What are modern believers suppose to do in the face of apocalyptic literature? In this week’s lectionary readings, both the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids from Matthew and Paul’s words from 1 Thessalonians speak to questions of preparedness for the end of the world and our final communion with Christ. For the early Christians, the need for such cautions were readily apparent—they thought that they were living in the last days of the Messianic Age, waiting for Jesus to reappear at any moment. Accordingly, they understood the Church’s mission as a horizontal one, spreading the Gospel to the ends of the earth as quickly as they could. Over the generations, it became plain that a somewhat more vertical approach was needed; one that would take into account both the evangelical and chronological needs of the various communities of faith. Slowly, the efforts to preserve the Church qua institution became almost ends in themselves, perpetuation often eclipsing preparation. So, how are we, as inheritors of millennia of establishment, supposed to respond to the messages we’ll hear on Sunday? What does it mean for us to keep awake?
To be honest, whenever I think about the end of the age, I remember the words of a bumper sticker that’s tacked up in the offices of a church I use to work for: “Jesus is coming—look busy.” It can be tempting to move to the other extreme, creating an unforgettable flurry of activity, but I’m not sure that such a single-minded focus on the present is any more faithful to the Biblical witness. Rather, I believe that keeping awake according to Christ’s parable is about constantly living into a balance, recognizing the needs of both the moment and all of those yet to come. There’s actually a meme that I’ve seen making the rounds several times over the years that speaks to that balance almost perfectly. It’s a quote “from the Talmud”* that draws out to the tension upon believers and their communities by playing with the commandments from Micah 6:8: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” We cannot know if it will be ours to complete the work (“neither the day nor the hour”), but we cannot let ourselves be overcome by the enormity of what it means to bring the Kingdom of God either. Neither the moment nor the future should become idols that eclipse our continued relationship with God and those around us. Instead, we must commit ourselves again and again to those relationships, doing our best to offer hope in every direction.