Growing up in the scouts, it was a message that I heard time and again. Indeed, it is the official motto of the scouts, “Be prepared,” and is taught to every teen from an early age. Now, if I’m being honest, this messaging was at least partly about, maybe even mostly about, making sure that we packed properly and didn’t show up for camping trips without a flashlight or a sleeping bag or underwear. And if you think I’m exaggerating, then you have clearly never gone on a campout with a bunch of scouts.
Be prepared. So deeply was this message driven into my psyche that now my go to anxiety dream is showing up for church on Sunday morning and not having my sermon prepared. Or not being able to print my sermon. Or running late and struggling with my robes and stoles while I can hear the opening hymn of the service starting in the background. Or generally being unprepared for worship.
But that motto is also about more than camping trips or about Sunday morning worship. Be prepared. At its heart, it is about developing mindfulness. It is about learning to think through our actions, a useful skill at any age. Because you cannot rely on luck for success, whether it is a campout, or your career, or your faith; it is something that you prepare for.
At its core, being prepared is what our parable is about this morning. Jesus tells those who listen about the bridesmaids who brought extra oil for their lamps and about those who did not. When the bridegroom was delayed and their wait went long into the night, those who were prepared found that they had the oil ready for when he arrived at last. But those who were not prepared did not; they were unprepared for his arrival and were left behind in the darkness.
This is a message not lost on us today. Especially here in Vancouver. In fact, we could easily imagine a retelling of this parable for our time and place here in this city:
The kingdom of heaven is like this. There were ten households, five of them were foolish and five of them were wise. When the foolish households went about living their lives, thinking nothing of their future. But the wise households prepared for the big one, setting aside extra canned goods and bottles of water and batteries. Time passed, and the threat of the big one seemed far away for all ten households. One day though, without warning, the earthquake came and shook all of their homes. And the five foolish households had nothing, so they went to the five wise households and said, please give us some of your supplies. But the five wise households replied, “No! There will not be enough for you and for us. You had better go out and see what you can find.” So, the five foolish households were left out in the darkness, amid the ruins.
Now, it is not a perfect retelling of the parable, but you get the point. It is a message that we have heard before, in a thousand different ways. Be prepared.
But what is Jesus telling us to be preparing for? Certainly, one piece is being prepared for the unexpected arrival of the second coming, when Christ will come to the world again. Indeed, that is the message that the author seems to have in mind, as the parable ends with the message, “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day or the hour.” But the author is being a bit misleading with that summary—that was the moral of the previous parable that comes before this one in chapter 24 of Matthew, where Jesus likens the second coming to a thief in the night that catches the household asleep and unprepared.
In the parable we hear today, Jesus is expanding on his teaching. It is not enough to be prepared for the unexpected arrival of the Son of Man; we must also be prepared for the unexpected delay.
Why does he tarry? It was one of the first crises of the faith, one that endures even to this day. Why hasn’t Jesus come yet? The community of Matthew was grappling with this same question. The generation that had known Jesus, the generation that had known the first disciples, were beginning to pass away. The stories of Jesus and his teachings were being written down to ensure their propagation as the first keepers of the Gospel message grew old and died. The new generation of the faithful inherited the anticipation of Christ’s imminent return, but now it had an increasingly uncertain time frame.
The first disciples, the first communities of people that followed the teachings of Jesus, expected that he would return in their lifetimes. This delay was unexpected. How were they to stay prepared? We have inherited their wait, all these many generations later. The Son of Man will indeed come like a thief in the night, but now the delay has been so long that many have begun to interpret that return as a spiritual act rather than a physical/material one.
Yet, all around us we see a world in turmoil. All around us we see wars being waged, and yet it is never the ones who wage war who suffer or die; that is reserved for children and the innocent. All around us we see God’s good creation cracking and breaking under the repeated abuse of our greed and indifference. All around us we see the poor and the outcasts being crushed by the wealthy and the powerful. We long for salvation. We long for Christ to come to us and call us back into right relationship with our God. And we wait.
It makes me think of the Prophet Habakkuk. In what is one of the shortest books of the Bible, the prophet cries out to God about a world that has gone mad, a world where violence goes unchecked and the wicked prosper in the suffering of the righteous:
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgement comes forth perverted.
Look at the nations, and see!
Be astonished! Be astounded!
For a work is being done in your days
that you would not believe if you were told.
Your eyes are too pure to behold evil,
and you cannot look on wrongdoing;
why do you look on the treacherous,
and are silent when the wicked swallow
those more righteous than they?
Habakkuk 1:2-5, 13
After the prophet finishes recounting the evils of the world and the suffering of God’s people, he sets himself to wait for God’s response to his words. And God does respond!
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
It goes on a bit from there, with God describing what the judgement and justice of that appointed time will look like, but this is essentially how it ends. God promises that there is still a plan, still a vision for creation, and Habakkuk says, “Ok, then I will wait with faith. With fear and trembling, I will wait for my God.” It is why it is my favourite book in the Bible, because it ends with us, alongside the prophet, waiting for God’s salvation.
How do we wait? What prepares us for the delay? How do we sustain ourselves for the wait? And what sustains our hope in Christ? This, my friends, is one of the core questions at the heart of faith, and answering it is the work of a lifetime. Because the only way to be prepared is to develop our spirit and move deeper in our faith. We do this work individually through learning to pray, growing in our prayer, and discovering how to simply be in the presence of God. We do this through study, of scripture, of the wisdom of those who have come before us, and through the application of our own reason and intellect. We do this by learning to serve others, learning to care for others, and learning to love others even as God loves them. We do this work communally through our acts of worship and praise, by upholding and caring for one another, by doing the works of faith that God calls us to do, and by raising up and preparing those who will take the watch after us.
Because, like Habakkuk, this is how the story ends, with the promise that Christ is coming. And if God is nothing else, God is reliable and God will deliver. So we watch. We wait. We prepare.
Preached by the Rev. Adam Yates