State of Readiness: Alert

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Sermon for the Last Sunday after Trinity

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11  +  Matthew 25:1-13

Today is the last Sunday of the Church’s year. We’ve followed and studied the life and teachings of Jesus the Christ for another year. We’ve heard His continual call in the preaching of the Gospel to repent of our sins and to believe in Him, the crucified and risen One, for the forgiveness of sins. We’ve received that forgiveness in Holy Baptism, in the Absolution, and in the Sacrament of the Altar, where He’s given us the communion of His very body and blood. We’ve taken counsel from His warnings, we’ve taken comfort in His promises, and we’ve taken guidance from His Holy Spirit, who has renewed and strengthened us in faith, in hope, and in love. And starting next Sunday, we’ll do it all over again. And we’ll keep repeating this blessed cycle until Christ, the heavenly Bridegroom, finally comes to take His Bride, the Church, into the new heavens and the new earth.

On this last Sunday of the church year, Jesus pleads with His dear Christians once more: Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming. Watch. Keep watching. Be alert at all times. The day is coming like a thief in the night.

Those who have had any firearms training are probably familiar with something called the levels of awareness or states of readiness. There are four such levels: unaware, aware, alert, and alarmed. I’ll spare you the firearms applications and apply it directly to the state of readiness for Christ’s coming.

Some—those who don’t believe in Christ or care about His Word—are living in a perpetual “unaware” condition. They’re oblivious to the truth about who God is, who Jesus is, and what He has done for us. They don’t believe He is coming for judgment at all, and so they go on living in their arrogance, idolatry, and unbelief. They are “in darkness,” as Paul wrote in today’s Epistle, and the day of the Lord will come upon them for their eternal destruction.

Many Christians also fit into that category of unaware. They are the Christians in name only, who know nothing and who care to know nothing of the doctrine of Christ. They have an idea of who Jesus is that they’ve made up in their own heads, and they’re content to know their made-up version of Jesus and consider themselves Christians, but they have no awareness of their great need for the forgiveness of sins, nor faith in the blood of Christ to cleanse them of it. They think of Christianity as one valid religion among many. They would hate the real Jesus, if they knew Him. Such people are unaware that Christ is coming like a thief and unaware of what is necessary to be prepared for that day.

But we are not like those who don’t know the thief is coming, are we? We are sons of light, and sons of the day. We do know, for sure, that the day is coming, even though we don’t know exactly when. We know who Jesus is. We are aware of His coming.

How foolish we would be, then, not to keep watch, not to also be alert, focused, prepared to meet the Bridegroom when He comes.

Like five of the ten virgins in Jesus’ parable were unprepared, not watching, not alert. The ten young ladies all knew that the Bridegroom was coming. They were aware. They were eager to go out and meet Him. But they did not all keep watch. They did not all prepare for His coming. Five of them were wise, and five were foolish. Half of them were not ready when He came, and were locked out of the wedding feast forever—half of those who started off well, eager to meet the Bridegroom.

Stop and take note of that. As Jesus describes the times leading up to His coming at the end of the age, He doesn’t depict for us a Christian Church that is mostly prepared, in a state of readiness, where practically all Christians are going to go out to meet the Bridegroom with joy upon His arrival, with just a few stragglers who are oblivious and unprepared. No, what picture does He paint? He shows us a Christian Church in which a full half of the Christians are caught unalert and unprepared at His Advent. This is nothing for us to pass over lightly and pretend that we can just go on with our earthly lives and stop caring about it, stop thinking about it, stop preparing for. That would be foolish, not wise.

Now, what did the five wise virgins do? What made them wise? The wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. They were aware that the Bridegroom was coming. They were aware of their need to have burning lamps in order to meet Him and accompany Him upon His arrival. They were aware that they might be waiting awhile, and they were aware that the oil that was in their lamps would eventually be consumed by the flame. That’s how fire works. It consumes fuel. We’re all aware of that, aren’t we? Putting all those things together, they became alert—alert to the necessity of bringing more fuel along with them, enough to keep their lamps burning, enough to get through the night. And it did get them through the night, so that, when the midnight call rang out, they were ready to go straight out to meet the bridal procession.

