Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Matthew 4:18-22; Romans 10:8-18
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St. Andrew the Apostle was crucified on an x-shaped cross on November 30, 60 A.D. during the reign of Roman Emperor Nero. Legend has it that the Holy Spirit converted a Roman Governor’s wife to the Christian faith through Andrew’s preaching. The Governor was so enraged that he did not have Andrew nailed to the cross, but, rather, bound tightly in order to prolong his suffering. Perhaps it is only a coincidence that St. Andrew’s cross also resembled the Greek letter chi, the first two letters of the title Christ. Thus, St. Andrew was crucified and died a martyr for Christ upon that blessed letter and symbol. Today, the image of St. Andrew’s x-shaped cross is emblemized upon the flag of Scotland, of which nation St. Andrew is her patron saint.
Originally a disciple of St. John the Baptist, St. Andrew, the brother of St. Peter, was the first disciple to be called by Jesus to follow Him. It was Andrew who told his brother Peter about Jesus, and both brothers became His disciples. In Scriptural lists of Jesus’ disciples and Apostles, St. Andrew always appears in the top four, along with Peter, John, and James. At the Feeding of the Five Thousand, it was Andrew who answered Jesus saying, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” A few days before Jesus’ death, when some Greeks asked that they might see Jesus, Phillip referred the matter to Andrew as to one of greater authority, and then they both went and told Jesus.
The call of St. Andrew appears in all four Gospels. In each account it is Jesus who first sees and calls, and Andrew and the others who respond and leave what they are doing and follow Him. In first century Judaism, discipleship was, literally, the beginning of a new life. Whatever defined you before – relationships, vocations, social status, etc. – was left behind as one assumed the role of a disciple, a student, and followed their rabbi, their teacher. Jesus often indicated this radical change in life and in vocation by giving His disciples new names: Levi became Matthew; Simon became Peter; Saul became Paul. Sometimes Jesus spoke of the disciples’ change in vocation: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” This is consistent with significant events in the Old Testament when Abram became Abraham and Jacob became Israel.
Such a change in name and vocation continues to happen in Christ’s Church today. When you were baptized, you literally died with Jesus and were born again in Him. In the Church’s baptismal liturgy, the question is asked, “How is this child to be named?” indicating that a radical change has occurred and that a new spiritual person has been born. This new man needs a name. Also included in the baptismal liturgy is a three-fold renunciation of the devil and all his works and all his ways. This was particularly meaningful in the early Christian Church for nearly everyone was a convert from either Judaism or paganism. Baptismal candidates understood that, by becoming a Christian, they were dying to their former life and committing themselves to a new life in the way of Christ. Becoming a Christian often meant being ostracized from their families and friends, loss of career and income, and even being fined, arrested, and, potentially, executed.
Fortunately for you today, the cost of your Christian discipleship is exceedingly less. However, there is an unseen cost in terms of temerity of faith, treating God’s grace cheaply, and becoming complacent and lukewarm about your faith. The Lutheran pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this in his book The Cost of Discipleship saying, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Truly, because of your sinful concupiscence, you need a little trial and tribulation, a little suffering and persecution in order to keep your faith refined, pure, and strong. Indeed, faith is strongest in times of persecution, and all signs are that your Christian faith is less accepted and tolerated in our culture today than even ten years ago, and considerably less than fifty years ago. You may see this as a blessing in disguise, for the Lord is calling you to more faithful discipleship, to die to the world, to your flesh and to its sinful desires and passions, and to live to Christ.
