Matthew 25:1-13 “Where Do You See God?” - Part 1
Matthew twenty-five. This is one of the more difficult chapters in the Gospel of Matthew. It’s probably one of the more difficult chapters in all of Scripture. But, over the next three weeks, including today, this is what we receive. As we approach the final weeks in our church calendar we will be hearing about the Parousia. Say that with me - “Pair” “Rue” “See-ah”. The Parousia is a big church word that in Greek means the second coming of Jesus Christ.
The reason why Matthew twenty-five is one of the more complicated chapters is that there are many different views how people see Parousia. Each of us has a certain image formed by previous pastors, teachers, and parents. Some of these images might evoke fear and anxiety. Unfortunately, this fear and anxiety comes from what we see in our daily lives. We’ve seen it on the news, in our communities, and on social media. For some of us, the images we have heard and seen are disturbing enough and we want to come to worship to get away from it.
So, what should we do? Should we change the Gospel lessons to something that appears to be more joyful? Or, skip worship until Christmas Eve? Or, should a petition be passed around to hear a sermon on another lesson? All of these might seem appealing, and I wouldn’t argue with them.
But, when anything difficult is presented to us in life we can go one of two directions. We can run from it, or we can face it head-on. Part of being a disciple of Jesus Christ means that we gather together and face our challenges. This means we might have to roll up our sleeves, become uncomfortable, and get a little dirty. We dive in head first and see to what God is showing us because there’s more there.
That’s what’s in Matthew twenty-five. There are three parables, or stories, that Jesus shared that provide hope beyond what is seen. That’s what Matthew’s community needed to hear. These disciples, who were formerly Jewish, were the minority in society and being persecuted.
Unlike today, Christianity is the dominant religion in the United States. Although worship attendance in every congregation is drastically decreasing, and more people are claiming they don’t associate with any religion, many people still claim to be Christian. Even if we believe we are being persecuted for our faith we really aren’t being persecuted, in the United States, the same way as the early Christians.
As those Christians were being persecuted they were told that Jesus would return. They fully expected Jesus to come within their lifetime. However, with each passing hour, day, and week they were having more and more difficulty waiting for Jesus’ return.
This is what Matthew was addressing in the first part of this chapter. He was addressing those first Christians who were having difficulty seeing that Christ would return. It had been only thirty years since Christ came the first time, and they deeply longed for him to come back. It gave them hope, not fear, for the future. But as they waited to see an immediate sign they began to be filled with fear and anxiety.
Waiting is one of the most difficult experiences to endure. In one way or another, all of us have had to wait for something. There are different types of waiting. Sometimes we wait for something good. We wait for the birth of a healthy child. We wait for the closing on the house of our dreams. We wait for the promotion in a job or an acceptance letter from college.
This is vastly different from another type of waiting. The other type of waiting comes from something that is hard. We wait to see if this time we will be able to get pregnant. We wait for the foreclosure notice of our home because we couldn’t make the payment. We wait for the doctor’s report confirming that cancer has returned.
Whether we are waiting for something good or bad, when the anticipated arrival is delayed, it almost always leads to fear and anxiety. But this doesn’t come from what we see and hear in that moment. Instead, it comes from what we don’t see and don’t hear. Our minds bring up questions. Why haven’t I heard from the college admissions office? Did my child arrive safely on the trip? When will we hear from the doctor? We start to imagine what’s not there. Waiting is hard because we don’t know what’s going to happen.
So, what do we do? Do we passively wait, watch the world pass us by? Do we wait by being consumed with fear and anxiety? Do we wait and daydream of the outcomes? Or, do we wait with each other?
Perhaps that’s what we heard in our parable. We heard about ten bridesmaids who waited for a groom. All of them took their lamps with oil. All of them fell asleep, and all of them were woken up by the announcement. Yet, the so-called five wise bridesmaids only entered the banquet. We can assume that the foolish ones were at fault because they didn’t bring extra oil. Yet, how can we blame them? How many of us don’t pack enough in anticipation for catastrophic events? Probably most of us.
So, we don’t know what prompted the wise bridesmaids to bring oil and the foolish bridesmaids to not to. Perhaps, that’s not the difficult part of this parable. Maybe it’s not that the foolish bridesmaids didn’t bring extra oil, but that the wise bridesmaids weren’t willing to share. This completely contradicts everything Jesus has said up to this point in Matthew’s Gospel. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel Jesus teaches people to care for the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed.
So, how could the wise bridesmaids assume there would not be enough for all? They already knew the groom would be arriving soon. Couldn’t the wise bridesmaids have been simply ungenerous bridesmaids? Couldn’t the wise bridesmaids simply have waited for others to get oil? Better yet, couldn’t they have waited for the others so they wouldn’t have been locked out and isolated? Perhaps that’s where we can see God. We can see God by keeping each other focused on Christ’s ultimate return as we wait.
