November 9, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA
Jesus said: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Jesus’ words give you the theme for these next three Sundays in November, the Sundays which close the Church Year. He wants His people to be prepared, to be ready for His return. That’s the message of His parable, the point of His story about the Wise and Foolish Virgins. The parable depicts how Christ’s disciples should be anticipating His arrival. But it also shows how unexpected His arrival can be, even though Jesus tells His people that it will take place.
Already you have sung two hymns based on this parable and the message it brings. What do they have in common? They tell you to be active: “The Bridegroom is arising / and soon is drawing nigh. / Up, pray and watch and wrestle; / at comes the cry.” They tell you to be prepared: “The Bridegroom comes, awake! / Your lamps with gladness take! / Alleluia! / With bridal care / yourselves prepare / to meet the Bridegroom, who is near.”
Alertness, preparedness, activity: these are the watchwords for this day and time. They are your orders. For lack of them will bring nothing good for you. That’s the message of the parable. Note where everything goes wrong in the story Jesus tells: “When the foolish virgins took their lamps, they took no oil with them.” It is in the early stages that things begin to go awry: the unpreparedness begins then. And the early error is compounded, for when the foolish ones begin to make belated remedy of their situation, time runs out: “While they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with Him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.”
The lesson for Christ’s disciples, for you, is clear: Be watchful, be ready. “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” In the imagery of the parable, you are to ensure that you have enough supply of oil for your lamps to continually burn. Your role is to welcome the Bridegroom, who is yet to arrive. And in order to do so, you must have a lamp that burns, a lamp that can be lit at for Christ’s return.
So what are these lamps and what is this needed oil? The lamps are your faith and life of faith, what Christ has given you in your role as His disciples. And the oil is what fuels that faith: Christ’s teaching, His words of forgiveness, His sacramental presence, His Spirit who is constantly with His Church on earth and sanctifies it. The story Jesus tells you is a reminder of who you are and what is necessary to fulfill that role to the very end. He has made a promise to you that He shall return—a promise greater than Douglas MacArthur’s. Christ has also assured His disciples that His return is for their benefit. But they must remain His disciples for that to be so. And so must you.
That is why Jesus tells His hearers, even you: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” This preparedness, this watching is not an order to scan the skies periodically to see whether Jesus is coming with His angels. It is most definitely not instruction to go and hang out on some mountainside or in the wilderness and become hermits until the Lord’s arrival. And Christ doesn’t want you to go walking down
The Lord God’s people have been warned against such false action. That’s what the Lord God told the Israelites in Amos’ prophecy: “I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. . . . The peace offerings of your fattened animals I will not look upon. . . . To the melody of your harps I will not listen.” In
For those who are not prepared, even those who are busy with the wrong activities, the Return of Christ is terrible, of no benefit. It is a gloomy, dark, horrible day of judgment. Christ’s instructions to His people are given for good reason, so that they can hold onto salvation. Their preparedness is found in participation in things that give birth and life to discipleship. And that is not found in self-devised ways of making yourself busy or appearing to be pious. No, there is one thing that makes you prepared: participation in the very things that keep the fires of faith burning in Christ’s disciples.
It is interesting that Jesus uses the lamp and oil motif in His parable. His audience could understand it well; they had often lit lamps in their own homes and seen bridal processions in their towns. But they also knew of the anointing purpose of oil, how it signified divine sanction and approval of priests and kings. That was not lost on Christ’s followers who used oil in ceremonies connected to the work of the Holy Spirit and spoke of the Spirit’s receipt as an anointing. They referred to themselves as royal priests, a group of people who had received the Spirit with His testimony about Christ’s redemptive work for them and a new way of life.
So it should be with you. The parable tells you to be watchful and prepared, to ensure that you have an ample oil supply to fuel your lamps. It even tells you that there are dealers who do provide it. This preparedness expected of Christ’s disciples is dependent upon the receipt of the Holy Spirit’s work. The oil for your lamps of faith is found only where the Spirit is working—in the Church—and in what means the Spirit works—the aural and visible Word of God. What gives life to your role as Christ’s disciple is participation in the things that Christ has entrusted to the Church which create and sustain faith in you. For it is only by faith that the Day of the Lord becomes a glorious and wonderful day for you and not a time of dread and gloom.
The beneficial nature of the Day of the Lord was seen in the apostolic letter to the Thessalonians: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” What the apostle describes is the watchman’s voice alerting all of the Bridegroom’s arrival and the prepared attendants’ ushering Him into the banquet hall. It is not darkness and gloom, but light and joy instead.
Such is the fate for you, as you are prepared and ready for the Lord’s return. But how easily it can become the opposite! How many times have you been occupied with events or life struggles or thought that kept you from receiving the Spirit’s work in the Church? How often have you been the one that distracted yourself or others, keeping you from the oil supply your lamps need? These are questions to ask, as they go to the heart of your preparedness.
Note what Jesus says in the parable: “As the Bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.” All of them—both the foolish and wise—became disillusioned by waiting. All of them—both the foolish and wise—were burdened and exhausted that way. All of them—both foolish and wise—could have suffered the same dreadful fate. No one is immune from this. It plagued
Drowsiness, negligence, unalertness: these are what you are called to overcome. What the wise had with them—the oil in flasks—allowed them to become ready for the Bridegroom’s arrival. “They became drowsy and slept,” but they also were able to light their lamps and feed them with the oil they had. And so it is for you. You will become drowsy and sleep. You will be distracted. You will be tempted to be led away from what your faith needs, even tempted to abandon the wait as the months, years, and decades pass without Christ’s return. But as long as you have a continued participation in what fuels your life of discipleship and what rouses you from drowsiness and sleep, you will be ready for Christ’s arrival.
That message Jesus wants you to hear and act on. It is meant for your benefit, for Christ wants you to receive the fullness of what He earned for you: the righteousness that brings you out of condemnation to everlasting life. These next several weeks, you will hear Jesus’ words about His return in judgment: Hear them and take them to heart, for they are how the Spirit is coming to you to sustain your faith. Our parish will have extra times in Advent to continue preparations for Christ’s arrival: Participate in them and be watchful. “You know neither the day nor the hour.” But you most certainly know what makes you ready for the Bridegroom’s entrance, for they are nothing other than what delivers Christ’s righteousness to you right now and sets you in a new way of life.
Listen to the teachings of Christ, the way that He instructs you and makes you wise for salvation. Receive the forgiveness that Christ provides you in Holy Baptism, Absolution, and Supper, the ways He makes you an heir of everlasting life. Participate in the corporate life of Christ’s Church, so that all of you together may keep watch and ready. For this is how the Spirit sanctifies and prepares you for Christ’s return. This is where you find oil for your lamps. And this is how you will be vigilant and ready to meet your Bridegroom, the Christ who has redeemed you and made you His own.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.