The church year is winding down and there's only a few weeks left before Advent, the time of preparing for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. But the "preparations" begin before Advent: as the year comes to an end, the stories we hear in church are all about being prepared for what's ahead.
This week, Matthew's gospel brings us the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids (Matt. 25:1-13). Half have brought enough oil for their lamps, half did not. When it's time for the groom to arrive, at midnight, half need to go to find oil - the foolish, of course - while the wise welcome the groom and head into the wedding feast. The foolish, coming back later, are locked out.
Sure, it's pretty dated (we could spend some time on first century Hebrew wedding customs, if you like) and there are some curious quirks to explore, but I think we can all agree it's about being prepared. Or else.
Now, to me, that's the tricky part, that's the part I have trouble with: be prepared or else you're locked out and you don't get in. Seems pretty unreasonable. After all, if God's love is for all, especially the most needy, it seems pretty unfair to lock them out of the party just because they weren't ready. And besides, the command at the end of the story is "keep awake" and it's everyone who seems to fall asleep waiting, foolish and wise alike.
I imagine this story a little like that joke about Peter at the Pearly Gates, letting in just the "right people." Gabriel comes by because he's concerned that there seems to be more people in heaven than Peter's letting in. He goes to investigate and comes back to tell Peter "it's okay, it's Jesus - he's pulling people in over the wall." The door may be locked, but somewhere, somehow, Jesus is helping people get in anyway.
It's just that the journey's different.
It doesn't mean that we should't try to be prepared. But every journey's different and how we prepare and what we need is different for each of us, isn't it? And even with all the preparation in the world, sometimes we fail. And when we fall down, the first hand that reaches out to us to help us up: it's Jesus.
Perhaps that's the real preparedness that we need. That we are open and ready to welcome Jesus, whoever and however we are, whenever we encounter Jesus. That may be with lamps lit and the door open or it may be sitting in the dark waiting for the coming of the light.
I'm mindful, too, this week, that it may not be just preparing for the next Christmas or the return of Jesus, the Second Coming as promised in the Bible, the Big One. But all the little ones, those moments when Jesus breaks into our lives unexpectedly, suddenly reminding us of what's truly important on our journey. Sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes in the middle of day, and all the hours in between. Are you ready?