That Which Cannot Be Borrowed

November 10, 1996 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Matthew 25:1-13

A young minister was trying to make a good impression on his new congregation so he decided to memorize the entire scripture text. Confidently, he walked to the pulpit on Sunday and said, "Behold I cometh quickly." He couldn't remember the next line, so he left the room to compose himself.

In a few minutes, he came back, pounded the pulpit with his fist and repeated the same thing. He still couldn't remember any more and was starting to get embarrassed. Again, he left the room and decided to try one more time.

He came back in, hit the pulpit with all his might and said, "Behold I cometh quickly." Just then the pulpit fell apart from the pounding and the minister lost his balance and landed in the lap of a lady sitting in the front pew.

He quickly gathered himself and apologized. The gracious woman replied, "That's okay, Reverend. You warned me three times."

* * * * * * * * *

This morning and the next two Sundays, we will focus upon three stories of warning, three parables that Jesus told. All three are found in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. All are fairly familiar, perhaps too familiar for our own good. These stories have a cutting edge to them, which we can all-too-easily bypass when we’ve heard them so often. Each contains a warning that we need to hear, and thus be prepared. Today, we will dance with the first story, the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. Now, there are many doors through which we can enter a story, and I want to forewarn you that the door I have chosen for these three parables is the entrance marked "stewardship." If this is not the door through which you wish to enter, reach for your own handle. Once inside, we will stand upon some common ground, and Jesus’ tale will take us where it will, regardless of our intentions. In the process, I will try not to land upon your lap.

Good stewardship is the wise use of what God has entrusted into our hands. Usually, we think of our possessions when the term "stewardship" is mentioned, especially during November, when we vote on church budgets and encourage wise giving habits. However, while our financial resources are an important part of stewardship, God has entrusted a great deal more into our hands. Today, our concern is for the sacred trust of time.

In the 24th chapter of his gospel, Matthew pulled together various teachings of our Lord about the end of time as we know it: the coming of God’s kingdom, the birth pains that precede it. When the early church heard these words, they were struggling with the fact that Jesus had not returned as they had expected him to. They were going through some pretty tough times. For them, these were not distant words about trouble, for they were living in the middle of what they heard from Matthew. They witnessed with their very eyes the destruction of Jerusalem, the blood of God’s people spilled in the Temple by the soldiers of Rome, the stones torn down one-by-one (as Jesus had foretold), a desolating sacrilege. They wondered, where was the Messiah amid all this? Matthew reminded them of what Jesus said about endings and new beginnings, about the return of the Messiah, the Christ, when the time was right.

"But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father," Jesus said, according to Matthew (24:36). "Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming." (24:42) "Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." (24:44) "The master ... will come on a day when his servant does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know." (24:50) Matthew reminded the early church of all these words of Jesus. Amid the storm, there was comfort.

Now, we are not facing the dire circumstances of those early believers. Furthermore, this expectation of Jesus’ imminent return has been around for quite a while, a couple thousand years. We’re used to having time on our hands, so to speak. Of course, there never seems to be enough time, or so we often say. Still, these words of Jesus are for us, too, especially as we allow them to challenge us.

"No one knows the real day or hour," Jesus said. Time belongs to God, who entrusts it in our hands to use wisely, or foolishly. Thus, we open the door to our parable. In it, 10 young women prepare for a wedding feast. This is no celebration like what we are used to, where the announcements are mailed weeks or months ahead, with an exact time listed for the processional to begin. No, the timing is a bit more fluid, as it is in many places around the world even today. Things begin when all is ready. That’s a bit foreign to our experience. How long would you stick around waiting for a party to begin?

Those lamps the bridesmaids carried, do you know what they were for? They weren’t just for personal illumination, a sort of "night light" for the time of waiting. No, the lamps would provide the light for the celebration that was about to happen, as soon as the bridegroom and his bride arrived. Without the light of these lamps, there would be no dancing for anyone. What good is a lamp for the party if it has run out of oil? The bridesmaids were entrusted with the lighting of this joyful celebration,

Now, there are parts to this parable that catch us up every time. When we grow too familiar with the text, we fail to ask why didn’t the five who had enough oil share with the five who did not? After all, sharing is at the heart of Christian love. Furthermore why, once they got their oil, were the foolish bridesmaids not admitted to the party? This seems to go against what we know of grace. These questions should trip us up. Jesus did not tell nice, little stories just to make us feel good inside. His parables were meant to disturb us, hopefully (even) to rouse us from sleep.

