Sermon for Trinity 27
Isaiah 65:17-19 + 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 + Matthew 25:1-13
The Gospels that we read at the end of the Church Year are very pointed, aren’t they? Filled with the sternest of warnings, and with the most beautiful, comforting, joyful pictures in all of the Scriptures, in the same reading, in the very same parable, like the one we had before us last week in the parable of the sheep and the goats, and in the one we have before us today in the parable of the ten virgins.
The kingdom of heaven is the Christian Church, the assembly of the baptized on earth and in heaven. Now, in heaven, the Church is pure and spotless. All those who reach the Church in heaven were true believers in Christ here on earth who persevered in the faith until the end. They overcame all the enemies who fought against them during their earthly lives: the devil, the world, and their own flesh, and they can never fall away, never fall back out of the Church. That’s why we call it the “Church Triumphant.” The Church here on earth, in the broad the sense, at least, is a mixed bag, with true believers and false Christians living side by side, all calling themselves Christians. Here on earth Christians can still be attacked and tempted to turn away from the faith of Christ, and true believers can abandon the faith or become lukewarm and indifferent. We call it the Church Militant, because, here on earth, we’re always fighting and battling, not against flesh and blood, but against the devil and against the threat of falling away.
So Christ issues an earnest warning in today’s Gospel, urging His true believers to keep watch, to prepare for His coming, to expect Him at any time, but to be wisely prepared for a lifetime of waiting.
It’s like ten virgins who went out to meet the bridegroom and his bride on their march to the wedding hall. The bridegroom is Christ Jesus, the heavenly Bridegroom who shed His blood for His Bride, the Church, and cleansed her of her sins with baptismal waters. He pledged Himself to this Bride and promised to come back to get her, so that they could be married in a great spiritual marriage and live side by side together in the heavenly Paradise. The Bride in this parable is the Church Triumphant as it will be in heaven when Christ returns.
But He didn’t say when exactly He was coming. In fact, He intentionally hid the day and the hour of His coming and simply called on His people to wait for Him, and to be ready when He does finally come.
So, who are these ten virgins in the parable? They are individual members of the Church Militant. But they don’t represent all people who call themselves Christians.
There are some called “Christians” who rarely set foot in a church. They’re called Christians because their parents told them that’s what they were, maybe even had them baptized as infants. They think they believe in God. But they don’t care about hearing the word of Christ or receiving the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament, and they certainly aren’t concerned about living their lives in preparation for Christ’s coming. Such people are fooling themselves if they think they’ll enter the wedding hall with the Bridegroom, unless they repent before the Last Day.
There are others called “Christians” who teach and adhere to false doctrines that strike at the heart of the Christian faith, from the pope and his works-righteous, idolatrous, Antichristian doctrines; to the archbishop of Canterbury and liberal “Christians” in America who embrace immorality, twist the Scriptures, and deny that Christ alone saves; to the vapid “Evangelical” emptiness of the how-to-have-a-better-life-on-earth theology. They maintain an outward semblance of Christianity while denying its chief Biblical teachings. And in many cases, they also persecute the true Christian faith and its followers. They live their life for this world, and if they are preparing for Christ to come at all, they’re not awaiting the arrival of the real Jesus, but of a false christ of their own making. They are fooling themselves if they think they’ll enter the wedding hall with the Bridegroom, unless they repent before the Last Day
But the ten virgins in Jesus’ parable are all true believers, true Christians who start out eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Bridegroom, eagerly hoping to be included in the Church Triumphant. They’re baptized. They’re believers. They go out with their lamps to wait for Christ.
But some are foolish, and some are wise. They all have the opportunity to get plenty of oil to last the whole night. Five bring along extra oil. But the other five only bring along what’s already in their lamps.
Without pressing the details of the parable too far—because there’s always one main point Jesus is making and not all the details are relevant—the oil is faith, faith that keeps burning, keeps trusting in Jesus and His mercy, keeps looking to Him for all good things, especially the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
But the Scriptures do not teach the Baptist heresy of “once saved, always saved.” The Scriptures do not teach, “once a believer, always a believer.” What the Scriptures teach is that faith, like a flame, needs to be fed. What the Scriptures teach is that faith comes by hearing, and hearing, by the Word of Christ. The ministry of the Word—preaching, teaching, absolution, the Sacrament of the Altar—is the means by which God feeds the faith that God first created.
