I can’t ever remember a week going so quickly! We had a great holiday in Sligo, renting a cottage (not the one in the above picture) and doing little other than walking and playing on deserted beaches. Of course we took the opportunity also to make a trip to Enniskillen to buy what seemed to us from the “Rip-off Republic” incredibly cheap groceries!
Cobh was recently voted the dirtiest town in Ireland. I can understand this because litter is a big problem and the town is in fairly urgent need of a makeover. However, there are many old buildings with lots of character and it is a lovely place to stroll around, the people are friendly and the atmosphere is alive with history – so it’s not all bad. I think I prefer dirty with character than somewhere that was pristine and yet lifeless…
The above photo I took earlier this week as I was walking along the main street, looking south into the harbour.
The sharp-eyed among you will easily be able to work out which photo was taken first ;-) The tower of St. Anne’s, Shandon is one of the most well known sights of Cork city. Yesterday I got a bit lost trying to take a shortcut to the Orthopaedic Hospital and was pleasantly surprised at finding myself at the foot of this famous Church building. The light was interesting and I had my small pocket camera with me, so much to the amusement of a few of the patrons of a nearby drinking establishment I took a couple of pictures…
I suppose that often we are not very good at listening to, and heeding warnings. When sitting down for a meal and being warned not to touch the plate we have just been given because it is hot, our first reaction is often to touch that plate to see how hot it is! When driving and we are confronted by a speed sign that tells us that we should not drive at a speed greater than 50 km an hour (the implication being that it would be rather unsafe both for us and others about us to do so), we often think we know better and drive above that speed limit. When leaving school or university to start work, young people are wisely advised to start thinking abut getting a pension organised but many do not heed that warning thinking that they are going to live forever and “why do today what you can put off until tomorrow”! And what about all those economists who were warning of the need to save and put Government tax money aside during the years of plenty in order to make life easier once the Celtic Tiger had run its course!
So I don’t suppose that it’s too much of a surprise then that even Jesus’ warnings all too often fall on deaf ears. In our Gospel reading for today (Matthew 25:1-13), the background is that of a Jewish wedding. Now we’ve probably been to weddings that we think went on a bit too long. I went to one once where the meal went on all through the night with a new course each hour finishing up with a final course, which was breakfast! But even that is short compared to the celebrations of a Jewish wedding, which lasted for at least a week. The couple would not go on a package holiday to a Greek Island for their honeymoon; they would stay at home and welcome family, friends and neighbours. It was very relaxed, there was no set time when the bridegroom would come to the house of his bride, either to eat the wedding feast there, or more frequently take her to his own home for the wedding feast. There would be much joy, feasting and music. In the parable the ten young women were waiting for the bridegroom to arrive at the brides house so that they might accompany him into the ceremony and feast.
The ten young women are divided into two groups, the wise and the foolish. The wise ones were prepared for the possibility of the bridegroom being late, so they brought spare oil with them in case they should need to keep their lamps lit for longer. The foolish ones brought their lamps with oil in them but not enough to last should the bridegroom not come quickly.
And guess what? The bridegroom was a very long time in coming, so long in fact that the young women fell asleep. At midnight the cry rang out that the bridegroom was coming. Panic ensued as the foolish young women realised that they were running out of oil. They asked the wise young women if they could borrow some of their oil – but there was not enough to share – so the foolish young women had to run off and find an oil seller, which at that time of night would have been tricky! While the foolish young women had gone off to find oil the bridegroom arrived. The wise young women with the oil for their lamps went in with him to the wedding banquet and the door was shut behind them. Later on when the foolish young women returned they found that the door was shut. They banged on the door and pleaded to be let in, but the bridegroom insisted that he didn’t know them; it was too late to join in the wedding feast.
So what is this all about? Well I don’t think it’s too difficult to see that the bridegroom represents Jesus. He will of course one day return to earth, the Bible makes this clear (e.g. Matthew 24:30), but of course no one knows when it will happen. The young women, the bridesmaids are Christian people. Five of them are ready five of them are not. The scary thing is that they look the same, they are dressed the same and are carrying identical lamps, the only difference between them is their state of readiness. Only half of them were ready for the feast and went in to enjoy the festivities with the bride and groom and the others tragically and terribly are shut out. Looking like a Christian, going to church and even behaving like a Christian are not enough – do we know Jesus as our Lord and Saviour? That is what it is about. Surely the most terrible words we could ever hear would be the Lord saying to us “I never knew you”, before being forever shut out of His presence.
