"Then the kingdom of heaven will be comparable to ten virgins, who took their lamps, and went out to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were foolish, and five were prudent. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the prudent took oil in flasks along with their lamps. Now while the bridegroom was delaying, they all got drowsy and began to sleep. But at midnight there was a shout, 'Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' Then all those virgins rose, and trimmed their lamps.
"And the foolish said to the prudent, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the prudent answered, saying, 'No, there will not be enough for us and you too; go instead to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.' And while they were going away to make the purchase, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast; and the door was shut.
"And later the other virgins also came, saying, 'Lord, lord, open up for us.' But he answered and said, 'Truly I say to you, I do not know you.' Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour. (NASB)
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
This morning is the Last Sunday in the Church Year. The Church year has been established as a cycle for teaching and preaching and prayer. It is observed by fewer and fewer churches all of the time, but where it is observed it serves as a discipline for the church and the pastor. It keeps us moving through the body of doctrine essential to the life of faith. It keeps the pastor from going off on a tear about this or that, by the discipline of the lectionary and the theme of the day. It also provides for the orderly repetition of the same old Bible Stories so that we learn them and find a foundation upon them. God knows how easily we forget, and so He gives us the annual reminder and refresher course of the Church year with its changing colors and changing readings - always different, and yet always the same.
The theme for the Last Sunday in the Church Year is the end of the world. It points us to that day of resurrection and reckoning. If I had been preaching the Gospels for the last two Sundays, we would have preached on the prophecies of the sudden coming of the end with all of its terror, and then last week would have been about the judgment scene in Matthew, where Christ separates the "sheep" from the "goats". We would have talked about the nature of the judgment of Jesus and the meaning of the Words of Jesus. We did that in Bible Class instead. Today, the Last Sunday in the Church Year, the theme is the wait for the end, and the parable which paints that lesson is the parable of the Bridesmaids - the Parable of the Ten Virgins. Our sermon theme is, Are You Wise or Foolish?
The kingdom of heaven will be comparable to ten virgins, who took their lamps, and went out to meet the bridegroom. Why virgins? Because the Church is the Bride of Christ. The coming of the end of this world is the day of the consummation of the wedding, and we are all like ladies in waiting, waiting for the bridegroom to come, and the main event to begin. Bridesmaids in those days were virgins, and this was a picture, painted in the words of Jesus, that everyone could understand in that day and age.
Five of them were foolish, and five of them were prudent. Most of grew up with the words, "five of them were wise." The foolish did not prepare for the wait, they brought no extra oil. The wise bridesmaids brought extra oil, just in case the wait was longer than they had expected. And the wait was long.
In the parable, the call came that the bridegroom was coming. They all arose and trimmed their lamps, and the unprepared discovered their need for oil, and tried unsuccessfully to borrow some. Then they ran off to the oil merchant to purchase some extra. I have always wondered how they could expect the oil merchant to stay open all night, but that was not part of the story. Anyhow, when they finally arrived back at the scene, the bridegroom had already been by, they had entered the party, and the door was closed against the night. When they knocked and pleaded to be let in, the bridegroom refused even to recognize them, and they were locked out.
The rest of the details are storytelling. They are not all significant. In fact only a couple are meaningful, and the rest are just to fill in the fabric of the parable. The meaning of the parable is just what Jesus said it was, Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour.
The point is that there was a wait, and some of those who were supposed to be waiting were not prepared for the wait, with disastrous consequences. The warning is to be prepared for the wait.
We are waiting. The people in the parable were all waiting. They were supposed to be waiting. So, the virgins do not represent humanity, they represent the Church. They were all part of the wedding party. In this parable, Jesus does not concern himself with those who reject God and have no hope, but with those who claim a place in the church and ought to be among the faithful, waiting for Jesus to return. You are among those virgins. The question is, Are You Wise or Foolish?
