Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, AD 2020

Matthew 25:1-13

On the night he was betrayed, after the last supper, Jesus led his disciples out to the garden of Gethsemane to pray. Going a littler farther, he took Peter, James, and John with him and asked them to keep watch with him. Then Jesus went on his own to pray. Knowing that he must suffer and die for the sins of the world, Jesus prayed to his Father that this cup may pass from him, but ultimately that the Father’s will be done. When Jesus returned to the disciples, they were asleep, not keeping watch, for “the Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Jesus woke them and two more times he went to pray while they watched, and two more times they slept. As Jesus woke Peter, James, and John the final time, Judas and the crowd came to arrest Jesus in the garden in order to take him to be crucified.

Of course, Jesus was not arrested and delivered over to the crucified because the disciples were asleep. The Father had planned this all, and it was all under His control. Yet at the crucial time, the disciples were not prepared. Only Christ was watchful for the time when he would be arrested, delivered over, and crucified. So the original warning to the disciples from today’s parable went unheeded. Jesus preached for them to be watchful, for the kingdom of heaven comes - those great works which Jesus was about to do. That was the immediate fulfillment of that parable.

Matthew recorded this parable in his gospel so we would know that we must be watchful. Christ begins by saying, “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.” Whenever Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven, which he does a lot in the gospel of Matthew, he is talking about himself, his own rule through all the saving work he has done for us. As we hear in the Small Catechism, God’s kingdom comes “When our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead a godly life here in time and there in eternity.” (Small Catechism III.8) The place where God’s kingdom comes is where His Holy Spirit is working, where His Word is preached to people. The place where people are gathered around Christ’s means of grace – the church.

The virgins, then, are the church, all ten of them, but five are wise and five are foolish. There is no reason to get caught up on numbers here. What we need to know is that in the church there are both the wise and the foolish. To be one of the ten is to be part of the visible church, those who are gathered to hear God’s Word. All the virgins have come out to see the bridegroom and come in to the house where there will be the last part of the wedding festivities. But they don’t know when he will come. So as the church we gather to worship and receive Christ’s gifts as we anticipate his return someday. Yet we do not know the day or the hour our bridegroom will come.

Jesus says, “As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.” This is not necessarily bad, both the wise and foolish virgins fall asleep. It’s like a rain delay at a baseball game. You don’t know how long it’s going to be. You’re sitting there thinking, should I stay or go? Are they getting the bullpen warmed up? What’s the grounds crew doing? When we’re talking about Christ coming again at the end of time, we know it will take a long time. It will seem like a delay. St. Peter says that many will say we are foolish for waiting for Jesus to come, that everything will always be the same as it has been and there is no final end or meaning to everything. That doubt can come into your mind when you’re sitting at work, or in your home office, day after day and every hour seems like a rain delay. Does God even care about what I’m doing at 2:30 in the afternoon on Tuesday?

But then the call goes out! “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.’” The call goes out in the middle of the night, but only the wise are ready. The foolish virgins are truly foolish because they have done all the hard parts but have failed to do the one simple thing – they have no fuel for their lamp. It makes no sense to bring a lamp, stay out all night, and then not have the oil needed to light the lamp. It’s a lot of work to appear like you are doing something without actually doing it.

So these foolish virgins are those in the church who formally appear to be Christians, and maybe put in a lot of work to appear as Christians, but do not have faith in Christ. For while the ten virgins represent all those in the church, there are those in the church both wise and foolish. Jesus is warning us that even though we may be doing all the work to be seen as a member of the church, it doesn’t mean we are truly prepared for his coming,

What of the wise virgins? Aren’t they being selfish by not sharing with the others? No, for two reasons. First, we can’t push the analogy of the parable too far. Jesus is teaching to watch, not to share with others. Second, the wise virgins give the reason why they cannot share. There will not be enough for all. If they shared their oil, none would be able to greet the bridegroom.

Like the wise virgins, we only possess readiness for Christ for ourselves, we cannot give it to another. None of us have faith that we can give to someone else. We cannot save our friends and family by our own readiness for Christ. We can preach to them, pray for them, and exhort them to hear the gospel. Only the Holy Spirit can change their hearts. Furthermore, others cannot save us. They cannot be watchful for us. Not by being born into a Christian family, being related to a pastor, or having been forced to go to confirmation many years ago. When Christ returns, or when our final hour in this life comes, we can only answer for ourselves.

Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” What prevents you from watching? In what way are you not prepared? Too often we live like we are immortal, like nothing can happen to us. We think that even if we are to die, we will have plenty of time to clean up our act. Christ tells us this is foolish. We must be ready, for we neither know the day not the hour. Like the foolish virgins, we can’t just go to the sellers for more oil, for at that very moment Christ may return.

How are you serving where God has put you? Do you forgive those who have cheated you at work? When will you? You neither know the day nor the hour. Do you forgive family members who have wronged you? When will you? You neither know the day nor the hour. Do you pinch every bit of money you can out of other people, legally of course, no matter how it may affect them? Will you stop when you’re financially secure? You neither know the day nor the hour.

To be watchful is to live in faith - faith that believes we neither know the day nor the hour. This is not something we receive for ourselves. It was won for us by Christ. For while the disciples slept in the garden of Gethsemane and were not watchful, Jesus kept watch. He knew the Father’s plan to deliver him over to the leaders of the Jews and send him to death on a cross. And he said, “not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). He was prepared and knew that it was necessary for him to die for our sin. He took all of God’s wrath for our unforgiveness, our dissension, and our seeking other things over God. For He always kept watch, and always did His Father’s will. The Father accepted the sacrifice for our guilt and Jesus rose on the third day.

Now in baptism, we receive this benefit from Christ, that we have died to sin and risen with Him. As we hear trust the Word of God, he prepares us for His coming by the Holy Spirit. As we receive His body and blood given and shed for our forgiveness, we are strengthened to be more watchful, as he was in the garden. We need it. For “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” In our own flesh we many times may fall asleep like the disciples, or the wise virgins. It seems like Jesus tarries long.  Yet when we are awakened by that call, we are prepared, for He has strengthened us by His Holy Spirit.

We see how he prepares us when we serve our neighbors, living every day like it is judgment day. For on the judgment day what will be seen is our works as an outgrowth of our faith. Jesus is arrested, tried, and crucified, and his Day of Judgment has come. For on the cross God pours out all His judgment of the world on Jesus, and Jesus, being prepared, is able to bear it as the sacrifice for all of us. The cross is the true judgment day. There is no more judgment beyond the cross. There is no condemnation for those who believe this. We do not know the day or the hour, but we watch in expectant hope, knowing that Jesus has already taken our judgment. His arrival will be like the bridegroom coming to His wedding feast, and we shall eat with Him at His table in glory forever. Amen.
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