Proper 27 – Series A
Welcome to the antepenultimate Sunday of the Church year. Being a student of Greek, I simply have to look for opportunities to use that word. It means the “third-to-the-last” but sounds so much better.
The theme today could simply be: Repent! The end is in sight! We think of those words as belonging on a sign held by some wild-eyed prophet or a fellow standing on the street corner. The truth is, however, that every parish which follows the pericopes holds that sign up in this time of the year. Of course, the end in sight is the end of the world and the end of the church year, which concludes in just a few weeks (the Feast of Christ the King). The ending of the year brings to the mind the ending of time, the end of the world for us.
I remember a joke from a few years ago about two fellows standing by the road holding signs which read, “Repent” and “Your way leads to destruction.” A convertible came speeding past and the jaunty driver laughed and yelled at the two men, “You fruitcakes!” As he went around the bend in the road, they heard a terrible, sickening crash. One turned to the other and said, “Do you suppose we should change our signs to read, “Turn around.” And “Bridge washed out”?
The joke was intended to get us to ask if our message was in fact being heard at all. Are we holding up signs of vital importance, but which are couched in terms which people have conditioned themselves to ignore? Do we need to speak more plainly? In days of COVID concerns about cleanliness and social distancing, are we talking about all the things that no one is talking about? Should we really think that they will come around to our way of thinking or do we need to start talking in language of their concerns?
Of course, there is competition for the role of apocalyptic prophets these days. There are the Wall Street doom and gloom types who periodically declaring an end to banking as we know it. Political types who are declaring that the candidate elected may well be the end of the American dream, probably at least the end of the American democracy if the other party wins the Senate. (I sometimes wonder if we would be willing to live with a despot as long as our mortgages were safe). As always Al Gore, environmentalists, and others are in the background sounding the keen apocalyptic notes of environmental disaster. Eschatological prophecy abounds.
The church’s voice might just get lost in all that. But it had better not get lost. The eschatological vision of our Lord and the Church has always been in the fore when we are at our best. Luther and the reformers were convinced that the end would happen in their lifetime. But that is not just a cultural or a societal insight, it can also be quite personal. Bonheoffer would write some of his best work when he was faced with the reality of his own death. There is an end of the world and then there seems to be an end of the world for me. Which one comes first? I don’t know.
The apostles of the early church often spoke as though they expected the end of the world to happen immediately. It appears that Paul’s first correspondence, with the church in Thessalonica, dealt with the fact that his preaching had led some of them to believe that the end was so immanent that it really wasn’t worth going to work this morning. I have had students I am convinced were praying for the Parousia before a paper was due. 2
Of course, by now you are thinking about this and remembering that there is a whole strand of Religious expression in North America which is intensely focused on the end of the world. But I want to take a little issue with that. Yes, they are focused on the end of the world, but not on what the Bible says about it. For the Bible takes a very different approach. The Bible does not seek to make people afraid in the preaching of the end. The Biblical authors and Jesus himself repeatedly speak to people who are afraid and so they are not about making them afraid. In fact, they are trying to ease their fears. Unfortunately, the feasts of Reformation and All Saints have taken our attention away from the earlier chapters of Paul’s excellent letter to the Thessalonians. In those chapters he was dialing down the fear. He and other apocalyptic sections of the NT name the things of which the people are afraid, it is true, but then, they always go on to point out that God shall do something about it. We often miss that part.
The real message of Christianity is not popular picture of a prophet, holding the sign that reads, “Repent, the end is in sight!” The Christian’s sign board, if he would ever actually carry such a thing, would most likely read, “Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.” But the kingdom is not only a judgment pronounced upon the sins of this world, but it is also the application of the salvation which Christ won on a cross to those very sins. We err, if we look forward to the destruction of the unbelievers, gloating as they are herded into some great descending escalator, surrounded by smoke and sulfurous stench at the end of time. The eschatological vision for Christians is not moved by some fear of tribulation, but it is moved by the joy of seeing their Jesus, welcoming and loving them and all who are marked by his cross. The day of Christ return moves us to love our neighbor.
Lord God, heavenly Father, send forth Your Son to lead home His bride, the Church, that with all the company of the redeemed we may finally enter into His eternal wedding feast; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Lead home the bride – the Church” what sort of an image does that surface for you? What emotions? I spent an evening with a bunch of Lutherans and among them was a woman who worked with abused women. She was hyper-sensitive to any depiction of God that had a sexual connotation. That whole element of her life had been so devastated by violent abuse that she could not even comprehend of God in that sort of a relationship with people. I think she was bordering on Gnosticism in this, but I also had to be aware in my preaching that women like her were sitting in the pews.