Only the LORD through His Word can create faith in your hearts. Only the LORD through His Word can call you from death to life. Only the LORD through His Word can make you His disciple. Only the LORD through His Word can preserve and keep you as His disciple through times of plenty and times of lean, through times of peace and contentment and times of sorrow, persecution, and tribulation. However, do you hear His Word and receive His gifts? For, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ,” and “with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” Therefore, let us follow the example of St. Andrew and all the Apostles and countless saints before us and leave our nets and follow Jesus in heart and life. Let us daily die to our flesh and the world in humility and repentance and live to Christ. He who has begun this good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ. Come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly. Come.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, November 27, 2016
Matthew 21:1-9; Romans 13:8-14; Jeremiah 23:5-8
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Dearly beloved, the Church of Jesus Christ is so out of step with the world that She speaks a different language, She sings a different song, She values and reveres different qualities and traits in Her members, She sees glory in weakness, lowliness, and humility, She even follows a different calendar – Happy New Year! Whereas Friday was the official kick-off of the secular holiday season that many call “Christmas,” though they do not fear, love, and trust in Christ or follow in His Way, the Church will observe a month-long penitential season known as Advent, a time of repentance and humble and hopeful expectation, a time in which we prepare for the Christ Mass, the annual celebration of Jesus’ incarnation, as we watch and wait for His Second Coming, even as we celebrate and give thanks for His coming among us now in the Holy Eucharist. And so, out of step with the world once again, we will refrain from singing Christmas hymns and songs, we will refrain from Christmas trees and wreaths and ribbons, from gifts, and feasts, and from Yuletide cheer. And, when Christmas finally comes as we gather in darkness and celebrate the coming of the Light of the World Jesus Christ, when the world has already chucked their trees to the curb and have taken down their decorations and have resumed their godless striving for material and fleshly pleasures, we will still be celebrating Christmas for twelve more days and nights.
The temptation to comply with and to acquiesce to the expectations of the world will be simply enormous. And, that is why you must devote yourselves even more earnestly this Advent season to hearing the Word of the Lord and to receiving His gifts. For, this is how you keep your lamps full of the oil of faith and brightly burning that those dwelling in darkness might see the Light of Christ shining in and through you and come to Him. Even as Jesus is God’s gift to the world at Christmas, so are you a gift of the Creator’s light and love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness to your neighbor. You will be tempted to follow in the path of the world dwelling in darkness, but to do so is to fail to be the world’s light. No, the Church of Jesus Christ is not like the world. Though She is in the world, She is not of it. She is holy, sanctified, set apart – She is different, just as Her Lord and King Jesus is different.
And so even our Gospel reading today seems out of step and out of place. What has Palm Sunday to do with Advent and Christmas, after all? Well, quite a lot actually. In fact, today’s Gospel reading coalesces a number of Scriptural themes into one – one man, one Christ, one Lord. The days were fairly dark for Israel in the first century, nationally and culturally speaking. Their present occupation by the Romans followed immediately upon the coattails of their preceding Greek occupation. God had been silent for 400 years. For 400 years, no prophet of the LORD had spoken to Israel. The last Word of the LORD came by the Prophet Malachi, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” And, not long before that, Zechariah had prophesied the Word that St. Matthew quotes in today’s Gospel lesson, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden’.” There was a time when the children of Israel were full of joyful hope and expectation because of these words, however, for the vast majority, that time had passed. Now there remained but a faithful remnant who continued to watch and to wait in hopeful expectation even as they lived out their vocations, doing what they were called to do, what was necessary to do, as they waited. The hope they clung to in tenacious faith was what sustained them through the dark days, months, and years. Their hope made their sorrows less bitter and their joys more sweet.
Therefore, when Jesus entered Jerusalem on the first day of the week, on Sunday, the 10th day of Nisan, the day in which the Passover lambs were chosen for sacrifice, the faithful remnant had ears to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ in fulfillment of the prophecies of Zechariah and Malachi and many others. However, the vast majority of Israel’s citizens had all but lost hope entirely. They were hardened in their anger and hatred against their Roman oppressors and they were divided as a people by religious sects and political parties. Their minds and hearts were closed to the idea of a humble, gentle, and kind Messiah. What they were looking for, hoping for, and demanding was a powerful king girded with power and might who would lead the people in overthrow of their oppressors and restore to Israel the power and the glory of King David’s reign. The manner of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was just like many kings of Israel before Him, most particularly Jehu. Jesus rode upon a colt of a donkey, on an animal that had never been ridden before, as was typical for sacred processions. And, the crowd, seeing these signs and remembering the prophecies, though interpreting them according to their faith or hardness of heart, received Jesus that day as their King. They laid down their cloaks before Him in humility and reverence and they waved palm branches in the air as He passed while singing “Hosanna,” that is, “Save us,” “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!” All received Him as their King that first day of the week, Sunday the 10th of Nisan, the day in which the Passover lambs were chosen for sacrifice. But, by the end of the week, there was no one who stood by Him except His mother and John, and even they had lost hope.
