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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

“Be Prepared! For What?

Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’

“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’

“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’

“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.

“Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’

“But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour. Matthew 25:1-13

What’s the most foolish thing you’ve ever done? Pay good money for a suit or a dress that you never wore? Buy a car that turned out to be a lemon? Invest your money in a sure thing, and end up losing it all? Have an affair that almost ruined your life?

But who likes to be reminded of their foolishness? What’s one of the wisest things you’ve ever done?

Saying “yes” to the one you married? Putting some money into a savings account every payday instead of buying lottery tickets? Was it changing jobs, changing friends, changing lifestyles? Was it turning your life over to God?

In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus tells a story about 10 bridesmaids. 5 were wise and 5 were foolish. Reading this parable, we’re reminded of the story in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus told about the wise person who built his house on a rock, and a foolish person who built his house on sand. Of course, the house built on sand fell to pieces when the rains came because the foundation wasn’t good. The wise person, whose house didn’t fall, was like the person who hears God’s Word and does what it says. In both this story and in today’s Gospel story, the world seems to be made up of wise and foolish people.

In the story of the bridesmaids, the issue of wisdom and foolishness is preparedness – being ready. Maybe the founders of the Boy Scouts were familiar with this parable when they decided that the scouts’ motto would be “Be prepared.” There were 5 bridesmaids who took enough oil with them, so they were ready when the bridegroom came. Five others were not prepared. They didn’t take enough oil for their lamps. So, they missed out on the great opportunity. So, Jesus is telling His disciples to be prepared. Don’t be foolish, He’s saying, be ready at all times. Be prepared! But we might ask, be prepared – for what?

The church has always looked at this passage as a strong warning to be ready for the day of judgment, the return of Christ, the end of time. Or at least, our own death. And that’s exactly what Jesus is talking about. In the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, we confess that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. And it’s vitally important to be ready for that final hour, whether it takes place when we die or when Jesus comes again.

But we don’t need to limit our readiness to the final hour, the last judgment for us. God comes into our lives in the situations we’re in now. He comes at special times, at special moments. Sometimes we meet the bridegroom when we least expect to. We should live so that whenever that moment of opportunity – or moment of truth – comes, we’ll be prepared. We’ll be ready.

If we’re wise, we’ll be ready for those times when our lamps are needed, lamps with oil. “Here’s the bridegroom!” and it’s too late to run to the store for oil.

The phone rings. It’s the hospital. Your son or daughter has been in an accident. How do you face it? There’s no time to run and get some oil. No time to prepare. “Here’s the bridegroom!”

The pink slip arrives on your desk. You’ve lost your job after 25 years. No warning. You can’t believe it. What will you tell your wife, your children? It’s too late to run off and get some oil. No time to prepare. “Here’s the bridegroom!”

As a teenager, friends are important to you. But all of a sudden, the one you thought was your best friend turns against you. The person you trusted tells lies about you. You can’t believe your best friend would do that. Now what? It’s too late to run off and get oil for your lamp. No time to prepare. “Here’s the bridegroom!”

The story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids is a warning from Jesus to be prepared – to be ready for the unexpected that will happen, not just at the end of time or the end of our lives, but throughout our lives. Are you ready? Do you have enough oil in your lamp?

I want to mention three types of encounters we need to be ready for. Times when “the bridegroom comes,” Jesus would say. These moments often come to us at unexpected times, sometimes in disguise or unannounced, sometimes as interruptions. We can’t always predict when these moments will appear, so if we’re not prepared, we might find ourselves “short of oil,” to use Jesus’ analogy. We might panic, and then find that the door is shut. So let me mention three of these moments:

First of all, there’s temptation. Temptation usually comes when you least expect it. You may be doing fine. Things are going great. Suddenly and without warning you’re face-to-face with temptation. It’s powerful, subtle, seductive. Sometimes it comes on strongest right after you’ve experienced a special blessing, a mountaintop experience. The tempter makes it sound so reasonable and so good that it doesn’t seem like a temptation.

