cook him a meal.

However, she wants Jacob to get the blessing from Isaac, so she calls Jacob, and fills him in the situation.

Rebekah instructs Jacob to go get a couple of goats, which are in the pens close by. And, Rebekah cooks a meal for Isaac of his favorite foods.

Jacob sees a problem with Rebekah’s plan because he and Esau are so different both in body and personality. Jacob asks Rebekah if Isaac won’t know that he’s not really Esau when he brings his father the meal.

Rebekah replies, “I’ve got a plan for that.” Or words to that effect. And she does have a plan.

She grabs a set of Esau’s clothes, with the scent of the outdoors on them, and gets Jacob to put them on. Then, Rebekah puts goat skin on Jacob’s rather hairless arms to fool Isaac, just in case blind Isaac wants to touch the son that he thinks is Esau.

By the way, nobody ever said that families in the Bible were perfect.

So, Jacob – dressed in Esau’s clothes and with his arms covered with goat skin so that he feels hairy — goes into Isaac’s room with the stew his mother Rebekah has prepared.

Isaac, who is blind, says, “Well, that didn’t take long.” Isaac, although frail and blind, isn’t stupid. He knows how much time it should take for Esau to hunt, find, and kill wild game, and them cook it to prepare his father’s meal.

When questioned about this, Jacob says, “The Lord your God gave me success!”

So, Jacob adds another lie to his deception, and blasphemously brings God’s name into his plot as well.

Then Isaac does what Rebekah and Jacob feared he might do. He asked Jacob, who is posing as his brother, Esau, to “Come near so I can touch you, my son, to know whether you really are my son Esau or not.” So, the old man suspects something!

Jacob comes closer, and Isaac feels of Jacob’s goatskin-covered arms. Isaac says, “The voice is Jacob’s, but the skin is Esau’s.” So, after he eats, Isaac mistakenly pronounces the blessing of the firstborn on Jacob.

No sooner than Jacob has left his father Isaac, Esau returns, brings Isaac the meal he has prepared, and asks for his blessing. Realizing he’s been tricked, Isaac tells Esau that he can’t give him the blessing of the firstborn because Jacob already has it. (No one seems to know why Isaac cannot correct this injustice, but he can’t.)

Esau is hopping mad and says, “After my father is dead, I’m going to kill Jacob.” Rebekah hears about this. Realizing that Jacob had better leave home quickly, Rebekah tricks poor old Isaac into sending Jacob away to get a wife.

Which is why Jacob leaves Beersheba and sets out for Harran. Okay, let’s get back to our story.

Jacob flees from his brother Esau, and travels about a day’s journey where the Bible says Jacob reaches “a certain place.”

Well, of course he reaches a certain place, but why doesn’t the writer tell us the name of this place? Be patient, because the name will be very important. But to Jacob, this is just any old place, and he stops for no better reason than because it is nighttime.

He then beds down for the night.

Have you ever had a pillow that just didn’t work for you? Maybe it was too hard, or too soft, or too lumpy, or to big or too small. Well, imagine using a rock for a pillow.

Jacob apparently was not as picky about pillows as I am, because even with a rock as a pilIow he goes right to sleep. No wonder he dreams strange things.

Of course, dreams can be important in the Bible. Later on in Genesis, we’ll see how Joseph, one of Jacob’s future sons, is given the gift of interpreting dreams.

Listen to the writer of Genesis describe Jacob’s dream:

  1. Jacob had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

Okay, this is pretty straightforward. This is where we get the idea of “Jacob’s ladder” and the song by the same name. Of course biblical scholars now tell us it was probably a stairway that curled around and up, like the stairways on the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia — Like the Tower of Babel was supposed to have been, in other words.

In any event, the stairway connects heaven and earth. And God’s messengers — because that’s what angels are — are going up and down from heaven to earth and back again. But here’s the important part of the dream, revealed in verse 13:

  1. There above the stairway stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying.

In the ancient world, ziggurats were built to get as close to God as possible, because ancient people believed God was at the top of the ziggurat. Which is why the earth’s early inhabitants tried to build the Tower of Babel. And so, in his dream, Jacob sees this familiar image of the stairway reaching up to heaven, and God is at the top looking down.

God identifies himself to Jacob with a familiar Old Testament formula: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.”

Of course, Isaac is Jacob’s father, but the idea here is that Father Abraham is the first and key figure. That phrase, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be repeated often.