Perhaps you feel that way today. In many respects, these are dark times. There is instability and uncertainty, conflict and strife all around us – politically, economically, religiously, socially, morally, ethically, etc. Many respond to uncertainty and fear by looking for a king, someone with power and authority, be they good or evil, who will restore order and certainty. Be careful what you ask for. The LORD has at many times permitted the people to have precisely what they asked for, to reap what they sowed. Sometimes the LORD permits us to have precisely what we have earned, merited, and deserved. Preserve us from this, dear Father, for Jesus’ sake! However, we are not like those without hope. Indeed, if Advent is about anything at all, it is about hope. But, what is hope? We commonly use the word hope in order to express a desire for something to happen in the future. However, our hope is undermined by an unspoken sense of uncertainty and doubt. For example, “I hope that I don’t get sick before Christmas.” “I hope that I’ll have enough money to pay my taxes in April.” “I hope that the economy will improve in 2017.” All of these expressions of hope are tainted with uncertainty that they will actually happen. But, this is not how the word hope is used in the Scriptures, and this is not what I mean when I say that Advent is a season of hope. In the Scriptures, hope not only desires something good for the future; it expects it to happen. And, it not only expects it to happen; it is confident that it will happen. There is a moral certainty that the good we expect and desire will be done.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a Righteous Branch, and He shall reign as King and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” There is no sense of uncertainty in this prophecy. In fact, it is stated with the sense that it is a done deal, that, in the providence and wisdom of the LORD it is already accomplished. “Behold, your King is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” No “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts” about that! That is hope, a desire for something good and the full expectation and certainty that it will happen. That is the hope we express and confess and take comfort in during Advent, and throughout all of the Church’s Year of Grace. We do not worship a God who is far off, but a God who is near and present, a God who does precisely what He says and promises, then, now, and always. This Advent we watch and wait in expectant hope for Christ’s coming on the Last Day even as we remember that He has come in the flesh as our brother the Son of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. And, we are just as hopeful, certain, confident that the Lord Jesus comes amongst us now in His Word and Blessed Sacraments to forgive our sins anew, to strengthen our weak and struggling faith, to nourish and sustain us that we may persevere and endure as we wait and watch, and to equip and send us full of the oil of faith to shine brightly with His Light in this world of darkness that others may see and know that He is the Lord.
Do you see how even our hope, the hope of Christ’s Church, is out of step with our world and culture? However, that is precisely the way it is supposed to be. The temptation Christ’s Church faces, the temptation that each of you members of Christ’s body face every day of your lives, is to accommodate and to acquiesce to this world and culture. That is why Advent is a penitential season, as is Lent. Advent is a penitential season, a time to reflect upon your sin and to repent, albeit in hopeful expectation and in certain, confident faith and trust that Christ has come, that Christ comes even now, and that Christ is coming again soon. It is the humble and the broken, the poor in spirit and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness that are able to have this hope and receive their Lord in all the ways He comes to them. It is those who confess their sins that are able to receive absolution and live. It is those who bring nothing to the Lord except themselves who receive Him as their King and all His kingdom along with Him. It is you, who believe and trust and hope in Him, who are Christ’s children, the true children of Israel and of Abraham his father, children of God.
