Sunday, November 20, 2005

Sermon: Last Sunday of the Church Year

20 November 2005 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 25:1-13 (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today marks the end of the Church year – 1,975 years since the death and resurrection of our Lord. And as we end this year, we reflect anew on the end of all years – the end of the world, the end of time, and of the great judgment. And even as we prepare for the Season of Advent, in which we ponder our Lord’s first coming, we now ponder his second advent.

Our Lord preaches about his second coming in the form of the parable in today’s Gospel lesson. The fathers of the Church wisely determined that we Christians ought to be reminded of the Lord’s warning every year on the Sunday before Advent.

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins has a rather simple plot. Ten young girls are on their way to a wedding. The groom is picking them up. They don’t know exactly when to expect him, and as this is long before cell phones and instant messaging, they need to be ready. One of the things they need in order to be prepared is oil – which fuels their small, hand-held lamps.

Five of the girls are wise – having sufficient oil. Five are foolish – they are not prepared. Maybe they are lazy, maybe they are just procrastinators. Maybe they had their priorities out of order. But for whatever reason, the foolish girls are not prepared. The groom’s messenger shows up at midnight to warn them the time is at hand. The foolish girls want to glom off of the wise ones, but there is simply not enough. They will have to find a merchant, and buy their oil at this late hour. While they are out shopping, preparing too little too late, the bridegroom comes, like a thief in the night. The wise girls are let into the wedding with the groom. The foolish girls are locked out.

This parable is similar to Aesop’s fable, the Ant and the Grasshopper. Jesus may well have heard Aesop’s tale growing up. Aesop’s story is similar to Jesus’ parable – but there are differences as well.

Aesop’s story goes something like this:

Ants are hard-working, industrious critters. They prepare all year for winter. They slave away and store food. They repair their homes. By contrast, the grasshopper makes no such preparation, opting to sing and dance the summer days away – having fun, and procrastinating his work. Of course, winter comes suddenly, and there is no more time to prepare. The ants are warm and fed in their winterized homes, while the grasshopper is no longer so happy-go-lucky. He is cold and hungry, and asks the ants to take him in – but there is no room, and not enough food. The moral is be prepared, don’t procrastinate, and work, work, work!

The moral of Jesus’ parable is similar. We are to be wise and prepared. We are to watch, for we “know not the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.”

Our sinful flesh likes to believe we can work our way to being prepared – like the ants in Aesop’s story. And hard work is a good and wise thing in this world, but Jesus’ parable deals with the “kingdom of heaven.” If we could work our way to being prepared, we would need no savior. But again, it is easy for us to forget this, and sinfully read Aesop’s moral into Jesus’ parable – like the bumper sticker that says: “Jesus is coming – everybody look busy.” Indeed, church signs often ask us “Are you ready?” (which is certainly one of the questions Jesus asks us in this parable). But then they turn Jesus into Aesop by asking us: “Have you gotten right with God?” – as though we can do any such thing, whether by our own industry or wisdom.

Notice that in Jesus’ parable, only the foolish virgins are mentioned as toiling – in running out to buy oil. They have frittered away their opportunity, and now when it is too late, they want admitted to the wedding. They have been forced to rely on themselves, on their ability to buy their preparedness. And you can see where their work, their attempt to buy their way in, gets them – with a door slammed in their faces.

So, my dear Christian friends, how can we be prepared? How are we made ready for that Day of the Lord that will come as a thief in the night? How do we emulate the wise virgins, while at the same time, not relying on our own works to prepare us?

It’s no accident that our Lord used oil and lamps as examples in this story. Oil is not only fuel that allows a light to burn, it is a medicine that heals. The Word of God is indeed a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. But that lamp must have a means of burning, a way for the light to be made to shine for us. Oil is the fuel, the means to the grace of light. And just as Jesus is the light of the world, so too, our good works reflect that light. Jesus tells us not to hide our lamps under a basket, but put them on a stand, so all may be enlightened and give glory to God. Oil is also ointment used to heal the sick – such as in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. What did the Samaritan treat the victim’s wounds with? Wine and oil.

Wine is the element used to become our Lord’s Blood in the Holy Eucharist. Oil is that which the pastors of the church are commanded by the Apostle James to anoint the sick with. Oil was used to anoint kings and prophets. Oil was used in the early church as a sign of Holy Baptism, since bishops would “confirm” a baptism by administering oil to the baptized person – a custom which has come down to us today as the Rite of Confirmation.

And just as oil is a means to the light (the light of Christ), the Gospel and the sacraments are today a means to the light of Christ. The title Christ actually means “the anointed one.” Oil is a healing agent that cleanses our wounds and sterilizes us – just as Holy Baptism washes away our sins. We are prepared for the coming of our Lord by being well-stocked in the oil of Christ, his Gospel, and his Sacraments! We are prepared by being wise, by coming to this place where the oil of the gospel is distributed without charge and without limit!

The oil of God’s grace is applied to you into your ears as you hear the words of Holy Absolution, the reading of God’s Holy Word, and the preaching of his Holy Gospel! The oil of God’s grace is poured on your head in your Holy Baptism, and brought to remembrance every time you make the sign of the cross! The oil of God’s grace is poured into your very mouth as you take Holy Communion! Dear friends, we are being prepared for that great day – by being here and being filled with the oil of God’s love and mercy!

Those who choose to procrastinate, those who ridicule the wise virgins, those whose priorities are out of whack, those who are lazy and refuse the free gift of God’s grace will sadly find themselves unprepared. And when the day of grace finally ends, they will seek to buy the oil of God’s love and mercy – and they will find that it is not for sale. They will run around desperate like Christmas eve shoppers – in the end doing more work than their wise counterparts. They will learn the hard way that the Gospel is not for sale, it cannot be earned, and there will come a time when it will come to an end.

Jesus is warning us not to procrastinate, not to delude ourselves into thinking we have enough oil, not to figure we can always take advantage of God’s grace at a later date. For we know not the day nor the hour of our Lord’s return. And as Paul warns us, we ought not think 1,975 years is such a long time, nor should we fool ourselves into thinking the Lord will come back millennia from now, if at all. We ought not emulate the foolish virgins, nor Aesop’s grasshopper. For we all confess with the Church that the Lord will return, bodily, and triumphant against all sin. He will welcome the wise virgins, the Church, but will cast out the foolish virgins along with their true master, Satan, into hell.

And while the Lord’s warning is harsh and stern, and is clearly a call to repentance - what comfort we have knowing that it is not up to us to “get right with God,” that we are not obliged to buy our way into heaven. For the oil is a gift from God. It is the oil that enables our light to shine before men! It is the oil that enables us to do good works and acts of mercy without concern that we must do so in order to be prepared for his coming! This holy oil is given out to you, dear friends, every Sunday and every Wednesday in this sanctuary. And if you can’t get here due to age or infirmity, the Lord’s servants will come to you and refill your lamp where you are.

So, my dear wise virgins, rejoice, and continue to be prepared – by the Gospel! Because of the Gospel, we can indeed comfort one another and edify one another. You are all sons of light and sons of the day! And we will indeed enter with our Lord to the wedding feast that has no end! Let us leave behind this church year and enter Advent anew, with repentance, fully clad in the armor of salvation, glowing with the oil of God’s grace, and awaiting with hope and joy the new heavens and the new earth. Amen!

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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