There was one person who people saw God at work in as he waited with others. His name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer, was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian, in the early 20th century. For most of Bonhoeffer’s life, he was well known for speaking out against the Nazi regime and teaching at underground seminaries throughout Germany.
Although he evaded the Gestapo or Nazi secret police, they eventually found him and arrested him. For a year and a half, Bonhoeffer waited in prisons hoping that one day he would be released. As he waited Bonhoeffer continued to minister, write, and give words of hope to others who were also imprisoned.
As one of his friends wrote, “He was always good-tempered, always had the same kindliness and politeness towards everybody, so that to my surprise, within a short time, he had won over his warders… His attitude, so he had stated, was rooted in his Christian convictions… The few things which we possessed and which we were allowed to accept from our relationships and friends we exchange according to our needs… It delighted him that even in prison he was able to help his neighbor, and share what he had.”
Even on the eve of Bonhoeffer’s death, which was the first Sunday after Easter, he performed his pastoral duty by holding worship. Throughout Bonhoeffer’s time in prison, he did not wait passively for death. He continued to be obedient to the will of God up unto his final moments. He waited with others so they wouldn’t have to wait in isolation up until he was killed the day before the end of the Nazi regime.
Now, to live the life and ministry of Dietrich Bonhoeffer seems a little far-fetched for some of us. It might feel like we could never live up to those standards. For some of us, we are led to take on such a major role. We are able to care for others in times of their waiting through our jobs, in our families, and our schools. Yet for others of us, we can wait with others in more subtle ways. This work still has a major impact. So, it might not be one person but a whole community doing small deeds.
I can’t think of a better time when I’ve heard about a community, more specifically a church, waiting, encouraging, and supporting someone, then in Ken’s life. Now, I met Ken during my internship in Cincinnati. Ken and his family were an average upper-middle-class family. His wife was a nurse, and he was an attorney. They had four young, busy, and active kids. For many years they went to worship and helped out at church. Although life was busy, they managed.
But one Fall, he and his wife of 20 years, would see how others waited with them in times of uncertainty. It all started when Mary was battling a persistent cough for a couple of months. When she had enough, she decided to ask for a chest x-ray to make sure her “bronchitis” had not progressed into pneumonia.
Well, the chest x-ray indeed showed that she did not have bronchitis. It also showed she did not have pneumonia either. What they found out was that the x-ray uncovered two advanced stages of cancer. Within a period of 36 hours, the tests and an oncologist concluded that she had 2-3 months to live.
Through their waiting, questions started to arise. How could this be? How did they miss the symptoms? Above all, they wanted to know where was God in all of this? Within a short time, they saw God. Ken described how God showed up in new ways, through other people as his family waited for their future to unfold. They saw it through extended family. They saw it through school and community friends. They even saw it through the church.
As he explained that for years they had always been “doers”, but in all honesty, they were not very good at letting others “do for them”. For at least a year, others helped get their four non-driving kids where they needed to be. They kept them regularly fed. They helped clean their house. But more importantly, people simply prayed for, walked with, and supported them. They learned how to accept in new ways, and in so doing, learned how to serve in new ways. They even developed deeper relationships within their faith community. For the first time, prayer and its impact were real, very real.
He went on to say that God helped them remember that they were never alone. Especially during those times when they felt the most alone, that was exactly when the Holy Spirit worked through their faith community to encircle and carry them through those challenging times.
In these uncertain times, when we are so consumed by fear and anxiety, when we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, when we are in the middle of waiting for the Parousia, we can see God. God is here in the present. God is saying “stay awake” because God not only will act but is acting.
God is acting as we are waiting with each other. God is acting as we support and encourage one another. God is acting as we keep each other’s eyes on Christ’s return. We can already see this in the various ministries at Zion participating such as Operation Christmas Child, the Harvest Dinner, and Family Promise. We can see this in the relationships we have with each other, in our families, and in welcoming new people. I’ve specifically seen it as you’ve supported me while I’ve tried to become an ordained pastor.
Above all, we know God is present right here right now because we will experience God in as will share in Christ’s Holy Meal. We can see the presence of God in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine. So, why should we live in fear? Why should we be anxious about Christ’s return? We should welcome the Parousia.
We should be excited to hear about Christ’s coming. We should be on the edge of our seats waiting, because that means there will come the day when there will be no more fear and anxiety, pain and suffering will cease to exist, and death and hatred will be a distant memory. That, my friends, will be the day when we will experience and ultimately see the love of God.