[This was shared during worship yesterday morning with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]
This past Thursday, I met my dad, three sisters, two of my aunts, and two of my cousins for a late lunch at the Route 68 Grill in Bellefontaine. (Yum!) Later, we went to my aunt’s house, where she treated us to desserts, including gluten-free fare for me. (Let me just say parenthetically, that I am now a fan of Amish Pink Salad!)
The lunch conversation got interesting when someone said, “I’ve been praying lately for Jesus to come back.” And someone else said, “Doesn’t it seem like the world is getting worse and worse all the time?”
I agreed, of course, that the day of Jesus’ return--His second coming--will be wonderful.
But, I said, that I actually am happy for Jesus to wait as long as God the Father wants Him to wait. Second Peter 3:9 says: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise [of His second coming, when He will put things right and unveil His new creation], as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
In other words, God has delayed Jesus’ certain return in order to give us time to turn from our sin and trust in Jesus and to give Christ’s disciples--you and me--the greater opportunity to make more disciples.
Which, of course, begs the question: How well and faithfully are we disciples using this time before Jesus’ return? Or this time before you and I will meet Jesus face to face?
We all agreed on that point and after a time, we also agreed that the world isn’t any more evil than it was the day Adam and Eve fell from grace. The world has been in bondage to sin, incapable of saving itself, and in need of a Savior ever since.
Different sins go in and out of style. But we can say as surely of the human race in 2017 what the apostle Paul wrote of it in 55AD, quoting the Old Testament: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” [Romans 3:10-12]
Given that reality about each of us, the second question that comes to the fore is this: Are we ready for Christ’s return? Are we ready for the judgment? Will we stand before Christ at the judgment in our sin and therefore, unworthy of His new creation, or will we be covered by Christ’s righteousness and enter His kingdom?
Frankly, I hadn’t given today’s Gospel lesson, Matthew 25:1-13, more than a once-over when we had that conversation. But as I studied it on Friday and early yesterday, I realized that it points to the answers to the questions our table talk raised.
Through the centuries, people have tried to turn Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, told in today's lesson, into an elaborate allegory. They’ve said that the oil stands for this, the torches stand for that, and so on. The parable though is, as we’ll see, simpler and more direct than that. It has a simple and important message. So, let’s look at the parable now.
In the lesson, we catch Jesus in the middle of talking about the end of this world, when He will return and judge the living and the dead, an event that will happen in one fell swoop. 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. Five of them 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 bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.”
The word translated as lamps here is more appropriately rendered torches. It refers to a simple torch made of rags twisted on top of a stick after the rag has been soaked in oil. A soaked rag would burn for fifteen minutes. But one not prepared in that way would burn out in a matter of moments. That’s why some of the bridesmaids brought extra oil with them.
As we mentioned a few weeks ago when talking about first-century Judean weddings, the groom’s party might show up for the wedding and the subsequent week-long reception (!) at any time after the marriage agreement has been reached. Even in the dead of the night. The bride’s attendants would have had to be ready to escort the groom and his party to the site where the wedding will happen at any moment.
Here’s the thing: All ten of the bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable are looking forward to the wedding. All ten of them fall asleep filled with eager anticipation of the celebrating and the partying. They’re all picturing a happy time of dancing, feasting, and flirting. But they’re not all ready.
Now, I’m no judge of the human race. That job is God’s alone and I have no intention of applying to replace Him in that job. I’m too busy attending my own knitting to judge someone else for dropping a stitch.
But I have to say that sometimes, when I attend the funerals of people who never seemed to give God a thought and hear their loved ones talk about how the deceased is now with God, I can’t help wondering. Jesus says in Matthew 10:32-33, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.”
None of us knows everything that transpires in a person’s life. None of us knows what encounters that even the most violent of atheists may have with God and His Word, as planted by some compassionate Christian disciple earlier in their lives, as they approach the gates of death.
But Jesus does say that His people will be recognizable to others “by their fruits” (Matthew 7:20). In other words, faith in Christ is demonstrated in our priorities, our decisions, the ways we treat others, the way we repent when we know we’ve done wrong, the way we own Christ as our Savior.
It’s in a faith in Christ active in love that we prepare ourselves for Jesus’ return, that we ready ourselves for judgment, confident that, though we are sinners, Christ has covered our repentant lives with His amazing grace!
It’s one thing to know about Christ’s return. It’s another thing to be ready for Christ’s return.
The bridesmaids knew that a wedding could take place at any time. But they weren’t ready for it.
Are you and I ready to meet Christ, now, today, tomorrow? That’s an enormously important question.
Verse 6: “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. [That literally means, they lit their torches.] 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.’”
Don’t misunderstand. Jesus is not here commending selfishness.
As Lutheran Christians, we believe in letting the whole of Scripture interpret Scripture. This principle of Lutheran Biblical interpretation prevents us from isolating a piece of Scripture and riding it like a hobby horse, making it say what we want it to say. When you let Scripture interpret Scripture you look for the meaning of individual passages in light of the witness of the whole Bible.
And in this case, Scripture tells us that the God we meet in Jesus never has been selfish and has never commended selfishness. The Lord Who underscores the Old Testament command to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Matthew 27:39) and gave His Church a new command that we as disciples “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34)...This Lord is not going to tell you to be selfish or refuse to share with others the good news of new life for all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus.
What Jesus is saying here though, is that no one can make your preparations for meeting Jesus for you. Christian faith is lived out with support and encouragement from and accountability to Christ’s church. The Church is indispensable. But each of us is either saved or damned individually, one by one. On the day of Christ’s return, He will judge us on our individual faith in Him. Not our parents or grandparents’ faith. Not our spouses’ faith. But on our faith in Christ alone.
About a week after Jesus had risen from the dead, the apostles encountered Him on the lakeshore. Jesus feeds them fish He’s prepared. The dinner done, Jesus asks Peter three times and in different ways, “Simon, do you love me more than these?” Whether we’re seeking to answer that question with a, “Yes!” through lives of daily repentance and renewal, will tell us whether we’re ready for Christ’s return or not.
Do we love Christ more than we love our sins?
Do we love Christ more than we love things we covet or lust for?
Do we love Christ more than the fears that keep us from doing God’s will?
Do we love Christ more than our desire to be in control?
More than our desire to give our kids way more than they need?
More than anything?
If we are seeking day by day to say, “Yes,” to Christ and no to the finite, dying stuff of this world--no matter how imperfectly we may seek them, we will be ready. Our lamps will be trimmed. We will be ready to meet the Lord face to face.
In verse 12 of our lesson, Jesus says that after the foolish bridesmaids had finally gotten oil for their torches, they showed up late for the wedding feast. They bang on the door, trying to get inside.
But the bridegroom, standing in for Jesus, says from inside, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.”
You’ve probably heard me say it before: The Christian faith isn’t about what you know or what you do. The Christian faith is about Who you know and what He has done for you on a cross and from an empty tomb.
If we expect Jesus to know us at the judgment, He must know us now, in this life. He must know that we trust in Him, follow Him, and draw life from Him and not from the world. The door will be shut to us if we wait until the party has started.
So, Jesus says in verse 13: “...keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” We don’t know the day or hour we’ll meet Jesus at the end of this life or the end of this world. But we get ready to meet Him and for ready for everything in this life by knowing Him and following Him now, trusting in Him now. Be ready for anything; surrender your life and your priorities to Jesus every day. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]