It’s a chess term referring to the stage of the game when there are few pieces left on the board. A good chess player has a strong endgame, a strategy for what they would like the board to look like at that stage and then work their way toward it. Every move is calculated with the endgame in mind. Sometimes the endgame will change depending on the person sitting across from you. Is your opponent aggressive? Do they play defensively? Are they largely reactive or proactive? How a player answers those questions could change the endgame they have in mind. Even still, many players have a favorite strategy and they work toward that end. The great players can tell what that endgame might be simply from the first few moves on the board. Are you the type to move your pawn forward two spaces or one? Do you bring your knight out quickly? Do you lead queen side or king side? The great players not only see the board as it is, they already know what the board will look like 5, 10, even 20 moves ahead. They are truly students of the game. They don’t simply play the game. They study it. They study their opponents. They think constantly about how they can improve. It’s because they love the game.
We are involved in the greatest game of all – the game of Life.
Yet so many of us play without an endgame in mind. Jesus talks about this with us in Matthew’s gospel and that is what we will be reading from today. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, would you please go to Matthew 25:1-13. Matthew 25:1-13. In this part of Jesus’ story he is talking to the disciples about what will happen when the world comes to an end. Even the most non-religious scientists believe that some day the world will come to an end, and although there are many different hypotheses about how and when that will happen there is general agreement that it will some day happen. In theology, we call this eschatology or the study of the end times. We call this eschatology or the study of the end of time. And Jesus gives us as clear a picture as any about what that might look like. He doesn’t discuss the destruction of the Earth or the sun going supernova. He doesn’t talk about the physical ending of the Earth, but instead Jesus focuses on what will happen to the people of the planet in those days. And he warns them about false prophets and false promises, but more importantly he tells them that they need to always be prepared because no one knows when that day will come.
“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
6 “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
7 “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
9 “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’
12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’
13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
It might seem harsh to leave behind the other group of women just because they ran out of oil.
But it goes to this idea that we need to be prepared, that none of knows when our time will come and that if we don’t take steps before it happens, we could miss out. In the story, the five foolish women rush out in anticipation of meeting the bridegroom while the other five take the precaution of bringing extra oil. It seems like the first five anticipated he would come soon and didn’t prepare for a long wait and when they all woke up realized that their oil was running low. But the others didn’t have enough to share and the foolish five had to run back, and when they returned they missed out on the opportunity to be with him. It’s like having to miss the best part of a movie because you had to go to the restroom. I mean much worse than that, but just to put it in terms most of us have probably experienced. You didn’t plan ahead and take the precaution of going before the movie and then you had to dash out as fast as you could and hope you didn’t miss anything cool or important. If you had just taken that one extra step, maybe those couple of minutes before walking into the movie, this wouldn’t have happened, but it did. For me, I can’t help but shake the feeling I missed out on something because of it. Just a little bit of preparation. Just a little bit of planning and it all could have been avoided. That’s the sense the Jesus is trying to get across here, that if we plan ahead, we don’t have to worry about missing out, because we’ll already be prepared.
But it’s what Jesus says at the end of the story that really scares me.
“Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.” The words seem out of place, but that’s because they’re directed at us and the people listening to his story. These words are meant to make us stop and think and make us question, “Do I know Jesus?” To think that Jesus might say those very words to one of us is not a pleasant thought. But we see this theme recurring in other stories in the Bible as well. In Luke 13 we hear the story about the narrow door being closed and these people coming up to it and knocking and saying out loud, “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.” And Jesus replies, “I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!” And again in Matthew 7 in the parable about false disciples where these people are appealing to Jesus to let them in the gates of Heaven and they say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” And Jesus responds, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” In each of these circumstances, the people on the outside looking in feel like they know Jesus, but it becomes evident they really don’t. In the story we read today, Jesus accepts those who stood prepared for his arrival and rejected those who were not. Both “knew” him, but only one group was prepared for him. Being prepared is an important theme here and one that is emphasized throughout the Gospel. The stories of the narrow road and the narrow gate only emphasize this even more. And yet we constantly live like there are a million tomorrows when in truth we have no idea how many are left. We live like there are a million tomorrows when in truth we have no idea how many are left.
We don’t like to think about dying.
Dying used to be part of everyday life. One doctor wrote that as late as 1945 most people died in their homes. By the 1980’s it was down to 17% and of those most of them died because they couldn’t get to a hospital in time. Gone are the days when people would pass away in the comfort of their own homes surrounded by the people they love. Now, we send them to hospitals and visit them as we are able, but we can keep the experience of death and dying away from us. But perhaps we should revisit that kind of thinking. Perhaps we need to be reminded more than ever that death is the inevitable end for us all. The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” There is a strong lesson to be learned in those words. That instead of denying death or ignoring death, we should live with the inevitability of death in our lives. That instead of denying death or ignoring death, we should live with the inevitability of death in our lives. By doing this we are reminded of the importance to be prepared and to live each day with gratitude in our hearts.
Are you as prepared as you need to be?
I don’t like scare tactics. I resent seeing billboards on the highway telling me I’m going to hell if I don’t believe in Christ. I feel like the fear motif is a throwback to an earlier time in our Christian thinking and that fear isn’t the way to make Christ come alive in your heart. A person has to feel the love of Christ to really become a Christian, not simply being afraid of the alternative. But at the same time, we also shouldn’t ignore it. Too many times we don’t even broach the subject in church. And yet with so many of our loved ones passing away lately, it felt like it was time for us to really talk about it. To make sure we know what it means to come to the end of life and how we want to live it. I know most of you have a faith life that is probably stronger than mine and you already feel confident about your eternal future. Lots of you participate in Bible study and seek to know God deeper in careful prayer and thought and fellowship. But if you happen to be someone who rarely spends time plumbing the depths of the Bible or praying or contemplating the life God wants you to lead, I want to encourage you to start doing that now because it’s never too late. You’re never too old to get started. You’re never so far gone that God has given up on you. To say that is simply to offer an excuse for why you’ve never done it, but it’s not too late.
There’s a great movie I love to watch.
It’s called Searching for Bobby Fischer and it’s based on the real life story of a young boy named Josh Waitzkin who is this amazing chess prodigy. He has a gift for the game that is unlike most people three or four times his age. He can simply see the board and figure out in his head how the game will progress. He’s made it to the finals of the US Primary Championships for kids of primary school age. Josh himself must be in 3rd or 4th grade. He’s not very old and he’s beaten every other kid except one. As they play the game, the other child makes one wrong move, and even though he’s got more pieces on the board Josh stares intently at the board until he can see it. He can see the victory. And he extends his hand to his opponent to offer him a draw. That was his endgame. To offer his opponent grace and mercy. The other boy looks at him and says, “What’s this?” And Josh says, “I’m offering you a draw. Take it. Take the draw.” The other boy says, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Josh looks at him with hand extended and says, “You’ve lost. You just don’t know it yet.” And the boy refuses. Sure enough, 12 moves later, Josh wins. God is extending his hand to you with the life of his son Jesus Christ. He’s simply asking for you to take it. To embrace the life that God has in store for you. In our arrogance, we can ignore his grace and mercy like the young man did with Josh, or we can accept it and join God in his victory. But either way, the victory is his. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.