A Wise Virgin is Ready for the Long Run (Matthew 25:1-13)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR
Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost + November 12, 2017
Text: Matthew 25:1-13

We can all agree that preparation is an important thing to do.  If you are prepared for something, it will be easier to meet when it comes.  This is true of things we know when to expect, like Christmas, bills, school assignments, or retirement.  But it’s also true of things we don’t have a date on, like natural disasters and when the car will break down.
Despite how important it can be, preparing for the future is often shuffled to the bottom of priorities.  Bankrate.com released a study saying that 36% of American workers have absolutely nothing saved for retirement.[1]  Around this time of year, the loan sharks take advantage of Christmas spending.  Countless business are ready to jump at the opportunity to “help you out” in the form of a short-term loan.  We know we should be prepared in the event of a disaster or power outage, but how many actually have stores of water and food?
In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, our Lord is talking about preparation.  We may not have a date on it, but we know that God is not lying and Christ will return.  Even tomorrow is not promised to us, but the Lord’s coming in glory is.  His coming will be like a “thief in the night”[2] but for those who are prepared, this will not be a shock.  So that we will not be caught off guard, Jesus tells this parable:
1 “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.
After nation has risen against nation, famines, earthquakes, great tribulation, false prophets, and frightful signs in the heavens,[3] the return of Christ will be a relief for God’s people.  At last our Redeemer has drawn near!  He will take us to be with Himself in heaven forever!  They will shout, “This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation.”[4]
But then comes the shock: not everyone who is waiting for the Lord enters into the Marriage Feast.  Haven’t all ten been prepared?  All have decked themselves for their Bridegroom’s return.   They all have their lamps handy.  They even all fell asleep in waiting for the Bridegroom.  So why are five wise and five foolish?
It’s has to do with the oil.  The five wise had oil to last the wait, but the foolish only brought enough for the moment.
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.’
It seems that the wise are coldhearted toward their companions.  How can this be an example of charity and grace?  The virgins have oil and they are not willing to share.  The real trouble is they cannot share because the oil is living faith, and each must have his own.  Christians are called to share material things with those in need, but faith is something that one person cannot give to another.  As Martin Luther began his Invocavit sermons,
The summons of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Every one must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone. We can shout into another’s ears, but every one must himself be prepared for the time of death, for I will not be with you then, nor you with me.[5]
The reality is that each of us must be prepared with his or her own faith.  Faith is a gift from God, but it is one that each needs to have, and cherish and value above all else in this life.
Jesus tells this parable to His disciples.  He speaks to those in His Church, not to those outside.  The ten virgins stand for the total of all who consider themselves Christians.  Enough has been said by the Lord to those who reject His Word for themselves—Muslims, Hindus, agnostics, and atheists.  But Jesus is our Lord and He has every right to our attention.
It is also right for Him to have our attention now, because the time is coming when we will all grow drowsy and sleep.  None of us can escape death (which the Lord calls sleep more than once).  Let us not laugh at Him like those at Jairus’ house or be ignorant like the disciples at Lazarus’ death,[6] when He tells us that the sleep of death will come to us all before His return.  As the Apostle Paul says, “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”[7]
Consider again how all of the virgins are decked out for the Bridegroom’s return.  No doubt they are all beautifully clad and full of anticipation.  Psalm 45 foretells this, “All glorious is the princess in her chamber, with robes interwoven with gold. In many-colored robes she is led to the king, with her virgin companions following behind her.”[8]  This depicts the Bride of Christ, the Church on earth, waiting for His arrival.
But it turns out for all their preparations, the foolish virgin companions have run out of oil.  They would have been fine if the Lord had come back immediately, but He delayed in returning.  This has a lot to say to us as Lutherans, who move heaven and earth to get our children baptized, but then never bring them to church again.  It speaks to parents who could care less about the Divine Service until 7th grade hits, and suddenly their junior high student must be confirmed.  Pastor Mark Surburg calls this the “magic talisman of the Lutheran Church,” that parents and children go to great lengths for a moment in time, but neglect training in godliness for the rest of life’s journey.  Do we really want our children to be found without oil on that Day?
The Lord also warns everyone who would trust in their adornments.  Though you rarely miss a Sunday at Church, and though you gave generously in the offering plate, and though you sponsored every one of the pew Bibles, none of this will win you the Bridegroom’s eye.  The Scriptures make this clear, “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” and “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”[9]
The wise virgins know this, but the foolish virgins think they can white knuckle it through life.  Once fed at the rich table of Law and Gospel preaching and the comfort of the Sacraments, they leave to subsist on scraps at their friend’s non-denom church.  They move to college, get divorced, or lose their job and decide that Church is what’s really wrong with their life.  They marry an unbeliever and think they’ll save him by sitting next to him on the couch.
Empty lamps with the flame burning out is what all of us become unless we are regularly filled by the Lord.  If the Lord brought us to heaven immediately, we might be fine.  But He doesn’t.  He tarries, and the journey of life is long.  “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  Be prepared for the whole span of your life.
When it comes to preparing for things like retirement or an upcoming trip, the emphasis is on our work and our decisions.  If we don’t save or we don’t pack, we’ll be sorry.  But when it comes to being a wise virgin, the Lord prepares you. He gives you a heart of wisdom to number your days,[10] so that you see your desperate need for the gifts He freely gives.  Throughout our days, we come to the Lord like an empty vessel, needing to be filled.  He gladly does so!  He is filling you right here in the Divine Service.  In faith, you hear His Word, receive His forgiveness, and taste His Body and Blood.  He fills you in Bible study, so that as you spend time meditating on His Word, He fills you with eternal riches.
In being filled, you might miss out on sleep, or watching a football game, or visiting with out-of-town family.  But the wise virgin knows that what her Bridegroom gives—and still has laid up in eternity—far outshines anything on this earth.  Unless He comes before, you will grow drowsy and your earthly life will ebb to a close.  You will be with Him until that final trumpet sounds and all the virgins rise.  Those wise, prepared virgins will rejoice and sing the rest of Psalm 45:
    Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.
The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness;
                you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness.
                  Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”
And “with joy and gladness they will be led along as they enter the palace of the King.”[11]
[1] http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2014/08/18/zero-retirement-savings/14070167/
[2] 1 Thessalonians 5:2 (Epistle reading)
[3] An overview of Matthew 24
[4] Isaiah 25:9
[5] Sermon for Invocabit Sunday (1st Sunday in Lent), March 9, 1522
[6] Matthew 9:24; John 11:11-15
[7] 2 Corinthians 6:2
[8] Psalm 45:13-14
[9] Hebrews 11:6, Romans 14:23
[10] Psalm 90:12
[11] Psalm 45:6-7, 15