At the same time, the Church would be foolish not to plug into this and use this imagery which the Bible provides us. Think back to your own wedding when you stood before a preacher or a justice of the peace. What was going through your mind? A little fear, expectation, joy, hope, all sorts of things will fill the mind of a person who is taking that step. If those emotions are not there, we should be concerned. There is a marvelous article by Robert Louis Wilken from a few years ago in which he spoke of the Christian Church of Augustine’s time. Augustine argued that 3
the Christians needed to possess the language, they needed to invite the unbeliever to enter their world, a world which was defined by language. It was published in “First Things” and entitled “The Church’s Way of Speaking.”
Considering the pastoral implications of this, speaking to people who may have been sexually abused or relationally abused, the preacher probably needs to do a great deal of listening before he speaks. He needs to ask his people how they hear this.
Jesus leads this bride home. The biblical imagery of Jesus as the bridegroom is rooted in the Middle Eastern wedding. At the time of Jesus it seems to have been the case that many men were considerably older than their brides because they needed to have a home established before they could marry. Girls were usually married soon after they reached puberty, but men were expected to have amassed enough resources to have a career, a business, a home, some means of support and a place for them to live. The idea of a man marrying his bride without those things already established was not thinkable for the folks at Jesus’ time. So for the bridegroom this was a day for which he had long waited. The bride in that situation was probably more than a little afraid. You can imagine, she was likely a girl of 14-18 yrs old, being led from her parent’s home to be the bride of a man whom she might not have known that well.
The Middle Eastern wedding festival was an event which was designed to give expression to the joy and to set the hearts of the participants at ease about what was going on. There was much in these festivals which we would probably have perceived as sexist and demeaning to women. But there were also moments where the community acknowledged her and held her up in some amazing ways. She was surrounded by friends who were there to encourage her and support her. Today, as we come to this Gospel lesson we will see Jesus speak of one of those support structures who were there to give expression to the joy of the moment and to support and encourage the bride. We will hear the parable of the ten virgins.
The prayer wants Jesus to lead us home so that we may with all the redeemed we may finally entered the wedding feast. I think that choice of the description of the wedding feast is quite important. It is not in the company of the faithful but in the company of the redeemed. The preacher on this day wants to be very careful to preach objective justification. A focus on the Eschaton is not a time to hit subjective justification. This is not a day to ask anyone if they have faith. That sort of navel gazing is disastrous when considering the end of the world. It leads to despair. The eyes of the hearer today need to be turned to the Author and Perfector of Faith, to the Rock upon which they are built, to the King and the Lord whose hands and feet bear the scars of his great sacrifice. The question is not whether you have faith, (subjective justification) but the question today must be “did Jesus die for the sins of the world, for every sinner, for you as a sinner?” That is objective, especially when the question is turned as it should be into a declaration, a kerygmatic statement of truth. Jesus did die for sinners, for the world of them, for you.
Amos 5:18-24 I have provided a little context on either side of these difficult words from Amos. 4
16 Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord:
“In all the squares there shall be wailing, and in all the streets they shall say, ‘Alas! Alas!’ They shall call the farmers to mourning and to wailing those who are skilled in lamentation, 17 and in all vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through your midst,” says the Lord.
18 Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light, 19 as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. 20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?
21 “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
25 “Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26 You shall take up Sikkuth your king, and Kiyyun your star-god—your images that you made for yourselves, 27 and I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts.
I think if I were to preach this text I might look at Luther’s explanation of the Lord’s Prayer in the catechism or his little booklet entitled “A Simple Way to Pray.” That little book is addressed to his barber, Peter, and is readily available online. He suggests patterning prayer on the Lord’s Prayer. He wonders how God’s kingdom comes and will is done. It shows up in our lives. Amos wants justice and righteousness to flow down.
Amos lived in a time much like our own. After years of decline and the dominance of Assyria, Israel, the northern ten tribes of Israel, were experiencing a renaissance. The Assyrian empire 5
was in disarray, internally divided. This gave room to a whole group of smaller countries to exert their sovereignty once more and Israel joined that happy little band. The grain from her fertile Galilean plains was in much demand and her coffers were filled with coins from the Phoenicians, and Greeks, and Asians, and more. It was a good time to be in Israel. Jeroboam II’s reign was well managed and the prospects of the kingdom looked good.
For the observant, however, this could not last. Assyria was starting to reorganize itself. In truth, shortly after the reign of Jereboam, his sons would lose the throne and a quick succession of weak vassal kings would finally result in the destruction of Samaria and the brutal exile of the North at the hands of these same Assyrians.
