Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Ten Virgins

Imagine with me your gut-reaction if the preacher mounted the pulpit, perhaps with shame or perhaps without, and declared himself unprepared to preach!  By that exercise I want to make you feel something.  And what exactly are your feelings—embarrassment, anxiety, or maybe even anger? Whatever those feelings are—embarrassment, anxiety, or anger—hold them and let them continue to affect you as we open our Bibles to Matthew 25:1-13 and read the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids.  What would you feel if you were found unprepared to meet Jesus?

To understand the story that Jesus tells, you have to understand ancient marriage customs among the Jewish people.  On the arranged day, the bridegroom and his close friends and relatives—the groom and his men—would leave his house and make their way to the bride’s house.  Maybe he was travelling from across town, or maybe he lived in another village.  Now once he arrived, there would be celebration and the groom also would enter into negotiations with the family over the dowry, or price to be paid for the honor of taking the bride as his wife.  I imagine the groom making what he feels to be a reasonable offer and the Jewish papa, stroking his whiskers and retorting, “For my daughter???  She is worth far more than that, far more!”  These negotiations sometimes would take a long time and would keep the rest of the wedding party waiting for the groom until quite late.  They probably did not begin until the day’s work was done and the evening meal was over.  Once he was ready to leave, there would be a procession through the streets after nightfall back to his home.  Waiting to join the procession were a group of young, unmarried women, who were the close friends and relatives of the bride.  Today we would call them bridesmaids, but literal translations simply refer to them as “ten virgins”.  These young ladies would apparently wait until the groom came out of the bride’s house and, from there, would attend the bride on the way to his house.  Everyone in the procession was expected to carry a lamp, and it was probably more of a torch than the small indoor oil lamps that we see in this picture.  When the oil burnt off and the torch went out, the head would again be saturated from a flask of oil and then lit off of another torch.  Festivities at the groom’s house would carry on for several days as the actual wedding ceremony.  There is no mention of the bride in the parable, and that reminds us that we should not try to overplay a parable by expecting to squeeze a meaning out of every detail.  So let us turn to the details that are most important.

1. The problem identified.  There is a problem—at least for five of the ten virgins and it’s important that we identify it if we are to understand the parable.  This depends on your perspective.  Now if you are a materialist, you may say that the problem is an oil shortage!  But that is not the case, because the five wise virgins insist that there is oil to be had from the merchants.  The five, in fact, leave for that purpose and miss the bridegroom’s appearance.  So the materialist would be wrong.  Another perspective is that of the socialist, who might say the problem is a lack of sharing!  There is no big-government program to redistribute the oil held by the five virgins among all ten virgins!  Well, sharing appeals to the foolish virgins, but the wise ones want no part of it because it will mean that everyone will soon run out of oil!  They would all be stuck in the dark halfway to his house!  But I would suggest to you that the problem is not lack of oil, nor lack of government welfare.  The problem is a lack of LOVE among the five foolish virgins.  If they loved the bride, they would have made sure to have enough oil to light the way for her procession on the most important day of her life.

Now someone may be wondering why I think love is the issue here, when the word doesn’t even appear in the story Jesus tells.  I see it because I know that nothing matters more to God than successful relationships—first the covenant we share with God and then the loving relationships we share with other Christians and other people.  Everything Jesus did, from taking a place within humanity to shedding His blood on the Cross, was done in love and for love, to make relationships succeed—and to prevent the greatest failure, which would be to be found relationally unprepared to meet Him when time ends and eternity begins.  Another tip-off is that Jesus divides people into categories of wise and foolish, and the distinguishing factor is the decisions they make or fail to make in reference to an important relationship.  And like the OT book of Proverbs, Jesus does not use the word fool to describe someone who was born stupid, nor to describe someone who lacked the advantages of education.  No, there are fools with sky-high IQ’s and with long diplomas and college degrees.  A fool is someone who knows the right thing to do and chooses differently, and the biggest fools of all are those who choose wrongly regarding love, regarding what is best for success in relationships. 

