St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Father Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Advent - December 16, 2018
“Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.”
Mystery surrounds us. The deep secrets of our universe, only gradually discovered, merely begin to tell us the story of all that truly exists. We ourselves are mysteries, the causes of our inner feelings, prejudices, passions and fears often quite unknown, even to us. A God of this creation who lies unseen, as though in a great distance, still moves the spheres and causes daily, tiny miracles and great cataclysms, thus drawing and inviting us to know Him. Yet how can we know such a great Force, or comprehend such an overwhelming Person? Wouldn’t that be like getting to know the sun of our solar system up close and personal? Wouldn’t it be even more intense than that?
The direct approach to knowing God has immense difficulties, yet still it’s essential for us to know Him. Most people I’ve met have only the vaguest notion that there’s a god out there, and with apparently no further interest to know about him, and what he wants of us, or what he’s going to do to us when we die. And that seems to me a recipe for damnation. Compounding the problem is the fact that He is hidden from view, and does little and says less that can absolutely be proven—that it comes from Above. The human search for things divine has led to many approaches, interesting and perceptive break-throughs, and one very positive visitation. But the whole enterprise is still shrouded in mystery, and as amateur detectives we seek out the clues that can lead us to knowing Him.
Folks look upon a man of the cloth as someone who has the answers. For certain, both theological training and the gift of the Holy Spirit’s grace is available to the clergyman who wants to know much, to serve well, and to be that source of insight his people want in him. St. Paul referred to us “ministers of Christ” as “stewards of the mysteries of God.” And yet, some ministers know God very little.
A steward watches over the treasure of a king and maintains both its safety and value. Jesus told a parable about stewards who were expected to increase their lord’s fortunes. A steward can’t abandon or shirk his duties, for the treasure is more valuable than he is. St. Paul notes that it is required in a steward that he be found faithful.
What is faithfulness? In a relationship, being faithful implies staying true and loyal over time. Time is the element that tests faith, for in one moment we can profess love, confess belief, pledge allegiance, or take a vow and do these things with every intention to be good for it. But in time we could betray any of these precious causes. Jesus told the story of the stewards with their talents, some faithful, one not, then He told two other illustrations of the final judgment. One was a tale of both wise and foolish virgins.
“Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, who took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For the foolish, when they took their lamps, took no oil with them: but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. Now while the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there is a cry, Behold, the bridegroom! Come ye forth to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are going out. But the wise answered, saying, Peradventure there will not be enough for us and you: go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. And while they went away to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage feast: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore, for ye know not the day nor the hour.” Matt 25:1-13
This parable tells a story of a wedding in the old world manner. Weddings would take days in lengthy celebration. But at one point, the husband takes his new bride from the house of her father in a procession to his own house, there to live together from that day on. It’s that procession and the attending ladies waiting to light the way that forms the plot of our parable. If I show you the mystery now, take it to heart and know it to be a treasure of which you are hereafter the stewards.
Five wise and five foolish girls. All of them are members of His church, they are friends of the groom, and all expect to be part of the ceremonial procession from the bride’s old home to the home of the newlyweds. They all have lamps, vessels of oil wrapped in fibers that burn as torches. They wait and wait, and the bridal couple is later than expected. Finally, they fall innocently to sleep.
At midnight, unusually late, a cry is heard and the virgins wake to discover the groom is moving. Some of them find their lamps have gone out, and they have no more oil to feed their light. So, they ask to borrow from the ladies who have thought enough to bring containers of extra oil, but are refused and told to go out and buy oil for themselves. Midnight will not find many merchants open, so when they have finally got oil, they try to rejoin the procession, but they are too late. The company has arrived and the gates are shut and locked. They cry and wail outside, but the groom declares that he doesn’t know them.
The virgins are all members of the church. All have lamps, fire, fuel oil and time to wait for their Lord’s coming. There are some who only count themselves faithful, yet they are not prepared or willing to go the length it takes to last until midnight, lamps alight.
