Sunday, November 26, 2017

Midnight Approacheth

I have a question for you. 'Tis the season now, and all: How many of you, when you were children, ever tried to stay up on Christmas Eve to catch a certain jolly old elf in the act? Or how many of you who have raised kids of your own ever noticed them giving it a try? Give us a show of hands. I bet it was a hard thing to do. I asked my mother, and she said she and her one brother tried it once. They hid behind one of the couches, in hope that their parents wouldn't notice them sneaking around back there. But they fell asleep before any of the action happened. Keeping vigil through the night is tough. I apparently never made the effort on Christmas Eve.

But I do remember another occasion, around this very time of year. It was eight years ago. I was living in Greece at the time. And shortly after tracing Paul's footsteps in Corinth, I took an overnight stay in a village called Andritsaina, settled on the hillside in the mountains of the Peloponnesian Peninsula. Not being able to get a proper sleep, I rose in the twilight hours and hiked the rest of the way up the mountain. At the top of the winding path was a small courtyard hosting a stone chapel. And I made a decision that I would keep vigil and pray without ceasing 'til the sun rose. At first, all was pitch dark. But after hours in cold and gloomy darkness, I began to see dark blues, and then peaches, pinks, lavenders, light blues, as the sun's dawning rays pierced the horizon over Mount Lykaion, and the mountains and forests and red roofed villages dotting the landscape came slowly and fuzzily into view. All the while, amidst the darkness, I struggled to keep myself warm and awake, and wondered every moment if the sun was just a minute away – or whether the sun would ever rise at all.

Being caught between those two wonderings made it challenging to keep praying, watching, wrestling through the long, dark, lonely night. And it reminds me a bit of a story that Jesus once told. He told of a wedding, or more precisely, of the ten attendants who were summoned to keep vigil for a wedding procession. There were all sorts of ways they did weddings back then, but a few things were constant. The wedding procession, either the groom going to the bride's house to pick her up or the groom returning with the bride to his own house, took place late at night. When the procession got near its destination, it was heralded by shouts announcing their arrival. It wasn't unusual for things to take longer than expected, and so grooms frequently delayed. And once the groom got where he was supposed to be for the party, the doors got shut and locked and were not about to open for anybody. And the attendants keeping watch, lighting the night with simple torches or lamps, were frequently very young female relatives, friends, neighbors – younger than twelve, usually – whose role was vital in honoring the married couple; and so they got to observe weddings and get ready for their own someday.

So Jesus tells a story of ten young girls who stand outside the destination and watch for the procession; that's their job, to make light to welcome the groom when he comes for the banquet. But five of the girls bring oil, oil enough to do their job; and five of the girls don't. And since the groom takes his sweet time along the way, the hours wane on, and all ten doze off. But when the shouts herald the groom's approach toward midnight, the girls all wake up and get their lamps ready. And five have lamps that will work well enough... but five don't. There isn't enough total oil to light all ten; if the five wise girls try to share with the five foolish ones, then none of the lamps will be sure to last, and it'll ruin that part of the ceremony. So the five foolish girls have to scatter around and procure oil at the last minute – and they miss the groom's arrival. When they come back, the five wise girls have entered the feast, the door has been shut, and the groom won't open it for them, because their failure was an insult to the groom, the bride, and the entire party. They put the celebration in jeopardy. What were they thinking? They either assumed that he'd show up quickly, or that he'd take all night and tarry until morning when they'd have no need of oil. The result of their last-minute scramble was shameful exclusion from the party – and that was a foolish path. But the girls who came prepared for the groom to arrive soon or late – they enjoyed the party – the fruit of wisdom (Matthew 25:1-12).

Jesus told that story on the heels of another one, illustrating two approaches a servant might take if his master went away on a trip to a far-away land and left him responsible for caring for the whole household. On the one hand, the chief servant might choose to be responsible – “faithful and wise – by persistently carrying out his tasks. He'd count on his master to possibly return at any moment, but would also ration their resources properly in preparation for the master's continued absence. On the other hand, the chief servant might choose to be irresponsible – “wicked” – by abusing his peers, consuming all the rations himself, and living it up on his absent master's dime, figuring that the master's delay will continue longer, and he'll have time to clean things up if he needs to; or maybe that the master won't return at all, and he'll inherit everything. But, Jesus says, then the master shows up unexpectedly, abruptly; and his reappearance would result in harsh punishment for the servant who took Option #2, but a good reward for the servant who took Option #1 (Matthew 24:45-51).

There's a key word that crops up in both stories: 'wise.' The five young maidens who bring sufficient oil are 'wise,' and the servant who administers the household faithfully is 'wise.' And wisdom is a tough thing to define – but one decent starting place is this: Wisdom is skill for navigating the world we live in. When you have wisdom, you understand how the world works, what makes it tick, what the lay of the land is like, the direction you ought to go to reach your destination. We read that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10; Psalm 111:10; cf. Proverbs 1:7). And that's true because real wisdom, whole-world wisdom, is only possible when you're anchored in the real world; when you're navigating with your eyes open and with good information.

