“Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” I vaguely remember the announcement that was being broadcast on the radio: “Hurricane Hugo is coming!” To be honest with you, I really didn’t pay it much attention. After all, I lived in Hickory, NC at the time, hundreds of miles inland, far from the Carolina coast. Hurricane Hugo is coming? So what? No big deal. It won’t affect me!
So I loaded up Mt. Zion’s youth group in a van and headed to Garner Webb University to attend a Christian rock concert. We had a great time. Everyone was grinning from ear to ear. As I drove back form the concert I didn’t turn on the radio. I didn’t even think twice about checking on Hurricane Hugo. We arrived back in Hickory safe and sound. After every kid had gone home, I tucked myself in for the night and slept like a baby. Believe me, Hurricane Hugo was the farthest thing from my mind.
Then about 4 AM I was awakened by a howling wind. I ran downstairs and turned on the TV. I saw that Hurricane Hugo was heading inland and was already in Charlotte. I watched the weather report for a few minutes. Then the cable went dead. A few minutes later the electricity went out as well.
I remember stumbling around my apartment looking for a flashlight. Like most young single men, I couldn’t remember where I put it. I never really paid much attention to things like that! When I finally found the flashlight, guess what? The batteries were dead! So I stumbled around the apartment some more and finally found a few candles and some matches.
After illumination was accomplished, I located my boom box to get some more news. Of course, it had no batteries in it so I couldn’t find out any more information on the storm. After listening to the wind howl for about an hour I decided to give up and go back to bed, hoping my bed would still be there in the morning!
Needless to say, Hurricane Hugo caught me totally unprepared. I heard the announcement that Hurricane Hugo was coming but I didn’t pay any attention to it. Thank God the hurricane took its time. If Hugo had arrived a few hours earlier, I might have ended up stranded at Garner Webb University with a van full of scared teenagers. That would have been an even more difficult situation than the one I found myself in. The lesson I learned from Hurricane Hugo is that I now pay careful attention to weather events of any kind: hurricanes, floods, snowstorms and tornados. I always make sure I’m well prepared to handle them. It makes it so much easier when they arrive!
“Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” When I read our gospel lesson for today, I couldn’t help but think of my experience with Hurricane Hugo. It reminded me so much of the actions of the five foolish bridesmaids in the story. They knew the bridegroom was coming and yet, they were totally unprepared to meet him. In trying to understand the cultural context of this story, I did a little research and this is what I found…
In the vicinity of Bethlehem, as late as the turn of the century, torches were used to illuminate wedding processions at night. These torches consisted of sticks that were wrapped with rags soaked in olive oil. Very Indiana Jones, indeed! In our gospel lesson, the word “lamp” is LAMPAS in the Greek. However, it almost always means “torches” like those I just described rather than oil lamps which is the first image that comes to mind when we hear the gospel story. In fact, in John 18:3 the Greek word LAMPAS is used to distinguish these torches from lamps which is the Greek word PHANOS and means “lantern” or “light.”
So the visual image we take into our gospel story is a torch that the ten bridesmaids were holding. The way these wedding processions worked is that the bridesmaids waited with the bride outside of the banquet hall. As soon as they knew the bridegroom was arriving, they would light these torches which burn for about fifteen minutes. When the bridegroom finally arrived the bridesmaids would pour extra oil onto these torches. They would perform a special dance for the bridegroom and bride and lead them into the banquet hall.
This is the cultural context of our gospel story. When we take this information into our story we see that in verses 1-5 the ten bridesmaids are waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom so that they can light their torches and perform their dance. The foolish ones only carried the oil soaked torches and did not bring any extra oil with them. The wise ones brought an extra supply to ensure that their torches would remain lit through the entire dance. These verses also tell us that the bridegroom was delayed, a fact that would not have pleased the bride very much, and so the bridesmaids fall asleep.
Finally in verse 6 there is the announcement that the bridegroom is coming. The bridesmaids wake up from their slumber and light their torches. Then the situation is further complicated when the bridegroom is delayed a second time [Pretty much a wedding disaster] and the torches start to go out. The wise ones had enough oil to assure that their torches would remain lit. The foolish ones did not bring enough oil for such an emergency and so they ask the wise ones to give them some of their oil.
The wise ones refuse, saying, that if the bridegroom is delayed any longer they will run out of oil as well. They tell tell the foolish bridesmaids to go the marketplace and buy more oil. While the foolish ones are gone, the bridegroom arrives. The wise ones perform their dance and usher the bride and bridegroom into the banquet hall. The door is shut and the foolish ones are excluded from the celebration.
In a nutshell, the wise bridesmaids did their duty. They lit the way for the bride and bridegroom. The foolish ones did not. Like me and Hurricane Hugo, they were left to stumble in the darkness. They were totally unprepared and failed to light the way for the bridegroom. So, the parable ends with a powerful reminder: “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
This parable is a very important story in Matthew’s gospel. It meant a great deal to the early church. They, like the bridesmaids in the story, had experienced the delay of the bridegroom, Jesus. We need to keep in mind that Matthew was written around 75 to 85 CE which is roughly 50 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. Most of Jesus’ followers expected him to return within their lifetimes. When this did not occur some of them began to loose hope. Some of them began to have serious questions about their faith and their light began to dim.
It is in this context that they remembered the story of the Ten Bridesmaids. This story reminded them that even though Jesus’ second coming was delayed this did not mean they should loose hope and become lax in their faith. Instead they should always act as if Jesus were coming that very day. They were to be “awake,” on the watch. Their torches were supposed to shine brightly in order to illumine the way for Jesus the bridegroom.
What a powerful image this is for us as the Church in the 21st century. It has been almost 2000 years and Christ has not yet returned. We also live in a culture that has become increasingly apathetic to organized religion. Because of this, it is easy to lose hope. It is easy to run out of oil so that our torches burn dimly or not at all. Today’s gospel lesson tells us to “Keep awake, for we know neither the day nor the hour.” It’s a reminder that we need to keep our torches burning brightly, lighting the way for Jesus the bridegroom.
Let’s face it, there are a lot of people stumbling in the darkness these days. Our gospel lesson calls us to be God’s light for them. Matthew 5:16 puts it this way, “Let your light shine before others so that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.”
This is the image we want to keep in mind in order to understand our gospel lesson. We’ve been given an awesome responsibility. We are called to be torchbearers of God. We are called to light the way for Jesus so that those who stumble in the darkness might see him more clearly. The way we accomplish this is through our “good works,” our acts of love, service and compassion that are done in the name of Christ.
We do not perform these good works in order to get into heaven. Jesus did that for us when he died on the cross. We perform good works because we cannot do otherwise. Because Jesus lives in us good works are a natural byproduct. They simply flow from our relationship with him. Because Jesus, the light of the world, lives in us we cannot help but let that light shine for others to see.
This is what we learn from our gospel story. So the choice is ours. Will we let our light shine so that others might see Jesus more clearly? Or will we continue to stumble in the darkness with the rest of the world? I don’t know about you but after Hurricane Hugo I learned my lesson. I am awake, on the watch. I am always prepared. I will let my light shine brightly so that others may see the love of Jesus more clearly. I hope you will do the same! AMEN
Copyright ©2017 by David Eck