Let’s read the next verses again to see what God promises to Jacob.

  1. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.
  2. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Here God promises Jacob five things:
1) God will give Jacob and his descendants the land on which he is lying. (v.13)
2) Jacob’s descendants will be numberless, live everywhere, and be a blessing to all    peoples. (v.14)
3) God with Jacob and will watch over him…(v. 15)
4) God will bring Jacob back to this land…(v. 15)
5) God will not leave Jacob until God have done what He promised to Jacob. (v.15)
These are the same promises God has made to Abraham and Isaac, and now Jacob. So, God’s covenant with Abraham continues through Abraham’s son, Isaac; and, now through Isaac’s son, Jacob.

Obviously, for Jacob, who is running away for his life, this is very reassuring. And, Jacob, not previously known for great spiritual insight, understands that God is present with him.

In verse 16, the Bible puts it this way —

  1. When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”

Finally, the crafty, cunning and not too likable Jacob meets God! Jacob thought he was running away from his brother, but he was really running right into the plans and purposes of God.

Jacob found out that no matter where you wind up, or why you got there, God is there, too. God still has a plan for us, no matter what the present circumstances of our lives are.

My father is 100 years old. Actually, he likes to say that he’s a 100 and a half, because his 100th birthday was this past January.

He was a pilot in World War II, and he flew C-47s, dropping paratroopers, and delivering cargo. He flew in England and North Africa from 1941 until he had to come back to the US in 1943. He had to come back because he was malnourished and developed physical problems that kept him from being able to captain his plane and crew.

Because his group flew at night and other odd hours, and the mess hall was often closed when they returned from a mission, he was literally starved of the nutrients he needed to stay healthy and fit.

He was sent back to the states and hospitalized for over a month, where he recovered. After he recovered, he was sent to Missouri where he became a flight instructor for new pilots until the war was over.

The day after he was sent back to the states for medical treatment, the group of C47s he had been a part of came under heavy fire. The plane that he had piloted was shot down and the entire crew was killed. If he had not been sent home, he would have died along with his crew.

Dad told me that story several years ago. Then he said, “I didn’t know it at the time I got sick, but God was with me and preserved my life.”

Just like Jacob, it is often in looking back on our lives that we realize, God was there and we didn’t even know it!

But Jacob also realized that God not only was with him in his dream, but that God was still with him. Jacob uses the present tense when he says, “God is still here and I didn’t even know it.” Here’s what happens next.

  1. Jacob was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
  2. Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel….

Jacob recognized that he was in the presence of God, and that the place he so casually picked to camp for the night was a sacred place, the gateway to heaven, the house of God.

And so Jacob named that “certain place” Bethel, which is made up of two words. Beth means house, and el means God. Beth-el means “the house of God.”

And then Jacob takes his pillow, the rock on which he had his dream, and erects it as an altar. He pours oil on it as both a gift and symbol, and marks the spot as the place where he met God.

Jacob would go on to marry, have twelves sons, have his name changed to Israel, and have the tribes of Israel bear the names of his sons. But that story is for another time.

The point of this story for us today is that even in the darkest moments of our lives, God is still present with us.

Like Jacob, we have to stop, and allow ourselves to experience God’s presence.

Jacob experienced God’s presence in a dream — a dream that was so real, so vivid, that Jacob knew unmistakably that he had been in God’s presence.

Have you ever wondered if God was aware of your situation, If God knew what you were going through?

The story of Jacob and his dream – the story of Jacob’s ladder – is the story that God is still at work in this world.

God’s messengers are constantly moving between the presence of God and His creation, carrying God’s messages to those who need them.

And, the primary message is this – God still has a plan for us and God is still working in our lives to fulfill His promises.

Let’s pray together.

Podcast: I am your brother, Joseph


Today I preached from Genesis 45:1-15. It’s the story of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers who do not recognize him. Of course, there’s a lot to this story, and it’s one of the great stories of the Hebrew Bible.