Amos is a southern man, himself, not of the North. He comes from Tekoa, a small community in the extreme south of Judah. He is a shepherd, but the word he uses for shepherd is odd, it is the same word that the kings of Moab use to describe themselves. Many have thought that this is important. It could be that when you think of Amos the shepherd, you should not have the picture in mind of a lonely fellow out in the fields with a handful of sheep. Amos may well have been a sheep rancher, a sheep baron, a wealthy businessman in his own right. It would seem appropriate that God sent a rich man to be a prophet to the rich people of Israel.
Amos sees the situation through the lens of the covenant which God made with his people in the Torah, especially Deuteronomy. God had said that they were to worship only him, be his covenant people and he would bless them. If they neglected the covenant, then they would be punished and finally faced the possibility of exile, separation from the land which God had promised to their fathers. This was not only a terrible hardship to endure but also a repudiation of the covenant itself, for the land was part of the original promise that God had made to Abraham. This was serious.
Amos will find the symptoms of the covenant’s health in the social situation of his day. The covenant had said that because they were Lord’s people they were to be different from the other nations, the widow, the poor, the orphan, the resident alien were supposed to be treated differently, respectfully, carefully. In a series of stinging oracles Amos points out how the wealthy of Israel are breaking the covenant by their treatment of the poor. They sell a poor man for a pair of sandals, they steal the homes of widows and orphans and they sit in their mansions and sleep on ivory couches. He calls the wealthy women “cows of Bashan” asking their husbands for another martini while people die of hunger.
You can imagine that many a social justice crusader in today’s climate has latched onto Amos. I heard a sermon by a UCC woman preacher on this text which was simply a moralizing exhortation to take care of the poor. It had a place and a thing to say, but I think she completely missed the point. For Amos, the social injustice is a problem but it is not the problem. The problem is the broken relationship with God which has manifested itself in the social injustice. It is the case that Amos cared for the poor and we ought care for them as well. But that care and love flows out of a relationship in which God cares and loves for me in my sinful need, not out of some sort of moral imperative placed upon the hearer by a preacher. 6
Amos was after the feeding of the poor and the care of the widow and orphan, but he saw that care flowing out of a people who remembered their own standing before their God as he chosen people, delivered and forgiven and mercifully loved.
It is the consequences of that broken relationship which Amos preaches today. In the first verses he speaks of the misplaced hope that the people of Israel have. They imagine that their status as the Children of Israel means that God will come and of course take up their cause. What they don’t seem to grasp is that without that relationship defined by the covenant of God, the day of the Lord will not be good news. It will be inescapable bad news. The man who has escaped the lion is met by a bear or if that doesn’t happen, he will come into his house and when he leans against a wall the serpent will be waiting to bite him. You cannot get away.
In the second part of this oracle God rejects their feasts and offerings as they are done. They are coming to their worship sites and they are offering the sacrifices, but as he says else where they are looking at their watches and wondering when the service will be over so they can get back to business, shorting the measures and the mingling the sweepings with the grain they peddle to poor. They have not come as worshipful covenant people, but as perfunctory purchasers of God’s blessings. And he hates it.
Yes, it is possible for God to hate our worship. Does that frighten you? It isn’t the style of the songs we sing or the height of our liturgy that he is looking at. It is the heart. The highest and best worship we bring to Sunday mornings are the words of our confession. When we admit that our problems are so great and so profound that only God has the solution to them, then this is the worship which God delights to hear. Let’s face it, angels can sing better than we can. But God still loves to hear his redeemed people sing for they are responding to his great love for them.
This too is a good sermon to preach in the afterglow of Reformation Day. We can sometimes assert “sola gratia” but then imagine that somehow God is reacting to our worship as if we are buying something from him. Even worship is a sign of God’s graciousness. He does not love me because I am in church and the other guy is not. In fact, my whole worship life is also tainted by the reality of my sin. If God even would listen to it, it must be in his gracious, forgiving love.
That final verse sourced in Christ’s love, righteousness and justice flowing down in the cross and resurrection can be powerful Gospel. The love of Christ makes this demand of God possible. It is not possible if we would turn to ourselves. Christ alone makes this possible.
Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O Lord, make haste to help me! 2 Let them be put to shame and confusion who seek my life! Let them be turned back and brought to dishonor who delight in my hurt! 7
3 Let them turn back because of their shame who say, “Aha, Aha!”
4 May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you! May those who love your salvation say evermore, “God is great!” 5 But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay!
If you come from a tradition which sings Matins, and I would encourage you to do that sometimes, the service regularly opens up with a verse from Psalm 51 – “O Lord, open my lips.” The second verses sung are the opening verses of Psalm 70 which we have here. The monastic communities which devised these services took vows of silence. Different monasteries interpreted that vow somewhat differently, but most of them observed the grand silence. No one spoke after the last evening service until Matins. The first words they sang/spoke after a night of prayerful watching, private prayer, and contemplation were of God opening their lips to praise and God rescuing them.
