Sermon - 9th November 2014
Waiting and Doing
Scripture - Matthew 25:1-13
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
If the only bible story you hear this week is the one in today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel, you should probably go home, stock up on everything that keeps you going - with plenty in reserve - sit tight, and wait for Jesus to return.
If we take the parable literally, and if we have no sense of where the parable fits within a bigger context, that’s what we would do. But it’s *not* what we do. And it’s not what the bigger context tells us to do.
A parable is a story with insight. And it is the insight which is important: not the story itself. It was an important way of sharing a moral lesson in a culture where teaching happened and ideas were shared much more by word of mouth than by written texts. So, in order to make the moral lesson memorable, it was wrapped inside a story which could be easily reassembled and shared with others whenever the lesson needed to be taught.
So, if the insight is something around always being prepared for the coming of God’s new realm, perhaps the timing of the parable within the Jesus story gives us more of an idea about what is really being said.
In the decades following the death of Jesus, there was a powerful continuing belief that the risen Christ would return to earth in all his glory within the foreseeable future.
St Paul’s writings from the 50s and 60s in that first century of the Christian era are full of comments which basically say, ‘Do things this way for now, because Jesus will return before long and then everything will be different’. And if there was a need to wait for this ‘second coming’, the expectation was that the wait would not be long.
During that first century, generations came and went, but the revolutionary return of the King of Glory seemed not to be happening quite as quickly as had been predicted. Expectations began to change slightly. Perhaps a recognition was dawning that earthly time and God’s time functioned in different dimensions; but the core belief around the return of Jesus, together with its suddenness and unpredictability, still continued as a powerful concept within early Christianity. So, against that backdrop, when Matthew was compiling his gospel around 80 AD, the parable about having enough oil in your lamp to survive the waiting time still made sense.
Perhaps the problem for us, 2000 years later, is to do with how we regard ‘waiting’ in today’s society, as well as what we expect from the return of the risen Christ within a world which is so different from the world of the gospels.
It’s hard to tell any story today which says anything positive about waiting. We live busy lives in a busy world, and ‘waiting’ is instinctively regarded as ‘dead’ time. If we can avoid waiting, we will.
Service providers of all kinds try to gain our business by saying that we will not have to wait if we use their particular service. And so it runs contrary to the culture of our modern world to believe that ‘waiting’ is a valid spiritual discipline for us.
Perhaps part of the answer is in how the word has become devalued. Yes, there are things for which we all have to wait: but we are also called by our faith to be awake, attentive and active – to wait with positive expectancy, truly living in the moments and movements of the lives we are given here and now and addressing the issues of our time.
There is a belief which survives into some quarters of modern-day Christianity and which holds out an apocalyptic and earth-shattering vision of Christ’s second coming. It follows quite literal understandings of what some bible texts actually say; it can be solidly judgmental about who will be saved and who will be rejected; and it offers the reassurance of a heavenly paradise for those who are judged worthy of it.
Much of that belief-system comes out of these later chapters of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus is prophesying a coming time of strife and suffering. In fact his prophecy was correct, and the horrors had only become worse in the succeeding decades, right up to the time of Matthew when the continuing promise of divine liberation from Roman oppression was the great dream of the Jewish communities.
But there is another way of interpreting Matthew’s warnings which seems to reflect much more closely what 2000 years of Christian life and discipleship have revealed to us.
Martin Luther King once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” He seemed to recognise that, within our 2000 years of waiting for the coming of Christ’s new realm, there may be some kind of movement towards the basic values of that new realm that we may not easily perceive for ourselves but which can be detected using a very long historical lens.
Is this how the Reign of God is steadily breaking into the world and re-forming it? Might it be that Christ ‘returns’ every time *we* bring Christ and the Reign of God into any present situation?
In our worship service we say: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. Could it be that this is not some future date when somehow the whole world will see and know that the Second Coming has arrived: surely the risen Christ is amongst us whenever and wherever the gospel is lived and lives are changed?
Is this, perhaps, how you and I are invited to contribute to the arc of the moral universe, by being ready and equipped in today’s world, and in our current circumstances - to live generously, and love wastefully, and be all that we are called to be?
There was a posting on social media a little time ago which said,“Beware of Destination Addiction—a preoccupation with the idea that happiness is in the next place, the next job, and with the next partner. Until you give up the idea that happiness is somewhere else, it will never be where you are.”
Maybe we should alert ourselves to the risks of “waiting addiction.” If we’re waiting for something that is probably not going to happen in our lifetime, and if we look away from the world we’re in so as to prepare ourselves faultlessly for the world to come, then maybe we shall miss out on those moments when Christ is already present and when the Kingdom of God comes closer than ever before… in the neighbour, the child, the stranger who seeks our help, the place where we work and make a difference, and the people we are called to love.
Perhaps the message to us in today’s world, as we test the levels of oil in our spiritual lamps, and check to see what we have in reserve for our future needs, is to be disciples of the gospel for *now* - the world we know, the world we are a part of, and to allow the arc of the moral universe to take care of whatever the ultimate future may hold.
But whatever preparations we may seek to make, we really don’t need to wait to bring Christ into our world.