This is the message I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, November 10, 2002. The Scriptures were Joshua 24: 1 -3a, 14 – 25, 1 Thessalonians 4: 13 – 18, and Matthew 15: 1 – 13.
In the three or so years that I have lived in New York I have attended or participated in at least six weddings. The old adage that the more things change, the more they remain the same certainly applies to weddings. No matter whether it is the 21st century or the early days of the Christian era, planning a wedding is a long and time-consuming process.
There are a number of weddings mentioned in the Gospels. Jesus’ very first miracle was performed at the wedding in Cana when he changed the water into wine at the behest of his mother (John 2: 1 – 3). This was more than a simple social error since the family had the obligation to provide a feast of the socially required standard. I am sure there are mothers around today who can relate to the panic that must have run through the bride’s family that day.
On more than one occasion Jesus spoke of the wedding feast and the preparation that went into planning a wedding of that time. Notes from that time tell us that the wedding planning began a year in advance with a marriage contract between the bride and groom. A year later the groom went to the bride’s house where the bride was presented to him. This was followed by a procession to the groom’s home where a festive wedding banquet was held. This banquet could last up to a week, depending on the resources of the groom.
Some weeks ago, the Gospel reading spoke of the wedding and noted that invitations had been sent to the guests over a year before the actual wedding in order that the guests could make preparations. We are reminded that Jesus used this story to remind those listening to him that His coming had been announced long before Jesus came to Galilee. The second invitation was to let the invitees know that the time had come for them to come to the wedding. Again, Jesus used that analogy to announce that now was the time of His coming.
In the Gospel reading for today, the ten virgins are waiting for the procession of the bride and groom from the wedding to the groom’s house for the feast. The use of the lamps is necessary because this procession was typically a nighttime one. The five wise virgins are complimented and rewarded for the preparation while the five who were not so wise are punished for their lack of wisdom, for their squandering of what had been given to them. Just as it would be embarrassing for the family to run out of food or drink at the banquet, so too must it have been embarrassing for those five to be shut out of the wedding festivities.
But the message we must take from this is our preparation for the coming of the Lord. Our preparation must begin from the moment we know that Jesus is our Savior; it cannot wait for the moment when we really need His presence. We know that Jesus is part of our lives; we do not know when the time will come when we will meet Him.
The Thessalonians expressed a concern that they would not be a part of the Second Coming of Christ. They had mistakenly thought that only those who were alive at the time of the coming of Christ would witness and share in the glory of it. The fact is that Christians who have died will be raised first and so go before the living to the gathering in the sky. In writing this portion of the letter, Paul is looking for a practical and immediate response to the great doctrinal teaching of the Second Coming. We, like the Thessalonians, should remind each other of the truth of Christ’s presence as a source of comfort in times of death and stress. Paul wrote “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4: 13 – 18) in the present tense so that they would be a constant comfort as we do wait for the time to come.
But what shall we do while we wait. Do we sit back and let everything go? Or do we take a stand against the forces that distract us from this simple basic truth?
The Old Testament reading today comes at the end of Joshua’s time as the leader of the Israelites. Joshua’s words are an appeal to Israel to choose between God and the many false substitutes around them. If they were not to choose God, if they were not to serve the Lord, then they would have to choose between the gods that their ancestors had worshipped or the gods of the people who lived around Israel. It is a fitting tribute to his leadership that Joshua clearly and unambiguously takes the side of the living God. Joshua showed that a leader must be willing to move ahead and commit to the truth regardless of the people’s inclination.
In response, the people acknowledged that all that had transpired was because of God and that all that they had gained was because of God’s presence in their lives. To remember God and what He had done was to insure that they would continue to serve Him. But history also shows that the people of Israel were quick to forget what it was that God had done for them. Joshua’s challenge that day is to make the commitment to serve God more than a statement but rather the basis for action. This challenge is given to us today as well.
When John Wesley began his ministry after Aldersgate, Joseph Butler, Bishop of Bristol, confronted him:
Butler – “You have no business here. You are not commissioned to preach in this diocese. Therefore I advise you to go hence.”
Wesley – “My lord, my business on earth is do what good I can. Wherever therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do most good here. Therefore here I stay.“ (Frank Baker, “John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal)
Wesley knew that his ministry would not be defined by the place but by the time and that to delay the time would delay the ministry. If one is to find success in their own ministry, it will because they do not wait for the moment or rely on the past. We cannot wait for a time that is at our convenience; we must act when the time is now.
It is possible to come to this table today without worrying about tomorrow. It is possible that our ministry will never be called up. But those are possibilities that can never be considered, for to do so would be to make everything Jesus said and did meaningless in our lives today.
We can never know when that invitation to heavenly banquet will be received and neither should we ever worry about that. What we do know is that, like the Israelites so many years ago, when the torch of leadership was passed to a new generation, that we must renew the covenant first made by the blood of young lambs shed for Passover and then by the blood of the Lamb on the cross at Calvary.
The time is now to say that we will serve the Lord our God with our heart, our mind, and our body.