The psalm begs God to turn aside the plans and plots of those who do evil, but to give joy to those who seek God and delight in him. The psalmist admits that he cannot achieve this. He is poor and needy, but God is the help and the deliverer.
If you want to have an edgy sermon, consider the final words of verse 4: God is Great. Of course, if you are familiar at all with Islam, you know that the terrorists who flew the planes into the World Trade Center or who are blowing themselves up in Iraq today are regularly shouting some form of “Allah Akbar!” as they die. It means, “God is great.” If you want to read an article about the use of this phrase, he is what the NY Times said about it recently: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/world/americas/allahu-akbar-terrorism.html
We could simply say that such a thing belongs to them and refuse the words of terrorists. But that would be to let them win in a sense. The words are part of our Bible, and exhortation to us. It should define our worship as well. There are hymns and some praise songs which use this sentiment. But I wonder if we can say it? It will take some careful work by the preacher, but I would like to think that we can claim these words for God and for good.
I Thessalonians 4:13-18 Again, context is very important here. Paul located these words about the end of the world in a discussion of love and an exhortation to a quiet, peaceable, and respectable life.
9 Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, 10 for that indeed is what you are doing to all the 8
brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, 11 and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12 so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Several points important:
1. Bodily resurrection – We have to lose the latent Gnosticism which infects most of American Protestantism which denies the physicality of the afterlife. The ones who are alive at the end are in the same boat as those who died, both have a body, both are caught up to meet with Jesus and be with him forever. There is nothing about this being a non-physical event. It is very physical. We are not see-through ghosts sitting on a cloud in heaven. We are real people there too.
2. Heaven comes to earth – we don’t go to heaven. (See also Revelation 20ff. and Romans 8) Our heaven doesn’t really begin when we die, but it begins with baptism, when the kingdom of God confronts us.
3. Jesus died for the whole of creation. He did not die and ascend to heaven in order get us out of here, he died and rose bodily (fish eating, scar touching, real body) because he had redeemed the creation.
4. The reading of this passage as a proof text of rapture as understood by most American Evangelicals is mistaken.
5. The point here is not to make people afraid, but to encourage people.
- 6. Paul locates this passage in an exhortation to a peaceable and productive life. The end of the world needs to be heard in the vibrant context of the doctrine of vocation. We are merrily serving God right now, pure and holy by his grace, leading lives filled with meaning and wonder because he has filled us with his Spirit. This is not a burden God has laid on us, rather, he has come and redeemed the life I live. a. Genesis 3 called our lives a burden laid on us by sin – by the sweat of our brow we eat our bread.
- b. Jesus has called us to rest – a yoke that is light. This is not a future thing but a now thing. Jesus has redeemed the whole of our lives, rendered all of it a blessing and a place of God’s blessing to me.
7. Our discussion of heaven needs to be connected to Eden where Adam and Eve were given the charge to care for the Garden. Heaven is not where we have nothing to do but sing and lounge around on a cloud with a harp and halo. Heaven is a place where we will need hands, eyes, and ears because there will be things to do, see, hear, and think about.
Paul’s brief visit with the folks in Thessalonica left them with some unanswered questions. Remember he only had three weeks there according to Acts. You can see that he speaks quite simply to them. It appears that they had a question about the return of Jesus. It seems that they thought that those who died before Jesus came back were somehow lost, they had missed out on heaven.
Paul wants them to grieve, but not like other people grieve, hopelessly. He wants their grief to have the character of hope imbued within it. The Christian who laments at the grave of his friend is also looking forward, expecting, the day of resurrection. The separation now is real, but that separation is not permanent. Those who have died will be raised and they will even precede us in glory. Notice, the end of the world is not bad news here, but good. Their loved ones will enjoy and see all that they get to see, even though now they are dead.
Of course, this passage has also spawned some of the current rapture talk, but the problem again of the rapture of the premillennialists of North America is that it is designed solely to make people afraid, not comfort them. These people were already terrified of death and thought that its finality extended to the last day. Paul shatters their fear here, he takes it away. The death of my loved ones is not a death which foils God’s plan of salvation. He is triumphant over it and so are they. God will cause his trumpet to be blown and its voice will summon those who have died to a new life which cannot be taken away. We will join them in this.
Therefore encourage one another with these words. The preacher who preaches this text will want to keep this in mind. This is encouragement.
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
In past conversations about this parable we wondered what the oil was in the parable; we could not come up with a good answer for that. Everything we tried raised more problems. If it was faith, why don’t the other girls share? If it was Spirit of God, same sorts of questions. Every solution seemed to cast the parable into works righteousness.
