What are we waiting for?
I sit in front of my glowing computer screen waiting and hoping that some word from God would be present in my heart and on my fingers as they type. I look out the window by my desk and see a bird perched on an empty feeder, waiting for me to refill it as the days grow darker and colder. Just past the birdfeeder, is a busy street where it appears that most are not waiting, just zooming on by with their lives. But at the bus stop stands a man with a backpack on and earbuds in. I wonder what music he’s grooving to as he waits for the bus to come. On the other side of the road another man pushing a stroller with two kids, waits for an ebb in the flow of cars, so he can finally cross over.
What are we waiting for?
The fledgling Christian community in the Greek port city of Thessalonica is waiting on the return of their Lord, Jesus Christ. He has not come back and people continue to die and time continues to pass on and grief lingers and the community waits and wonders where Jesus is. They are waiting for Jesus’ return in power and glory and might. This young Christian community doesn’t know it yet – but when Paul, the man who first helped plant this church, writes them a letter of encouragement – this short letter will become the earliest words written in all the New Testament, a few of which we just heard read.
What are we waiting for?
The young women, in the parable Jesus tells in Matthew 25, are waiting for the party to start. But not all of them expected a wait this long. They’ve been invited to the wedding and weddings come with lots of expectations and high drama and the word on the street is that it’s gonna be the biggest party in town. So they’ve headed out, torches in hand, ready to light up the night and pro-cess with others in festive celebration of this new marriage. But the groom hasn’t shown up, he’s delayed. And the night lengthens and their initial enthusiasm yields to drowsiness and sleep.
You might not worried if there is enough birdseed to keep you fed through the winter. You might not be afraid to cross the street with your kids in safety at this moment. You might not be desperate to get into a wedding… but you are probably waiting for something.
All of us I imagine are waiting for that day when tears are wiped away, when death’s sting is overcome, when the tanks and bombs are melted down into instruments of peace, when the wailing of grieving mothers is replaced by a chorus of joy, when the shame of loneliness melts away and sorrow fades and every soul knows their belovedness. We share with the whole human family a deep ache, a shared waiting for the day of the coming of the Lord.
And at the recognition of this – our question shifts a little. It moves from “What are we waiting for?” to “How are we waiting?”
Both the women labeled wise and those labeled foolish are waiting for the same wedding banquet. All of them together get drowsy and fall asleep, even though Jesus’ closing instruction at the end of the parable is a command to stay awake. So, what then, is the difference between the wisdom of one group and the folly of the other? And in our lives – when an unexpected shout arises, when a moment of holy clarity descends into our routine monotony – how will we be found waiting?
I wonder if a reason that half the group of young women are called foolish in the story wasn’t just that they hadn’t stocked up on extra oil, but that they deserted right at the moment when the time for celebration had finally come. Maybe they imagined themselves to be inadequate, comparing themselves to the so-called wise women, the ones who had more oil, and when the others wouldn’t share, the ones without fled to go buy more. Perhaps they could have joined the procession even without enough oil in their torches… maybe they would not have been rejected from the party at that moment.
A hope born of love stays present in the night awaiting the joyful party. And when the party finally comes it has no other reflex but celebration. God in Christ strengthens us to wait in hope and love rather than to flee in fear that we’re not enough.
Hearing stories with such sharp binaries of in and out might make us fearful. In Matthew lines are drawn between the wise and foolish, faithful and unfaithful, trustworthy and untrustworthy, the sheep and the goats. Can we live up to this difficult calling to follow Jesus and not be a little bit afraid? Jesus in Matthew makes it clear that the ultimate judgment on the world is our ability to see Christ’s presence in the least of these.
And I wonder if we ever fear that Christ will say to us, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you” because we failed to see and minister to Christ in every person who was sick and hungry and thirsty, estranged and imprisoned. Christ is intimately and mysteriously present with each of us when we are struggling or need help. And our fear is that we will fail to notice Christ, fail to respond in love to the immense needs around us and within us. Our fear is that we will show up with not enough oil to sustain ourselves through a long night of waiting. Even worse, we fear that our dearest friends and neighbors won’t share their oil with us.
You all can think of examples of waiting motivated by fear. This is the type of scarcity mindset where people become consumed by worry and can never live in present joy and gratitude. Fear of scarcity leads people to say things like “there will not be enough for you and for us.” And when we venture into the many marketplaces of our lives seeking the oil for sale, venders prey on our fears of the future, promising us our own individual security and prosperity at the expense of a world falling apart around us: “Buy that house you’ll finally feel at home in. Buy another handgun, things are getting more violent. Make sure that your investment portfolios are full and diversified or else you and your kids won’t have a future.” Apocalyptic fears can lead communities to become more and more isolated, more and more wary.
But the hope of the bridesmaids is a jubilant wedding procession and a big feast, theirs is a joyous hope. Our hope as Christians is not in crafting a future of our own design but waiting for and receiving the gift of God’s in-breaking kindom.
That’s why Paul writes his words to the church in Thessalonica to encourage them: “Do not be uniformed, siblings in the faith, about those who have fallen asleep, those who have died.”
Don’t be discouraged, Paul might say as we remember that each one of the young women waiting for the wedding fell asleep. Don’t be discouraged, remember that even Jesus’ dear friends and disciples fell asleep though asked directly by Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane to remain and stay awake with him before his arrest and death. We will always fail if success is living our lives as if we’re driving alone, white-knuckling our way on fear and caffeine through the long night, trying to stay vigilant at all costs.
A nugget of good news the sleepy young women of this story give us is that we can rest and recuperate, we can sleep on the journey of faith. And in every moment, waking and sleeping, day and night and even through death – we don’t have to be afraid, but we can trust that we will be ready for the unexpected goodness, the overwhelming arrival of God.
For Paul and for us there is always hope – a hope that those of us who are alive will join with those who have died and are raised in Christ, and all together we will meet Jesus who will descend from heaven to be with us forever. This is the wild hope that sustains the church – not only that God has made Godself present in Christ, and is present with us now in the Spirit, but that Christ is indeed coming again to make all things right.
Hope is a gift that must be shared with one another, “Encourage one another with these words,” Paul says. When the Church gathers we encourage each other in all sorts of ways, reminding ourselves of the promise of life in Christ. This gift of hope in Christ’s return is a light kept alive by the witness of all who have waited in the darkness of despair and doubt with their torches still persistently burning.
It’s the hope not only that there will be food for the sparrows at the feeder, but that all the hunger of God’s beloved creatures would be satisfied. It’s the hope not only that the bus would arrive, but that each person who hops on has good work to do and a loving home awaiting them at night. It’s the hope that there would not only be a break in traffic for parents and children to walk in safety, but that all our movements would bring us into deeper connection with one another and the earth.
It’s Christ’s light and love within us that enables us to hope even as bombs continue to rain down on Gaza, that there would not only be a ceasefire but the springing up of a just peace. It’s a persistent hope for the peoples of Israel and Palestine, the peoples of Ukraine and Russia, a hope that all God’s beloved children would be woken up from an unbearably long night of fear and violence by a shout at midnight. And we hope that this shout in all of our long nights would be God’s interrupting voice of peace, God’s word coming to dwell among us, saying to us, “Fear not! Come to the party I have prepared for you!”
So let our curiosity flicker as if it is always Christ at our door. May the daily rhythms of our lives be warmed by the glowing hope that Christ will indeed descend again to this world bringing life to all!
The kingdom of heaven will be like ten young women, the kingdom of heaven will be like all of us, taking our lamps, and going out to meet the bridegroom.
So may we all keep awake, for we know not the day or the hour.