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Preparing for the Kingdom Then and Now

What if the parable of the 10 bridesmaids isn’t about just the second-coming of Christ?  What if it was about the coming of the kingdom of God in the first century, and how some were prepared then, and some were not?  Does the warning of Jesus to watch and wait mean anything before he comes again?  I think so, and here is the sermon I’m preaching on Sunday, November 6, 2011. 

Preparing For the Kingdom Then and Now

Matthew 25:1-13

One of the great benefits of the revised common lectionary is that over a three year cycle the readings cover all of the major themes of the Bible.  But, one of the shortcomings of the same lectionary is that sometimes you jump from one week to the next without an appropriate connection between the two.

That’s the case this week as we read this passage about the wise and foolish brides maids.  Remember that last week we read the account of Jesus berating the scribes and Pharisees from Matthew 23:1-12.  Jesus warned his hearers that although the scribes and Pharisees “sit in Moses seat” – meaning that they teach the Law of God – they are to be heard but not emulated.  They “do not practice what they preach” Jesus said, which is exactly where we get that saying.

But today we skip ahead through the rest of Matthew 23, all of Matthew 24, landing at the beginning of Matthew 25, which starts out, “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like…”

Of course, your translation may have slightly different wording.  Some translations just begin Matthew 25 with “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like….”  Either way, the idea Matthew is trying to convey is that what has just been said before we get to Matthew 25 is important, and that Matthew 25 is a continuation of that same thought.

What is Matthew 23 and 24 about then?  Very simply, Jesus is laments for the city of Jerusalem, the Temple, and all that will go with its destruction including persecution, war, unrest, turmoil, and so on.

These passages usually are read as signs of the end of time, the second coming of Christ, and the judgment of God.  And certainly that is how we have most often understood them.

But the first rule of biblical interpretation, at least in my approach to Scripture, is “What did this passage mean to those who first heard it?”  And here’s where we need to step back from our 21st century understanding, and try to put ourselves in the place of those who heard Jesus in the first century.

The Failure of The People of God

We have been talking about this on Wednesday nights because on Wednesdays we have been studying Mark 13 for the last two or three weeks.  And, we got a taste of one of the themes of Matthew last week, but it also carries over to this week as well.  Let me explain.

Matthew has represented Jesus as the “new Moses.”  While it was common knowledge that Moses was the “law-giver” because he gave the nation of Israel the law after his encounter with God on Mt. Sinai, Matthew divides his gospel into five great discourses, mimicking the five books of the Torah.

Matthew also presents Jesus as a first century Moses through the Sermon on the Mount, which comprises the first of five discourses.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says repeatedly, “You have heard it has been said….but I say unto you.”

Each time Jesus said that, he quoted part of the Law of Moses, but then he reinterpreted it as it was intended, and as it is in the Kingdom of God.

For example, Jesus says, “You have heard that it has been said, ‘An eye for an eye’ but I say unto you do not return evil for evil.”  And then he adds, the famous admonition to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, give your cloak and your tunic as well.

You, I am sure, get the picture.  Jesus has come to announce the kingdom of God (Matthew usually calls it the kingdom of heaven), and then to teach and demonstrate what life is like in that kingdom.

One of the primary points is that the religious leaders — the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, priests, and so on – have failed to lead the nation correctly.  In turn, the people of God have failed in their duty and calling to be God’s unique people, and to be a blessing to all the earth.

Jesus mission was two-fold:  first, to announce that the kingdom had come among them; and, secondly, to point out how abjectly they had failed as God’s people.

Jesus then embarks on a three-year mission of teaching about and demonstrating the kingdom of God.  Jesus eats with known sinners because he wants them to know that the kingdom of God is open to them.  Jesus touches and heals lepers, the blind, the lame, and those with various diseases because in the kingdom of God everything is put right again.

Jesus feeds 5,000, then feeds 4,000 because in the kingdom of God there is abundance at the King’s table. Jesus shares table fellowship with all because that is how hospitality is shown and received, and Jesus includes everyone because the kingdom of God is open to everyone.

