November 12, 2023

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Matthew 25:1-13

“Choose to Be Prepared”

When I was a child, I never participated in Girl Guides or Scouts, but I do know one of the mantras of those groups that my guiding friends learned and remembered: “Always be prepared.” It was Robert Baden-Powell, the English soldier who founded the Boy Scouts who published the motto “Be Prepared” in his 1908 handbook, Scouting for Boys. He wrote that to be prepared meant “You are always in a state of readiness in mind and body to do your duty.”

And, of course, the motto came to mind when I thought about the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids that we read this morning. Five of them were prepared, and five of them were not.

But just as our children don’t have a lot of knowledge or experience with oil lamps, we likely don’t know much about first century Jewish weddings, so let’s begin with some historical context.

According to historians, on the day of a wedding ceremony in first century Palestine, the bride-to-be waited at home with her wedding party. Meanwhile, the bridegroom negotiated elsewhere with her relatives the various financial details involved in obtaining her as his wife. It was actually a mark of respect on all sides to prolong this bargaining. It showed how much both the parents and bridegroom valued the girl in question. So, when the bridegroom is late in arriving, this is not a surprise or something for the bride to be concerned about. The bridegroom was always late!

Several authors mention that these weddings often had processions. Who was in the procession, and where exactly they processed is unclear, but the weddings likely took place in the evening or night, so lamps or torches would have been used to light the way.

At first, everything in the parable’s wedding goes as usual. The bridegroom was probably off negotiating with the bride’s family. The bridesmaids are waiting expectantly for the bridegroom to arrive and the party to begin. These young women have an important job, to guide the bridegroom to the house where the wedding feast will take place. The wait is long, and the bridesmaids fall asleep.

Meanwhile, their lamps are burning. Of course, these are not the lamps we’re used to. They probably consisted of a stick with a rag dipped in olive oil wrapped around one end. So, when the call comes that the bridegroom is arriving, all the women try to get their lamps blazing again. Some have brought extra oil for this purpose and have no trouble. The others have a problem. Their lamps won’t light without some more fuel.

Perhaps the wise bridesmaids will share their oil? No way! Imagine, the bridegroom arrives and the 10 bridesmaids with lamps blazing guide him halfway to the party, and then all their lamps go out. It would be better to have 5 lamps for the whole trip than to have 10 lamps that go out before reaching their destination.

Why didn’t the foolish bridesmaids bring extra oil? We’re not told. Perhaps they thought the negotiation in this case would be quick. Perhaps they decided to come on a whim, and didn’t prepare for the wait. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the foolish maidens have been careless. For whatever reason, they have not taken the wedding all that seriously, and their lack of preparedness means they end up missing the party.

We’re reading a memoir by Tara Westover for our next First Church Book Club gathering. Tara grew up in rural Idaho in the 1980s, and her father was a fundamentalist Mormon who was likely suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness. If Tara’s father was interpreting this Parable of Jesus, he would be quite sure that it was about the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world that he expected to come soon.

Being prepared for the end of the world meant (for him) building a bunker and storing up enough food and other supplies to last his family several years in isolation while the unprepared people of the Earth were wiped out by God’s wrath. Tara was a teenager when the year 2000 arrived. Do you remember all the fuss and worry about Y2K? Well, her father was absolutely convinced that when the clock struck midnight, the Apocalypse would begin, and he was ready for it.

Today’s parable begins with the sentence, “The kingdom of heaven will be like this.” But I don’t think it’s supposed to tell us something about the end of the world as we know it, when Christ returns, and the world is remade.

Because throughout the Gospels, Jesus preaches and teaches about the Reign of God that is not just some perfect vision of the future world, but a reality that is growing and coming to be in the present circumstances of his followers. He tells them that the Kingdom of heaven is not only coming, but it is already here… if only we will open our eyes to see it, if only we will change our lives to participate in it, if only we will choose to serve God and follow the Way of Jesus today.

So the parable invites us to be prepared for Christ’s coming – not in the far-off future of the end of time – but right now. We are to be awake and ready – not because the world might end today, but because Christ is bound to show up any moment, and we need to be ready to follow him wherever he will lead us.

Christ may show up in a message of hope in the Scriptures. Christ may show up in a song, or a poem, or even a sermon that encourages, challenges, or guides us in a good way. Christ may show up in the person beside us or in our community who needs our help. Christ may show up in the friend or neighbour who cares for us in our need.

And we are invited to make ourselves ready, to stay awake, and to be prepared to welcome Christ who will undoubtedly be showing up in our lives and in our world.

I don’t think that the way we are meant to prepare has to do with hunkering down and waiting for God to do something dramatic. I do think we are meant to prepare by choosing each day to serve God and follow Jesus – readying ourselves to recognize him when he shows up and to accompany him in his mission to the world.

The book of Joshua tells the story of the Hebrew People entering the land promised by God and settling there. It’s the story of God’s chosen people – the ones who once lived as slaves in Egypt, who cried out to God to help them, and who followed Moses out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, and through the wilderness for forty years.

These are God’s own people, who have finally been freed both from oppression and from their wandering. They finally have a home – a place where they are no longer the ones being oppressed – and they have a choice to make.

It’s not that they hadn’t made this choice before. They had chosen to cry out. They had chosen to follow. They had chosen to rely on God’s help along their journey. But perhaps those choices were simpler to make – almost as if they didn’t really have any other options. Well, some of them had tried to worship a golden calf at one point, but their foolishness was quickly revealed, and they turned again to worship the one true God, the only one who could actually help and protect them.

But now, as they made their homes in the new land of plenty, Joshua reminded them that they had a choice to make. He reminded them about what God had done for their ancestors and for them, and he called them to declare their allegiance. He challenged them to make a choice: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” And he announced his own choice too: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

On Monday evenings this Fall, a small group of folks has been doing church membership classes with me. They are a great group of individuals, and I really enjoyed meeting with them to share about The Presbyterian Church in Canada and talk about faith, worship, the church, service, mission, and other related topics.

Sometimes when I do a class like this, it’s aimed at young people who may be professing their faith for the first time publicly as they become full members of the church in which they were baptized. And sometimes, the class includes adults who are exploring Christianity for the first time or returning to the community of the church after a time away.

This time, our group was made up of committed Christians who have recently made a move from another country or another denomination, and were discerning whether to become members of our congregation and The Presbyterian Church in Canada. I was delighted by the good questions they asked and the depth of Christian faith and experience each one had lived out in another context.

As the class wound up, I asked them to consider whether they would like to become professing members of our church. And those that decide to join will make a public reaffirmation of their faith on Sunday, Nov. 26th – choosing again to follow Jesus and to serve God with their lives, choosing again to turn away from sin and towards God, choosing again to serve God in the church and in the world.

There was also one participant who joined the class even though he was already a member of our church. He wanted to refresh his knowledge and reaffirm his faith – to choose again whom he will serve.

I hope that it won’t be the last time that they profess their faith and choose to follow Jesus and serve God with their lives. And I hope that all of us who call ourselves Christians will renew our commitments again and again. Because I think that each time we make that choice, each time we turn away from sin and towards God, and each time we open our eyes to watch for Christ’s coming among us, we prepare ourselves for his arrival.

As we sang this morning, the good news is that God is the one who provides the oil for our lamps so that they will never go out. God is the one who fills our hearts with joy, peace, and love so that we can praise, love, and serve in the world.

The best way for us to be prepared – to be in a state of readiness in mind and body to do our duty as Christians – is to keep on turning, again and again, to God. By God’s grace, we will receive all that we need to participate in the Reign of God that is here.