Last Sunday Sermon| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| November 23, 2003| Matthew 25:1-13
Christ is returning for his church. This is what the wedding illustration tells us. Jesus is the bridegroom in this parable and the bride is his Holy Christian Church. This is a common biblical illustration. St. Paul beautifully develops the marriage analogy of Christ and His church in Ephesians 5. The Song of Songs, which on the surface speaks of the love of a man and a woman, is really an allegory of Christ’s deep love for His bride the church. Jesus is the bridegroom who sacrificed his very life for his bride, only to take it up again on Easter Sunday. As we sing in the hymn,
From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride.
With his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.
When it comes to parables, we should not press the details, but rather look to see the main points of comparison. It helps to know a bit about the customs of Jesus’ day so that the story makes sense to us. The wedding couple did not go on a honeymoon in those days. Instead, they were treated like royalty in their own home. The wedding celebration lasted a week. No one knew the exact hour when the groom would come. It could be during the day or in the middle of the night. However, when he did come and enter into the wedding hall or home, the attendants had to be ready. It wasn’t permitted to come late. It was also not permitted to walk the city streets at night without a light. You can see the predicament the foolish virgins found themselves in. The groom had arrived, and would shortly go into the wedding hall, yet their lamps were running out of oil and they had neglected to take any extra oil with them. Without oil, the lamps would go out. So they went to buy more, but by the time they came back, the wedding had begun and they could not enter.
The meaning of the parable is clear. The oil that is in the lamps represents the gospel and sacraments of Christ, for these are the very presence of God the Holy Spirit. It is through these means of grace that the Holy Spirit calls us to faith and keeps the light of faith alive in our hearts. The light is the faith that the Holy Spirit creates through the means of grace. The wedding is heaven, and entrance into the wedding is only given to those who have the Holy Spirit, for only they have true faith. The ten virgins represent the total number of those who are outwardly attached to the church. The wise virgins are the Christians who really were members of Christ’s church. The foolish virgins are those who attached themselves to the church, but neglected the gospel and sacraments. They heard, but they did not hear. They paid no attention to the gospel. It bored them. They thought it was unimportant. They had no use for it. So when the day came that they most needed it, it wasn’t there. But it was too late to get it.
Now is the day to hear the gospel. Now is the day to believe it. Now is the day to take refuge in the wounds of Jesus, to find His grace in Holy Baptism, to find His forgiveness in the holy Supper of His body and blood. Now is the day, because on the day of His return, it will be too late.
Christ is returning for His church. But not everyone who is attached outwardly to Christ’s church is really a member of her. The foolish virgins belong to the church, but they don’t. They are baptized. Baptism saves. But they aren’t saved. They hear the absolution. The absolution gives them forgiveness of their sins. But they don’t have forgiveness of their sins. They eat and they drink the body and the blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. This body and blood gives the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation from sin, death, and hell. But they don’t have forgiveness, life, or salvation. Surrounded by these precious means of salvation, they are unsaved. Why? How can this be? They fail to see what really matters. Like the foolish virgins who were a part of the group, but had no oil in their lamps, they belonged to the church, they had their names properly recorded in the church records, they gave an offering, and participated in the various activities, but they simply did not believe. They did not hide that word in their hearts. They did not guard it, keep it, and take it in. It went in one ear and out the other. All that “religious stuff” meant nothing to them. They didn’t even notice that their oil vessels were empty. Why should they care?
I pray that you will care! Whoever you are, nothing can be more precious to you than the gospel and the sacraments of Jesus that reveal your Savior to you in your deepest sin. Think of all the religious foolishness that occupies peoples’ minds, and then consider how little time is spent preaching, teaching, expounding upon, and delving into the precious mystery of God’s eternal grace revealed in the suffering of the God-man Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross.
It is a simple matter to be ready for Christ’s return. It is simply a matter of having the gospel. Jesus gave his Great Commission to his disciples in Matthew 28. After telling the ministers of His church to teach all nations and baptize them by His authority in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, he added the words, “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” The word “observe” here means to keep, to guard, or to treasure. To take hold of and never to let go. That, brothers and sisters in Christ, is a simple matter.