Christ said we are light in this world, bearers of His light. Our lights must not only be initially lit, but kept going with the oil of the Holy Spirit, a relation with that mysterious third Person of God who dwells inside of us. His departure from some can mean only that their faithfulness flagged, their sins driving Him from their breasts, and that they have come to doubt the return of the King and taken other gods than He.
Jesus said of Himself that He is the Bridegroom. He passes from one home to that final heavenly residence where His Bride and He will pass eternity, returning to collect her in the night of this world. This procession was always after dark because the married couple finally spends their night together: legally, morally and happily.
But while the entourage expected His arrival after nightfall, they didn’t all expect it so late. The early church thought Christ was returning in their lifetime. So again today, certain churches have as an element of their faith the immanent return of Christ. This is fine, for our Lord teaches us to be ready every moment, for we know not the hour of His return. However, if I believe He is coming before I turn 70 and He doesn’t come, and the world gets darker, and events cause me to doubt and begin to erode my self-assurance that I’d have escaped this hour: well then I could get discouraged and look for another. My lamp would go out.
Were I to wander the world, seeking who else might give me oil for my burnt out lamp, I would find no true faith while the real procession is taking place: the resurrection of the faithful and coming of the King. I would find any number of alternative religious views, heresies, pagan rituals, eastern cults. Were I then to go to heaven’s gates and knock there after the reaping of the world’s faithful saints, I would find it closed and barred. It will not be opened again. This is a private party, and the rest of the world and its untrue paths is not invited. It’s only for the bride and groom. It will be terrible for those who lack enough love and sincerity for them to last until that final hour.
But the faithful have truly professed their love for Christ and have persevered in their faith because there is no other answer for them. They have kept their lamps burning and, in the procession, they light the way for all to see and not stumble. They have waited through all these last days, though they needed rest. Sleeping can still be done watchfully, so long as, when the midnight cry comes, we are ready, prepared to go with Him. We trim our lamps, refill the oil, cut off the burnt wrappings and make them bright at last to ward off the darkness of our world.
St. Peter, a steward of the mysteries, wrote: “What manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy living and godliness, looking for and earnestly desiring the coming of the day of God, by reason of which the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? But, according to his promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for these things, give diligence that ye may be found in peace, without spot and blameless in his sight.” 2 Peter 3:11-14
St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill thy ministry. For I am already being offered, and the time of my departure is come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give to me at that day; and not to me only, but also to all them that have loved his appearing.” 2 Tim 4:5-8
And Jesus Himself said, “He that heareth my word, and believeth him that sent me, hath eternal life, and cometh not into judgment, but hath passed out of death into life... The hour cometh, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and they that hear shall live… Marvel not at this: for the hour cometh, in which all that are in the tombs shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of judgment.” John 5:24-29
We await Thy Kingdom, O God. It’s advent, and we wait for Christ’s second arrival. It has been a long wait, and no one can tell how much longer. For some it will be like a thief who came in the night, unexpected. Their lives are lived for themselves while professing faith, yet not engaging in the true search for His kingdom. He comes suddenly, and it’s too late.
Death stalks us from the day we are born. It will take away everyone and this world has no survivors. Soon or late, we meet our end and it’s too late then for many to turn from their selfishness: in fact they can’t do it. Habits of true faith last a lifetime, but a sorry faith in one’s own abilities, one’s own hands or money or talents or friendships will all fail.
Heaven awaits us, and the joys of it are unmatched even by our highest hopes and dreams. Heaven, the Bridegroom’s chamber, has been remade just for us: He has prepared a place for us. He has adorned us for that day, and has waited for us to come: radiant, purified, expectant, worthy.
As stewards of the mysteries of God, we keep this safe and we share our faith with all who earnestly seek it. Our lamps are in the trim and we bear our oil into the nighttime of this darkening world with great hope for His arrival. Prepare for the coming of the Lord. “Behold, the bridegroom! Come ye forth to meet him.”
Now the mystery is solved, and we go on to meet other challenges. But keep the faith safe in your hearts, and your lights burning brightly.