And so, St. Paul’s exhortation is as true, valid, and relevant today as it was in the first century: “The hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” You “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” precisely by doing what you are doing right now – hearing His Word, receiving His gifts, dying to your flesh and its desires, and walking in the Light of Christ. All of these things enable and equip you to live freely, even now, in faith and hope and in love. As St. Paul famously wrote to the Corinthians, “so faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the Law.” Our hope is in God’s gift of love, Christ Jesus. Come now and receive your King who comes to you, humble and hidden within bread and wine, which is His absolving, sustaining, and life-giving body and blood. He who is the love of God incarnate will fill you with His love that you may love others without fear, that you may be His gift of hope and love to the world.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
Luke 12:13-21; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Deuteronomy 26:1-11
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
There is a philosophical school of thought that claims that human beings cannot truly perform a purely altruistic act. What this means is that, when we act altruistically, that is, when we give to charity, help someone in need, speak kindly of someone, or even think good thoughts about others, our thoughts, words, and deeds are always, inescapably, tainted by some degree of egoism or selfish concern for the benefit of ourselves and our selfish interests. For example, one who volunteers in assisting the poor, the elderly, or those who are physically or mentally handicapped may, albeit subconsciously, focus upon the needs of others in order to forget about or to dismiss their own painful neediness and vulnerabilities. Similarly, one who comforts another who is hurting or praises someone who has done well may, albeit subconsciously, do so, in part, for the sake of the good feelings it gives them or for the public acclamation and praise such actions elicit from others. Now, I know that you will undoubtedly consider this an overly negative and pessimistic way of viewing things, and that you most likely will deny that your charitable giving and service, and your praise of those who do good and perform well, is in any small way motivated by self-interest – I feel the same way! Nevertheless, this is in concord with the teaching of Scripture, that even the best of our works of thought, word, and deed are but filthy rags, tainted and corrupted by sinful concupiscence that enslaves our fallen flesh and its desires, passions, and motives. This concupiscence is generally referred to as Original Sin and it is all-encompassing and enslaving. Concupiscence is what St. Paul wrestled with when he confessed that the good he desired to do according to his newborn spirit and faith, he did not do, while the evil that he desired not to do, he continually found himself doing. This is also what Jesus had in mind when he rebuked his disciples saying, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
However, our concupiscence affects more than merely our ability to show true altruism, truly selfless love, mercy, and compassion to others, it also affects our ability to be truly grateful and to truly offer, give, and show thankfulness. There is always a small part of us that believes that we have earned, deserved, and merited the good things that we have. After all, we work hard to earn money with which to purchase our homes, cars, clothing, food, education, comfort, reputation, retirement, health, and everything else we have. No doubt, our western American worldview and values of independence and freedom foster and perpetuate in us this sense that we have no one to thank but ourselves. Now, I am not making a case for socialism or any political mechanism that would force you to give and to share. Indeed, if the contradiction in such thinking is not obvious, charity by force is not charity! No, but the point I am trying to make is that you must freely give of what you have freely received, without compulsion, resentment, sorrow, or any such thing. Neither must we offer up thanks and show gratitude under compulsion, but such is the natural faith-response of one who recognizes and confesses that all he has comes to him as a gracious gift of God through Jesus Christ. This is, in fact, what we confess in the First Article of the Creed when we say, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Luther explains this article in terms of the First Article gifts we receive from God because of His true and pure altruism and goodness: “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true.” Under a system of Socialism or some other tyranny, it would be the government that grants all these things to you, for which you, by fear of law and compulsion of punishment, must submit and oblige. Not so with your gracious and merciful Creator, God, and LORD who gives all these things even to those who do not fear, love, and trust in Him.
I think we often consider giving thanks to God as a debt that we owe to Him. Therefore, we do it reluctantly and under compulsion in fear of punishment or in the false belief that we earn and merit His favor by showing mercy and by giving thanks. This is the work of the devil who, with his lies and deceit, takes your concupiscence and corruption and uses it to twist your heart and minds to think in such a way. In this way, the devil tempts you to self-righteousness, that you do well and have merited, earned, and deserved His favor and blessings, or into despair that you have not, and cannot have, done enough.
In our Old Testament reading tonight, the LORD tells the children of Israel how they should consider all the things they possess, by means of a confessional creed. Before they make their thank offering they are to confess, “A wandering Aramean [Jacob] was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And He brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Only then, following this confession, were the Israelites to present their offerings of the first fruits of the land and the harvest the LORD had given them. Truly, we continue this worship of the LORD in our Divine Service still today. We still make confession of our sins and of our unworthiness before we are able to return to the LORD thanksgiving and praise for all that He has done. Indeed, before we return to the LORD thanksgiving and praise, we are first forgiven, restored, refreshed, nourished, and strengthened by Him with the gifts of Christ in Word and Sacrament. Only then do we have something to return to the LORD in thanksgiving and praise, a portion of the goodness and blessing He has poured out upon us.
