Sunday, November 26, 2017

Sermon: Last Sunday - 2017

26 November 2017

Text: Matt 25:1-13 (Isa 65:17-25, 1 Thess 5:1-11)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Our America is the land of extremes.  And our religion is no exception. 

On the one hand, American preachers are famous for their “hellfire and brimstone” sermons. In 1741, the Rev. Johnathan Edwards famously preached his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon.  It was filled with frightening and lurid images of Hell, including inviting his listeners to see themselves as spiders being helplessly dangled by the thinnest of webs over the flames to be burned alive.  A hundred years later, it was common for American churches to have an “anxious bench” in which sinners were forced to sit and be antagonized and frightened until they made their decision for Jesus.

On the other extreme, Americans also produced a denomination of Universalists, who believed nobody actually ever goes to Hell.  And today, there are many people across all denominations who believe this, and therefore, see no need to actually obey the commandments or to “fear God’s wrath” as our Catechism warns us that we should do.

And then, there is the “extreme middle,” where people believe there is a Hell, and it’s really bad, but only a select few Hitlers or Stalins ever actually make it there.  Such people typically believe they are good enough by their own works and deeds so as to avoid being cast into Hell. 

Our readings today on this last Sunday of the church year expose the weaknesses of all of these “extreme” positions.

In fact, our Lord Jesus Christ kind of sounds like Jonathan Edwards in His Parable of the Ten Virgins.  It is a frightening story that makes it clear that Hell is not a metaphor, nor is it restricted to just the vilest of all humanity.

In fact, in the story, five young women are shut out of God’s grace and are told, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.”  Can you even imagine the horror of hearing those words from Jesus on the Last Day?  Dear friends, our Lord is warning us to repent, now, while we have time.  He is not trying to scare us into repentance, but He is honestly warning us what awaits the “foolish.”  And what made these maidens “foolish” vs. their wise counterparts?  They were not prepared.

Our Lord’s story is in some ways similar to Aesop’s fable about the ant and the grasshopper.  The grasshopper played and sang and danced all summer, while the ant labored and set aside food for later.  When winter came, the ant was prepared for the cold weather.  The grasshopper was unprepared.  The ant survived the winter, but the grasshopper did not.

But our Lord’s story has to do with eternal life, dear friends.  It is a sobering story, which is the very word used by St. Paul in His letter to the Thessalonians: “Let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”

Lest we forget, we are in the midst of a war.  God and His angels are in a cosmic battle against Satan and his demons.  And here we are, dear friends, in the crossfire.  Within our own flesh and spirits we are waging a civil war, as Paul himself admitted.  This is why the apostle tells us to put on our breastplate and helmet, the armor we need to wage war.  We need to be prepared! 

So what prepares us, dear friends?  Are you prepared for spiritual battle just because you aren’t a Hitler or a Stalin?  Are you prepared for battle because you’re physically here this morning?  Do you pray when you wake up and when you lie down to sleep?  Do you pray before meals?  Do you read the Scriptures and study God’s Word?  Do you faithfully take part in the sacraments, and do so often?  Do you look for opportunities to love and serve your neighbor?  When you look in the mirror, do you see someone who is prepared to meet the Lord when He comes “like a thief in the night”?  Or do you comfort yourself with delusions about being a “good person”?

The good news, dear friends, is that Jesus is not toying with us.  He is warning us.  It is His desire that all ten of the young women in His story join the Bridegroom for eternity and that none should be lost.  But He also respects the fact that these young women are free to make their own choices and decisions.  He does not force Himself on them, but rather calls to them, urges them to come to Him, and warns them of the consequences of being unprepared.  But ultimately they are free to live their lives.

The five wise young women were wise because they were prepared.  They used their freedom wisely. They knew that the Bridegroom was coming.  And they did not assume that they had time to waste.  They had their lamps trimmed and their oil stocked.  They lived their lives prepared for the unexpected coming of the Bridegroom. 

Or to use the warrior metaphor, they had their armor on and were ready for battle: the faith and love that protects the heart of the Christian, and the salvation won for us by our Lord upon the cross, a gift that guards our minds and covers the thoughts of the prepared and the wise.

And lest we think the Christian life is only about avoiding Hell, the prophet Isaiah gives us a glimpse of the world to come, the world promised to the prepared, to the wise, to those who do not squander the Lord’s gift of grace: “new heavens and a new earth,” freed even from the memories of sin and suffering and death. The prophet describes the destiny of the wise and prepared, those who receive the Lord’s mercy, using words like “joy” and “gladness,” with no “weeping” and no “cry of distress.”  The prophet describes a world of fruits and wine and pleasant houses and ancient trees, of rewards for work, and of peace that we can’t even imagine where even predatory animals graze with their former prey.

Jesus has come to give us this everlasting life, dear friends, the cure for death itself.  Do you miss your loved ones who have gone on before you?  Are you tired of pain, or regrets, or disappointments?  Would you like to live a full life without frustration or discomfort or fear?  Can you imagine living forever in a perfect world that exists just as God always meant it to be?  This is what God has destined for the wise, the prepared, those who gladly hear and receive His Word, those who repent and do not foolishly reject His free gift, His mercy, and the means through which He gives you these gifts.

The Lord is warning us not to be foolish, but to be wise; to redeem the time that we have left, to repent and receive the wondrous gifts the Holy Spirit has for us through the Gospel, given to us in Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion, to be armored up for battle, to get our priorities in order, and not to foolishly wait.  For now is the day of salvation.  Now is the time to have your lamp filled with oil and trimmed, dear friends – not tomorrow, not next week, not next year. 

For we are neither led to dismay by sermons designed to frighten us, nor are we led into a false sense of security by assuming Jesus is our “homeboy” or our genie in a bottle who does our bidding.  Almighty God has spoken, and He has sobering words for us, but He also has comforting words for us, dear brothers and sisters.  He went to the cross so that you can indeed put on the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of salvation.

Hear these extreme and true words of faith and love and salvation, and be wise, dear friends.  Be prepared for His coming. Turn away from your sins, receive His free and limitless gifts of love and mercy and forgiveness and eternal life!  “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Amen.

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

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