Orthodox Christians are still waiting for the Lord’s return to judge the living and the dead. Christ’s return is the answer to humanity’s deepest longings for justice and shalom, and for that reason his delay is also deeply painful.
While Christ’s appearing may be a distant concern for most western Christians, it was a matter of great concern for the early church. In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, Jesus warned the church that it might have to endure this present evil age much longer than they imagined. The bridegroom might be delayed; keep your lamps burning until he arrives.
How Long Can My Lamp Keep Burning?
Just as the early church wondered when the Lord would return to end its suffering at the hands of its oppressors, we too find ourselves in situations where we wonder if we can go on.
There’s something in us that tells us that life is going to work out in a certain way – like in a movie or a television show – with everything wrapping up neatly and predictably at the end of the film. It just has to, right? Unfortunately, life doesn’t really work that way. Life is not a movie.
Have you seen the commercial where the professor asks passers-by how much money they will need for retirement? Then he shows them graphically just how far that will get them? The problem, he said, is that you just never know how long you’ll need to rely on your resources. The implication is clear; maybe you’ll run out of what you need to keep on going.
And that’s true in ways that have nothing to do with money. I think life presents us with countless situations where we wonder if we’ll have what it takes to keep on going.
My wife is a long distance runner, but I’m not really a big fan of pounding the pavement. That’s exactly what it feels like to me; it hurts. But, I “run” – or walk rather fast – because I have to. Just to get started, though, I really have to work myself into the right state of mind. And then, once I start, I have to work hard to convince myself to keep up the pace. I picture how much farther I have to go and I tick off the quarter-miles in my head. “You’ve got 2.75 miles to go. You can make it.”
When I run with others or in formation, however, I can never quite be sure that things are going to work out as I envisioned. Just when I think we’re getting near the end, the formation turns left instead of right and my heart sinks. I have no idea how much longer I’m going to have to keep running. It’s a lot easier to keep going when I can picture the end in front of me, but life doesn’t always let me see the finish line.
(I don’t run in formations much anymore, but as I recall the trick was to forget about how fast or how far you were running. Keep your spot in the formation, keep your eye on the person in front of you and draw energy from the cadences of the formation itself. Don’t even think about falling out; if you fall out of the group, you’re sunk. I think there’s a lesson for Christians in there somewhere)
When I deployed to Kuwait for the invasion of Iraq, I had a similar experience. Just when I thought I could see the finish line – and I told myself, keep on going, you can make it that far – the mission turned left instead of right, and suddenly I had no idea how much longer I would have to keep this up. Here, too, my heart sank. How could I deal with the uncertainty and misery that lay ahead? Those who came after me dealt with much more change and uncertainty – and often wound up staying much, much longer than they and their families expected.
People are walking down all sorts of unknown paths, bearing burdens that make every step difficult. “How long,” they wonder, “Can I keep this up? How close am I to the end of this?”
I’ve talked with a few seriously ill Christians who told me that they were ready to die but for some reason they kept on living. The “keeping on” was harder than the “letting go.”
How long, O Lord? How long can I deal with this distress? Will the weight of grief I am bearing ever lift? How long can I cope with my child’s illness or my spouse’s suffering? Will my neighbor every stop being such a thorn in my side? Will my marriage ever become tolerable? Will my child ever come home? Will the judge ever make a decision in my case? How many doors do I have to knock on before I find a job? How long can I go on? When will this ever end?
The question of Christian endurance is not confined to our individual problems. Christians in Iraq and Syria today must be crying out,
How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood? (Revelation 6:10)
Or with the prophet Habakkuk, saying,
How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? (Habakkuk 1:2)
The church as a whole waits for the bridegroom with its torches lit. How long it must wait, it does not know.
It may seem as if I’ve drifted away from the subject of Christ’s return and its delay, but have I? As I previously wrote, the problem of suffering and Christ’s delay are closely linked. Suffering remains while Christ tarries. The situations which call us to faithful endurance vary from person to person. To me, they are all variations of the one call to stand our watch until Christ comes.
Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins doesn’t say why the bridegroom was delayed, just that he was. His torchbearers would have to be prepared to keep on doing their jobs until he arrived.
How we wait matters more than why we wait. The latter is unknowable; the former is within our grasp, at least with the power of the Holy Spirit working within us.
Sent to Be Spent
Of course Christians are called to do more than passively endure life’s trials. We don’t just stand in the ocean and resist the tide for as long as we can. There’s work to be done. There’s a mission to be fulfilled. There’s a person to become.
To use the imagery of Jesus’ parable, we’re not just sitting on the street corner waiting for the wedding party to show up, are we? We’re busy doing those things that Christ said to do: serving God, loving people, proclaiming the gospel. We’re using up our oil. We’re running out of gas.
Life itself wears you down, and even the ordinary wear-and-tear of living can have a disastrous effect on our spirits.
Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. Matthew 24:12-13
More than that, being followers of Christ means spending your life and energy on behalf of others. We are “sent to be spent.” I love that phrase, which I first saw in a sermon on this passage by Dr. Elton Richards.
We are sent to be spent. We are sent to give ourselves, our time, our talents, our resources on behalf of those God loves. We are constantly depleting ourselves in the service of Christ.
Some people start their Christian lives in a white-hot explosion of religious experience and church involvement but quickly exhaust their initial enthusiasm. The question is, “How do you keep the fire going for a long time?”
I know it’s a cliché; the phrase we use is “burn out.” I also know that those who never catch fire can never burn out. Still, those who take seriously Christ’s commands are in constant danger of burning themselves out if they don’t have enough oil in their lamps. There has to be a way to replenish the fuel that keeps us burning.
Oil for my Lamp
We deplete ourselves as we stand against everything that life throws our way. And we deplete ourselves as we expend ourselves for others. We need a way to replenish our spirit and our strength.
We’re looking, of course, for a source of supernatural fuel for our lamps. We need the ordinary means of replenishing ourselves: intellectual stimulation, good food, rest, exercise, social companionship, and the like. These are necessary for physical replenishment.
The source of spiritual replenishment sounds rather ordinary, too. The penultimate source of spiritual replenishment is this: Come to church. Study the scriptures alone and with others. Participate in the communion of the saints. Lean on each other and draw strength from each other. Pray, sing and laugh together. These are the ordinary means of grace. And these are what committed church members do week in and week out.
The ultimate source of spiritual replenishment– the one from which all the others draw their power – is of course Christ himself.
Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28).
This is where the fuel for our lamps comes from, that enables us to serve and love God even when the road is long and difficult, with no end in sight. This is how we prepare for the bridegroom’s appearing and the wedding feast of the lamb.
There was a silly little unsophisticated song we sang when we were kids in Sunday School. As a prayer, it’s much more profound than I imagined at the time.
Give me oil in my lamp keep me burning, burning, burning;
Give me oil in my lamp I pray.
Give me oil in my lamp keep me burning, burning, burning;
Keep me burning ’til the break of day.