Such is our Lord’s teaching in tonight’s Gospel reading as well. In response to a man who desired to use the force of Law to make his brother share his inheritance, Jesus told a parable about a foolish man who selfishly put his fear, love, and trust in his labors and the material wealth he had stored up for himself in perishable grain. The LORD had blessed him with such a tremendous harvest that he could not store all his grain. Rather than give thanks to the LORD and share from the abundance to help others and glorify the Name of the LORD, the fool decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to house the grain, and then rest in comfort and peace upon his works. But then, the rug is pulled out from under him, and the LORD called back what he had given, even the man’s life. Then, what became of his grain and wealth in which he trusted? It spoiled, or it fell into the hands of others who did not earn it. The lesson being this: All wealth and health and even life come to you by the grace, love, and mercy of your LORD. It is all His, given to you that you may be a faithful steward of the goods entrusted to you in service of your family and your neighbor to the glory of God. When you freely share and give of what the LORD has freely given you, you make a confession of your faith in Him and you glorify Him. When you return thanks to Him, again you confess that He is your LORD and God, the Creator and Giver of all things, and you glorify Him. In a very true sense, returning thanks to God is obedience under the First Commandment, “You shall have no other Gods.” For, we must confess that we too often put our fear, love, and trust in material possessions and wealth, in reputation and health, and in fleshly and worldly things that do not, will not, and cannot last. Too often we make the gifts of God’s grace to be our gods.
Truly this Divine Service is catechetical, teaching us and reminding us that all we have is a gift of God’s grace, and that He fills us to overflowing with His abundant grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness so that these overflow in our lives, words, and deeds towards others to the glory of His most Holy Name. In this Holy Eucharist, a word which means “Thanksgiving,” we both receive His gifts and return thanks to Him, reminding, reinforcing, and equipping us for the proper stewardship of His gifts as we live daily in our vocations. “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God.” Let us give thanks unto the LORD our God for He is good and His steadfast love endures forever.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, November 20, 2016
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.
Our Old Testament lesson today is pure Gospel. The Prophet foretells a new heaven and a new earth in which there is no inequity or strife, weeping or sorrow, and no more death. Now, who wouldn’t want that? Who wouldn’t do anything they could to obtain it? Who wouldn’t pray earnestly for that day and kingdom to quickly come? People like you and me, that’s who. Oh, sure, we talk about the promised kingdom of heaven in wistful and dreamy ways, imagining it not unlike the Edenic artwork on the Jehovah’s Witness’ Watchtower literature sitting on our coffee tables, but do we really believe in it? Do we really believe it will come soon? Do we really even want it to come, particularly if it means giving up and losing what we have now? Perhaps we have become a bit too content and complacent in our lives and in this world, which are passing way, which are stored up for fire on the Last Day?
You are not alone in feeling this way. Indeed, Christians, and Messianic Jews before them, have felt this way ever since Jesus began His ministry of teaching and miracles. His disciples and the crowds all thought He was the promised Messianic King who had come to establish God’s kingdom on earth now. However, when He failed to lead the people in uprising against their Roman occupiers, when He failed to set them free from tyranny and oppression, when He failed to restore worldly glory to Israel and reestablish David’s throne, the vast majority rejected Him and cried out for His blood. He was not the kind of king they were looking for. And, after He had been tried, convicted, condemned, crucified, and buried, they thought that was that. No one expected Him to rise from the dead. The women came to the tomb Sunday morning in order to finish the job of preparing a dead body for burial. The disciples gathered in fear and grief behind closed doors awaiting their own arrest, trial, and conviction at the hands of the Jewish Council. They, like us today, would prefer that the LORD make this present world better and more comfortable, release us from suffering and sorrow, war and bloodshed, disease and death. However, the LORD did not promise to make a paradise on earth again, but He promised to create a new heaven and a new earth, and that this old world that we both hate and love will be burned with fire and dissolve. Jesus said, “Behold, I make all things new.” He wasn’t kidding. Believe it and receive it for Jesus’ sake.