It is also a timely story for the circumstances we in the United States are facing today. Where Joseph could have demanded retribution and revenge because his brothers sold him to passing merchants, he instead offers grace, mercy, and peace. Joseph is able to do this because he realized that God was at work in the life of his family and the nation. By offering forgiveness and reconciliation Joseph turns the brothers’ guilt and his father’s grief into joy and unity. I also ran across a great story that I think you’ll enjoy. Here’s the audio podcast:


Podcast: A Story We Might Like to Forget


Last Sunday I preached on the expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar from the family of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 21:8-21). We spend a great deal of time on the Isaac story — the promise of God to make Abraham the father of a great nation — but, we often overlook the Ishmael story. God also promised to make Ishmael the father of a great nation. And, Ishmael as part of Abraham’s household is circumcised as part of God’s covenant with Abraham. In addition, Isaac and Ishmael never fight, and both attend the burial of their father Abraham. What does this Ishmael story say about our attitudes toward the descendants of Ishmael, the people of the Arab countries? Listen to the podcast and let me know what you think.

Podcast: The God In-Between

Here’s the message I preached on Sunday, September 14, 2014, titled “The God In-Between.” The lectionary reading for that Sunday was Exodus 14:19-31, and continues the story of God with the nation of Israel from Abraham through the Exodus experience. Click the arrow to play the podcast —

Podcast: It Wasn’t You, It Was God

This is the message I preached on Sunday, August 17, 2014. Taken from the lectionary reading, Genesis 45:1-15, it’s the story of Joseph and how God intervened to save both Joseph and the nation of Israel. It’s a great story with wonderful insight into how God transforms us and our circumstances as part of God’s plan for our lives. The podcast is about 26 minutes. Hope you enjoy!

Lenten Sermon: An Incurable Blindness

On the fourth Sunday in Lent this year, the lectionary reading from the New Testament was John 9:1-41, the story of the man born blind. Here’s the message I preached last Sunday:

Sermon: Seeing The Light of the Glory of God

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow on Transfiguration Sunday. I trust that your experience of worship will be rich and wonderful as you see the light of the glory of God together. 

Seeing The Light of Glory

12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. 14 But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. 15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. 16 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate (reflect) the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

4 Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. — 2 Cor 3:12-4:6 NIV

When We Couldn’t See It
Debbie and I have lost some weight these past few months. Several of you have commented on our progress, and we’re pretty happy with the results ourselves. We have been following a diet developed by Dr. John McDougall, a physician in California, who began practicing in Hawaii. Dr. McDougall noticed that the older Hawaiians were slim, did not have cardiovascular disease, or all of the symptoms that go with it, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and so forth.

To make a long story much shorter, McDougall has devoted his life and medical practice to teaching people that a low-fat, plant-based diet leads to improved health and longer life. Now, Debbie and I started reading Dr. McDougall’s books back in the early 1990s. And, off-and-on we would try to eat as he recommended. McDougall recommends no meat (which means beef, chicken, pork, and fish), no dairy (which means no milk or cheese), and no animal-based foods such as eggs. In other words, a plant-based diet.

That sounds pretty simple, and we tried it over and over. But, its really hard to eat just vegetables and fruit, so we would add things like eggs to our diet. And of course, real butter–because it’s real and not artificial–has to be better for you than fake butter, so we ate real butter. And, we also ate peanut butter, which is vegetarian, but not low-fat. And, we didn’t lose weight, and things like my blood pressure and cholesterol only kept getting worse.

Last year, Dr. McDougall came out with a new book titled, The Starch-based Diet. In this book, McDougall said all the same things he had said in his other books about not eating meat, dairy, or added fat. But in this new book, Dr. McDougall had a new wrinkle — or at least I thought so. He made it very clear that the foundation of healthy eating is starches. I know that flies in the face of the low carb diets that are popular, but McDougall demonstrated that all of the world’s primitive cultures ate a starch based diet. In Asia rice was the starch of choice. In the America’s some form of corn or maize sustained entire civilizations. In Africa, root vegetables, rice, and other starches were the basis for their diets. In the Pacific Islands, poi is a starch-based staple. And, I come from Scots-Irish ancestry, and we all know the Irish ate potatoes, which is why the potato famine in Ireland created such a devastating result.

McDougall also said that you feel more satisfied eating starches, because starches generally are the foods that fill you up and give you as sense of satisfaction. Of course, you need vegetables and fruit, but starches should form the basis for your diet.

For some reason, when we read Dr. McDougall’s new book, The Starch-based Diet, something clicked. We understood what we had been doing wrong. You can’t successfully lose weight and improve your health on this diet without following it exactly as Dr. McDougall and others suggest.

So, this time around, we eliminated all the things that we thought we could have a little of, such as eggs, butter, oils, fats, fried food, along with meat, and dairy (all of it including cheese). We started this diet in May of 2012, and by November of 2012 — 6 months — I had lost 40 pounds and Debbie had lost 30 pounds.

