St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Last week we contrasted the reality of the life of the saints as portrayed by the beatitudes with Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees. After this act of condemnation, Jesus leaves the temple and soon thereafter meets privately with his disciples on the Mount of Olives. Jesus begins to discourse on the end of the age. He tells the disciples, “About that day and hour, no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mat. 24.36; NRSV)…“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Mat. 24.42; NRSV). Jesus then tells five parables. The first parable observes that had the owner of the house known when the thief was coming, he would have been prepared. The second parable contrasts a faithful and wise servant with a wicked servant; the master will return unexpectedly and catch the wicked servant. The third is the parable of the ten bridesmaids (which we just read). The fourth is the parable of the talents (which we will read next Sunday). And the fifth, is the parable of the sheep and the goats (which we will read two weeks from now). And that brings us to the last Sunday of November – the beginning of advent.
These parables, and today’s lectionary readings, deal with watchfulness and preparation. And what is Advent? A season of watching and waiting as we prepare to celebrate the First Advent. Hence, we now enter an extended Advent season. Some theologians and church leaders are actually advocating the extension of Advent into a seven week season of the Church calendar.
If we are to be prepared for the coming of the end of the age, we must make the right choices — preparation involves choice; one must choose activities of preparation over other routine activities. Our reading from Joshua makes this amply clear. The tribes of Israel have entered the Promised Land and subdued parts of it; they are now gathered at Shechem and presented before the Lord for a renewal of the covenant. Joshua encourages the people to forsake the gods of their ancestors and to serve the Lord. If unwilling to serve the Lord, they must choose whether they will serve the gods of their ancestors or the gods of the Amorites in whose land they are presently living. Then Joshua boldly declares, “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Jos. 24.15b; NRSV). Choices. Preparation. Are we willing to put away those things in our life which we put in God’s rightful place? Are we willing to serve our Lord Jesus Christ?
If we are to choose wisely, we must be fully informed of the alternatives. Thus in the gradual we read how the Israelites were to recite “the glorious deeds of the Lord … the wonders that he has done … that the next generation may know them” (Psa. 78.4; NRSV). They were to teach these things to their children (Psa. 78.5) so they could choose wisely.
In Deuteronomy 31, Joshua is named as Moses’ successor. Moses writes down the law, gives it to the priests, and commands that it be read every seventh year (Deu. 31.10). The Mosaic covenant is patterned on ancient suzerainty covenants, covenants between a conquering king and a subject people. Such covenants included stipulations for the public reading of the terms of the covenant. Moses commanded:
Assemble the people—men, women, and children, as well as the aliens residing in your towns—so that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God and to observe diligently all the words of this law, and so that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land that you are crossing over the Jordan to possess (Deu. 31.12-13; NRSV).
As you may recall, the Rite I celebration of the Eucharist often includes the reading of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, part of the Mosaic Covenant given at Mount Sinai. And what do we do in Sunday School or Church School – we recite the wonderful deeds of the Lord to our children such that they may know the Lord and choose wisely.
In 1 Thessalonians, Paul is addressing the concerns of the community. The early church fully expected that Jesus’ return was imminent, for Jesus had said this generation would not pass away till all the things associated with the end of the age be fulfilled (Mat. 24.34). So what about those who had died since Jesus’ ascension? Paul is assuring the church that, through Jesus, the dead will be resurrected unto new life. At the sound of the trumpet, Christ shall descend from heaven and the dead in Christ will be raised first. After that, we who are alive will be caught up in the clouds, and together with those who have been raised first, we will meet Christ in the air. And we shall remain with the Lord forever. We are to encourage one another with these words and we are to be prepared for this event, for we know not the hour or the day of Christ’s return or of our death.
This event has come to be known as the rapture, a term found nowhere in the Bible, and variant theologies of the rapture have emerged. Most people are unaware that rapture theology is relatively new. Its roots can be traced to 1820’s London, England and the preaching of a Presbyterian minister named Edward Irving. Irving held that spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues and prophecy would be restored prior to the Second Coming. By the early 1830’s some people began to manifest these gifts, and Irving was dismissed from the Presbyterian Church. In the early 1830’s a very ill woman named Margaret Macdonald had a series of ecstatic visions. She became convinced that the Second Advent would appear in two stages as opposed to the single event long believed. In the first stage, Christ would come secretly only to those who were looking for his return; those who were not looking for Christ’s return would be left behind. In the second stage, all would see Christ’s return. This theology has has entered pop culture through the Left Behind books of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, and more recently, the Left Behind movie.
Macdonald’s view was popularized by John Darby, a theologian who went on to found the Plymouth Brethren. Darby and his followers fostered renewed interest in biblical languages; they furthered biblical studies. Nonetheless, the rapture theology he espoused which stressed Macdonald’s view if the Second Advent is not supported by the scriptures.
N. T. Wright, a noted Anglican theologian and former bishop, stresses the view set forth in 1 Thessalonians. As we have noted, on this view, the dead in Christ shall rise first, then all others shall be snatched up among the clouds to meet our Lord Jesus Christ in the air. As N. T. Wright observes, the idea of meeting Christ in the air is grounded in a cultural view. Wright says,
When the emperor visited a colony or province, the citizens of the country would go to meet him at some distance from the city. It would be disrespectful to have him actually arrive at the gates as though his subjects couldn’t be bothered to greet him properly. When they met him, they wouldn’t then stay out in the open country; they would escort him royally into the city itself. When Paul speaks of “meeting” the Lord “in the air,” the point is precisely not — as in the popular rapture theology — that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from. (Surprised by Hope, pp. 132-33)
This view better accords with what the rest of the New Testament has to say, and, unlike rapture theology, it is not grounded simply in one person’s ecstatic vision.
The really important thing is that we be prepared for the Second Advent, and this leads us to the reading from Matthew 25, the parable of the ten bridesmaids. Jesus tells us that “the kingdom of heaven will be like this,” then he sets forth the details of the parable. The five wise bridesmaids bring an extra flask of oil but the five foolish bridesmaids bring no extra oil. The bridegroom is delayed, and the bridesmaids fall asleep. When the cry goes up that the bridegroom is coming, the five foolish bridesmaids realize they have insufficient oil. They request the wise bridesmaids give them some oil, but they are refused and told to go purchase oil. Upon returning, they discover that that the wedding banquet is in progress and the door is shut. The foolish bridesmaids plead, “Lord, lord, open to us,” but the bridegroom replies, “Truly I tell you I do not know you” (Mat. 2512; NRSV).
But wait a minute, doesn’t Jesus tell us to give when we are asked to do so? If so, why wouldn’t the five wise virgins share their oil? Is it a matter of would not or could not? As this is an allegory, the oil represents something else – our life in the Spirit. We must be prepared to celebrate the bridegroom’s coming — Christ’s coming. Each of us must accept our own responsibility. Each of us can only prepare himself or herself. I cannot lend you the oil of preparation; I cannot give you my life in the Spirit. So Jesus bids us, “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. “Keep awake” — remain in the Spirit, live in the Spirit. May we never hear those words, “Truly I tell you I do not know you.”