If I try to find my way from here to Delaware, but I ignore all the road signs, and I try to navigate using a topographical map of the ocean floor, and I'm wearing a snorkel, scuba tank, and flippers – is that wisdom? No! And if we try to navigate our way through life in ignorance of what world we're living in, it's the same way. The most fundamental fact about the real world we need to navigate, is that it's created and maintained, in spite of our interference, by a holy God who rightly inspires awe, speaks with authority, and elicits adoration. A life that ignores him is following a bad map and neglecting the signs – and that ain't wise living. But the second fundamental fact about the real world is that the same God, who faces our world in Jesus Christ, has acted and will act decisively and abruptly to remake that world. And a life that doesn't reckon with the perpetual potential and positive promise of the Master's return, the Bridegroom's arrival – such a life ain't wise living, either.

You see, Jesus' parables hold up a mirror to us. Because we are indeed appointed as stewards over the Master's goods during his personal absence. We are responsible for feeding, for tending, for well-treating our fellow servants, and our dwelling-place itself, 'til the Master comes back. And he does not want to come back to a house that's in ruins, to a bankrupt fortune, to starved children, to bruised and battered employees, and to a chief steward drunk with power – or just plain drunk. He wants to come back to a happy and healthy family, work force, and house. And so, just like in Jesus' story, the foolish – those who shortsightedly see his seeming delay as a pretext to be abusive and excessive – will find the Master's abrupt return to be destructive. But the wise – those who farsightedly see his seeming delay as an opportunity to endure in faithfulness for the long-haul while being ready at any minute to give account – will find the Master's abrupt return to be highly rewarding.

Just so, we are indeed attendants waiting for the Bridegroom's arrival to start the party. We cannot afford to assume he'll come immediately, like those cults where folks sell their property, quit their jobs, avoid education, all because they're so certain the end will be tomorrow. Nor can we afford to assume he'll delay throughout the entire night and make our readiness unnecessary. Like the five foolish girls, either of those approaches adds up to the same result: a last-minute scramble when the Bridegroom comes unexpectedly, and the very real risk of getting shut out of the party. No, the Bridegroom may very well come in the midnight hours. And we have to admit: the night can be dark. The night can be cold. Sometimes, when it's so dark and cold, it's tempting to think that means the end must be just minutes away – after all, don't they say it's darkest right before the dawn? (Spoiler alert: It isn't.) And sometimes, when it's so dark and cold, the doubts creep in about whether the night could ever end, whether there could ever be brightness and warmth again. And isn't that the way it can be in our lives? We wait, and we wait, and we watch loved ones die, we get sick and broken, we grieve and mourn, we lose our sense of direction, and we toy with both temptations. The night can be very dark and very cold. But as in the story, there's one question that matters: Are we equipped to light the way when the Bridegroom comes?

In the church, when it comes to the return of Jesus, our Master and Bridegroom, we are big fans of making both mistakes. Let's admit it. Some of us tend to live as if he's never coming back down here, as if there's nothing to live for but ourselves, as if everything we see around us is fixed in stone. And others of us always talk as if the signs are everywhere, and we can count on being the generation who lives to see his return, and we can neglect God-given responsibilities like stewarding the environment, working for peace and justice, caring for ourselves, or due prudence for our future because of it.

The stories Jesus told us this morning, Matthew has stapled to the bottom of what we call the Olivet Discourse, his big end-times speech. This is one of the trickiest sections of the Gospels, because a lot of it clearly refers to events Jesus was prophesying in the first century when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans and the Jewish Christians were to retreat to the mountains at Pella until the seven years of war were ended (Matthew 24:15-16). Jesus warned that the Roman onslaught would come so quickly and harshly that, out of two men in the field or two women grinding at the mill, “one will be taken” – killed by Roman soldiers – “and one will be left” – spared immediate death (Matthew 24:40-41). But the Romans would be, in their own brutal way, executing judgment against the Jerusalem establishment that hopelessly corrupted the temple, condemned Jesus, and persecuted his followers – and hence, Jesus uses the language of Daniel 7 to call it “the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:27). In that sense, the generation to which he spoke did not “pass away until all these things [took] place” (Matthew 24:34).

But some of what Jesus says here seems to point beyond the first century, to the time of his personal return; and that's why the church preserved these sayings, treasured them, well beyond that long-ago year. It's just hard to figure out how much applied then, how much applies to what's to come, and how much overlap there is. And I won't unravel it all now. But two things are clear in what Jesus says. First, he talks as though the final arrival is near at hand and heralded by predictable events. The disciples had asked him about “the sign of your coming and of the end of the age,” and he talked about false messiahs, about “wars and rumors of wars,” of “famines and earthquakes in various places” (Matthew 24:3-7). He mentions persecution (Matthew 24:9), apostasy (Matthew 24:10), numerous false prophets (Matthew 24:11), the increase of lawlessness and the waning of love (Matthew 24:12). He mentions the “sign of the Son of Man” appearing in the skies, and his glory on the clouds of heaven as he approaches the Ancient of Days and receives rule over the kingdoms of the earth, and the sending out of angels to “gather his elect from the four winds” – and, Jesus says, “when you see these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates” (Matthew 24:30-33). And we read that, and some of us tend to think that we see that all around us, and so it can't possibly be long now.

