I worked out this week, as I was reading and pondering the parable which we have just heard that I have been to over 200 weddings in the last 20 years. I have been to a wedding in Oxford where the bride turned up over an hour late. I have been to a wedding in Perth where the bride turned up so early that a previous wedding was still going on. I have been to a wedding in London where a woman wandered in from the streets, uninvited, and danced up and down the aisle until the ushers removed her. But I have never been to a wedding where the groom hasn’t shown up.
Try to imagine the scene in the Gospel story that we have just heard. The guests are ready, the lamps are lit, but there is no bridegroom. Even those of us who have very vivid imaginations will find it hard to picture the story which we have just heard, because it is so different from any wedding that we have seen before. Just thinking about this story reminds us that people in the time of Jesus lived very different lives to ours. Their culture, and their customs, and their traditions are not our culture and customs and traditions; and so we have to work hard every time we open our Bibles, to dig deeper, behind these kinds of stories to find out what’s really going on.
The story that we have just heard is not like any wedding that you have seen here in Mulbring. For a start their is not one bride, there are ten of them. Our modern translation is not very helpful for us, because it tries to hide this fact from us by mis-translating the word ‘virgin’ for ‘bridesmaid’. But young virgins they certainly were – ten of them – waiting for the bridegroom to arrive so that they could all marry him, which was quite common in a society where men had many wives.
Unlike our weddings, where the bridegroom is expected to be the first on the scene, in the time of Jesus bridegrooms often took a long time arriving at the wedding feast. They participated first in a kind of procession, which went from place to place, collecting guests and celebrating what was to happen. Whilst all of this was going on, in Jesus’ story, the young virgins were left waiting at the scene of the banquet, not sure whether the bridegroom would turn up at all. The brides-to-be begin to get tired, and they fall asleep.
When these young virgins are awoken by the sound of the messengers heralding the imminent arrival of the bridegroom some of them realise that they do not have enough oil left in their lamps for the festivities ahead. So they go off to buy some more. The worst thing imaginable happens. Whilst they are gone, the bridegroom turns up, and takes the virgins who remained, together with his guests into the banquet and the doors are shut. So when the other brides return, they find that they are too late. The doors are closed and will not be opened again. The bridegroom has come, and they have missed him.
At the end of the telling of the parable, Jesus says to those who are listening, “keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour”.
It is a strange story. And it is not really a story about a wedding at all! It is a meaning-story – so the task for us (which is the case with many of the parables which Jesus tells, and which the Gospels re-tell for us), is to ask two important questions as we are confronted by this text. Firstly, what ideas and teachings did Jesus intend to share with those who listened to his stories when he originally told them; and secondly, what can we learn from those teaching today. In these parables which Jesus tells, each of the characters represents someone or a group of people in a particular way.
In this story the long awaited bridegroom is Jesus himself, and the ten virgins are people like you and me who are waiting for him. In the story all ten of the virgins start out by waiting faithfully, and being prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom, and at one point all ten of them are drowsy with waiting and begin to sleep. But when the arrival of the bridegroom is heralded some are found to be ready, with oil in their lamps, and others have no oil and have to go off to prepare themselves. The bridegroom arrives and takes those who are ready into the wedding banquet, closing the doors behind him, and when the others return with new oil they find that it is too late, the doors are bolted and they have been left outside.
For the first followers of Jesus, this story was a potent reminder of the reality that when the long awaited Messiah arrived, some of the religious people had recognised Jesus and been ready to follow him, but some had not. They would have seen themselves in the story as the virgins who entered the wedding banquet (which symbolises the Kingdom of God) with Jesus, unlike those Jews who – although they had awaited the Messiah – did not recognise him and had therefore been left behind. But this story was not just an opportunity for them to pat themselves on the back for their faithfulness. It was a reminder to them as well, of the urgency of being ready at every moment of their lives for Jesus’ second coming.
Each of the four Gospels have a feeling of breathlessness about them. Jesus is in a rush. Time is short, things must be done straight away, directly, immediately. Jesus has all the time in the world for people, but time is short for preaching, teaching and for the world itself. This feeling of urgency and immediacy is a reflection of the intensity with which the first Christians after Jesus’ death and resurrection and ascension lived out their lives. They believed that they were living in the last moments before the return of Christ, and stories like the one which we have heard this morning, gave them great encouragement to continue to be ready for Jesus’ imminent return.
St Paul, in his early letters, suggests that Jesus would return in his own life time. If you want an example of this, you can read his letters to the Thessalonians which are in our New Testament. In these letters Paul states his belief that Jesus will return before he dies. But by the time St Paul wrote his later letters, and certainly by the time the Gospels were written down into a final form, Christians had come to understand that, whilst they knew that they still lived in the last times, and that the end of the world was very near, its immediacy had been diluted because the experience of Christians had been that Jesus had actually not yet returned.
So the first few generations of Christians still lived with the urgency of being ready for his second coming in their minds, but they increasingly came to understand that this reality would be less immediate than they had previously thought. If I can explain it like this: the early Church became gradually less certain about the timing of the second coming of Christ, but correspondingly became more certain that they needed to continue to live lives which were prepared for that second coming, whenever it might happen. That continues to be the view in our Church in the present day. In the words of the Nicene Creed, we believe that “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.”
We shy away from people like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who have at various points in the past anticipated and advertised a specific date for the second coming of Christ. We are embarrassed by the extreme groups which became excited around the year two thousand, or when various natural disasters have taken place – and who claim that these are signs of a precise date for the return of Jesus. But at the same time, we remain committed to the belief that our lives (now) need to be ready and prepared and ordered in such a way that they are consistent with the hope that Jesus will return to bring the Kingdom which he has already inaugurated, to its fulfilment. St Ignatius of Loyola expressed this way of living when he said, “live as if you were going to die tomorrow; die as if you were going to live forever.”
The story which Jesus told of the ten virgins was a typically Jewish story in which there are a group of wise people and a group of fools. Both groups fall asleep, and fail in some way, but at the critical moment one group is set apart from other. The wise people are prepared and ready, and mindful. The foolish people are not, and in the end their foolishness defines them. In our own time, here in this parish, we are faced with an urgent situation as well. As things stand we who are gathered here this morning are the last generation of this Church. When we cease to be here, we will leave a beautiful monument behind, but the Church (which is the people and not the building) will be no more. We are called – like Christians have been throughout the ages – to live lives that are consistent with our hope that the Kingdom of God (all that Jesus taught and stood for) continues to grow. We are called too, like the wise brides, to be ready to play our part; to ensure that there is another generation to follow us into the life of Christ.
The task of mission, and of commending a life committed to Jesus Christ to those who live around us in our neighbourhood is an urgent one. Like those young virgins waiting for the bridegroom, we too need to be prepared and ready; ready to commend our faith to others, and ready to be part of God’s unfolding plan for us as a Church.
So there is a need for us to remain focused, and to believe that the task of the Church is urgent, and to be prepared and ready to play our part in the work of Jesus, believing that he will one day return, and that between now and then, his ministry is our ministry here in Mulbring.
It would be easy to dismiss the story which we heard this morning, as old and strange and irrelevant. But actually it is our story. It is a story about people like you and me – and the question for us is, ‘are we ready for the bridegroom, for Jesus; and are we prepared to be faithful to the task which he has for each one of us’ as we await his return in glory.