In other parts of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus uses parables to illustrate what the kingdom of God is like.  It’s like a pearl of great price, it’s like a treasure hidden in a field, it’s like yeast that leavens the entire loaf, it’s like a light that dispels the darkness, and so on.  All of these parables give Jesus’ followers clues as to what the kingdom of God is like, which is a world vastly different from their own.

But then the other shoe has to drop.  Jesus announces and demonstrates the kingdom, which is in contrast to the false religion, the hypocrisy perpetrated by the religious leaders.

The religious and civic leaders, because both were intertwined in Jesus’ day, fit into one of two categories.  First, there were those who had sold out to Rome and were complicit in the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, Judea, and the surrounding areas.  Those that had sold out and were collaborating with the Romans included the chief priests, the kings who followed Herod, and the primary religious groups the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, priests, and so on.

Second, there were those who did not hold positions of power and influence, but who also sought to lead the nation.  These were the ones who longed for a nation not occupied by Romans, who wanted a real King of the Jews, and deliverance from the cruelty and tyranny of Rome, and their puppet kings and governors.  These usually thought that the only way out from under Roman rule was to defeat the Romans militarily.

Judas Maccabees, the hero of the Maccabean revolt, lived on in their memories as the last of the great Jewish kings, and the one who had about 150 years before Christ delivered the nation from Antiochus IV Epiphanes and his desecration of the Temple.

Many of these who longed for a military victory, and a messiah who would lead the nation, were called Zealots.  But beyond the Zealot party there were many others who had the same dreams and aspirations.  They thought the kingdom of God would come in just like the Exodus.  God’s messiah, just like Moses had done, would lead them to freedom from the tyranny of Rome.

A New Kingdom Where Heaven Meets Earth

For those of first century Jerusalem and Judea, heaven and earth met in the Holy of Holies, the most sacred room in the Temple in Jerusalem.  The High Priest entered that room only once a year, to sprinkle the blood of the sacrificial lamb on the “mercy seat” to atone for the sins of the people for another year.

The Yom Kippur ritual reminded the nation that God was in their midst.  That just as God had been present in the tent known as the Tabernacle with Moses, so he was present with them in the Temple.

While synagogues emerged after the Babylonian exile, and Jesus began his ministry in a synagogue by reading from the scroll of Isaiah, it was in the Temple that they believed heaven and earth met in sacred space.

But again, Jesus’ kingdom is not a kingdom of magnificent buildings.  Rather Jesus tells his disciples that they will see the Temple destroyed, not one stone left on another.  So disturbing was this news that the disciples come to Jesus and ask him privately how they will know when these things are going to happen.  In their minds, if the Temple is destroyed, the end of the world must be near.  Certainly the end of life as they know it.

That’s what Matthew 24 and 25 is about.  Being ready for the cataclysmic events that will reshape their world.  The Temple will be destroyed, Jerusalem will be laid waste, followers of Jesus will be persecuted, the good news will be proclaimed to every ethnic group.

Remember Jesus had taught his disciples to pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  In other words, Jesus was teaching his disciples to pray that heaven would meet earth, not in the Temple, but in their lives.

And to demonstrate that he, Jesus, was the place in which heaven meets earth, he will give his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.

The son of God, the savior of the world, the messiah of the Jews, the Anointed One of God, the Christ will suffer and die at the hands of the Roman Empire whose cruelty and ruthlessness know no bounds.  Complicit in his death are the religious leaders who have been bad shepherds to those in their care.

But God will vindicate Jesus.  God will raise Jesus from the dead.  The one whom the Romans mockingly placarded as “King of the Jews” is indeed the King of all creation.

When God raises Jesus from the dead, sin, death and the grave are defeated.  The good news goes out that “God is in charge” and the kingdom of God is visibly present.

The Ten Bridesmaids

Which brings us to our story today.  Jesus uses a parable again to explain what the kingdom of God will be like.  As I said earlier, we usually read this as a warning to be ready for the second coming of Christ.

While that warning is certainly appropriate 2,000 years after Christ’s first appearance, for Jesus’ hearers that day there is another message.  Get ready for the surprising appearance of the bridegroom.