On the other hand, as soon as Jesus talks about “wars and rumors of wars,” he says right away, “this must take place, but the end is not yet” when all that happens (Matthew 24:6). When he speaks of famines, earthquakes, and the rest, he calls it only the beginning of birth pains” (Matthew 24:8). Perhaps some of the ladies in the congregation can attest: the labor of childbirth can take a while, can't it? The beginning doesn't mean the end. Jesus goes on to warn us it can be a while to get through this all, and so “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). Plenty goes on, “and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). He says explicitly that no one knows the day or hour of the Son of Man's arrival (Matthew 24:36). It comes suddenly, abruptly, while people are going about their daily business, just like the Flood in the accounts of Noah (Matthew 24:37-39). “Stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42). “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44). It may be sooner than you think, or later than you think; you can see some indications, but it will still catch you somewhat by surprise.

A wise chief steward tends to the provisions faithfully and is ready when the Master comes, but a foolish one uses the delay as a pretext for abusing the Master's goods and personnel in his absence – so the Master's abrupt arrival will punish the foolish and reward the wise (Matthew 24:45-51). A wise wedding-maiden understands that grooms often delay, so she comes prepared to wait out as little or as much of the night as is necessary; but a foolish wedding-maiden assumes the groom will work on her time-table and neglects to ensure her success for all contingencies – so the Bridegroom's abrupt arrival will shut out the foolish but welcome in the wise.

If the kingdom arrives suddenly and abruptly at a time we can't predict, then it's clear that there's a wise way to live and an unwise way to live – good and bad, skillful and incompetent, ways for navigating the world. An unwise life looks like unreadiness – either banking on the wait being short (and so not being ready to endure), or banking on the wait being long (and so procrastinating everything we need). But a wise life looks like perpetual readiness for the Crucified and Risen King's arrival in the near or the distant future.

An unwise life looks like faithlessness to the Master and Bridegroom. It dishonors the Master by arrogating to oneself his authority over the household and abusing what he's entrusted us with. It dishonors the Bridegroom by jeopardizing the party through our failure to be ready to celebrate him. But a wise life looks like faithfulness – we faithfully steward what the Master has entrusted us with, and we faithfully keep ourselves equipped to celebrate him when he approaches for the party.

An unwise life might look like feeble expectancy – like losing faith in the future return of Jesus, dismissing it as a myth, calling it a failed hope, relegating it to irrelevance in our lives. We might start scoffing and doubting, asking ourselves, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4). We look around, we see the same rhythm keeping pace in our own lives, and we assume the Lord is slow or perhaps even gone. That would be an unwise way to live. But an unwise life might look like apocalyptic burn-out – losing faith in Jesus' warnings, assuming we can read the signs clearly and uniquely in ways no past or future generation possibly could see better. And that is unwisely risky, too. But a wise life looks like an enduring expectation that no time can abate – a certain conviction that the Lord's patience cannot imperil his promise, but that Christ will return very suddenly and change everything, whether the “coming day of God” is sooner or later (cf. 2 Peter 3:8-12).

An unwise life looks like a life centered around the mundane and the human. “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage..., so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:38-39). The foolish servant and foolish wedding-maidens in the parable consume their days and hours in eating, drinking, earning, spending, sleeping, conserving – the ordinary things of life, maybe taken to excess, but certainly placed at the center. And that's not where they fit. So that's unwise. But a wise life is anchored in advance in God's reign – the Master's return, the Bridegroom's arrival, the kingdom of God through the Son of Man. Even before the Master returns, the wise servant is absorbed in diligently and faithfully executing the Master's business; even before the Bridegroom arrives, the wise wedding-maiden is absorbed in keeping her post and remaining equipped for the Bridegroom's party. And even before Christ returns as King, the wise disciple is absorbed in doing the same.

Today is a holiday: the Feast of Christ the King. In one church tradition, it actually bears a different name: the “Sunday of Doom.” I have to admit, I like that. Today we remember the certainty that Christ will return, and he will render a final verdict on all the world and everything in it – ourselves included. By faith, we are already justified, vindicated, approved; but we must endure in that faith, and be faithful in our lives, and be ready for the Last Day all the same. And to be ready, we live “lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming day of God” (2 Peter 3:11-12). Keep a vibrant expectation of his certain return, which may abruptly happen at any moment; and be equipped to endure for the long haul, in case that abrupt moment tarries longer. But in readiness for that certain moment of uncertain timing, “be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace, and count the patience of our Lord as salvation,” even when the night is cold and dark (2 Peter 3:14). It may well be, and midnight approacheth. “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13), so “watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13). Be wise, according to the promises of the Lord, which can never fail. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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