1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Matthew 25:1-13

Matthew is a frustrating gospel to preach from, because he always needs to say who is out of the kingdom of heaven. We’ve covered this before, it fits the time when Matthew was writing. He wrote in a time of high expectations. He was expecting Christ’s return, the apocalypse (just not right away). So this fits the genre, as you in Bible study know all too well. Apocalyptic writings always seem to have these clear black-and-white views of the world, and they’re full of this sharp polemic.

Matthew’s gospel was born in a time of conflict. Like at the end of a political campaign, it becomes more important to say why the other side is wrong than to say why your side is right. This breaks all the rules we have for how to disagree with one another, so don’t go following Matthew’s example the next time we have a conflict here at church. We seek to reconcile our differences. We want to keep a generous point of view, asking how we each see things and looking for ways to make sense of each other’s positions. We try to argue about issues and ideas, not about people’s motives or faithfulness. Matthew, on the other hand, apparently wants to impeach the other side, to make his argument based on the character of his opponents.

This story is unsettling to me. It’s unsettling what happens to the foolish virgins, who are “cast into the outer darkness.” It’s even more unsettling how the wise virgins respond to the situation. Remember, these are the heroines of the story: they took plenty of oil, and they’re ready to meet the bridegroom when he comes. So why are they behaving so badly? They never learned in preschool how to share, so they just tell the others that there’s not enough oil for everyone. Of course, this response fits Matthew’s approach. Someone is wrong, he says, but that’s not the church’s problem as long as the church is right.

The trouble is, Jesus’ whole ministry opposed this kind of self-righteousness. Matthew’s polemic painted the Pharisees as self-righteous, not sharing the love of God with people that they decided weren’t good enough to receive it. So I get stuck on the irony here, where Matthew shuts the door of heaven in someone else’s face. That’s my hypocrisy: I want to exclude Matthew on account of his excluding someone else for being so exclusionary!

So I have to give Matthew the same benefit I want from him. I have to ask, what is he getting at? What’s the message behind all this other stuff Matthew is up to? Well, it’s the same as Paul’s message to the church in Thessalonica: Christ’s coming is a mystery, so be ready for it. It’s not clear when it will happen, so just be ready. Dates and times are sort of a pressing question for a future-oriented people. If you’re waiting for the future, the $64,000 question is when the future will get here. Paul’s people, like Matthew’s people, worry about being caught faithless. They worry they’ll miss the boat when Christ comes.

Whether it happens at the end of history or throughout history, Christ comes. God fulfills what God is up to in the world. Last week, I claimed that “Christ is not running” in the presidential race. I said, “There is no Messiah in this race.” That was true in a Christian sense, because as Christians we call just one figure “Christ,” “the Messiah.” In an older Hebrew sense, it’s not true. The word ‘Messiah’ just means ‘anointed,’ ‘chosen.’ It’s not an exclusively singular word.

In Daniel, Isaiah, or Jeremiah, the prophecies that we read as being about “the Christ” were originally about particular historical figures, particular “christs,” where that word just means “anointed.” The prophets weren’t primarily fortune-telling, they were interpreting history. Their gift was to see where that arc of history leads. They saw God at work in history, using particular people to accomplish God’s will in the world. What’s important is that there’s nothing special about any of the people God uses. What’s special is God’s hand at work in history.

A little over 40 years ago, a far better preacher than I talked about “the long arc of history.” He quoted the song we just sang together, “We Shall Overcome,” because he had faith in the God of history. The title of his sermon when he delivered it at Grinnell College, my alma mater, was “Remaining Awake Through a Revolution” (there were other variations with slightly different titles elsewhere, but I can admit to being proud of my school).

In his sermon, this preacher talked about Rip Van Winkle, the man who slept for 20 years. The bigger shock for him was not that he slept so long, but that he happened to sleep through the American Revolution. Life changed without him, and he would have needed to change a little every day just to keep up. A revolution came in the 1960s as well, and Martin Luther King, Jr., saw it coming. He said, “It’s happening, so get on board.”

He couldn’t wake up the whole country, and millions of people slept through that revolution. Like the foolish virgins, some people always would – some people always opposed the new thing God was doing. But history is bigger than people, and God is at work with us or in spite of us. Our job is simply to watch for where God is at work and get on board. God’s work is bigger than any individual who may be chosen to be a part of it.

History was made on Tuesday. God unfolded something new, something the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., saw coming. This new thing happened not because Barack Obama is anything special, regardless of what any of us might think. It happened because history lined up to reinforce our country’s repentance from a long history of racism. It happened because the dream, that people consist of more than just the color of their skin, was ready to become that much more real.

History is not perfect. God’s work unfolds slowly and improbably in this life. Not all Christians are happy about this particular bit of history. Not everyone in this congregation is happy with it. You may have wanted a descendant of slaves to be the first black president. You may have wanted a black Republican. Maybe you wished a woman had been elected first. Or maybe you just wanted someone else with different ideas. The history that took place on Tuesday was larger than the issues, as important as those are. Even so, history is still incomplete.

Prophets don’t usually know when the next hour of God’s activity will come about. They didn’t know when this hour of God’s history would come, but they watched for it. Their eyes were on the future. They watched for God’s next move, for a new moment in history. Prophets are never satisfied, because today is not perfect. God is always still coming.

But we pray too that the prophets are able to rejoice each day as well. Today isn’t perfect, but today is good. God is not done with us, but God is good to us, and joy is still there to be found. Joy doesn’t just come about in history to be made years from now, it’s also present in the light we carry now. God’s fulfillment is still coming, but it’s always a little bit closer than before.

So live like a new day is dawning. Ask how God might be just around the corner. Don’t live in fear of punishment, because even when it’s disorienting, the news is good. So pay attention, so you don’t miss it. Good news will happen even without us, but the more attentive we are, the better prepared we’ll be, and the better the news will be. The news is only bad when we’re late to the party, and it’s so much better to see God coming. So keep your eyes fixed on God, because something good is still ready to happen.