‘out of oil…’
November 12, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 25:1-13
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
This puzzling little parable can be approached from at least a couple of directions. There seem to be winners and losers to be sure, but the only advantage the bridesmaids who were ‘welcomed in’ to the wedding banquet appeared to have had was that they had thought ahead and brought sufficient oil for their lamps just in case the bridegroom was delayed. There was no other distinguishing feature between the two groups of bridesmaids. And this is interesting because Jesus ends our passage by instructing all who were listening to ‘Keep awake’, even though both groups of bridesmaids had in fact fallen fast asleep.
So where the usual general feeling we may come away with after reading the passage is that ‘we all need to stay alert for the coming of the Lord’, in fact the case can be made that the critical instruction here is for us to keep our lamps full and to be sure we have brought along sufficient provision to accomplish the task or the ‘wait’ set before us. Or to say it perhaps another way, to be sure that we have allowed our spirits to be filled through the grace of our Lord so that whatever is asked of us we have the resources to answer.
And at the outset, I must thank Janet Hunt whose internet contributions to Textweek titled, ‘Dancing With the Word.com’ helped me to see this other side of this passage and the importance of focusing on the unfortunate bridesmaids and the issue of their not having been prepared to do what they had come to do.
So, if we look at this idea of needing to, or allowing ourselves to be filled…in fact in having a faith life in which we remain in a place of readiness…what does that look like? And what in fact might it be that we are waiting for? Who or what is the bridegroom we are expecting? Again, as I said, we are not considering this parable from an ‘end of time/Jesus coming again on clouds of glory’ perspective but rather a much more down to earth one of how does this story ‘find me’ and direct me in my day to day life?
In my life I have been surprised so many times by two things in particular. The first is the inner and essential goodness of the human spirit which has shown itself in so many varied ways. A kind word or an act of seemingly random self-giving or even sacrifice has warmed my heart on many an occasion. And a second is very much like it, and probably I believe, because the two are closely related. This second thing that catches me by surprise quite often is the willingness of God through the Spirit to just show up unexpectedly. And not in some big flashy way but usually much more quietly and gently, sometimes so much so that you have to be looking for it to even notice the soft wind of the Spirit as it passes by and brushes against you.
And sometimes I find, the Spirit is actually resident within the soul and circumstance of one who stands before you in need. Sometimes what we need to stay alert for and to keep watch for is actually the person of Jesus who stands before us, having placed before us a soul in deep need of the love and grace which we have been offered in such abundance. And when that happens we need to be sure that our lamps are filled with the oil of compassion and the willingness to serve…oil that can definitely run low and even dry if we do not take the time to regularly refill our souls with the living water we were promised would result from a relationship with our Lord.
In John’s gospel in chapter 4 we find the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. Again this is a story with so many layers of meaning, but for our purposes remember that the woman came all alone to the well at mid-day to draw water from Jacob’s well for her home. Jesus asks her for a drink and she gets into it with him over the Jew’s treatment of the Samaritan people. Jesus responds to her argument saying, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ To this the woman responds by asking for the water Jesus has to offer and the rest of the story finds this previously rejected person becoming the first one to spread the Good News and to convert an entire city to following after and believing in Jesus. The woman at the well asked Jesus for the water that would never run dry and almost immediately became one of the most influential evangelists of the gospel story. She met Jesus and asked him to fill her lamp with the water which never runs dry…much as we need to do whenever we feel we are beginning to run low in our journey towards a closer likeness of our Lord.
We must take care not to run out of the oil of grace, or of compassion, or of the willingness to extend ourselves yet again in the service of our Lord. For as with Abraham, we have been blessed with all that we have in order that we might be a blessing to others. This same oil which was and is offered to us that brought us into knowledge of and relationship with our Lord, was extended to us by someone else, and on it goes, the Lord blessing one to another to another in ever increasing arc of goodness.