But unless there’s been some readiness, some preparation that’s taken place, you may well be swept off your feet.

We all face the temptation to allow good things to rob us of the best. A parent may see some advantage in working extra hours, but in doing so neglects time with the children. Later we wake up and wonder how we let it happen.

Sex is a beautiful thing but it’s also a powerful force. We may think we have it under control, but suddenly it surfaces in a strong temptation, and in a quick moment the beautiful becomes ugly because we weren’t ready for the encounter.

Greed is often masked as progress, growth, or good business. Prosperity can turn into greed, so we want more and more, more than we need, more than our share. Greed is a powerful temptation that can blindside us before we realize it.

Only those who are living in a state of preparedness can resist the temptations that arise all around us. We need to be ready so that we have enough oil in our lamps. “The bridegroom is coming!”

Another type of encounter we need to be ready for is with people the Bible calls “false prophets.” Most of us have had people knock on our doors, eager to give us their version of the truth, ready and trained to lead us with the right questions and pointing to certain Bible verses. As they talk, we may feel cheated by our church for not making these things clear to us. Some people are swept off their feet by the apparent sincerity, the personal attention, their knowledge of certain parts of the Bible and current events. Who are you going to believe? Who has the truth? Who are the false prophets?

Checking out at the grocery store last week [November 1996], one of the tabloid headlines caught my eye: “Visions of Christ and the Virgin Mary increasing as we approach the year 2000.” Plan on seeing more and more of this kind of stuff over the next four years, as people try to predict either the rapture of the church or the end of the world, with the second coming of Christ after 2000 years. The problem is that Jesus said no one will know the time. But funnier than that is the fact that the men who set the date for Jesus’ birth were off by 4 to 6 years, which means that Jesus was born in 4 to 6 B.C. – which also means that 2000 years from the birth of Christ would be sometime between 1994 and 1996! But you watch: you’ll be seeing and hearing more and more about the year 2000!

So, who are you going to believe? How can you tell the true from the false prophets? You need to be ready because otherwise you may be led astray – or fail to listen to a word that God has for you. “The bridegroom is coming!”

There’s another, very different kind of encounter we may miss if we’re not prepared. That’s the presence of Jesus in the lives of other people. God comes to us in different ways, through His word, the Bible, and the sacraments. But God also comes to us in the lives of other people. Jesus said, “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick, and you looked after me. I was in prison, and you came to visit me… Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me.” (Matt. 25:35-40)

To the person who is following Jesus, the person in need has the face of Jesus. We may miss that connection unless we’re living in a state of preparedness, unless we have ample oil in our lamps. For “the bridegroom is coming!”

So, we see that we need to be ready, living in preparedness, so that when temptation comes, when false teachers come, or when we’re visited by God, we won’t be caught off guard nor miss out on God’s wedding banquet. And the question then is this: What does it mean to be ready? What is this oil that’s needed for our lamps? How do we prepare for those moments when the bridegroom comes?

The answer is made more clear when we link this story with the other story Jesus told about wise and foolish people, the one I mentioned about the people building on the sand and on the rock. There Jesus said, “The wise person is the one who hears my word and does it.” “The foolish person,” Jesus said, “is the one who hears my words, but does not act on them.”

The oil we need, then is the Word of God, planted deep inside our minds and our hearts, and lived out in our lives. I like the way the Collect for the Word in the Order of Morning Service puts it: “Blessed Lord, who has caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning, grant that we may… hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them…”

Being prepared – being ready – happens when day-by-day we read and meditate on God’s Word, when week-by-week we gather together to study and hear God’s Word, and as we more and more obey God’s Word and live according to His will and His ways.

In other words, as we follow Jesus in our daily lives, we’re storing up oil and becoming prepared for those moments when suddenly we’re called upon to say “no” to temptation, to decide who speaks the truth, to recognize the presence of Jesus. Following Jesus is building your life on a very sure foundation. It’s a very wise thing to do. The decision is yours.


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