What’s In Those Lamps?

What’s In Those Lamps?

Jesus said, “Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

(Matthew 25:1-13: Pentecost 24, Cycle A in the RCL)


Here in the middle of the so-called “long green season,” or “ordinary time,” here at the very moment of the summer solstice, this will be an Advent sermon. As Karl Barth wrote many times, the church has no other time in this world but that of Advent—“the time between,” as he often called it. Advent is the time of both “waiting and hastening,” a verse from Second Peter that Barth loved to quote: “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:12). Advent is the dialectic between the waiting and the hastening, the faithful confidence that strains forward toward the day and the long endurance that’s required to wait for it. There is no other time given us in this life than this time, the time between the first coming of our Lord in humility and his second coming in glory. This is a strong theme in the Gospel of Matthew.

Many things have changed. When I was a Sunday School student growing up, this parable was called “The Wise and Foolish Virgins.” Now its called “The Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids.” I guess bridesmaids aren’t virgins any more…50+ years ago when my classmates and I were getting married, a lot of us actually were virgins (that was a good thing, in my opinion).

Many things have changed in the world of biblical interpretation, also. When you have preached largely from the Epistles and the Old Testament for the past twenty years, as I have, and you come back to the Gospels for the first time in a while, you forget how disconcerting it can be to use some of the biblical commentaries. Take today’s parable, for example. When you look it up in scholarly commentaries, you find all kinds of disputes—who is meeting whom and where, were they lamps or torches, would shops be open at night, does this parable actually go back to the historical Jesus, etc.[1] Not only is this very discouraging for the preacher, it can actually lead away from the point of the parable. How refreshing it is for us preachers to turn to Barth’s expository passages!

And there is yet another thing that’s changed in the last 50 years. The creedal confession that “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” used to be rejected out of hand by virtually all progressive American Christians when I was young. Today, the eschatological, even apocalyptic atmosphere of the New Testament has finally begun to percolate down into the local congregations. Perhaps we’re beginning to realize that if Christian faith is going to have any guts, it simply cannot be satisfied with exclusively human hope.

Two days ago, the principal of the Goose Creek School in Charleston, where one of the murdered churchgoers was an admired track coach, said, “Our society is broken, pretty much, but there will be a time when these times will be made right.” Notice the use of the passive voice, “will be made right.” There is a divine agency behind this making-right, and that agency cannot be overcome by the principalities, or by the powers, or by things present or things to come (Romans 8:38-9). That’s what the 24th and 25th chapters of Matthew point to. They are oriented toward the triumph of God in the second coming of Christ.

The various parables and sayings of these two chapters offer a remarkably rich and varied picture. We have the long discourse which is Matthew’s version of the Synoptic Apocalypse. Then we have the parables of the thief in the night, the faithful and unfaithful servants, the ten bridesmaids, the money in trust (the “talents”), and finally the Last Judgment. All of these are appointed for the Advent season.[2] And then, “When Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples, ‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of man will be delivered up to be crucified’” (Matthew 26:1-2). Matthew has arranged this link between the Last Judgment and the crucifixion in a most artful and intentional way.

Now about those ten young women. The reason it still makes sense, biblically speaking, to think of them as virgins is that Paul writes to the Corinthian church as follows: “I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin espoused to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:22). Virtually all interpreters agree that the ten bridesmaids represent the church—the community of professing Christians. That’s why the bride doesn’t appear in the story. If there was a bride, the symbolism would become bifurcated, with two different figures representing the church. In this parable, the bridesmaids are the virgin church, and the bridegroom, Jesus Christ, is arriving to sweep them up into his triumphal procession.

As we all know, the image of a wedding festival is a primary image—perhaps the primary image—of the Kingdom of heaven (as Matthew calls it). Whatever the marriage customs may have been in first-century Judaea, it’s clear that the most important characteristic of the celebration is its untrammeled joyousness. In the story, the arrival of the bridegroom is intended to signal the beginning of the feast. Until he comes, it’s all anticipation.

Anticipation is thrilling, for a while. The excitement about what is just around the corner heightens the sense of coming fulfilment. Everyone feels supercharged. This lasts for an hour, two hours…then the waiting becomes tedious. Why is he late? Three hours, and the nagging question arises, what if he doesn’t come at all? Darkness has fallen. More hours go by. No one can stay at a pitch of anticipation for ever. The young women begin to grow sleepy; their oil lamps begin to burn low. Suddenly the electrifying cry arises, “He’s coming!” The lights of the procession approach in the night. The bridesmaids leap to their feet, grab their guttering lamps, trim them, and pour in their reserves of oil. Except that five of them have no extra; they wail, “our lamps are going out!”

Some have suggested that the five wise virgins are selfish because they won’t share. That’s a moralistic reading of the story. As one interpreter says acerbically, “Better to greet the bridegroom with five lights than no lights at all.”[3] The foolish five rush off to the shops, but it’s too late. The five whose lamps are brilliantly burning go into the wedding feast with the bridegroom and the five who were unprepared have the door shut against them.

We can be here for the rest of the day debating the ultimate destiny of the foolish five. Barth famously wrote that we are permitted to hope for a salvation that will reach to all. That’s why one woman in Charleston—a woman prepared—said directly to the killer, “May God have mercy on your soul.” The important thing about this parable right now is to think about what it means for the church to be ready for the coming of her Lord. What does it mean for us, all these weary and discouraging hours, and days, and years that he does not come and it appears that he never will, and the church grows slack?

