A Sermon on The Ten Virgins: Formation Cannot Be Shared

This was passed to me after my sermon, but I had to post it. This is a brilliant reading of this passage and I think makes sense of a lot of the struggle we were having together.

The Breaking of the Bridesmaids: Rethinking a Problematic Parable (Lectionary Reflection)

This was easily the most talkative Sunday we’ve ever had at theStory. When the questions were brought up the conversation was excellent with lots of different perspectives and views added to the message. I’ll try and summarize a few key points that were made in the questions as well.

I’ve been here for eight years. theStory has been around for eight years! That is a crazy long time to keep doing the same thing. But there is something that keeps me here. Something that rings true when I walk in these doors each Sunday and spend time with all you. Of course most of this is just you people. You are great friends and I am honoured to be part of this community. But there is more to it for me. I like to think about things and I have found that this is a good place to think about them. And not just think about them with my mind, but actually live out some of these things that I’m thinking about. The stories we talk about on Sunday mornings have slowly over the years given me language to understand the world we live in, ourselves and has given me a sense of meaning and identity over the years.

I think one of the things that I bring to this community is that I like to try and give substance to what we do, or what we have always done. For some of us we’ve been a Christian all of our lives and we don’t really know why, we don’t really know what is going on and we just go with the flow. Some of us are new Christians and are just learning these things for the first time. Being a Christian can seem like a strange thing to be. We sing songs, tell stories, do crafts, say words – all to something we can’t see. After a while, this can be all it becomes, just something that we do, and not something that we are. So I’ve tried to articulate what we are doing in such a way that you can make it your own and that you can experience the Kingdom of God in its fullest.

But this isn’t enough. Being here and participating is only a small drop in the larger part of faith.

Faith is a strange balance between individual effort and communal formation. Being part of theStory is the communal formation part. One can be formed to believe all the right things and go through all the motions like we attempt together here on Sundays – and yet still not grasp the reality of it all. Still not have our lives take on the shape of a Christian. There is still this need for a personal commitment to a way of life. Personal seeking of wisdom and direction for their lives.

Being part of theStory is one of the ways that you as Christians become wiser. It’s a way that we learn to order our lives around the things of Christ together. We come here because we think it’s important and that it turns us into certain kinds of people. It’s a way of preparing ourselves and becoming people of character. But does coming here make us care more? Does it make us make a larger effort to be transformed into the image of Christ?

This seems to be a priority in the scriptures towards the preparedness of the individual. Being prepared. Of waiting well. Of participating in certain activities in hope. Throughout the Bible as well it’s all about living in hopeful expectation of the day when Christ returns. But it’s an active kind of waiting – it never seems to mean just sitting around in a gleeful manner because we think there is nothing left to do. Our hope in the future shapes our present. Warning after warning, command after command Jesus is telling people to prepare and watch and get ready!

There is this story that I just read about a guy named Robert Owen. He moved from Europe in the early 19th century to America. He was a fascinating individual with hopes of perfecting industrial work for a community to sustain itself and create a type of Utopia. One points to the community’s many firsts ““ it had the first kindergarten in the USA, the first elementary school, the first free public library, and the first civic dramatic society. One of the first groups to refuse to use child labour and instead focus on education. They pooled their money together and had one of the highest standards of living in the entire country. All of this was built on this idea of the early church and taking care of one another. Really it is my dream. But there was a small piece to their belief system that affected a lot for them. They were a large community that was convinced Christ was coming back any day. So most of them were celibate, they didn’t have children and slowly the community fell apart, and died and it turns out Christ didn’t return.

It’s hard to blame them when you hear the words of Jesus. Just look at this little mishmash of verses.

Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. (Matt. 24:42) Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming. (Matt. 25:13) Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time is. (Mark 13:33) Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming–in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning”” (Mark 13:35) And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch!” (Mark 13:37) Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:36)

There is certainly a sense of eschatological (end times) language being used here. Almost like God is going to play a trick on you and show up when you least expect it so you better be ready to go at any point. But we also know with Jesus that he’s not just concerned with afterlife, but the present life is of grave importance – especially for the reality of the Kingdom of God. So despite the warnings of what is going to happen – it is directly related to what is going on now. And in the midst of all these warnings in Matthew, he tells this story. This story is all part of these warnings and stories that he’s telling that people need to watch and be on guard for when the Son of Man returns. This seems to be of grave concern for Jesus all throughout the parables.

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’

“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’

“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’

“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.

“Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’

“But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.

Jesus’ parables are full of lessons and interesting little tidbits. Joe talked about this parable back in 2009 even – I’m sure most of us can’t remember anything about that sermon (funny how we don’t remember sermons isn’t it!). But I want to focus on something in this story that he didn’t mention then.

“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’

“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’

I think I always read this part of the story and was annoyed. Like OK wise one’s. You are so smart. We get it. But just give them a little oil. Why wouldn’t you help them?

Q: How do you feel towards the wise virgins in this story?

[Aaron mentioned here that it’s important to look at this parable in regards to the first coming of Christ (not the second) and that he was there in front of their faces and they were not prepared]

[Many people mentioned that they were annoyed at the virgins in this story because they were acting very non-inclusive and non-Christians]

[A few people talked about responsibility and how the wise virgins were not responsible for the foolish ones]

[Calvin talked about it as if someone wants to borrow gas for your car and if you give them some then both people won’t get there]

[Arik compared it to waiting in line for a concert three days ahead of time and being prepared with tents and food]

Whenever I’m annoyed at characters in the scriptures, I start to dig a little and start to see why that is the case. It starts to reveal things about myself but also about the nature of our faith. Part of me has a hard time with this reality. I feel like if I was the wise one I’d instantly empty half my oil into one of the others lamps. Isn’t that what being a Christian is about?

We want to think that this story is just about oil, something you can accidentally overlook and just borrow some if it’s an emergency. We want to think that we will all go in together and lift each other up when the other falls down. But this story is a bit of a sobering reality. Even look at the paintings depicting this event. It’s as if the other women are like – screw you, get your own oil, figure this out on your own!

But this story is more grave. Not only are they not sharing, but it seems like they lost out completely on their opportunity to get into the party with no hope of getting in. A shut door is a shut door.

It seems as if having the oil with the lamps was an important thing to overlook for the foolish virgins here. And this is something that has been true all throughout the scriptures. If you remember the parable of the two lost sons – it ends with the older son willingly foregoing the party that was going on because of his own resentment and bitterness towards his brother and his father. But this parable is a bit different, it just seems like they were a bit underprepared. So why in the world are they being left out of the party? Spencer Kimball things it’s this:

“This was not selfishness or unkindness. The kind of oil that is needed to illuminate the way and light up the darkness is not shareable. How can one share obedience to the principle of tithing; a mind at peace from righteous living; an accumulation of knowledge? How can one share faith or testimony? How can one share attitudes or chastity…. Each must obtain that kind of oil for himself…. In the parable, oil can be purchased at the market. In our lives the oil of preparedness is accumulated drop by drop in righteous living.”
-Spencer W. Kimball

But when you look at it this way; like Spencer Kimball lays out for you – and it’s a tough reality to swallow. We don’t want to think that there is a consequence for just being apathetic or not being prepared. Our readings for today for instance seem to be about how serious God is about setting up our lives in such a way that we are prepared. So that we don’t become like the five foolish virgins.

Joshua 24 is one of the readings for today in the lectionary. In it you have Joshua who has summoned all the leaders of Israel and he has a message for them.

[We didn’t get to reading this]

“Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.

Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods;

for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed;

24:18 and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”

But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.

If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.”

And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the LORD!”

Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.”

He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel.”

The people said to Joshua, “The LORD our God we will serve, and him we will obey.”

So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.

God isn’t kidding around here. He wants to know if Israel is in. Don’t play around. If you are in then order your life in such a way that means that you are in.

