TITLE: Preparing for the BEST! SCRIPTURE: Matthew 25:1-13
You have heard people talk about preparing for the worst. Whenever there is an earthquake or hurricane, people start talking about preparing for the worst.
What can we do to prepare for the worst? The list goes on and on. Perhaps that's why so few of us prepare for the worst. Who has room to store all the things they say we need.
If disaster struck, we would be happy to have a house full of supplies. It would be nice to have food for a week -- and coffee, oh please let there be coffee -- and a camp stove -- and propane -- and a tent -- and blankets -- and a first-aid kit -- the list just goes on and on. Perhaps that is why so few of us are prepared for the worst.
But it is better to be a little prepared than not prepared at all. One of the lessons from recent disasters is that drinking water is the most precious commodity. We can live a long time without food. I'm told that we can even live quite a while without coffee. But we really need water. To prepare for the worst, buy twenty or thirty gallons of water. Mark the month and year on each jug. Replace the jugs every three or four years. It won't cost much, and it might save your life.
But so much for preparing for the WORST! What about preparing for the BEST! Has anyone ever told you to prepare for the best? Probably not! I never hear anyone say, "Prepare for the best, because you never know." But why prepare only for the worst? Why not be ready for the BEST as well?
How can we prepare for the best? As one example, we might prepare ourselves to get a good job. We know people who have jobs that we would love to have, but they got there first. How did they get those jobs? Maybe they were just lucky -- but more likely they were ready when the good jobs came around. Perhaps they prepared by going to college. Perhaps they learned a special skill. Or maybe they just did a good job at their ordinary job -- and someone noticed. In any event, when the window of opportunity opened, they were ready. They were prepared for the best.
In our scripture today, Jesus talks about being prepared -- not for the worst, but for the best. He told about a wedding. People always enjoy weddings, but they enjoyed them even more in Jesus' day. Life was hard. People worked from sunup to sundown. Weddings provided a much needed break from the routine -- a time to get together -- to celebrate -- to have fun. The bride and groom would throw a party that would last almost a week. There was food -- and wine -- and dancing.
Unlike our weddings that start at the church, their weddings started in the evening when the bridegroom came to the bride's house to escort her to their new home. Friends would line the route, lighting their way with burning torches. It was a grand and festive display.
It was a great honor to be invited to be a torchbearer for that procession -- like being invited to be a bridesmaid today. The young women who agreed to serve as torchbearers were expected to be ready for the big day.
In Jesus' story, there were five wise and five foolish bridesmaids. As they waited for the bridegroom, they grew weary and fell asleep. All ten fell asleep -- not just the foolish five. But the wise ones checked before going to sleep to insure that they had oil. The foolish ones didn't bother.
When the bridegroom came, the bridesmaids woke. The wise ones lit their torches, but the foolish ones had no oil. They tried to borrow from the wise ones, but the wise ones refused. They knew that if they gave away half their oil, the bridal procession would be brightly lighted for half the way but plunged into darkness the last half. So they told the foolish bridesmaids to go and buy oil.
The foolish bridesmaids went to buy oil, but when they returned the procession was over. The party had started without them. The door was locked. They knocked, but the bridegroom -- miffed that the foolish bridesmaids had nearly ruined the wedding -- refused to let them in. They found themselves out in the cold.
So the wise bridesmaids enjoyed the fruits of being prepared for the BEST -- but the foolish bridesmaids were never able to join the party.
This wasn't really a story about weddings, of course. Jesus told it to encourage us to prepare for the BEST. We need to be ready for the great day when Jesus will come again -- when he will usher us into a kingdom where we will need no locks on the door -- or police -- or armies -- or security systems -- or hurricane warnings -- or cancer doctors -- or morticians. Jesus told this story to encourage us to prepare for the BEST. He told it to warn us that the unprepared will find themselves out in the cold. He told it to encourage us to prepare for his Second Coming.
We have trouble getting excited about the Second Coming of Christ, because it seems remote. Are we likely to see Jesus coming down from the sky today? Probably not! But maybe! You never know! I hope so! That will be a wonderful day! The BEST day!
But we need to be prepared to meet Jesus in any event, because you never know. I'm aware that I will die someday, and my death will end my time of preparation. Whether I will die sooner or later, I don't know. We associate death with older people, but it doesn't always work out that way. In any event, I want to prepare for Jesus NOW so that I will be ready to meet him THEN.
So we need to be prepared to meet Jesus when he comes again.
And we need to be prepared for death.
