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. http://chuckwarnock.libsyn.com/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
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.
Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed
I Believe in Christ The Coming Judge
34Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. 36You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. 39“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.
Where We Are In The Apostles’ Creed
We now have arrived at the part of the Apostles’ Creed that states —
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into hell. [See Calvin]
The third day He arose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
Remember we are using The Apostles’ Creed as an outline to address the major doctrines, or teachings, of the Christian church. And, while we as Baptists do not use a creed in our corporate gatherings, that does not mean that we do not believe in the statements contained in the Creed.
But, back to today’s topic — the return of Christ and the judgment of everything. So far in our look at The Creed we have had an event to hang on to each statement about Jesus:
- For “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” we have the angel’s announcement to Mary and Mary’s response; and, of course, we have the entire nativity story and the celebration of Christmas;
- For “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried” and including the phrase “He descended into hell” (which requires a whole discussion all to itself, but is nonetheless a part of the Passion of the Christ), we have Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday.
- For “The third day He arose again from the dead” we have the resurrection of Christ and Easter;
- And for “He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” we have the Ascension of Christ and the Sunday that celebrates that event.
All of those affirmations are statements of belief rooted in a past reality. Jesus was born. Jesus did suffer and die. Jesus did rise from the dead. Jesus did ascend back to the Father in heaven.
Each event was witnessed by real people and each were profoundly affected by the event they witnessed. From shepherds and wisemen, to disciples and followers, to those who saw Jesus alive, each event was verified by numerous eyewitnesses who continued throughout their lifetimes to speak of what, in the words of John,
But when we come to today’s affirmation — “from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead” — we have left the events of the past, and are now affirming one final event that will take place in some future time, unknown to any except God the Father.
I’ve Got Good News and Bad News
Okay, you’ve probably all heard this one, but it makes a point about this business of the second-coming of Christ and the judgment of everything.
One of the Pope’s assistants rushed into him and said, “Holy Father, I’ve got good news and bad news.”
The Pope said, “Okay, what’s the good news?”
The assistant replied, “The good news is that Jesus has returned and wants to talk to you on the phone.”
“Great,” the Pope responded. “But what’s the bad news?”
“The bad news is, he’s calling from Salt Lake City.”
Okay, that’s an old and silly joke, but it kind of captures our ambivalence about the return of Christ and the judgment of the world. We’re not sure if we want to hear it or not. Frankly, we’re not sure we even believe it anymore, although there it sits, in the middle of The Apostles’ Creed. Of course, even if we abandon the Creed, there are longer versions affirming that we as Baptists believe that Jesus will return to the earth bodily and visibly, and that Christ will judge the earth as the final act in God’s great drama of creation and redemption.
Our scripture passage today is almost a word-for-word match to the words of The Creed, probably because early Christians took much of what they used to compose The Creed from the words of Scripture itself.
So, the good news is this is a belief of the Christian church from the first century and the original apostles. The bad news is that after 2,000 years this statement has lost some of its practical punch.
Why This Statement in The Creed?
The Apostles’ Creed was a concise statement of the commonly held beliefs of all Christians. It started in very simple form, in a version known as the Roman Creed. Over the centuries as controversies arose, The Creed was amplified, tweaked, and clarified to address specific heresies, or false teachings.
One of those was a Gnostic teaching that God was unconcerned with mankind’s actions. The idea of Christ returning to judge the earth was a counterpoint to the teachings of the Gnostics that all matter is evil, that what we do in our physical bodies doesn’t matter, and that it is only the spiritual that is significant.
Other heresies denied the physical resurrection of Jesus, and his transformed body. Others said that Jesus had already returned, and that now believers were left to their own devices. So, this statement in The Creed, because it comes directly from scripture, pushes back at many of those false teachings.
But, rather than being just a reply, or a response, this statement in The Creed is a positive affirmation of a long-held belief known as The Blessed Hope — the confidence that Jesus would return to the earth, vindicate his followers, and judge the earth.
Here’s the importance of the return of Christ, and his judgment of the earth — without this final chapter, without Christ’s return and judgment, God’s salvation history is incomplete. The story of God must have an ending, and this is the beginning of that ending.
Let me say it this way — from the creation of the earth and mankind’s place on it, all the way through the events of the Old Testament, down to the coming of Jesus as the Christ, God has been on a mission to redeem his creation. Theologians call this the “missio Dei” — the mission of God.
The story of God and His people is not complete unless and until God sets everything right. Everything cannot be set right until Jesus returns as he rightfully deserves, as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And, everything cannot be set right until Jesus gives his opinion, his judgment, about the world, its systems, and its people. In other words, the setting right of everything awaits the return of Jesus and his judgment.
So, its not enough to say, “Well, Jesus gave us a wonderful example to live by, and that’s all that we need.” Nor is it enough to say, “We need to work for God’s kingdom to come on this earth as it is in heaven.” That is true, and we do need to do just that, but the only reason we need to do so is because one day, God’s will is absolutely going to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
What’s the Return of Jesus About?
First, Jesus will return. The apostles believed that he would, because Jesus himself told them that he would. In Matthew 25, Jesus says,
So, by Jesus’ own words, he states that he, the Son of Man, is coming again in glory, and to judge the nations. Several times in the gospels Jesus speaks of his return, and so this idea that Jesus is coming back is not on the disciples made up, or the church invented to keep people in line. Jesus himself spoke of his visible, bodily return.
