Sermon for Last Sunday of the Church Year
Matthew 25:1-13 + Isaiah 65:17-25 + 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
The night is surely flying. The Bridegroom is on his way, and the ten virgins are waiting. But are they watching? Are they prepared for his coming?
To understand today’s Gospel – Jesus’ parable of the Ten Virgins – it helps to know a little bit about Jewish wedding customs. The marriage was arranged; a man and a woman were pledged to be married to each other, and from that time on, they were legally married. No wedding ceremony was necessary. But they didn’t start living together right away, not until the man could prepare a new home for the couple to live in, and usually, a marriage banquet in their new home to celebrate their marriage with all their friends. When all was ready, a date was set. The bridegroom would get all dressed up at his former home and leave with his friends to go pick up his bride at her former home. She and her unmarried friends (and, therefore, virgins) would go out to meet him, and together, they would walk in a joyful wedding procession to their new home, to begin the marriage feast and their new life together as husband and wife.
And so the picture is painted for us: Jesus is the Bridegroom, who loved the Church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. The Church is his bride, to whom he is already married, a marriage sealed in Holy Baptism, but they don’t live together in their new home yet. The ten virgins are the members of the Church, Christians in name, although not all of them remain Christians in faith at the coming of the Bridegroom. The lamps they carry are the burning light of faith, that which makes them ready so that they can enter the marriage banquet with the heavenly Bridegroom. And the oil for their lamps is that which feeds the fire and keeps it burning: the Word of God, the means of grace, the Gospel in Word in Sacrament. To take this oil along is to live in daily contrition and repentance, to be served regularly through the ministry of the Word, to stay close to the means of grace.
All virgins in the parable begin with faith. They know that the Bridegroom is coming and are eager to meet him. They know that night is approaching, so they all take their lamps and go out to wait for him in the dark streets of this world so that, when he arrives, they can meet him and then accompany him to the new heavens and the new earth. They all know that he’s coming, but no one knows at what time.
So five of the ten, thinking ahead, take extra oil along just in case his coming is delayed, and it is. These five represent the Christians who know that the Christian life may not be glamorous and spectacular, or even exciting. The Bridegroom may very well delay until late in the night. So the Christian life isn’t about living on some spiritual high every day. The Christian life is largely about waiting, the slow, steady burn of faith, faith that may need to last for 70 or 80 or 90 years or more. And if you know that, then wisdom dictates that your life will be firmly grounded in that which keeps the fire of faith burning. Your life will be centered around the font, the pulpit and the table. That doesn’t mean you spend 24/7 in the church building. But it does mean that your life will revolve around daily contrition and repentance, drowning the Old Adam who was first drowned at your baptism, and rising again each day to lead a new and holy life. Your life will revolve around hearing the Gospel week in and week out, learning God’s Word, receiving the absolution from the ministers of the Word and receiving the Sacrament, and then passing all of it on to your children and to the children of others, so that they, too, may be ready for a life of waiting and watching. These five virgins are far from perfect. But they are very wise.
The other five are foolish. They take no extra oil along – just what they have in their lamps at the moment. They figure the Bridegroom will come right away. That’ll be exciting! That’ll be glorious! Surely they have enough oil to last just a little while. They’ve been baptized. They know the basics of the Bible. They even come to church sometimes. That’ll be enough. The Bridegroom will be along any moment now. Why waste so much time hearing the same old message, Law and Gospel, Law and Gospel, Holy Communion every week? I know the Gospel already! That’ll be enough.
But, you see, the Gospel is more than information. The Gospel is absolution, and unless you’ve stopped sinning, you never stop needing a ready supply of that. The Gospel is the power of God for salvation for all who believe. It’s the food and the fuel of faith. It’s the voice of the Bridegroom to his bride off in the distance, “I’m coming! Wait for me!”