Let’s apply this to ourselves—and there is no hiding.  When Jesus comes, some of you will be found wise and some of you will be foolishly unprepared.  And although the foolish will offer 1,001 reasons why they are unprepared, the REAL reason will be a lack of love for Jesus.  Let’s consider three essentials to a successful relationship with our Lord, and consider that each is a readiness indicator:

So where does one get “oil”?  That begins with exposure to the Crucifixion, to the dying of Jesus on the Cross.  That gruesome spectacle, with an awareness of what all it signifies and represents, floods the heart with the love of God.  And it calls forth a response that either comes, or it does not.  Those whose response is at all reasonable enter, by surrender to Jesus’ Lordship, a covenant relationship bound with faith and with love.  This Christian regards the Bible as the collection of the Lord’s requirements (as well as the clear statement of His provisions and blessings), and can we imagine anyone at all moved by the Cross who would neglect to read these requirements?  The oil that will enable any of us to meet our Bridegroom begins with the love poured out on the Cross.  The supply flows not only from Scripture, but from prayers lifted to the Lord, and from the variety of blessings that come to those who engage in service and ministry in the name of the Lord.  The whole Christian experience gives ample preparation; it is the source of our “oil”.

The supply needs to be replenished with regularity, and so the Cross must be revisited again and again.  When there is a lapse of faithfulness or a fall into sin, it is to the Cross that we go and let it have the effect it must as we behold with our eyes yet again.  We go to the Cross at least once a week, because every time we take the bread and drink the red juice at the Lord’s Supper we are brought to His Cross.  And every time we go there, our oil is topped off.

2.      The problem intensified.  Now notice that the problem facing the foolish virgins is intensified by the delay of the Bridegroom.  He took so long that all ten fell asleep!  The meaning is plain.  Jesus said plainly that He was going away and that His return would not be immediate.  And He also was careful as he could possibly be to eliminate speculation about how long it might be or at what time He might return (even so, fools continue to make their predictions).  He only said that he would return at a time nobody expects, like a thief in the night.  It has been nearly 2,000 years and, guess what?  We are still waiting, aren’t we? 

The danger in the delay is that some might start to doubt that there will ever be a return, that it’s all some kind of religious fiction.  I mean people believe all kinds of silly things, and maybe especially when it comes to religion.  Many religious beliefs are silly fictions, if we may be honest.  And perhaps we Christians are under a silly delusion as well.  Maybe there will be no Second Coming.  Maybe we are waiting for something that will never happen—I mean, 2,000 years!  Do Christians have anything to show us why we should be on the edge of our seats all the time?  As a matter of fact, we do!  We serve a God who has already proven His ability to launch projects that would take centuries to complete.  Sending Jesus the first time, complete with prophetic predictions that came many centuries earlier is the best example.  By the time Jesus came, many had given up on waiting for God’s Messiah to arrive.  They held on as long as they could, but their faith gave way against the rush of the river of time.  Listen to Isaiah 46:8-10.  Only our God can predict the future, telling from ancient time what will surely happen only after long stretches into the future.  There is no other god and no other religion that can make claims like this, but our God has done things like this before, and we would truly be fools if we began to doubt Him now when Jesus is (once again) delayed for centuries.  We had better take His warning to be prepared seriously!  Jesus arrived on prophetic schedule—right on time!—after centuries of delay at His first coming.  And this same Jesus promises to return—and will He find us prepared?

3.      An unacceptable solution.  Finally, notice that one potential solution to the problem facing the foolish virgins is eliminated as unacceptable and unworkable.  They thought they could rely on others for what they should have supplied themselves and surely would have supplied had there been more love in their hearts. 

The parable teaches that no Christian can rely on another for “oil.”  Let there be no misunderstanding about this.  Jesus is not teaching that Christians should not help one another.  We help one another in a thousand different ways.  We provide:  help – encouragement – counsel and advice – prayer – support of all kinds!

But there are some spiritual provisions that no Christian can provide for you because they can only be gotten through a personal connection with Jesus! 

--I can pray for you, but I can’t say your prayers. 

--I can read God’s word to you, but I can’t make you believe it or force you to find room in your heart to appreciate it. 

--I can preach the crucified and risen Savior, but I can’t make you love Him.  In short, other Christians can help you in many ways, but they simply cannot be your Jesus!  Other Christians cannot get “enough Jesus” for both of you!  You cannot be saved by someone else’s Savior!  You have to find your own Savior; your own oil.

You have to have your own relational connection and you cannot rely on the connections of others.  There is a demonstration of this in Acts 19:13-16.  The sons of Sceva were trying to be “name droppers”, but they had no personal connection to Jesus.  They tossed against demonic forces the Name of Jesus, whom Paul preached.  The demons responded that, indeed, they knew Jesus.  And, they knew Paul. But they had no regard for mere name droppers, and they sent the foolish exorcists way bleeding!  And Jesus knew that some of His own followers would try to drop his name without actually bonding with Him (Matthew 7:21-23).  Notice that here, just as in the story of the ten girlfriends, the Lord shuts out people because He did not know them!  The same shortage leads to the same failure.

