Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

November 8, 2020
23rd Sunday After Pentecost
Scripture reading – Matthew 25: 1-14

Don’t you hate it when the lights go out?  It is a helpless feeling that is almost always an unpleasant surprise.  If it happens at night, we find ourselves groping to nearby cabinets to find flashlights – and hopefully we find them with batteries that still work.  We also look for candles – and hopefully something to light them with.  When we get light going, we automatically feel better because we have taken a small measure of control over what is going on.

In New York City, as well as in much of the northeast and Midwest, a few major blackouts have occurred throughout the years that affected millions of people who took for granted their daily lights and electricity.  Many were trapped in high-rise buildings’ elevators and had to be rescued by firemen.  No traffic lights meant immense traffic jams.  Big cities don’t usually have individuals who own generators, so even the careful individual planners are stuck.  In the big cities, like New York City, it’s a dangerous, major problem when the lights go out.

Here in the greater Houston, we have some experience with power outages, usually occurring when hurricanes strike our city.  The two that come to my mind are Alicia, which struck Houston on the first day of school, 1983, and Ike in early September 2008.  In both cases, Houston had huge areas of town that went without lights and power for weeks.  When Alicia hit, Jeanne and I were living in a 3rd floor apartment in southwest Houston; we never lost power, but we did lose water pressure.  For weeks, we had to boil water and run our trickling taps for a long time just to take a bath.  Ike was a different story for us.

With Ike, the Plunketts went without power for 15 long, hot, sticky days.  We stayed in our house because we wanted to protect it, but the temperature inside reached about 90 degrees and stayed there.  We had a battery-powered radio that we kept tuned to the strongest AM station in the area; I remember wanted to throw that radio across the yard on more than one occasion when the many experts on the radio would refer again and again to their websites for more information.  In 2008, cell phones were not nearly as sophisticated as they are now, and web browsing was clumsy at best.  

During this time, I was preaching each Sunday at a church in Needville, near Sugar Land.  Those hardy farm-folks were always ready for anything.  When I described what was going on at my house, one of them offered me her extra generator. After I picked it up, I stopped at Home Depot on the way home and bought a small air conditioner.  The plan was to hook it all up and cool one room that had slate floors.  After an hour of hard, sweaty dirty work, I was finished and ready to turn it on.  At that moment, my wife yelled from the house, “Oh, the lights are on!”

It was a…moment I won’t soon forget.

The point of these stories is that when the lights go out, we are never ready.  It affects us as a city, as a group, as a family, and as a neighborhood.  But we are also affected as individuals too.

Today’s parable was told by Jesus to his disciples just outside the Temple in Jerusalem.  It has been told and retold over the centuries to billions of believers throughout the world.  However, this particular parable was also addressed to each individual disciple; it is a parable for all “rank-and-file” believers, not necessarily the leaders, because watchfulness is the responsibility and duty of each individual Christian.  Christian leaders should do their part, to be sure, but this parable is addressed to each of us individually.  That was how Jesus intended his message to be heard and understood.

There is no one anywhere who doesn’t understand what it is like when the lights go out – no matter what source the light comes from.  In Jesus’ day, light came from fire and oil lamps.  The oil that filled those lamps came from various local sources, depending on what that area had that would burn easily.  Lamp oil was a pretty simple, readily-available material that everyone used in that time.  But because oil was a major detail in Jesus’ parable of the ten handmaidens, it takes on a greater significance than just something that brings light at night.

The symbolism in this parable takes some work to discern:

  • The oil could be oil of gladness that comes with supportive unity.  Picture in your mind our Christmas Eve services when we are outside, standing close together, and holding our candles aloft.  It is a wonderful symbol of our supportive unity for one another.
  • The oil of anointing marks each of us for God’s service.  Anointing with oil is an ancient practice that goes back to Old Testament days and signifies someone special who has been marked somehow.
  • The oil of healing is something is not often used, except when anointing someone who is seriously ill.  It is a practice that makes most people uncomfortable because it means someone could die soon.  It is not done casually or commonly either.  In fact, the three containers of anointing oil that I brought today have been in my office for more than ten years.
  • The oil of consecration usually marks places of holy ground.  Reformed Christians, such as ourselves, don’t hold much to holy ground.  However, we would all agree that are various special places that exist in which we feel someone closer to God or more at peace.  If these places are in churches, then so be it.
  • Finally, the oil of worship reminds of the oil that was poured out on Jesus’ head and feet just before the Last Supper was served.  Jesus knew he was going to die, and it is now clearly seen as preparing his body for that death.  The Apostles objected when the woman did this to Jesus, but he rebuked them because Jesus saw it for what it truly was – a form of worship.  We remember that same worship in the oil that is used here.