In the first century, as I mentioned several weeks ago, the weddings took a year or more to be finalized.  As best we know, the betrothal marked the beginning of preparation for the actual wedding itself.

The bridegroom would proclaim his love for his intended, then withdraw from her for about a year to build them a house.  The house usually was built as an addition to his parents’ home, and work was slow and uncertain.

But as the year drew to a close, and perhaps with some secret arrangement, the groom and his party would set out from his new home to his future bride’s home one evening.  The groomsmen, if we may call them that, would all be carrying torches, lighting their way from his home to that of his future in-laws.

Along the way the groom’s party would sing and shout, all in great excuberant fun.  As they approached the bride’s home, the cry would ring out from within the bride’s home – “He’s here, the bridegroom is here!”

The bride and her party – parents, relatives, friends, and bridesmaids – would all emerge from her home and off they would go to the wedding feast which lasted 7 days and nights.  Finally, the wedding ceremony itself was completed.

Because the nights were dark, and each needed his own lamp to find the way, everyone had to be prepared in the bride’s home.  Clothes had to be kept in their best condition; and oil had to be procured for the lamps to light the way.

The story we read is about 10 bridesmaids.  Five were wise, and five were foolish.  The wise bridesmaids were prepared with plenty of oil for their lamps. They were ready for the surprise arrival of the bridegroom.

The foolish bridesmaids were unprepared.  They delayed purchasing their oil, lolled about the house, and were caught completely off-guard when the bridegroom surprised the household.

In the past Jesus has drawn on the books of Moses for his Sermon on the Mount.  And, Jesus quotes the books of the prophets often, reading especially from the book of Isaiah to launch his ministry and explain his calling.  But here Jesus calls on the Wisdom literature – Psalms and Proverbs – to distinguish those who are wise in the first century from those who are not.

Clearly, Jesus himself is the bridegroom.  The one who will come unexpectedly and catch everyone off-guard.  This has even more weight when we realize that in these last chapters in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is in Jerusalem during the last week of his life.

His warning to those who are listening to him is “Don’t be surprised at how and when the kingdom of God comes to you.”  Because, remember, they were either looking for the kingdom to come by their cooperation with the Romans (which meant they had really given up on the whole kingdom idea), or they were looking for the kingdom to come by their own hand in military combat.

Jesus was saying, “The kingdom of God will be like a bridegroom coming for his bride.”  It will be a surprise, not only as to time, but also in its appearance.  While many had some vague idea about God’s coming to redeem his people and rule his creation, none suspected the kingdom of God would come in the person of Jesus, who would be crucified as a common criminal, but vindicated by God in his resurrection.

So, the parable of the ten bridesmaids is a cautionary tale.  Not only are we to watch for the coming of the kingdom, we are to watch for how it comes as well.  And, we are to be ready.

But how do we prepare?  The same way those of the first century prepared.  By embracing the kingdom of God, as revealed in and through Jesus.

But, of course, we do, you might argue.  But the Pharisees thought they were embracing the kingdom of God, and it could not come through the likes of Jesus of Nazareth.

The chief priests thought they were ready for the kingdom of God, but their kingdom included the Temple, and an earthly king.

The Zealots thought they were ready for the kingdom of God, because they were ready to fight to the death for it. But their idea of the kingdom of God meant the annihilation of the Romans, and their collaborators.

How can we fill our lamps? How can we be ready for the kingdom both now and in its final coming?  By embracing the king of that kingdom, and all he taught.

Which takes us back to the Sermon on the Mount, to heaven meeting earth as we do God’s will, to our hearing Jesus reinterpret the Law of God, and then live it out.  To understand that the kingdom of God is not future, but present now; not spiritual only, but a living reality.

For if we do not, then we are no more prepared for the coming of the king of the kingdom, the bridegroom, than were the foolish bridesmaids.

May we be found ready, eagerly anticipating the future fulfillment of that which has already dawned upon God’s creation – God’s kingdom fully come in all its glory, justice, and mercy.