[This was shared during worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, this morning.]
The other day I decided, as I do every week in preparing for my messages, to check out what different Bible commentators had to say about today’s Gospel lesson, Matthew 25:1-13.
One commentator's opening sentences compelled me to stop immediately. That’s because he wrote that this passage was disturbing and didn’t sound like Jesus to him.
What the writer really meant was, “In this passage, Jesus doesn’t sound like I want Jesus to sound.”
We live in an era in which people who masquerade as Bible scholars are really Bible speculators, speculating that the Bible is wrong and that they’re right when it comes to understanding what Jesus is really like.
They want to whittle Jesus, God in human flesh, down to what they want Him to be, turning the Savior the Bible calls, “the Lion of Judah” into a pet cat, making Him palatable to the masses, a benign teacher of platitudes who doesn’t disturb people.
Nowhere is this whittling, this cheapening, of Jesus more apparent than in the misuse and the misconstruction of what the Bible calls grace.
The Bible teaches, as I say obsessively, that we are saved from sin and death by God’s grace--God’s charity--through our faith in Christ. Through God’s grace given in Christ, we are forgiven and given the promise of God’s presence with us in this world and of eternal life with God in the perfect world to be.
But we must remember, as Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught, that grace is free; but it isn’t cheap.
In the eyes of the Bible speculators, grace tells you and me when we suspect we should feel guilty about something we’ve thought, said, or done, “It’s no big deal. It’s okay. Don’t worry about it; you’re forgiven.”
Jesus and the Bible tell us something altogether different about grace, though. For Jesus and the Biblical writers, grace says, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Grace doesn’t flinch from telling us that sin is wrong. Taking God’s Name in vain is a sin. Gossiping is a sin. Dishonesty in financial matters is wrong. Failing to forgive those who have hurt us is sin. Sexual intimacy outside of marriage between a man and a woman is unholy in the eyes of God. Failure to honor those in authority, established in their offices by God Himself, is a failure to honor God.
Grace agrees with the law about what God reveals in His Word to be right and wrong.
But grace also says to those who turn from their sin and cling to Jesus as their shield from the death sentence their sin has earned them, “Your sins are forgiven. They are covered by the grace of Jesus Christ, Who took your punishment for you.”
Grace says, “Your sins are a big deal. They should spell death for you. But when you honestly confess your sins and trust in Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord, as your only hope for life, their power over you is destroyed.” That is grace!
Jesus gives us a true picture of grace in our Gospel lesson for this morning. Please take a look at it now.
Jesus has been talking about the coming end of this world and His return to bring judgment and to usher in His eternal kingdom for all who have trusted in Him. Now, He tells a parable, a fictional representation of the coming of His kingdom.
Verse 1: “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.”
In first century Judea, where Jesus lived, weddings, followed by days of banqueting, took place at night. A messenger would go ahead of the bridegroom’s party to let people in the bride’s neighborhood know that he was on his way and to be prepared for the start of the festivities. In the parable, the wedding feast symbolizes the great heavenly feast that Jesus will one day enjoy with all His saints.
Jesus, as in other places in the Gospels, is here portraying Himself as the groom. In doing so, Jesus isn’t just claiming to be the Messiah, as we’ve talked about recently. He is also claiming to be God. In the Old Testament, God is often portrayed as the loyal husband of His chosen people, Israel.
The twist in this parable is that the ten virgins, who all want to go to the party and celebrate with others, are the Church. They’re you and me. And like you and me, they want to be with the groom at the feast. They take up their lamps in order to wait for the arrival of the groom.
Please notice something about this verse: Everyone is invited to the feast.
God wants everyone to be at His table in eternity.
God’s grace calls everyone.
God loves everyone.
Jesus died and rose for everyone.
But, as we’ll see, not everyone responds in faith and those who refuse Jesus’ call to daily acknowledging our sin and receiving forgiveness and new life by faith in Him willfully separate themselves from Him.
And God will, at the ends of people's lives and at the end of this world's life, respect the choice of those who have rejected His invitation.
