Last Sunday of the Church Year
November 23, 2014
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In high school I worked at Windows on Washington, a catering company in St. Louis. Over the span of about 6 years, I’m sure that I served at over a hundred wedding receptions. And I’ve seen it all. There was the one wedding reception that was being documented for Brides magazine as one of the top ten weddings in the country. There was the one where the groom was dressed as a vampire, complete with black cape, and we were given strict instructions that if the mother of the bride showed up, we were to call the police. I’ve been at receptions in the middle of summer, on New Year’s Eve, afternoon lunches, and all-nighters where I didn’t get to leave until 4 a.m. But despite all the differences, you could almost always rely on a bunch of bridesmaids at the end of the night huddled together on the dance floor, singing, We are family/I got all my sisters with me.
I’ve seen just about everything when it comes to weddings, but I’ve never seen a reception where the groom is so late to his own party that everyone falls asleep. Think about that for a moment—how would you react if at the next wedding you go to, you’re left for hours waiting for the groom to show up. How long would you actually wait before heading out to get some chicken wings and watch the game instead?
This final parable of the Church Year should remind us of how unexpected the Lord’s return will be. Then the kingdom of the heavens will be compared to ten virgins who, taking their own lamps, went to a meeting of the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five sensible. For the foolish, although they had taken their lamps, did not take oil with them. But the sensible took oil in the flasks with their lamps. Because the bridegroom was delayed, they all grew drowsy and were sleeping (vv 1-5).
What is so unexpected about this bridegroom is that he only shows up when the party should be getting over. But at midnight a cry has come, “Behold the bridegroom! Come out to his meeting.” Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps (v 6). Midnight! Midnight was usually the time I was asked to help cart the wedding gifts down the elevator and load them into the father-of-the-bride’s car. Midnight was the time when a few of the more spirited partiers would try to order one last vodka-cranberry, but the bartenders would turn around and pour only cranberry juice—because they’d had too much. Midnight was the time when the floor manager turned on all the house lights, when those bridesmaids would still be out on the floor singing We are family/I got all my sisters with me, even though the DJ was already packing up his equipment. Midnight is not the time for the groom to be showing up.
The entirely unexpected return of Jesus makes it all the more necessary to be properly prepared. The parable divides the bridesmaids into two equal groups—the foolish and the sensible. They were alike in many ways. They all were dressed for the wedding, had their lamps lit, were all gathered together at the appointed place. Likewise, when the bridegroom was delayed, all of them fell asleep. If you were an objective observer during the entire first part of this story up to the point that the ten woke up and trimmed their lamps, you would not be able to tell a difference between the foolish and the sensible. The only thing that sets them apart is that the sensible ones brought oil with them in their flasks. And the foolish said to the sensible, “Give us from your oil, because our lamps are extinguished.” But the sensible answered, saying, “Since there is certainly not enough for us and you, go rather to those selling and buy for yourselves” (v7).
Now it’s at this point we need to stop ourselves for a few seconds to ensure that we don’t allegorize a parable that Jesus didn’t intend to be allegorized. We’re tempted to try to find out what the oil represents, what the lamps represent, what the flasks represent, what the numbers 5 and 10 represent, what the hour represents. But this would be to lose what Jesus is saying with this parable.
The point of this parable is to make a distinction between outward preparations and inward. Both the foolish and the sensible virgins were outwardly prepared for meeting the bridegroom. But only the sensible had the inward preparations. The delay of Christ’s return makes this distinction even more important. Outward preparations for Christ’s coming are good, but they will fail upon His return if they remain only outward preparations.
Outward preparations have to do with visible things, tangible things, verifiable things, quantifiable things, measurable things. Outward preparations are the works that follow faith. And these are good. We confess that good works are bound to follow faith. Faith isn’t some sedentary emotion or knowledge that resides in the heart only to be activated on the Last Day. Faith is living and active and produces a harvest a hundredfold.
Now this doesn’t mean that the good works produced by the faithful are measurably better in quality or quantity. A house built by a Christian is not necessarily better than a house built by a heathen. Yet the Christian builds a house with works that are initiated by and flow from faith. A Christian builds a house with a sense of thankfulness to God and with a duty to serve his neighbor. And so all the works of the saints are good works that flow from faith. A Christian mother feeds and dresses her child out of thankfulness to God and service to her child. A Christian accountant crunches the numbers out of thankfulness to God and service to his clients. A Christian grocer stocks the shelves and packages the meat out of thankfulness to God and service to his shoppers.
Faith is bound to bring forth good works, but after faith we focus so much on the maintenance of works that we empty ourselves of faith and lose sight of the Bridegroom. This parable serves to remind us and encourage us not to lose sight of the inward things, the hidden things, the things of the Spirit, until our Lord comes again.
What are the inward things? What is the oil in the lamp? It begins with the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life. He is the One who begins a new creation in you. The Spirit took your old self, the guy who was dead in his trespasses, and raised up a new man. St. Paul calls this new creation the inner man. You can’t see him, you can’t measure him, there’s no quality to a person recreated by the Spirit by which you could identify him. The inner man is a hidden reality that can only be understood by faith. And faith is precisely why this new man was created.
You cannot by your own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, your Lord, or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called you by the Gospel, enlightened you with His gifts, sanctified and kept you in the true faith. Faith is born of the Spirit, by the working of the Gospel. Faith is the inward preparation that is fueled by God’s Word and Promise.
The gifts of the Spirit are gifts that enlighten. Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path (Ps. 119:105 KJV). Without the Word of God, all outward works and preparations are empty and hollow and dark. But the Word of God illuminates the darkness. That is to say, the Word of God reveals the way to the eternal feast.
The cry goes out at midnight: “Behold the bridegroom! Come out to his meeting.” The Word of God is the call to see the Bridegroom as the way into the wedding feast. That is, Christ is the way to the feast. He is the one and only way by which you enter the eternal joys that He has prepared for you.
So then, how can you ensure that you’ll be ready and well prepared for Christ’s return? For that, Christ your Lord has instituted a weekly foretaste of that eternal feast. A little Supper here on earth to prepare you for what’s to come—an appetizer, if you will. He gives an outward meal of bread and wine, but He hides under those forms His true body and blood—not measurable, not quantifiable, but truly there. It’s the Supper of the Lamb who was slain, the wedding feast of the heavenly Bridegroom, the eternal Son of God who became one flesh with you.
The Small Catechism asks the question, Who receives this Sacrament worthily? And provides this answer: Fasting and other bodily preparations are certainly fine outward training. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” But anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, for the words “for you” require all hearts to believe.
Faith is what prepares. Faith in the words of Christ. Faith in His forgiveness. Outward training is fine and good. But outward preparations will fail upon Christ’s return if they are only outward preparations.
But the very gift that requires faith for worthy reception also gives and increases faith by its reception. When you leave this altar, having feasted upon Christ’s body and blood, you are also worthy and well prepared for His return on the Last Day. You are worthy and well prepared to enter into the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb.
Good Works, Christian Living, and Similar Preparations Are Certainly Fine Outward Training, but that Person Is Truly Worthy and Well Prepared for Christ’s Return Who Has Faith in these Words: “Behold the Bridegroom”
Christ is the Bridegroom who leads you to the altar here on earth, and to the eternal feast in heaven.
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard