The Surprise of Joy

by Rev. Doug Gray

     This morning’s New Testament reading is from the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. One of the ways Jesus loved to explain the abundant life with God was through stories, called parables, of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus’ parables were taken from the very stuff of everyday life, and so is the parable we are reading today. This morning’s parable is one of the last three Jesus tells before He is killed.
     The parable of the Ten Virgins is one of joy—its backdrop is a wedding, one of the most joyous of occasions. Joy is a transcendent energy that fills you up until are torn between laughing with wonder and crying in disbelief. A common response to joy is that you can’t decide whether to dance a jig or get down on your knees to thank God. Joy is not happiness. Happiness is a feeling and feelings come and go. Joy is a state of being, a basic quality inherent in some lives. Where does joy come from? How can we find it for ourselves?
Weddings are one of the most joy-filled things we do, and we often express joy by adding an element of fun. Can you think of things people do to add fun to weddings and the party after?

     [Take responses from the congregation. In our day, the couple often feeds cake to each other and it all too often gets mashed around all over their faces, people often tap on glasses at the reception to make the newly weds kiss, birdseed or rice that gets into everything the couple owns and people have a great time eating, dancing and welcoming the change of life for the bride and groom.]

In Jesus’ time, weddings had the same kinds of fun, but they were week-long affairs! And we thought our wedding was crazy! The culmination of the whole week was the bridegroom coming to the bride’s house to bring her back to what would be their new home. By tradition, the bride appointed 10 of her friends to light the bridegroom’s way. Over the years, an element of fun had crept into this part: the bridegroom would wait and make his appearance when he was least expected to see if he could catch the bridesmaids unprepared to light the way to the bride’s house. The only warning the bridesmaids would get was a courier going ahead to announce the coming of the bridegroom. So the bridesmaids knew that the bridegroom was going to try to catch them unawares. This unfolds at least two great truths about God that lead to joy.
      The first great truth about God where Jesus Christ is concerned, there is no substitute for knowing and experiencing Him. If the bridesmaids had known the Bridegroom and his sense of humor better, they might have predicted when the groom would come, when least expected. We experience some of this reality with our human relationships, don’t we? Tell me we can’t predict what our mothers would say or do if we tracked mud into the house! Tell me we can’t predict what our best friend would say or do if we got engaged or found out we were expecting! After a while, we know what they would say or do. It’s the same with God. After we have been with God for a while, we know what God wants us to do in a given situation. How? Because we know God and we know what God would ask us to do. Knowing God through Jesus opens a way of joy because we can live with utter abandon. We will always be prepared for the joy of the Bridegroom because we know how and when He comes to us.
      This understanding of the Holy Spirit and of faith uncovers the second great truth in this story: When a crisis strikes, we cannot borrow faith from someone else, nor can we borrow someone’s connection with the Holy Spirit. Those are things that come only with time and relationship with Jesus Christ, working and living with Him in mind. When a crisis comes, we cannot cram. Like the foolish bridesmaids, we suddenly discover that we are without. The deeply faithful people around us can give us their advice, but they cannot give us their faith or their powerful joy in the Spirit.
      But all too often we are unprepared for joy! When it comes, we look at God like deer caught in the headlights, and then shake our heads and go back to what is safe. We miss the opportunity to say a word of kindness, to start a conversation with someone we would never normally meet, to extend the grace of God unexpectedly to someone who has not earned it, the moment is gone and we have missed our chance. We are like the foolish bridesmaids, pounding on the door of joy, unable to get in.
      The surprising twist is this: Imagine for a moment, what would happen if one of these foolish bridesmaids had awakened before the bridegroom arrived? What if she looked around and said, “My lamp is nearly out. I’d better run and get oil in a hurry before the bridegroom gets here?” Running counter to the tragic outcome of the parable is the sense that it is never too late. Are you running low on oil? Do you feel out of touch with the bridegroom? Do you sense that your candle may be flickering, that you are completely unprepared for the opportunities for joy around you? This parable reminds us that quality of life is far more important than quantity. Come to God, the giver of abundant life and find the love and all you need to be ready. Indeed, we never know from one moment to the next which will be our last. Will your life be filled with preparing for the worst? Or are you prepared for the glorious surprise of transcendent, envigorating, exuberant joy?