In many ways, that is what the end of the Church Year and the beginning of the new Church Year with Advent is all about – watching, waiting in patient hope and expectation, and being prepared for the day of Jesus’ coming, the Last Day, the end of this world and the beginning of the new heavens and earth that will not fade away. That is what the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is all about. Jesus told this parable to His disciples during the week of His Passion, during Holy Week before His betrayal and arrest. Jesus told them this parable so that they would be prepared for His delay in returning, by human standards. After Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension, the disciples were all on board with Jesus. Nevertheless, they expected His prophesied return to come quickly. That is why the first Christians sold all their possessions and put them in a community chest to care for those who could not care for themselves. That is why they shared all things in common. It’s not that they were socialists or communists, but they sincerely believed that they wouldn’t need such worldly and material things much longer, for Jesus would be coming soon ushering in His new Kingdom. That’s why Jesus told them, and us, this parable. He was encouraging us, exhorting us, even warning us to not grow weary in our waiting and watching, for He is coming soon – though, to the LORD a day may be as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is yet another Parable of the Kingdom. This time, the Kingdom of Heaven is like “ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the Bridegroom.” As in the other parables of the kingdom, the virgins were all invited, they were all in, they were all going to the wedding feast. However, Jesus tells us that, though they were all invited, though they were all in, “five of them were foolish, and five were wise.” The difference between the wise and the foolish virgins, Jesus says, was that the wise brought extra oil with them. Already, the oil is a matter of significance. At the beginning of the parable, all ten virgins have oil in their lamps. All seems well and good – and it is! However, then comes the crux of the parable: The Bridegroom is delayed. There they stand, all ten of the virgins, lamps filled with oil, burning brightly, and the Bridegroom hasn’t come. They were all ready to enter the Wedding Hall and partake of the Feast, but now they have to wait. Surely this is how the disciples and the first Christians felt following Jesus’ Ascension and Pentecost. They were full of anticipation and excitement. They were ready to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and celebrate the Feast with their Bridegroom Jesus. But then, days, weeks, months, and years went by, and no Bridegroom. After a while, they began to resume their work-a-day lives, going to work, preparing meals, caring for their families, building homes and churches, still waiting, still watching, but not as fervently or expectantly as before. And, as years turned into decades and centuries and millennia, many stopped watching and waiting altogether. They became the scoffers St. Peter warned us about last Sunday saying, “Scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” Neither are you and I immune to such thoughts and emotions. Some days we act as scoffers, as though we do not believe that Jesus is coming, as though we do believe that this life and world is all there is. Therefore, Jesus encourages, exhorts, and warns us still, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
All ten virgins were invited. All ten virgins were in. All ten virgins had oil in their lamps, burning brightly. All ten virgins were on their way to the Wedding Feast to meet the Bridegroom. But, when the Bridegroom was delayed, all ten virgins fell asleep. We are all tempted, spiritually speaking, to succumb to weariness and sleep. It’s hard to wait and watch perpetually with hopeful expectation. Even Jesus’ closest disciples failed to wait and watch, and they fell asleep while He prayed in Gethsemane. Whereas Jesus most likely has in mind spiritual slumber – preoccupation with fleshly, worldly, and material concerns, idolatry – another possible interpretation of sleep is death. All ten virgins died, and all ten virgins rose up when “at midnight there was a cry” and the Bridegroom arrived. Either way, it is clear that falling asleep was not the gravest problem for the virgins, but not having extra oil. Jesus says that five of the virgins were wise, and that five of the virgins were foolish. What made the five wise virgins wise was that they brought extra oil with them as they went to meet the Bridegroom.
Once again, I must emphasize the fact that all ten virgins had oil, that all ten virgins were invited, were in, were on their way to the Wedding feast – they were all baptized Christians, purchased in the blood of Jesus. All ten virgins fell asleep. They grew weary in their watching and waiting, or perhaps they died. However, when the Bridegroom arrived, they all rose up and tended to their lamps. That is when a distinction is made: Five virgins are said to be wise because they brought extra oil. All of this begs the question, of course, “What, then, is the oil, and how do we get it?”