But the Bridegroom’s coming is delayed. Jesus told his disciples that it would be. And so all ten virgins become drowsy and fall asleep. Now, this isn’t a sinful sleep, not for the wise virgins. This is the peaceful sleep that can come for those who have brought along plenty of oil. This is the sleep that a believer can fall into each and every night, without worrying or fear. This is the sleep of being able to go about your business during the week, and work hard in your vocation, and even take time out for fun, because you’re prepared for the Bridegroom’s coming. You’ve been tending to your faith all along with the means God has given you. For some, this is even the sleep of death – a peaceful death that left the lamp of faith burning bright, even when the body grew weary and died. No problem! When the Bridegroom comes and his voice calls out, those sleepers will be awakened and their lamp, filled with oil, will be right where they left it.
But for the foolish virgins, their sleep is their doom, because, although they’re waiting for the Bridegroom, they’re waiting unprepared. They’ve been careless about their faith and the use of the means of grace. And they don’t even realize it. Because they’re asleep.
The midnight cry comes. “The Bridegroom is here! Come out to meet him!” The virgins awake. They trim their lamps. And the five foolish virgins are horrified. Their oil has been used up. They scramble to find more, but no amount of scrambling at the resurrection will succeed in relighting the smoldering wick of their faith. They ask the wise virgins to share some of their oil, but it’s no use. It’s too late. The wise virgins can’t help them, nor can they get to the dealers in time. Their fate is sealed when the cry comes at midnight.
Oh, the joy of the wise virgins who are ready when the midnight cry comes. They go out to meet the Bridegroom and join the wedding procession to the newly prepared home. They enter with the Bridegroom and join in the joyful celebration that will never end. Their waiting paid off. Their wisdom paid off, the very wisdom that Jesus is teaching you right here, right now, pouring out his Holy Spirit in this very assembly to enlighten hearts and minds. The midnight cry is coming! Prepare, ye virgins wise!
But not all Christians will learn this wisdom from Jesus. For the five foolish virgins, it’s too late. They run here and there to try to find oil for their lamps, but while they’re gone, the wedding procession passes them by. They try to get into the wedding banquet, but the doors are shut, never to be opened again. They call in to the Bridegroom, “Lord, Lord, open to us!” But he answers, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.” So, “Watch!” Jesus says. For you do not know the day or the hour.
Now, five and five is not meant to tell us the percentage of Christians who will and will not be ready at the coming of the Bridegroom, but it’s striking, isn’t it?, that Jesus sure gives us the impression that it will be an awfully big percentage of Christians who will be unprepared to meet the Bridegroom when he comes.
Five and five? Look around you. Will half of the people you’re looking at right now meet that day unprepared? Will you?
As we close out this Church Year, I want you to ask yourself: Do you know Jesus better now than you did at the beginning of the year? Are you better acquainted with the Bible stories that teach you about your God? Do you pray more often or less? Are you more humble in your interactions with others or are you more self-interested? More compassionate or more bitter? “Watch,” Jesus pleads with his disciples. “You don’t know the day or the hour.”
When the midnight cry sounds and the Bridegroom comes, the fate of those who are unprepared and impenitent will be sealed forever. When the midnight cry sounds, they will try to muster up their faith from the depths of their souls and bring it back out of their memory banks. They will try to rekindle the fire of faith. But they won’t be able to do it. Because faith doesn’t come from inside of you. It’s a gift of God that comes from outside you, through the ministry of Word and Sacrament. And when the midnight cry sounds, then the ministry ends. Then the pastor cannot absolve you any longer of your sins, nor can he administer the Lord’s body and blood to you any longer or preach the Gospel of forgiveness to you ever again. You will have slept through the ministry that God placed in your midst, and you will truly know how foolish you were when you try to get into the wedding feast and the Bridegroom looks out at you from the inside and says, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.”
But the midnight cry has not yet come. Some of you are already wisely prepared and still preparing. Some surely are not. There still is time to become wise, time to repent, time to humble yourself, time to stop making excuses for following your sinful desires and for not following the commandments of God. There still is time to seek reconciliation with your fellow believers. There still is time to purchase oil for your lamps – and it’s free. There is no cost. It’s the Holy Spirit, working in the means of grace. It’s the Holy Spirit who brings Jesus to you with his forgiveness and his life.
When the midnight cry comes, those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens. When the midnight cry comes and the Bridegroom finally appears, then life will truly begin. The new home is almost ready. The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life. The midnight cry is coming! Prepare, ye virgins wise! Amen.