Okay, I do have a point here, and today I don’t have time to answer all your questions about where do you get your protein, and shouldn’t you be eating more fat, and isn’t it boring, and what does tofu really taste like. That’s for another time and another discussion.

But my point is that for the first time in over 20 years of reading Dr. McDougall, we finally got it. The light went on in our heads, the plan made sense, and we followed it, and lost weight, and improved our health.

What happened? Why did it take us 20 years to get it? Why didn’t we see it before? I think it was a combination of the culture we grew up in where you were encouraged to clean your plate, and where fried was the preferred method of food preparation. We just couldn’t see past our own life experiences into a world of thinking about food differently.

Two Experiences of The Glory of God
In the same way, and for some of the same reasons, we miss seeing the glory of God. Okay, let me back up here, because today is Transfiguration Sunday. We’ve read that story before. Jesus invites Peter, James and John — the three disciples to whom he is closest — to come with him for a time of prayer. Luke tells us that while they were praying Jesus’ “face changed and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” (Luke 9:28-36 NIV).

And, while Jesus is radiant as the sun, two figures appear with him. Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets in Jewish life, appear and converse with Jesus. Luke says they spoke to Jesus about his “departure” which we understand to mean his death, burial, and resurrection.

The disciples were sleeping, but when they awoke, they awoke to this dazzling display of the glory of God. Peter, of course, has to say something, so he suggests that they build three tabernacles, one for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Of course, you know that Jesus does not allow that, and further that the disciples don’t even tell anyone else about this experience, until much later.

But there is a backstory to the Transfiguration experience. Apparently, this is not Moses’ first experience with glowing like the sun.  In Exodus 34:29-35, we have a very interesting account that we read earlier in the service this morning. When Moses came down off of Mount Sinai, he called Aaron and all the Israelites together to hear the word of God.

But, Aaron and everyone else saw that Moses face was radiant, shining like the sun. Apparently, Moses couldn’t tell this himself, so after he tells them what God has said, Moses puts a veil on his face to keep from scaring everyone half-to-death. Which is why whenever anyone encounters an angel in the Bible, usually the first words spoken to that person are “Don’t be afraid!” There must be something about people and angels glowing like the sun that is rather disturbing, to say the least.

So, that’s the backstory behind our reading from 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6 today. Paul is referring to this incident where Moses wears a veil to hide the glory of God. But then Paul turns the image around to use the metaphor of a veil as that which can in itself keep us from seeing God’s glory.

How Do We See The Light of God’s Glory?
Our question today is then, How do we see the light of God’s glory? Well, between these three passages, we can find some answers.

First, we see the glory of God by being in the presence of God. It was only when Moses was in God’s presence that his face shone like the sun. Moses left the people to spend time with God, and when he returned, his countenance glowed and radiated brilliantly. It is only as we spend time with God that we can see, or hope to see, God’s glory.

But, what is God’s glory? Well, in the Bible, the glory of God is usually represented as the dazzling bright light. So, we have Moses’ face shining, and Jesus face and clothes being transformed into a radiant presence. But the word “glory” itself, actually has the idea of “weight” or significance or an imposing presence. So, glory, especially God’s glory, isn’t just light. The light is the expression of the glory, the announcement that God is present, the translation of God’s magnificent presence into something we humans can understand.

But, back to the glory of God. So, first if you want to see the light of God’s glory, you have to be in God’s presence. You’re not going to see the glory of God if you never are in the presence of God. I know that God does sometimes intervene, as he did to announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, but in the sense that Jesus and Paul both talk about the glory of God, and in the sense in which Moses experiences that glory, you have to be in God’s presence.

But, the point of being in God’s presence isn’t for us to get all shiny. Moses apparently didn’t even know he was shining. The point is to be with God; the shining is for the benefit of others. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

Secondly, to see the light of God’s glory, we have to understand that we’re only a reflection of God, we don’t glow on our own. As soon as Aaron pointed out to Moses that he was glowing, Moses knew immediately where the glow came from. Moses simply reflected the presence of God to the people. Which is why, I think, that as Moses speaks to the people, he doesn’t put on the veil. He wants them to know that these are the words of God, that he has been with God, and that God is speaking to them. It’s only for the daily routine of living life that Moses wears the veil so everyone will not be completely distracted.

