Sermon: "When the Waiting is Over"
Sixth in a series on "The Kingdom of God."
(This sermon was not transcribed, but is made available from the speaker's notes. There may be slight differences from the MP3.)
Good morning. It is a good day, amen? Many of you know me, but for the benefit of our guests and those who just haven't been paying attention lately, my name is Andy Gathman, and I am the Director of Young Adult Ministries here at Central.
This is a momentous day in the life of Central, because after three years of searching for a pastor, after three years of interim preaching and about a year of pastor-of-the week, this is the last week of that for quite some time, because our new Senior pastor, John Schmidt will be starting on this week, and Sunday will be his first week preaching as our pastor.
Some of you may be wondering how it came to be that I have the distinction of being the last person to preach at Central before Pastor Schmidt arrives, and all I can figure is they wanted to make him look good. Be that as it may, I don't want to let him off too easily, nor do I want to let you off too easily, and so before we proceed, let us pray together that God would open our hearts to his teachings.
For those of you who caught the title of the message today, "When the waiting is over," it may have sounded very refreshing, because nobody likes to wait. So thinking about the time when the wait is over can be very uplifting. It is what puts children on pins and needles as Christmas day approaches, or as they count down the days to their birthday. It is why kids always want to know "are we there yet?" or "how much longer" on those long car trips.
As adults, we still hate waiting, and unfortunately many of our daily tasks include a fair amount of waiting. Often we'll go to great lengths to avoid the wait. How many of you have calculated the fastest route to get to and from work, out of maybe five or six possibilities? And how many have cataloged the best alternatives based on time, day of the week, and weather conditions. And how many, when you run into a traffic jam on the route you thought would be fastest, feel like you've just lost some imaginary contest? And of course there's that sense of relief, it's almost euphoric, when you finally get past the bottleneck and can punch speed back up there... to the speed limit of course.
Between calculating the fastest way home, anticipating the fastest checkout line at the grocery store, memorizing automated call lists so we don't have to listen to the instructions, watching 2 or 3 TV shows at once so we don't have to watch the commercials... it would be interesting to see a study on how much of our brain capacity is taken up just trying to minimize our waiting time.
And the principle behind all of these things is this: Cut down on waiting time as much as possible, because when I wait, I am missing real life. In effect, waiting prevents me from participating in those things that are truly meaningful. I think this attitude carries over when we are waiting for really significant things in life, too.
And I am sure there are people here today who are experiencing a season of waiting in life. Maybe you are single, and you've been waiting to find your special someone. Or you have been in a dating relationship that doesn't seem to be moving forward, and you are waiting for him to propose. Maybe you are out of work, or you hate the job you do have, and you've been waiting in this tough job market for the next job. Maybe your life savings was invested in the stock market and you've been waiting for the market to rebound. I know of parents who have been waiting courageously for years for their wayward son or daughter to come back around. Maybe you have been unsuccessfully trying to get pregnant, and every month has become its own cycle of hope, disappointment, and the prospect of more waiting.
And if we peered in to any one of those situations, and I'm sure a thousand more, we would find people who are wrestling with God: "What is taking you so long?" "Why must I wait?" "Are you even listening?" Waiting in these kinds of situations is not simply an inconvenience. This waiting is painful, and the longer we wait, the more it becomes a test of our character, and a test of our faith. When confronted with waiting for these kinds of things, we tend to direct all of our attention and all of our energy to this one area, and we might get the sense that the rest of our life is on hold, it feels like life is passing me by.
This universal experience of waiting is why we are drawn to stories of people who have waited faithfully. We love them because we can identify with them so closely, we have known the agony of waiting, and we desperately want to be able to wait faithfully if called upon to do so.
We've all heard the story that goes like this, man is lost at sea, leaving a wife or lover behind. He is presumed dead, but she never gives up hope. Of course we know that he is not dead. He's stranded far away from civilization, or locked in some foreign prison, but his thoughts of her keep him alive. Years later there is a knock on her door, and who is it but her husband, who was finally able to make his way home. They embrace and everyone feels good because the lovers remained faithful in the face of terrible adversity.
