Monday, November 10, 2008

Proper 27 of Series A (Matthew 25:1-13)

“Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago, from Matthew chapter twenty-five. Dear friends in Christ, weddings again? It seems like we just talked about weddings a couple weeks ago, and in fact we did. Jesus told a parable about a king who invited people to His wedding feast, but they refused to come, and so others were invited into the feast. If we have any wedding haters here today, you probably find yourself skipping over quite a few sections of the New Testament. Jesus loved weddings, though He may be less enthused with many of today’s over-commercialized ‘bridezilla’ versions. The fact was, our Lord was quite eager to use weddings as illustrations, for two main reasons, I think (there are probably more). First of all, Jesus Christ loved to celebrate- if you remember, His first miracle was making sure that a bridegroom had enough wine to survive the feast. Second, weddings provide so much imagery that connects with the kingdom of God, and this imagery reaches across the boundaries of time. Weddings are still very much a part of our experience today.

But even if we are experienced with weddings today, we still need a little education on first-century Jewish weddings to completely understand Jesus’ words. In our text, Jesus speaks of a specific part of the wedding ceremony. “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.” In a Jewish wedding, the bridegroom prepared for the ceremony at his own home, then came to the bride’s home at a time and hour unknown. Meeting the bridal party there, he then conducted his bride and the rest back to his home. Jesus divides the virgins in our text into two groups: “Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.” The wise ones knew that the bridegroom could return at any time, and so they were prepared: “the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.” They were eagerly anticipating the return of the bridegroom, and so all was in perfect readiness.

The second group, however, was a study in contrasts. “For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them.” They were completely unprepared for the return of the bridegroom, they thought that the mere act of having a lamp would be enough, they had no need for extra oil. Aren’t we all like these foolish virgins? We too often depend on our outward acts, thinking that they will give us standing when the bridegroom returns. We are in the pews, aren’t we? We have a bible at home, right? No matter that while we sit here our mind is on football, or our bible only exists to hold up coffee mugs. Those with no oil in their lamps are those who cling to the show that they make before others, hoping that it will sway God when Christ returns in glory. As long as my name is on the membership roll, I’m alright, correct? God has some very harsh words to say for those who do this in the Old Testament reading for today: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.” God has no patience for simply going through the motions, trusting in our outward acts, whether in the Old Testament or today. Instead, He wants to see lamps full. “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everlasting stream.” When we trust in our outward acts, in the ‘I am Christian’ nametag on our shirt, to save us before God, we often feel very secure, we feel comfortable, we feel sleepy. “As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.” We are all guilty of sleeping in our spiritual life, of not paying attention and keeping watchful. The disciples themselves could not keep watch with Jesus in Gethsemane for even one hour, and so we too find it hard to wait, we become lazy with our spiritual life, wondering if Christ will ever return.

But as the foolish virgins discovered, this is a terrible mistake. “But at midnight there was a cry, 'Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' 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.' 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. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.' But he answered, 'Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.' Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” They had finally been moved to seek out oil, but it was far too late, for when the bridegroom arrives the door of the feast is shut- forever. For those who were not prepared, the return of the bridegroom is exactly as Amos described in our Old Testament text: “Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?”

The day of the Lord is darkness, it is gloom, and it has already happened. Judgment Day happened on Good Friday- it was that day that darkness covered the earth, it was on that day that God declared His judgment on sin. Sin deserves death, it deserves wrath, it deserves punishment. But the bridegroom Himself, Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, was the one who was judged. He was condemned by the Sanhedrin, He was sent to the cross by Pilate, but in the courtroom of God, He was judged as the sinner, and therefore deserving of punishment. But this was not simply the judgment for His own sin- Jesus Christ had no sin of His own for which to suffer. He instead was judged for your sin, each and every one of them, and every sin committed in all of history. He hung in agony upon that cross for your sins, He suffered the anguish of hell for you when God abandoned Him upon the tree. Judgment day was Good Friday, and it was on that day that God judged Jesus Christ ‘guilty.’ But because Christ was judged guilty, because He suffered and bled and died for your sin, your Judgment Day was also Good Friday. On that day, as the ground shook and sun refused to shine, God declared you ‘not guilty’ for the sake of Christ. God then affirmed this judgment, He showed that Christ really did die for your sins three days later, when the women came to the tomb and found it empty. The stone was rolled away and Jesus rose victorious over sin, death, and Satan, He rose and God confirmed His judgment of ‘not guilty.’ His judgment fell on the bridegroom, it fell on His Son, and so you do not have to fear it falling upon you.

Christ then walked this earth again for forty days and ascended back into heaven, promising to return. And like we believe all of God’s promises we believe that He will truly return, though we know neither the day nor the hour. But we do not have to fear this return, because Judgment Day already occurred, and it occurred on Good Friday, where Christ was judged ‘guilty’ and we were judged ‘not guilty.’ As Paul teaches us in our Epistle lesson, “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. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep.” We therefore watch with joy for Christ’s return, because it is a joyous day, a day on which we will be ushered into heavenly glory. Our lamps are filled with the Gospel, they are filled with His Word, they are filled to the brim by the Holy Spirit.
The Christian Church, the bride of the bridegroom, has been waiting for that Day since Christ ascended. In our text, the bridegroom ‘delayed,’ and to us it seems as if Jesus is doing the same thing. He has waited centuries to fulfill His promise, but slowness is not the explanation. He is not waiting around for us to do something, He is not frittering away His time in heavenly glory. Instead, He has picked a specific day, hour, and minute or His return, and all we know is that we are closer to that time than we have ever been. Without the promise of eternal glory, without the gift of the Word and Sacraments, the Church would not be able to survive this interlude between Christ’s first coming and His second. But with these gifts we look forward to what Paul describes: “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. 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. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” These words truly provide us comfort and encouragement, because in them we have the promise of resurrection, that just as Jesus was raised, so we too will rise again someday. On that Day we will meet Jesus face to face, we will join with the Trinity in heavenly glory. On that day the messengers will cry, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet Him!”

Jesus cautioned us at the end of our text, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Throughout history, Christians have been watching and waiting for the Lord to return. When you read the letters of Paul, you become convinced that He expected Christ’s return any day, and you see that also in Luther, and many other saints throughout history. They eagerly anticipated His coming, they watched with joy. That is how we, as those judged ‘not guilty’ by God, also live- in eager anticipation of the Lord’s coming. We hope for His return, we yearn for it, because it is on that Day that the Lord will fully give to us the inheritance that He earned for us, it is then that God will wipe every tear from our eyes, as we heard last week. Only the power of the Holy Spirit can enable us to remain watchful, only the Gospel can prepare us to meet Him on that glorious day. May the Lord preserve and strengthen you in the true faith in anticipation of that Day, and may you eagerly look forward to when you will meet the bridegroom face to face, Amen.

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