Darkness is approaching. Night is falling. And we’re tired. We’re weary. We’ve been working, laboring, tending what has been entrusted to us for a long time – days, weeks, months, and years. When we first heard the good news, we felt energized. We had a sense of purpose. We knew where we belonged. We had a family, love, unity, and all of the things that made it easier to get up each morning and live with joy. We knew the work would be hard. We knew there would be costs and challenges and difficulties. But, we didn’t realize it would go on for so long. We didn’t know it was possible for our hands and feet to ache this much. We didn’t understand that our hearts would hurt so much that sometimes we wondered if it was all worth it in the end.
We’re standing here keeping vigil in the dark as the sun lowers down beneath the horizon.
We’re here, in this place, keeping vigil in the dark – waiting, watching, longing.
We’re here keeping vigil in the dark, and our weary eyes are watching the oil in our lamps slowly burn up and fade away into vapor.
The 10 bridesmaids knew that the bridegroom would return. They had their lamps with them because it was not unusual for circumstances to arise that kept the bridegroom away longer than anticipated. They knew that night might come, but they were hopeful, expectant, and eager to meet up with the wedding procession and enter into the house to celebrate.
Matthew tells us that five of the bridesmaids were prepared and wise, while the other five were unprepared and foolish. As darkness began to fall, and as they began to realize their weariness, I wonder how wise any of them felt. They were waiting, the darkness was coming, and the bridegroom was delayed. They were weary. It was getting dark. And soon, all of them were drowsy. All of them – wise and foolish alike – fell asleep.
All of us. Sleeping when we should be watching. The wise and the foolish together close their eyes and drift off to sleep. As Scripture reminds us, “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Cor. 3:18-19).
And when the bridegroom was finally on his way, someone shouted out at midnight, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” And they all woke up – wise and foolish alike. I wonder if they felt that surge of panic knowing they had been found sleeping instead of watching. Five of the bridesmaids realized they did not have enough oil to make it through the rest of the dark night, and so they asked the others to share. The bridegroom was delayed, they waited, watched, and struggled, but they all fell asleep. Wise and foolish alike.
They knew he was coming, but they still couldn’t make it through the night. Anne Lamott once wrote poignantly, “All I knew was that help is always on the way, a hundred percent of the time…I know that when I call out, God will be near, and hear, and help eventually. Of course, it is the ‘eventually’ that throws one into despair.”
Eventually. The bridegroom will come eventually. Be ready. Be prepared. Stay awake. But our eyes are heavy. We are weary. Our hearts are tired of mourning. Our bodies are tired and weak.
We’re here keeping vigil in the dark…waiting for eventually.
We’re here keeping vigil in the dark…trying desperately to keep our heavy eyes open, but the weight of our grief, the weight of the world, the weight of eventually seems too much to bear.
And we are in good company.
At the end of this parable, Jesus says, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13). Keep awake…a familiar call that we’ve heard somewhere else before.
As Jesus prepared to journey toward the cross, he went with his disciples to Gethsemane. He said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there to pray” (Matthew 26:36). And they did. Peter and the two sons of Zebedee came with him, and he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me” (Matthew 26:38).
Jesus prays, and when he returns, he finds them sleeping. “Could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:40-41).
And we don’t. Wise and foolish alike, our eyes are heavy. But Jesus urges us to keep awake.
“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
We’re here, in this place, keeping vigil in the dark.
We’re here, with heavy eyes, weary bodies, wondering if we can keep awake.
And night is falling.
We wonder if the bridegroom will come, and our hearts wonder along with the psalmist, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13)
Martin Luther once said this is a state “in which Hope despairs, and yet Despair hopes at the same time.”
We are weary. We close our eyes. And we sleep.
And into our deep slumber, we hear the words of good news, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”
And we rise – the wise and the foolish – and realize what we have done. We could not keep awake, but the bridegroom is here!
Into the darkness of night, the call ushers forth that the bridegroom has indeed come.
The one so long-awaited, so hopefully anticipated, the one who would usher in the procession, and welcome the bridesmaids into the celebration.
He arrives, and no one is ready.
He arrives under the veil of night, at an unexpected hour, and even the faithful were no longer watching.
But he arrives all the same. We rise up, and we follow after him. We accompany him to the banquet.
So, here we are. And the parable ends. And Jesus urges us to keep awake. We need these words. We need this reminder as we are the Church still waiting for Jesus. We are waiting and watching, and sometimes it seems as though the time will never come when our Lord will call out and meet us once again. How do we find the patience and the endurance to wait, and what do we do in the meantime? In the Orthodox Church, beginning on Palm Sunday and extending through Holy Tuesday they observe what is called the Bridegroom Matins. The words say: “Let us love the Bridegroom, O Brethren. Let us keep our lamps aflame with virtues and true faith, so that we, like the wise virgins of the Lord, may be ready to enter with Him into the marriage feast. For the Bridegroom, as God, grants unto all an incorruptible crown.”
We keep awake by living out our faith in the world. We set to work doing what Jesus called us to do – to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick, and give to all in need. We go forth and live out the Great Commission – to make disciples of all nations, and baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
We can take comfort in knowing that many others who have gone before us had trouble keeping awake, too. Jesus’ closest disciples could not stay awake, and yet it is to these that he entrusted the beginnings of the church. And so we keep awake, we live out the gospel, we extend our hands to those in need, and we walk the journey one step at a time. When we faulter, there is forgiveness. When we sleep, there is grace.
But Jesus calls to us – keep awake.
And here we are, keeping vigil together in the dark.
Robert Herrick’s poem “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time” sounds a little different when held side-by-side with these words of Jesus.
To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time
Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.
“Use your time,” Herrick writes. Even if we do not use it, it continues marching forward. In closing, I wanted to share with you the moving spiritual “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” Let’s make this song our prayer.