The moral of the story that Jesus tells, the point of the parable is not “blink and you’ll miss it.” The kingdom of heaven is not a one-off, opportunity of a lifetime, miss it and you miss out, you should have gone before you came, too late now, blink and you’ll miss it special offer.
They were afraid that they’d missed it. That was the worry of the Thessalonians; that their loved ones had died too soon, fallen asleep, missed the great and terrible Day of the Lord, their justification and their joy. Even Paul thought that the second coming would happen in his lifetime. This was just the beginning of their understanding that this was just the beginning.
The point of the parable is not to shut the foolish bridesmaids out. That flies in the face of the story of Jesus, who welcomed prostitutes, tax collectors, ate with Pharisees and lepers, embraced Judas Iscariot and fed all of the foolish crowds who not only forgot to bring flasks of oil but something as basic as food for the journey. Jesus was not about exclusion, or locked doors. “Knock, and the door will be opened to you,” he told them; so this parable was about something else. And I think that it was about just that concern that bedeviled the Thessalonians: that this kingdom of heaven, this kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven, was taking, is taking longer than anyone expected.
Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour, and it may take awhile. But the bridegroom will come. He will come.
Ninety-six years ago on Tuesday, the treaty was signed which was to end the war that was to be the war to end all wars: so this should have been the end of war and the beginning of peace on earth. A century after the start of the Great War, we know that it was not an end, but only a beginning to modern warfare.
A century later, we have refined war to the point where the smallest atom creates the biggest fear, and remote detonations remove the danger of a crisis of conscience from the field of battle. At the same time, the sharp stroke of a simple blade severs our sense of civilization. We have come so far, and moved on so little from a century ago, when war was supposed to be ended by all-out war.
It seems that the kingdom of heaven, this kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven, is taking longer than anyone expected. A little longer before our swords are melted down for shovels, our spears for pruning hooks. A generation or two more before our nuclear weapons are recycled for clean energy, our drones reduced to traffic eyes in the sky.
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, to grieve as other do who have no hope.” Because we do not know the day nor the hour, but we do know that at the end of the story, the bridegroom comes, and a new day begins.
People have died for good and just cause, and others died for ill, and many died who shouldn’t have, and others survived and lived to tell the tale, or not, to their families, the grateful ones. More will die before war is done, but we are not to live as those without hope, but be awake to the signs of the kingdom, keep awake and keep the faith, so that we don’t drift away, lose hope, fall asleep.
A century ago, a war began which would kill over 16 million people. Four years later, ninety-six years ago on Tuesday, at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, it stopped. It was supposed to be the war to end all wars, but we let the pull of peace lull us back to sleep.
Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. We are in this for the long haul, we who await this kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.
All of the bridesmaids in the story fall asleep – both the foolish and the wise – and yet the one instruction Jesus gives at the end of the story is, “keep awake.”
The wisest of us falters; the foolish fall soundly. Each of us is exhorted to keep awake and keep in mind what it is we are waiting for, working for: God’s kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.
It always takes longer than we expect. The Thessalonians were just beginning to understand that the life of Jesus, the Resurrection, the Ascension were just the beginning. But they were, after all, a beginning.
Jesus told his disciples, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them.” Maybe the notion of a Second Coming is a misnomer: Jesus visits with us each and every day. How many times have you felt his presence, known that he has returned just when you needed him the most? The Incarnation was just the beginning of his life with us, among us, within us.
The key is to keep awake, to stay alert and vigilant, to keep the eyes of our hearts open for the signs all around us of the kingdom. The signs are all around us, in times of deepest joy, when a wedding happens, when a child is born, when the sun sets over the horizon or the moon shines full. The signs are with us in the times of deepest trial, in the dark night when the air is chill and the trenches are filled with fear, and at the eleventh hour men put pen to paper and hope to write war away forever. That hope is our sign; for we do not want you to grieve, says the apostle, as those who have no hope.
We see him coming in the hands of a child reaching out for the Bread of Life, knowing in a way deeper than words that God is with her. We see him reaching for the elderly veteran whose memories scramble for words, but for whom the words that Jesus taught us fall freely from his lips.
We see him coming in prayers answered, and in prayers held out in hope, day after day, knowing that we may be a long time waiting. If we stay awake, we will see him, we will know that he is coming.
It is no coincidence that we get into November, the eleventh month, and start looking toward Advent and our lectionary readings suddenly take on an urgent tinge: keep awake, for you do not know that day or the hour of the great and terrible Day of the Lord. We are looking toward Advent, which looks toward the Feast of the Incarnation, the birth into our world of Jesus, the Christ-child, God Incarnate, God with us. We are remembering, as the darkness falls, that light is coming, has come, continues to stream into the world, this world that God has made and loves and keeps awake and alive.
The kingdom of heaven is not a once in a lifetime, blink and you miss it, miss out opportunity. It is the gift of God growing in us, growing in our world, more slowly, perhaps, than we might expect, more deeply than we might recognize, but visible if we keep our eyes open, our hope alive, if we keep awake to the signs of the kingdom around us and within us.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.