Sunday’s Sermon, November 12, 2023: Give Me Oil In My Lamp

First Sunday of Advent
Penelope Bridges

Happy Advent! Maybe you were surprised to see the Advent wreath up here when you stepped into the church this morning. It is, after all, less than two weeks since Halloween. It might feel like we are committing the cultural sin of decorating for the holidays even while we are still eating the leftover trick or treat candy, but I assure you that is not the case. This year the traditional Advent season is even shorter than usual, with the last Sunday of Advent falling on Christmas Eve. Rather than trying to cram everything into three weeks, we decided to explore a minority Christian tradition of observing a seven week Advent, mirroring the seven weeks of Lent. And we will resist the temptation to decorate for Christmas until the last possible moment.

We have started Advent early so that we can make the most of this beautiful and reflective season, which otherwise flies by almost unnoticed in the midst of gift-buying, card-writing, party-going, and food-preparing. Most years, even when we get the full four weeks, Advent feels like barely a breath before Christmas. This year we have given ourselves the gift of slowing down, replenishing our spiritual energy, and making ready for what is ahead. It’s actually a counter-cultural gesture, as we are all prone to the desire for instant gratification.

When I wonder about some phenomenon or fact, I don’t have to go and look it up in an encyclopedia, as my mother exhorted us: I can Google it and get an answer immediately. If the light turns green and the car in front of me doesn’t move within one second, I get anxious and impatient. If the package I ordered doesn’t arrive within days, I wonder if Amazon is losing its edge. So I embrace this opportunity to practice waiting in hopeful expectation, and I hope that you will too.

Themes of Advent include the last things, heaven and hell, hope and expectation, watching and waiting for the second coming of our glorious and humble King. Advent is all about looking ahead, AND living into the expectant moment. Today’s Gospel reading is surprisingly appropriate for the season. It comes towards the end of Matthew’s Gospel. The parable of the ten bridesmaids forms part of a series of apocalyptic teachings that Jesus offers after his arrival in Jerusalem, in the last days of his life. There is a sense of urgency in all these final teachings, which include his condemnation of pharisees and hypocrites, his lament over Jerusalem, and a parable of a steward who abuses his power when the arrival of the landowner is delayed.

The story of the ten bridesmaids is about waiting, about preparation, about a grand celebration that is yet to happen. It’s tempting to be drawn into speculation about the details of the story: Why is the bridegroom so late? Why don’t the bridesmaids with extra oil share with their friends? When the bridegroom ultimately shuts the door on the less organized bridesmaids, I hear a troubling theme of exclusion, that is reinforced by the verses that will come later in the chapter, as Jesus speaks of the last judgment when the King will say, “”Just as you did it to one of these, you did it to me,” and all people will be divided, sheep and goats, right hand and left hand, saved and condemned. That’s not a message we want to hear in this community where all are welcome; we want to believe that everyone gets to be a part of the Kingdom, even those who lack the resources to carry extra oil for their lamps.

And let me digress a little further, to confess my relief that today is the last time we will hear from the book of Joshua for a while. In view of the tragic events in Israel-Palestine, the Scriptural history of the Israelites’ conquest of the promised land is deeply troubling. People on all sides of the conflict, and many of our Jewish and Muslim friends here at home, are being traumatized by the horrific violence of the past five weeks, and, as always, it’s the innocents who suffer the most. The Christian faith in the place where it was born is carried heroically by a tiny and shrinking number of Palestinians, a group that is often overlooked in the news, and they are suffering too. This is a very challenging moment for all people of faith, as we lament the suffering on all sides and endeavor to speak up for peace, without inadvertently alienating our interfaith friends who long for our unconditional support.

So, back to the Gospel of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. A parable is a rough sketch of a story with a single, surprising point. We are not to get stuck in the details. Ten women wait for the bridegroom; they all fall asleep; when he eventually arrives they all wake up, but some were not prepared for the extra-long wait and they are now short of oil. Oil is a highly significant substance in Scripture. The slow-growing, long-lived olive tree was a symbol of God’s peace, Shalom. The fruit of the olive yielded oil that served as food, fuel, and soap, as well as being a symbolic substance used to anoint both those ordained for God’s service and those about to enter God’s near presence through death.

And of course oil gave light in the darkness of a dangerous and uncertain world. The story of Hanukah,  the miracle of a single day’s oil supply lighting the Jerusalem Temple for eight full days, is a parable for the courage and persistence of God’s people through times of persecution and oppression. For us who follow Jesus, the image of light in the darkness is central to our faith: we light a candle when someone is baptized or buried; we light candles in Advent to remind us that Christ is coming; we are urged to let our light shine out, just as the lights of this Cathedral shine out for our city every night.

The image of tending the oil in our lamps is a powerful one: there’s an  old camp song that comes to mind. Sing along if you remember it:

 Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning,
give me oil in my lamp, I pray;
give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning,
keep me burning till the break of day.

Sing hosanna, sing hosanna,
sing hosanna to the King of kings!
Sing hosanna, sing hosanna,
sing hosanna to the King!

How’s your oil supply? It is all too easy to become spiritually depleted as the world spins ever faster and we are constantly inundated with shocking information and images. We are pressured to fit more and more activities into each day. It’s exhausting, and we need to find ways to refill our lamps so that we can be God’s people in the world, ready to go when called to ministry, and when the promise of the Kingdom is finally fulfilled.

Matthew wrote his Gospel about 50 years after the death of Jesus, for a community that was getting tired of waiting for the second coming. He cast the teachings of Jesus in a light that would give comfort and hope to a weary and beleaguered people, persecuted by the Romans and anxious about maintaining the boundaries of their faith.

Any long waiting period carries the risk of distraction, running out of steam, creeping doubt, and despair. Now, Christians have been waiting 2000 years for Jesus to return in his glory. We too are weary and in need of a message of hope and encouragement. How do we thrive in this lifelong state of waiting? For some, setting a date is a way to cope: every few years we hear that The Rapture is coming on such and such a date: so far, it’s obviously never happened, but the fact that a date is repeatedly set suggests that some Christians are so tired of waiting that they succumb to the temptation to set a limit on the wait. When we know how long a wait will be, it’s much easier to stay focused.

But we can become fixated on an artificial completion date and then feel irrationally cheated when our expectations aren’t met; and I’m not just talking about the second coming. Doctors give pregnant women a due date, even though there is no way to tell exactly when a child will be born – unless you schedule a C section of course. My first son arrived four days after his official due date; my second 12 days after. Those were the longest days of my life, and each time I became quite irritable with this baby who dared to defy the predictions of the experts. Yes, waiting is hard, and yet, paradoxically, a period of waiting can make the eventual arrival sweeter and more joyful.

Each Advent we practice waiting with anticipation and eagerness for the coming of the Christ child, and when Christmas finally dawns we greet his arrival with great joy and celebration, because we have anticipated it, we have prepared for it, we have waited for it. The more we prepare, the greater will be our celebration. And perhaps we will find the grace to keep the door open for our less organized siblings. These seven weeks give us time and space to prepare our hearts, to replenish the oil in our lamps, to dwell on the full meaning of Christ’s first coming and to do what we can to create a world that will at last embrace the peace of God.

Give me peace in my heart, keep me loving,
give me peace in my heart, I pray;
give me peace in my heart, keep me loving,
keep me loving till the break of day.

Sing hosanna, sing hosanna,
sing hosanna to the King of kings!
Sing hosanna, sing hosanna,
sing hosanna to the King!

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