The Twenty Seventh Sunday after Trinity
November 20, 2016
“The Wise and Foolish Virgins”
"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."
Today is the last Sunday of the church year. Next Sunday is the First Sunday in Advent. The church year ends just over a month before the calendar year does. People stay up late on December 31 to await the coming of the New Year. Then they drink a toast and celebrate. I’m not sure why. Maybe they just like to celebrate the passing of time. Time goes on and on and on.
But time will come to an end. Jesus will come to take his church home to heaven. On that day time will give way to eternity. Jesus Christ will judge the living and the dead. The good will go to heaven and the bad will go to hell. The good are good because of what Christ did for them and gave to them. The bad are bad because they don’t have Christ. All they have to show God on the Day of Judgment is their own good deeds that are, in fact, not good deeds at all, but filthy rags. The day that Jesus comes for his church is a time to anticipate with great joy.
It is a time of great joy for those who are prepared for it. They are represented by the five wise virgins who are welcomed into the wedding celebration. It is a time of deep sorrow and dread for those who are not prepared for it. They are represented by the five foolish virgins who are excluded from the wedding celebration. They are excluded because they aren’t ready to meet the bridegroom when he comes.
The wise virgins have oil in their lamps. The foolish virgins neglected to bring oil. The wise virgins can light their lamps. The foolish virgins can’t. A dry wick won’t burn. It must be saturated in oil. So when the bridegroom returns at night, the foolish virgins cannot go to the wedding. They need light to lighten the way. But they have no oil. A lamp without oil is useless.
God’s word is inherently powerful. It’s not possible to have the word of God without having the Holy Spirit. If God’s word is present, the Holy Spirit is present with his almighty power. That’s how we know that it is never a waste of time to preach and teach the gospel and it is never a waste of time to listen to it and learn it. If the word of God is preached, the Holy Spirit is at work. The Bible says so. God says through Isaiah the prophet,
God’s word is inherently powerful. It brings about what God wants. The power of the word is in the word. It doesn’t need gimmicks, slick advertising, the right mood, or some other manmade additive to make it work. It works. The oil saturates the wick and makes it burn.
But the wick can dry out. The wick will dry out. It will dry out if it is not saturated in the oil. Faith cannot survive without the gospel and the sacraments of Christ. It will dry up and die. There is a lamp and there is a wick but the wick won’t burn because there is no oil in the lamp. It’s like any appliance. Without fuel, it’s worthless. If your cell phone runs out of juice it’s worthless. Your television needs electricity or it won’t work. What good is a cell phone or a TV that doesn’t work? At least an oil lamp is pretty to look at.
And so are churchgoing people. They generally are more successful, have better manners, and follow a higher moral standard than do people who don’t go to church. Going to church is good for you whether or not you believe the gospel. Carrying an empty lamp is better than carrying no lamp at all.
But it won’t get you into the wedding celebration. Only the virgins whose lamps were lit got in. Going to church is not enough. Kneeling at the altar is not enough. Eating and drinking is not enough. Sitting in the pew and staying awake during the sermon is not enough. The word of God is inherently powerful, but it doesn’t work like medicine. God’s word must be received through faith.
You can take medicine without knowing anything about it or considering how it can help you and it will do what it does anyway. It works automatically. God’s word doesn’t work automatically. It cannot be received except by faith. It works to bring us to faith. It works to keep us in the faith. But for the religious, churchgoing person who refuses to consider what the word actually teaches, who hardens his heart to what the law demands of him and who regards the gospel as something to learn and file away in the back of the brain, the word never touches faith.
The relationship between God’s word and faith is like the relationship between the wick and the oil. A dry wick is worthless. Only a wick saturated in oil can burn with the light of true faith. The light is the light of the oil. It is the light of the word. It is God’s light.