If you saw the movie, Castaway, with Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt, you remember that it had a different ending. She wanted to believe, she did believe he was still alive, but finally with the advice of her friends she moved on and married someone else. Of course he did come back, only to find that no one was waiting for him. And although no one wants to blame her for moving beyond what was surely a hopeless situation, we are very unsettled by the fact that if she had only waited longer, her faith would have been rewarded.
In our scripture text today, Jesus shares with his disciples a parable-a story that illustrates a deeper truth-very much like those classic stories of faithful waiting, but here the master storyteller introduces a new twist: we find both types of heroines, the faithful and the unfaithful. But before we look into the text, let's first get some background.
Now, remember that Jesus' entire public ministry is about the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all record Jesus' overarching message: The Kingdom of Heaven is near, repent and believe the good news. And I think you can look at everything the Jesus does in the gospels as Jesus revealing what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, who is eligible to be in the Kingdom, and how to participate in the life of the Kingdom.
As we look at this specific context of this story, we find Jesus only days before his arrest, torture, and crucifixion. He has started doing things recently that are unique to his ministry. Until now he has mainly avoided the capital city of Jerusalem along with its politics and powerbrokers, but now he has thrust himself into the middle of this city and is challenging the establishment head-on. For the first time, he has accepted public support and acknowledgement as the Messiah. And he has begun to tell his disciples strange things, like the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the age. He is telling them that he is going away, and that he is going to be betrayed and executed.
His disciples are concerned. They don't like the prospect of being left alone. But like any good Jew they also know their prophecies--that the Messiah will usher in the supernatural destruction of world powers and that God's kingdom would finally be established on earth. And so they ask, "When will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" (Matthew 24:3) They're basically asking, Jesus, while you are on the topic of future events, how long are we going to have to wait for you, and how will we know when you're coming back? And isn't that what any of us would ask when faced with the prospect of waiting--we think, if only we know how long the wait will be, we will be able to make it.
Jesus spends the rest of chapter 24 indulging their question, talking about the end of the age, speaking about apocalyptic mysteries and visions of the future, and then he follows this by three stories about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, the first of which is the Parable of the ten virgins. But this parables, rather than entertain the disciples' question, instead focuses them back on his central message. Here, even at the end of Jesus ministry, he is still teaching about the Kingdom.
At the center of this parable is a message Jesus knew would be crucial to his disciples as he was about to leave them. It is the idea that waiting is simply a part of life in the Kingdom. And I know that this is story is set in an apocalyptic context, but I believe this can apply not only to our waiting for the second coming of Christ, but also periods of waiting for movements of God, both in our personal life as in the situations I referred to earlier, or collectively as God's people. And when we encounter these times of waiting, this parable tells us that we are measured not so much by our ability to wait them out by sheer willpower, but instead by whether we have sustained a life of faith and prepared ourselves for participation in the Kingdom.
As I have studied this passage, it has caused me to ask myself two questions. And that's what parables really do, isn't it? They are a form of story that does not so much present an answer to our spiritual questions, but rather, they pose questions that challenge us to find a personal answer in the depths of our spirits.
The first question this causes me to ask about waiting in the Kingdom of Heaven is "Who am I waiting for?" This is not a rhetorical question. The bridegroom in the story represents Jesus, but we must not overlook this. It is vitally important that we know who we are waiting for. Because I think for many of us, if we really examine ourselves, will find that we are not waiting on God, but on someone or something else. Another personal contact to come through for us, a job that will give us fulfillment, a diploma to pave the way, our circumstances to align just right, the government to bail us out when we get in trouble, medical science to cure our disease . . . . And we wait and we put our hope in these things, because they appear to be more present, more tangible, more responsive to our needs and desires.
Here at Central, our congregation has been collectively waiting. We've held together and huddled together for three long years. But next week, John Schmidt will be here. And so maybe we all ought to give ourselves a little pat on the back for toughing it out and waiting faithfully for a pastor.
