We’ve had a couple of weddings around here lately. Weddings are joyous occasions. I don’t know too many people who don’t enjoy going to a wedding.
Of course these days weddings are BIG business. Here’s so US stats:
• 2.3 million couples wed every year in the US. That breaks down to nearly 6,200 weddings a day
• average number of guests invited to a wedding is 178
• $72 billion per year is spent on weddings
• the average wedding budget is over $25,000
• $19 billion per year is spent on wedding gift registries
• $8 billion per year is spent on honeymoons
Jesus typically uses imagery known to his audience when telling parables- farming, business transactions, etc. Much like today’s culture, in Jesus’ day, folks loved their weddings. Jesus himself went to weddings and in John’s Gospel Jesus’ first public miracle takes place at a wedding. So Jesus uses this thing people know to illustrate something about himself and the Kingdom of God. In order to understand what’s happening here we’ll be talking about ancient weddings, because they are significantly different from our contemporary context. So let’s break down the parable really quickly.
“At that time”- meaning, not now. But at some point the kingdom will be like this. Right now it’s like a mustard seed, or yeast or a man throwing seeds. There will be a time, when the Kingdom changes its M.O. from subtlety and “hiddenness” being revealed to a time of very obvious, visible, fanfare, etc. One day it’ll be here in a different, more visible, obvious way. So we’re dealing with Jesus’ return here, with the consummation of the Kingdom.
These young ladies have gone out to meet the bridegroom. This was typical. After the engagement was finalized, the groom would not see the bride for a period of time (often up to 1 year). And he would then come back to be officially married. Unlike our tradition, where the bride comes in last and gets the grand entrance, in the ancient context, it would be the groom to arrive with fanfare and an entourage (in this case the 10 young ladies were part of the entourage called to be light bearers for a night-time processional- we could say more about our role as “light bearers” for Christ, but that’s not in the scope of this sermon which is about the character of Christ), meet with the bride at her house, and they would then proceed together to the festivities, generally hosted by the groom’s family.
In this parable, the groom is a long time coming, and some of this group of ladies were unprepared for a long wait. Weddings often began after dark, with a feast and celebration immediately after sundown. The celebration would then go on, usually for 7 days.
He shows up finally at midnight after the young ladies have fallen asleep. It would seem he’s late for his own wedding, generally a faux pas by our standards. I showed up three hours early for my wedding, just to be on the safe side. Why on earth would he show up at midnight? Jesus is of course illustrating that the Kingdom of God does not come when or how we expect. 1 Thess. 5:2 says “for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” and Mt. 24:36: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son,but only the Father.” It’s arrival is unpredictable (in spite of what some folks might insist, we won’t be able to nail down a date for Jesus’ return).
Go buy oil they say… who would be selling oil at midnight? But the point here is you can’t piggy-back faith. You can’t borrow some of someone else’s salvation. When he comes, you can’t scramble to get what you need from a friend or family member.
So they go off to find the nearest 7-11 and buy some oil. But by the time they get back, the celebration has begun, and the doors are closed.
In a culture of very strict social protocols if you will, failure to comply is a serious offense. In many ancient (and even some contemporary cultures) showing up after the guest(s) of honour is simply unacceptable. Once the bride & groom have arrived at the feast, you don’t come in. We’re a little more flexible on this rule. One couple did show up half way through my wedding, some friends from Bible College, but he’s a youth pastor, so showing up late is not all that surprising.
Once Jesus shows up, you’re in or your out. That’s it. Over and over we see in Kingdom parables a separation of what is his and what has rejected him. When the Kingdom shows up, we this image of separation. Sheep and goats, wheat and weeds, wise and foolish, loyal and disloyal. Do not wait. You may not get the chance. The end comes like a thief in the night. If you know a thief is coming, you do something to prevent robbery. If you know Jesus is coming, do something to be ready. Be reconciled to God. Have you turned from your selfish ambition, and bowed the knee to Jesus and affirmed your allegiance to him, and begun the process of being transformed and discipled? If not, make today that day. I don’t want to be that preacher who gets up there and berates anyone, and says believe or you’re going to hell. But Jesus warns us, be wise. Turn to him. He is loving and forgiving and will welcome you into new life.
So, what does this parable tell us about Jesus? Why use the image of the bridgegroom?
First, it’s a continuation of an Old Testament theme (See Isa 54:4-6; Eze. 16:7-34; Hos 2:16). God compares his relationship with Israel as a loving, loyal husband and an unfaithful wife. While his people may stray, he calls them back into covenant relationship, even paying the price to redeem them.
Secondly, his arrival is cause for celebration. In Rev. 19:6-8 we see that a banquet has been prepared for the Lamb and his bride. When the groom shows up, the party can start. The Feast is ready, and the bridegroom is coming.
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.”
Thirdly, he will act towards us as a perfect husband does for his bride. He shows this affection and care for his Church. His love even becomes the model for husbands (Eph. 5:25ff). He died to make us pure, to reinstate/reconcile us, as a good husband will do to preserve his wife. He has given us purity to wear.
Fourth, although he is not physically present, our covenant with him is sealed and complete. In Jesus’ day, once the engagement was finalized, you were legally married. Dowry would be paid, and you were considered belonging to one another. Remember the Christmas story, how Joseph sought to divorce Mary. In that culture, you don’t just break off engagements. In our culture, until everything is done and vows are confirmed, it’s not legally official. But in Jesus days, betrothal was a legally binding arrangement. We are now his, if we are in Christ. It’s done and sealed. We are bound to him eternally already. We are waiting for the consummation, which comes when Christ returns.
This covenantal status “sealed but not consummated” mirrors the Kingdom of God- here in our midst, but not fully realized yet.
In Rev. 21:2 the bride is ready but where’s the groom? “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” In Rev. 22, we read several times “I am coming soon” and the Spirit and the bride says “Come!” (22:17). We are ready. If we are in Christ, and solidly committed to the work of the Kingdom, we are ready. We’re ready and waiting, but waiting doesn’t mean we sit on our hands. Life goes on, ministry keeps happening. When Jesus is ready, he’ll let us know. While the bride waited for the bridegroom, she went about her life, remaining faithful to the her betrothed, but she didn’t just sit and wait. While we wait for Jesus, we continue in faithful service.
Finally, the arrival of the bridegroom is a parallel to the arrival of a king. The citizens would go out to meet the approaching king, and act as a processional ushering him into their city. Remember Palm Sunday and the Triumphal entry? The people cried “Hosanna to the son of David” which is to say, save us, you are the legitimate heir to the throne of Israel, and you are to be our king. Husbands in Ancient cultures were considered almost like kings of their households. Sorry ladies, that’s the way it was (please note, I do believe Christ reorients marriage as a partnership of equals).
So we actually have mixed imagery here. The Kingdom of God is like a wedding, in that it arrives with the same sort of processional and celebration of a king. When Jesus returns, we will be with him, processing in joyous victory, to the wedding feast of the Lamb.