Once again I’m just going to state the obvious: this Gospel text is just plain weird. This is one of those texts that you read and as a preacher you think “maybe I should preach on one of the other readings.” It’s hard to relate to, honestly. We hardly use the word “bridegroom” any more and we hardly use lamps that require oil any more. And then the last sentence is kind of just there as a reminder that the end times are coming but we “neither know the day nor the hour.” So what in the world are we supposed to do with this little ditty from Matthew today?
I’ll be honest, the first time I read this, I thought about that bumper sticker I’ve seen on some cars that reads “Jesus is coming…look busy.” But then I also thought of those billboards I used to see a lot down south that said things like “Jesus is coming, are you ready?” Or “God’s judgement will be upon us soon….how will you be judged?” Basically they were scare tactics to get people to get their life in order and start behaving. Here’s what I think: I think that we don’t often think about Christ’s coming again. It’s not like I wake up in the morning and in my head go through the plans I have for the day and end that list with “that is, unless Christ comes today.” I’m not saying that if Christ comes again in my lifetime that I won’t be overjoyed and probably so much in awe that I will be rendered speechless, but I just don’t spend my time waiting for Christ’s return.
I think that is because I encounter Christ so much on a daily basis that I often forget that we live in an “already but not yet” world. We know that Christ was crucified for our sins on a meager and humble cross. We know that he was buried and we know that three days later he rose again, just as he said he would. We know all of this was done so that we may never have to know the weight, shame, guilt, and heartache of sin. We taste Christ every time we come to this table. We feel Christ every time we see someone be splashed by these waters. There are so many ways that we encounter the risen Christ that it is almost easy to forget that we indeed are still waiting for him to come again. There are communion liturgies, in fact, where we proclaim, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”
The return of Christ is very much part of our language. We proclaim it in the Apostles’ Creed. We say “On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.” We also proclaim it in the Nicene Creed which says “On the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of thee Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” We already know that Christ will come again but we still do not know when–we live in the “not yet.”
I also think we don’t think much about Christ returning because many of us spend time waiting for other things. Now, I don’t know about you, but I can be one of the most impatient people I know. I am not good at waiting. I have learned that you never ever pray for patience. Because the thing is, God doesn’t give you patience–God gives you opportunities to be patient. I experienced that a few weeks back when I was at the doctors office (I’m not kidding) from 9:45-4 waiting for them to figure out what was wrong with me. Once I was in the hospital, I could not wait to get out. I am going to make a very bold statement here and I am happy to be proven wrong but I think that as Americans, we don’t wait very well. We live in an instant gratification society.
Most of us have the luxury of obtaining something if we want it. We don’t always wait for whatever it is. We may wait for a sale or something, but in the end, we probably don’t wait too long. When we are forced to wait, it is a reminder that ultimately, we are not in control. There is
not a more helpless or help-filled feeling than knowing we are not in control. We feel helpless because there is nothing we can do; yet at the same time, we feel help-filled because we know we’re not in control and that the one who is in control is God.
In my experience, I have found that waiting brings with it either a joyous high or a sorrowful low. Sure, there are times when there are those in between emotions, but usually the end of waiting is joyful or sorrowful. Think about the moments in your life when you have waited. Maybe you waited in a doctor’s office (like I did) for news, for results, for answers. Maybe you have waited by the phone for a call that was long overdue. Perhaps you’ve spent time at the airport waiting for your loved one to come through the secure area–and it’s been long overdue. I think waiting is that marks the benchmarks of our lives.
I remember waiting for the phone call that my grandfather had finally passed peacefully, and received the same phone calls for both my grandmothers. I remember waiting the 12 days needed to see if the fertility drugs we had taken would result in a positive pregnancy test. Those were a long 12 days. I remember waiting, as a teenager, by the mailbox, for my college acceptance letter. I know that I probably haven’t done half of the waiting I will do in my lifetime.
In the midst of our waiting, no matter if it is joyful waiting or sorrowful waiting, there is the risen Christ. The amazing thing is that he is there no matter what. Christ is with us no matter if we acknowledge his presence or not. He is with us and sometimes we can feel that and sometimes we can’t. It could very easily be said that all waiting is “holy waiting.” When our waiting is done with Christ accompanying us, it is holy waiting. When our waiting is done in the darkness, the light of Christ shines through all of that. When our waiting results in hunger, Christ feeds us. When our waiting results in death, our baptisms in Christ are complete. How different would our waiting be if we viewed every moment of wait as “holy waiting?”
Do we need to be prepared for Christ’s return? Of course! But perhaps we should be more in-tune to the places where we encounter Christ in the here and now. Perhaps we should help the people around us see that Christ is with them in their holy waiting. I know all of you know someone waiting for something. Maybe they’re waiting for work, waiting for good news, waiting for a loved one to return home, waiting for treatments to work, or perhaps, you know someone who is waiting for death. If we are to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world then it is to us to help people see that Christ is with them in the waiting. Waiting is hard, waiting is challenging, waiting goes against everything that we are used to doing. But waiting, when accompanied by Christ, can be, perhaps, just a little more bearable.
This Gospel is correct: we know not the time or day when Christ will return. But in the meantime, we can see Christ in our neighbors. We can experience Christ when we serve those around us who have less. We can experience Christ when we just hold the hand of the sick or lame. We can experience Christ when we come to this table, hands extended, to receive a gift we don’t deserve and can never repay. We experience Christ in love for one another. The experience of holy waiting beckons us to something deeper and more meaningful than nervous pacing and finger tapping. Holy waiting is waiting for Christ, in Christ, and with Christ; that kind of waiting will never be in vain.