But before he gets here, let me let you in on a little secret: we've been waiting for the wrong thing. God has not called us to faithfully wait for a pastor. This thought may make some of you uncomfortable. You have been thinking for so long, when we finally get a pastor [...] Let me remind us all, that the pastor is not head of the church. Jesus Christ is the head of the Church. There is nothing that he can do with a pastor that he can't do without one. And there is certainly nothing a pastor can do that He can't. Because the strength and the hope and the power of the church is Jesus Christ, the risen son of God, and we wait for Him.
Listen to the wisdom of the Psalmist: Psalms 33:20-22
Or the hope of the Prophet Jeremiah: Lamentations 3:19-26
Today, in our fast-paced consumer culture, this can be a very hard concept to grasp. When we see something we want, we expect it to be ours. All that is required is the right resources, we make a simple transaction and voila, instant gratification. We bring this attitude into the Kingdom, and we expect our needs to be met within a reasonable timeframe. If our waiting is too long, we expect that something is wrong, we're not doing the right things, or God is punishing us, or even more damaging, that God doesn't care about us. Our prayers turn into complaints to the customer service department. Let me speak to the management, because I'm not happy with my product.
But here's the thing about participating in the Kingdom of Heaven--when we become a citizen in the Kingdom of Heaven, we've given up the right to wait for the things that we want. Now we wait for the King. We are bound to His desires, His timing. This is not a Wal-Mart super store with God as manager. This is the Kingdom of the Heavens, and He is the King. It is His prerogative to decide His comings and goings. We who have declared ourselves to be followers of Jesus ought to expect to control the duration of our waiting for Him no more than a limo driver of the president controls the schedule of the president.
So as you experience periods of waiting in your life, ask yourself, am I truly waiting on God, and do I believe, really that he is trustworthy?
The second question that this parable causes me to ask myself is what is the quality of my waiting? The point in Jesus telling this story is not about 2000 years of trying to whip up expectations that He just might come very soon. Even as the disciples are pumping Jesus for more answers about the end times, Jesus in this story is telling them that it is not the quantity of waiting that should concern them, but the quality of waiting.
Jesus presents us with ten maidens, virgin bridesmaids. Right away he clues us in to the fact that five of them are wise and five of them are foolish. In fact I considered naming my message today "Five foolish virgins," But I was afraid some people might get the wrong idea.
Anyway, they go out from the bride's house to meet the bridegroom and his entourage, who apparently were scheduled to come sometime that evening. It was traditional in 1st century Palestine that the groom would come after sundown to take his bride, so the bridesmaids brought with them oil lamps to light the way of the wedding procession. And here we have the critical distinction: some of the bridesmaids brought extra oil for their lamps, but others didn't. Oh, you foolish, bridesmaids. Everything was going just fine until the evening crept later and later. In fact, the groom's arrival is so delayed, that all of the bridesmaids fall asleep waiting for him.
If Jesus were telling this story today, he might say 10 bridesmaids were driving to a wedding, but they didn't know exactly how far away the church was. Five filled their tanks before they left, but the other five didn't. The foolish five who didn't fill their tanks, ran out of gas and missed the wedding.
The point is this: The foolish ones were amazed and astonished when they woke up to find that their lamps went out when the oil dried up. No Kidding! Oil lamps don't burn without oil. They look as silly to Jesus' listeners as people using cars who neglect to get gas. So the people who wait wisely in Jesus Kingdom are those people who make the obvious preparation of having oil for their lamps.
The lamp represents the state of our heart. The question is, when it is time, will God find our hearts well cared for, and ready to respond to His initiative, or will we be ill-prepared when the waiting is over? If we consider the context of Jesus entire ministry and teaching on the Kingdom of Heaven, I think that Jesus is reinforcing one of the central principles of his kingdom: that life in the Kingdom of the Heavens is not about the outer trappings of a good life, but rather it is about the condition of a person's heart. He is telling us that faithfulness is to fuel our hearts with oil that will last. Seek the oil of Eternal Life.
It is possible to manufacture what looks like a good Christian life. But having had lamps in hand which seemed once to burn well is no guarantee they will burn in the future. It is all too tempting to want the name of Christ as the password for heaven, and then ignore a continuing and dynamic relationship with him and disregard the teachings that Jesus says lead to eternal life. We complain that we don't know what we are to do to live out this faith, but we neglect to study his word, are mentally absent during worship, and avoid developing community with other believers.