We learn too that holiness is not something that we can borrow. It’s no good thinking that because we come from a Christian home and are surrounded by others who know and love God that we will be okay. It is no more possible to borrow holiness from others than it was possible for the foolish young women to borrow oil from the wise young women. Holiness is of course not something that we can buy or even earn by being good. It is the gift of God for all who put their faith and put their trust in Christ (Ephesians 2:8).
I will never forget something that I witnessed on the London Underground when I was a teenager. I had just disembarked the train and was walking up the stairs and away from the platform. As I looked down, I noticed a mother had put her child in a pushchair into the carriage and had got back off to train to retrieve a bag she had left on the platform. As she did so the doors shut and the train began pulling away. To the horror of the many onlookers the mother ran at the moving train and tried to prise open the doors letting out a terrible cry as she did so. The train kept moving and disappeared into the tunnel with her child on board with the utterly distraught mother crying out in hurt that her child was on the train. Of course I’m sure that things turned out well – as soon as the underground staff were informed they would have been able to rectify the situation and reunite mother and child quickly, but there was a awful moment of despair and pain in that poor mother that I will never forget.
But I suppose that is nothing compared to the pain of the foolish young women in the parable and even more so, the desolation of being shut out from Heaven, of realising that we weren’t ready because we had never truly committed our lives to Jesus, we had never allowed Him to be our Lord and Saviour…
The last day will come for each of us. C.S. Lewis sums it up in this way: That “we do not and cannot know when the drama will end, the curtain may be wrung down at any moment”(1) . “When the author walks on to the stage the play is over … (When the Lord returns he will be) without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side … That will not be the time for choosing: It will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realised it before or not. Now, to-day, this moment is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that last chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it.”(2)
Are you ready?
(1)C.S. Lewis Index p.177
(2)C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity p.62, 63
Matthew for Today, Michael Green, Hodder & Stoughton, 1989
It’s strange how dead and dying leaves can be so beautiful. There’s something very glorious about walking through an autumn woodland, whether it be the quality of the low silvery light filtering through the hues of reds, browns and yellows, or the rustle of leaves beneath your feet, an enchanting carpet of decay.
But death is necessary in order to facilitate life. New leaves could not grow in the spring if the old remained. God is a God of new beginnings…
Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.
(John 12:24-25 Message)
Please pray with me:
Father, we ask that you would grant us the wisdom to understand, the courage to face things as they really are and the power to change, Amen.
Martin DeHann said: “Humility is something we should constantly pray for, yet never thank God that we have.”(i)
Saint Augustine said: “It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.”(ii)
Archibald Alexander said: “Humility is to the Christian what ballast is to the ship: it keeps him in his proper position and regulates all his thoughts and feelings.”(iii)
The Lord Jesus was so disappointed with the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. They had been given a really important task. They were supposed to teach and explain God’s laws and commandments and help people as much as possible to live by them. They had been entrusted with the responsibility of teaching, leading and guiding the people in the ways of God, of showing them His love, His grace, His compassion and forgiveness. The reality though was often very different. In looking at yet another encounter that Jesus had with the religious leaders (Matthew 23:1-12), we might be tempted to think that this was all a long time ago in a faraway place and in a culture very different from our own. That may be true, but the warnings and lessons learnt from this Bible passage are startlingly relevant and contemporary.
The Lord Jesus concisely and clearly lists five problems with the religious leaders, all of which could apply equally today:
First of all, they did not practise what they preached. Isaiah put this in a nutshell when he said: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Isaiah 29:13a). We need to be careful that our faith isn’t just us putting on a good performance of being a Christian, like wearing a mask or making sure that everyone knows about it when we do some act of kindness or charity. The Pharisees loved to tell people how to live but didn’t back that up by living that way themselves. Do we call ourselves a Christian? If so, then how well exactly do we know Jesus and how much does He work in us and through us?