But, we are skeptical. Two thousand years have passed, and still no Jesus. Maybe we don’t need to believe that Jesus really will return because it seems like a fading possibility.
Okay, let me ask you this: Do you believe that Jesus came in the form of a tiny baby? Most of us here today, if not 100% of us, would say, “Yes, I believe that Jesus came as a tiny baby.” But what’s harder to believe — that God can limit himself, come down from heaven, enter the womb of an unmarried woman through some mystery of conception that we cannot understand, be born as a baby by totally natural means, and then grow up to save the world from its sin;
Or, that God comes with lightning, angels, and glory to the earth?
Frankly, I think it’s easier to believe God will come with lightning, angels and glory, than that God was born a baby.
Okay, but that’s not the only reason. As I said earlier, if Jesus doesn’t return, the story is incomplete. Jesus came first as the Suffering Servant found in the prophet Isaiah; he returns the second time as the recognized Messiah, God’s Anointed One. The first time many, most as a matter of fact, missed who he was. The second time no one will miss who Jesus is.
Let’s look at my favorite passage about Jesus one more time: Philippians 2:5-11.
6Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
That’s what happens at the second coming of Jesus: everybody and everything — every knee and every tongue — in heaven, in earth, and under the earth, confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
So, the first time most don’t get it; the second time everyone gets it.
I’m Good on Jesus Return, But What About This Business of Judgment?
We’ll all be happy for Jesus to come back someday, I’m sure. But the thing we really have trouble with is this business of God’s judgment, or more accurately, Jesus’ judgment of everything. But let’s take a close look.
Our big problem with the “day of judgment” is we have a picture of wrath and destruction in our heads. And to be sure there is that element of purging with fire that we’ll talk about in a moment. But here’s the picture of judgment that we need to focus on.
Psalm 98:8-9 says —
8 Let the rivers clap their hands,
Let the mountains sing together for joy; 9 let them sing before the LORD,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples with equity.
The psalmist calls on nature, God’s creation, to rejoice, to clap and sing, because God comes to judge the earth. God’s judgment is the final act of God’s salvation.
A quick personal story: I traveled to Mexico several times on business before tourists had to show American passports. To cross the US-Mexico border a tourist only had to show some type of US identification to go over and back. Of course, all that has changed now, but even in the late 1990s and early in this decade, business travelers to Mexico had to have a business visa.
This visa was a separate green booklet that had to be stamped on your entry into Mexico, and then stamped on your exit from Mexico. Well, the first time I crossed over into Mexico after receiving my visa, I had it appropriately stamped upon entry. We went in, met with our customers, and then made our way back across the border. The rep I was with forgot to have us stop and get our exit stamp, which neither of us thought was a big deal.
But, six months later when I tried to re-enter Mexico, the immigration official pointed out that I never “closed” my last visit. I did not have the stamp that said, “Salida” with the appropriate date of my exit. He refused to let me enter the country again. And, he pointed out that the fine for failure to obtain an exit stamp was close to $800 US dollars, because several months had passed.
I was stunned. First, I didn’t have $800 US dollars on me, so that was out of the question. Second, my customer was expecting me, so I had to make my appointment. So, I asked very politely, “Is there some other way we can solve this problem?”
The immigration official looked at me, and smiled. “Well, of course, if you could pay some small fee, say $25, we could stamp your visa.” Of course, this small fee was paid in cash, and I received no receipt for it, but the official took his “Salida” stamp from the drawer and properly stamped by visa. Then, he took his “Entrada” stamp, and stamped it again with the current date to give me legal entry into Mexico.
My point in telling that story is this — we have to have an exit, an ending to God’s story. And that ending is the return of Christ, and his judgment of the earth.
But, judgment isn’t in itself destructive or vengeful. Judgment is God’s opinion. So, when Jesus returns, he returns to give his opinion of all the world’s systems, nations, and people. Matthew calls it “separating the sheep from the goats.”
Other gospel writers use similar analogies as in “separating the wheat from the weeds.” The point is, Jesus is going to give us his opinion of what is useful to the Kingdom of God, what is faithful to the Kingdom of God, and what will endure within the full-arrived Kingdom of God.
Things like “sheep” and “wheat” represent those things and people that are useful to, faithful to, compatible with, and obedient to the Kingdom of God. Remember in Jesus’ early ministry, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Repent and believe the good news.” Well, the good news is judgment made plain. The good news is Jesus opinion of the world.
Judgment is both good and bad. The good is some are sheep, some are wheat, some are received with a “well-done good and faithful servant.” The bad news is some people and things are judged to be “goats, weeds, and bad servants.”
And the criteria for Jesus’ judgment is Jesus himself. Jesus is the incarnation of God, and how people, nations, and systems received Jesus is judgment in itself.
In John 3:16-17, Jesus said,
Okay, but here’s the disclaimer: Jesus is the righteous judge. In other words, he doesn’t judge like we would. Our job is not to figure out how Jesus is going to judge, our job is to live in light of Jesus love for the world. To live as he lived. To see the world as he saw it, as sheep without a shepherd. To love God and love others.
Jesus’ judgment is not just about going to heaven when we die, it’s about God’s opinion of everything here on earth, including us. Whether we are among the living or the dead when Jesus returns does not matter. What does matter is whether we are among the faithful.