Once upon a time, two young women tried out for their college’s basketball team. At the tryouts the pair quickly discovered that, as good as they were, neither one was going to be the team’s star. Over a couple of weeks, cut after cut happened, and still the women found themselves on the list to return for the next workout. 60, 40, 30, 20: finally the time came to announce the final 15 who would make the team, and there they were—14th and 15th on the roster. They knew they had no chance of ever playing. The team had 5 excellent starters, 5 really good second-string players, and 5 benchwarmers. The two women were not going to run the court this season.
But that didn’t stop them. They came to every practice; they arrived early and stayed late. They worked twice as hard as the other benchwarmers, and just as hard as the best of the starters. They traveled for every away game, they dressed for each game, and when they were on the bench, no one cheered louder, no one gave more encouragement, no one was faster to find a water bottle for someone who needed it. These two young women were on top of their game. They just weren’t ever in the game. The team was having a great year, but that just made it less likely that the benchwarmers would ever get a shot. Halfway through the season, no playing time. Three-quarters of the way through the season, still zero minutes. They started to wonder if the coach even knew their names (she didn’t), but they didn’t give up, and they didn’t slow down.
Then, in the final game of the regular season, the team found itself scheduled against an unranked opponent. This other team was as bad as the team these two young women were on was good. Since she was sure the team would end up in the postseason, the coach started pulling the starters, one by one. Soon only the second string was in, but even then the game wasn’t close. Still, the coach did not want to risk an embarrassing loss, so she waited until the final moments of the game before she turned to her benchwarmers. Looking over the five of them, her eyes settled on the two young women, 14th and 15th on the team, who had worked harder for this than the rest of the bench combined. But which one would she pick?
The coach pointed to number 15 (she still didn’t know her name) and said, “You, you’re in.” And this woman got her chance. Less than a minute, but still, playing time, on the court, in a top-tier college basketball dream.
After the game, the two young women, who had become friends during the season, went to the coach’s office and asked why she had chosen one over the other. The coach answered, “Well, I’ve seen how much effort both of you put in to getting ready to play, and that’s been terrific. But you” (she pointed at number 15, the woman who had played) “You did something extra. Whenever we were on the bus, whenever there was down time, everyone else pulled out their phones or tried to finish their homework or just fooled around. Not you. I saw you stretching and flexing. I saw you concentrating on the space in front of you, even if it was a blank wall. When we got up off the bus, you leapt up faster than anyone else. When there was a delay, you never groaned or complained. It was like you weren’t just getting ready for the game; you were getting ready to wait. And I had no doubt that when I called you off the bench you would be ready to jump in and give 100% in the blink of an eye. Both of you were ready to play, but only one of you was prepared for the waiting.”
No one likes to wait. Waiting can seem like a waste of time. You wait between events; the waiting itself is an afterthought. But in his parable of the ten bridesmaids, Jesus tells the church, “Get ready to wait.” Don’t just get ready for what you’re waiting for; get ready for the waiting. Redeem the time, the down time, the in-between time, the waiting time by getting ready for it. Because if you’re not ready to wait, it turns out you won’t be ready for what comes after the waiting, either. Like the women in my own little story, the ten bridesmaids all show up ready for the coming of the bridegroom, who is returning to his home with his new bride. There’s going to be a party, a feast, a banquet, and these young women are ready. They each have their lamps, which they will use to follow the groom home in case he comes in the dark of night. Just like the women in my story, though, only half of these bridesmaids are truly ready. The groom is drawing nigh, but they’ve prepared themselves for the “drawing nigh” and not just for his arrival. They packed their lamps, and they’ve got extra oil just in case. When the bridegroom does show up at midnight, five of the bridesmaids cannot find their way because their oil has run dry, but the five who were prepared to wait follow the bridegroom to the wedding banquet and join the feast.
There is a way of trying to follow Jesus Christ that is all about getting ready for his return and that forgets all about being prepared to wait for his coming. There is a way of trying to follow Jesus that’s ready for the game but doesn’t know what to do with the time on the bench. To the naked eye the difference between those who are ready for Christ’s coming and those who are ready to wait for Christ may be hard to see. The bridesmaids are all dressed the same. The women on the basketball team showed up for the same practices and finished the same workouts. And those who are looking for Jesus all may give their tithe, may care for the poor, may receive Communion every week, may attend the same Bible studies and spend the same time in devotions each day. Where does the difference lie? The basketball coach sees it in the woman who practiced waiting every chance she got. Jesus sees the difference in who has oil, and who does not.
So what is the oil? It’s the difference between being ready, and not being ready. It’s being filled instead of being empty. The oil, and the oil alone, distinguishes one half of the bridesmaids from the other half. It is the more excellent way. And (thank you, St. Augustine!!), in 1 Corinthians 13, what does Paul tell us the more excellent way is? What is the difference between words that clang like a cymbal and those that ring out Christ’s gospel? What is patient, kind, enduring, hopeful, never-ending? What fills us with the fullness of knowledge and abides in excellence even above faith and hope?
Love. The love of God poured into our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. The difference is love. Love sees the time of waiting as an opportunity, not a waste. Love keeps the light of Christ shining through the night, through the delays, even through the times we fall asleep. Love compels someone to learn how to wait, so she won’t miss her chance. Love keeps our lamps filled with oil.
We find ourselves still in a period of waiting. It is not a time to be despised. It is a time for preparation. The bridegroom, Christ himself, is on the way. He has promised to return. And in the meantime, if we truly love him, we will pray to be filled with love. Without love we will not see him when he returns. Without love we will find ourselves unprepared. Love, the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, is the difference.
So seek the oil of love. Let love fill everything you do, from the simplest prayer for a friend to the most profound act of self-giving. Seek love so that your flame may be kindled and burn ever brighter. Seek love so that you may find yourself swept up by Love himself when he arrives. Redeem the time at hand; get ready to wait. Seek the fullness of love, so that you may rejoice when the bridegroom comes. “The Bridegroom comes, awake; your lamps with gladness take: Alleluia! And for his marriage feast prepare, for ye must go and meet him there.”