November 6, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.”
The Church Year draws to a close during these next three weeks. As Jesus’ followers reach the culmination of the ecclesiastical calendar, they focus their attention on the culmination of their faith and discipleship. For the next three Sundays, the Church will hear parables of Jesus that speak about His return that ushers in the close of this age and initiates the life of the world to come.
Jesus tells you that the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a wedding feast that will take place. You have already heard Jesus tell a wedding feast parable, a story about a king who holds a banquet for his son who is married. But today, Jesus uses the wedding feast motif in a different way: He does not talk about those who are simply invited to attend, but those who are invited to participate in the bridal party. Ten maidens have been selected to be the welcoming party for the groom who will arrive at the wedding hall. That is their privileged status, to take part in the festive day.
But Jesus tells you something significant about those who have been selected: “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.” This will be a problem for some of those invited to take part in the wedding events. All ten of the maidens had been chosen to fulfill a particular role: to be the escorts of the groom. To fulfill that role which had been bestowed to them, they needed their lamps and oil. But what had five of the maidens forgotten to do? “They took no oil with them.”
Jesus’ parable depicts how the folly of the five maidens cost them dearly: “As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And 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.”
When the groom arrived, what happened to those foolish maidens who had brought no oil for their lamps? They were unable to fulfill the role that had been assigned to them. They were a complete failure. The groom’s arrival that should have been a time of great joy and delight for them—as it was for the five wise maidens who had brought flasks of oil with them—became a time of great sorrow and doom: “Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’” They are left outside, abandoned to their folly.
Jesus’ parable is a statement about the Last Day. He teaches about the two aspects that it will have for those who had been invited to be affiliated with Him and to be part of the new age that He will inaugurate. Like the ten maidens, those in the Church on earth have been selected for a particular role. You have been chosen to be in the number of those who will be eternally present with the Risen Lord, just like the saints who have gone before you. You have been called by Jesus for this. You have been given a lamp, denoting your baptismal identity, and you have been provided oil for it, the faith that is created through receiving Jesus’ Gospel in all its forms: attached to water, spoken by ministers, found in the dialogue of believers, connected to bread and wine. Your assigned role is to be brought with Jesus into His eternal wedding feast, when He arrives to judge the living and the dead. So you should anticipate and welcome that day when your Lord will return.
But are you savvy about this? Are you wise, being prepared for when Jesus will come and bring His redemptive work to its culmination? Or have you wandered into folly? In today’s readings, you heard the Prophet Amos speak to Israelites, those who had been invited to participate in the Divine Covenant. But they had abandoned that identity, acting in opposition to the Lord and His ways. Their unfaithfulness led the Lord to say to them: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer Me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” The Lord’s words of judgment are spoken against those who had wandered into the folly of unbelief and unfaithfulness.
But what is even more astonishing about the Israelites in Amos’ time was that they thought that nothing was wrong with them. Their foolishness had deluded them into thinking that all was fine, that all would be well. They desired the Day of the Lord to come, even though it would bring sorrow and doom for them as the groom’s arrival in Jesus’ parable did for the foolish maidens. So Amos warns them: “Woe to you who desire the Day of the Lord! Why would you have the Day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the Day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” Amos’ description of the Last Day is so for those who are not faithful to the Lord. It is the same eternally negative aspect of Jesus’ return that the foolish maidens experience.
Amos’ warnings are directed, even now, to those who have been invited to be beneficiaries of the Divine Covenant but are not participating in it. His words are spoken to all of you who have been baptized and made part of the Heavenly Father’s household, but who are not living according to His family’s customs and rules. They are declared to you who do not recognize your sin that needs to be forgiven and do not seek out the absolution that Jesus’ Gospel brings. The word of judgment is given for you who are not diligent in receiving the salvation that is delivered to you through the means of grace. Or to rephrase it in a way similar to Jesus’ parable: the warning is stated for you who have lamps, but no oil.
But Amos’ warnings are not the only words spoken about the Day of the Lord. This morning, you have also heard something good about the Last Day. You have heard a second statement about what will occur. Not that you have heard a different account of what will happen, but have heard about the other, positive aspect of Jesus’ return. The Apostle Paul writes to a group of believers about that day: “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. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” His description of the Last Day is for the Lord’s faithful people.
Paul’s statement of encouragement and gladness is directed, even now, to those who have been invited to be beneficiaries of the Divine Covenant and are participating in it. His words are spoken to all of you who have been baptized and made part of the Heavenly Father’s household and are striving to be obedient and devout children. They are declared to you who recognize your guilt and failures and seek out the absolution that Jesus’ Gospel brings. The word of promise is given to you who are diligent in receiving the salvation that is delivered to you through the means of grace. Or to rephrase it in a way similar to Jesus’ parable: the assurance of eternal joy is stated for you who have been given lamps by Jesus and who are supplied with the oil needed to let them burn.
Jesus’ parable is about being prepared for His return. That is why He says after His parable ends: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Though you have many promises and declarations made about Jesus’ return, you have one aspect of it that you do not know: when it will take place. Your Lord wants you to be ready for His arrival, but since you have no knowledge of when it will be, you must always be prepared. Your role as a participant in the life of the world to come has been assigned to you. If you desire to fulfill that role, you must have what is necessary to do so. You need to have the supply of oil for the lamp. You need the Gospel that brings the forgiveness, life, and salvation that Jesus acquired for you by His dying and rising to life again. That is what allows you to live as faithful people in this life, preparing you to live in the life of the world to come.
So what should you do? Paying no attention to what Jesus says or trying to time when Jesus will return and running out to the oil dealers at the last moment are certainly not the right actions. That was the foolish action of the five maidens in Jesus’ parable. Living as people who are totally unconcerned with doing what is just and right, believing that what is done in this life doesn’t matter a whit, since you’ve been baptized and have your name on a parish register is also not the right action. No, those are the foolish actions of the Israelites who had Amos’ prophetic words spoken against them. Such actions will lead to Jesus’ return being “darkness and not light.”
What should be done is to be regular in receiving Jesus’ gifts delivered through the Gospel. Jesus has called you to be recipients of His benefits, and He has assigned dealers of oil to be among you—His stewards of the mysteries, His ministers of Word and Sacrament. Not only does He put those dealers there, He gives them the instructions to fill the flasks without cost and price. Jesus gives you a constant, gratuitous supply of what you need. You come here to receive it. You say, “Fill the flask.” And it is so. You are forgiven. You are sent out into the world for another week of living as the Lord’s people. Then you come back again for the flask to be filled. And this is done over and over again, so that you will be prepared for Jesus’ return.
As you participate this way as the Lord’s faithful people, you are ready for your role that He has given to you. You will be among those who will rise and “will always be with the Lord.” You will be in the company of all the wise maidens, “those who were ready” and who “went in with [the bridegroom] to the marriage feast”. You will be united with all the saints, all the holy people of God, those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and have received the crown of life that Jesus has won for them. For you, that day will not be “darkness . . . and gloom with no brightness in it.” Instead, it will be the time when “all who seek [the Lord] rejoice and be glad in [Him].”
Prepared by Jesus to participate fully in the role that He has given to you, then you can pray the petition of the faithful that was asked this morning: “Lord God, heavenly Father, send forth Your Son to lead home His Bride, the Church, that with all the company of the redeemed we may finally enter into His wedding feast.” That is the desire of those who have been made wise unto salvation, including you who have received the Gospel of Jesus again this day.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.