It has been a long wait. It has been almost two thousand years. None of us has had to wait that long personally, but we know how long the wait has been going on. Our parents waited before many of us, and their parents before them. It can go back generations - or it can go back just a couple of years for us, but for the whole crowd of virgins, it has been a long, long wait.
And you know what? The crowd waiting isn't a large as it once was. Some of those who used to be waiting aren't waiting any longer. They have given up and gone away. They simply were not prepared to wait for the wedding. They didn't expect to wait so long, and one or another of the temptations of this life drew them away. Their flames went out.
It is interesting. The flame of the lamp is not a major feature of the parable, but what an image!! A flame is a picture of passion. We say, "He was inflamed with passion". The flame is an image for faith - we could sing together, "This little Gospel light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine . . .". And the flame is the Biblical image for the presence of the Holy Spirit within us - look at Pentecost, where tongues of flame settled on each disciple. And for those foolish virgins, the flame has gone out!
Jesus tells us to be on the alert. But what are we to be on the alert for? The answer is we are to be on the alert for Jesus, returning in glory to bring us to the wedding feast. Whatever will distract us, we must set aside. Whatever dims our expectation, we must discount. Whatever leaves us unprepared for the wait, we must be prepared to abandon and deny.
What sorts of things might these be? They might be jobs. They might be family or friends. They might be money - or power - or the pleasures of retirement. Every one of these things has the potential to be our undoing. The list is as long as our lives and our ambitions. Things become more urgent that Christ in our lives. Things become more impressive to us. We see the money, we enjoy the freedom, we relish the pleasures, and suddenly Jesus is not the center of our lives, and our hope is actually built on something less than Jesus' blood and righteousness. It isn't a purposeful and deliberate thing, we just wander away, we get seduced, we lose interest, we no longer actually believe the things we know - they - or it - no longer makes us different.
And for some people is just that the wait is too long. They aren't lured away, they get bored.
They get tired of the ridicule, subtle and direct, of the world around them, which includes, sadly enough, the media, friends, neighbors, and sometimes even our closest family.
They grow weary of doing what is right and good, and watching the world around them party and sin and have a good time. They feel deprived.
Maybe just looking at how long we have waited convinces them that the wait is a joke, and the Bridegroom is not coming after all.
You need to be ready and waiting when the Bridegroom comes. The readiness is faith. But it needs to be true faith, faith which trusts the promises of God and lives as though they were true, and takes chances, gambling, if you will, that God is faithful and that we cannot lose by living His way, trusting His providence, going where He wants you to go, giving where it seems we should, doing what we know He would have us do, and holding fast to the truth even when no one else seems to be doing so. Such faith alone receives the gift of forgiveness, life, and salvation.
That faith doesn't earn it or deserve it. Jesus has accomplished that for us on the cross. He died your death there, and He pours out life eternal for all of us, all of mankind - and it possessed by those who know it and believe that Jesus Christ is their Savior - and who place no hope in themselves.
If you give up on God, or let the fire go out because you have not tended it, and faithfully fueled it with the Word and the Sacrament and the regular fellowship of the Saints, then you will become one of those foolish virgins who did not come prepared for the wait. But Jesus has provided us with the oil for our lamps in His Word. He has provided for the wait with the feast of His body and blood to strengthen us and prepare us for eternal life. Only the foolish will not readily avail themselves of this divine preparation - and often.
Jesus is coming. He is coming soon. He may come for each of us individually before He calls an end to this world. But when He comes, and however He comes - whether in our physical death, or seated on the throne of His glory in the skies - we need to be prepared, waiting for Him, lamps burning. You never know when He will arrive, and we dare not estimate that we have time to delay, or time to wander. We need to be on the alert right now, for, as Jesus said, you do not know the day nor the hour.
So, are you wise or foolish? God grant us each the wisdom of faith, and the regular preparation of His Word and Sacrament! And by His grace and power may we ever be on the alert for the coming of the Bridegroom!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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