Text: Matthew 25:1-13
Last week we heard these words of encouragement from St. Peter,
Do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.2 Peter 3:8-10, English Standard Version
With these words, St. Peter offers us the instructions of the Holy Spirit that, although our Lord’s return seems to us to be delayed, it will come like a thief in the night. That is, without warning.
In the Gospel reading, our Lord compares His coming to a bridegroom coming in the middle of the night to gather his friends for a feast. Those who were wise were prepared and ready for his arrival and went in with him to the feast, while those who were unprepared found themselves on the wrong side of a locked door. This is how our Lord’s return will be. He will come at an hour we do not expect. Therefore, lest we be found unwise and unprepared, He encourages us to keep watch and ready to enter His wedding feast.
This Sunday brings us to the close of another Church Year. For most of us, this is not our first time here. In fact, we’ve had about as many ends of the Church Year as we’ve had of the secular calendar year. But, what does it mean that we’ve reached the end of the Church Year; and, what is the Church Year, anyway? At the moment, we don’t cover this topic in depth during Confirmation class, so it kind of has to be gleaned from different sources, including sermons like this one. The secular calendar year that we use throughout our lives is based on the sun and the earth’s rotation around it. The calendar, as we know it now, dates back to 1582. The Church Year, however, is based on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ and it has its beginnings at Creation and from the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. Just as the secular year has ebbs and flows, high points and low points, so does the Church Year – according to the events in the life of our Lord. Just as the secular calendar repeats it course, so the Church Year.
In keeping with St. Paul’s instruction that everything be made holy by the Word of God and prayer (2 Tim. 4), we in the Church mark our days with Scripture readings and prayer. You might otherwise know this by the name, Lectionary. The lectionary is the system of readings that we follow on Sundays and whatever day. These readings fell into place and are time-tested by the generations of the faithful who have gone before us. In many cases, particularly with the Epistle and Gospel, we hear the same texts that were read on Sundays all over the world 1,600 years ago. We continue to follow this pattern because these readings help us to hear the full counsel of God’s Word. The lectionary leads us to the most-well loved passages of all time and into some of the most difficult. Just because a portion is difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hear it. Rather, for athletes, the hard workouts are what lead to the greatest improvements. Same for Christians. We have one of those hard passages today, as we have for a few weeks: speaking about our Lord’s return.
At the end of the Church Year, and in the leadup to the yearly celebration of our Lord’s birth, we hear His instruction concerning His return. The Gospel text today is a part of the same conversation we’ve been hearing. The Disciples asked Jesus back in chapter 24, “When will these things be…what will be the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age?” (Mt. 24:3) Our Lord taught them that, unlike the punishment coming to Jerusalem, His return would be without a sign. There would be general signs that we are in the end times, as we have been since the Resurrection; things like earthquakes, famines, and wars. Jesus’ return, however, will be plainly visible to all, like lightning flashing across the sky. The parable today teaches us part of how it’ll look on the ground.
Jesus said, “Then 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.” (Mt. 25:1-2) The wise virgins, anticipating and being prepared for the bridegroom, took extra oil with their lamps; the foolish virgins took only what was in their lamps. Jesus said that, as the bridegroom was delaying his arrival, “all became drowsy and slept.” (v. 5) Then, in the middle of the night, there was a sudden cry, “Here is the bridegroom!” (v. 6) The foolish virgins were found unprepared. They had let their lamps run out of oil and were not ready to meet and celebrate with bridegroom. While they were away seeking to buy oil, the bridegroom gathered his wise friends and brought them into the feast. When the foolish virgins came afterward, they found the door locked to them. The bridegroom said, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.” (v. 12) Jesus Himself gives us the point of the parable at the end of the text when He says, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (v. 13)
This is why this is one of those hard passages. We confess, in keeping with our Lord’s teaching, that He will come again. As He ascended, so will He return – to raise the dead and for judgement. As He said, it will be at a time completely unknown to everyone. The time is only known to God the Father. Therefore, Jesus encourages us to keep watch and ready to enter His feast. The feast He speaks of in the parable is the feast: the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb and His bride, the Church, in the new creation. We will feast, for we have been redeemed from death and the devil through the blood of Christ and, at His return, those will be forever put away from us. But, we don’t know when that will be, and we are to be ready. How shall we do that?
We should avoid trying to over-interpret this parable, seeking to find what the oil and lamps represent, for example. Instead, with these words, our Lord encourages us, in general, to make faithful use of His Means of Grace in the days He gives us. We confessed earlier in this service that we are sinners worthy of the Father’s temporal and eternal punishment. Yet, in His mercy, God the Father has poured out His love on us sinners by giving us His own Son. In Baptism, we were each united to Christ’s death and resurrection. Just as He was raised from the dead to new life, so shall we be. In the meantime, as we confessed, we bear in ourselves the corruption of sin. In says in the Book of Concord, though, that Christ is superabundant in His grace. Rather than leave us in our sins, He extends forgiveness to us in many ways: through Baptism, through the Absolution, and in the Sacrament of His true body and blood. Through these things, He forgives our sins, strengthens our faith, and makes us truly alive; truly awake.
To keep watch and be ready for Christ’s coming is to make faithful use of these things, to receive them with joy as our true “daily bread.” In these, God Himself dwells within us and leads us to do those things which are right and pleasing to Him. Let us pray that, as our Lord has blessed us this year with His pure Word and holy Sacraments, He would continue to do even more in the new year. May the Lord increase in each of us, and in all of us together as a congregation, a divine love for Him and each other. Let us, according to His grace, then keep watch and ready. Jesus said, “‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20)