It has been said that we can never ‘out give the Lord’ and I suppose that is true, for our Lord is the source of the blessings we have to offer in the first place. However, I do know from personal experience that it is possible to neglect the call to be ready, to in fact be a poor example of love and graceful care towards another, to be carrying a lamp of love that has run dry and is out of oil. And so while we cannot ‘out give God’, we can forget to make sure our lamps are filled, and that we are prepared to accept whatever or whomever the Lord places before us. But how exactly is it that we are to go about ‘refilling’ our lamps? How do we access the grace we need to carry this message of God’s love and the promise of the kingdom forward?
I think there are many ways to place ourselves in a place where the Lord can pour out refreshing love and grace deep into our souls. We can do it first all by ourselves, by periodically, even regularly taking the time to just sit quietly, to hush the noise both within and without and to lift up our eyes and our hearts to the Lord. Perhaps alone with a cup of morning coffee, perhaps sitting quietly out of doors while Creation gently caresses our soul or, simply listening to another as they share from the goodness of their heart. Remember, it is the Lord doing the refilling here, it is the Lord who desires that we be filled and that we remain ready to serve. So surely anytime or any moment we place ourselves in quietude or in prayerfulness before God, he will honor our openness and send forth the water that does not run dry but rather is both renewed and refreshed as we give it away.
The Lord’s banquet of grace and provision is always set somewhere…we just need to look for it and to accept it in whatever way the Spirit places it before us. Perhaps it is in a moment when you are affirmed deeply by having someone really understand you and assure you of their dedication to you as a friend, perhaps it is in the unexpected and incredible beauty of a morning sunrise racing red, yellow, and orange across the most fortunate clouds, or the sense of blessing we get from seeing a perfect double rainbow…(remembering of course that the rainbow was a promised message of grace from our Lord).
Each of these ways which the Spirt uses to reach out and refill our lamps with love is meant as preparation for the road ahead, to ready us to serve as our Lord gave us example. We are always being led to serve those at the table, to offer out of our own strength, belief, and resolve, the gifts we have been given.
And then sometimes…sometimes the Spirit does that ‘Psalm 23 thing’, where in the placing of ourselves before the Lord we are not just provided for but in fact our cups are filled far too full and they ‘runneth over’. I find that such is the case often on Wednesday nights at music practice. This is always a time of great blessing and always a place of welcome for all who wish to share the Lord’s house with us.
It is also a time when the Spirit frequently chooses to dump a load of blessing right on top of us and such was the case last Wednesday when we were practicing today’s confession song titled ‘Hungry’. The song’s lyrics include the phrase, ‘And so I wait, for you. So I wait for you’… and as we sang it I noticed Kelly with a deeply loving and mischievous look directing those lyrics right at Greg. Now all of you know how much these two love each other and of course the fact that indeed Kelly is waiting…still.
But as we finished the song I was overwhelmed by just how good our Lord is in showing me that the deepest of love and the most profound expressions of his love for us and of our love for one another can just occur in the most innocent of ways and in the most unexpected of places. It was so amazing that a love song to the Lord could work just as well as a love song to another…God was good…we all were blessed…and our cup surely overflowed.
We must always be ready to seize the moment to share to joy of our Lord…to be sure we do not miss or neglect each and every time the Spirit sends us the energizing grace of God…to be sure to look in unexpected places for the activity of grace…allowing ourselves to capture those moments and enjoy the mirth and refreshment of God.
For if we do not go to the well of God’s grace…if it is not a regular habit, then we will surely become depleted and dry, unable to minister to others as we will simply not have it in us. Our work for…our ministry for Jesus is a partnership. We are the mouth, the eyes and ears, the hands and feet to do the walking, the talking, the listening, the seeing, the touching and embracing, the loving and the extension of mercy, forgiveness and grace to those the Spirit sends our way. If we are not ready, if our lamps have run dry and we are out of oil then we will not be able to fulfil our role as disciples of God’s love.
Together we truly are called to be the church of our Lord…for we consist of vessels of need as well as of grace, we each have both. And by that same grace we are so often blessed. For our Lord is not afraid to send us those most in need, for he is sure that we will remember to keep our lamps filled with fuel and our welcome ever warm and sincere.
Let us continue to honor this blessing of our Lord’s confidence and trust in each one of us…