Are the Virgins simply a way of referring to all the people who assert they are Christians? Are there some who are ready and others not? Is this about the fact that God has only children, no grandchildren? Does this parable mean that when the moment arrives, we won’t really be able to share our relationship? After all, I can save no one.
We wondered if the real point is not what the virgins are doing but what the Bridegroom is doing. He is delaying. Some would say that he comes on our schedule. I have this much oil, he better show up before this runs out. The others, however, watch for a bridegroom who delays, who comes on his own schedule. The summary by Jesus at the end seems to be the governing part. Jesus exhorts us to be ready and watch because just don’t know.
As we noted in the discussion of the collect, this parable hangs on the description of a Middle Eastern wedding. It seems that the whole community was part of this, celebrating and supporting the young couple. We tend to think of young people as independent when they get married, the ancient world did not. They saw this as an occasion when two young people needed to be surrounded by their family and friends. The virgins, the bridesmaids, had a very specific job to do. They were to accompany the bridegroom to the feast in a torch or lamp – lit procession. We don’t think much of this, but they did. In fact, they were likely there as a moral support and perhaps protection for the young woman getting married. Their presence was a reminder to the man that this woman whom he married was embedded in a community, a community which cared about her and him. While the ancient world often saw women as the possession of the man, owned by him, this procession would have very much spoken of his responsibility to the whole community.
One of my friends once came upon a man in downtown Salt Lake City dressed in beautiful embroidered clothes which marked him as someone from India, Pakistan or perhaps Iran. The man was walking toward a hotel, but he was taking tiny little steps, perhaps an inch at a time. My friend was puzzled and screwed up the courage to ask what was going on and the man was happy to talk. He was on his way his wedding, he explained. That is why he had on the beautiful clothes. He had to show that this was important to himself. But, because there was a dowry involved, he could not appear too eager, so he took very small steps. He was happy to talk to anyone, it would be at least two hours before he would transverse the distance between the limousine and the banqueting hall in the hotel where he would feast with his bride’s family. Telling folks about it was a way to pass the time. 11
This seems just odd to us, we have our rituals of a bachelor party the night before, perhaps he does not see the bride on the wedding day, etc. but that one would take two hours to walk a hundred yards or so lest you give the impression that you are too eager for the dowry is another world. But it is this world which we must enter for this parable. The moment at which Jesus picks up this story is the moment of waiting for this bridegroom to arrive. He cannot seem to eager, there is a dowry involved you see. So these young women, probably the friends of the bride are charged with waiting for him. Their role is important. The man will come to the house of his in-laws and there will be a great party. The purpose of the party is to celebrate the marriage, yes, but it is also about melding together these two families, a union which will be literally consummated between the bride and her husband, but which will unite many people.
There is much at stake, often these marriages were about social mobility, large dowries might be on the line, but also the simple happiness of the couple. There were important things going on here on many levels. You can imagine this was a terrifying experience for the bride, all these things coming together and she was the focal point and within hours this man would take her to his home to be his wife. Thus, her friends will be there when he shows up, to encourage and support her. They will walk in with him in a lighted procession. She is not alone, but welcomes her husband in the relative safety of her friends. They will feast together, they will celebrate, and they will exchange their vows and promises, not only between the couple but also between their respective families. She will be given a gift from her parents, a dowry, perhaps a necklace with coins imbedded in it. We have actually found some of these. If you are ever visiting Kansas City, they have some nice examples in the Nelson Art Gallery there. It was probably one of these coins that the woman lost in the parable of the lost coin in Luke 15.
But in the parable today, half of the virgins are foolish, they have not brought enough oil for their lamps. Their wise compatriots are not foolishly generous, they send them off to get more. But, alas, while they are out haggling in the market for oil, the bridegroom comes, the party begins and this is a private affair, not a public reception, and the foolish virgins are excluded. The moment for the lamp-lit procession with the bridegroom has passed.
Jesus’ admonition to us is that we ought to watch, because we do not know the hour. Presumably that would involve having a full stock of oil, but that then demands the question of what is that oil. Is it simply the readiness of the Christian, the willingness and the joy which we might feel at the arrival of our savior? Is it something specific like forgiveness or faith or what? What is the difference between being ready and unready? I am uncomfortable with the allegorizing tendency which this parable tends to bring out in which this or that virtue shines out like lamp and we are therefore ready to receive the Lord. Those interpretations usually tell me much more about what the interpreter thinks is important than they do about this text. Often the interpreter thinks some good things, but I am much more interested in what Jesus said.