But it becomes complicated. We make it so. We are so easily distracted from what is precious and we spend our time and our energy on things that are fundamentally worthless. What should we be doing with our time while we wait for Jesus to come back and take his church home? We should be drinking in his promises, we should be listening to his voice, we should be discussing and talking about what he says to us. This is what it means to keep oil for the lamps. After God revealed his law to Moses for the children of Israel, he went on to say,
And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart; you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:6-9
What God is saying here is very simple. He wants His children to care about what He says. He wants us to listen to Him because we love His voice and find what He says more important than what anyone else says. If you care about the gospel, you take it in. You keep your flask full of oil. The only way to run out of oil is to pay no attention to it and the only reason you pay no attention to it is because you just don’t care.
But not to care about the oil – not to care about the gospel – is not to care about God or even heaven itself. As the hymnist puts it:
Earth has no pleasure I would share,
Yea heaven itself were void and bare
If thou, Lord, were not near me
When I was a boy, I was bothered by Mark Twain’s character, Tom Sawyer, because he didn’t want to go to heaven and sit around on clouds playing a harp. I knew that that wasn’t what heaven was like. It was rather a beautiful place where there was no suffering or sorrow or anger or any other kind of sin or the results of sin. How sad, I thought, that anyone would have such an attitude about heaven, as if he would rather go to hell. But those who don’t want to know God don’t want to go to heaven. All heaven is is an intensification and purification and final culmination of what we have by faith right now. In other words, just as the gospel promises us forgiveness of all our sins for Christ’s sake, in heaven we experience that innocence and joy that today we believe, but don’t always feel. Just as the gospel promises us fellowship with God and one another while we are still living here on earth, it won’t be until heaven that this fellowship is felt in its full purity and love. The hymnist says it well.
We have all things, Christ possessing, life eternal second birth,
Present pardon, peace and blessing, while we tarry here on earth
And by faith’s anticipation, foretaste of the joy above,
Freely given us with salvation by the Father in his love.
To love the gospel today is to love heaven on the last day. We won’t find anything in heaven that we haven’t already received – by faith – here on earth. This is why St. John in Revelation describes heaven as he does, picturing for us the Lamb who was slain. The Christian loves today the crucifixion of Jesus for him. Christ for us is not just the name of our radio broadcast; it is the theme of our faith. And Christ for us will also be the theme of our joy in heaven. We have everything heaven is right now, but it is not by sight or feeling, it is by faith.
When the church has lost her love for the word of God, she is no longer the church. When the Christian cares nothing about hearing, learning, talking about the holy mysteries of the faith, that Christian has run out of oil. His faith won’t burn anymore. He had better take serious stock of his situation before Jesus returns, because when Jesus returns it will be too late.
Nobody knows when that day will be. We know that we don’t know and cannot know the day or the hour that Christ will return. Every date setter is therefore a false prophet, period. We don’t need to disprove anyone’s theory about when Jesus will return. If someone says he knows, he contradicts Jesus who told this parable.
But we do know that he will return to judge, as we saw last week. He won’t return to set up here on earth an earthly 1,000-year reign. He will create the new heavens and the new earth. He purchased this home with His blood. He promised it to us. He gave it to us in the precious gospel and sacraments. It is our home today by faith but we won’t enter it until Jesus Himself greets us at the door and receives us in.
What a day of joy that will be! Just think of it! No more regrets and guilt for what we’ve done wrong. No more worry over what may go wrong. No more sadness or anguish of any kind. No more pain. Arthritis, cancer, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, depression, you name it, it will be gone, forgotten, never again mentioned among God’s people. Nobody will ever steal again or lie or cheat and tear down his neighbor. And we won’t even want to do any of these things ever. Our hearts will be so pure that no sin will ever come into them. This is the glory that God will reveal in His children, those who found God in Christ and found Christ in the lowly but holy means of salvation: the gospel and the sacraments.
So we treasure our oil. It is for us the true oil of gladness, for it lights our way into the wedding hall where true joy will be found forever. We pray for that blessed day, as we echo the prayer at the close of the Revelation of St. John: “Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen!”