There is a story – a true story – that involves one of the survivors of the sinking of the Titanic.
A frightened woman found her place in a lifeboat that was about to be lowered into the raging North Atlantic. She suddenly thought of something she needed, so she asked permission to return to her stateroom before they cast off. She was granted three minutes or they would leave without her.
She ran across the deck that was already leaning at a dangerous angle. She raced through the gambling room where the money was strewn across the floor, ankle deep. She came to her stateroom and quickly pushed aside her diamond rings and expensive bracelets and necklaces as she reached to the shelf above her bed and grabbed three small oranges. She quickly found her way back to the lifeboat and got in.
Now think about that. Just thirty minutes earlier, her diamonds – her gems and jewels – would certainly have been among her most prized possessions. Her smallest diamond would have been worth more to her than a whole crate of oranges.
What made the difference? Her circumstances had changed. Death had come on board the Titanic. In the middle of tragedy and disaster, priceless things were now useless and worthless. Things of far lesser worth had become priceless. Funny, isn’t it, how our values can change – in a moment – in an instant – as circumstances change.
There are events that happen in life that have the power to change the way we look at life. One of those life-changing events is described in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel. It is the familiar story – or parable – that Jesus tells about ten young women. It is a story that is designed to focus on something that I think you’ll agree is going to be one big life-changing event – the Second Coming of Christ.
Of course, Jesus doesn’t come right out and tell us this. No. He lets the story speak for itself. As we consider the plight of these ten women, we connect immediately with the fact that five of them were not prepared.
Let’s go back to that woman who survived the Titanic for a moment. As her circumstances changed – in an instant – from cruise to crisis – as her environment changed – in an instant – from a luxury ocean liner to a small lifeboat – she knew she had to be prepared – prepared for survival – prepared for life on a lifeboat. Diamonds were of no use to her now. But what became valuable was food – in her case – in the form of three small oranges.
Something like that is what Jesus is telling us today. Jesus is telling us that He could return at any moment. And he says we must be ready. That’s what this story is all about. We must be ready.
From what we can tell, these ten young women that Jesus is talking about are bridesmaids. And apparently, their job, as bridesmaids – is to meet the bridegroom and escort him to the wedding. But you know how things – especially weddings – don’t always start on time – and the groom is delayed. Who knows? Maybe he had a flat tire or something. Anyway, he’s late. In the meantime, the bridesmaids fall asleep. Finally, the bridegroom arrives at mid-night, and the call goes out to meet him.
As the bridesmaids trim their lamps, five of them discover that –while they were sleeping – their lamps continued to burn – and they had used up all their oil. The other five had brought extra with them. They were prepared.
The five who ran out tried to borrow some from the five who had come prepared, and when these five refused, what choice did the unprepared five have but to trek down to the local Walmart and buy more? And wouldn’t you know it, while they were gone, the bridegroom arrives – everyone else escorts the groom to the wedding banquet – and the door is shut. When the five unprepared young ladies return, they find themselves shut out. Too late! The door is closed, and they will not be allowed to enter. They were caught – caught unprepared.
The message Jesus leaves us with is this, “Keep awake – in other words, be prepared – for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Jesus is coming again folks. And we don’t know either the day or the hour. But wouldn’t it be nice if Jesus had actually told us when he would return? Man, we could just go about our business – without any real concern for God – or our neighbor for that matter – and we could just bide our time and get ready – right at the last moment. Well you know folks, even if we DID know when Christ was returning, it wouldn’t work that way.
You see, as Christians, our whole life – our hopes, our dreams, our ambitions – are in reality a preparation for Christ’s return. Our whole purpose in being the church is to be ready. And there’s a second reason why we need to be ready. Let me share with you a story.
A pastor once went to the home of an elderly man who had just died. A heart attack struck him down suddenly one morning. His widow stood there, still stunned by what had happened to her dear husband.
The first thing she said to her pastor when he entered the home was, “Now what did you say about the resurrection in your sermon two Sundays ago? I really need to remember it now!”
And she did. She did remember. It was as though the message she had heard two Sundays ago had been preparation – preparation in what she was to think about on the day that her husband died.
You see, much of what we call church – worship, Bible study, Sunday School, fellowship, service to others, even the Harvest Dinner – is all about preparation for when difficult times come to us. Most of you are not in crisis now, but who knows what tomorrow will be like? Much of what we do as the church is preparation.
So here we are. Here we are in church. In worship. Listening to the sermon. Hearing the readings from the Bible. Singing the songs. You might think of this as training – as getting ready – not just in preparation to be ready to meet the Lord – and not just for when difficult times come.
Quite frankly, there is a third reason to get ready. Because every day – every day –, the Kingdom of God breaks into our lives. The question is – do we recognize it? Are we ready when God breaks in? Do we recognize when Jesus breaks into our lives?
Being ready helps. So let me ask you. What are the things that you’re choosing – the things that you are doing – the people that you are hanging with – the places you go to – that will help you to be ready?
Are we choosing the things in life that are really important – the things that are really going to make a difference – the things that will prepare us for those moments when Jesus make himself known – and breaks into our lives?
I find myself over the last few months mentioning what we call the Marks of Discipleship. What these six marks are tools that we use to help us get ready. You know. Pray every day. Worship every week. Read the Bible every day. Develop Christian friendships. Give. Serve. If you’re already doing these things, then I think you’d be ready. These things are like oil for your lamp. And if you’re not doing any of these things – well – that’s like having no oil in your lamps. Your lamps are empty.
It’s a wonderful thing when you’re prepared. You know what I’m talking about. I don’t care what it is you’re preparing yourself for – a wedding, an exam, a party – doesn’t matter – it’s a wonderful thing to be prepared. But you also know what it’s like to be unprepared for those things. And quite frankly – it can be embarrassing – and even sometimes downright disastrous – when you’re caught unprepared.
Like – just a for instance – like the October surprise 8 years ago. Most of you remember that. My power was off for 6 days. Six days without electricity. I was not ready for that. Now? Well, I had one of those water powered backup sump pumps installed. So if the power ever goes off again, I’m ready. At least I won’t have to bail water again.
So here’s the thing. What I want you to hear today from this parable is that Jesus is calling us to get ready. To be prepared. What we need is more oil for our lamps. You’ve come here today looking for oil. At least I hope you have. I hope – in some small way – that your need for oil – your need to be ready – has been helped just by being here today. Worshiping Jesus. Praying to God. Hearing the readings. Listening to a sermon. Singing the [hymns] [songs]. Enjoying the fellowship. That’s oil for the lamp.
You won’t have all the answers after just one visit with us, but it is my hope that in some small way – you have received that extra drop of oil you came looking for. That word of forgiveness. That word of encouragement. Or just a plain old reminder that Jesus is coming again. As Christians, our whole life – our hopes, our dreams, our ambitions – are in reality a preparation to welcome Jesus into our lives.
Everything we do as church – our whole purpose in being the church – is to get ready – to be ready – to stay ready. Just one more reason why church matters. Amen