Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, January 22, 2022
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Spiritual Health

Joshua 24:14-25 and Matthew 25:1-13

This is one of those cases where we really can’t understand the meaning of a parable unless we understand the culture behind it. What was a first century Jewish wedding like? If we know that, then we can understand the parable much better.

A bride would choose bridesmaids for the wedding, just as today. On the day of the wedding, these maids would gather at the bride’s father’s home and then go to the groom’s home to fetch him. The wedding ceremony would take place in the bride’s home in the evening. And then there would be a torch-lit procession from the bride’s home to the groom’s home.

The wedding procession was a big deal. They would go all through the town. Everyone would go out and join in it, even if they didn’t know the bride or groom. Every wedding was a community wedding in first century Jewish culture. It was such an important event that the rabbis agreed that a person should stop studying God’s Law to join in. So you know it was a big deal. When they arrived at the groom’s home, everyone would go in and they would begin a week-long feast to celebrate the occasion.

It appears that in Jesus’ parable, the bridesmaids are at the bride’s home, waiting for the wedding ceremony to finish. They would have fetched the groom before it got dark. The “lamps” should be read as torches. A lamp in this time was a small clay container, filled with oil, which was lit with a wick and set up on a stand or in a nook in the wall of a house. You wouldn’t walk around with a lamp.

But five of the bridesmaids didn’t bring enough oil for their torches. They fall asleep waiting for the ceremony to end. When the herald comes out and announces the groom is coming, five of them say, “We don’t have enough oil left. Let us borrow some of yours.” But of course, if they divide up the oil they have, then none of them will have enough to last through the procession. This procession would be long, maybe hours long, weaving all through the community to pick up people. And it would be terribly embarrassing if the bridesmaids, charged with leading the procession, ran out of oil. “Go buy some.” As you can imagine, it would be hard to find a place to get oil at midnight. There were no 24 hour Wal-Marts in first century Jerusalem.

By the time they get to the groom’s home, the door is shut. And the groom won’t let them in! Why not? Because they have failed at their appointed job. They have insulted his dignity, and in a culture obsessed with honor, that’s not good.

What is the meaning of the parable?

Jesus may well have meant the parable as a rebuke for the Jewish people. He is the groom. They should have been prepared for his coming. But they were not. By and large, he was rejected.

But there’s a more obvious universal meaning. We all must be ready to meet Christ. Whether we meet him in his second coming or we meet him at our death, we must all be ready.

In this parable, oil is used as a picture of our spiritual health and vitality. And it can’t be borrowed from someone else. We can’t rely on someone else having a strong relationship with Christ. We can’t rely on our parents or grandparents. We can’t rely on our spouse. We must have a right relationship with Christ for ourselves. And I think some people do kind of lean on the relationship someone else has. So many times over the years when people find out I’m a pastor I hear something like, “Oh, I used to go to church with my grandmother,” or “My parents took me to church when I was little.” Okay. What about you? What about now? What is YOUR relationship with Christ?

And some things can’t be found at the last minute, either. If we want to have a strong spiritual life, we can’t wait until the 12th hour. It’s one of those things you have to have before you need it. If you wait until you hear the diagnosis or until the disaster strikes to decide it’s time to “get right with God,” you may not have a chance.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus also told the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. That’s the one where the owner of the vineyard goes out and hires workers at daybreak, mid-morning, mid-day, mid-afternoon, and he even goes out at 5 PM, the “11th hour.” And they are all rewarded for their labor. But he doesn’t go out at the 12th hour. He doesn’t hire people when he is paying them. There comes a time when it’s too late.

We are each responsible for our own spiritual health and vitality. We must each do the work of knowing God and serving him for ourselves.

There is a classic line we preachers hear from time to time: “I wasn’t being fed there.” Why did you quit going to that church? “Well, I wasn’t being fed there.” I think usually it’s just an excuse, but that’s another matter.

Here’s the thing, who gets fed? Infants, right? Once you’re two years old, you’re eating for yourself, right? Unless our faith is infantile, we should be able to feed ourselves. We need to learn to nourish our own spiritual life. We each must be able to read the Scriptures, meditate on them, pray, fast, and do all the other things necessary

to have a strong spiritual life. The sermon or the small group Bible study or the Sunday School lesson should be a supplement to our diet, not our only food.

Look at it this way, how often do you eat? Probably at least three times a day, right? More like six, if you’re me. What would you look like if you only ate once a week? You’d be weak and sickly, right? Then why would you expect to have a strong, healthy spiritual life by only nourishing your spirit once a week?

Let’s turn back to our other text this morning from Joshua 24. This is one of four places in the Old Testament where we find a “covenant renewal” going on. Each time happens as Israel is entering a new stage in their history. Here it’s that they have taken possession of the Promised Land. The first is when God brings them out of slavery in Egypt. The third is when the northern kingdom of Israel has fallen and Judah is left alone as the covenant people. And the last is after they return from the exile in Babylon. In each case, the ritual is similar: The people assemble. They are reminded of what God has done. The Law is read. The people reaffirm their commitment, and the whole thing is celebrated with a feast.

Joshua asks them, “Will you serve God? It won’t be easy.” And they insist they will. We know how it works out, right? They were faithful while there was a strong faithful leader, like Joshua, guiding the nation. But they would quickly stray away from God when there was no such leader. It appears that many of them were “borrowing” faith from a leader, like Joshua.

Notice Joshua’s instruction: “Destroy your idols.” If we don’t destroy the idols in our lives, the things that tempt us to love and worship them instead of God, then they will always be there to tempt us. What are those things in your life? We all have them. And if we don’t take the steps necessary to destroy them, they will always give us difficulty.

We are each responsible for our own spiritual health. We can’t borrow it from someone else. We can’t just figure on getting it later, when we need it. And we must each take responsibility for ensuring that nothing will get in the way of our spiritual health.

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