Sunday, November 24, 2013

Homily for The Last Sunday of the Church Year (Sunday of the Fulfillment)

Matthew 25:1-13; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Isaiah 65:17-25

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The coming of God’s kingdom and the kingly reign of God in and through His Son Jesus the Christ are central themes in Matthew’s Gospel. In fact, Matthew uses the phrase “the kingdom of God” four times, “the kingdom of heaven” thirty-three times, and “the kingdom” an additional seventeen times – that’s a minimum of fifty-four references to the kingdom of God in Matthew’s Gospel alone! What Matthew is trying to communicate, however, is that God’s kingdom is not a thing or a place so much as it is an action – God’s kinging or reigning activity through the person of His Son Jesus Christ. Because our minds, reason, and wisdom are so very ensnared in sin and our own conceptions of what is glorious, powerful, and good, and because we all but insist on making the abstract to be concrete, our Lord teaches His disciples and all believers about His kingdom by making use of parables, analogies, and metaphors saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like….”
Today, on this Last Sunday of the Church Year, which is also known as the Sunday of the Fulfillment, our Lord teaches us what it will be like when He returns on the Last Day, and what we should be doing, and how we should live our lives, now, as we watch and wait for His coming in hopeful expectation each and every day until that fulfillment arrives. Our Lord says, “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. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.”
Immediately we are struck by Jesus’ use of unexpected analogy. How, we must ask, is the kingdom of heaven in any way like ten virgins? Well, most likely the virgins themselves and their number, ten, is a figure. Virginity is a figure for purity, innocence, and cleanness; the number ten is a figure for wholeness, or the complete number of those who have been cleansed and made holy in the blood of Jesus – which is everyone – thus, the ten virgins represent all humanity, redeemed in Jesus’ blood. What makes five of them to be wise and five of them to be foolish is not more or less virginity (indeed, that figure excludes such thinking; either one is a virgin, or one is not – there are no degrees of virginity!), but rather it is the oil that they carry in their lamps – do they have enough oil to last through the bridegroom’s delay. Therefore, since it is ultimately the lack of oil that makes five of the virgins to be foolish, we must turn our minds to the question, “What does the oil represent?”
First of all, the oil is essential. It is absolutely necessary if the virgin is to see where she is going in the darkness and, therefore, to see her bridegroom coming to her when He arrives. Without oil, there is no light, but only ignorance and groping around in the darkness. St. Paul uses some terrific imagery about light and darkness in his epistle to the Thessalonians, which you heard this morning, saying “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day.” And, Paul says elsewhere, in his epistle to the Ephesians: “For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk, therefore, as children of light.” The meaning here is clear: Once you were in darkness, but now that has changed and you are something different; you are children of light now, walking in light. Therefore, do not return to the darkness. And, what is it that has brought about this change? It is the same thing that brings the light – the oil, that is faith.
What made five of the virgins to be wise and five to be foolish was ultimately faith, in figure, the amount of oil that they had with them. Now, I know that we don’t tend to think of faith as something quantifiable and measurable; in fact, I regularly preach and teach against such an understanding of faith. Even in this parable, I maintain that it is not the amount of faith that matters at all, but simply that you have it. After all, even though the five wise virgins brought extra oil and their lamps were still burning when the bridegroom finally arrived, surely they had little oil left at that time. But, that doesn’t matter, for the important thing is not how much, but that they have it. In contrast, the five foolish virgins had the oil of faith, but they did not have enough for the long haul, to continue to wait and to watch for the bridegroom through his delay. When he finally arrived, not only did they no longer have oil in their lamps, but they were not even near the wedding hall, desperately out searching, in all the wrong places, for a way to rekindle their faith.
To drive this point even further, Jesus says that both the wise and the foolish virgins, all ten of them, fell asleep as they waited. This point is marvelous, for here Jesus levels our reason and our wisdom, our pride and our self-righteousness, our insistence that we cooperate with God in our salvation by our works of piety and charity – for you can do nothing if you are sleeping: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” No, it’s not about what you do, but it’s about what you have, what you have received – faith. This is the Lord’s work by the Holy Spirit, not of your flesh or your will, your reason or wisdom. And, this is really the heart and the root of Jesus’ teaching today about the kingdom of heaven: The kingdom of heaven comes now through Jesus. It is received through faith which He has created in you and which He sustains in you through His Word and Holy Sacraments that you might be wise and prepared, whether you are awake or asleep, when He returns on the Last Day. It is all His work, all the time. The wise receive, keep, and treasure this gift as they watch and wait.
And yet, there is still more to Jesus’ parable. Indeed, there is always more with Jesus. The kingdom of heaven, He teaches, is also like a bridegroom coming to marry his virgin bride. How is the kingdom of heaven like a marriage? Actually, this is a common image throughout the Holy Scriptures. Following the creation of our First Parents, Adam and Eve, God joined them in marriage and blessed them that they would be fruitful. God gave us the institution of marriage in the beginning so that, through this selfless and sacrificial union in which a man and a woman become one flesh, we would have a glimpse, a foretaste, and an experience of the kind of love He has for all humanity. God doesn’t want only to be our God, but He wants to be our Husband, and we, the Church, His holy Bride. This truth St. Paul expounds upon in Ephesians chapter five: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery [marriage] is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church.” Our Lord and Husband Jesus laid down His life in selfless, sacrificial death upon the cross for us, His Bride, the Church. When a Roman soldier pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, the Church sprang forth in Holy Blood and Water as a New Eve taken from the side of a New Adam and presented to Him as His Wife and Bride. Now the Church has become the fruitful Mother from which the children of God are born again by the life-giving Seed of the Word and the watery womb of the font. But I digress ;-).
Why is it then, that when the bridegroom finally arrives and the five foolish virgins return and beg to be let in to the feast, the bridegroom answers them saying, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you?” He does not know them because He does not recognize their fruits. They bear, not the fruit of His Vine, but other fruit, bad fruit. Their faith was not sufficient to see them through the time in which He was delayed. They were no longer watching and waiting for His coming in hopeful expectation. They had let their faith grow week and diminish as it was choked out and replaced by cares and anxieties and idolatries of the world and the flesh. They may have thought they were keeping their faith aflame by patronizing other faith dealers – self-help preachers and new-age sorcerers – but they were not feeding their faith, they were not buying oil, and it could not keep them and preserve them in faith over the long haul. Therefore, when the Bridegroom arrived, He did not recognize or know them as His Bride. For, there is only one kind of oil that will preserve you and keep you until He comes; there is only one faith, and only one source of feeding that faith which is recognized by our Lord and Husband – God’s Word and His Holy Sacraments. Remain in these, and He will remain in you, and you will bear much, and the correct and proper fruit.
This is what the kingdom of heaven is like. All is prepared for you, the Bride of Christ. Though He may tarry, your Bridegroom is coming at a day and an hour you do not know. He says to you, “You believe in God; believe also in Me.” “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.”
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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