Well, whereas I’ve heard and considered many answers to that question, the only one that really seems to work, that is the most supported by the Church’s interpretation throughout the ages, that is consistent with the witness and teaching of Holy Scripture, is that the oil is faith. While faith is something that can be measured to a certain extent – the Scriptures speak of great faith, little faith, faith like a mustard seed, etc. – any amount of faith in Christ at all receives justification, the fullness of all of Christ’s benefits, and the kingdom of heaven: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” Therefore, it is not a question of how much faith you have, but rather, that you have it, that you have faith, period. The five foolish virgins had faith as they made their way to the Wedding Feast. However, when the Bridegroom was delayed, over time they ran out. In contrast, the five wise virgins, who also ran out of faith so to speak, brought extra with them, which enabled them to abide the time of the Bridegroom’s delay. So, if the oil is faith, the question is still begged, “How and where do you get it?”
First most, it is clear that the faith of another Christian cannot help you. No, you must have faith for yourself. Thus, the five wise virgins could not share their oil, their faith, with the five foolish virgins. Still, just having faith at one time or another is not sufficient, but you must remain in faith, so you must be sustained in faith until Jesus’ returns. St. Paul describes this truth in terms of a foot race, “Run the race in such a way that you may obtain the prize.” Those runners who stop midway and do not cross the finish line receive no prize. Consequently, in this race, all who cross the finish line, all who endure and persevere in faith until the end, win the prize, life eternal in the kingdom of heaven. And so, this parable is Jesus’ encouragement, exhortation, and even a warning to maintain and strengthen, to preserve and to keep your faith alive and shining with light until He returns. And, where and how do you do that? You do that by doing what you are doing right now – by receiving the Lord’s gifts in Word and Sacrament. These are your true food, your true bread and meat and drink throughout your earthly lives which forgive, renew, nourish, strengthen, sustain, equip, and send you as the light of Christ in a world of darkness until He comes. The Holy Spirit first filled the lamp of your body and soul when you were baptized and first believed – just like little Brinley, Griffin, Tobin, and Ellianna Saturday evening. Then, throughout your life, the Holy Spirit continues to nurture and strengthen and preserve you in faith throughout your life, even today, here in Christ’s Church with His Word of forgiveness and His lifegiving and sustaining body and blood. The faith created in you, you made confession of before God and men, just as Heather is about to do, when you were Confirmed in faith whether as a youth or as an adult. Yet, Confirmation is not graduation, but the beginning of a fuller participation in the life and ministry of Christ’s body, the Church, both within these walls and, even moreso, outside of these walls in your Spirit-given vocations. Which brings us to yet another important teaching in this parable – works.
The purpose of a lamp is shine forth light and lighten paths and rooms so that you do not stumble, so that others do not stumble in the darkness. The people of Israel were called and chosen and elect to be Light for the Gentiles. You too have been called, chosen, and elect that you might be the Light of Christ in a world of darkness – “For once you were darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord. Walk, therefore, as children of Light. That is why Brinley, Tobin, Griffin, and Ellianna were given burning candles 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.” You keep your lamps full of oil, shining forth with the Light of Christ in good works and deeds which serve others and glorify God, showing that you are Christians by your love for one another and for all.
Still, Jesus’ encouragement, exhortation, and warning to remain full of the oil of faith and good works remains, for the day of His return will come on an unknown day and hour, and those whose lamps are shining forth with the Light of faith and works will enter the Wedding Feast with their Bridegroom Jesus, but those whose lamps have gone out, who have no more faith, will find themselves outside the gates of the Wedding Hall where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And, there will be nowhere to obtain the oil of faith and rekindle their light, for the Church will be closed, its purpose fulfilled and complete. Though they cry and plead at the gates, the Lord will say to them, “I never knew you,” for the Lord knows His people by their faith, faith that is shown to be living by good works and love.
The extra oil is needed NOW in this life. We must never think that we have enough and become complacent and content, but we must be vigilant in maintaining and sustaining our faith. Therefore, O Christian, do not delay in repentance or in receiving the gifts of Christ that strengthen and sustain your faith. Rather, embrace them often, and receive them with thanksgiving. For, through Word and Sacraments the Church fills Her lamp full with the oil of faith and trust in the Lord, that She will be ready to receive her Bridegroom when He comes again in glory. O Lord, preserve us in faith in You and make us ever to hunger and thirst for Your righteousness. Make us to shine with your True Light in our lives, words, and deeds to the glory of God our Father, through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, in His most Holy Spirit our Sanctifier and Sustainer.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.