I’ve always had a certain sympathy for Ethelred the Unready. I know little about him – but his title suggests he was a very British king, and on the day we in Britain remember our War victims I am reminded of him. My impression – totally subjective and unrepresentative – is that whenever there is a war, the first months are spent in shock and complaint at how unprepared we are to fight. We shouldn’t be, but . .
Of course, you can understand why: there are always other things to do. The cost of a fighter plane, for instance, is huge – and there are always alternatives. We can do without a plane, say the planners, build a new school. Or think of the cost of a new warship – we could equip a hospital for that, so keep the old one going a bit longer . . So it goes on in peacetime, but when war threatens, we don’t like to admit it. Carry on as normal, we say; we don’t want to be seen as threatening, we say; to build up our forces would be seen as hostile, we say. And we go to war unprepared and underequipped. Wasn’t it the case that most of the troops who crossed the Falkland Is in record time had bought their own boots, rather than wear the army issue?
Wars, thankfully, come to an end. But sadly, we don’t seem to be much better at preparing for peace. We ought to be, but . . We’ve all heard of the hope of a “land fit for heroes” after the First War – and know of the grim reality of the Depression, the General Strike and mass unemployment. It seems that today a fair – unfair -proportion of the homeless are ex-services personnel. It also seems to be the case that many of those who engage in violent armed crime have learnt the techniques of combat from military training, but somehow have turned them to unintended use, or have not been protected from the traumas of conflict and its aftermath.
I can’t offer any easy solutions for these problems, but remember them this week as we read Matthew 25:1-13. Jesus tells a story about girls unready for the delayed arrival of the bridegroom. They shouldn’t be, but . . . Interestingly, they all sleep, but as they wake, some are found to be prepared and others not. Shouldn’t they have shared their supplies of oil, you wonder? Well, that depends what that oil represents. It may be that they are not unduly cautious, or mean, but that the oil is something which cannot be shared.
Jesus is thinking of the time when he will return; he is warning his followers to be prepared and ready. Matthew tells the story, knowing that the church can very easily get absorbed in the routine of now – church life, business life, the crises of family – they all provoke a drowsiness. They shouldn’t be like that, but . . . But what will happen when the big wake-up call comes?
Then we discover what people are made of. Faith is the key thing – and faith cannot be transferred from one person to another. Your faith can help other people, but they can’t take it over, or inherit it. When Jesus returns, he won’t only be hoping to find faith. He will look for those whose faith has made them open to grace, and in whose characters and lives the oil of grace has worked a transformation. They will have learnt love; their hope will not be easily discouraged. Humility will help them make themselves useful even in unglamorous work, and their gifts will be put to serve people wherever they are. These are the unsung heroes of wartime – and peace as well.
A crisis shows people up, and some have what it takes and others don’t. We are warned to stock up on the oil of grace while it is available – work with God now, while there is time. Today we remember the casualties of war. Many died young. We record our thanks for the opportunity they gave us to reach a normal span of years in freedom.
And the gospel asks:
have those years we are given brought us to maturity?
have we reached our potential?
Don’t talk about wealth or reputation, qualifications or family size. Talk about faith and character; about the way God’s grace has been received; the way the HS has produced fruit of character and the gifts of service. If we have got it right, we shall be ready:
ready to meet human crisis and disaster
ready for Jesus return to require an account of our stewardship
If not, we shall be selfish, offendable, fragile and proud.
“the bridegroom came, and those who were ready
went with him into the wedding banquet,
and the door was shut.” Mt 25:10