Sermon for the Last Sunday of the Church Year
November 26, 2017
Faith to Watch
What inspires the Black Friday shopper to venture out at unreal hours of the morning after they have spent a day feasting? It can’t be just the deals; just because there are TVs on sale for great prices. It is more the expectation that those deals are once in a life time, that those items won’t ever be available at those prices again, or at least, not for the foreseeable future. It is one of those things that shoppers recognize about this time of year. We recognize the expiration of things in other ways in life as well. For instance, we recognize at the end of the year some deadlines happen and we cannot go backwards and reclaim those “deals.” Technically, once January comes around, the tax year is over and contributions can no longer be made to your favorite charity for the past year.
The end of the Church’s liturgical year bears much the same idea as it directs our attention to the end of all time. Our readings remind us that now is the time to be prepared. Now is the time to pay attention. For when the year has ended, when time has ended, the opportunity for repentance and faith has expired. Those found ready when the Bridegroom comes will be rewarded while those found unprepared will be disappointed.
A little cultural understanding might help with the understanding of the parable told by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. It was customary for the bridegroom to come to the bride’s house on their wedding day near sunset to gather her for the wedding feast. As they made their way to banquet hall, the others would gather and follow. The virgins in our parable are part of the wedding party that would wait for the bridegroom to pass by and then fall in procession.
I think it fair to state that the difference being made between the two sets of virgins is not a comparison of the Church and the world or the unbeliever. It is a look at those within the Church that profess Christ as Lord and anticipate His coming. Outwardly, each of the virgins appears the same. They all are deck outed for the wedding. They all have their eyes on the avenue for the same bridegroom. They all have lamps. They all are anticipating the same feast. The only difference is the supply of oil for some and the lack for others.
It is a parable that emphasizes the need to be ready with the oil of faith that illumines the face of the one being waited upon, and knows how to be prepared, and is ready in waiting, and follows when the bridegroom passes, and is rewarded with entry into the feast. Here are several different aspects seen in our parable that all require faith and depend upon the means by which faith is acquired. It could quite easily be understood as a program of work that prepares one for the wedding feast but if it is all about faith, then we must realize that it can’t be about work for faith is not the result of our works but instead precedes good works. Yet there is a means by which faith is created, grown, preserved, and persevered within us.
One of the big questions for even the disciples of Jesus was whether He was really the Christ or not. Even John the baptizer questioned whether He was the one who is to come or whether they should look for another (Mt 11:3). This is because He seems quite ordinary. He looks just like any other person. He may teach with authority and be unyielding of the truth but He is meek and gentle. It is only through faith that He can be seen for what He is. It is only faith that can see that the scars are more than the results of terror and suffering. They are the signs of sin being dealt with. Those marred hands and feet are the symbols of man’s redemption. Yet it is only the faith granted by the Holy Spirit that is born upon the sweet lullaby of a mother’s faithful hymn, and the bass voice of the father’s devotional reading, and the somewhat familiar voice of the pastor declaring, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” To know that the Bridegroom comes and to recognize Him as He approaches is from faith given through Word and Sacrament.
In our midweek Bible study, we heard the analogy by Martin Luther of getting our sack filled on Sundays. The idea is that when we come to the Divine Service, our sacks are filled with grace so that all week long we might also dispense grace to others. It might be more familiar to you in terms of forgiving as we have been forgiven. Without first receiving grace from God, we wouldn’t know how nor would we be capable of showing grace to others. It is in the Divine Service, where we are fed by Word read and preached along with body and blood given that the things St. Paul describes as breastplate and helmet are fashioned and secured. It is in the weekly participation in grace received and the daily booster of God’s Word read and prayed that we are outfitted and prepared for the coming Bridegroom. It is by these means that grace is dispensed unto us, that our faith, love, and hope are prepared for the day of our Bridegroom’s coming. These means offer wedding garments, lamp and oil that we might be prepared in the night as in the day.
Camping out in front of a store on Thanksgiving might not be that big of a deal in Miami but it takes a special kind of person to do those things in Maine where it could be snowing and where the temperatures easily dip below freezing. There has to be some confidence that such waiting is going to be rewarded with sufficient inventory and the advertised sale price. The hardships of waiting are not depicted in today’s parable other than none of the virgins find it possible to stay awake. The wait is long. It is burdensome and wearying. All ten of the virgins in our parable become drowsy and sleep. None of them find it easy to stay alert and watchful at every moment. But even as their attentiveness is lost, their preparations have been made. Those that had taken advantage of the what was available before the shops closed had the needed oil for their lamps. Those that had neglected every opportunity afforded them, found themselves completely unprepared for the bridegroom’s coming. One thing that is very apparent in Maine is the limited opportunity to receive grace in the Word properly preached and the Sacrament administered in accordance with our Lord’s command. It is especially necessary here, to take advantage of those opportunities afforded just as it is necessary to daily seek what you need in devotional reading and prayer that your oil may be supplied and your patience endure the time of waiting.
It is through these same means of grace that you come to know and recognize the face and voice of the Bridegroom so that when a false cry goes up, you are not distracted nor deceived into following the wrong procession. Instead, you are familiar with His every feature from His thorn torn brow to His nail pierced feet. From His commanding voice that even wind and sea obey to the familiar call that bids all the weary and heaven laden to come unto Him and rest. Faith born of Word and Spirit makes limber and fresh the tired and worn bodies that have laid in wait so that they spring forth to follow where the Bridegroom leads.
It is in this way that faith is created and nurtured throughout all our days. It is by these means of grace that faith is preserved and sustained for the time in which the Bridegroom comes. It is such faith that distinguishes between the wise and the foolish in the parable and in our age. Faith that listens and trusts and is not distracted by the busyness and the competing gods that are part of all our lives is what separates the wise from the foolish. Faith that compels us to gather and to partake of heavenly food hidden from temporal sight is what fills our lamps and our flasks in reserve.
It is such faith that will be rewarded for its watchfulness and preparedness. Today’s parable might disturb and create unease for some, but for you here gathered in faith, trusting that God truly gives you the forgiveness of your sins by these means, and bestows upon you life and salvation according to His promise in what Jesus has done, there should be only comfort. You may grow weary and I know that you do. You may wonder from time to time and I know that you do. You may even fall asleep during this long time of waiting, and I know that each and every one of us does. But you continue in those little things that make all the difference. You listen to the Word and you partake of the Sacrament. Your faith exercised in this way is the faith that has filled your lamp with oil for the day of our Lord’s coming and the wedding feast that has no end.