In the verses immediately before this Jesus has given a few clues. There he compares the return to that of a master of slaves who has left on a journey and put one in charge of distributing the food and drink to his fellow slaves. If he abuses his duties and drinks all the wine and gets drunk 12
and the slaves are suffering when the master returns, that is not ready and there will be a price to pay.
In the following verses we get the parable of the Talents, rather a similar sort of story to the little parable which immediately proceeds. This leads me to think that this parable is illustrating or concentrating on an important part of the two parables which frame it. Matthew is a very careful arranger of Jesus’ material and this cannot be an accident. In the verses immediately before the story of the master and his slaves, Jesus has been talking about the end of the world and some of the fearsome things that are going on there and he says, “Don’t be afraid.” I think this parable is about that phrase.
I want to focus our attention on the role of the virgins and the real problem of their absence. It is not just that they don’t get to eat the yummy goodies at the feast. Their absence is a critical loss for the bride in her moment of need. Their job is to support and encourage her. If you really need to ascribe something to the oil and the light of the lamps, I would think it would be the preaching of the Gospel, but that is really more than I want to say. The foolish virgins are foolish because they are excluded, yes, but more critically, they are foolish because their friend is without the support that she needs. They have lost their opportunity to play this important role in this most precious of days.
And so how are we ready? I think it is in when we are about the encouraging task. The end of the world is a matter of fear and consternation for a lot of folks. They are afraid. And there is much to be afraid of. Al Gore might just be right. The banks have failed in the past. We have occasionally elected lousy presidents (Harding in the 1920’s is a safely distant example of a real loser but current politics might be just too hot to talk about that.) Change sometimes is good and sometimes is bad. After all, death is a sort of change. And so, God calls on us, the Church, to be encouragers. I don’t find in the list of various offices in Ephesians anything about a prophet of gloom or apocalyptic woes. Even John, when he writes the book of Revelation does so to comfort his fearful people.
As Jesus tells two stories of a master coming back to evaluate his slaves in the stories before and after, it would seem that the evaluation is on the task set before the virgins. Yes, you can talk about letting our light shine in this darkened generation. That is a good thing too. Yes, you can talk about the oil of faith and the light of righteousness, good things as well. But I think the Middle Eastern woman who heard this parable would have found such allegorizing strange. For her, it all boils down to the comfort of that girl in that house who is greeting her husband. It comes down to the celebration of this union and not letting fear paralyze the joy.
1. The day of the Lord draws near and there is judgment on that day. The Lord is holy and righteous and his perfection does not tolerate our sins.
2. God has not given us some impossible task. He has established a covenant of his gracious and forgiving love and we have neglected it. Because we do not really know his love for us, we have no love for our fellow man. Because we have not been willing to accept his mercy, we are merciless.
3. Thus our worship grows cold. It becomes involved with how we do things and forgets that we have gathered in the presence of the Holy One who here shows us mercy. If we really believed that God came in gracious love to forgive our sins in that sacrament, could we really hold a grudge against a neighbor, could we really fight about the color of the carpet in the narthex, or how much we spend on restriping the parking lot? The ill health of our congregations is not a sign of a poorly worded constitution or some failure of process and structure. The fact that our churches are not growing and too often fighting among themselves is a crisis of faith.
4. Distracted by the things of this world, and our own passions and conflicts, we lose sight of the mission to which we have been called. Our oil runs dry and we find ourselves unprepared for the arrival of the groom. The redeemed, and do remember Jesus has died for the whole lot of us, are not always comforted by our proclamation of the end. Too often we sound like moralizing prigs or raving preachers of apocalyptic doom as we compete with the plethora of other prophets. The simple message that the one who comes is here now in word and sacrament to make you ready for that day is simply overwhelmed. Our lamps look empty and there is no light to shine.
5. We need a husband – without Jesus we are unable to call any place truly our home. He is the peace that passes our understanding and without him we are always seeking but never finding, always longing and never fulfilled.
1. While the Lord has no toleration for our sins, he also is gracious and merciful. His justice is not compromised and his mercy abounds. Christ has taken our sins to himself and bestowed upon us the very righteousness which we have not earned. The returning judge will not judge my life, but his work. He shall look at his hands and feet and know that this life is one for whom he died. He shall judge his own suffering to be enough.
2. And thus the covenant is in a constant state of renewal. Amos preached this and so did Jesus and Paul. God is not so interested in the fact of who you are right now. he loves you despite that. The essence of the covenant itself is that within it He remakes and renews us. The fact that we have been negligent is not the real issue. The real issue is what He will do about it. As long as it is day, this is the day to repent and begin anew in him.
