“Do you want to know what the kingdom of God is like?” Jesus asks his disciples one day. A wedding. Now, friends, whether I like to admit it or not, I’m in the wedding business. Yes, there’s less for me these days as people get friends to either fill out an online ordination application or apply for a one day license from the state, but those are one-offs. For better or worse, I’m a wedding professional and know the ins and outs of marriage licenses and photographers and the like.
A sermon on Matthew 25.
And I can assure you that weddings—like other life transitions—kick up a lot of stress for families. There’s a strong desire for everything to go perfectly as the happy couple had always imagined it. When I meet with them, I know it’s not time to divulge the wedding where the bridesmaids’ dresses hadn’t been hemmed properly, or when the ring bearer and flower girl—a brother and sister—where punching each other as they walked down the aisle, or the one where the bride was more than an hour late to the ceremony and the groom’s family wondered if she was standing him up. But I do want to ask Jesus, “Really? A wedding?”
Back in his day, weddings were big, big deals. The groom’s family would host the festivities, and they would last for days. (This explains how that family in Cana ran out of wine, by the way, leading to Jesus’ first miracle.) On the day of the big event, the groom’s family would process over to the bride’s family home to escort them all back to his home for the ceremony and festivities. The bride and bridesmaids would wait with anticipation for the groom and his entourage to appear. Except in this story, they’re late. Like really late. So late the bridesmaids have all decided to take a snooze.
And that’s when the shouts start coming that the groom is nearly there. The bridesmaids all wake up and grab their lanterns to fire them up, but five of them realize they hadn’t planned ahead for this contingency—they expected all this to happen before it had gotten too dark. “Share your oil,” they say to the ones who had taken the motto from scouting seriously and were duly prepared. “Not a chance,” those other five say. “Get your own.”
So those five seemingly foolish bridesmaids head out to the local Kwik-E-Mart. After finding their oil and dealing with the choices of “paper or plastic” and “cash or credit,” they get back a little too late. So they hoof it over to the groom’s place, only to be met with a locked gate and a bouncer who doesn’t recognize them even though they are clearly wearing the bridesmaids’ dress; it was a floral number with pouffy shoulders. “The kingdom of heaven is like this,” Jesus says, “so keep awake.”
In other translations, Jesus ends by saying, “Stay alert,” “Keep watch,” and “Be on the alert then.” Don’t get impatient if you think he’s delayed. Jesus is surely coming even if you don’t know when.
Except we’ve been waiting for a couple of thousand years or so now. That’s a lot of oil for a lamp. Way more than the local shop could supply. And when you’ve been delayed that long, it makes us wonder if you’re even coming at all, or if we’re the ones getting stood up.
Our society grows impatient with delay. We’ve grown so accustomed to speed and efficiency that standing a few minutes in a line undoes us. Waiting five minutes for a meal is unacceptable. We start tracking down the manager to complain. So sitting idly by for a couple of millennia? Whose crazy enough to still be waiting around?
“The kingdom of heaven will be like this,” Jesus says. The groom will be delayed. You’ll be waiting. The question is, will you be prepared for that delay? Will you be one of the wise ones? Or one of the not so wise?
I can’t help but think about the run up to a hurricane or a Nor’easter. It’s a flurry of activity and buying, making sure we have the requisite bread, milk and eggs. We rush around and try to get done what we should have have finished long before. Going to twenty stores when you’re behind the eight ball is exhausting. If we hadn’t put it off, we’d have been able to do other things. And so in the same way in the spiritual life, we are best prepared when we take the slow route. When we do things incrementally.
I’ve been following the work of Cal Newport for the past few years. Cal is a professor of computer science and digital ethics at Georgetown who has also written a number of mainstream books on how to pursue what he terms the “Deep Life.” The Deep Life Cal describes is helped greatly by slow productivity. Intentionally making small steps each day toward a larger goal, and refusing to take on too many other things in life at the same time. It’s the regular small steps that lead to immense satisfaction and completion, Cal declares. And many of the most prolific thinkers and writers and artists did just this. They’d work a little bit, and then would take time to get outside for a walk or to work in the garden. They wouldn’t try to do too much, focusing on the most needed thing everyday. And it made all the difference.
We tend to pride ourselves at multi-tasking. We can email and complete a presentation and text with our spouse all at the same time. But in reality when we do this, nothing is done particularly well. We miss an important line in that email, or the presentation isn’t our best work, or our spouse feels that we’re distracted. Everything remains pretty shallow.
Stay alert. Keep awake. Focus.
Jesus invites us to cultivate a deep spiritual life so that we can have the reserves we need as we await his return. While we might want to throw in the towel claiming he’s never coming back, if we do so, we lose sight of the times he’s here among us already. It was Mother Teresa of Calcutta who encouraged us to see Christ in the disguise of the poor. To see Christ in others. But if we’re impatient, or distracted, we won’t notice. We won’t be prepared.
When we take time to nourish our inner lives, to learning and adjusting and engaging the deep work of faith, that’s when we prepare for Jesus’ coming among us. We’re foolish if we think we have the reserves at our disposal if we don’t ever tend to them, thinking they can run on autopilot. We’re unwise to think that a life of faith can be sustained by an hour or so on Sunday morning.
So I invite you to commit today to being more intentional. To taking on a new spiritual practice—praying the Daily Office, meditating in silence for 10 minutes, keeping a gratitude journal, fasting a meal, or getting outside to breathe deeply for ten minutes—and doing it consistently for a few weeks and trusting the work of the Spirit in our lives. You might think that such a small thing won’t change anything, and yet I can assure you that it will. You’ll be more prepared. More awake and alert. More open to seeing the kingdom of God here and now before you.
Christ is warning us to not get impatient or to procrastinate, but to be ready for his return. To be prepared. To have reserves on hand so that we will be ready no matter how long it takes. Choose today to make that change. To becoming more faithful even if it seem like such a small thing. It’ll make a huge difference. And you’ll be ready when Jesus returns.