Under New Management
TITLE: Under New Management SCRIPTURE: Matthew 25:1-13
Did you ever find yourself locked out of some sort of special event? I have. It was a bad feeling. It was a big wedding. A friend of mine was getting married. I had bought a present and dressed for the occasion. I should have done one more thing. I should have figured out exactly where the church was located. I got lost. Men don’t ask directions, but that is another sermon. I wandered around busy city streets hoping to see a street sign that would give me a clue to my location -- and, better yet, to the location of the church. By the time I found the church, I was ten minutes late. The wedding was in progress, and the doors were closed. The ushers directed me to the hall where the reception would take place. No latecomers were to be admitted to the sanctuary. I have sense adopted that policy myself.
I understood their reasoning -- it would be disruptive if people entered the sanctuary after the wedding started. But it was a lonely feeling to be excluded from the ceremony-- from this very special moment in the life of my friend.
Jesus told a story like that. In his story, there were ten young women who were to be involved in a big wedding. It was an odd story, in that the women didn't know when the wedding would be. They were supposed to wait for the bridegroom -- and they were supposed to be ready for his coming -- but they didn't know when he would come.
Of the ten young women, five were wise. They prepared for the coming of the bridegroom so they would be ready when he arrived. They made sure that they had oil for their lamps, and they trimmed the wicks so that their lamps would burn properly. The lamps were important, because these young women would use their lamps to light the way for the bridegroom and his bride.
But five of the young women were foolish, and they made no preparation. They didn't have oil for their lamps, and they hadn't trimmed their wicks. They weren't ready.
When the bridegroom arrived, the young women were asleep -- all of them -- wise and foolish alike -- all were asleep. But they heard people shouting, "Look! Here is the bridegroom!" -- so they woke up and started out the door to join the parade.
But then it occurred to the five foolish women that they weren't ready. They didn't have enough oil for their lamps. They would be really embarrassed if they started to participate only to have their lamps run out of oil. So they asked the five wise women to give them some oil -- but the wise women replied, "No! There will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves."
So the foolish women went to buy oil. But when they returned, the wedding banquet was in progress and the door was locked. They cried out, "Lord, lord, open to us." But the bridegroom replied, "Truly I tell you, I do not know you."
Jesus concluded this story with a piece of advice. He told his disciples, "Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
That seems like a strange story. Why wouldn't the young women know the day and time and place of the wedding? Why wouldn't the bridegroom be more hospitable? Why wouldn't he admit them to the wedding banquet?
But we need to understand that Jesus told this story with a purpose in mind. He wanted to alert us to the fact that he will come again -- and that we need to be ready -- and that we will have no warning concerning the day of his coming.
Jesus set his story in a wedding context, because weddings were a big deal in those days -- even bigger than today. Bridesmaids had a responsibility to hold torches aloft to light the way for the bride and bridegroom. A bridesmaid who ran out of oil for her lamp would be shamed for life. So Jesus used a wedding story to warn us that we need to be ready for his coming.
This kind of story doesn't make for popular preaching. We have come to associate Jesus' Second Coming with bearded men standing on street corners holding signs that say, "The end is coming!"
Also, we tend not to get very excited about Jesus coming again, because it has been a long time. If he hasn't come again during the last two thousand years, what are the chances that he will come back during our lifetime? For that matter, what are the chances that he will come back at all?
But the lectionary includes this story for a good reason. The reason is simply this: Jesus taught that he will come again! He said that we need to be ready! He emphasized that it is important! The people who put together the lectionary felt strongly that we need to include it in our preaching cycle. I believe that they were right.
In this parable about the coming of the bridegroom, Jesus makes it clear that he has expectations regarding our behavior -- standards that we must take seriously -- obedience to which we must aspire.
In this parable, he also makes it clear that there is a time for repentance and a time when it will be too late. When the bridegroom comes, it will be too late to borrow oil -- too late to ask for help -- too late to pray -- too late to read the Bible -- too late for baptism -- too late to get ready. When the door to the wedding banquet closes, it will be too late to plead for mercy. Once the door is shut, it will remain shut.
The point of this story is that we must be ready at all times for the Lord's coming, because his arrival will come at an unexpected hour. Once Christ has come, there will be no further opportunity to prepare. Those who are ready will be included, and those who are not ready will be excluded.
Personally, I hope that Jesus comes soon. This world is a mess, and Jesus will set it straight when he comes again.
But if you can't get excited about preparing for the Second Coming, you should give some consideration to preparing for your own death. That is the other occasion that will require our readiness -- our spiritual readiness.
They say that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. Tax day will come around in a few months. We don't really know when our death day is coming. It might be today, or it might be years from now. We don't know -- so we need to get ready. And getting ready for death involves more than making a will. Getting ready for death means preparing ourselves spiritually -- getting ready to stand before God on Judgment Day.
So what must we do to be ready for Jesus? Lots of things! It would be possible to go through the Gospel of Matthew compiling a list of a hundred things that we must do to get ready for Jesus' coming -- whether at the end of time or at the end of our lives.
But we need to be careful. It would be easy to make Christianity a "jumping through the hoops" kind of religion -- but that isn't what it is. If our salvation depended on the things that we do, we would all be in pretty bad shape. But our salvation really depends on what Jesus has done for us. Instead of jumping through a hundred hoops, we need to accept what Jesus has done for us -- and then let Jesus set the direction for our lives -- let him be Lord of our lives.
A preacher named Stuart Briscoe told a story that illustrates what I mean, and I would like to close with that story.
A man was converted to Christ through the work of the Salvation Army. He was a simple man -- illiterate. Neither he nor his wife could read or write.
This man started worshiping regularly at the Salvation Army services. But one day he came home looking glum. When his wife asked what was wrong, he said, "All the people in the Salvation Army wear red sweaters, and I don't have a red sweater."
His wife said, "I'll knit one!" -- and she proceeded to do that.
So the next Sunday, the man went to the worship service dressed in his red sweater. But he came hone looking glum once again. His wife asked what was wrong, and he said, "I just noticed that all their red sweaters have yellow writing."
Keep in mind that neither the man nor his wife could read or write, so they had no idea what the yellow writing on the Salvation Army red sweaters meant. So let me tell you what it says. The Salvation Army symbol is a yellow eight-pointed star with the words "Blood & Fire" written in red letters.
But this man wasn't sophisticated enough to understand that. He just knew that there was a yellow symbol on the Salvation Army sweaters, and he wanted one on his sweater.
So his wife agreed to embroider some yellow writing on his sweater. But she was illiterate too, so she had no idea what the letters should say or how she should say it. So she walked downtown and looked in some of the store windows. She found some writing in one of the windows that didn't have too many letters -- she thought that she could copy those letters onto her husband's sweater. So she wrote down the letters exactly as she found them in that store window and went home to embroider those letters onto her husband's sweater.
The next Sunday, the man went to church again. When he came home, his wife asked if the people liked his sweater. He told her that they loved his sweater. In fact, some of them said that they liked his sweater better than their own.
So what was it that the wife had copied from the store window sign? What was it that she embroidered onto her husband's sweater? It was this! "Under New Management!" That's what the sign in the window said, and that's what the wife had embroidered onto her husband's sweater -- "Under New Management!"
That's what it means to be a Christian, isn't it. That's what it takes to get ready to meet Jesus face to face. We need to put our lives under Christ's management. We need to make him our Lord. When we do that, we will then do what he wants us to do -- or at least try. We will go where he wants us to go -- or at least try. And then we'll be ready, because that's what it takes.