Someone handed me a note at the door of the church building a few Sundays ago. Here is what it said:
“Absolute knowledge I have none,
but my aunt’s washer woman’s sister’s son
heard a policeman on his beat
say to a laborer on the street,
that he had a letter just last week
written in finest classical Greek,
from a Chinese coolie in Timbuktu
who said the Negroes in Cuba knew
of a man in a Texas town
who got it straight from a circus clown,
that a man in the Klondike heard the news
from a gang of South American Jews,
about somebody in Borneo
who heard a man claim to know
of a well-digger named Jake,
whose mother-in-law will undertake to prove that her seventh husband’s sister’s niece
had stated in a printed piece
that she had a son who has a friend
who knows when the world is going to end.”
Seriously now, the end of the world is on a lot of people’s minds these days, isn’t it? Yet no one really knows when the end will come. But what if the end is near? What if Jesus Christ were to return today? Are you ready?
Our text is a parable that Jesus Christ told. It’s about a group of people who ran out of oil. It would seem that that alone would make it relevant to us moderns. Yet even more relevant is the fact that this parable has to do with judgement day. So, let’s get into the story and see what it has to say to you and to me about life in Christ.
A Job To Do
The parable begins by telling us that there’s going to be a wedding. And ten ladies have been chosen to be light-bearers at the feast of nuptials. You see, there were no street lights then. So if there was going to be a nighttime party someone had to be in charge of the lights. So, ten women, according to the text, were given this responsibility. As a group it was an honor to be asked to perform such a task.
Now, in the Scriptures we find God often assigning such tasks to people. Jonah was asked to take his lamp and go put it in a dark place we call Nineveh. Amos, the sheepherder of Toccoa was asked to leave the quiet rural life and get involved in the tumultuous affairs of prophecy and politics. Mary, a teenager, was asked to birth a son. And Paul, a Jewish Rabbi and tentmaker was asked to take the gospel to Europe. I believe that God still involves His people in His work. I believe He still asks us to take our lights and put them in dark places. But I also believe He doesn’t usually ask us to do it alone. In the text, ten people were asked to provide light. As far as God’s work is concerned today it is still a community project. He calls groups of us together to be the light of the world!
What task does God have for you? For us? What does the Lord want us to do? According to the Bible He is calling us to repent of our sins and believe the gospel. He is calling you to love God in the power of the Holy Spirit, to love Him with all your emotion, will, and intellect. And He is also calling you to love creation whether it’s yourself, the environment or other people. That love begins with your family, it continues with your neighbors and spreads out to your job, your church, even the entire world. Do you see how God’s task begins with you and continues with us, until it embraces the entire world?
Yes, God has a job for His people. He has a job, for you and for me. “You are the light of the world,” Christ said. Now this:
Time To Prepare
Not only does God assign us tasks to perform such as putting our lights in dark places, He give us the resources and the time we need to prepare. The text says that the ten women each held a lamp and each had oil in them, some even had the forethought to bring an extra flask of oil. There was even time to take up their positions along the wedding route and to watch eagerly for the coming groom.
Just notice how much alike these ten ladies were. All responded to the summons and agreed to serve. They all showed up. All had lamps. All were dressed alike. And all had oil. And even as the groom was delayed, they all grew weary from their work of preparation and watching, and they all slumbered.
Yet there is one big difference between some of these women. Five used their time of preparation to acquire extra oil. They were preparing for any eventuality.
If you read carefully the Scriptures you will find that God’s people are almost always thoroughly prepared. Noah didn’t wait until it started raining to build the ark. He did that job well ahead of time. David didn’t just go out and fight the giant Goliath as his first foe. As a shepherd he rehearsed his rock slinging for years on wolves and bears that threatened his flock. Then there is the apostle Paul. For fourteen years after his conversion the man labored in obscurity sewing tents and sails and pondering the Scriptures. Then began his first mission journey.
We each are given resources and time to prepare for our assigned tasks, as well. Yes, here in the church God provides us with Bibles and Bible study, fellowship in which we receive ministry, make lasting friendships, and sharpen our own tools of ministry. There is even a group prayer experience wherein we learn to pray and make the needs of people known to God, and, yes, there are years that God prepares us for future tasks as He teaches us patience, obedience, faith, and steadfastness.
Isn’t it entertaining that in the text all of the women are overcome with fatigue? The preparation has been draining, the watching has been boring, the groom has not come yet. Things aren’t going along as smoothly and as quickly as they’d planned. So they all begin to doze and nod. My, my, but what a picture of the church today! Haven’t the past two years of preparation work been draining? Isn’t the work of fellowshipping and Bible study and group prayer becoming a bit tedious? Aren’t we all beginning to wonder what the delay is, why more isn’t happening? “Where is the Groom anyway?” So we begin to doze.
Many a person over the years has confided in me that he finds the things of church boring. Yet look at it this way. Let’s say you’re in church fifty times a year and you learn one new fact about God each Sunday. That’s fifty facts of God you will have gained in a year’s time. In ten years that number will have become 500. In twenty years it’ll be a thousand. In 40 years 2,000. And if you attend Sunday School and evening teaching sessions that number can triple in 40 years to 6,000! It all adds up, doesn’t it? Just like Isaiah the prophet said, the word of God is, “Precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little” (Is. 28:10).
No, it might not look like much here in the church, but this is the grace of God to us who will be called on to place out lights in dark places. Here are the resources of God. He is oil enough and extra for your lamps. And here is time to prepare!
A Time of Reckoning
A job to do, time to prepare— this is the story Jesus told in the text. Now comes the final part, the story’s conclusion. It’s the time of accountability.
