ADVENT: PARABLE OF THE TEN BRIDESMAIDS

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ADVENT WEEK THREE. MATTHEW 25:1-13

Advent is a time for preparation. The original “advent” was a time when many different prophecies were being fulfilled. Magi in Persia recognized an unusual configuration of stars, which signaled something portentous. Zechariah the Priest, and his wife Elizabeth, conceived a child, and Zechariah himself was struck dumb by a prophecy. Augustus Caesar got antsy about his empire, and called a census that made a descendant of King David return to his hometown of Bethlehem, along with his pregnant wife. When we read the New Testament narratives of Christmas, and the coming of the messiah, we get the sense that something big was coming, that the world was filled with anticipation.

In a sense, that was very true. But it seems clear that hardly anyone picked up on the fact that big events were brewing, that God was moving in history. No one recognized the Messiah when he came.

We recognize now that he came. We can trace back to the prophecies in Isaiah and from Moses and others, and we see how Jesus fulfilled them. But back then, very few people caught on. Jesus, while he was still on earth physically, promised that he would come back again some day. And he warned us that the day of his return will catch many people unprepared, just like the day of his birth. In the closing chapters of his book, the Apostle Matthew recorded some of the things Jesus said about his return. Today, we will look at one parable that Jesus used to describe this event. This is the parable of the ten bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1-13.

The setting is a Jewish wedding. In those days, in much of Israel, weddings were the most important social events, after religious festivals. A large proportion of the population lived in poverty, and even, at times, on the brink of starvation. Most people had to work hard from sunrise to sunset, but a wedding was a chance to relax and celebrate. The 10 young women that Jesus is talking about were part of the wedding procession (more on that in a minute). This was a rare moment in their lives when they got to dress up, relax and have fun, and eat as much delicious food as they liked. It would be bitterly disappointing for such girls to miss out on a wedding where they were part of the procession. In some ways, people back then would have viewed the chance to be in a wedding party the same way we view the Christmas holidays in America.

The “business” of the marriage – the ceremony, you might say – took place between the groom and the bride’s parents, some of it up to a year before the marriage was consummated. When this year was concluded, the celebration began with the procession of the bridegroom, usually after nightfall. The bridegroom would travel from his house to a place where he met up with the attendants of the bride (these are the ten young women in the parable).

This procession of the bridegroom was a key part of ancient Jewish weddings. After meeting the attendants/bridesmaids, he and his friends, and the attendants all paraded through town to the place where his bride waited, and then they all paraded to his home, and to the feast! During the parade there was laughing, joking, singing, and the joy of much food and fun to come. This procession took place after dark. Anyone who was part of the wedding would be expected to carry lights to add to the joy and festivity of the procession. If someone was out on the streets without a light, they would rightly be considered a stranger, someone who was not part of the wedding.

People in those days did not have watches or clocks, so time was a pretty fluid thing. As the bridegroom progressed through the streets of the town to the starting point of the procession, he might pause to greet friends and family, or stop off at various houses to receive blessings and gifts from various people. Therefore, no one knew exactly when a given bridegroom would arrive, and when the procession with the bride (and afterwards, the feast) would begin. The bridesmaids waiting to meet them would have to be ready, because no one knew exactly when he would come.

In the parable, some of the bridesmaids were not prepared to wait for very long: they did not have enough oil to keep their lamps burning for a long period of time. Without lights, they would be considered strangers, and not accepted in the wedding party. Because they were not prepared, they had to leave to get more oil for their lamps, and when they got back they found out that they had missed out, the gates were closed and they would not get to participate in the wedding feast. There would be no leisure, no celebration, no joy, no good food. It’s hard to emphasize how deeply disappointed these girls would be.

I want to point out a few things about this parable.

First, there seems to me to be a strong correlation between “oil” and the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament, Kings and Priests were anointed with oil, to signify the Spirit of God. In fact, the word “anointed” came to signify “filled with the Holy Spirit.” I think Jesus was deliberate about choosing a story in which the presence of oil was the key point; and I think he did so because one of his main teachings here is about the Holy Spirit.

The message here is simple, but profound: You can’t get by on a one-time experience with God. Sooner or later, you’ll run out of spiritual fuel, and you could end up missing the wedding feast. You need an ongoing habit of receiving from the Spirit of God.

