There are times when we wait, waiting without any idea of how long this time of waiting will last. Most of us will have memories of sitting hours in hospital emergency particularly if you have had children with their normal run of accidents; then there are the hours spent waiting for bad or good news; waiting, unable to concentrate on anything until the news comes. Some people pace, others sit still, remaining motionless, while others keep over busy, anything to pass the time while we wait. Some waiting is normal, but much is significant. The time we spend in such waiting becomes an active memory with profound physical, emotional and spiritual reactions to the experience.
Then there is sacred waiting.
The parable of the ten women (Matthew 25:1-13) waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom, the honoured guest, as part of the larger celebrations of a wedding, is told by Jesus after two other stories. The first story is about the thief coming in the night and the need for the owner of the house to stay awake (Matthew 23:42-44); and the second tells us of two slaves, one who is ready for the master to arrive and the other who has slipped into bad ways and when the master turns up unexpectedly, is found to have been eating, getting drunk and beating up his fellow slaves (Matthew 23:45-51).
Jesus labels the slave’s behaviour as hypocrisy which will have dire consequences. Jesus had been speaking in detail about hypocrisy in his teaching. He had focused particularly on the behaviour and attitudes of the scribes and pharisees whom he repeatedly labels as hypocrites. (Matthew 23:13-29)
Woe to you, scribes and pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves and when others are going in you stop them. (23:13-14)
For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. (23:23)
For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence (23:25)
For you are like white-washed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth. (23:27)
Jesus goes on to talk about the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem, the signs of the end of the age, the anticipated persecutions, and the signs of the coming of the Son of Man and the need for watchfulness. Jesus was teaching his disciples, but Matthew’s Gospel is written for followers 50 years later, looking and waiting for the second coming of the Son of God by the time this Gospel is written.
Jesus is not talking about a passive waiting, waiting for something to happen to you, but an active preparatory waiting, as we wait for the great feast, not in sleepy apathy and complacency, hypocrisy and delay, but in celebratory anticipation, being awake, vigilant and prepared.
Jesus’ parable shows us the tension we experience ourselves between planning for the future and living in the present.
We need to wait urgently. We need to be awakening, with a growing awareness of the world around us and God’s presence within the world now. It also seems to me to trust in Jesus’ imminent coming and Jesus’ presence already here now is no more difficult than it was 2,000 years ago.
However, the world today can seem like it is waiting in a long dark night. We might think Jesus isn’t turning up quickly enough. The grief and brokenness of the world often feels overwhelming. The waiting is endless. And while everyone fell asleep in the parable waiting for the bridegroom, the difference among those waiting showed the lack of preparation for the Kingdom’s feast when the bridegroom does finally come.
The oil in the lamp, seems to me to be like God’s love overflowing into us and into our lives if we let it. However, if we don’t pay attention to God and God’s kingdom, we will not understand what is happening; we won’t recognise how important it is for us to be ready.
As we enter this parable together and think about it, we need to be asking one another, what is it you need to keep going when the night seems long and the wait is hard? What oil do we need to keep the light of faith and love alive and burning? After all, Jesus said, ‘You are the light of the world’. (Matthew 5:14)
It is possible to discover a genuine and sacred sense of waiting for the fulfilment of God’s promise. Waiting with joyful expectation and preparedness grows our own openness to the coming kingdom of God. This in turn helps us to see the traces of the kingdom already around us.
Growing our faith like this through active waiting means it becomes a well filled with love which we can draw upon in the middle of life’s deepest troubles. Life is not meant to be lived in isolation without God or our neighbours as we watch and wait together for God’s kingdom. Life is lived in God’s love.
As we reflect on the sacred work of waiting, I wonder if any of you have seen the statue on the hilltop at Geraldton, at the war memorial. It is a woman leaning into the wind, looking out over the harbour, her hand shading her eyes as she watches and waits for the return of loved ones from war. It is an extraordinarily evocative commemorative site in the City. Sometimes I imagine her watching as her loved ones fade into the horizon on board a ship, wondering if she’ll ever see them again; and on other occasions I imagine her waiting, waiting in an agony of impatience, wondering if they are alive or dead and when will they return.
Remembrance Sunday which we are marking, was established in commemoration of the end of hostilities in 1918 and 1945. We remember and still see the horror of war and the sacrifice demanded and given by millions of men, women and children. We remember not only them, but also the lives of all who waited for their return, for the end of the war and knew for God’s presence with them in their waiting and in their pain; and today, like the young women in Jesus’ parable, we remember and practice the waiting.
Here, today, yesterday and tomorrow, we too are waiting, remembering, and in this time of waiting, we are preparing for the Son’s return. Our preparations have us living faithfully and full of faith. We are living into the countercultural principles and expectations of the Beatitudes we reflected on last week. We are living as salt and light in the world (5:2-16), living by the heart of the law instead of its legalistic forms (5:17-37); breaking the spiral of violence by loving enemies and showing mercy (5:38-48); and practicing inward devotion instead of outward piety (6:25-34), replacing judgementalism with graciousness as Jesus has taught us (7:1-6) and trusting God fully for all our needs. We are avoiding hypocrisy and privilege as we wait.
Only in actively faithful living can we be prepared for the unannounced return of the bridegroom at midnight. Neither false hopes nor hostile demands of a persecuting world nor apocalyptic signs in the heavens (24:2-36) should distract us from our central focus and purpose, being prepared for the wedding feast, and being suitably dressed for the wonderful celebration.
Sisters and brothers, I hope I will be sitting at the table with you at the feast.
The Lord be with