Begin at the End

Sermon at Aurora United Ministry, Nov. 12, 2023

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of officiating at my grandson Max’s wedding down in Wilmington, North Carolina. I love weddings. people relax around the table, there’s food, drink, a babble of talk, everybody’s happy. Weddings are special. Weddings bring together tradition, ritual, family. We meet up again with old friends, and we get the chance to make new ones. Old grievances begin to fade away. A wedding is a celebration of hope for the future.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that wedding banquets are featured so often in scripture. Isaiah describes the kingdom of heaven as like a great banquet with the choicest tasty food and well-aged wines spread out for us. It’s probably a wedding banquet. Jesus’ first recorded miracle was at a wedding banquet in Galilee. And it’s the anticipation of a wedding banquet that Jesus uses to teach us in our parable today from Matthew’s gospel.

Most of us have learned by this time, if you want to accomplish something, keep your eyes on the prize. Our human tendency when we want something is to ask for it or reach for it. If what we want doesn’t look like it’s going to appear in a reasonable time, we give up in disappointment, or decide we really didn’t want it anyway or get distracted and decide we really want something else. But if what we want is truly valuable, say, like a pearl of great price, or a buried treasure in a field, or the promise of eternal life, it pays to keep our eyes on the prize.

When we were kids, going to the movies was a big deal. The featured films changed maybe twice a week. One thing I really loved was previews of coming attractions – and selected short subjects. Remember? After the Movietone News with actual moving black and white pictures of things happening around the world, we’d see a Bugs Bunny or Tom and Jerry cartoon in color. The funniest, most magical things I saw all week. And then, before the second feature, Previews of Coming Attractions.

In a way, the previews were as enjoyable as the movies themselves. In a minute or two you’d get a taste of the drama, the excitement, the anticipation! The preview was more than information. It was a foretaste of things to come. An appetizer before the feast coming up next week. And as much as I’d enjoy the feature movie, I had all week to enjoy anticipation of the feature to come next Friday.

As the scene in Matthew’s Gospel opens, Jesus is teaching about the end times, warning his disciples of the challenging times ahead. At the same time he encourages his friends to persist in faith until the end. The end may be a long time coming. “Yet about that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not even the Son; no one but the Father alone.” Jesus warns them the day will come like a thief in the night, so “Keep awake.” God moves on God’s own terms and we must be ready.

Then Jesus introduces the parable: There were ten girls who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five foolish ones took their lamps, but they took no oil with them. The five prudent ones took flasks of oil along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming. They all dozed off to sleep, but at midnight came a shout. “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him."

The ten girls got up to trim their lamps. The foolish said to the prudent, “our lamps are going out, give us some of your oil.” “No, they answered, there will never be enough for all of us. You had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” While they were away, the bridegroom arrived, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later, the others came back. “Sir, sir, open the door for us”, they cried. But he answered, “Truly, I tell you: I do not know you.” Keep awake then, for you know neither of the day nor the hour.”

In this parable the wise and the foolish alike came out to wait. They all grew weary. But the wise knew the wait might be uncertain and had the patience to be ready for the bridegroom and banquet to come. They kept the prize, the goal, the treasure alive and in front of them. They knew they’d need the flasks of oil to see them through.

What about us? How do we keep the prize always before us? What do we do to stay the course? What keeps us, “awake,” as Jesus warns? There’s a simple secret to staying the course, finishing what we begin. Whatever you intend to do, whatever your goal, whatever your purpose in this life or the life to come, if you want to make it to the end: Begin at the end.

“What?” Yes, start at the end. It sounds counter-intuitive. But think about it. No builder starts constructing a house without a clear picture of the end. The builder keeps the architect’s blueprint always in front of him. If not, the walls won’t be true, the doors won’t open, and the house will fall.