There are times when we experience a spiritual high, or when things just seem to be going well all around, without a ton of effort. Those times are wonderful, exciting and fun. But we can’t live off of that kind of emotion forever. And it is exhausting to try to artificially generate new excitement to keep us going. We reach the point where the rubber meets the road. We need to live what we know, day by day. Sometimes the daily grind gets ordinary and boring, but it is where life is lived. To make it through that time, we need enough oil for our lamps – in fact, we need the Holy Spirit. If we hang around until the excitement fades, and then go look for more excitement somewhere else, we are acting like the five foolish bridesmaids. While they were out looking for something they had run out of, the wedding procession began, and they were left out of the feast.

Clearly, according to this parable, one experience with God is not enough. Ephesians 5:18 tells us to “keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit.” The apostles in Acts experienced a filling of the Holy Spirit over and over. So how do you get your lamp refilled?

I don’t know.

Well of course, there are basics, things I’ve been talking about for years now. First, we need to read our bibles. We might not always feel a great deal every time we do, but it’s hard to be filled with the Spirit of God if we are not somehow regularly reading or hearing the Bible. In fact, I would say it is impossible. It’s like eating. We don’t remember every single meal we’ve had, but the food we eat nourishes us, even if it’s not our favorite dish. So the Bible nourishes our soul, even when we are unaware of it. Second, we need to be engaged in community with other Christians. God designed us, and the spiritual life, such that this, too, is absolutely necessary. Third, we need to pray. By “pray” I mean, we need open and ongoing communication between God and us.

Now, beyond those three basics, I think different people get refilled by God through different means. I can get refilled by reading a really good Christian book – something like “Desiring God” by John Piper, or “All Things New,” by John Eldredge, or “Abide in Christ” by Andrew Murray. I can also be filled with a good book, even if it is not explicitly Christian. I’m thinking here of excellent fiction like Lord of the Rings, or The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. Even Earnest Hemmingway’s books have a way of helping me see my desperate need for God. I have found that the Lord often refills me through music – both Christian music, and also “secular” music that has depth and heart to it. I get refilled by being in nature.

As I said before, God designed us to be filled, at least in part, by being in community with other Christians, and by worshipping together. Some get filled by the Spirit through times of concentrated prayer alone, or with others. Maybe you get refilled by listening to the Bible on audio, or listening to sermons on the TV, radio, the Internet, or at church. I am positive that if you ask God how he wants to replenish your oil, he will tell you, and make it available to you. Ask him, and then watch for his answer.

Here’s something else from this parable: No one else can be filled on your behalf. Remember that the 5 wise bridesmaids did not have enough oil to spare for the 5 foolish ones? Jesus included that detail in order to illustrate this point. You have to take responsibility for yourself to get the oil you need on an ongoing basis. No one else can do it for you, any more than they can eat a meal to satisfy your hunger.

I think this parable is told, in part for people who think, “I’ll wait until the end of my life is closer,” or “I’ll get right with God someday – just not right now.” You never know when Jesus is coming, and it will be too late to get your spiritual affairs in order once he is here. Jesus is telling us to be prepared, now and always.

Also, part of being prepared includes being ready for it to take a long time. The five foolish virgins were ready at first, but they weren’t in it for the long haul. If the Christian life is a race, it is a marathon, not a sprint. Sometimes life can feel long and difficult – part of being ready for Jesus is about being able to endure through those times.

The time to replenish your oil is now. One of Jesus stated points is: “Therefore be alert because you do not know either the day or the hour.” Don’t think, “well, I’ll deal with my spiritual issues after Christmas.” Christmas might not come this year. Jesus may come back first. Even if he doesn’t, any person could die at any moment in an accident. Refilling your oil – getting refilled by the Holy Spirit – needs to be a priority.

Finally (and this is my favorite part of this parable), before this, Jesus has been telling us to be prepared in order to avoid the negative consequences. This parable, however, paints his return in a positive light. This is something we won’t want to miss out on. There will be joy, and laughter, and feasting and celebrating. It is like a long awaited vacation. This is something we should be looking forward to, something we will want to be a part of. A wedding, for most of Jesus’ listeners, would have been one of the most fun, satisfying and joyful events that they could look forward to. Heaven should be that for us – only not “one of” the best things to look forward to, but rather “the very best thing” we have to anticipate.