We know the great commission and the greatest commandments pretty well. But there is another “great” in the Christian tradition that is relevant to our scripture verse this morning: The Great Disappointment. On October 22, 1844, the second coming of Christ did not happen—much to the despair of the upwards of one hundred thousand followers of William Miller, who had predicted that the end of the world as we know it would kick off on that fateful morning. Many of Miller’s followers had taken drastic measures to prepare for the big day. Some had even sold their family farms and quit their jobs. When the day came and went without a downpour of heavenly fireworks, many people were devastated. Thousands abandoned their faith altogether. But a small and loyal following resulted in the eventual development of two denominations—the Seventh Day Adventist church and the Jehovah’s Witness movement.
The Great Disappointment was a huge event—or, should I say non-event—in the history of the Christian faith, and not just for the groups that directly emerged from Miller’s teachings. William Miller’s apocalyptic predictions marked the beginning of the modern obsession with the end of the world, an obsession that crosses denominational lines. No matter that folks who predict the end times constantly have to rework their calculations; the apocalypse is big business in the
The end-times frenzy is a central force in some Christian churches. When I was ten or so, I attended a worship service at a friend’s church that had a chart on the sanctuary wall detailing precisely when the rapture was going to occur, leaving those who were not members of that denomination to suffer the tribulation. It scared me—though not enough to remember what day they had determined would be the last!
The science of the apocalypse is complicated. End-times predictors approach the bible as if it is a code to be cracked. They often emphasize the book of Revelation, reading it as literal prophecy, and often taking it out of its context as a letter written to the early church. Any numbers that pop up in the bible are fair game to be included as proofs for intricate theories pinpointing the end of the world. The icing on this doomsday cake is the reading the signs of the times—linking up current events such wars, famines, political conflicts, and natural disasters with biblical prophecies. Even as I recognize that apocalyptic speculation is undertaken with pure and faithful motives, the effect of such speculation is often fear and hysteria rather than hope and joyful expectation.
I lift up this contemporary expression of apocalyptic thought not only because it is extremely popular, and therefore what many people think of when they consider the second coming of Christ, but also because it strikes me as such a vastly different picture than that which is painted by Jesus in the parable we heard today.
Jesus sets the stage for the parable of the bridesmaids by giving us a big clue right off the bat. Even as the bridesmaids scurry off with their lamps to meet the bridegroom, Jesus divulges that five of the women are wise, and five of the women are foolish. All the bridesmaids are where they are supposed to be. All the bridesmaids fall asleep when the bridegroom doesn’t show up. However, the five wise women are prepared for his delay. They have brought oil with which to replenish their lamps for the long wait. The foolish women who have run out of oil beg their friends to share, but the fact is that the wise bridesmaids don’t have a drop of oil to spare. They have just what they need to greet the bridegroom and celebrate the inception of his marriage. The foolish bridesmaids are sent off to the merchants to buy more oil, but their last minute attempt to make up for their foolishness is simply too little too late. They’ve missed the boat. Meanwhile, the wise women who were fully prepared for the late arrival of the groom have entered the bright and warm wedding celebration. The parable ends with the premonition, “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
I think that it is really hard to read this kind of scripture without filtering it through the cloud of apocalyptic hysteria that has stormed through Christian churches in the past hundred and fifty years. To get to the core of this parable—to uncover the gospel kernel within it—we need to peel away the layers introduced by pop culture apocalypticism.
So if this parable doesn’t resemble contemporary end-times fever, what does it teach? The scripture does imply that something is going to happen, something about which we know neither the day nor the hour. The point of this scripture is not to encourage us to figure out that day or that hour. Regardless of when this momentous event in the life of the
Why all this waiting in the first place? The early church—the first and second generations to read Matthew’s gospel—believed that Jesus was going to return to earth within their lifetime. The newborn Body of Christ had no idea that God’s plan for the church was to minister in the name of Jesus Christ through millennia. The early assumption was that Jesus was going to hotfoot it back to the earth to harvest the seeds of the kingdom he planted during his first coming. But the day did not come. Their expectations for a quick second coming were mounting to a first Great Disappointment.
So the waiting is a reality; each generation experiences the same anguish of waiting for the
The meaning of the oil in this allegory is good works—good works that demonstrate the believer’s commitment to responding to God’s grace by following the way of Jesus. I think it helps to recall a scripture from the Gospel of Matthew that the lectionary skipped past, in which Jesus beseeches the Pharisees to tithe not with offerings of mint, cumin, and dill, but to offer a sacrifice of Justice and Mercy. The oil is a symbol for that sacrifice. The oil is a symbol for what will matter when the Christ returns: how has your life reflected your commitment to Christ? Did you get lazy when it became clear that the life of discipleship requires hard work, day in and day out? Did you find ways to nurture the flame of the Holy Spirit in your life, by consistently practicing lovingkindness to your neighbors? Did you forgive? Did you repent? This is the oil that lights our lamps and in turn brings God’s light to the world; this is the oil that fuels the movement of the Christian life. And this is not oil we can run out and buy at the store. This is not oil we can afford to run out of and borrow from our sisters and brothers. This is the sacrifice of readyness, the work of justice and mercy, that each follower of Christ must practice in this, and every, time and place.
This parable that Jesus shares demonstrates the nature of the
And the hope of Christ’s return is a glorious hope indeed. This parable is lovely reminder of the wonderful nature of the object of our anticipation. What is the
Sisters and brothers, let’s be like the wise bridesmaids. Let’s ready ourselves for Christ’s return not with technical charts and smug predictions. Let’s prepare for His arrival by saturating our lives with plenty of love, gratitude, generosity, and humility to keep our gospel lights burning brilliantly.
We have been promised that Christ is coming and that our future lies with God. The end is certain—what matters for us today is how we let that glorious end form and transform our lives in this day and in this hour. When we have oil for our lamps—when we live in accordance with the way of the gospel—we can boldly and joyfully pray, “Come, Lord Jesus! Come!”