Oh, I have my faith! Don’t bother me with doctrine. Don’t make me learn anything. Don’t make me listen or pay attention. I’m tired. Don’t talk about Bible class. I don’t have time for that. Just give me something short and sweet. And don’t pressure me into confessing anything that might lose me some friends or influence. I have my faith and I’m quite comfortable with it, thank you very much, I don’t really need any more than what I already have. I don’t really need to go to church. I have a Bible. I can always read it if I feel the need.
But faith isn’t faith unless it is saturated with the word of God. In fact, faith without God’s word is the very opposite of faith. It is brittle, self-centered, dry, and useless. Try to light it and it will only give off a spark or two. It won’t stay lit. Only a living faith, a faith that grasps the gospel and holds on for dear life, a faith that is soaked in God’s word, can lighten the lamp that enlightens the way into the wedding celebration.
This parable identifies the church in two ways. First, the church is the bride of Christ. There is but one bride even as there is but one bridegroom. Jesus is faithful to his one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church. But the parable doesn’t say much about the one church. It speaks of the individual members of it. It illustrates the difference between true members of the church and false members of the church. The true members have oil in their lamps. They are wise. The false members of the church have no oil for their lamps. They are foolish. Wisdom leads us to heaven. Foolishness sends us to hell.
The wisdom of the Holy Spirit isn’t regarded as wisdom by this world. There has been a rise of atheism in America in recent years. Self-proclaimed atheists – people who insist that there is no God – tend to have a high opinion of their own intelligence, but the Bible calls them fools. Atheists are fools, not just because they refuse to acknowledge the evidence of God in nature, but because they refuse to submit to the God whose existence is as plain to them as the laws of nature.
But it isn’t just atheists who live like atheists. Many who confess the Christian religion with their mouths live lives that deny what they confess. They don’t consider God’s law when it comes to their daily conduct. They follow the crowd. The crowd replaces God’s law of love with man’s law of niceness. The law of niceness often requires one to ignore God’s law when God’s law condemns popular behavior.
Even worse, these nominal Christians ignore what God’s gospel says when it comes to their faith. The gospel tells them that they are washed in the blood of the Lamb and are forgiven of all their sins. Their baptism robes them in the righteousness of Jesus and presents them as a pure virgin bride without any fault or blemish. But they don’t believe it. They buy into the worksrighteousness of the false church and instead of trusting in the gospel of the free forgiveness of all their sins for Christ’s sake, they try to find God’s acceptance and grace in their own religious exercises. Instead of resting their faith in God’s word of forgiveness, they try to justify themselves by standing in judgment of everyone else.
People identify themselves as Christians. They have the lamp. They are associated with others who have their lamps. They are a part of a group. They engage in the activities of the group. But their hearts are far from God. The law doesn’t convict them. The gospel doesn’t comfort them. The word of God bores them. They already know it. So they say. So they pretend. So their lamps remain bone dry and useless.
Judgment Day is coming. It is coming when you don’t expect it. When it comes you won’t have time to open your ears to God’s word. Every opportunity to fuel your lamp will be gone. Now is time to get ready. Now is the time to take stock of your spiritual inventory. Good intentions to buy oil won’t get you any oil. You need the oil and you need it now.
We confess the Holy Spirit as the Lord and giver of life. He is the Spirit of truth. He is the source of faith. He is the Author of the Bible. He spoke through the prophets. He preaches today. Those ready to meet Jesus when he comes for his church are those who did not despise preaching and God’s word but held it sacred and gladly heard it and learned it. God’s word is the oil and faith is saturated in it. There is no genuine spiritual life apart from God’s word.
God’s word conveys Christ to our hearts. His life is ours. His righteousness, his purity, his heavenly wealth, his victory over death and hell – it is all ours through faith. This faith is not our doing. It is not our achievement. It is the burning of the oil and the oil is very Spirit of God, come to us in the word of God. This is why we treasure that oil more highly than life itself. It will lighten our path into the eternal joys of heaven.
Rolf D. Preus