No, the only way you can be ready is by having your own living, growing, relationship with God through the Lord Jesus Christ!  But recall here, that the real problem facing the foolish is a lack of love—and it’s hard to love someone while you are waiting for a long time.  Some of you listening realize that you are running low on oil, and you know you would not be ready if Jesus came right now.  And you know deep down that your love for Jesus is not what it should be.  Listen, there is one place and only one place you can go for oil.  You can’t rely on other Christians, you have to go to the Cross yourself!  You go to the Cross, and let that image, you let that Person, you let that Message into your mind and heart.  Once you do that, you can choose to let or heart respond, or you can choose to prevent your heart from responding.  You can be foolish, or you can be wise—but nobody can make that choice for you.  And if the Cross is not powerful enough to achieve that there is no other way to salvation.  But you make up your mind, because Jesus is coming soon!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Laws, Sacrifice, and Mr. Miagi

I will admit that sometimes I have little patience for some passages in the OT.  I am now reading the Books of Moses, and sometimes I wonder why I invest my time reading about outdated religious rituals, dietary restrictions, treatments of skin disease, and the extremely tedious details of the construction of the Tabernacle.  But not only are there jewels of spiritual brilliance hidden within these dusty old Scriptures, the overall vision they create seems to me to be a perfect backdrop against which to view and understand the NT Scriptures and to make sense of the spirituality of the New Covenant.

I often say that my own Christian faith is Jewish to the core.  I happily and gratefully acknowledge that Jewish theology, Jewish spirituality and Jewish sensibilities are locked into the core of my own worldview.  This morning’s sermon will give us an opportunity to consider the value of the OT Scriptures, especially when we see the OT as the stage onto which Jesus appeared and accomplished His most monumental triumph on the Cross.  My intention is to set before us three specific ways in which the OT prefigures the arrival of Jesus.

I think it is important to consider both Judaism and Christianity as religions of blood.  It may sound a bit strange but one of the reasons I have such a deep appreciation for Judaism is that it grounds my own experience of spirituality in a truly earthly reality.  Judaism is not a philosophy pulled out of the wispy realm of intellect.  At its heart is a system of bloody sacrificial rituals, and that grounding in this-worldly physicality is not confined to the OT; when Jesus dies on the Cross He walks to it upon the bridge of OT blood-religion.

We are tempted to confine spirituality to a realm that is decidedly unearthly.  God himself is exalted beyond this realm and, although He penetrates this world with His presence, God is truly not part of this world.  He is the Creator and the world is His creation.  And so it seems right that our own spirituality should somehow be divorced from all that physically pertains to this world.  But in the thick part of our Bibles (the OT), God has denied us the separation of spirit and flesh.  They are inextricably tied together.

In the first place, we see the seemingly illogical approach to Jewish notions of being “clean” or being “unclean” before God.  On the one hand, one may become unclean by transgressing the commands of God.  Sin has the power to stain our inner being.  But on the other hand, one may equally become unclean through bodily discharges, or through dietary choices, or by touching a corpse in the process of committing the dead body to burial.  And however one becomes unclean, God tied the removal or purification from uncleanness to a system of sacrifice so bound up with bloody animal sacrifice that it is gruesomely disgusting to many of us who get our meat cleanly wrapped in supermarkets without ever experiencing the process of slaughter and butchering.

And we should not forget that many religions that developed in pagan antiquity were likewise bloody.  Some of these religions gave expression to a bloodlust that was primitive and frenzied even to the point of slaughtering human victims.  It is here that we find a clear departure for Judaism.  While the OT religion called for rivers of bloody sacrifice, there was no uncontrolled enjoyment of bloodlust.  The priests did not set themselves upon victims with wild enjoyment of cruelty. 

What we find is that instead of spontaneous thrill-killing, the blood was poured out only by the priests and the only through carefully prescribed rituals.  It is as though the blood is spilled only to fulfill some carefully devised purpose and with great forethought.  There are actually several basic categories of sacrifices, and some of these could have different functions.  There are sacrifices both of animals and of grain or drink offerings.  Animals could be used in burnt offerings, peace offerings, sin or guilt offerings.  I won’t take the time to explain the whole sacrificial system, but the point is that the blood of these animals was not shed to give some thrill to the guy with the knife, but to effect some kind of purification.  In fact, the priests were required to forge some sort of personal connection with the animal by first laying their hands upon its head.  I can only imagine that this connection touched off some feelings of empathy and sympathy, and a realization that some other living thing was dying in order to correct the uncleanness that originates with my own guilt.