3. This reality gives real life to our worship. When we sing the songs because they are true, when the confession is a statement of who I am and the absolution is a sweet message from Christ that my sins are included in the cross’s mercy, then I am freed to join my voice with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. My life is suddenly lived in a new reality. The things which so angered me before are not really worth all
that. The things which I had resigned myself to accept because I could not change them suddenly become the very enemies of my lord, against which I will fight tooth and nail, things like death, hunger, disease, poverty, loneliness and despair. Just follow the Lord through his ministry and see the things he vanquishes and you will see this world differently.
4. And thus we are made by the gracious and merciful love of our beloved Jesus into a mighty band of light wielding friends. Not some terrible light sabre of Star War’s, but the light of encouragement and hope. The woman who has heard the doctor say there is nothing more that can be done can hear from us that Jesus will do more. The impoverished man who has nothing to eat will know that Jesus has and will fill him when we break our sandwich in half and share our meal with him. And the light which precedes the arrival of Christ will shine brighter for every one of those marvelous moments. He will see that light and be glad as he welcomes us into the wedding hall, to partake of wedding feasts and holy joy.
1. So let your light shine before men…. (That the hearer, believing the good news that Jesus has made them holy and conquered all their foes, would shine with the light of Christ in this darkened age, encouraging people to look with expectant joy on the day of our returning king by the living of his/her life.)
The parable of the virgins casts a rather stark picture. One definitely wants to be in that wise group and not in the foolish group, but just what is a wise virgin in this context? The virgin’s job was to encourage, to be a support for the bride on her wedding day. They were an important part of bringing together two different families so that when they came out of that feast they would be one family. Our light shines, our flasks are full of oil when people see Jesus in our lives and they know that the one who comes is the one who is here right now forgiving, loving, feeding, helping, healing, and caring for his people today. This is the light that Jesus has given us to hold in his death and resurrection and by the pouring out of His Spirit. I cannot make them believe it, I cannot make the problems all go away, the darkness will only flee before his glorious presence. But I can light the way, encouraging the bride as the groom draws closer that his arrival is an occasion for her joy. This parable is a frontal assault on cheap grace – the Christian who sits in the pew but for whom the Gospel makes no difference should hear the stern-ness of the warning today. The Christian whose life reflects Christ, on the other hand, should hear the sweet invitation of Christ to come into the wedding hall and enjoy the feast.
Without a similar practice in our life, I fear that the explanation will overpower the proclamation. How will we keep that from happening?
We struggled with this parable. Have we simply allegorized it here? Have we made this into something about what we do? Should we even preach this sermon this way? 15
2. Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (OT – That the Holy Spirit would fill the baptized, redeemed, rescued child of God with a godly passion for justice and righteousness.)
This sermon might just go back to the Gospel of last week as Jesus spoke of a blessing for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The Gospel here is that Justice and Righteousness flows down, not up. It is not ascending into heaven as if I was pushing it up there for God’s consumption. This is justice and righteousness which flows down from heaven to us, through us.
Amos saw a people who were economically wealthy but spiritually bankrupt. They went to church every Sunday, but outside their doors the poor and vulnerable were suffering and dying without hope. They were part of the problem. They sold a man for pair of sandals. They cheated in the courts and in the marketplace. They sat on their couches and demanded another glass of pinot noir, but they would not lift a finger to help a hungry soul. Amos had to shout pretty loud in the 8th century BC and the preacher will have to shout pretty loud to get through to his Lutheran hearers today.
Amos reviles, chastises, and condemns these Israelites and us Christians. Today he hits the very thing we often like to think we get right: Worship. But God doesn’t need our praise songs or our stalwart old hymns. He put us here to be light and hope for a benighted world. He doesn’t need our worship, rather our worship needs to be serving his kingdom come in this time and place through our hands and through our lives. We get this backward all the time. We imagine God likes what we are doing here. In fact, God is doing something here to us in Word and Sacrament so that we be the light and hope he wants this town to have.
So Amos speaks of Justice and Righteousness flowing down like a river – does that not resonate with chalice and baptismal water flowing out for us? Does not Amos see that this comes not from us squinting our eyes and gritting our teeth and coming up with some good old justice and righteousness? It comes from God, to us, through us, for this world which he loves and for which he died and rose again.
In effect, this sermon becomes a re-imagination of worship. We want to think we are here to do something for God. Wrong! God is here to do something to us and having done it, through us to bring his kingdom into this community. Justice rolls down like a river. The justice of Jesus which is given to us sinners. Righteousness flows into this town – through our words of forgiveness, through our acts of merciful kindness.
3. The Bridegroom Delays (Gospel: That the hearer would approach the promised appearance of Christ in an appropriate humility and patience. Jesus comes in his own time.)
