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An old tale from the Middle East – with many variations – speaks of a merchant from Baghdad who sent his servant to the market one day. Before long the servant came back, white and trembling with fear. In great anxiety, he said to his master, “Down in the market I was jostled by a woman in the crowd, and when I turned around, I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Master, please lend me your horse, for I must hasten away to avoid her! I will ride to Samarra and there I will hide. Death will not find me there.” Wanting to be helpful, the merchant lent him his horse and the servant galloped away in great haste. Later the merchant went down to the marketplace and saw Death standing in the crowd. He went over to her and asked, “Why did you frighten my servant this morning? Why did you make a threatening gesture?”
“That was not a threatening gesture,” Death said. “It was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
Whether in Samarra or Baghdad or Enid, that “appointment” is not one we like to consider, and before you go thinking you will be leaving today completely depressed, I’ll let you know that we’re not going to be talking about that appointment itself, but the time leading up to it. That would be today and more specifically, this very moment, for this is all that is guaranteed.
The parable of the ten virgins or bridesmaids that Jesus told has the point where all ten girls become tired and fall asleep. They all wake up when the cry comes that the bridegroom is on his way. Some are ready to leave for the celebration, while others don’t have enough oil for their lamps to help them find the way.
This sleep that overtakes them can be understood in different ways. Perhaps the most evident are death and the second coming of Jesus. It can be either of those, but the point of the parable is the condition of the individual before they fall asleep.
Falling asleep is natural, but watching someone fall asleep who is trying to stay awake is quite comical (just watch the congregation today and you may witness it). It begins with the eyes struggling to remain open and progresses to the head bob, as they keep waking themselves up. It ends with their chin resting against their chest and drool running down their shirt. If this happens in public, they wake up looking rather sheepish and wondering if they were snoring, but no harm was done. Compare that with falling asleep while you’re driving. I remember driving along as a teenager and waking up with my front bumper edging up underneath the rear bumper of a semi. I was awake very quickly with my heart pounding furiously. I also remember driving along late one night, desperately wanting to get home. I should have pulled over long before. The person I was with looked over and asked, “Are you awake?” My response: “I am now!”
I’ve fallen asleep watching a movie, woken up, and the worst thing I had to do was hit the rewind, but falling asleep driving, puts you in a state of sheer panic.
If we say that the ten virgins falling asleep is a way of speaking about our death or the second coming of Jesus, then the five who were prepared are like those who fall asleep and wake up innocently and peacefully, while the five who were unprepared are like those who fall asleep while driving, waking in a dead panic, unprepared.
I believe that most would like to find themselves in the first group of the wise, those who are prepared; however, even though most desire this, there are many who fail to achieve due to one particular lie of the devil.
Three apprentice devils coming to this earth to finish their apprenticeship. They were talking to Satan about their plans to tempt and to stop humankind from coming to God. The first said, “I will tell them that there is no God.” Satan said, “That will not deceive many, for they know that there is a God.” The second said, “I will tell them that there is no hell.” Satan answered, “You will deceive no one that way; they know even now that there is a hell for sin.” The third said, “I will tell them that there is no hurry, you can continue like what you want.” “Go,” said Satan, “and you will stop many from turning to God.”
Many hear that lie – you’ve got time… you can think about this later… there are many days left in your life to consider the things of God – many hear that lie and when the end arrives, they are in a panic, and they find themselves outside, knocking on the door to be allowed entry into the celebration.
But I do not think you would be here today if you were not seeking to be prepared for your last, but the meaning of the parable does not speak only about the end of our days. It also speaks of how we can be unprepared in our daily lives, and this type of unpreparedness crushes our ability to live each day in peace and it arrives through the death of hope.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet begins his monologue:
“To be, or not to be? That is the question.”
He is asking whether it is better to be alive or to die. Is it better to keep up the day to day struggle of his life or take his chances on the next, for to him, dying is only sleeping, but then he begins to question:
“To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.”
Who’s to say, he asks himself. Perhaps death is worse. We just don’t know; therefore, we struggle for long days in this life and continue to toil along. What he is describing is a life without hope. Hope in the promises of God. It is a life that does not find rest in God. It is a life of panic and a furious running about in search of anything to fill the void within that only God can satisfy with his peace.
When we are robbed of that hope, we are unprepared for now. We become restless and panic. We listen to the world and those around us and hear the death they speak and we become infected with it and they rob us of our hope, or perhaps a better way to put it is to say they take our hope, because, so often, we just give it to them. In doing so, we allow despair and death to enter our lives, where God would have us joyful and alive. What remains is a panic that ask those same questions Hamlet asked: is this all there is? The answer is a resounding, “No!” Yes, there will be trials and there will be difficulties, but in the words of our Bishop, “The world does not have the final say.” Therefore, be prepared each day, give yourself permission to enter into the celebration, and the peace and joy of the Lord. For Jesus says, “I will never turn away anyone who comes to me.”
When I struggle with this, I remember what Mother Teresa is reported to have written on a wall in her room. Forgive me if I’ve shared it with you before:
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.
That is the inner workings of a soul that is preparing for the last day and the soul of one who is also prepared to live this day. It is a soul that has acquired that unquenchable hope. That refuses to give it away or to be robbed of it.
You are a gift from God and the life he has given you is also a gift. Live it in the peace and hope that he gives to you and on whatever day he chooses to call you home, you will be prepared and you will enter into the eternal celebration.
The words of David in Psalm 34 speak of this hope. I’ll close with them. Let us pray:
I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant;
so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of the Lord encamps
around those who fear him, and delivers them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him.
O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
for those who fear him have no want.
The young lions suffer want and hunger,
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.