Last Sunday of the Church Year, November 25th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Be Encouraged, The End Is Near! - Matthew 25:1-13
Be encouraged, the End is near! Eight times in his first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, Paul encourages them, or calls them to encourage one another, including specific instructions to encourage one another with his teaching about the End Times, about the Return of Christ. The return of Jesus is Good News for Christians. Throughout Scripture the Spirit encourages us to look forward with eager anticipation to the End, when God will wipe away every tear, and the new heavens and the new earth will be revealed. The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain," says the Lord. So be encouraged, the End is near, coming like a thief in the night.
Are you? Are you encouraged, eager, happily thinking about the return of the Lord? Or is it too strange, too scary, something that you simply prefer to ignore? It’s pretty hard to ignore of course, with Christian talkers on TV and radio seemingly always discussing the End, what they think it will be like, what you need to be doing to prepare, and of course why you need to send them a donation so they can keep on talking, mostly about their very scary version of the Return of Christ. And of course, the Bible speaks of the new heavens and the new earth, of the Last Day, quite a lot. And it can be very confusing, especially if you make the Book of Revelation your primary guide, which does teach us about the End, but not as exclusively as you might think. We may know in our heads that Jesus’ teaching during the first Holy Week is the place to start if we want to understand the End Times, but strange passages from Revelation about Babylon and beasts and bowls containing the wrath of God capture our imagination, and get us worrying. The long and short of it is that all too often, we are anything but encouraged when we consider the End, the Return of Christ.
Take heart, be encouraged, Jesus today has given us a very helpful parable, the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, which, Lord willing, will leave us well instructed and encouraged on this Last Sunday of the Church Year.
For the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Jesus’ previous parable, which is just before today’s, at the end of Matthew chapter 24, is especially for the apostles, and the pastors who follow them in ministry. Ministers are the slaves put in charge by the Master, put in charge of caring for the other slaves while the Master is gone. These minister- slaves are warned not to doubt the Master’s return and start mistreating their fellow slaves. This is how ministers are to live, faithfully loving and serving the Church, as they await Christ’s return.
The parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, on the other hand, is applicable to all Christians; to you, and you, and me. We collectively and individually are the virgins waiting for the bridegroom. That is, every Christian is to be alert, eagerly awaiting and looking forward to the Return of Christ, who is the Bridegroom of His Church. In this parable, Jesus lays out for us what our lives are to be like, as we await His return. And it’s pretty simple.
First, while both the wise and the foolish virgins appear similar, Jesus teaches the sad reality that there are and will be merely outward Christians, people who appear and claim to be Christians, but who are not. However, telling the foolish from the wise is difficult, for all are called to stay awake and await the return of the Bridegroom, yet all fall asleep. Neither the wise nor the foolish can keep themselves perpetually awake, ready for His return.
So, while we know there is a difference between the wise and foolish, that is the true and false Christian, a difference we will consider shortly, the difference is not that the wise are perfect and sinless. Every Christian has a calling to live righteously, to flee from sin and seek to serve the neighbors God has given us, but being a true Christian, ready for Christ’s return, does not depend on us accomplishing things. Which is good news for us sleepy ones, so prone to nod off into sin and complacency.
However, from this parable we can see that one thing is required: When the Bridegroom returns, your lamp must be lit. Here is the crux of the teaching. All the virgins, wise and foolish, fall asleep, all must be called from slumber to meet their returning Master, the Lord who alone can usher them into the heavenly feast. Because they have plenty of oil, the wise can easily trim their lamps and get a light to see, and be seen by. They hear the cry, and light their lamps, in order to recognize and greet and be recognized by the Bridegroom. This is no problem for the wise, they have plenty of oil.
The foolish are in a panic, as their lamps are going out and they have no oil. The time to greet the returning Master is now, there is no time for the wise to share their oil, and no time to go to the dealers and buy more. So the foolish virgins are shut out, the door is closed. Without a light in their lamps, the Bridegroom truly does not recognize them. The Lord has returned, but the foolish are shut out of the heavenly banquet, because their lamps were not lit when the time came. Your lamp must be lit.