Having the status of being Christian, even doing good things in the name of Christ, means nothing if it is not an actual, continuing part of our being. Jesus is not interested merely saving people from judgment, but more importantly in transforming their hearts and enabling people to live in a relationship with God that has continuing significance and continuing life.
And, as always, Jesus is taking these matters out of the realm of theory and making them quite practical. Jesus is telling His disciples that preparedness in the Kingdom is as obvious as bringing oil for your lamps. Seek first the Kingdom and the rightness of the Kingdom life, and all your other needs will be satisfied as well. The oil we need in our lamps is the oil of eternal life, and only Jesus can give us this through a relationship with Him. As Jesus said in John 17:3 Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.
Are we putting the right things into our heart while we are waiting? Are you waiting in such a way that you will be prepared when the wait is over? The parable of the ten virgins leaves it for you to decide. In the same way that the bridesmaids couldn't share their oil, because they needed to light the procession for the rest of the guests, we are each responsible for the state of our own hearts.
Ultimately, a faithful heart will be recognized by a flame that does not go out. As Jesus said, "Let your light shine in the presence of everyone so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in Heaven." Has the light of your lamp grown dim? Can you honestly say that when others look at you they see the light of Christ? Does your life naturally and authentically produce the fruits of Eternal Life: Good news to the poor, Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, caring for the sick and visiting those imprisoned? If God were to move in your life in an unexpected way, if he call our church in a radically different direction, would you be ready to respond to his leading or would you be caught unprepared?
And this is the truly good news that Jesus brings to us: we don't need to worry about tinkering with our lamps, or running off to find the nearest oil seller at the slightest change in our outlook. All we need is to turn our hearts toward Jesus, for he offers us oil that will never dry up, and as we follow his teachings our lives will be prepared for whatever he has in store for us in His Kingdom. Because the thing about waiting in the Kingdom is that it is not about waiting for a specific moment in history, like children waiting for Christmas day, but it is about waiting for a whole new type of reality.
In much the same way that a truly wise engaged couple waits not for their wedding day but for their marriage, this parable tells me that how we wait will have the impact of leaving either prepared or unprepared for what Jesus has in store for us in the Kingdom of heaven. God is using times of waiting to test our faith and to strengthen us for the day that he comes to partner with us in ministry and redemption of the world.
And the truly beautiful thing about this parable, is that a heart truly transformed by Jesus can rest easy. Notice that all the bridesmaids in our story fell asleep, but it wasn't a problem for wise bridesmaids, because they were ready for the groom no matter when he came. In the same way, when our life is filled with a living and active relationship with Jesus, we have no need to worry when God comes at unexpected times. Even as we wait for him, He gives us His spirit to sustain us, direct us, and lead us in the way of eternal life even now.
As I said in the beginning, waiting is part of life the Kingdom of Heaven. But as you experience times of waiting, ask yourself, "Who am I waiting for?" and "What is the quality of my waiting? Will I be prepared when the waiting is over?" Because the one thing we can be sure of in the Kingdom, is that our waiting is not in vain.
And here is the picture hope of the gospel in this parable: see, in 1st century marriages when a prospective husband would propose, he would bring a large sum of money to secure the engagement. And after the betrothal contract was settled, he would go away in order to earn a living and prepare a place for them to live, typically with the groom's father.
And the traditional words of the groom's parting were "Don't worry. I'm going to prepare a place for you, in my Father's house, where there are many rooms. But if I am going now, I will be coming back, so that you can be where I am." It is unthinkable that the groom would not come back, both because he has already paid a large sum, and because he is spending much time working behind the scenes so that everything will be just right for their marriage.
Friends, Jesus has already paid the sum. He has paid an exorbitant price to have us as his bride for all eternity, and he paid it with a life lived for God, a death to bear our punishment, and a resurrection that defeated death. And so while we know that there will be times of waiting, we can be sure that He will return. And when the waiting is over, whether we experience the coming of our Lord in this life or the next, those who have waited faithfully will experience the joy of a bride on her wedding day in the celebration of the Kingdom that is to come.
© 2003, Andy Gathman
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