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Waiting Wisely (Matthew 25.1-3)

The Last Sunday in the Church Year

“Waiting Wisely”
Rev. Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus

Matthew 25.1-13
24 November 2019



About the day of Christ’s return in glory Jesus said:
“But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. (Mt 24:36).
42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. (Mt 24:42).
44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Mt 24:44).
Jesus spoke these three words immediately before telling this Parable of the Ten Virgins.

The unbelieving world looks with terror at the prospect of the destruction of the created order but Christians have a different outlook, one which the wedding parables of Jesus emphasize. Jesus pictures the Kingdom of Heaven as the wedding feast of the King’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. For us the end of this created order is not to be feared but is to be anticipated with great joy. Our Hymn of the Day, Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying, speaks of the grand celebration:
The Bridegroom comes, awake!
Your lamps with gladness take!
With bridal care Yourselves prepare
To meet the Bridegroom who is near.[LSB 516.1]

A few weeks ago we heard the Parable of the Wedding Feast and the call which went out, “the feast is ready, come to the feast!” But here is waiting. Here is delay, and that is the issue in this parable. We’re not used to that. A couple announces a wedding date and sends out invitations with date and time. Simeon and Emily will be married here in this sanctuary on January 4 at 11:30 in the morning. We put it on our calendars. But not so the wedding feast of the King’s Son and his Bride, the Church. It will happen but we do not know when the final cry will go out, but we need to be ready at any time.

The wedding parable reflects millennia-old customs which have come down to the present day. One man wrote about what he saw in Palestine in the earlier part of the 20th century.
When we were approaching the gates of a Galilean town, I caught a sight of ten maidens gaily clad and playing some kind of musical instrument, as they danced along the road in front of our car; when I asked what they were doing, the dragoman [ed. a guide] told me that they were going to keep the bride company till her bridegroom arrived. I asked him if there was any chance of seeing the wedding, but he shook his head, saying in effect: ‘It might be tonight, or tomorrow night, or in a fortnight’s time; nobody ever knows for certain.’ Then he went on to explain that one of the great things to do, if you could, at a middle-class wedding in Palestine, was to catch the bridal party napping. So the bridegroom comes unexpectedly, and sometimes in the middle of the night; it is true that he is required by public opinion to send a man along the street to shout: ‘Behold! the bridegroom is coming!’ but that may happen at any time; so the bridal party have to be ready to go out into the street at any time to meet him, whenever he chooses to come . . . Other important points are that no one is allowed on the streets after dark without a lighted lamp, and also that, when the bridegroom has once arrived, and the door has been shut, late-comers to the ceremony are not admitted.” [Barclay, p. 353]

Being ready for the great celebration is key. Jesus describes two kinds of waiters, wise and unwise. Wisdom is preparedness while foolishness is not. The wise servant described in the words immediately before our parable is the one who is prepared for his master’s return when he does not expect him. I remember a story my field work supervisor told in a sermon on that text. A visitor was being shown around an exquisite estate at Lake Como in northern Italy. Think the 2006 James Bond movie Casino Royale, filmed in part at Lake Como. The visitor was very impressed by the beauty of the grounds and he said to the groundskeeper, “This is all so perfect. You keep them up as though you expect your owner to return tomorrow.” The groundskeeper replied, “Not tomorrow, but today!” That’s what Jesus means about being wise, prepared.

All ten virgins had lamps and all slept, so it is not the sleeping on which the parable turns. The big question of this parable is: How does one prepare? That leads to the next question: What is the oil for the lamps? Is it faith? Is it good works? Is it faith and good works? Is the trimmed lamp equivalent to the wedding garment in the previous parable?

Since none of us lives by oil lamps we might not grasp the process of trimming the lamps, although our Altar Guild has been trained in trimming the altar candles which are fed by oil. When wicks are trimmed, the burnt ends are cut so that they relight easily. The clean wick is pulled up a certain distance so they burn evenly. There have been a few occasions where candles have gone out. Alas, someone forgot to refill them with oil! The candles sputtered momentarily and then poof!, they went out. All ten virgins trimmed and relit their lamps but the lamps of the five foolish ones went out just like those altar candles.

Luther’s first thesis of the 95 Theses, the document which marks the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation, states:
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4.17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” [Luther’s Works, AE, vol. 31, p. 25]. In the Apostle Peter’s sermon on Pentecost he proclaimed repentance and Baptism for the forgiveness of sins. [Acts 2.38-39]. In Holy Baptism we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, giving us forgiveness of sins and a new life which differs in thinking, focus, and actions from the old life of sin. It is into this life we have been baptized, and into which Brice, June, and Claire have been baptized this morning. The life of the baptized is to be one of repentance, faith, and good works. Such a life depends solely upon the means of grace which God supplies. Think oil in the lamp.

In our baptismal rite a lighted candle is given to the newly baptized with these words:
Receive this burning light to show that you have received Christ who is the Light of the world. Live always in the light of Christ, and be ever watchful for His coming, that you may meet Him with joy and enter with Him into the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which shall have no end. [LSB p. 271].

Faith centers in repentance and forgiveness. Martin Chemnitz, one of the authors of the Formula of Concord, one of our confessional writings stated:
Furthermore, we pray that God would put into us a concern and desire to prepare ourselves in advance for those things that are necessary to be properly prepared for death. This is done so that we may be prepared for death, because we do not want to be like those who do not have oil in their lamps when the bridegroom comes and calls us [Matt. 25.3]. We ask that in the last hour of this life we may have true repentance, the Word, the Sacraments, faith, hope, and the spirit of grace and prayer. These things we ask so that when we are to die, we may be found in Christ . . . [The Lord’s Prayer, pp. 76-77, CPH 1999, 2007]

Once the door was shut no one could enter. Even though the five foolish virgins called, “Lord, Lord, open to us,” it was too late. There would be no reprieve. Those who plan to repent at the eleventh hour sometimes die at 10:30. Hence, our Lord’s admonition which concludes this parable, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” [Matt. 25.13]

To be ready and watchful means living in Holy Baptism. Practicing your baptism is simply a daily return to Christ in repentance and believing the Gospel that for Christ’s sake you are justified. Confession of sins and Absolution is how we say it. It’s the daily rhythm of the Christian faith.

We are saved by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith. The lamp of faith is fed by the means of grace, that is, Word and Sacrament. Using Word and Sacrament keeps faith alive and enables good works by the Christian. We call it living one’s vocation, whether you are a father or mother, parent or child, worker or employer, citizen, government servant, or whatever vocations are yours.

Waiting Wisely centers in living out your Christian vocations. That makes it practical. The problem in Thessalonika was that many had given up working and become busybodies. Paul’s word to them was to continue building each other up by fulfilling their Christian vocations. Paul exhorts us to live as in the daylight, not partaking in the works of darkness, “so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.” [1 Thess. 5.10] So, the oil in the parable points to faith and good works. These are fed and nourished by Word and Sacrament. The writer of Hebrews encourages:
24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb 10:24–25).

Yes, we are “justified by grace for Christ’s sake through faith,” but that faith is never alone. Jesus speaks of a faith which is nourished and alive, burning, if you will. Those without good works have a dead faith, one which doesn’t burn brightly and which has no works to which it can point as proof that faith is living. Our good works are not our justification but our justification results in us doing good works. Living out your Christian vocation, fed by Word and Sacrament, is “Waiting Wisely”, and you will be ready to enter the eternal feast of heaven.

In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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