O.k., I admit, about now it’s pretty normal to start worrying about the return of Christ, after hearing the fate of these foolish virgins. There seems to be precious little difference between the foolish and the wise virgins. You might look at yourself and ask, “Is my lamp burning?” “Where do I buy this oil?” “Does this mean that I have to buy my way into heaven?” “Am I a fool for thinking that salvation is a free gift?”
Fear not, take heart, be encouraged. Jesus is not, with this parable, turning His way of salvation upside down. You are worried by this cautionary parable, worried that you might be foolish. Good, that’s a sign that your lamp is still burning. Maybe it’s smoldering a bit, but remember, the smoldering wick Jesus will not put out; your struggling faith is precious in His eyes. This parable is good news for you, and also good, useful, practical instruction about how to live as you await the End. But before we can rejoice with eager expectation for the return of Jesus, we need to clear up a few details in this parable.
So, what is it, to have your lamp burning? In a passage that echoes with our parable, Proverbs 13:9 tells us the light of the righteous rejoices, but the lamp of the wicked goes out. So, who is righteous? None of us are righteous; by our thoughts, words and deeds, each one of us deserves to be called wicked. But, in a miracle of grace, God by faith in Christ declares sinners righteous, holy, pure, worthy of His kingdom. The righteousness of God, the righteousness that rejoices at the coming of Jesus, is the righteousness of faith, faith that believes God forgives and claims as His own all who trust in the blood of Jesus, which washes away all sin.
The burning lamp is a living faith in Christ crucified and resurrected. Remember that Jesus taught this lesson during Holy Week, as He was preparing His disciples for His imminent suffering, death and third day resurrection. The burning lamp you must have is faith in Christ, who died and rose for you.
And so then, what is the oil? What is the fuel of faith? Faith of course comes by hearing the Word of Christ. The faith that God requires, faith in the Cross of Jesus, God also delivers, through His creative, powerful Word.
The fools are told to go and buy oil, which might seem to contradict free salvation. But, don’t be alarmed. Like Isaiah, Jesus in this parable is speaking of the purchasing that happens without money or price, by the reception of God’s gracious Word, which is more precious than the finest gold and gems, but for which God charges nothing. Indeed, the only thing Christ asks of you when you gather to hear Him is your sins. The wise virgins were wise because, daily confessing and turning over their sins to Jesus, they filled up on the Word, not neglecting or ignoring it, but filling their flasks. Knowing their own weakness, knowing that only by the Word of Christ will their lamps continue to burn, the wise prepare by hearing.
This is the first calling of Christians, to hear the Word continually, to daily and weekly fill your flask. You are not saving yourself by coming to hear the Word, but rather, since you know God has saved and continues to save you only by the Word of the Gospel, you are wise to come and hear. Indeed, you rejoice to hear the Word.
Except when you don’t. It seems simple, and in a way it is, but really, there is nothing easy about continually coming to fill your flask with the oil of God’s Word. It is hard for sinners like you and me, because God’s Word is always a word of Law and Gospel. Every time we hear God’s good Law, His instructions, His prohibitions, it hurts, it cuts, it kills, because like willful fools we do just the opposite, more than we care to confess. And, on top of our own sin, which wants to keep us from God’s Word, the world is busy mocking God’s truth, asking us if it can really be true, encouraging us to celebrate the short-term thrills that disobedience offers, distracting us with other things, even things that are good, unless they prevent us from filling our flasks with the oil of the Gospel. Faith comes by hearing, simple enough, but not easy, not for sinners like you, and me.
But be encouraged: You are here today, hearing the Word, twisting off the cap of your flask so that the Spirit can fill you with His light bearing Word. And He does. The Spirit of God, His presence symbolized by burning lamps and candles, is present to serve and save wherever Christ is proclaimed. I speak, but He gives you the faith to know your sins truly are forgiven. You eat, but He prepares you to worthily receive the Body and Blood of Christ for the forgiveness of all your sins, making you worthy by creating and sustaining your faith.
As we consider these dark and latter days and wonder about the Return of Christ, we get confused and doubt. But the Spirit of Christ again encourages you, “Rejoice, show forth your light, the light I give you, the light of faith in Christ. Be encouraged, Christ your Savior is coming, the End is near. Rise and meet your Master, who welcomes you into His joy, forever and ever, Amen.