What the Scriptures also teach is that God has committed Himself to providing all that is necessary for His believers to persevere in faith until the end. He’ll provide His Word and Sacrament, and ministers to administer them. He’ll provide opportunities for prayer and He’ll hear those prayers. He’ll guide and strengthen His people by His Spirit to lead holy lives here on earth. And He’ll help His people to bear up under the cross, to overcome the assaults of Satan and every evil, and to survive all the hardships and suffering that fill this world, all the way up until the day of the Bridegroom’s return.
So what does it look like to be wise in the kingdom of heaven? It looks like the five virgins who were prepared for a whole nighttime—for a whole lifetime—of waiting. The wise Christians use the means of grace as long as they can. They go to church regularly and take advantage of the ministry of the Word as long and as often they can. They learn the Scriptures and study them. They put aside hypocrisy, malice, hatred and bitterness. They fight against the sinful flesh. They live in daily repentance. They pray. They do works of love, according to their own vocations. And they bear the cross with patience. And they teach their children to do the same, although they can’t believe for their children; their children will also have to use the means God has provided for themselves. Their children will also have to prepare for a lifetime of waiting.
The foolish Christians hear Christ’s urgent pleas to prepare and keep watch, but they foolishly don’t listen. They started out well enough. But then they get tired of the uncomfortable Christian life. They get entangled in earthly concerns. They may still go to church, when it’s convenient, but if they miss hearing the preaching of the Word and if they miss the Sacrament for awhile, it really doesn’t bother them anymore; they find no urgency in it. They don’t worry about their sins anymore. Their heart doesn’t long for Christ’s coming anymore. And their faith becomes an empty shell, like an empty oil lamp.
When the Bridegroom comes, those foolish Christians will find out just how foolish they were to squander their time of grace and to allow their faith to flicker and die. They won’t enter heaven with the Church Triumphant. Instead they’ll be locked out forever, with the pagans and with the devil worshipers, with the peaceful Muslims and with the militant ones. Because being a Christian isn’t about following certain traditions or hanging crosses in your house. Being a Christian is a matter of having a living, burning faith in Christ Jesus.
The wise, on the other hand, will finally see the Bridegroom face to face. They will join the wedding procession and become part of the Church Triumphant, and their joy will know no end. Christ will have kept all of His promises, including His promise to come at last to rescue His Church from this dying world. And the faithful will not be disappointed.
Dear Christians, it’s not too late. If you notice that you have started to grow indifferent toward Christ and His Word, if you see that your love for your neighbor has begun to grow cold, if you find that you haven’t been giving much thought at all to the arrival of the Bridegroom, then now is the time to fill your lamps again. Now is the time to receive the absolution, to feed on Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, and to renew your zeal in preparing for eternity.
There are many tools at your disposal. There is plenty of oil yet to be bought. Come to regular services and the special services that are offered throughout the year. The whole season of Advent is especially geared toward helping Christians to be prepared for Christ’s coming. Support the ministry of the Word here with your offerings and with your prayers. Pray often. Come to Bible class. And next week, I’ll be handing out a little booklet with suggested daily Bible readings to get you through the whole Bible. But it will take your own commitment to spend the time at home each day to do it.
The Christian life is not a spectacular, one-time “event.” It’s a slow and steady burn, like the little flame of an oil lamp, marked by a steadfast faith that constantly clings to Christ. Your life on earth, your time of waiting for Christ, may be short, or it may be long. It doesn’t matter. If it’s short, then you will enter the Church Triumphant sooner. If it’s long, then God will provide all the means necessary to keep you safe until He comes. But one of those means is the word of Jesus to you in today’s Gospel: Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming. So listen to Jesus. Watch, and keep watching. The Bridegroom will come soon enough. And, by watching and using the means God provides, you will be prepared to join the joyful wedding procession into the great heavenly hall. Amen.