( a sermon by Mark Parent)
(delivered at the Pereaux United Baptist Church)
(6 November 2011— Matthew 25:1-13)
The story is told of the president of Princeton Seminary preaching on this morning’s gospel lesson about the five foolish and the five wise virgins at a school chapel service.
In those days all the seminarians were males, most of them in their early twenties. The president preached a masterful sermon until he got to the very end of his message when he summed up his message with these words, “where would you rather be, in the light with the wise virgins or in the dark with the foolish virgins?”
His audience of young males began to smirk and then to laugh. Clearly, they preferred to be with the foolish virgins in the dark and the sermon ground rapidly to an embarrassing halt.
The background to this parable about the five wise and the five foolish virgins was the expectation that God would return and establish his rule on earth, liberating the Jews and punishing their enemies. The Christian community inherited this expectation and, after Christ’s death, modified it to look forward not to the coming of the Messiah but to the return of the Messiah; to Christ’s return, to the end of persecution and to the triumph of the Christian Church. Moreover, the early Christians claimed that this would happen soon, as they reasoned that the Messiah, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, had already come and thus the end of the world could not be far away.
As the years began to pass though, and Christ did not return, some Christians began to lose hope and to question whether Jesus really had been the Messiah. And so this parable became an important lesson in not losing hope, in being prepared, in being every ready for the end of the world and the return of Christ.
This message about being prepared for the return of Christ sounds odd to many people today in our scientific age and even a bit fantastical, especially in light of all those who, in spite of Jesus’ words that no one knows the hour or the day, think they are smarter than God and trot out their end time predictions.
I remember a United Church minister, back when I was serving in a church in Richmond Hill, Ontario, who confessed that he did not believe in the return of Christ. I asked him how he dealt with the various Biblical passages which talked about the return of Christ and the end of this world. He replied that he reinterpreted them and applied them to the life of the individual who, anytime, could face his or her own end of time through a tragic accident or through contracting a fatal illness or simply through old age. I disagreed, and felt that the theme of the end of the world and the coming of Christ could not so easily be dismissed. It does matter whether Christ will return, whether the Biblical language and hope are mere metaphors or something much more concrete.
And, it matters for at least three very important reasons. The first is in regard to our concept of time. The Eastern way of thinking sees time as cyclical and repetitive, and thus, ultimately meaningless. Salvation in Eastern understanding lies in transcending time, in escaping the flow of history. That is what the repetitions of various mantras are supposed to do to you. They are supposed to put you in a state where time is transcended and seen as not only unimportant but unreal as well.
In contrast, the Christian approach views time as linear and purposeful. It has a beginning, the creation of the world, the Garden of Eden. And, it has an end, the coming down out of heaven of the New Jerusalem adorned as bride prepared for her husband, the return of the Christ.
These images, the rural Garden of Eden and the urban heavenly city, have always fascinated me. Religion is often thought of as escapist and yet the opposite is actually the case. The Bible does not fantasize about a return to the Garden of Eden as we baby boomers did back in the sixties and seventies when we sang these words, “we are stardust we are golden and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” The Bible recognizes the importance and the reality of time. Time moves forward and we cannot escape to some golden past when life was supposedly simpler and people were purer.
This is always the temptation which arises when things get tough, isn’t it — the temptation to escape to an ideal past? Nevertheless, it is a dangerous temptation. There is no pristine pure past and, even if there were, we could not get back to it. The garden is closed to us, as the story of Genesis itself puts it so graphically. We must turn our faces in pilgrimage to that city which has foundations whose builder and maker is God.
Of course, we are talking in poetic language but the lesson remains of value. If, in your life, you try to recapture the past, you will destroy the present and forfeit the future. You will waste your life pining for something which is no longer. You will be throwing away what you can have, longing for something you cannot have. As the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus once put it you cannot ever step in the stream in the same place. Time moves on, it has direction. It is not cyclical but linear.
This is the first reason why it is important to hold to a literal end of the world and to the return of Christ, and not simply translate all such language as referring to the death of the individual.
The second reason is closely tied to the first and is an extension of it. If time has movement, then history — the events of your life and my life — is important. The choices we make, the decisions we live by, are important. What we do is important. History becomes the stage on which our service to God and to others is worked out.
The novelist Frederick Buechner draws an interesting word picture between Buddha and Jesus. Buddha is sitting under the Bo tree in the lotus position. His eyes are shut, closing out the concerns and the problems of this world. In contrast, Jesus is hanging on the cross, his eyes and his arms stretched open to the world.
By means of this simple word picture, Buechner points out the difference between the Western thinking, based upon the Bible, which views history as the stage upon which we must act out our discipleship, and Eastern thinking which seeks to flee from involvement within history and thinks that the ultimate religious act is to transcend the daily struggles of life and escape from them.
Sometimes, often times, people come to me and ask why Christianity doesn’t make all their problems disappear. That’s our expectation isn’t it? When we become Christians, we will escape the problems and the difficulties of life. We even have a hymn which talks about living on a higher plane, safely serene from the dirtiness of life. But such thinking is not Christian and it is not biblical. The Christian message is always that history is important; that if we wish to be true to God and to God’s call we cannot escape from life but rather we must involve ourselves in life — in the nitty, gritty problems which form the fabric of human history. That is what God in Christ did. He humbled himself and took on human form. He suffered, even to the point of death on the cross.
And then the third and final reason is this. The return of Christ is the assurance that this world is not headed towards ultimate destruction but towards fulfillment and completion.
When I was kid growing up in Bolivia there were not many English books to read and so, starting at age twelve, I read the trilogy The Lord of Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. And I reread it every year after that for at least four years in a row.
J. R. R. Tolkien was a committed Christian and, in fact, was one of the people who helped convince C. S. Lewis of the truth of the Christian faith. It is no accident then that the third and final book of the trilogy The Lord of the Rings is entitled The Return of the King. For with the return of the King, the final rule of evil is broken and peace and harmony break out in the land of Middle Earth.
Of course, Tolkien knew, as C. S. Lewis knew when he wrote the Narnia Series, that his story was pointing to the greater story, not the return of the King of Gondor but the return of a much more important King, the return of Christ Jesus, born as the baby of Bethlehem, crucified as a common criminal on the cross of Calvary.
Life for the Christian, at least, is not a story, as the world states, of ups and downs with nothingness at the end. Instead, life is the story of God’s great and final word of “yes.”
It is the story of a pilgrimage to a time when death shall be no more, when there shall be no more pain or crying any longer, for the former things have passed away.
It is the story of a pilgrimage to that time when the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and a little child shall lead.
It is the story of a pilgrimage to that time when the mountains shall be made low and the rough place smooth and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
It is the story of a pilgrimage to that day when the Holy City, New Jerusalem shall come down out of heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
It is the story of a pilgrimage to the day when men shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall we learn war any more.
It is the story of a pilgrimage to that glorious time when there will be no more night; no need of light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be our light, and He will reign forever and ever.
And so, in the hope we stand always prepared, ever ready, using the time we have to do our part to establish God’s will on earth as it already is in heaven.