Last Sunday of the Church Year
November 24, 2013
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Here we are at the end of all things. The Church’s year of grace has ploughed through the Incarnation of Christ, His Epiphany and revelation as the Son of God, His passion, death, resurrection and ascension. From the day of Pentecost, we’ve learned of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives in many and various ways. Along the way, we’ve paused to ponder angels and the Reformation and the saints. The last couple of weeks, we’ve turned our thoughts to the last days, and braced ourselves against the dangers and threats that will come upon the Church from outside.
Today on the Last Sunday of the Church Year, we have a parable about the Church itself, and how we Christians may ourselves be prepared for the end of all things. The parable is divided into two parts: first, the comparison of Christ’s return to a meeting of a bridegroom and his bride; and second, that the wise and foolish bridesmaids teach us that preparation for Christ’s return is a matter of the inner righteousness of faith. So, therefore,
The Sensible Way to Wait for Jesus’ Return Is To Make Sure You Don’t Think You Have Jesus Figured Out
Just before starting this parable, Jesus tells His disciples that no one knows the day or the hour of His return, save the Father alone, and then begins this parable with the little word, Then. The parable of the wise and foolish virgins is about the future return of Christ to judge the quick and the dead, and likens His return to the meeting of a bridegroom with his bride, who is attended by her bridesmaids.
There are a few things to look for in Jesus’ parables, so that you do not end up wandering into fantasies and myths and false belief. The first thing to look for is the point of comparison—usually only one, but there may be more in longer parables. There is always a temptation to allegorize a parable and try to find a one-to-one correspondence with every detail in the story, or even to imagine things that you think Jesus should have included in His story. To find the point of comparison is not difficult—Jesus usually says something like, “The kingdom of heaven is compared to…”—but you should always be careful to discern the grammar.
In this parable the point of comparison for the kingdom of heaven is the meeting of a bridegroom and his bride, who is attended by her bridesmaids. This metaphor is a common one in Scripture: the Song of Solomon is a picture of Christ’s love for His beloved Church; Hosea’s prophecy (and his own life) depict God’s relationship with His people as a marriage; God often refers to Himself as a husband to His people; St. Paul gives advice to husbands and wives in his letter to the Ephesians, then says that he’s talking about Christ and the Church; and in Revelation, St. John sees the holy city, the New Jerusalem descending out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband.
This meeting is seen through the eyes of the bridesmaids, the young women attending to the bride. They are awaiting a meeting of the bridegroom and the bride, kind of like when a wedding party gets done taking pictures at the church and everyone drives over to the reception hall, and the wedding party meets outside before introductions. So this is the point of view of the point of comparison. We are plopped down in the midst of the wedding party awaiting the arrival of the bride and groom, that is we are awaiting the return of Christ and the revealing of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
Then the reign of the heavens will be compared to ten virgins who, taking their own lamps, went to a meeting of the bridegroom (v 1). This is a parable about waiting, about anticipation, and about preparation for the day when Christ returns to judge the quick and the dead.
While the details of the story don’t have a one-to-one correspondence like an allegory, they do flesh out the story for us and give us a greater understanding of the main point of comparison. In this parable, the bridesmaids are of two sorts—foolish and sensible. Many English translations call them foolish and wise, but the wisdom of which this parable speaks isn’t the divine wisdom of God, but rather kind of a common sense wisdom. And Jesus makes this distinction for a reason. The foolish and sensible bridesmaids remind us Christians to be concerned not only about the external practice of the Christian religion, but the inner righteousness that is by faith.
Five of them were foolish (morons) 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. The bridegroom being delayed, they all grew drowsy and were sleeping. But at midnight a cry has come, “Behold the bridegroom! Come out to his meeting.” Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps.
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.” And while they were going away to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were prepared went in with him into the wedding and the door was shut.
Later, the remaining virgins also came, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us!” But he answered and said, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.”
First, the foolish. What is it that makes them foolish? They had their lamps, presumably they were dressed for the occasion, had the right address, and the time of the event. What was it that made them foolish?
They were unprepared for the utter absurdity of the bridegroom—they thought that they had him all figured out. See, that’s a second thing to look for in the parables—there is normally an aspect that is utterly absurd about Jesus’ stories. These absurdities illustrate that the foolishness of God is wiser than men. In this parable, the bridegroom is delayed. Now, most newlywed couples are fashionably late to the reception, but this bridegroom doesn’t get to the reception until midnight. Even the most rowdy and raucous wedding receptions start to wind down a bit by midnight. But this is when the party just gets started in the parable. It happens at a time that no one was expecting.
The utter absurdity of our Lord Jesus that is wiser than our wisdom is that He weds Himself to human flesh, gives Himself up to the point of death on the cross for His beloved, vows an eternal commitment by His Word, and gives His holy sacraments as pledges and tokens of wedded love and faithfulness. He makes Himself the perfect Bridegroom, but then He ascends into heaven and delays His return. Why not get the party started right away? Why allow this misery to continue? Why give time to the bridal party to fall asleep?
Our Lord’s wisdom is the wisdom of the cross, which is incomprehensible to human flesh. But perhaps this explanation will suffice: He delays because His guest list is not yet finished. There are yet people to invite, there are yet guests to elect. Think about this for a moment: you are nearly 2,000 years removed from Jesus. He has delayed His return for your sake, so that you too might have the invitation, revealed in Holy Baptism, to attend this eternal wedding feast.
Because the foolish were unprepared for the bridegroom’s unexpected behavior, they gave attention to only external things. This is the warning of the parable. Being prepared for Christ’s return is not a matter of outward things. If you are polite, kind, a hard worker; if you watch wholesome television and refrain from using filthy language, if you practice your morals to perfection, that is not what prepares you for Christ’s return. Both the foolish and the wise bridesmaids had all the externals in place; but the foolish were left in the dark when the bridegroom arrived.
The sensible ones, on the other hand, were concerned not only for outward things, but also for the hidden things. The brought with them extra oil for their lamps, and were prepared for the bridegroom’s delay. The sensible bridesmaids teach us that the righteousness that prepares us for Christ’s return is the inner righteousness of faith, the righteousness that’s hidden, the New Man of faith salvaged from the waters of baptism. This inner righteousness, though, does come from an external source. It is Christ’s Word of commitment, the pledge and promise He attaches to His body and blood. These are the things that prepare you for His return, the gifts of the Holy Spirit that enlighten you on your way to the eternal wedding feast.
Watch, therefore, because you do not know the day or the hour. To watch means first and foremost to be on guard. And the way to do that is to listen. Listen to the voice of your Bridegroom. Trust His commitment to you that extends from heaven to earth. Believe the signs that He attaches to His vow to you—water, bread, wine. Our Lord Jesus delays, but He does not delay forever.
Amen. Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard