A Sense Of Urgency

Robby Robins was an Air Force pilot during the first Iraq war. After his 300th mission, he was surprised to be given permission to immediately pull his crew together and fly his plane home. They flew across the ocean to Massachusetts and then had a long drive to western Pennsylvania. They drove all night, and when his buddies dropped him off at his driveway just after sun-up, there was a big banner across the garage—”Welcome Home Dad!”

How did they know? No one had called, and the crew themselves hadn’t expected to leave so quickly. Robins relates, “When I walked into the house, the kids, about half dressed for school, screamed, ‘Daddy!’ Susan came running down the hall—she looked terrific—hair fixed, make-up on, and a crisp yellow dress. ‘How did you know?’ I asked.

‘I didn’t,’ she answered through tears of joy. ‘Once we knew the war was over, we knew you’d be home one of these days. We knew you’d try to surprise us, so we were ready every day.'” {Lee Eclov, “Heaven,” Sermon, Preaching Digest}

The parable of the ten virgins – some foolish and some wise – is plainly a cautionary tale share by Jesus with his friends and followers.  For some followers of Jesus, this cautionary tale might create a feeling of dis-ease, of discomfort, because its message so clearly points to living a life of self-examination.  The parable points out that followers of Jesus will surrender control at the end.

The parable ends with the challenging truth that there will be a deadline, an ultimatum, a point of no return, or returning; it is the judgement.  And because we are powerless over knowing the day or the time of the bridegroom’s arrival in the world, or in our lives, Jesus counsels a constant awareness – be “ready every day.”

In the words of Christian writer Frederick Buechner:

The New Testament proclaims that at some unforeseeable time in the future, God will ring down the final curtain on history, and there will come a Day on which all our days and all the judgments upon us and all our judgments upon each other will themselves be judged. The judge will be Christ. In other words, the one who judges us most finally will be the one who has loved us most fully.

         Jesus was not really telling his friends and followers something that they may not have heard or learned as faithful and earnest Jews.  Wisdom tales, wisdom stories, were common among the rabbis.  Dividing human beings into the wise and the foolish – that was also something that you might have learned in an ancient school of Greek philosophy among Stoic and Cynic philosophers.  The ancient world was full of stories about how the world is divided between the wise and the foolish.  For Jesus, the wise are those who live prepared to meet God.

What does being ready look like?  How do we know if we have the “oil” necessary for this holy act of patience and endurance?  A common response is that we need to be busy in the doing of good deeds; always seeking to help and contribute to the well-being of others.  That is an indisputably good use of our time.  But there is probably more that Jesus is suggesting as well.

Biblical scholar, Douglas Hare – “Undoubtedly Matthew understood being ready as involving a tireless performance of good works, but he surely included other obligations as well: abstinence from bad behavior; love for enemies; love for other Christians; forgiveness of others; unhesitating faith; loyalty to Jesus; love God.”

We see these admonitions throughout Matthew’s Gospel; we find them in the Sermon on the Mount, in the teachable moments that arise when Jesus engages the Scribes and Pharisees, and toward the end of this Gospel as Jesus’ words are given the added gravity that they are being spoken toward the end of His life.  There is an internal disposition toward God and others articulated.

And so the “waiting” that is being encouraged, counselled, is more than accumulating merit badges of good deeds done; more than building an impeccable resume of virtuous deeds; more than living a life that could easily be praised by others, while our motivations and our hearts are far from God.  Taking the full scope of what Matthew shares of Jesus’ teaching, there is both an inward as well as an outward preparedness.  Good deeds done while the heart is wayward, restless, and self-concerned is most likely not what Matthew would counsel as a wise preparation.

This kind of “waiting,” this kind of preparedness, is living day to day with a sense of purpose and urgency for giving God each of our days – for God’s sake, not for our sake.  How are we living our days for God, for Jesus, the person whom each of us will meet one day?

The Bible teacher William Barclay summarized this parable – “Jesus is warning us that there are certain things which cannot be borrowed.”

Just as these foolish virgins find it impossible to borrow oil when they most need it; so too some will find it impossible to borrow a relationship with God when it is most needed.

We cannot borrow a charitable heart.  We cannot borrow a mind, an intellect, which is inspired by God rather than the world.  We cannot borrow a faith, a familiarity that Jesus will have with us when we meet him; we must have allowed Christ to cultivate that friendship with us prior to that meeting with the Bridegroom.

We are nearing the Sundays of Advent.  And the Church is encouraging a sense of urgency prior to the lessons we will have describing the coming of the Son of Man.  The Bridegroom cometh in the Church calendar, and the Church teacheth – don’t be relying on a borrowed or enterprised relationship with God.  Don’t live with folly.  Don’t live with the folly of thinking that God is going to pause in the midst of this cosmic unfolding of reality because we decide that it just might be possible to borrow “oil” for the lamp of your soul; when truly, the only oil that will burn in that lamp – is the oil of a life given to preparing to meet the Bridegroom. 

If we feel lost and a bit anxious about waking up the reality that this indeed is God’s world, and we are indeed God’s children, and we could possibly find ourselves “locked out” of whatever future we might want to have beyond death . . . if, if, if . . . the place that I look, the place that I would have each of us look, is actually in this Prayer Book.  Its in the old service.

Its called the summary of the Law:

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with
all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great
commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt
love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments
hang all the Law and the Prophets.

The greatest adventure of life – having a real conversation with God – through prayer, study, worship, and discovering how the truths found these places actually  extend into our lives as fathers, mothers, spouses, friends, colleagues, and come to life in whatever profession we find ourselves.  The other adventure of life – giving ourselves to simple, and sometimes profound, moments of kindness; caring for the poor as Jesus cared for them.  Caring for the lonely as Jesus cared for them.  Forgiving those who wrong us, as Jesus forgave.  Trying a little bit every day, even in the midst of the election season in our nation, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

Reaching vertically toward God, reaching horizontally toward others, this is one way to accept the counsel to wait with a sense of urgency, to keep oil and lamps in tact for the great day of our reunion with The Bridegroom.

 adapted by Don Schwager

This story is true. So the Russian villagers of Nemirov swear. Every Friday morning he vanished! The rabbi that is. He was nowhere to be found. Not in the synagogue, not in the library, nor in the park. Nobody in the village worried however. They say: “The Rabbi, blessed be God, ascends to Heaven every Friday morning where he talks with God.”

“Ascends to Heaven?” scoffed a skeptical Litvak who visited the village on occasion.

“Nonesense! I will solve this mystery once and for all,” said the Litvak.  So the disbelieving Litvak devised a scheme to trap the Rabbi. Sorry. You do not know what a Litvak is? A Litvak who knows his Talmud well will tell you plainly that nobody ascends to Heaven. Not even Moses ascended to Heaven during his lifetime. Litvak:  a Jewish person who believes themselves to be intellectually superior and places great emphasis upon wordly items, such as money and prestige. They place little emphasis upon traditional Judaism and are instead obsessed with self-affluency and the need to belittle others for ascendency and fortune.

Well, the Litvak hid behind the Rabbi’s house one Friday morning. And waited to see what this Rabbi would do. As usual, the Rabbi rose, said his prayers very devoutly, washed his face, combed his lengthy beard, and then slid into his dark black boots. Before he left the house he grabbed an axe and a thick piece of rope. And off he went away from the village.

The Litvak drew a deep breath and then began to follow the Rabbi. Secretly of course. He didn’t want a Rabbi to know that he was spying on him! The Rabbi headed into a thick woods and began to chop down a tree. He cut the limbs into numerous pieces and made a large bundle with his rope. Strapping the axe to his belt, he hoisted the large bundle of wood onto his back and headed towards the end of the woods. Near the edge of the village stood a little house, barely room enough for two. Inside dwelt an old feeble woman and her sick son. The Rabbi left the wood near the door. The bundle was just enough for a whole weeks supply of fuel. As he left the widow’s house the Litvak could hear him mumble some prayers, no doubt for the widow and her son.

Well, the Litvak became the Rabbi’s friend and even his disciple! He went to his synagogue every Friday evening and came to his house every week so he could learn about God and his holy word. Now, whenever any of the villagers say that “our Rabbi ascends all the way to Heaven on Friday mornings”, the Litvak quietly adds, “If not higher!”

“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

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