Later in the readings you have God unloading on Israel through Amos because they failed to take this seriously.

[Again, I mentioned this, but we did not read it]

as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

It seems like what has happened here is that Israel got really into this idea of “the day of the Lord.” The Day of the Lord for them was when they won. Finally, all their hopes would come true on this day. They would be released from the burden of their enemy. They would be released from their burden of sin. Finally the world would know that they were serving the right God. Maybe they thought just because we are God’s children, his chosen people, everything will be ok! Sound familiar?

See when salvation gets reduced to an event, something that happens to us some other time, then our lives no longer reflect a life of salvation. We become the foolish virgins thinking there is nothing to do to prepare, nothing to be while awaiting God’s return. But we are seriously mistaken. There is so much to do. So much to learn and do and be.

God in all these stories is not interested in being the hero that saves the day and just bringing a bunch of people into heaven. He seems much more interested in his people taking this seriously and being prepared. Just look at these three verses again that we just read.

“If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.”

Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light;

“Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’
“But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’

This is just in the readings today! There are hundreds of verses with the same kind of warning. The other part I find interesting about the readings for today is from Proverbs 6 that are part of it about wisdom.

Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her.

One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate. To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding, and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.

The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction, and concern for instruction is love of her, and love of her is the keeping of her laws, and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality, and immortality brings one near to God; so the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom.

Wise virgins and Foolish ones.

The wise ones are the ones who were prepared. The ones that seeks wisdom, the one that is wise will experience the kingdom.

Over the last ten years or so I’ve sort of launched an assault on the retributive way of understanding God and our faith. The whole ‘if you don’t do this then you’ll get punished’ kind of religion. I got exhausted of fear based threats to try and make people believe a certain thing. The evangelical church has this thing about her that needs converts to their belief system because they believe that the converts they have the more people that will make it to heaven. In my attempts to ridicule this belief, I think there may have been something lost. What is lost is that this isn’t just a matter of everyone is in so don’t worry about it. The reality is that even Christians need to be prepared. Being a Christian does not make you prepared. Being wise does. Wisdom cannot be shared. You cannot ride on the coattails of your belief system, that is unwise. You can’t just sleep outside the door and expect to be part of the kingdom of God.

If we are honest with our readings of the scriptures there is absolutely threats. There is absolutely a line that we can cross. There is judgment. There is consequences for our actions. The parable of the virgins make this clear as well. There is wise ones and there are foolish ones. But this isn’t just about ‘getting into heaven’ when we die – but it’s experiencing salvation here and now. The last time the bridgeroom said I don’t know you was when Jesus was talking about those who do the will of the Father and those who weren’t. It seems that we might have a similar situation here. The inseparable reality that our faith is not a belief system, but it is a life system. By not being prepared, but not committing to this life system, it comes with the unfortunate risk of God saying “I don’t know you.”

Q: How does my little rant there make you feel? Do you feel threatened? Do you feel that it’s unfair? Do you feel like it’s obvious?

[Darryl mentioned that you can’t share formation. It’s just not something you can bring someone along in. People need to be formed and prepared themselves]

[Fear came up a lot, in moving away from us fearing burning in hell for eternity and moving into just stating the reality of missing out on the party]

“Watching is not a passive activity. It’s not merely waiting for an event to occur, but a metaphor for readiness and faithful fulfillment of the Christian calling.” (Klyne Snodgrass)

“The delay of Christ’s coming is filled with the mission of the church.” (Richard Bauckhman)

Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. (1Thess. 5:6)

4 thoughts on “A Sermon on The Ten Virgins: Formation Cannot Be Shared”

  1. Why didn’t you reference the verse about working out your salvation with fear and trembling; either during service or here in the blogosphere?
    Is coming to service and actively wrestling with scriptural concepts a form of preparedness?

  2. That’s a great concept to bring forward – thanks for sharing it.

    I do think that being part of a community and wrestling with these things is being part of being prepared, but also living out the ‘good works’ that we were created to do.

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