Sermon for the Last Sunday in the Church Year| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| November 2 & 6, 2006| St. Matthew 25:1-13
The story of the wise and foolish virgins is a hard one to understand. We might think it is because of our culture. What do we know about the wedding customs of rural first century Palestine? But even when we learn a little of these customs it still doesn’t make sense.
Who can explain the folly of the foolish virgins? The reason they are there is to escort the bridegroom into the wedding hall. Since he will be arriving in the evening, they take their lamps with them. But why in the world would they have lamps in their hands but no oil to put into the lamps? They know perfectly well that you cannot light a lamp unless its wick is soaked in oil. One wonders what they were thinking of. Why go through the motions of carrying a lamp that cannot be lit?
The behavior of the wise virgins is equally inexplicable. Why can’t they share just a little bit of oil with the foolish virgins? They don’t need much; they only need enough to keep the lamps lit for as long as it takes to escort the bridegroom into the house. They appear to be rather stingy. Surely they could have shared just a little.
But it’s the behavior of the bridegroom that is the most perplexing and even upsetting. It is understandable that he would be annoyed by the failure of the foolish virgins to be ready for him. He was counting on their participation in the processional into the wedding hall and he had to make do with half the number. But why is he so harsh with them? He speaks with the solemnity of an oath and says to the foolish girls, “I do not know you.” Why so callused? A wedding is a time of joy and celebration! Why is the bridegroom so strict? It’s only a wedding, after all.
But it’s not only a wedding. It’s a parable of Judgment of Day. We won’t understand Judgment Day by becoming acquainted with the wedding customs of first century Palestine. There is only one way to understand Judgment Day and be ready for it. That is to know Christ. After all, Christ is the One who is seated at the right hand of God the Father, almighty. Christ is the One who will return to judge the living and the dead. Only those who know Christ are ready for Judgment Day because only those who know Christ will be able to stand before Him.
Some years ago there was a popular rock opera called “Jesus Christ: Superstar.” A couple of years later a Country Western singer sang a song titled, “I Knew Jesus Before He Was a Superstar.” A Lutheran theologian has written a book called “Jesus through the Centuries” that features the different perspectives folks have had of Jesus down through the years. These views of Jesus are reflected in poetry, hymnody, and the arts. There are as many views of Jesus as there are religious opinions, it seems. So when I say that only those who know Jesus are ready for Judgment Day one may rightly ask: Which Jesus do I mean?
The real Jesus is revealed in the words of the Bible. He is revealed most clearly in His suffering for sinners on the cross. This Jesus has given to His holy Christian Church on earth marks by which she can rightly identify Him and find in Him her salvation. The real Jesus is not portrayed for us in popular songs, movies, plays, or religious movements. The real Jesus has never been very popular. He is portrayed for us in Holy Baptism by which and through which we die to ourselves and are born from above to eternal life. It is His death and His resurrection to which our baptism binds us. He is portrayed for us in the gospel that reveals His suffering for the sin of the world and bearing away into the grave all of the guilt of guilty sinners. He is portrayed for us in the Sacrament of His body and blood which we eat and drink with our mouths, even while we eat and drink by faith the same body and blood given and shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus is portrayed in the words of absolution spoken to us when we bare our soul before the God who judges our hearts and we confess our sins of thought, word, and deed. The words of mercy the pastor speaks are the words of Jesus Himself.
We know Jesus in His gospel and sacraments. Knowing this Jesus we are ready to face Him when he returns to judge the living and the dead.
Yet the true Jesus is regularly twisted and turned this way and that to become an artificial Jesus who can no longer even be recognized by the faithful. The true Jesus is distorted in every which way to make him conform to whatever popular opinion or the latest trendy cause wants him to be. While there is only one true Jesus there are dozens of frauds: Jesus the moralist, Jesus the revolutionary, Jesus the socially sensitive reformer, Jesus the Republican, Jesus the Democrat, Jesus the anything else but the Savior of sinners and the Judge of the living and the dead!
We live in a post-Christian America. Jesus Christ is so familiar to so many people and yet it seems as if few people really know him. And this is why so few are ready for His return to judge the living and the dead. No wonder Judgment Day seems to be an unnecessary imposition on our busy lives. It is rarely preached today. Who even believes it anymore?
We occupy our minds with all kinds of foolishness. Time marches on and we know that the day of Christ’s return is imminent. He could return today. You don’t know. God knows. To what do we devote the short time left to us here on earth? If the true and saving faith were something we could just conjure up within ourselves all by ourselves we’d always be ready for the time when faith was to give way to sight. But faith is the gift of God. Faith isn’t something we work for. It is something the Holy Spirit creates inside of us. And when Jesus returns it will be too late to find any oil for lamps that have no oil.
The lamp is a symbol for God’s word. The Psalmist writes, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105) But the word of God doesn’t lighten the path of the unbeliever. Those whose lamps are empty and have no oil are not ready to face God their Judge. Those without a living faith in Jesus, the only Redeemer of sinners, are not ready for Judgment Day. There is only one way to be ready for Judgment Day. We must know Jesus today. We must know Him now for who and for what He is.
Who is Jesus? He is the eternal Son of God become flesh and blood. He is your God and He is your brother. That’s who Jesus is. What is Jesus? He is your Savior. He saw you as you were caught in the filth of your own sin. He saw your guilt and your helplessness to escape the consequences of it. Even before you knew Him or acknowledged Him in any way, He knew you and He loved you. He saw with perfect clarity every sin you’ve ever done or will do. He hated what He saw because He is the holy God who cannot tolerate sin. But His love for you was greater than your sin against Him. His love is almighty. He chose to become the sinner. He did no sin. Yet he suffered as if He did. He became the liar, the adulterer, the thief, and the murderer. He became the blasphemer, the despiser of God, and the idolater. He was pure and innocent and holy and did nothing wrong. He thought nothing wrong. He spoke nothing wrong. Yet He chose to take the place of every sinner who has ever lived. He chose to bear their judgment. The just punishment of all sinners was precisely what Jesus Christ Himself bore in His sacred body and soul. He thereby silenced the word of judgment of an angry God against all sinful humanity.
Now the One who silenced the judgment of wrath against sinners comes to this world to judge. He who bore the judgment will stand and judge. We will stand before Him. Those who trusted in Him are those who found refuge in his mercy here in this life. Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Those who sought in Him the Savior from their sins are those who will be able to stand before Him on Judgment Day. Those who heard the gospel in faith are those whose lamps will be burning because they have oil. Those who neglected His word will be outside looking in. Most of them will be folks who also neglected church. But there will be people who went to church, read their Bibles, attended the Lord’s Supper, and did not believe in Jesus. They will cry out, “Lord, Lord,” but it won’t be the cry of faith. They will hear the answer, “Assuredly I say to you, I do not know you.” Jesus knows those who trust in Him for the forgiveness of their sins. These are the ones He will take into the eternal celebration of heaven where Christ and His bride, the Holy Christian Church, will enjoy an eternity of mutual love.
What does Jesus want from you right now, dear Christian? What can you give Him today, so that you will be ready whenever He returns to judge the living and the dead? Nothing. You have nothing He needs. So give Him what burdens you. Give Him your sins. Take it all and confess it all and leave it all on Him who bore it for you. That’s what faith does. It gives all sins to the sin-bearer. When our sin-bearer returns to judge – and nobody but God alone knows when that will be – we who know Him now as Savior will have nothing to fear from Him as Judge. This is why we pray that God will keep us steadfast in the true faith that we may be ready to meet the bridegroom when He comes.