What’s in those lamps? What does it mean to be ready at all hours of the night? What does it mean to be “the community of the last times” (CD III/2, 508) “In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says “Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning” (Luke 12:35). The emphasis is on being supplied and ready. On the night of the Passover, the children of Israel are commanded: “[Eat with] your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat in haste” (Exodus 12:11) Does this mean we always have to gobble down our dinner standing up? Of course not. No one can be awake all the time. All ten of the bridesmaids went to sleep. Human frailty is accounted for; God understands our weakness. Perpetual alertness is not what’s wanted; what’s wanted is that stored-up emergency supply to last while “according to his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).

This confidence in the “great gettin’ up morning” has strengthened the congregation of Emanuel A. M. E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina—known to many as “Mother Emanuel.” When I started struggling with this sermon ten days ago, I wondered how in the world I was going to illustrate it. Little did I know that something would happen that would show forth the Advent church, assaulted by darkness, but rising up with all its lamps burning, and with plenty of extra oil for the long, long haul ahead.

When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot up the Columbine High School in 1999, there were some troubling stories about local Christian youth groups. Before the blood was even dry, it seemed, youth leaders began asking the traumatized students whose friends were dead, “Do you forgive Eric and Dylan?” This sort of premature, even invasive, call for forgiveness should never be inflicted on anyone, let alone young teenagers who have just experienced the unimaginable. It’s very difficult even for much older Christian people to navigate the passage between justice and mercy. Ordinarily we might do well to mistrust such premature offers of forgiveness.

Last week in Charleston, however, was different. To be sure, it’s important not to romanticize or idealize the black church, or any church. All Christian groups are riven by Sin just like all other groups. But the black churches have suffered so extremely, and so unjustly, for so long, that they have achieved a maturity that seems almost superhuman. The members of “Mother Emanuel” Church who lost their pastor, their relatives, their friends in a bloody, hateful assault are not teenagers unaccustomed to suffering, crime, violence, and death. These are adults who have seen ugliness in human character that white people cannot even comprehend. Many of them have been learning “the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16) for decades. They were being conformed, as a group, to his likeness. Therefore they had a readiness, as a community of believers, that can’t develop the same way in isolated individuals.

I heard a long interview on NPR with an African-American pastor in South Carolina. The interviewer simply could not comprehend what he was saying to her. She kept saying, “But how can you forgive? How can you be like this?” All weekend, the mystification of the reporters was notable. They kept asking the same question over and over: “How can you forgive Dylann Roof?” They couldn’t understand it. The radio and TV people kept using well-worn phrases like “the triumph of the human spirit” and “the goodness of the American people.” No, the pastor on NPR said, it is our faith. What we have seen in the members of Mother Emanuel church and the other black churches is neither the triumph of the human spirit nor the goodness of the American people. It was a cloud of witnesses to the victory of the limitless love of the One who will come again to set things right.

Barth testifies that the oil of the lamps is the witness of the Spirit in the waiting church (CD III/2, 505-6). That’s what we’re seeing in this response of the Mother Emanuel members. They are so practiced, through regular worship, Bible study, and prayer, that they don’t need to run out to the store in the middle of the night to buy more oil. They’ve been in the middle of the night for a long time. They don’t need any well-meaning, immature counselors to tell them to forgive Dylann Roof. It’s part of their DNA as a Christian community. They have been storing up oil for generations. On Friday night, they were standing out in the courtyard of their horribly violated church, and they were singing “Let my little light shine.” When the church reopened for worship yesterday, one of the ministers said that people kept asking why, and how, but “those of us who know Jesus, we can look through the window of our faith, and we see hope, we see light.”[4]

Maybe the best clue to the inner meaning of this parable of the lamps and the oil can be found in just two words. The parable tells us that when the bridegroom arrived, “those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast.” With him! The five who were prepared, who stored up a supply of oil in anticipation of the great banquet, see the lighted procession approaching them with the glorious Bridegroom at its head. “Come, good and faithful servants, enter into the joy of your Master.” We accompany him, we enter his eternal wedding banquet with him, at his side, cleansed from all our accumulated misdoings, freed from our bondage to the power of Sin, in fellowship with the Lord Jesus in all his splendor, the one who has loved us even unto death and hell, who comes again to receive those who belong to him.

“With him!” “Beloved…it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (I John 3:2).


[1] It is not to the point to be told, as several commentaries do, that the bridegroom is late because he is haggling with his future in-laws over the bride-price!

[2] Increasingly, and rightly, the Advent season is being described as a seven-week period, beginning after All Saints Day.

[3] F. W. Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (1981), 482.

[4]John Eligon and Richard Fausset, “Defiant Show of Unity in Church That Lost 9,”The New York Times, June 22, 2015. It is almost unknown for The New York Times to quote someone using the name of Jesus in a confessional context except when the speaker is African-American. Sermons given at the funerals of well-known white people are often quoted, but the quotations are always generic; theological references to Christ are not included. I have noticed this for decades. Therefore the witness of the black church is all the more important to the spread of the gospel.

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