We also need to explore the whole Jewish notion of “uncleanness.”  We find this described especially in the book of Leviticus.  The setting is just after God has redeemed His people Israel in the Exodus from Egypt and entered into covenant with them at Mt. Sinai.  Now that they are God’s people and now that He is their God, through the most solemn relationship, God tells them over and over again, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44).  And then God spells out in great detail what exactly makes a person “unclean” (which means that the person has in some way deviated from the holiness that characterizes God).  And this uncleanness was not merely personal; it had social implications for the whole community of Israel and clearly had to potential to be infectious to other people if it was not cleared up and eradicated.  Especially, the uncleanness that erupted among the people was understood to contaminate the Tabernacle or the Temple, which is why the sacrifices took place here on the holy altar.  Also, each unclean act or sin was understood to accumulate in the physical geographic land—the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey.  By polluting the temple and the land, anything unclean was somehow being made to attach to God; and God would not allow Himself to be soiled this way because He is exquisitely holy.  And God threatened that the impurity of the Jewish people might result in Him leaving the Temple or Tabernacle abandoned (and God made good on these threats several times).  And, God threatened that the pollution of human uncleanness would cause the land itself to vomit out the people who were under God’s ownership just as it had vomited out the previous pagan inhabitants of the land.

And so, the books of Moses declared plainly what did or did not make people unclean.  And when they felt the stigma of guilt, the remedy was through a bloody sacrifice of an animal and the matter had to be handled by religious officials.  It was as though the blood of the sacrifice were a sort of detergent that would scrub and purge the stain of unclean behavior, and only this cleaning would enable to person to rest comfortably in the presence of God.

Now there is a sense in which this whole system—drenched in the blood of innocent sacrificial animals—was nothing but a fiction.  We see this on the one hand where God rejects sacrifices because those who offered the sacrifices had hearts so unclean toward God that rivers of blood could not have cleansed them.  There was no repentance, no intention of mending a damaged relationship.  And on the other hand, we have the explicit declaration in the NT book of Hebrews, “For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (10:4).  That whole system really was a fiction.  Likewise, when we look at the rather arbitrary selection of foods that were considered clean/unclean, that whole system was also a fiction.  Eating a lobster, or a BLT was considered “unclean” in Israel, but we eat such foods and don’t think for a minute that we have become disgusting to God for doing so.  There is a sense in which true spiritual concerns are not bound up in such earthly considerations.

Why then was Jewish religion so bloody, and what possible significance could this have for we who embrace Christianity.  When I first thought this through, the 1984 movie Karate Kid was big at the box office.  A boy named Daniel was being bullied in a new neighborhood, and a karate expert named Miagi came to his rescue.  He agrees to teach Daniel karate, but first he has him come to his house and work chores for long hours.  First, he has him wash the cars in his collection and then wax them with very specific movements:  “wax on/wax off.”  Then he has him paint his deck and fences, again with very specific movements:  “brush up/brush down.” 

This goes on for so long that Daniel feels like the work is going to go on forever and feels that he will never get to start karate lessons at all, and so Daniel throws a tantrum and declares that he is done with the whole Miagi-thing.  But then the karate-master explains that the activities were not just busy work; the specific actions of the chores were actually karate moves, and they also strengthened the muscles that would perform those moves:  “wax on/wax off; brush up/brush down.”  And then Miagi attacked Daniel with punches and kicks, and Daniel responds instinctively with the moves he had learned from washing cars and painting fences.  The lesson taught by Miagi, at first, was cleverly hidden.

I saw that and realized that the OT sacrifices were like that in relation to the later sacrifice of Jesus.  God was teaching us that every decision in life, however earthly and detached from spiritual concerns it might seem to be, has ramifications for our relationship with God.  They are potentially defiling.  And God was teaching us that our approach to Him needs to be thoughtful and extremely considerate.  One does not simply saunter up to God supposing that God could not possibly reject us or consider us to be disgustingly unclean.  In fact, God was making absolutely clear that our worthiness to approach Him would be possible only through the sacrifice of some being other than ourselves.  As we conclude, let us all carefully read the fuller passage in Hebrews from which I earlier quoted (Hebrews 10).  We are allowed to see that the OT system, built in fiction, was a shadow of a reality that came when Jesus took the Cross.  The relationship with God intends to infuse us with His holiness.  And we dare not become unclean with sin.