Watching and waiting seems to be the name of the game at the moment. I have to confess that, as I write, I am finding it hard to keep my focus, as my mind keeps wandering to the subject of the US presidential election. I can only hope that by the time you read or hear this on Sunday, this agonising process will have been decisively settled.
And then until last weekend there was a process of watching and waiting, keeping an eye on rising Covid-19 cases, and wondering if or when a lockdown would come. And now, during lockdown, there is another kind of waiting, and a different kind of a need to keep alert, to keep awake. It would be all too easy during these weeks to allow our religious life to slip away from us altogether without the structure of regular public worship.
Today is Remembrance Sunday, and it is worth reflecting on how much wars are a matter of watching and waiting, both for soldiers and civilians. We might think of soldiers in the trenches in the First World War, watching through the night for signs of an enemy attacks whilst their comrades catch some sleep. We might think of those watching for approaching bombing raids during the Second World War. And we might think of the families of servicemen and women anxiously waiting for news of their loved ones, in an era before the sort of instant communications which we now take for granted.
We are reminded on this Remembrance Sunday once again of what a thin and fragile thing civilisation is. Jesus knew this all too well: such order and stability and prosperity that the rule of the Romans and their puppets was able to bring to first-century Palestine rested on the deployment of appalling violence against their opponents. Civilisation is a thin and fragile thing; democracy, freedom and prosperity even more so. There is no doubt in my mind that we have become complacent, that we have not been doing enough watching and waiting, and we find our way of life facing multiple threats which we find ourselves unexpectedly ill-equipped to deal with.
Roman civilisation ultimately rested on their ability to deploy brutal military power to defend the empire’s borders and to suppress internal dissent. The civilisation of the western world today perhaps could be said to rest less on coercion, although that is still ultimately important, and more on our ability to deploy our financial, technical and scientific resources to solve various threats and problems. But the rule that Jesus comes to establish is based on something altogether different. The wise and foolish virgins are waiting for the groom. They are invited to a marriage. The kingdom of God relies not on military or economic or scientific resources, but on love.
Today’s gospel is one of a number of apocalyptic parables in the gospel according to St Matthew. When we think about apocalyptic writing, we tend to think in terms of terrible things happening, and of course the temptation is to look around the world and see terrible things happening, as they more-or-less always are, and to imagine that the end must be coming soon. Christians in every generation have done this. And whilst there are plenty of passages in the Bible that speaking of catastrophic events in the end times, it is worth noting carefully that today’s parable gives us a hopeful image. We are not watching and waiting for war and plague and pestilence; we are waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom; we are waiting for a wedding feast.
There is a tension in the way we think about the kingdom of heaven, a tension that goes right back to the preaching of Jesus as described in the gospels, and particularly in Matthew and Luke. Is the kingdom of heaven primarily to be thought of as something that is coming at the end of time, or is it to be thought of as something that is already here?
Jesus’ teaching in different times and places appears to suggest both things. So this watching and waiting that we are encouraged to do in today’s gospel is not simply a matter of “Jesus is coming; look busy”, as the irreverent T-shirts and bumper stickers would have it. It is also a matter of attending carefully to what is going on around us, it is a matter of discernment, of recognising where there are signs of the kingdom present in the here and now, and recognising where Jesus calls us to be, witnessing to His love in word and deed. Whilst we await the final consummation of His loving and kingly rule, we also watch and wait for glimpses of His presence here and now.
Sometimes we catch them in obvious places, in worship, in sacrament, in the life of the church; sometimes in what we might consider to be less obvious places: both Jesus and the early Christian tradition are clear in teaching that we are to find Him in the faces of the poor. Watching and waiting, being dressed for action, loins girded, lamps topped up and trimmed, is as much about being ready to respond to signs of Jesus’ presence in the here and now as it is about being ready for His final coming.
During this hopefully short period of lockdown, let us watch and wait. We have an opportunity to trim our wicks and top up the oil in our lamps. With many of the pleasant ways in which we usually spend our time taken away from us, with many of the distractions and activities we enjoy now impossible, many of us will find that we have a little more space to reflect on the things of God. It is a good time to top up our lamps, to recharge our batteries, to think perhaps about developing disciplines of private prayer and study, or if we already have such disciplines, to think about how we may build on them, how we may refresh them. And as observe the world around us, watching and waiting for signs of Jesus’ presence, may we receive the grace to be signs of His loving rule in the midst of a fragile and disordered world.