Secondly, the religious leaders were not willing to do what they asked of others. What’s the point of encouraging people to abbey God’s laws if you don’t do it yourself? How we have seen the media revelling in the hypocrisy of famous preachers who have made stands against adultery, homosexuality etc., only to be found to be engaging in the very acts which they condemn! Or how about the religious leader who promotes keeping Sunday special who goes shopping after church or who teaches about the importance of sacrificial giving and only puts pittance into the collection themselves!
The third problem was that the teachers of the law and the Pharisees loved to show off. They wore little leather boxes on their foreheads, which contained verses of scripture – a little strange we might think, but nevertheless a practical way of trying to be constantly reminded of God’s word. However the problem Jesus saw was that they were wearing the Phylacteries to get attention “Oh look how holy and devout I am” they might as well have been saying. I can remember when I was a new Christian and going to Bible studies with my shiny new Bible I used to feel a bit unholy because I would look at some of the other Bibles and marvel at how worn-out they were; the paper covers would be torn, the pages (even the Old Testament) would be all dog-eared and generally they would have a battle-scarred look, like they had come though a few hedges backwards! Wow, I thought, these people must have read their Bibles hundreds of times and probably know the whole thing off by heart by now! Call me cynical, but looking back I can’t help but think that some of those Bibles were deliberately roughed up a bit and were carried proudly around like badges of honour. Nowadays of course my Bible too looks like it’s a hundred years old and been owned by a succession of devout monks, not because I am super-holy, but because as well as reading it, I have dropped it, spilt tea on it, left it on the roof of the car whilst driving off and with the help of two small boys it has been much written on and rummaged through…
The fourth problem was that they revelled in grand titles and they loved to be given much honour at banquets and in the synagogues. This is like the clergy person today who loved to be called “Reverend”, or the medical practitioner who glows when called “Doctor”, or the academic who delights in being called “professor”. What is Jesus’ response to this attitude?
You must not be called ‘Teacher’, because you are all members of one family and have only one Teacher. And you must not call anyone here on earth ‘Father’, because you have only the one Father in heaven. Nor should you be called ‘Leader’, because your one and only leader is the Messiah. The greatest one among you must be your servant. Whoever makes himself great will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be made great. (Matthew 23:8-12 GNB)
The Lord is making it clear that He is in charge. He is our teacher and we are his students – we go to church, we go to Bible studies, home groups etc., to learn from Him. His life is our model, our pattern and our example for the way to live. The Lord is not saying that we should do away with all earthly titles and positions of authority, He is warning against the yearning for rank, of putting ourselves or letting others put us on a pedestal. The attention of Jesus’ followers must not be on human titles and distinctions but on God in Christ, who alone is worthy of all praise, reverence and honour.
There was once a church that realised the importance of humility, so it formed a committee to find the most humble person in the church. Many names were submitted and numerous candidates evaluated. Finally, the committee came to a unanimous decision. They selected a quiet little man who always lived in the background and had never taken credit for his years of devoted service. They awarded him the “Most Humble” badge for his faithful service. However, the next day they had to take the badge away from him because he had pinned it on and was wearing it with pride!(iv)
The fifth problem was that the religious leaders misunderstood the purpose of ministry and service. One of the things that so clearly makes the follower of Jesus different from the norm is the way that greatness is achieved. Rather than putting ourselves first, rather than racing to be at the head of the pack or the top of the pile, we are encouraged to humble ourselves and to seek greatness through service. Success therefore is not measured in terms of wealth, academic achievements, business victories or any other quantifiable asset; it is measured in terms of submission to Christ and of service. The greatest Christian is the one who has learned to be a servant, to have the heart of a servant, the attitude of a servant and the actions of a servant(v). Of course Jesus Himself is the perfect example – He practices what He preaches, he doesn’t ask of us anything that He Himself has not already undertaken and He wants us above all to know, understand and believe that He loves us so much that He humbled Himself upon the cross that we might receive forgiveness, eternal life and freedom, freedom to love and freedom to serve…
(ii) The Complete Gathered Gold, John Blanchard, Evangelical Press, 2006, p.319
(iv) http://www.kentcrockett.com/cgi-bin/illustrations/index.cgi?topic=Humility (adapted)
Michael Green, Matthew for Today, Hodder & Stoughton, 1989.
William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary – Matthew, Banner of Truth, 1989.