This sermon will mine the Epistle reading as well, but particularly the Epistle readings verses which come before the actually reading. God’s time table is not ours. Paul seems to have thought that Jesus was coming back soon, but he did not, obviously. Jesus exhorts 16
us to patient waiting today, but that patient waiting is not simply turning our eyes toward heaven and standing out on the nearest hill. It is a purposeful waiting. We have a lamp to light. Paul speaks of that life which is lived in that patient waiting. It is the life of loving service to one another, it is minding your own business, and working hard at what God has given us to do.
Our human nature wants God to hurry, but it is good that the bridegroom delays. But it will cause some to stumble. Jesus seems to be telling us not to be one of those.
4. May those who love your salvation say evermore “God is Great!” (Psalm: That the hearer would critically examine his/her own congregation and the role he/she has played therein, repenting of sin, hearing of God’s love, and vowing to help make this place a merciful and gracious place where those who love God’s salvation sing his praises.)
Let’s face it, God has given his people a fairly simple task – be a light for this world. There are lots of ways you can do that. The Christians of the past have let their lights shine as they have sent missionaries, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, broken down barriers, and built schools and hospitals. But we so easily lose sight of that. God has put this congregation in this place to be a light to this community.
God did not create this congregation to be a place where you can remember the songs of your childhood or so you can associate with your friends. How have we lost sight that here? How have you lost sight of that personally? It got so bad in ancient Israel that God actually said he hated the sacrifices and worship of his people. What does he say about our worship and our fellowship? Does God move people to stand up and notice the great love we have for one another? Does he shape events so that the great love we have might find expression in the need of our neighbor? Or should he keep us quiet, let the sign in front of our church get covered in vines and moss, lest someone actually come and our bickering give offence to another and deny him or her the faith through which he saves?
While sin surely taints even our worship, Christ has very good news for us today. He still wants us to be that light. He has died for us and there is nothing that would make him happier than that we shine with his glorious light. He is not done with us, you see. His mercy and grace were large enough to call back his wayward Old Testament people. His love and grace had to shine in the lives of those Christian heroes of the past. If you dig deep, you will find in every one of them a sinner confronted on their own version of a Damascus road. And so he would once more put a lamp in our hands, and oil in our flasks, and call us to shine with his love to this generation of people.
5. Personal Ad: I Need a Husband (Collect and Gospel: That the hearer would believe that Jesus, his/her savior, has come and made the promise and betrothed us to himself.)
We are helpless and hopeless without our Jesus, we are unable to defend ourselves and help ourselves, our great enemies of sin and death and devil will never let us alone, but will harry us and make our lives miserable. With psalmist we must confess that we are poor and needy. 17
But Jesus has come, given us his strong name, and claimed us for his own. The cross and empty tomb are his great promise to us – we belong, we belong to him.
I think this sermon really wants to imagine the bride of the Lord after the wedding day. She has not deserved the status she enjoys. But she has it. Helpless and weak, she has been chosen, claimed, married to the one who has all that she lacks and who lovingly and graciously gives it to her. He loves her.
What we want to do then, is bring it back. We are now the fiancé. The bridegroom has negotiated the dowry on a cross. He has clothed himself with radiant light in the resurrection. Now he comes for the bride (that’s us) and we eagerly wait for this. Yes, many things will end on that day. We will leave this house of our birth and childhood. Our sinful nature will be left behind. The many patterns and ways of this world with which we have grown comfortable and familiar will be different in our new house. Are we a little afraid of that, of course! But this is the king, the prince, who comes for us. This is every Disney movie with a princess and a handsome prince rolled into one. This really is the happily ever after story.
6. The dead in Christ shall rise first (Epistle: That the hearer would delight in the promise God has made to them and which we confess when we say, “I believe…in the resurrection of the body and the world to come.)
Our culture is largely gnostic – we imagine that heaven is a spiritual affair, and not a physical one and in so doing we deprive ourselves of so much good news that Jesus has for us. God has made this beautiful world, loves it, and shed his real blood for it. He has been born in a manger, lived as a carpenter, healed the sick, raised the dead, and done all those things because he loves this whole creation.
The preacher will want to read his Bible carefully for this one because so much of our society has embraced this spiritualized heaven. God’s word, however, is clear. Read Romans 8, the resurrection accounts in the Gospels, and the whole Gospel of John. The physical life is what Jesus died for and rose bodily for. God loves it.
This means our lives lived right now have been redeemed by his work. We go to work, we live in this world as citizens of that kingdom which comes and has already come. We can merrily face the challenges the world throws at us. God has died for this situation and will find a way to bless it. I don’t need all the answers, God has those. The preacher will want to consider the doctrine of vocation here.