13 November 2005

Stay awake!

21st Week OT (Fri): Matt 25.1-13
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, U.D.

The red-faced preacher walked the flat dirt aisles of the revival tent, swinging a lighted red lantern the size of a suitcase. The handle squeaked against the metal and in the heavy silence of a delta summer night, that small squeak was a demonic wail, a sure warning of pain and misery. As the preacher paced the aisles he described in baroque detail the rending and ripping of flesh in hell, the drowning fire and burning cold, the vast, black emptiness of eternal life without God. The red light from the lantern ticked back and forth against the farmers’ faces and the preacher’s chant to their clay hard hearts—“You never know the day nor the hour. Be prepared!” The day and hour of his coming is as uncertain as the next rain, as sudden as a flash-flooded creek, and as sure as sunrise—all glory and life and shining rescue.

My mother told me this story when I first expressed an interest in the ministry way back some twenty-five years ago. Raised in the Mississippi delta by Southern Baptist parents, she often found herself on a Saturday night sitting quietly in a revival tent listening to an itinerant preacher struggle to pull one more cotton farmer out of the devil’s snare. She remembered this night b/c the lantern was red and it casts weirdly disfigured shadows on the tent canvas, impressing in her imagination from then on the urgency of being prepared for the coming of the Lord.

Why not tell us when the Lord is coming? Why not just say, “I’ll be back to get you on Wed., July 19, 2006 around 3:30pm. Pack light”? How much simpler would this be than the ominous threat of popping in on us without warning, the promise to sneak up on us and shout “Time to go!” Think what we could do with all the time and energy we spend combing the scriptures for clues to the End Times, for a time and day of the coming of the Lord. So, why not just tell us?

Part of the answer has to do with the need for our sanctification. The five prepared virgins lived in constant readiness, steeped in the life of anticipation, and focused on the coming of the bridegroom. They were not distracted by the follies of village life or the promises of more entertaining fare down the road. They stood ready always and in their readiness they lived lives ahead of time, toward the wedding feast.

Such is the life of sanctification for us! It is not enough that we are “saved” from sin. We are also tempted into a life of holiness lived in anticipation of the Beatific Vision. Our lives as Christians do not suddenly begin when we reach heaven. Our lives as Christians begin at baptism and the life of sanctification is lived in constant anticipation of the coming of the Lord. Think about it: to know the day and hour of the Lord’s coming is an invitation—a temptation—to most of us to live lives of spiritual desolation, to wallow in self-assurance, and then come to Him as a matter of mere rescue.

“Stay awake!” is not a threat nor is it a warning. It is an instruction, a teaching to remain constant in hope so that your life is not given over to the foolishness of despair. We don’t know the day nor the hour nor do we need to know. We need only to know that he will come in glory and life and shining rescue.

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