Whilst the world around us, even in early November, is beginning to count down towards Christmas, we here in the life of the Church are on something of a different count down ourselves – not to Christmas, but to the end of our Christian year; because the year that we follow in the life of the Church does not begin on the 1st January as our secular calendar year does, but on the first Sunday of Advent. Between now and then – on this weekend and the two weekends that follow – we spend the final days of this liturgical year (this Christian year) focusing on the Kingship of Christ.
During these three weekends of what we call the ‘Kingdom Season’ we return to wearing the red vestments of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – those great days of Holy Week when we remembered together the Passion and death of Jesus, the same red that we wear when we honour and celebrate the lives of Christian martyrs who have laid down their lives as witnesses of the Gospel, because we need in this Kingdom Season to have uppermost in our minds that our King Jesus is unlike any other earthly experience of royalty that we have experienced or heard about.
Jesus is not a king who draws power to himself for his own personal gain, but a king who endures a crown of thorns, and a throne of hard wood to which he is nailed, as an act of loving service for the whole world. So the blood-like colour that the ministers wear on these last weeks of the Christian year remind us of the character of the one we follow and worship as the King of Kings; who calls us to imitate him in lives that are marked by sacrifice and self-giving for the sake of others.
The Kingdom Season, these last weekends of the Christian year, is a wonderful time for us to take stock of all that God is doing amongst us, and through us in his world. We remember that the Kingdom of God is both here and now, and also yet to come. And we ask especially the question, how does God call us to live now and in the year ahead, through the life of Jesus in this Kingdom that has already been inaugurated around us. To help us to think through and to be encouraged in this Kingdom living, to which each one of us is called, we are going to focus on two stories, two parables of Jesus. The first, this week, about a bridegroom and his brides, and then next week a story about a master and his slaves. Then on the final weekend of the Kingdom Season we will have the very great and exciting pleasure of having Bishop Lindsay Urwin, an Australian who serves as a Bishop in the Church of England, here with us for the Feast of Christ the King.
There are very few weddings that go exactly to plan. In the last months here at Saint Peter’s we have had a bride who has turned up so late that her guests were contemplating going home, a bride who passed out at the chancel steps just before she was to make her vows, and a page boy who inadvertently dropped one of the wedding rings leading to a full scale search of the building. We have had plenty of exciting moments, but none of them caused by the groom: unlike the story that Jesus tells and that we have just heard.
The guests are ready, the lamps are lit, but there is no bridegroom. Even those of us who have very vivid imaginations will find it hard to picture the story which we have just heard, because it is so different from any wedding that we have seen before. Just thinking about this story reminds us that people in the time of Jesus lived very different lives to ours. Their culture, and their customs, and their traditions are not our culture and customs and traditions; and so we have to work hard every time we open our Bibles, to dig deeper, behind these kinds of stories to find out what’s really going on.
The story that we have just heard is not like any wedding that we have seen here at St Peter’s. For a start their is not one bride, there are ten of them. Our modern translation is not very helpful for us, because it tries to hide this fact from us by mis-translating the word ‘virgin’ for ‘bridesmaid’. But young virgins they certainly were – ten of them – waiting for the bridegroom to arrive so that they could all marry him, which was quite common in a society where men had many wives. Unlike our weddings, where the bridegroom is expected to be the first on the scene, in the time of Jesus bridegrooms often took a long time arriving at the wedding feast. They participated first in a kind of procession, which went from place to place, collecting guests and celebrating what was to happen.
Whilst all of this was going on, in Jesus’ story, the young virgins were left waiting at the scene of the banquet, not sure whether the bridegroom would turn up at all. As we heard, the brides-to-be begin to get tired, and they fall asleep. When these young virgins are awoken by the sound of the messengers heralding the imminent arrival of the bridegroom some of them realise that they do not have enough oil left in their lamps for the festivities ahead. So they go off to buy some more. The worst thing imaginable happens.
All ten of the virgins start out by waiting faithfully, and being prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom, and at one point all ten of them are drowsy with waiting and begin to sleep. But when the arrival of the bridegroom is heralded some are found to be ready, with oil in their lamps, and others have no oil and have to go off to prepare themselves. The bridegroom arrives and takes those who are ready into the wedding banquet, closing the doors behind him, and when the others return with new oil they find that it is too late, the doors are bolted and they have been left outside. At the end of the telling of the parable, Jesus says to those who are listening, “keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour”.
It is a strange story. And of course it is not really a story about a wedding at all! In this story the long awaited bridegroom is Jesus himself, and the ten virgins are people like you and me who are trying to be faithful as we wait for him. For the first followers of Jesus, this story was a potent reminder of the reality that when the long awaited Messiah arrived, some of the religious people had recognised Jesus and been ready to follow him, but some had not. They would have seen themselves in the story as the virgins who entered the wedding banquet of the Kingdom of God with Jesus their King, unlike those Jews who – although they had also awaited the Messiah – did not recognise him and had therefore been left behind.
But this story was not just an opportunity for them to pat themselves on the back for their faithfulness. Both groups (and not just one) fall asleep, and fail in some way, but at the critical moment one group is set apart from other. It was a reminder to them as well, of the urgency of being ready at every moment of their lives to serve in Jesus’s Kingdom and to remain vigilant for God’s work in the world. In the end the wise people are prepared and ready, and mindful. The foolish people are not, and in the end their foolishness defines them.
In our own time, here in this parish, we are faced with an urgent situation as well. As things stand we who are gathered here over this weekend are the last generation of this Church. When we cease to be here, we will leave a beautiful monument behind, but the Church (which is the people and not the building) will be no more. We are called – like Christians have been throughout the ages – to live lives that are consistent with our hope that the Kingdom of God (all that Jesus taught and stood for) continues to grow. We are called too, like the wise brides, to be ready to play our part in the Kingdom of God; to ensure that there is another generation to follow us into the life of Christ.
The task of mission, and of commending a life committed to Jesus Christ to those who live around us in our neighbourhood is an urgent one. Like those young virgins waiting for the bridegroom, we too need to be prepared and ready; ready to commend our faith to others, and ready to be part of God’s unfolding plan for us as a Church. So there is a need for us to remain focused, and to believe that the task of the Church is urgent, and to be prepared and ready to play our part in the work of Jesus, believing that he will one day return, and that between now and then, his ministry is our ministry here in East Maitland.
It would be easy to dismiss the story which we heard at this Mass, as old and strange and irrelevant. But actually it is our story.
It is a story about people like you and me – and the question for us on this first weekend of the Kingdom Season, as we celebrate the Kingship of Christ, and as we ask how we are called to play our part in his Kingdom is, “are we ready for the bridegroom, for Jesus; and are we prepared to be faithful to the task which he has for each one of us as we await his return in glory?”