Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
If the gospel of Mark [the first chapter of which was our focus last week] is known for the urgency of its message, Matthew’s gospel is known, among other things, for its hard words about the judgment of God. And today’s text, often read during the Advent season, is no exception, I’m afraid.
It’s important, though, to understand the purpose of prophetic judgment, biblically speaking. As often as not it seems to have been intended to shake folks up so that they would repent and be forgiven. Remember, when John “proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” in last week’s lesson, people actually did repent, and were forgiven.
It’s important to keep this dynamic in mind as we approach a text as edgy as Matthew 25. The bridesmaids who are ready get in. The others are locked out, apparently without appeal. And to make matters worse, it’s not like we’ve got some sort of aberration here in the first thirteen verses. Matthew 25 continues with the equally uncomfortable parable of the talents followed by the one about the sheep and goats – the goats (those who did not care for others, in Jesus’ name) “go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous, [the sheep], into eternal life.” (Matt 25:46) Oh boy, welcome to Matthew.
In any event, here we are today in the first part of Matthew 25 where we’ve got wise and foolish bridesmaids. Wise ones ready to go when the bridegroom (Christ) arrives. Foolish ones not ready. Remember, it’s a parable. A teaching story. And there’s really no mistaking the question it asks of us: which one are you?
Now I don’t know about you, but I can all too easily see myself in the foolish ones who stand there saying, “O, come on. You didn’t tell us the final was today! I had this whole plan to be completely ready… a little later on?”
But again –the point of biblical judgment texts like this one is to shake us up so we’ll get our act together. The great thing about this passage is we’re only the foolish bridesmaids if the foolish ones actually had been given a little advance warning. If their friends woke them up while there was still time to run down to the corner hardware store for that extra flask of lamp oil before the bridegroom arrived. The surprising subtext of this passage is that we sit here and read it while there’s still time to do something about it. That makes it not bad news, but good news! We get the chance to switch camps and stand with the wise bridesmaids after all. The point is to prepare ourselves. What would it look like for us to make ourselves ready to welcome the bridegroom Jesus when he comes?
While I’m sure there are any number of ways to answer that question, this morning I want to suggest one practical, tangible, seasonal response.
By way of background, I guess I’ve been thinking a lot lately about money matters. Family decisions about holiday spending, for instance, and then we’ve had all this talk recently about filling our budget gap here at church. (How exciting to have made such tremendous progress on that front this year! Way to go!) I’ve also been thinking about the way economics feature so prominently in the words of Old Testament prophets and in Jesus’ own preaching.
We are called, throughout the Scriptures, to be generous with what we have. And there are plenty of good reasons to do just that. I’m certain those of us gathered here this morning give to all sorts of important causes for all kinds of noble reasons. In my family, we give because organizations like World Vision and the Ballard Food Bank depend on it, and the church budget depends on it too. Nothing wrong with any of that as a motivation.
Except what if thinking it through this way is, in a sense, also backwards? Matthew 25, for instance, suggests to me we should live generous lives because living that way helps us recognize Christ when he comes. Giving changes us for the better.
Whatever else may be going on for us financially in a given month, if we’re careful to keep our fists unclenched, to hold our money and possessions lightly rather than tightly, and to look outward as we make spending decisions, then look, there are signs of gospel hope! In between the necessary, and the mundane, and maybe a few more selfish expenses, tiny little glimpses of kingdom economics, of the way it’s supposed to be.
This is one of the reasons my family loves giving alternative gifts at this time of year. A donation to a fantastic mission organization or another charitable cause, instead of that sweater we’re not sure will actually fit Uncle So-and-So. A current favorite is Kiva, an organization that grants microloans to individuals for whom a small financial boost could make all the difference in the world. I get to give a card that tells someone I love I’ve given to Kiva in their name; they get to choose the recipient of the loan from hundreds of choices online. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving, since each time the loan is repaid, they’ll get to choose another loan recipient, and another, and another. We make donations in honor of our neighbors each year to a local food bank. My husband Ken, a basketball fanatic, loves it when I give in his name to an organization called Nothing But Nets to purchase malaria nets in developing countries. And this year I’ve asked him to purchase as my gift one of the wish list items for those 25 new refugee families World Relief is scrambling to get ready for this month. (Many of you will have seen that email I forwarded this week with the Amazon link.) A travel crib for a newly arrived refugee baby? How cool will that be as my Christmas gift this year? There are so very many ways to comfort God’s people and shine a little light in the darkness.
Now I’m under no illusion that it’s been an easy year for everyone. We’re not all in a position to give as much as we’d like to. For those who can’t do much, though, it can be so gratifying to do something. Take our church kids for instance. Have you seen the looks on their faces as they help build those bag lunches every month for our friends at the Tiny Cabins? Or maybe some of you as parents saw how much they enjoyed shopping with you this month for gifts for our giving tree? For a child to be the giver, rather than the recipient of a gift for a change? What a great feeling! And the same can be true for adults. Don’t ever underestimate the power of a symbolic act. To share something, anything that belongs to us is a tangible way of saying: Look out, world. I’m doing my bit to make straight in the desert a highway for our God. To make way for the king of kings! Whether it’s with a few cans of food for the food bank, a Christmas gift for a foster child, or a warm coat we haven’t used in years that could bring comfort to someone else. And if it’s within our power to proclaim that good news with broader strokes, by all means we should do so!
The urgency of tone here in Matthew 25 is not because we can do it all, but because if we don’t set our sights on something other than the latest doodad the holiday ads ask to covet, we could potentially miss out on the truly amazing thing that’s coming! The season of Advent invites us to watch for Jesus our bridegroom. Looking around for ways to spread God’s love to others is great practice for recognizing Christ when he comes again.
There’s plenty more to the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, I’m sure, but the way I read the gospels, we’d be well on our way with this shift in perspective. We’re also more likely to be well along our way. Claiming with each act of kindness and generosity a little light in the darkness, a little hope in the face of the world’s despair, a little moment of joy.
“Comfort, O comfort my people,” says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah. And the word from Matthew’s gospel today? There’s still time to take our place with those wise bridesmaids, as long as we get moving. Anyone know where I can find an extra flask of lamp oil?