The Last Sunday of the Church Year
November 26, 2017
“Ready or Not – Jesus is Coming”
St. Matthew 25:1-13
"Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight a cry was heard: 'Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!' Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise answered, saying, 'No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.' And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, 'Lord, Lord, open to us!' But he answered and said, 'Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.' Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming." St. Matthew 25:1-13
The hymn we just sang is known as the king of the chorales. The melody was written for the hymn. Both hymn and melody were written by Philip Nicolai – a great poet and composer of the 16th and early 17th centuries. To this day, this piece of music is considered to be among the greatest ever composed.
That is a bit of an irony, when you consider the topic of this hymn: Wake, awake! It’s about Judgment Day. Today, Judgment Day sounds like a relic of the past. Anyone who calls attention to it is inviting scorn and mockery. It has become a joke. How long has it been since Jesus told this parable? Nearly two thousand years! If Jesus hasn’t come in the last two thousand years, why should we believe that he will come in the next two thousand years?
Jesus anticipated this attitude. Speaking of his second coming, he said, as recorded in Matthew 24:
Nobody knows when Jesus will come. Since we don’t know, should we put his return out of our minds, assuming that it won’t be anytime soon? Or, since we do not know, should we prepare to meet him whenever he comes? Is our ignorance of the date of his return a reason to live as if he isn’t coming or is it reason to live as if he will return tomorrow?
Three things are obvious from this parable. The first is that nobody knows when Jesus will come. The second is that when Jesus comes some will be ready and some will not be ready. The third is that those who are not ready when Jesus comes will not have the time to get ready.
First, nobody knows when Jesus will come. All ten virgins were sound asleep. None of them knew when the bridegroom would come. Every generation produces its date-setting prophets who find foolish and gullible people willing to buy into the con that the world will surely end on such and such a date. Packed away in a box somewhere in the basement of the parsonage is a book I received from Hal Lindsay in 1988 with the title, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988! Here it is, nearly thirty years later, and we’re still here. Things are going along as they always have been.
There is always a market for theories about the end of the world. A religious group arose in England about 190 years ago known as the Plymouth Brethren. Their leader, a fellow by the name of John Nelson Darby, came up with a theory about the end times that is known today as Dispensationalism. While the Plymouth Brethren was a small sect, today there are millions and millions of adherents of Dispensationalism. Dispensationalism weaves together religion and politics in such a way that political events in the Middle East, Europe, or America become “proof” that the end times are upon us. It sells books. But it’s manufactured out of whole cloth. The Bible is clear. Jesus said, “But of that day and hour, no one knows.” In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, Jesus said, “But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept.” They all slept. The wise and the foolish were equally unaware of when the bridegroom would come.
Second, when Jesus comes, some will be ready and some will not be ready. This parable is not addressed to people who have no connection to the church. The wise virgins and the foolish virgins represent all nominal Christians, that is, people who call themselves Christian. They are baptized, they go to church, and they profess the Christian religion. You can’t tell the difference between the wise and the foolish virgins. They all have lamps. They hang out together. They look alike. They act alike. As far as the eye can see, they are indistinguishable from each other.
The critical difference is that the wise virgins have oil for their lamps and the foolish virgins don’t. What is the oil? It is the living and abiding word of God that lasts forever. It is the gospel of Christ, which is the power of God unto salvation. It is the voice of the Holy Spirit, who leads you into the truth. It is the washing of rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit that sets you before God as a spotless bride before her husband. It is the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. The oil is the gospel and sacraments of Christ.
The foolish virgins were in church. They received the sacraments. They heard the gospel. But they didn’t treasure these means of grace. They figured they knew all they needed to know. They neglected the means by which the Holy Spirit keeps us in the true faith. So when they needed faith, its source had run dry. The wick was dry and useless.
People talk about faith. They talk about their faith. They talk about how deep it is, how important it is, and how much they rely on it. Then you ask them to put it into words and they don’t know what to say. You ask them about Christian teaching, and their eyes glaze over. Oh what is doctrine to me? Doctrine is dead. My faith is alive! Doctrine is dry and boring. My faith is vibrant and meaningful!
Is that so? What faith? What is your faith? There is no fire in the wick without oil in the lamp. There is no faith in the heart without the teaching of God’s word. Faith isn’t something we come up with. It is God’s work in us. God works faith as he chooses, not as we choose. It is by his word that faith is born and sustained. St. Peter writes about the power of God’s word to bring us to faith and to keep us in the faith in his first general Epistle, chapter one where he says: “having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever.” It is only through the living and abiding word of God that the wick in our lamps is saturated with oil and can light our way into the wedding banquet.
Third, those who are not ready when Jesus comes will not have the time to get ready. The foolish virgins neglected God’s word. They didn’t think much of it. When they needed it the most they didn’t have it and they couldn’t get it. Now is the time to listen. Now is the time to take God’s word to heart. Now is the time to get the oil that keeps faith alive for the hour when Jesus comes to take his church to heaven.
In this parable of Jesus, the wedding is heaven. The coming of the bridegroom is Christ coming to judge the living and the dead and to bring his saints to heaven and to condemn all unbelievers to hell. Among the unbelievers will be people who were attached to the church but didn’t actually belong to it. They had lamps. They were with those who went into the wedding feast. But when they tried to enter, they heard the words: “Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.”
Jesus concludes with a warning: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.” There will be no time when Jesus comes to get ready. You must be ready all the time. You cannot put it off.
Christians who are taught the faith in their childhood and neglect God’s word after they are grown will often claim that, while they may not be regular church goers, they know what they believe. They know the gospel. They know what it means to believe in Jesus. They were taught as children and they believe what they believed and so they are fine. No need to secure any oil for the lamp. The wick is ready to light.
What these Christians don’t reckon with is that the gospel is not something that we can believe by our own natural powers. St. Paul writes about the preaching of the cross that it is foolishness to those who are perishing. The suffering and death of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins isn’t something that our flesh wants to hear. The flesh cannot believe. He can only be put to death. It is the gospel, the blood of Jesus shed for us, the blood of Jesus washing away our sin that kills the sinful flesh. The flesh is aided by the devil. He loves to lie. He knows a million ways to deceive gullible Christians. He always twists the gospel into something we do. There is something unsettling, something contradictory, about these two images of the same person: he is suffering and dying on a cross, crying out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?, and he is standing on the clouds in majesty and great glory judging the living and the dead. The devil, the world, and our flesh will set aside the suffering and dying Jesus every time.
But he is the one that faith needs. The gospel that makes faith burn is the gospel of Christ’s humble obedience, suffering, and death whereby he paid to God what we owed him. The oil that burns into the fire of faith is Christ. It is his righteous living, his innocent dying, and his resurrection from the dead. It gives us forgiveness of all our sins. This oil is the substance of the preaching, the liturgy, the hymns, and the Sacraments.
Jesus will come to bring his church home. The wedding feast of the Lamb lasts forever. Nothing dims the joy. Nothing disturbs the peace. The word that fueled our faith here on earth will be finally and permanently fulfilled, as every promise God ever gave will be realized. Every wrong will be righted. Every disappointment will be forgotten. For that day we pray, “Come Lord Jesus, come quickly.”
Rolf D. Preus