Have you ever heard Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony? It’s a piece with long serene musical delights that is suddenly intruded upon by a savage theme that shatters all tranquility. That was Tchaikovsky’s way of telling us that life flows along placidly until a crisis like death is thrust upon us. The parables of Jesus have this— cute little stories that suddenly end in crisis.
The groom is delayed. You see, in the Mideast, when someone tells you that a wedding will take place Friday night at eight, that means the wedding will take place sometime between Friday night at eight and Saturday or Sunday or even Monday night at eight. Mid-easterners still don’t punch a clock! Friday at eight simply means, “In the next few days.”
Well, as the groom is not yet to be seen, the ladies in the text, having completed what they think to be adequate preparations, begin to giggle and loaf about. Fatigue sets in, and soon they are cat-napping.
Suddenly a shout goes up, “The bridegroom cometh! He is near!” And the ten maidens leap up wide awake, grab for their lamps, and assume their positions.
Now, note the fate of the prepared. Their first filling of their lamps is all but depleted and their lamps begin to flicker. No problem, for hanging from their belts is a flask of extra oil. Their lamps are quickly filled, they light the way for the groom and his guests, and go into the joyous wedding feast to celebrate. A job well done they are rewarded.
But note also the fate of the unprepared. Their first filling of oil is about depleted also. And, as their lamps begin to sputter, they have no extra oil. So they go to the wise and say, “How about loaning me some of your oil?” The wise refuse and advise them to go to the merchants and buy it. So there is a hasty trip, a merchant is inconvenienced by a rap on his door, the maidens return, but now the door is shut and the party is in full sway. A job not done, the door is slammed in their face!
That’s a hard verse to hear, isn’t it? “And the door was shut.” Yet, why not? Weddings can’t be held up just because a few guests ran out of gas. Things get started, and, if we’re not ready, they are over and done without us.
Did you hear about the Christmas parade in Central North Carolina? Many elaborate floats passed by when suddenly a simple hay wagon pulled by a tractor starts by. On the wagon are several fraternity boys from the university. They are madly sawing boards and nailing things together. The puzzled expressions of the onlooker’s faces changed to laughter when they read the sign on the back of the wagon. It read: “We thought the parade was next week!” Isn’t that just how it is? There is a time to prepare. And there is a deadline after which nothing will do. Either you’re ready or you’re not!
I see this all too often as a pastor. People don’t take God seriously. They dawdle away their time eating, drinking, and making marry. Opportunity after opportunity is missed to learn, to prepare, to grow— to take on oil and enough to spare! These people live as if there is no day of reckoning, no accountability. And suddenly— it comes! It might be death or a grave lingering illness. It might be a financial reversal or war. Or it might one day soon be the actual return of Christ for Judgement Day!
A few years ago I was talking with a middle-aged man to whom life had dealt a severe blow in the death of his wife. Now he was fumbling around trying to find the resources to meet the demands of the hour. “Stephen,” he said, “When I went off to college I put my Christian faith in the drawer because I didn’t think I’d be needing it. That was 27 years ago and now I need it and can’t remember where I put it.” Well, even if he had found it, it probably wouldn’t have fit. A faith that hasn’t grown since childhood isn’t likely to fit a 47 year old man!
You know, when I used to read this parable I would read about those ladies in a panic who asked to borrow oil. And it really bothered me that the five women refused to share and told them to go get their own oil at the market. In fact, just five years ago I might have preached about their selfishness and encouraged you to share with those in need. But now I’ve come to see this portion of the parable a bit differently. In truth, if the women had shared their oil there might not have been enough for their lamps to light the way and the feast itself. And why should the five’s irresponsibility render the other five’s effectiveness invalid also? There are some things you cannot share, you know. You can’t share character or courage or inner peace to someone in a crisis, however much they weep and beg of you. You cannot share the thousands of facts you’ve learned about God over the years, you cannot share all this in one hour or one week or one year. Such must be bought at the merchants in its own time. And there is no crash course in prayer that can make up for years of missed application. Just as Noah didn’t wait until the day of the flood to build his ark, so we can’t wait until the crisis to build our faith and friendships and prayer-life. When the moment of reckoning comes either you’ve got it or you don’t. There is no borrowing. And sadly, even as badly as some might want to help, to share, to loan, there is no loaning.
It’s simple enough, isn’t it? A cute short story with a sudden crisis. A job, a time to prepare, a time of accountability.
Now, let me ask you some questions. Are you prepared? You’ve been given a task, a life to live by faith in Christ. Have you accepted that summons? You’ve been given resources and time to prepare. Are you taking on oil here in the church, learning the Word, growing at prayer, weaving your life into the fabric of friendships and ministry here in the church? Or do you let opportunity after opportunity pass you by as you take life easy and drift along?
I’m thinking of a pastor who’d tried his best to win an older man to Christ. The old gentleman kept putting him off with lame excuses. So one day the pastor rang the old boy up on the phone and simply said, “Hello, Mr. Honeycutt, this the pastor. Just one question for you. What if I’d been death?” Sobering, isn’t it? Yet the accountings of life for which we are responsible come, and they come without warnings. They just come ready or not.
If there is one of you here today that doesn’t know Christ as our Savior, why not bow your head and ask Him to forgive your sins, to come into your life and make you a light to others. Or if there is another who has forsaken the way and squandered years of opportunity, why not take this moment and rededicate yourself?
The day of reckoning draws near. Are you ready? Will there be enough oil in your lamp?
Lord, give me grace to take my task from you seriously. Let me prepare so that when the crisis comes the oil will be there on the day of reckoning. In Jesus I pray. Amen.