But we also need to be prepared for life. I fully expect to spend eternity in heaven, but even if that never happened Christ has already blessed my life. He has given me a sense of purpose. He has made me a better person. He has helped me to experience blessings that I would otherwise have missed. Christ has made it possible for me to experience the BEST in this life, and I believe that he will also make it possible for me to experience the BEST through eternity.
In Jesus' story about a wedding, the wise bridesmaids prepared for the coming of the bridegroom by making sure that they had oil for their torches. In that story, of course, Christ is the bridegroom and his delayed coming is the Second Coming. But what is the oil? What do we need to be ready to see Jesus? How can we prepare?
Scholars have debated this question, because it is important -- a matter of life and death. I am sure that emergency medical technicians debate what kind of equipment they should carry in the ambulance, because someone's life might depend on it. I know that they spend lots of time in training, because people's lives depend on it.
In like manner, Christians have asked how to prepare to meet Jesus. What is the oil? What is it that we need? The answer to that question is a matter of life and death.
Luther said that we need faith, and that is true. We need faith.
Others have said that we need a personal relationship with Christ. That is true too.
But our text today is part of a three-chapter discourse (chapters 23-25) that we might think of as Jesus' last sermon. He began his teaching ministry with the Sermon on the Mount at the beginning of this Gospel, and he ends it with this long sermon toward the end of the Gospel. I think that it is appropriate to look for clues to the meaning of the oil in this sermon.
Part of this sermon is the Parable of the Faithful and Unfaithful Slave (24:45-51). In that parable, the faithful slave is the one found working when the master returns. Being prepared, then -- having oil -- means working faithfully for the Lord.
Part of this sermon is the Parable of the Talents (25:14-30), where the faithful servants use the master's resources well. Being prepared, then, means being faithful stewards over the blessings with which God has blessed us.
But it is significant that Jesus ends this sermon with the Judgment of the Nations (25:31-46) -- where he tells of rewarding the person who:
- Feeds the hungry,
- Gives drink to the thirsty,
- Welcomes the stranger,
- Clothes the naked,
- Takes care of the sick,
- and visits the prisoner.
Jesus makes it very personal, He says:
"Truly I tell you,
just as you did it to one of the least of these
who are members of my family,
you did it to me."
Being prepared then means being generous to those in need.
There is a story of a rabbi in a small Russian village who vanished every Friday morning for a few hours. Friday evening begins the Sabbath, so a rabbi should be preparing for the Sabbath on Friday morning. But this rabbi disappeared every Friday morning. Villagers thought that he ascended into heaven each week to talk to God personally. They were proud to have a rabbi who spoke so directly with God.
One of the villagers decided to follow the rabbi to see where he went. One Friday, he waited near the rabbi's house. He watched the rabbi rise and say his prayers. Then he saw him dress in the clothing of a peasant -- and pick up an ax -- and walk into the woods. He followed at a distance, and saw the rabbi chop down a tree and cut a large bundle of firewood. Then he saw the rabbi pick up the bundle and carry it to the home of the poorest woman in the village. Then the rabbi returned quietly to his own home.
The man went to the rabbi and asked to be his disciple. He spent his days helping the rabbi and learning from him. And whenever he would hear one of his fellow villagers say proudly, "On Friday morning our rabbi ascends all the way to Heaven," this man would add, "if not higher."
We need to be prepared for the BEST -- and that means faithfulness to the life to which Christ has called us. Some will protest that even the poorly prepared will go to heaven, and in some cases that will be true.
And some will protest that Jesus can save even the person who repents on his or her deathbed, and that is true.
And some will protest that it isn't what we do that counts, but what Jesus did for us on the cross -- and that is true too.
But it is also true that Jesus wants us to be prepared for the BEST -- whether in life or in death -- and that means working faithfully for the Lord. It means being good stewards of the blessings that God has given us. It means being generous to those in need. It means allowing Christ to remake us -- to remold us -- to refashion us so that we once again look like people created in the image of God.
I would like to encourage you to read this chapter this week -- chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew. As you read it, ask yourself, "What can I do to insure that I have oil for my lamp when the bridegroom comes?" This chapter will help you to answer that question. Then go and prepare for the BEST -- for a life fully obedient to Christ -- for a life that will become a blessing to those around you -- and for a life in which Christ brings great blessing to you as well.
Let There Be Light (TNCH #589; UMH #440; VU #679)
This Little Light of Mine (GC #513; TNCH #524, 525; UMH #585)