“When God Comes”
Belmont UMC – November 9, 2014
There are signs along the highway that read, PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD! We probably read those signs as something ominous, like a God of judgment who is going to sweep down in a great moment of wrath. The bold letters of the signs convey urgency and warn us that God is coming, but the signs are true. If we believe that God is coming into our lives, more in moments of grace than anger, will we be prepared to meet God, to greet God, to welcome the God who wants to come into our lives?
“Prepare to meet thy God” could be the theme of this interesting little parable in Matthew. The Gospel paints a picture of a Middle Eastern wedding at the time of Jesus. We aren’t sure about all the customs of these weddings, but it is often assumed that these were events that took place over several days and involved the whole community. Weddings and wedding feasts are found throughout the teachings and stories of the Gospels.
It was the job of the bridesmaids to attend to the bride until the groom came for her. Although someone was supposed to come into the street and shout, “The Bridegroom is coming!” it was not known when that would happen. The wedding could take place at any time and part of the fun was the surprise.
In the story there are 10 bridesmaids, 5 who are ready with oil in their lamps and 5 who have run out of oil. Five wise bridesmaids who were prepared with extra oil and five who were foolishly ill prepared. In Vacation Bible School we used to sing, “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning, burning, burning—burning until the break of day.”
This eschatological story reminds us that the people of the early church were preoccupied with the coming of the Lord, which they believed to be eminent. They wanted to be ready and many were weary of waiting for this anticipated event. Many were suffering persecution; many saw Christ’s coming as relief from their present suffering. Many scholars believe that this story arose out of the early church’s need for patience and preparation.
There are many people today who are preoccupied with the second coming of Christ, the parousia. Jesus was expected to return on a particular day in 1988. Books were written about it; people gathered to wait. Jesus did not return. When I was a young Christian, so many people were talking about this that I read the Revelation of John before I read the Gospels. I thought “I need to know more about this.” I must confess that I was much more confused after reading the Revelation of John.
But most of us are not sitting around wondering about the second coming, and we wonder to what to make of these stories for our modern age. The truth is the stories still speak a powerful word about being prepared, not so much for that Great Day of the Lord but for the times when God comes into our lives in moments of wonder and grace.
A few years ago we began asking two questions: Where did you see God at work? Where is God calling you? Simple questions, but the first assumes that we believe that God is coming into our lives in profound ways. Or that God is always at work in our lives and we must learn to see it. Many groups in our church, including our youth, staff and many of our committees have begun to follow the practice of beginning or ending meetings with these simple questions. Our staff now reflects on where we see God at work in the realm of our core values of diversity, hospitality, mission and nurture.
“How do we know when God comes?” someone asks recently. For me this has meant learning to be attentive, attentive to the moment, and this is an ongoing learning experience. I’m distracted. On my morning walks I’ll plan to focus on one thing, like the sounds of birds or the variations of red colors in autumn leaves. I’m good for about two blocks, then I start wonder if I locked the back door, or turned off the coffee pot or returned an email that came two days earlier. As Christians we have begun to incorporate spiritual practices that help us to be attentive to the moment. The Quakers call this the state of “all-thereness,” living fully in the moment God has given us, giving ourselves fully to the moment. The foolish bridesmaids were not there at all. And much of the time we are not either—we are focused on the next thing or we are distracted.
I attended a meeting that Bishop Carder was hosting, a large group had assembled. In the back of the room sat a woman with a young child, a child who was at the age when children learn to make little sounds with their voices. The little one was making sweet sounds, not angry or sad sounds, and Bishop Carder stopped and asked us all to listen. “Listen to that little one,” he said. He did not ask the woman to leave or ask her to quiet her child. He said, “My friends, that sound is the sound of God.” He turned what could have been a distraction into a sacred moment.
Practices such as centering prayer, quiet reflection, prayerful meditation, lectio divina, Sabbath keeping, and spiritual journaling have sharpened our skills of attentiveness in a hectic and busy world.
DEEDS OF LOVE AND MERCY
The oil or “having oil” represents deeds of love and mercy in our allegorical story as it often does in Hebrew literature. We experience the presence of God in acts of love and mercy. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, counted deeds of love among the means of grace, or means by which we experience God’s grace. (Wesley named other means of grace, such as the sacraments, study of scripture, Christian conferencing, giving alms, etc.) He believed that we always experience God’s grace and presence when we serve the needs of others. How many times have experienced God while offering ourselves in service to God?
Room in the Inn began on Friday night here at Belmont. We welcomed homeless guests into our church for a warm meal and a warm place to sleep. We believe that those who welcomed the homeless were welcoming God into their presence.
I think this has a lot to do with living with expectation. Expect God to come into your life with wonder and grace!
When we have those experiences they surprise us like a bridegroom coming in the night. Recently, I was speaking with some friends who had returned from a two week retreat, focused on Mindful Practices. They said, “It was an amazing time. We are always talking about being in the present moment. And when we experienced it on retreat we thought, ‘so this is what we’ve been talking about.’ It surprised us.”
When I was in seminary I led a Bible study at the home of our pastor. We were part of a new church and we held home Bible studies on Wednesday evenings all over town. There was a woman who came to our Bible study and one night she was deeply distressed when she arrived. At one point she began to cry. She confessed to being depressed and troubled and I offered to pray for her. When I prayed, persons got up out of their chairs and circled her and put their hands on her shoulders. After our prayer she confessed to feeling such blessed relief that it surprised her—and us as well. We certainly were not prepared for God to answer prayer so quickly.
I have enjoyed the writing of Reynolds Price. I’ve read most of his novels. But in his autobiographical book, A Whole New Life, he writes of a vision of meeting Jesus, Jesus baptizing in the Jordan, a vision that Reynolds was given one night during the depth of his bout with cancer. In the vision Price is invited into the Jordan where Jesus poured water over his spine, the place where cancer had been located. He always wrote and spoke of this vision with a kind of certitude that surprised people. I recall hearing him interviewed by Terri Gross, on NPR’s Fresh Air. She asked Price the obvious question, “How did you know it was Jesus?” Price answered, “I recognized him from his pictures.”
He said he was once questioned about the vision in a New York television program. He answered, “Look, I’m from North Carolina. Maybe that explains it. When you grow up in that part of the world, you just naturally get the impression that Jesus cares about you and that one day he will get to you. So, I just thought to myself, ‘Well, here it is.’ I was ready for it, being from North Carolina.”
Should we not live in a spirit of expectation--expectation of the coming of God into our lives? Fred Craddock said, “All of my life I wake each morning with the possibility of being surprised, not only in my own life, but in the life of someone I had not even noticed. God is working now and so am I.” (Craddock Stories, p. 77)
God is coming. Prepare to meet thy God!
As we make our financial commitments….as we prioritize our ministries…as we seek to be faithful in loving God and one another let us imagine communities where all God’s children are cherished, honored, and loved; where all God’s children are fed and clothed and live in safe homes; where all God’s children experience and know the love of Jesus Christ.