Like the moon reflects the sun, we don’t generate our own razzle-dazzle. We only reflect the glory of God, and we may not even be aware that we’re reflecting God’s glory, but others will be.

Third, we see the glory of God as God goes about his work of calling people into his plan for all creation. In the desert with the Israelites, God speaks through Moses and allows the nation to see his reflected glory so they will know Moses has indeed been speaking with their God, the God who has made covenant with Israel. If you want to see the glory of God, you’ve got to be part of God’s new people, of the community God is creating to reconcile all things to himself.

Peter, James, and John get to see God’s glory, not because they are Jews, but because they are the first of this new community of the Spirit which God is creating. Many biblical scholars believe that the 12 disciples symbolized the 12 tribes of Israel made new, and that Jesus was symbolically reconstituting the nation of Israel into a spiritual community, not a biological one.

As Paul writes to the church in Corinth in our passage for today, he addresses another community of believers. The Corinthians are one of the first churches to be almost exclusively non-Jewish and formerly pagan. So, you can expect that they would have a lot of problems, and they do. In 1 Corinthians Paul writes to correct errors in their worship and their conduct. In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes to re-establish his relationship with them, a relationship that has been called into question by some “super apostles” who are challenging Paul’s standing as an apostle. So, Paul writes to persuade the Corinthians that as a community they must remain faithful to God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

So, those are three keys to seeing the glory of God —
1. Be in the presence of God
2. Recognize that we reflect God’s glory, not our own
3. Be part of a community in which God has established a relationship

The Problems of Seeing The Light of Glory
But, there are problems we can encounter, because obviously seeing the light of God’s glory isn’t just an everyday experience. There are things we need to understand.

First, Paul uses the story of Moses’ veil to make a point. At first, Moses used the veil to conceal the glory of God. But then, the glory fades, but because of the veil, no one notices.

We can get so attached to the veils that make us comfortable in the presence of God, that we focus on the veil, and not the glory. And that’s true of both the leaders and those who follow. The veil that once gave us some relief, now keeps us from seeing that God isn’t with us anymore, that we’ve lost that intimate relationship with Him, and we no longer stand in his reflected glory.

Let me give you an example. Coming to church is a kind of veil. Of course, its a good thing to come to church because this is where the gathered people of God meet God together. But, if we’re not careful, coming to church becomes just coming to church. We can forget that the purpose is to meet God here, and so we can show up, greet each other, comment on how great or not-so-great the service was, and all of that can keep us from seeing the glory of God, because we can’t see past the veil itself.

But the answer isn’t that we quit coming to church. Of course, you expected me to say that. And, that is a popular approach today. Many are saying that what’s wrong with Christianity is the church, and if we can get rid of the church then Christianity will flourish again.

Of course, people have been saying that for about 2,000 years, and it is simply the wrong approach. They’re looking at the veil and not seeing past it.

What needs to happen is for God’s people to spend time in his presence, reflect his glory, and gather as his community. But how will we know if we are reflecting the glory of God?

Others will see it, just like others saw the glory in Moses face, just like Peter, James and John saw the radiance in Jesus’ face. Others will see it and be moved by it.

Iris Dement is one of my favorite singer/songwriters. Iris asked her mother to sing on one of her albums the gospel song, Higher Ground. Her mother sounded about like anybody’s almost-80-year-old mother would sound singing “Higher Ground,” but I’ve got the feeling that Iris put her mother on that album because she knew her mother lived what she sang.

As a result, Iris Dement’s songs are filled with references to the Christian life she was exposed to growing up in Oklahoma with a mother who sang gospel hymns while she went about her daily chores.

In one of her new songs, titled, There’s A Whole Lotta of Heaven, the lyrics to the refrain capture what I’ve been trying to say today —

“There’s a whole lotta heaven shining in this river of tears…”

When the glory of God is reflected in our lives, so that others see it even before we’re aware of it, then there is a lot of heaven shining in this river of tears. When others see God’s glory in your life, even if you’re unaware of it shining, then they are transformed just like Aaron, the Israelites, and Peter, James and John were.

When our community sees the glory of God shining in our church in the ways we help those who need help, in the concern we have for young families and senior adults, in the programs and activities we plan for children and youth, in the leadership we give to this community, and in all the other ways that change lives, then that is when we can say with the apostle Paul —

“And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
–2 Cor 3:18 NIV

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 –http://traffic.libsyn.com/chuckwarnock/Our_Responsibility_For_Managing_Gods_Gifts.mp3

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.”

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.