The foolish virgins, on the other hand, took no extra oil along with them. It doesn’t say that they forgot to take extra oil, or that they had no opportunity to acquire extra oil. No, they chose not to take it. They neglected to take it, even though they knew their lamps couldn’t possibly stay lit all night long. See, they were counting on the Bridegroom arriving early. They assumed they would have plenty of oil to last. But He didn’t. And they didn’t. And their lamps went out. And they went straight from being vaguely aware that He was coming, past alert, to alarmed at His arrival.

As well they should be. Because, while the five wise virgins accompanied the Bridegroom into the wedding hall, the five foolish virgins scrambled to find a seller of oil at that late hour. They were too late, weren’t they? They finally showed up at the wedding hall, where the door was already closed, so they knocked and said, Lord, Lord, open to us! But he answered and said, Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.

Locked out of the wedding hall, just like the rest of the world, even though they started out as friends and servants of the Bridegroom. Locked out of the wedding hall, no longer acknowledged by the Bridegroom, just as all those who fail to watch for Christ’s coming will be denied by Christ, locked out of heaven and sentenced to eternal darkness and torment in hell because they neglected the means by which they should keep their lamps burning.

What are these precious, burning lamps, which alone are required for entrance into eternal life? They are the burning lamps of faith. Not just any faith, of course, but faith in the true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And not just the knowledge of who this God is, but the reliance on this God and the trust in this God to save us poor sinners, who deserve only His wrath and punishment, for the sake of Christ alone, who died for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. It’s as simple as John 3:16, For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

But hear what the Holy Spirit teaches us in today’s Gospel. There is no such thing as “once saved, always saved,” or “once a believer, always a believer.” On the contrary, many who have made a good beginning, believing in Christ for salvation, have later made shipwreck of their faith, as St. Paul puts it. In order for faith to remain, in order to persevere in the faith until the end, a ready supply of oil is required.

That oil is the Gospel as it is preached and as it is administered in the Sacraments. The vessels that hold it are the ministers of the Word, whom God has called and given to His Church to, what did Jesus say?, “feed His lambs” and to “take care of His sheep” until He comes. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious.

Coming to church, to the Divine Service regularly, often, is an integral part of being, not just aware of Jesus’ coming, but alert and ready. Of course, not just coming, but listening to Jesus, trusting in Jesus, living in daily contrition and repentance. Holding out your beggar’s hand and seeking mercy and charity from Jesus—that’s being alert and prepared. I’ll warn you again, as I have warned you before: if it’s within your power, don’t move to a place where the pure teaching of the Word is absent. Don’t take a job that will prevent you from receiving the supply of oil your faith will need to keep burning bright. Don’t let the concerns and cares of this life keep you from hearing the Gospel. Don’t marry a person who does not adhere to the pure teaching of Christ and who will not help you keep watch for His coming. You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.

On the other hand, if you find yourself in any of these situations already and it’s not within your power or divinely given prerogative to change it, pray to God that He will provide the strength and the means for you to attend to the faith He has given. Use every opportunity that He puts at your disposal, including the Bible reading booklets that are being provided to you today, with their Bible readings and Confessions readings, and Small Catechism readings.

The Christian life is not like a flash of light that burns brightly for a moment and then you go to heaven. It’s the slow and steady flame of a lamp that needs to keep burning for years, for decades, as you walk in great weakness here below, fighting constantly against the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh, bearing the cross patiently, always watching, always alert, knowing that Christ will come soon, and knowing that “soon” just might be today. Or it might be in a hundred years. You have to be ready for either scenario.

Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever. Take the wisdom God has provided again today. Take it into the new church year with you and use it. You’re aware of what’s coming. You’re sons of light and sons of the day. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober…Let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him. Amen.

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