Readings: Matthew 25.1-13 and Thessalonians 4.13-18
For a few brief years, when I was very young, I had the pleasure of being a cub scout. I loved it. We got to go camping, and to learn woodcraft. We had fun evenings of games and enjoyed working for our various badges. In my day, we had to wear what is now considered a rather old fashioned uniform, complete with garters to hold our socks up, a scarf in the colour of our troop, and of course a woggle. We even used to use the chant ‘dib dib dib’, ‘dob dob dob’! Once a year we would go out and terrorise our neighbours with the offer of ‘bob-a-job’ – when we would inexpertly clean cars or sweep driveways in return for a few miserable pennies. But I loved it. I even became a ‘sixer’ – which meant that I was put in charge of a group of six younger boys – which taught me, at a very early age, something about leadership.
All those activities were designed with one over-arching premise in mind. It was the motto of the Scout movement: ‘Be Prepared’. Lord Baden-Powell, when he founded the Scouts, wanted boys to be as prepared as possible for whatever life would throw at them. Through the badge system, boys like me were encouraged to learn skills like cooking, or how to make a camp fire, or how to build a shelter. We were also encouraged to open our minds to the wider world, with badges about first aid, or even astronomy. In many ways, the cub scouts prepared me for many of the situations of life, in which I’ve needed to get stuck in, work out how something works, or exercise some leadership skills. Scouting is a brilliant movement – it taught me to ‘be prepared’.
Being prepared is, of course, at the heart of Jesus’ parable about the Bridesmaids and their oil lamps. Jesus encourages all of us to be prepared for his coming. If you’ve heard me speak about the second coming of Jesus in the past, you’ll know that I’m a little bit suspicious of those Scriptures which appear to foretell the arrival of Jesus on a cloud, like some sort of Greek god coming down from Mount Olympus, flying through the skies. Thinking about our first reading of today, I think the Apostle Paul was being rather more poetic than literal, with all his vivid descriptions of Christians rising up to meet the Lord in the air.
We need, as always, to think about the context of Paul’s
words. He was writing at a time when
many Christians thought that Jesus would literally return from heaven. A lot of
the New Testament contains rather fanciful promises of that happening, imminently,
and while many who were then alive were still living. It was, I believe, a view and a hope that was
grounded in fear; fear of persecution, fear of being abandoned by Jesus. In particular, Paul was addressing the fear
that the Thessalonians had – a fear that those among them who had died would
miss the return of Jesus. As Greeks, the
Thessalonians quite probably had the rather dark Greek notion of a world of the
dead, which was separated for ever from the world of the living. Paul’s rather poetic writing was a way of
offering hope to a fledgling church that their efforts to build God’s Kingdom
on earth were not in vain. And he was
assuring them that the promises of God, through Jesus, were as real for the
dead as they are for the living.
History has proved, time and again, that belief in a literal second coming is a mistaken belief. Countless prophets over the centuries have announced that Jesus will return. And they’ve all been wrong. There is a resurgence in such prophecies at the moment, because of the establishment of the state of Israel. Some are even hoping, in a rather macabre way, that the present conflicts between Israel and Palestine are the early salvos in the war of Armageddon, which (they hope) will be a pre-cursor to the bodily return of Jesus. Such prophets have, I think, a rather weak understanding of both Scripture, and of history.
So what are we to think of Jesus’ reported promise to return? I hold the view that the return of Jesus is not a one-time event. Rather, it is something which has happened, and is happening, and will happen, all the time. It happened when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples at Pentecost. It happens whenever his teachings are obeyed, and when world is made a better place. Whenever a warrior acts out of mercy, and withholds from bombing hospitals and schools, Jesus returns. Whenever an armistice – a ‘ceasefire’ is declared between warring nations, Jesus returns. Whenever a soldier, or a doctor, or an ambulance driver lays down their life out of love for humanity, Jesus returns. Whenever a homeless person is supported on the road to housing and security, Jesus returns. Whenever a lonely person is offered companionship, Jesus returns. Whenever a wealthy person gives from their wealth to help another human being, Jesus returns.
What then does it mean for us to be prepared, as Jesus teaches in the parable of the Bridesmaids? It means being constantly alert for the ongoing activity of Jesus in the world – and it means being prepared to get on board with what Jesus has been doing, is doing and will be doing. It means being prepared never to turn down an opportunity to bless another person, or to sacrifice for the well-being of all humanity. It means being prepared to put our shoulders to the wheel in the task of building God’s Kingdom on earth. Are you prepared? Are you prepared to join in with Jesus? Amen.