There are things that cannot be borrowed. Without them, the door to the great banquet is shut to us. Those five bridesmaids could not borrow oil for their lamps from the other five who were wisely prepared ahead of time. After all, this would have cheated the bride and groom of half their celebration time. There are things that cannot be borrowed. The foolish bridesmaids had to go searching for a 24-hour store in a town where the sidewalks are pulled up at 5pm. How many doors did they pound before they could return to the banquet? The only door that mattered was the one which was now shut.

There are things that cannot be borrowed. This story is so disturbing because it is both very tangible and very vague. After all, if we’re to be challenged by it, we need to ask: what is the oil that we should make sure we have enough of? Jesus doesn’t say. He forces us to fill in the blank, which is hard work. Certainly, the oil can’t be the gift of salvation. It’s free for the asking, it’s not for sale. As the apostle Paul clarifies for us, it is faith, not sweat, that saves us. But, as brother James emphasizes in his New Testament letter, faith has to be lived out, otherwise it is worthless. Is the oil "faith?" Certainly without faith, the door remains shut. Is the oil "faith lived out?" Can’t move without stepping out. Is the oil an active relationship with God? Without the Spirit’s presence and power, we don’t have the energy or the sense of direction to move. What is the oil? Well, Jesus intended that we struggle with that very question.

Two Quaker elders of the old school were traveling once under a religious concern to a small rural meeting. On the way back it began to snow heavily and their carriage became stuck in a snowbank. The two elders finally made it to a farmhouse just as it became dark, and were welcomed for the night. But the house was cold, and their attic room was like an icebox. The elder of the elders stripped to his underwear and jumped into a feather bed, pulling the blankets over him. The younger elder, feeling a bit embarrassed said, "Excuse me, Friend, but doesn't thee think we ought to say our prayers before retiring?" The other elder stuck one eye out from under the covers. "Son," he said, "I keep prayed up ahead for just such situations as this, and so should thee."

Whatever that oil is, we can’t live off of someone else’s oil. We can’t live by Grandma’s faith, as saintly a person as she may have been. Neither can we depend upon what Dad did in working out his faith. We can’t rely only upon our brother or sister’s relationship with God, even though we need their prayers. There are things that cannot be borrowed.

You know, we cannot borrow time. By this I mean a number of things. We cannot live in the past, nor can we dwell in the future - even if our faith pulls us in that direction. We can only live this moment. That’s all we are given. None of us knows how much time we have left. I don’t want to dwell on negative possibilities, but tomorrow I could have a heart attack, like many men my age. That person behind the wheel of the oncoming car could fall asleep and end your earthly life this week. Again, I don’t intend to make us paranoid, but rather to awaken us to the precious gift of time we have now in this eternal moment. No one knows the hour or day of their or the world’s ending. But we have this hour, this day.

"Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour." With those words, this parable comes to an end, echoing the refrain from the previous chapter (25:13). It’s kind of funny, really. After all, in the story, all 10 bridesmaids fell asleep while they waited. Reminds me of brother Willard Bowman, a dairy farmer who always used to fall asleep during my sermons, which was somewhat disconcerting because as a choir member his loud snores were in my right ear (until his wife passed down the elbow in the side from choir member to choir member). However, few persons were more spiritually awake in that church than this Dunker Deacon. He lived and continues to live out his faith, in spite of a heart attack a few years back.

Yes, we often fall asleep at the switch. But are we living our lives, making the best use of the time God has given us, trusting in Jesus as our Savior, walking by faith, growing in our relationship with our God, such that we are ready (or about as ready as we’ll ever be) for the bridegroom to arrive, for the Messianic banquet to begin? Whatever that "oil" is to you, make sure your lamp is full. As they used to teach me in Boy Scouts, "Be prepared." After all, there are things that cannot be borrowed.

1996Peter L. Haynes

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