Toorak Uniting Church

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Waiting? For what…

1 Thessalonians 4: 13 – 18
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
10:15 am, 6 November 2005

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Lord and my Redeemer.

I got issues with today’s parable, that is perhaps good to say at the very beginning of this sermon. I’ve tried to make sense of it, tried to turn it into a positive and encouraging story, see gospel in it, good news, and I have found that really difficult.

Those five foolish bridesmaids bother me you see, and the bridegroom who shuts the door on them and doesn’t even want to know them. And the five wise bridesmaids bother me as well. Because they don’t share. And because they don’t seem sympathetic or compassionate but rather selfish to me. Couldn’t they have worked out a solution? Couldn’t they at least have said something apologetic, or encouraging, or pastoral?

The way this story has always been explained to me makes it worse, an interpretation you may have heard yourself: The five wise bridesmaids stand for anybody that is prudent and thrifty. They are people who are well organised and prepared for any eventuality, people who plan well ahead and make sure they got enough extra’s to keep them afloat when contingencies occur. Middle class I would imagine, with a healthy sum in the bank and prepared for any eventuality. Safe as houses.

And the five foolish ones, well of course, they are those who are less organised, who run out of money or fail to keep their houses well painted and in good order. They are not "us".

That Calvinistic and very middle class interpretation of the story has done the rounds for some time, affirming the conviction that if only you are well prepared and well organised and you work hard you will get to heaven, and be led into the heavenly banqueting hall for a great feast by the Lord himself (in a very well organised manner, I am sure).

The only problem is that Jesus can never have meant it that way. Jesus was not middle class. He didn’t have money in the bank and was not planning very much ahead either if we look at what the gospels write about him. He wandered, he didn’t have any possessions and had his meals at irregular times in unconventional places. Jesus in other words, was not "us": a well organised, well prepared and ready for any eventualities good citizen. And in the parable, if we were to follow this interpretation, he would probably, have to be classified under "foolish" rather than "wise".

Hmmm. A bit of a worry isn’t it?

Now let’s look at what Paul writes to the good people of Thessalonica. They were good people those Thessalonians, they took their Christianity very seriously and from earlier on in the letter we understand that they were very virtuous, an example for all, working hard and if we would try to classify them in terms of wise or foolish, very much like the wise bridesmaids looking eagerly forward to the coming of the bridegroom, keeping their lamps burning with extra oil at the ready for contingencies.

However, some of them have not only gotten very sleepy with the long wait, some have actually closed their eyes forever and died. What will happen to them they ask Paul, and will Christ return before we die too? Is there a chance we will we miss him?
A very important question to them, because some of them will have converted to Christianity expecting that the end of all things was imminent and that their conversion would guarantee them a place in the new order that would then ensue. Will they still be part of it now it is taking a little bit longer than they all thought?

Paul’s answer to that is positive. But before we come to that we might like to wonder if this question and its answer, does, in any way, have anything to do with us, in our time.
2000 years on we know that Christ is taking a lot longer than those first Christians thought he would. Although speculating about the end time is done by some groups of Christians most of us will say that it is more important to concentrate on the here and now and leave whatever may be or come to God, with some secretly (or openly) wondering if something will ever happen at all.

If we have ideas about the end times they come from Hollywood movies such as "the day after" or "Armageddon", gloomy pictures playing out scary scenarios of natural disasters or man made catastrophes gone beyond control.

No it is not the end of times and the question if we will be there to see it we are worried about, is it? There are, however other concerns, concerns I think are very similar to the concerns those Thessalonians had so long ago.

When we see the grey factor in our Church increasing and our numbers steadily decreasing, when are confronted with more and more people who do not only not have a clue about Christianity, but aren’t even interested in hearing about it, the feeling that may come over us may be very similar to that of the Thessalonians in Paul’s day: What will happen? What if we all die? What are we hoping for? What is our future?

And what is pastor Paul’s answer to the Thessalonians? Is it an answer that could be helpful to us and our questions and concerns?

Paul answers with a vision. With powerfully poetic and imagery language to decscribe something he cannot describe.

I don’t think Paul was trying to describe anything factual here, anything he thought was going to happen in exactly that way. I believe that he was using poetic language and imagery that was commonly in his day to describe a hope and trust that is, really, indescribable. And I think the comfort it intended to give was not by describing some event at the end of all times, but in the fact that it states that the author believes that ultimately, when all is said and done, there is a God who holds the world in his hands and who is an agent of change, a force for salvation, a power stronger even than death.

The Thessalonians faced persecution. Their situation was not easy and they were longing for better times, for a different world. And they wonder if it will ever come, if things will ever be different, for them and for their children. Yes, says Paul, God will not abandon us, whatever happens, however long we have to wait, he will not abandon us and there is nothing that is strong or powerful enough to stop him from caring for us. So keep your hopes up, keep your trust going, live with the certainty that God somehow will bring things together. Even though we may not see how right at this moment.

And that is where, I think those bridesmaids come in. The wise one’s have come prepared to go to a feast and are certain the bridegroom will eventually come to take them. They get as tired as the foolish ones, but they allow for some inexplicable waiting time and are not put out when it all takes much longer than expected.

The foolish bridesmaids are not really ready for the feast. They’ve put some half hearted effort in, but their whole heart is not in it.

I still think it is rather awful in the story that the wise bridesmaids don’t share, and, if we see Jesus in the figure of the bridegroom, I don’t understand why he can’t forgive those foolish girls and let them in after he’s told them off for not being prepared. Haven’t we been told that God’s love and forgiveness is without limit? All embracing?

But perhaps the point of the story is that it is there to tell us, that looking forward in hope for the Kingdom to come can’t be a half hearted matter and that a real commitment needs to be made. That in the time before we get to the feast it is important to stay alert and alive. That we are to be eagerly awaiting the fulfilment of God’s promise to make all things new.
Our part is to keep our lamps burning, even where we’ll get tired and sleepy with waiting. Burning with the flame of hope, faith and trust.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2005

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