Verses 2-4: “Five of them [of the virgins] were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps.”
The “oil” as The Lutheran Study Bible puts it, “represents a faith continually sustained by the means of grace, thus able to endure until Christ’s return.”
The oil for the lamps represents things like the fellowship of Christ’s Church, attentiveness to God’s Word, receiving the Sacraments so that the light of faith isn’t taken away by the darkness of our world and of our sinful selves, a willingness to do what God wills for us.
These are the things we need to make it through this world with our faith intact, our relationship with God intact, our integrity restored.
If we’re to be ready for the return of Jesus to our world, or ready to face Him at the moments of our deaths, or ready simply to deal with the everyday challenges of life, we need to be stocked up on the oil of an ongoing faith relationship with Christ.
If not, we could run out, the light of our faith extinguished, our relationship with God destroyed, our only reason for hope displaced by the distractions of life.
Take a look at Ephesians 6:10-13 (page 817 in the sanctuary Bible): “...be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”
The only people who will remain standing when Jesus comes to bring this world to its end, the only people who will remain standing when the chips are down and the devil and this life hit us with their worst shots, are the people who stand on Christ alone. They keep burning with faith, hope, and courage.
The five young virgins left to welcome the bridegroom, not thinking about what they needed to power their lamps. That’s like us when we make decisions or establish priorities without leaning on God. We then stand naked in the face of evil that will otherwise overtake us and destroy us for eternity.
Look at what happens next in the parable: “The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps.” [Trimmed here means to adjust the wicks so that they can burn brightly.]
Then comes the crisis: “The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’But while they were on their way to buy the oil [there must have been an all-night oil distributor], the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.”
Jesus isn’t commending selfishness when He has the wise young women refuse the request of the foolish ones for more oil.
Here’s what He is saying: No one else can have your relationship with Him for you.
We can’t rely on our parents’ faith or our friends’ faith or, God forbid, our pastor's faith.
Faith is you and I personally trusting our lives to Jesus ourselves.
Jesus told His fellow Jews in Luke 3:8: “...do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”
The only one who can ensure that our lamps are filled with the oil of enduring faith is us.
We need to keep filling up on Christ and His Word through worship, study of God’s Word, receiving the Sacrament, trusting Christ’s presence in, with, and under the bread and the wine.
These are the ways God can prepare us for the ends of our lives, the end of the world, and even for just waking up tomorrow morning. And the next morning. And the next.
Verses 11-13: “Later the others [the foolish virgins] also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’ Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”
Jesus is using a common, idiomatic saying here. He's not saying that the lord inside the house was unaware of the identities of the women trying to get into the wedding feast, any more than God Himself will be unaware of the identities of those who have let their faith lapse or turned their backs on Christ or let things other than God become more important than God. He knows every human being by name and DNA.
But God cannot in eternity, pretend that there is intimacy between Himself and those who, during their time in this world, forgot all about Him.
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,'’ Jesus says in Matthew 7:21, “will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven."
And, Jesus says in John 6:29: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." That means trusting in Him and seeking His power in our lives even when we think we’ve got everything under control and that we don’t need God’s help, counsel, or authority over us. That's our job: to accept grace, to receive grace with honesty and vulnerability and gratitude.
This is where the Bible speculators flinch. They want a grace without admission of guilt, without the acknowledgement of the human need of God Who is infinitely greater than we are. They want a grace without God telling us to follow Christ and Christ alone, a grace with no need to trust Jesus with our lives.
But real grace--the kind that comes...
to those who repent and believe,
who pray, “Thy will be done,”
who acknowledge that "we are in bondage in sin and cannot free ourselves," then throw themselves at the foot of Jesus Christ...
that grace, true grace, brings us the power to live each moment on this earth--the challenging and the joyous--and gives us the certainty that when the Bridegroom Christ finally appears on this earth, our faith will find us ready to welcome Him, and we will join the marriage feast that has no end. Amen
[I received great inspiration for this message from the video presentation of Dr. James Nestingen this past week.]