Sermon for the Last Sunday of the Church Year
Isaiah 65:17-25 + 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 + Matthew 25:1-13
What beautiful images are set before us today in the lectionary, like a banquet of words to appetize our souls before the day of the great Wedding Banquet arrives! New heavens and a new earth, the city of New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, that we are children of the light and children of the day, destined not for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. Ten virgins waiting with their lamps, watching for the Bridegroom to come, and waking at the midnight cry announcing his arrival.
But only half of the ten virgins—the wise ones—were ready to enter the marriage feast when the Bridegroom arrived in Jesus’ parable, while the other half—the foolish ones—were left outside, locked outside forever and ever. Jesus told this parable to His disciples long ago and repeats it to you, His Christians who are gathered here today, so that you may be found in the half that enters with Him. Wake, awake! Watch for the Bridegroom! For you know neither the day nor the hour of His coming.
The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. According to Jewish custom, the bridegroom would leave his father’s house, and, at the appointed day and time, together with his groomsmen, he would go to pick up his bride and her attendants, and they would go together in a joyful procession to their new home where the marriage would be celebrated with a rich banquet.
Throughout the Scriptures, God depicts Himself, and specifically Jesus Himself, as the Bridegroom, and the Church as His Bride. Of course, this Bride is totally unworthy of His love. She is made up of sinners, and the worst of sinners. But she has been chosen out of the world by the grace of God, washed with water and the Word of God in Holy Baptism, declared to be righteous and holy through faith alone in Jesus. Jesus sealed the marriage contract with His blood long ago, then rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and continues to feed His Bride with His body and blood until He returns to claim her and to begin the never-ending marriage feast with her in their new home, the new heavens and the new earth.
Until then, we wait, with our feet firmly planted on the earth but with our eyes and our hopes and our longings in heaven, where the Bridegroom is seated at the right hand of God. But Jesus warns us that we are still in danger as we wait, because we wait for Him like those ten virgins in the parable who needed one thing and one thing alone in order to meet the Bridegroom and join the procession with Him. Each one needed to have her own burning lamp.
Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. We’re talking about Christians here, people who start out watching and waiting for the Bridegroom, Jesus, to return. We’re talking about Christians who, at least at first, are given a lamp, a lamp of faith. Faith is like a burning lamp. It’s the one thing you cannot enter heaven without. Whoever hears my words and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life, Jesus says. Not a single work of yours would light the way to heaven or prepare you to meet Christ when He comes. But faith, faith in Christ crucified for you, faith in His blood shed for you, faith in His Word that promises eternal life to all who believe in Jesus—that faith ties you to His goodness, to His merits. It’s Jesus’ own blood and righteousness that lights the path and makes you worthy to enter into His wedding feast. Faith lights the way to Christ. Faith overflows in works of love and compassion and overcomes fear and doubt and the devil himself. Faith rejoices at the thought of spending eternity with Jesus in His great marriage feast. The ten virgins represent all Christians. All Christians start out longing for Jesus’ appearing, with the lamp of faith burning.
But the Bridegroom was delayed. He took longer to come than the foolish virgins expected. They were ready at first to run out to meet Him and join the procession. But they weren’t prepared for a long wait. They didn’t bring along any extra oil—just the oil that was already there in their lamps, being consumed moment by moment by the flame.
So it is that the Christian life of watching can get old. As the cares and pleasures of this life compete for our attention, as life gets harder and money gets tighter and society around us becomes more and more wicked and godless, as the body grows older and weaker and pain grows stronger, as the cross grows heavier and daily self-denial becomes more and more unbearable…Who’s watching for the Bridegroom anymore? Who has time? The Christian life becomes a fantasy world that we set aside as easily as we set aside a book, as we get back to the “real” world of paying the bills and watching TV.
But Jesus has warned us ahead of time that it would be this way. Jesus has already told us that He will be delayed in His return and that life will make us weary and sleepy as we wait. Your life of watching for the return of the Bridegroom won’t be a simple matter of hours. It will be a matter of years, decades maybe, from the time you become a Christian until the day and the hour of His return. And you will be tempted, enticed by this world to stop thinking about the Bridegroom, to stop your waiting and to take your readiness for granted.
But you dare not do that. Only five of the ten virgins will be ready when the Bridegroom comes—only the wise ones, only those who took along oil for their lamps, to keep them burning during the Bridegroom’s long delay.
What is it? What is the oil and how do you take it along? Just as the flame of a lamp is fed by oil, so the faith of Christians is fed by the Word of God. You were born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and enduring Word of God. Like newborn babies, crave the pure spiritual milk of the Word. My words, Jesus says, are Spirit and they are life. The same Word of God that gave you the new birth of faith continues to feed your faith until Christ comes again. Christ has given the Ministry of the Word not only to bring you into His family one time through Holy Baptism, but to sustain you throughout your long watch for the Bridegroom, to teach you with every word that is written in the Holy Scriptures, to preserve you through the Word of Absolution spoken again and again to penitent sinners, to nourish you through the Sacrament of the Altar week after week after week and even in between. These Means of Grace are God’s instruments for keeping your lamps burning bright.
So there’s no excuse for running out of oil. You have a constant supply at the ready. This Divine Service and every Divine Service brings Jesus to you through His Word so that you’re ready when He comes in glory with all His holy ones. And you have as many opportunities to dig into God’s Word as you want on your own, and as many opportunities to be taught as you ask for, as many services and classes here at church as you’re willing to attend.
Those who take along this supply of oil with them can fall asleep in peace—literally, you can go to sleep at night without worrying that the Bridegroom may come while you’re sleeping. Don’t worry, He’ll wake you up. You won’t miss it. And you can also fall asleep in peace in that thing we used to call death. Don’t worry. The Bridegroom will wake you up when He comes. You won’t miss it. The midnight cry will ring out and the Bridegroom Himself will call you out of your grave and you will join the wedding procession into the marriage feast.
But those foolish virgins who neglected their lamps, who gave no thought to the fuel they would need, for those who began as Christians but then foolishly neglected the Means of Grace—they will wake up, too, when the Bridegroom comes, but for them it will be too late. There are no dealers of oil who can help them at that time, no ministers of the Gospel to preach or teach or absolve. When the Bridegroom comes, either you’re already prepared with a faith that has been fed and nourished by God’s Word, or it’s too late.
We have come to the end of another Church Year. Most of you here today are here most days when we gather around the Word of Christ and the Meal of Christ. Some days you surely pay attention better than other days. Some days you’re more serious than others about the words you speak and hear and sing. I know that’s true for you, because it’s certainly true for me. Jesus gives you an opportunity today to check your lamps, to check your oil, to fill your flasks and to keep them full. Do you know the Scriptures better today than you did at the beginning of this Church Year last December? Are you equipping your children with oil that will last their whole life through? Are you awake or asleep? Watching for the Bridegroom or just taking your readiness for granted?
Wake, awake! For night is flying. The watchmen on the heights are crying, “Awake, Jerusalem! Arise!” Not a single one of you can make yourself ready for that day. But see! The Spirit of Jesus is preparing you today for that day. Repent and believe the Gospel that, for the sake of Jesus Christ, God forgives you your sins and will most certainly welcome you into His marriage feast. Until then, watch for the bridegroom, no matter how long He delays! Behold, He says, I am coming. Soon. Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! And keep us ever watchful until Your appearing, that with our lamps trimmed and burning, we may arise prepared to meet you. Amen.