Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27A)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Text: Matthew 25:1-13

What a mess the world is.  Thank God that we have the Church.  Thank God that we can confess, “I believe…in the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”  Thank God for that sanctuary in the everlasting Word of God and the assurance of eternal rest and joy!

This is what the Parable of the Ten Virgins is about: Promised rest for the faithful of God in being separated from the multitude of unbelievers.  It’s comfort and assurance that the Lord knows those who are His through faith, and that the faithful will enjoy the fulness of God’s salvation.

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. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.

Five were foolish and five were wise, but it wasn’t totally apparent until the Bridegroom’s final summons.  Here God is giving His people assurance from above, because who the foolish and who the wise are isn’t clear on earth.  All you can find on earth is doubt.  The church appears to be a mess.  False teachers are successful, true teachers are scorned. Despite ample Bibles, hardly anyone endeavors to learn God’s Word.  Immorality is flaunted under the banner of grace and acceptance.  The big churches are those which feed people a diet of inch-deep Gospel and lots of sanctified law, while those that teach the Word of God purely are in small and struggle. 

Another problem is when we look for assurance that we’re wise virgins, the faithful children of God, in the wrong place.  This is the danger of self-absolution and self-assurance.  It’s ultimately self-delusion.  I feel comfortable, one might say, no pangs of conscience, so I must be good with God.  That’s the error of looking for God’s judgment in your feelings or circumstances.  Another person might say, I trust that God is merciful. I believe [vaguely] in Him…isn’t that enough for Him to be pleased with me? This is the delusion of doing good will get you in God’s favor. It’s companion is, I haven’t done anything too awful…I mean not like other people have done to me.  God doesn’t judge by comparing one to another, as if the wise virgins are let in because of their prudence.  Lastly, there’s the delusion that because I belong to and am active in church, I am therefore a Christian and heir of eternal life.  The very thing this Parable exposes is the foolish idea that outward membership or participation with the Church saves.

What kind of surprise would it be to get to the Day of the Lord, and find out you had it all wrong?  You had not been truly repentant, just frustrated, angry at God for not helping you more.  Your faith was not in a merciful God who has compassion on helpless people, but in a deep-seated desire that one way or another you deserve God’s rest after all you’ve endured and done.  God forbid that this should happen to any of us!

Our Lord teaches in this Parable that a genuine, living faith is what makes the difference:

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.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’

In those days, the wedding day stared with the bridegroom leaving his house to pick up his bride from her family’s place. Then they took the longest possible route around town to see everyone they could. Only when that was finished did everyone go to the wedding feast. However, no one knew how long it would take. The ten virgins, part of the wedding party, waited along the route. They all knew it would likely be after dark when the bride and groom arrived, so they had brought lamps. But only five were prepared for it to be very late indeed. They brought just enough extra oil to finish the circuit. The other five did not.

The foolish were so because they imagined that waiting for the Bridegroom was a quick, easy task, well within their own ability.  They may have even started out with plenty of zeal.  But faith is not conjured up from inside us; “it is the gift of God,” Paul says, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:9).  But then the years drag on, you’re tempted and hurt.  Life brings you low, and you flounder because you’re God’s child and shouldn’t it be easier if you’re doing the right thing?

But their faith flickers out. They still go to church regularly next to the wise virgins.  Yet, something has happened in their soul—a hardening of heart.  Their purpose consists in walking the walk of a virgin, hoping that will save them.

The words of Amos hit home to those who are without oil when the Lord returns: “Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:18-20)

If this describes you or has described you, repent and flee from a Christianity that is strained by idolatry.  Do not let your devotion, knowledge, attendance record or anything else but Jesus Christ be your Savior.  Only trust in His holy life, His innocent suffering and death, and His glorious resurrection can assure you of entering the marriage feast.  And only trust that He is able to keep you steadfast and ready for His return and the time in between!

Every time we pray, “Thy Kingdom come,” we are praying for the steadfastness of the wise virgins and the rousing of the foolish before that Day.  We pray for hearts that hear the whole counsel of God with faith.  Our Lord tells us in the last days that love will grow cold and we will become so absorbed with our own problems we are oblivious to the cries of others, that our itching ears will want teachers who tell us what we want to hear rather than need, that we will be deceived by the fearmongering and divisions in which worldly people delight.  That is to say, we will all like Peter, James, and John, fall asleep when they ought to be watching.  The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Yet even in your weakness, the Lord does not fail you.  “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out…40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:37-40)

His final message in this Parable is, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  Keep watch by resting in Him, not in self-security and self-delusion, but by being on guard for your weakness, for temptations, and the devil’s lies.  We do not know the day nor the hour of His return, but we’re not running on our own steam.  He daily supports His own through His Word and the consolation and power of Absolution and His Supper.  We know neither the day nor the hour, but for as long as it is, with Him upholding us, we will wait with faithful hearts for our summons from this life and the call into His marriage feast which has no end.

Where Amos warned the unprepared, Paul’s message in 1 Thessalonians encourages us in our wait for Christ’s coming: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thess. 4:16-18)

Even today, He gives us who wait for Him, a foretaste of that Day and that Feast.  He invites us to a foretaste of that supper as we kneel at table with Him.  And in His Supper, He renews our watch and strengthens our hands.  We do not wait for Him alone, because we are already united in His one Body, the Church.  Therefore as we come to the Feast He has prepared for us, we join “with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify His glorious Name.” (LSB 194, Proper Preface)

Behold, beloved of the Lord, the Bridegroom has come and earnestly desires [Luke 22:15] to eat this feast with you here, and for all eternity.  Amen.

Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Exodus 32:1-20)

Lucas Cranach - The Law and the Gospel

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 25) + November 10, 2018

Text: Exodus 32:1-20

The congregation got impatient when Moses was gone for 40 days and nights.  We are coming on 2000 years since our Lord’s ascension. It doesn’t take long to find some of the foolish things people have done hoping for or trying to hasten the Lord’s return.  

We’re more impatient than we’ve ever been as a race.  Two or one-day shipping, broadband Internet, text messaging, Skype calls to the International Space Station—it’s amazing what can be done and how small it’s made the world.  But the side effect is that we get impatient even waiting at a 40-second-long traffic light or balk when our first-world comforts are out-of-stock.

But this isn’t a new problem.  Impatience is borne in the heart, and it was just as much a problem for people thousands of years ago.  The lesson is the Lord says, “Wait on Me” and we do stupid stuff thinking we can help God along. We get impatient and want our own solutions to help the time pass.  In that delusion, it’s easy enough to sweep God’s will under the rug and turn “the Bible says” into a stamp of approval on whatever we want to do.

The people pressured Aaron into doing something which made them feel better about the wait.  Make us gods like the rest of the nations. Come on, Aaron, that’s what will let people know we’re really the chosen people of Abraham.  And the people we all behind this plan, so much so that they let go of the wealth which hung around their necks and on their ears (which God had given them as a gift in Egypt) and poured money into this project.

There’s much to learn from the parallels between this story of Moses going up the mountain and leaving Aaron to lead the people.  Several times, the Lord compares the Kingdom of God to a man going away and returning after a long time. He leaves stewards in charge who are to keep things running.

I mentioned earlier that it’s been far more than 40 days, nearly 2,000 years actually.  But where the Spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. When our Lord gives us the account of Moses on Sinai and tells us parables about a long journey, He’s helping us to understand our own place as the people of God.

Forty days after His resurrection (hey, there’s a significant number), Jesus ascended—not just a mountain—but into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  Before He left, He gave instructions, appointed stewards of the mysteries, and promised, “Lo! I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20)

It is our place, as the children of God on earth, to live by faith in and through faith in His Word.  There’s a distinction: 

  • We live by faith in His Word, meaning we hold to it and trust it as the living Word of God which He inspired to be written for our learning (2 Tim. 3:16).  Whenever the children of God add to or subtract from this Holy Word, they fall into grave errors. If we add to it and try to bolster it with talk of history, church councils, and precedent, we minimize the sufficiency of the Word alone to sustain the Church until Christ’s return.  If we take away from it, to gloss over the parts which offend people who are proud of their self-made religion, then we let people go merrily to perdition. We live by faith in His Word.
  • We also live through faith in His Word.  As cute as the acronym is, “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth,” the Bible is not like other instruction books, like assembling a chair from Ikea.  One of the ways sin has infected our hearts is with the idea that we can do something that can get us in good with God. We see God’s command to jump (so-to-speak) and we say, “How high?”  When in fact our legs are broken and our muscles have atrophied on account of sin. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength.” And after all that we can do, the judgment is still “By works of the law shall no human being be justified in His sight. For through the Law comes knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:20)  Instead, our life is given to us as complete gift.  “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Rom. 1:17) The reason we are able to sit here today having peace with God is because of the life of faith that continually comes from God.

And this is possible because Jesus far exceeds what Moses could ever do. 

Moses went up on the mountain and was no longer with the people.  As a man, he could only be in one place at a time, and God had called up to Sinai to receive the Law.  Jesus, on the other hand, ascends into heaven, and by personal union of God and Man, He can truly say that He is with us until His return (Eph. 4:9).  He is with us through His Word being spoken, through forgiveness being shared (“where two or three are gathered, there I am among them” Matt. 18:20), in His very Body and Blood given for us to eat and drink, and with His Spirit who comforts and preserves us.

Like Moses, our Lord appoints men to keep watch over His congregation.  It’s true they can err and fall. But that’s no reason to write off all clergy as if they were a manmade after-thought.  Think of it this way: The Lord has also preserved faithful preachers and members of His flock through the millennia. You don’t have to look anywhere further than where the pure Gospel is preached and the Sacraments are administered according to the Lord’s command.  Where you see that, you can be confident that you have found His chosen people.

There are times when His people make a mess of His Church on earth and profane His holy Name.  Sometimes we may wish that God would open the earth or strike down all false teachers. He doesn’t squelch Korah’s rebellion, or kill Uzzah for mishandling the holy things (Numbers 16, 2 Samuel 6:5-9).  Instead of destroying heretics, what He does is pray for them, that they turn from their error and save both themselves and whoever listens to them. And this is what we should to, because it could just as quickly be one of us who is deluded and has a corrupt view of the Word.

The day is coming when our Jesus will come down out of heaven.  He will not come down with tablets of stone that will be smashed in anger.  That’s because all the wrath against our disobedience has already been poured out on Calvary.  He—the Son of God Himself—was forsaken, not you or me (Matt. 27:46). He will come again to gather the faithful—those who waited for Him and live in and through His Word.