Beyond that, others have pointed out that the oil may have had greater meanings:

  • Martin Luther said the oil represented faith.  He pointed to Matthew 24:12, which says that the “love of many will grow cold [due to the increase in lawlessness during the lead-up to the Last Days].
  • Others said that the oil in the lamps of the wise handmaidens continued to burn brightly due to their enduring love and faithfulness – and preparation.
  • Perhaps the oil represents the good works of the faithful, which keeps their heavenly, individual lamps burning brightly.
  • And, of course, the verse in which the foolish handmaidens called out, “Lord! Lord! Open to us!” reminds us Jesus saying that “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord!  Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of Heaven.” [Matthew 7:21]

In the end, there are consequences for false or weak Christians.

Let’s say it clearly and bluntly:

What is it that Christians are supposed to look for?  

What should Christians prepare for?

The answer is equally clear and blunt:

The return of Jesus Christ to judge the living and the dead at the End of the World.

Christians have been looking for Jesus to return for so long that some have wondered if it will ever really happen.  Most of Jesus followers believed very strongly that he would return before they died; when this didn’t happen, the early churches became very discouraged and unhappy.  Faith was something that became much harder because the ultimate reward was not in sight.  Throughout the centuries since those days, believers of every kind have watched and wondered for that return.  

As believers continued to wait expectantly, many false prophets and liars – let’s continue speaking bluntly – claim that they know for certain when Jesus is coming.  Each and every time they have been exposed for the false teachers they are because they forget two simple things:

  1. Jesus himself said he didn’t know when the End Times would occur.  The angels didn’t know…the saints didn’t know…the Son didn’t know…ONLY the Father knew.  So the chances of some self-important charlatan knowing the greatest secret of all time is probably non-existent.
  2. If any of the so-called experts about the exact time of that great “getting-up morning” were right, they why would Jesus teach a parable about being prepared?  Many would just do whatever they wanted and they “get right with God” just before the end.  It doesn’t work like that!

So…how should we be prepared for the day when the lights go out?

First of all, buy a generator.  Get it on sale when hurricane season isn’t going on.  Leave it in your garage or tool shed and know how to use it.  That will help if the lights that go out are in your own home.

But seriously, how should we prepare for what Jesus was talking about – his return?

First of all, remember that preparation is an individual responsibility – but that doesn’t mean we can’t help others.  During the past week, I spoke with a beloved friend who was worried about the salvation of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  We discussed individual responsibility and salvation – but we also discussed praying for our families and modeling for them the behavior within ourselves that might lead them to the faith.

Next, do not take a single day for granted.  Unless you are sick or hurt, marking off a day because it is a rotten one isn’t really fair.  In the midst of one of these “bad days” that I experienced recently, I was far too busy noticing all the things that went wrong; so when one big thing went right, I was ashamed of myself and praised God in my heart for the blessings I had overlooked and taken for granted.

Wonder how much oil I had in my lamp at that point…

Finally, no matter what thoughts you have in your mind, no matter what deeds you perform, no matter how much you let go of or how much you forgive, do all your preparations with joy – not fear.  The reappearance of Jesus Christ should be a day in which believers look up with tremendous joy and expectation – not one in which we cower with fear and trembling.  The return of our Lord – much like the parable’s final appearance of the bridegroom – is cause for much joy and celebration.  

It means the joyful feast is about to begin.  Come inside, find your place, and let’s get this party started!

Unfortunately, it also means that there is such a thing as being “too late.”  

So we should all consider ourselves taught, warned, and always reminded.  We don’t ever want to be caught unprepared when the lights go out.  Because each of us should always ALWAYS be aware that we don’t know the day; we don’t know the hour; we don’t know exactly what it will all look like.

But we DO know that the Lord loves each and every one of us dearly and completely.  And he wants us to join him for the heavenly feast and celebration.