It’s important to keep a picture of your goal in the front part of your brain. If you constantly keep a clear picture of your goal, you won’t be distracted by shiny objects along the way. There’s no better way to persevere than keeping the goal always in front of you. That’s what ritual is about. Daily practice of religion is designed to keep the end always before our eyes. Daily prayer, weekly meeting. Scripture reading. Spiritual conversation. These keep the end goal present in the moment. Some may feel, “I don’t need “organized religion”, but without the discipline of daily practice, your lamp can run out of oil when you need it most.

In our first reading today it is 1,250 years before Christ. Joshua is now an old man of 100 years plus. Joshua recounts how GOD had driven out the former inhabitants, the pagans of Canaan, to make a homeland for the people Israel.

Then Joshua warns the people – he predicts the people will not stay faithful to GOD. That they will get distracted or tire of their promise. He asks them to decide, here and now, “Will you keep faithful to God?” He warns them not to take the commitment lightly. Joshua said to them, ‘You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD and will serve him.’ ‘Yes,’ they answered, ‘we are witnesses.’ ‘We shall serve the LORD our God and his voice we shall obey. “

Sadly, as we know, over and over again, the people of Israel blew it. The Book of Judges recounts episode after sad episode, a series of disasters that resulted from not keeping God’s voice and promise constantly in mind and heart. It “slipped their mind.” They failed to keep their promise to listen to the voice of GOD and stay faithful to the voice of GOD. Instead, they did what was right in their own eyes. How very familiar to us today.

Over and over, the Book of Judges tells us, “Every man did what was right in his own eyes.” And over and over disaster followed. The entire book of Judges tells stories of Judges - Deborah, Gideon, Samson, Jephthah - all judges raised up by God to rescue the people, to save them from the calamity caused by going their own way. If it wasn’t for God’s compassionate understanding of our weaknesses, our failures, our rejection, God’s chosen people would have disappeared from the face of the earth.

Isaiah 46:9 teaches: Remember all that happened long ago, for I am God, and there is none other; I am God, and there is no one like me. From the beginning I reveal the end, from ancient times what is yet to be; I say, ‘My purpose stands, I shall accomplish all that I please.’... I have spoken and I shall bring it to pass, I have planned it, and I shall carry it out.

“From the beginning I reveal the end!” GOD lays out the plot and the conclusion. What was true for the people of GOD then is true for us today. We will take our eyes off the prize. We will drift off the path. But God is perfect and God keeps his promises. GOD knew we could not do it without divine help. GOD provided the answer to our inadequacy and flawed nature. The answer is GOD’s own Son, Jesus. We are forgiven our failings and lovingly urged to keep on keeping on with the end always before our eyes.

First Thessalonians encourages us by giving us a preview of coming attractions, a foretaste of the great reunion that takes place at the end with those who have died. I picture this as a wedding banquet with generations of family and friends, each radiant and glowing with the inner light and beauty of their true essence, their essential soul more beautiful than we can imagine.

For me, my picture of the end time is the joy of the reunion with generations of family and friends at the wedding feast. That’s the perfect picture. And I’ll bet the food and wine is pretty good, too.

You all know I’m not a professional preacher. I’m just in love with the wonder of life. I'm in constant awe at the fact of GOD’s Creation. All this from nothing. That the mind of GOD conceived of a Creation beginning with nothing but Light and Laws. Designed so that from nothing could come loving human beings who hunger to be united with GOD at the great wedding banquet at the end. Um, WOW.

As Psalm 78 teaches today, we persist because we remember what GOD intends for us at the end of this passing life. We keep that prize in sight. Jews and Christians alike practice daily, weekly and annual rituals designed to remind us of our goal and to refresh our flasks so that we stay awake.

God has told us about the banquet to come. The gathering with those who have gone before. Believe it. The joy and the feasting. See it. That’s what we’re aiming for.

Practice what GOD teaches. Begin at the end, God’s end. Hope in the heavenly banquet to come. Stay with the practices that keep our flasks full. Experience the preview of heaven here and now. It’s quite a coming attraction. Keep that banquet of eternal life in sight.