“Watch therefore, for you do not know the day nor the hour.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Last Sunday of the Church Year is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, keep watch, for the end is coming. It is coming like a thief in the night, suddenly, at an hour that you do not expect. If the master of the house had known when the robbers would come, he would’ve been sitting in his living room at that very hour, shotgun in hand. But he doesn’t know when they are coming, and so he must constantly keep watch. There are no more events that need to occur before Jesus can return; the signs He promised have been happening since He ascended into heaven, and they will continue until He returns, exhorting us to be watchful. Every war, every natural disaster, every instance of persecution is a warning, a call to be watchful, a reminder that the end is coming. Don’t be deceived by date-setters; Jesus could come today or tomorrow or the next day; nothing needs to happen that hasn’t already occurred. Our Lord didn’t preach complacency, but vigilance; His return will be sudden, it will come at a day and an hour that no one expected except those who were constantly vigilant, constantly watchful. For such people, the kind of people Christ calls on His Church to be, the end is sudden, but not surprising.
The end is coming at a day and an hour that no one knows, but it is surely coming; no one in the Church or the world should be surprised. Jesus certainly made Himself very clear. He who died for the sin of the world, rose again in victory over the grave, and ascended to the right hand of the throne of God will return from that throne on the Last Day to bring the present order to an end, establishing the new heavens and the new earth. As He said in Matthew chapter twenty-four: “Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” The Church has been preaching these words for over two thousand years; in fact, the Church is nothing else than those gathered in eager anticipation of Christ’s return. Why did the virgins gather? Only to meet the bridegroom. “The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.”
The Church is the assembly of the saints crying out, “Come, Lord Jesus!” The world knows this, it knows the Church’s message, that her Lord is not only risen from the dead but is returning on the Last Day. Christ’s bride cannot tell the world the day or the hour, but she has always declared that He is surely coming. And if the world knows this, then surely those within the Church should know this. Why else do we gather? Only to meet the Bridegroom. When that Day comes, when the voice cries out, no person should be surprised. “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”
On that Day there are no surprises; no one who was prepared will be shut out, and no one who was unprepared will be let in. There is no hidden or secret knowledge here, no codebook to learn. Jesus was quite clear, and His Church has been quite clear in preaching His Words. It has not been kept from anyone how to be prepared for that Day. But still, inexplicably, the ten virgins of the Church are not all prepared: “Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.” All ten were virgins, make clean and pure in the waters of Holy Baptism and brought into the Church, the virgin bride of Christ. All ten carried lamps, shining out their light before men in good works, maybe even making confession with their lips. And all ten fell asleep, that is, they all, wise or foolish, died.
But the foolish virgins were lacking something; few realized it simply by looking at them, but they themselves knew. Their virgin purity shone forth in the light of their lamps, but they had forgotten something. “When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them.” They may be in the outward fellowship of the Church, they may have been baptized, their names may appear in a church directory, but there is no oil, they have no faith. They have let their hearts grow cold toward Christ. They have long ago let the cares and concerns of this world overcome their faith. Some of them may go to worship, even partake of the Lord’s Supper, volunteer in their community and do good works in the name of Christ, but it is all a sham, a deception to impress others; they despise and reject what they hear. And they know it; whether they have abandoned the church or keep up a pretense, whether they have openly rejected Him or quietly lost their faith in apathy, they know they have discarded Christ.
The wise virgins have also been made pure in the waters of Holy Baptism, they too shine forth their lamps in good works and the confession of Christ with the lips. And they too fall asleep; being wise doesn’t spare anyone from death. But they are prepared. It is no surprise who is wise and who is foolish; neither group should be shocked. Jesus isn’t operating by deception or in secrets, He has made it quite plain what the wisdom He seeks consists in. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” The wise virgins are those who hear the Word of God and believe by the power of the Holy Spirit; the oil in their lamps are the gifts of the Gospel, received by faith. Their lamps shine because they burn with the oil given by Jesus; their good works flow from faith.
One is not prepared for the return of Christ by their outward purity, by their good works, or having their names in a church directory. None of those things matter at all apart from faith. Those who believe are prepared. And it is no surprise where this faith is given; it is no surprise where virgins are made wise and prepared for the coming of the Bridegroom: this only happens in the fellowship of the Church, gathered around Christ’s Holy Word and His precious Sacraments. There Christ puts oil in our flasks, there He makes us prepared, by forgiving our sins and strengthening our faith as we wait for His return. There we are strengthened by our fellow believers and encouraged to patience. The Church isn’t some sort of secret society, imparting the codebook that will get you into heaven; the Church preaches the Word clearly and boldly to the entire world, the Word that creates faith in our crucified and risen Savior, the only oil that can keep lamps burning and make us prepared for the Bridegroom’s return.
And He will return, as He promised. His return will be sudden, but it should take no one by surprise. And it will not surprise anyone what the consequences will be. “The bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.” On that Day, the voice will announce the Bridegroom’s return, and all those who slept the sleep of death will be awakened, wise or foolish. It will then be no surprise on that Day that the door is open to the wise, to those who believe. Their purity is not their own, but is given by Christ; they wear the robe of His righteousness. Their good works shine forth and are pleasing to God because they burn on the oil of Christ’s gifts, they flow from faith in Him. They enter only through Jesus. “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.” It is then no surprise when the foolish virgins find the door 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.’” He doesn’t know them because they didn’t know Him; they trusted in their works or their appearances, but not in Jesus.
Many foolish virgins live their lives apart from Christ, believing that they will have a second chance to make things right with God before that Day comes, or even after it has arrived. “And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’” That is what makes them foolish; it should be no surprise that on that Day there will be no second chances, it will be too late. “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.’” The wise virgins are glad to show others where to obtain oil—the Divine Service—but on that Day, it is too late. The door is shut.
“Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Keep watch, as wise virgins, dear friends, not as the foolish ones. You have been made pure by the work of Christ, cleansed by Him in Holy Baptism. You have heard His Word proclaim to you that your sins are forgiven; Christ’s death and resurrection have been applied directly to you. You have received His Body and Blood, given and shed for you on the cross, given to you to eat and to drink in the Supper. The door stands open for you, because Christ died and rose again to open it for you. That door received Aaron after his idolatry, admitted David after his adultery, after his homicide; that door did not repel the disciples after they abandoned Christ, and it will not be shut against you. The same forgiveness that Christ bestowed on the saints of old belongs to you, for Christ died for all; His blood was shed for your sin, and only by His blood do you have access to the feast. You will enter in with joy, joining the Bridegroom’s feast, for you have the oil that is not your own, but has been given to you by Jesus through His Church. You are wise because you have been made wise by Christ, and therefore for you the cry of the watchman is a cry of joy: “Here is the Bridegroom! Come out to meet Him!” Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.